Northern Mozambique's

Coral Coast


Copyright Wolfgang E. Grulke - All Rights Reserved

November 1992


The town of Pemba, in northern Mozambique, is about halfway between the horn of Africa and Africa's southern shores, at about the same latitude as the northern tip of Madagascar and the Comoros islands. The coast between Pemba and Zanzibar more than 500 kilometres to the north is sometimes referred to as Africa's 'Coral Coast'. Adjoining this coast is a maze of islands, isolated from civilisation by natural barriers and lack of human development. Their names are a mixture of African and Portuguese origin, Quipaco, Quisiva, Mefunvo, Nangamba, Quilaluia, Sengar, Quirimba, Ibo and Matemo. Frequently they are fringed by coral reefs on one side and extensive sand and mud flats and mangrove swamps on the other. A few of the islands have clearings that serve as primitive landing strips for small aircraft,  but most can only be reached by landing a dinghy on the beach. 

Pemba is a small war-ravaged coastal town situated on a promontory, Ponto Romero, that separates the Bay of Porto Amelia from Wimbe Bay and the open sea.  It has a basic little-used harbour whose main activities centre around the export of marble from mines far inland. The civil war that has torn Mozambique apart for the past two decades has left its mark on Pemba, physically and economically. Travel to and in the area is difficult and never safe. The magnificent coral reefs that lay forgotten off its coast during the war years drew us there, inexorably. 

 Getting there 

It's a four-hour flight from Johannesburg to Pemba. The only practical way of getting our group plus all our diving and photographic equipment and provisions there was to charter a plane. We planned to land at the once-pretty coastal resort of Beira, about half-way to Pemba, to clear Mozambique customs and complete immigration formalities. We were all escaping from stress-filled business environments and were ready for some relaxation. On landing at Beira any semblance of holiday mood was immediately dispelled. 

We realised that we must have landed right in the middle of a set for the movie MASH. Along the sides of airport runways were several crashed and disabled Russian MIG jet fighters, in various states of dismemberment. The arrival and departure areas of the airport building exuded an aura of decay and absolute neglect that only extreme poverty can create. What was left of the restaurant, had also seen better days. A room that once must have provided comfortable seating and meals for about 150 clients now looked like a long-deserted army barracks. The few tables and chairs that remained were only there because they were too dilapidated to be worth stealing. 

A huge kitchen, extremely well equipped for the mid-1950's, lay unused. A meal was being cooked over an open fire on the roof of the airport building. Today, the local beer was unavailable. Warm cans of Castle (South Africa's standard brew) were produced from a cardboard box under the counter. The glasses appeared to be of Russian origin and had that look that I thought only extremely old and well-worn Coke bottles could achieve. It reminded me of cafes in the suburbs of Cairo where I was served orange juice in such 'pre-owned' containers. We decided to drink straight out of the cans. 

The staff on attendance at the airport clearly all worked for what was left of the current government and attended to us with all the vague disinterested charm that comes with years of experience in consciously ignoring your customers. They ensured that if we did nothing else, we would fill in those unintelligible and (to us) illogical immigration forms with absolute accuracy. Clearly all visitors were expected to bring their own pens as there were none available in the country. Oh yes, please won't you leave the pens here for our children. A nice idea, but what do we do when we pass through here again on our way home? We kept our pens in case of that eventuality. 

Re-fueled, our Mitsubishi whined its way back into the African sky. From the air we could see brown fingers of silt from the Zambesi flowing into the sea, colouring the water off Beira's once-sought-after beaches a designer beige and staining the sea far out into the Mozambique current. The river itself was the colour of pale chocolate.  

The plane ride from Beira to Pemba was another two hours. The coast was starting to look really interesting. Patches of bright blue water signaled the presence of shallow coral reefs all along the coast. 

As our plane dropped through scattered cumulus clouds the huge expanse of the Bay of Porto Amelia lay in front of us. The town of Pemba, formerly known as Porto Amelia, lay slumped against the promontory jutting out into the Bay, like a sleepy unkempt dog. Even from the air it was possible to detect the general air of decay and neglect that characterised what was left of a first-world infrastructure that the Portuguese colonials established in the first half of this century. 

This was in sharp contrast to the first impression of the sea, which was crisp and clear, a rich mixture of the colours of coral sand and coral reef veiled in warm azure clear water. As the plane dropped lower a school of dolphins completed the idyllic impression of a tropical sea at its most alluring. I simply could not wait to put my face into that heavenly water 

The so-called airport brought me down to reality. This was Beira all over again, except this time without the sophistication. Thankfully the general state of disrepair did not extend to the runway. The buildings were definitely '20th century disrepair renaissance', like some grotesque ruins artfully sculpted out of what I'm sure started out as quite sensible architecture. All it needed was Indiana Jones. Was I to be he? 

