Intrigued by the idea of volunteering abroad but don’t know exactly what’s involved? I was too until I found myself working as a marine conservation volunteer for the Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) in Tofo: a remote coastal village in Mozambique.
MMF’s mission is to save endangered marine life. Its focus group is marine megafauna, aka the big stuff in the ocean such as whale sharks and manta rays, which are threatened by unsustainable fishing practices as well as plastic and other ocean pollution. By protecting them, MMF aims to achieve umbrella protection for the wider ecosystem. As an ocean lover and scuba diver, it was a dream role – but what’s actually involved?
I live with two other volunteers in a small, thatched villa nestled on top of the dunes with stunning views over the beach and the ocean. We’re right next to MMF’s head office so, at 8am, I wander over, carrying my mug of coffee with me on my 45 second ‘commute’. My ‘day job’ is looking after MMF’s PR & communications but, at the weekends, I also work as a research assistant. This means scuba diving and going on ocean safari to collect certain pieces of information, including taking ID photos of certain species we see and logging the GPS location of any fishermen.
Before a dive, I’ll be up early to prepare my equipment before arriving at our dive partner to set up and check my dive gear before it’s taken to the boat. We’ll go through a dive briefing to make sure the divers are clear on safety procedures, tell them a little bit about MMF’s work and show them a video explaining how to behave in the water if we come across any manta rays or whale sharks. Unmanaged tourism actually reduces the number of sightings of these animals so this is really important – both for the conservation of the species and to make sure everyone has the best encounter possible.
I have to pay close attention to what’s going on around me on the dive as there’s lots of data to input once I’m back on land: like weather conditions, cloud cover, water temperature and the types of animals and plankton we see. I’ll also mark a GPS waypoint when we see any megafauna, fishermen, kayaks or jet skis. I keep my dive slate with me to make notes as there can be a lot to remember! I must admit I was pretty nervous on my first unsupervised research dive (what if I mess it up?!) but it’s been brilliant. When ‘working’ on the weekend involves swimming with the world’s largest shark, you can hardly complain!
If we see any megafauna – aka the big stuff: whale sharks, sharks, mantas, turtles, dolphins or humpback whales – I’ll try to take ID photos for the research team to analyse. I’m an amateur underwater photographer at best so it’s a great opportunity to practice and improve my skills. For these shots, I’m trying to capture the side of the whale shark (where its gill slits meet its pectoral fin) and belly of the manta. That’s because both creatures have unique spot patterns here that can be used to identify which individual we’ve seen.
Now I’ve got the hang of the ID shots, these encounters are hands down my favourite part of the role. Last week, I swam with a manta for several minutes, its curious eye glinting at me, trying to figure me out, as we raced through the water together – and I can’t wait to see my first humpback whale when the season starts in a couple of weeks’ time.
Back on land, we’ll nip to the market for a heaped plate of matapa (traditional local dish made of cassava leaves, garlic, peanut and coconut and served with rice) before filling out some forms to log what we’ve seen. This can take some time but, when you’re still buzzing from a great dive, it’s not too much bother.
In the evenings, MMF hosts talks (Monday on mantas, Wednesdays on whale sharks and various topics on Friday) so often we’ll help out by collecting entrance fees and selling merchandise. The MMF crew often goes for dinner together too – at Mama Bia’s market stall, pizza at Branko’s or even sushi if we’re treating ourselves! Then it’s time to chill out with a refreshing 2M beer in the market.
Being a marine conservation volunteer in Mozambique is a simple way of life (there’s no cash point and we have regular power cuts!) but waking up by the ocean every day is a refreshing change to my usual hectic, non-stop London lifestyle. I love it.
Inline images by Melissa Hobson.