Shark diving, from Hawaii to Mozambique

Posted on March 7, 2010
Written by: Hannah Medd

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I got a late start in SCUBA diving. I had already graduated with a degree in marine biology when I took my first breath underwater.  I have always wanted to do it but with a grueling college schedule of 8 am developmental biology labs and Wednesday night 25 cent beers, it just never got done. But now I am certified as a rescue diver and working towards my dive master.

My husband is a PADI instructor and most of his family makes a living out of underwater photography and filming so we took our first leap and procured a brand new Nauticam underwater housing for our Nikon D90.  We luckily have many opportunities to use this equipment to take pictures of sharks and our most recent travelling took us from the tropical waters of Hawaii to Mozambique, down to Gansbaai and Cape Town, South Africa.

I won’t bore anyone with the tragic details of trying to fly with expensive and fragile camera equipment but somehow we managed our first flight from Miami to Honolulu without incident.  I was attending the International White Shark Symposium but we arrived two days early so I could get a chance to get in the waters of Hawaii.

A quick search and we located Sean of Reef Pirates who agreed to pick us up at 8 am the next morning and take us out.  We dumped our huge equipment bag in the back of Sean’s Suburban and coddled the camera and housing in our laps until we arrived at the catamaran that took us out to sea.

On our way out of the harbor, we spotted dolphins, too far away to identify the species, but still an iconic image for the islands and a great start to the day.  As we puttered along, a large Hawaiian green turtle was hanging out at the surface welcoming us to our dive site, remaining at the surface even after the dive master jumped in to tie up to the mooring ball. 

The sun was shining but not blistering yet so we kitted up with minimal stress and descended onto the wreck called YO-257 at about 90 feet, hoping that the waters and sea life would live up to our expectations.  We were very pleasantly greeted by amazing visibility and an abundance of fish, corals, sponges, eels, and turtles galore.  But I was secretly hoping to see a shark.  I’m always hoping to see sharks.

I followed Ivan to the San Pedro, a shallower wreck of a long lining boat about 30 yards away and soon spotted a white tip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus) resting inside the wreck.  I’ve never seen this species in the water before but immediately recognized it by the slender body form and distinct white edge on the dorsal fin.  I was used to observing sharks in constant motion but this guy was completely still until a turtle dropped in the hatch, almost on top of him and with a casual flick of the caudal fin, moved to a quieter corner of the wreck.

Like most wildlife viewing, once you notice one target animal, it seems to get easier to find them.  I soon saw another white tip reef shark perched on the pectoral fins in the shadow of the tipped hull of the larger wreck as we made our way back.  This shark also did not flinch when the strobe went off and true to my distinct diving style, I hovered for several minutes, enthralled with being in the water watching a shark just be a shark.  I gave this one his peace when I was distracted by a buzzing sound that I identified as soon as I turned around and noticed the tourist submarine cruise between the two wrecks.  I couldn’t see inside but imagined sun burnt faces from Minnesota peering out and marveling at us divers floating along so I waved.

The customary second shallow reef dive was called turtle canyon and delivered a stunning array of turtles being cleaned by several fish at once .  Some turtles did have fibropapilloma tumors on the skin around there neck or flippers.  Fibropapilloma is a tumor-forming debilitating disease associated with the herpesvirus (Chaloupka and Balazs 2005 ).

I forced myself to sit in the symposium, listening to fascinating talks about all aspects of white sharks, while Ivan and his cousin Morne went diving the following three days.  I’m not sure if he was being kind but Ivan swore we got the best day diving and shark sightings and I tend to believe him.

We left Honolulu with grey skies and hauled our gear back to Miami with plans to empty the memory cards, switch a few things around and head back to the airport to catch a flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, via Atlanta later that day.  Much to our surprise and horror, we were delayed 2 days because of snow, but arriving to our southern hemisphere home was better late than never.