Transport from the airport to our lodgings was intimate, as we and our excessive luggage were bundled into a surprisingly brand new Toyata mini-bus designed to carry half our number. Our satisfaction with the ride would be inversely proportional to its length. It was thankfully short.


Being There 

The Atlantis Hotel is situated on the shore of spectacular Wimbe Bay. At high tide the arc of beach is of crisp white sands dotted with coconut palms and baobabs. At low tide the tips of a rocky reef very close to shore peek out of the clear water. The Atlantis Hotel itself looked more like the Atlantis Building Site. Central to the complex was the original old two-storey restaurant building, adorned by an unattractive roof garden. On one side of this stretched about ten newly-constructed bungalows. In front of each bungalow heaps of brown earth had been dumped to become the basis for a lawn sometime in future. A few clumps of lawn had been planted as well as a few creepers alongside the bungalows. The rich brown earth looked a great deal less attractive than the coral sand a few metres beyond. The small bungalows themselves were pretty spartan, no hot water, drinking water in a bucket under the sink, a small (necessary) fridge and hard beds. We tried to remember that we were after all in darkest terrorist-infected Africa, surrounded by the most abject poverty. 

The fact that Babu, the manager/owner, had it got it to this stage of development at all was something of a local miracle. Everywhere we went, children (we ended up calling them 'land urchins', as opposed to those in the sea) tried to sell us seashells. Although illegal (only licensed dealers may sell shells and you can only export shells accompanied by a government permit) this seemed to be one way to generate a little income from the few tourists around. There was precious little else to buy that hadn't already been imported from South Africa. Even the local brewery stopped functioning shortly after the Portuguese departed and the only beer available was from South Africa. 

Food was limited in its variety, but what there was was often excellent. Breakfasts mostly consisted of bland omelets and fries, lunch and dinner of a selection of fish, prawns, crayfish and, always, fries. Apart from a few prized tomatoes, vegetables were scarce. Butter was sometimes available if you knew how to ask for it. The local bread was excellent. The fresh fish was always superb, cooked over an open fire in the kitchen. How the cook survived in that kitchen when even outside the tropical heat was unbearable, was beyond me. 

Most meals were had outside on the large verandah in front of the Atlantis restaurant. Under the palm trees there was usually some shade and at night under the stars there was often a pleasant breeze.  


The Underwater World 

The typical underwater terrain immediately off the beach on the reef flats consists of large expanses of sand interrupted by expansive beds of grass. There are isolated rock and coral formations within a few metres of the sandy beach, and further out the scattered coral clumps become closer together. Approximately 100 to 500 metres from the beach one particular dark tubular coral often dominates the complete sub-strate to the exclusion of almost every other type of coral. At this point there is typically a drop-off down to more than 100 metres depth. The entire drop-off often appears to be covered in this same dark monotonous tubular coral with very little evidence of life either during the day or during our many night dives. By contrast the coral heads in the sandy shallows harbour a magnificent variety of small coral fish and invertebrates. The rocky reefs just off the beach are filled with a rich cross-section of tropical Indo-Pacific reef life, all accessible in just a few metres of water by donning a mask and snorkel. 

A simple wooden fishing boat with a tiny outboard motor was our modest but effective transport out to the reef under the guidance of an Italian couple of allegedly experienced divers. They had clearly gone 'tropo', an affliction common in the tropics as a result of too much sun and too little stimulation. They treated each dive with the interest, imagination and animation of bored East German government bureaucrats. Information could easily be prised out of them with a large crowbar. After the third day we were diving without them. Every new spot we found was a surprise and we were no longer subject to bouts of unfulfilled expectations. 

On the eastern side of Wimbe bay we photographed a few really unusual small fish including the rare leaf scorpion Taenianotus triacanthus. Across the bay, at Ponta Said Ali, we encountered the black and blue variety of the ribbon eel Rhinomuraena quaesita. The most disappointing part of this underwater experience near the inhabited areas of the coastline was the complete lack of any of the larger common reef fish. It appears as if all the reef fish larger than 5 centimetres in length have been taken by the local fishermen as they walk the reef spanning large fine nets between them. This is a relentless process that continues day and night and is perhaps an understandable necessity for a hungry people whose ecological awareness features very low down their hierarchy of needs. We once got our propellers caught in one of these nets at night and only then realised that there was a person attached to each end of the net. They hadn't made a single sound throughout this incident! 

Large beds of stag horn coral (Acropora sp.) make effective hiding places for some exotic juvenile reef fish. Underneath large rocks we found many juvenile emperor angelfish Pomacanthus imperator, as well as juvenile triggerfish and butterflyfish, although we did not see a single adult in all the time we spent in this particular area. 

Despite some disappointments there were two highlights to our diving at Pemba: soft corals and night diving. 


Soft Corals 

Soft corals are related to the familiar reef-building hard corals and are sometimes mistaken for a kind of underwater flower. They are in fact not flowers but animals, like the hard or stony corals. Whereas hard corals secrete a hard skeleton in which the coral polyp lives, in soft corals the skeleton takes the form of minute calcareous spicules loosely embedded in their elaborate 'flower like' bodies. 

Soft corals often thrive in areas where the hard coral colonies on a reef are degenerating. Here at Pemba the soft coral community (Order Alcyonacea) has developed an abundance and diversity unlike any we have ever seen before. On the eastern side of Wimbe Bay, near Ponta Maunhane, are soft coral gardens that left us speechless. The variety of corals and colors was spell-binding. In about 15 metres of water there is a terrain of coral-encrusted rocks and pinnacles on a sandy bottom. The rocks are alive with the pink, blue and green pastel colours of soft corals that seem to have taken over every spot of available space. The profusion, variety and density of this coral growth is quite unique. Their bright colours advertise the fact that many amongst them have potent stinging cells. Despite this adequate protection and although much of their bulk is made up of a watery jelly-like substance and their nutritious value must be amongst the lowest of any animal group, they are preyed on by various fish. We believe that because the locals have almost totally denuded the large reef fish, the soft corals have been given a unique opportunity to flourish. This spectacular display has most likely been facilitated by the almost total eradication of the corals' natural predators. Could this outstanding natural beauty been created by very unnatural human forces? 

Whatever the cause, we believe that the soft corals of Pemba represent some of the world's best examples of this kind of coral reef terrain. In addition, the record of the coral fauna from the east coast of Africa is far from complete, with new discoveries being recorded every few months. 


Night Moves 

Diving at night was another extraordinary experience here. While the daytime reef inhabitants have been largely eaten, the nighttime world has escaped much of this human terrorism. On many dives at night we saw an astounding array of invertebrates, echinoderms, hermit crabs and crayfish that in their daytime hiding places escape the keen eyes of the fishermen.

During dives in full daylight the reef can appear peaceful, even sleepy, and give no clue to the activity that can occur during the brief periods of dusk and dawn. During the day Squirrel and Soldier fish appear to cower under dark ledges, shy and lethargic.  Coral polyps are tightly squeezed into their hard coral cups, to emerge only at night when the concentration of zooplankton in the water is at its highest. Everything can appear highly structured and predictable.  As the two shifts overlap, for an hour or so at dusk and dawn, there occurs a frenzy of activity that is seldom seen by divers.

The subdued light gives a unique setting for opportunistic predators to prey on those reef citizens just waking up and on those returning to their nighttime refuges.  Normally sluggish Scorpion fish and Rockcod become increasingly active in the twilight.  Nocturnal Bigeye that may form large schools for protection during the day and are rarely seen out alone become ferocious lone hunters at this time.  In the frenzy of change, predators add an anxiety to the reef that is almost tangible.

Shortly after sunset the reef returns quickly to a new peaceful rhythm for the night, with new unwritten rules and routines, and a new team of players.  The frenzy, anxiety and stress appear to subdue in minutes.  Many molluscs, starfish and sea urchins rarely seen during the day become bold, purposeful players on the reef's night stage.  Moray eels venture out into the open from their lairs while lobster and crayfish stride languidly across sandy bottoms.

Sea urchins inch their way out from under coral ledges to prowl the dark reefs in search of food.  On night dives we have seen many urchin species new to us and some new to science.  Their poisonous spines sometimes just plain and sometimes elaborate, like beautiful table legs delicately turned in a Victorian furniture manufactory.  We have found urchins such as the beautifully luminescent Echinothrix calamaris on bare expanses of sand hundreds of metres away from the nearest coral sanctuary. Quite a walk in urchin terms!

Helmet shells rise out of the sand like ghouls in Michael Jackson's 'Thriller'.  Believing themselves to be safe under the cover of darkness they stand out like jewels on the white coral sand in the beam of our torches.

Getting Around 

But it's not just the underwater world that was full of surprises. On some of the smaller outlying islands jewels littered the beaches. Natural jewels, the discarded homes of the order Mollusca. Along the high tide mark, for as far as the eye can see, were piles of the most beautiful shells. Harps, conchs, cowries and murex shells. Amongst these we found some incredibly fragile and rare bubble shells. This was a veritable shell supermarket.  

Some of the islands along the 'Coral Coast' are not all you might expect. Some are far from the typical sand-and-palm-tree paradigm and offer more history than you might be prepared for. 

Ibo is one such island. Situated about xxx kilometres north of Pemba, it was only to be our stop-off to the island of Matemo further north. Instead what we found turned out to be worth a considerable amount of attention and a veritable time capsule. 