We packed our Land Rover with dive gear and cold drinks and my in-laws and headed northeast to Tofo Beach, Mozambique.  A slight delay because of a forgotten passport, we still managed to cross the border and drive the 16 hours all in one day.  The distance from Maputo, the capital, to Tofo is not all that long but is made very treacherous by road conditions that make large trucks disappear in potholes right in front of you, when there is even a paved road to be had.

We planned a dive the second day and the weather was stunning, although swells were pulling around the point making the beach launch of the rubber duck as harrowing as ever.  We dropped down to very bad visibility and a malfunctioning focus button on the camera.  I did notice a blue spotted ray in the sand but more attention was paid to the housing.

The second dive was on the dive site called Giants, known for its manta rays and once again we were lucky.  Just as I corrected my buoyancy, two large mantas floated in from the south.  Their size and graceful glide was awe inspiring, no matter how many I’ve seen.  They aren’t true sharks but that cartilaginous skeleton counts for something.  One manta swam just to my right so that I could see a clear shark bite taken out of the right ‘wing’.

Dr. Andrea Marshall of the local Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna has recently discovered that the mantas we see are actually two different species, the Giant Manta (Manta birostris) and the smaller Reef manta (Manta alfredi).  The third dive someone mentioned the chance of seeing a zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) and I held onto the rubberduck’s rope handle in quiet anticipation.

The visibility was the stunning 50 feet the dive master had been bragging about and within the first ten minutes of the dive, I heard the familiar clanking of metal on metal.  Carlos, the first local black dive instructor in Mozambique and a long time friend, knew that I would want to see this.  We rounded a coral head and there sat a 6 foot zebra shark with the elongated top of the caudal fin, the fine dark dots down the ridged back and that, pardon the non-scientific description, squishy face!

The shark moved slowly forward to rest its head on the clump of coral in front of it and looked very peaceful.  I was feeling peaceful, too, as I rode the current effortlessly back to the top of the reef in time to see two huge mantas at the edge of the reef.  The rest of the 45 minute bottom time was spent admiring the wealth of biodiversity on the reef.

We were able to secure a rubber duck for my husband, sister, mother and father-in-law, for a mid-morning whale shark safari.  The dive boat is usually fitted with a tall metal lifeguard-looking chair that is used by a crew member once out of the bay to get a better vantage point to spot whale sharks.  This day we had no chair but we had plenty of whale sharks.

Ivan lent his hat and polarized sunglasses to the dive master who quickly spotted a small whale shark.  We donned our masks and snorkels and slipped over the edge of the boat into 80° F waters with a lazy swell and the young whale shark swam 3 meters to my right.  It was a female, only a few meters long and she seemed curious, turning her head so her delicate eye could follow us clumsy figures next to her.  Her color was a deeper, brighter blue than the larger whale sharks I have seen, which tend to fade a little into a grey-blue.  We struggled to keep up with her and she soon headed deep into the water column, disappearing like an elephant in the forest, masterfully designed camouflage.

The other whale sharks we swam with were much larger, much less interested in our feeble attempts to keep up with their speed.  A 20 foot free dive and I was eye to eye with the largest and she barely acknowledged me and I am perfectly fine with that, I prefer to observe and not interact.  I didn’t realize how far I had dove down and was shocked to see the surface so far away.  She had mesmerized me and I was trying not to grin with a snorkel in my mouth.  Watching these fish, the largest in the sea, move through the sapphire blue waters without any discernable effort, doing what they have done for millions of years, is an honor.  After watching the last whale shark disappear, I blinked several times and still saw the clear patterns of white spots in my vision.

Back on the rubber duck, we all grinned like kids and chattered on about the different behaviors, distinct markings and the large female that had the whole tip of her right pectoral fin missing.  Despite flooding my point and shoot camera, I forgot it was in my pocket on the free dive, we celebrated with cold beer and hot coconut rice that night, another fantastic night in Mozambique.


Chaloupka, M and Balazs, G.  2005.  Modelling the effect of fibropapilloma disease on the somatic growth dynamics of Hawaiian green sea turtles.  Marine Biology, 147: 1251-1260.