In the late 1800's, as result of the new railway line from Barberton to Lebombo and on to Lourenco Marques, several shipping lines expanded their activities along the Mozambique coast. The Union Company added Delagoa Bay and Ibo to their list of destinations and the Donald Currie line was running regular mail steamers from Natal to Mozambique Island and Ibo. 

But even before this, Ibo was a cultured enclave of Portuguese colonialism along the coral coast of Mozambique. What we saw when visited were just ruins of ruins but the underlying charm took you right back to those proud days. 

If we could have pushed back the clock a hundred years or more we would have seen a fashionable colonnaded main street bustling with people, horse-drawn carriages and animated chatter. Outside the modest white church a funeral would have been in progress with the townsfolk clustered around a beautifully carved open wooden hearse, adorned with the sweet flowers of the frangipani. The procession would move to a pretty walled cemetery a few hundred metres out of town. A tiny power station had pride of place in the middle of town, on the main street. 

But today, the verandahs and their columns had crumbled, the main street was just a wide dusty track and persistent tropical creepers had taken over the brickwork. The wrought-iron gate to the cemetery was hanging loosely off a single torn hinge. A few remaining memorial mementos to the departed were forlorn; metal corners badly rusted, crystal vases shattered. Ibo had been deserted by the people who created it and its culture. Ibo was in the process of returning to the soul of Africa. Despite the neglect the class and beauty of a bygone age shone through. These were proud ruins. The largest building in town flew the Frelimo flag. We were asked not to photograph it for security reasons. I guess they feared we would send Sol Kerzner over to turn the whole island into Prawn City. A kind of desert island Disneyland with lunches and dinners in Main Street Ibo and automated rides through the abundant mangrove swamps. He'd probably make a huge success of it. Successful but perhaps not desirable. Ibo was a unique surprise whose vivid memories live with me still.


The Lessons of the Islands 

Our trips around the islands brought out aspects of 'African Time' that I had forgotten and needed to relearn. 

A boat scheduled to take us on our trip to Matemo was ready to leave when we arrived at the appointed time. Ready, except for one small accident of nature. The low tide had left the trawler high and dry 50 metres up the beach. This was apparently 'no problem' as within five hours the tide would have risen far enough to float her off. Simple arithmetic told us that a five hour delay is not easy to factor into a day-trip when another three hours would be taken up by the journey there and back. No one could understand our anxiety. 

There are boats and boats. Boats with engines in this part of the world tend to fall most naturally into the category of Primitive-Oil-stained-Fishing-Trawlers (POFT). One more oil-stained and primitive than the next. To us it was surprising that they could transverse the 50 or so kilometres that we would usually attempt. To the Oil-stained-Captains a trip right across the Indian Ocean would not have phased them. We would typically arrive back impregnated by diesel fumes, green, oil-stained and relieved. Inevitably it would end up being more than a day relaxing in the sun. Crocodile Dundee would have been proud of us. 

Language here does not seem to be important. It was not unusual for an Italian Oil-stained-Captain to be talking at full speed to a local speaking at full speed to us in Portuguese. We of course spoke neither Italian or Portuguese, only English and German. We were the only ones who never seemed to know what was going on. Everyone else used language only as an entertainment to pass the time while they were communicating by some higher means indiscernible to us. 

Another lesson learnt concerned the things with which we adorn ourselves. It was interesting to me how impressive powder-blue mask and matching fins could look on a Grand Cayman dive boat, and how pointless it all seemed here, with no one to appreciate the finer points of diving fashion. It's the same syndrome as the tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it. This thought struck me as I was wading ashore with 20 kilograms of diving fashion on my head to a dumbfounded reception from the island's 15 or so indigenous people who had not been visited by an 'outsider' in more than a year, and would not know a dayglo pink regulator from a close-up lens. It makes you think. It made me worry about my priorities. 


Final Thoughts on Pemba and the Coral Coast 

The paradox of Pemba is one that is repeated up and down the length of Mozambique. 

On the one hand, and especially above water, man's influence had been extremely visible and mostly negative. Despite this I feel one must commend man on his ingenuity of sustaining life even at the expense of denuding the marine environment. Without this food source the huge famine rate would undoubtedly still be higher. The war, poverty, greed and destruction of the environment both above and below the water are lessons we need to remember but I wish we hadn't experienced. 

On the other hand, we found so much beauty underwater, and so much of it completely untouched, even if we did have to go deeper or at night in order to find it. It shows the strength of an ecosystem to survive man's intrusion and maintain a magnificent balance despite our worst efforts. 

The destructive civil war, an unfavourable political climate and the absence of any kind of tourist infrastructure have kept visitors away and prevented the kind of destruction caused by too much attention. The same factors however have created an environment in which the ecology cannot be their major concern. Although in the end this very same ecology may turn out to be Mozambique's socio-economic saviour, eco-tourism may be its own worst enemy.  

This is the on-going paradox of Mozambique. One it will struggle to escape.