Text and Photography
by Al Hornsby
Our 4-wheel vehicle bumps and slides over a sandy track that winds through an expansive , rolling landscape; ahead of us is the wild, near deserted coastline of Mozambique. Although it is only 3:30 PM, the late afternoon photographer’s light has already begun and everything seems bathed in a soft, golden glow. A sense of ethereal quiet pervades the air, broken only by the occasional whisper of the wind through tall, swaying grasses and dark, green acacia. This is Africa, as I always have imagined it.
We've left the vast game parks of South Africa behind us, where we photographed elephants and rhino, lions and leopards, impala and kudu. The experience was breathtaking, the stuff of which dreams are made. Ahead of us is a new realm of excitement offshore the Mozambique village of Ponto do Oro. There, we will be with a different collection of wild creatures, especially sharks, many of them, Bulls, Silvertips, Hammerheads and, if we are lucky, maybe even Tigers; all congregated around a single, deep pinnacle nearly eight kilometers out to sea.
Beyond the intense natural experience we have expected, we also stumble onto a sociological complexity beyond my protected life experience. With a 20 year civil war only a few years behind it, Mozambique, though now peaceful and bucolic, is deeply scarred--the shells of burned and bombed out houses, bullet-riddled walls and ominous skull and cross-bone signs warning that live land mines surround us.
As we crest the last hill before reaching the shoreline, the blue Indian Ocean spreads out before us. A broad bay and Ponto do Oro lie at our feet. Once a luxurious Portuguese resort town, the village is now quiet, most of the once sumptuous villas wrecked and abandoned. People walk along the roadside; shy, dark eyes regard us with cautious curiosity.
We do see, however, signs of rebirth; the old hotel has been partially reclaimed and is open. A small dive business and a simple collection of beachfront bungalows are in operation at the far end of the bay. And, as in most places where there are great diving adventures to be found, there are a few divers--the first trickle of tourism so desperately needed by a people displaced by the anarchy of war.
The next day, as we rolled into the water on our first dive, my somber pensiveness--the consideration of war and its implications to the innocent lives caught in its midst--retreated in a froth of bright, swirling bubbles. Below me, deep blue stretched toward a distant, invisible bottom at 125 feet. The richness of the water and its life was immediately obvious. During our few dives, we would see massive shoals of baitfish, tuna, Kingfish, a six foot long sailfish and schooling Barracuda. At the bottom, huge congregations of Blue-stripe Seaperch milled about and three foot long Potato Cod were seemingly everywhere. Honeycomb Morays extended from dark holes and large Marbled Stingrays moved slowly across the deep reef.
Despite all this, we were here for sharks, the creatures that would make our dives unique in my memory. The number and variety of sharks was amazing. We were constantly sur-rounded by 8 to 10 foot long Bull Sharks (known as Zambezi Sharks here) and Silvertips. A lone Great Hammerhead eyed us briefly one dive and a resident 15 foot Tiger Shark, while evading our sight, kept us watching the fringes of our vision. While the opportunity to photograph such an unusual creature would have been incredible, the very thought of its presence was enough to raise already high adrenaline to yet another level.
And, adrenaline inducing it was. On our last afternoon, just before dark, during what is known at the sharks' witching hour, we dropped from the gray, rolling surface down into a rapidly darkening gloom. At 130 feet our guide speared a single fish. Within moments, we were joined by two big--nearly 10 feet long--Bull Sharks and a solitary eight foot Silvertip.
As they circled, I thought again how different the Bulls were from the sharks I have seen in most shark feeds. They were massive, nearly three feet across at the snout. The mouths were huge, hinged nearly back to the gill slits. And, unlike most sharks in feeds, they were intensely interested in us, far more than they were in the bait. They would move in closer, closer, then far too close, needing a sharp smack on the nose with a strobe to keep them away. My dive buddies, Peter and Steph Lamberti, two of South Africa's best known underwater and wildlife photographers and filmmakers, kept giving me bemused looks that said, "Well, are you getting what you asked for?"
At one point, as Peter's movie lights created a dramatic pool of brightness in the near-black water, one of the big Bulls rushed in. My strobe popped as the shark banged headlong into Peter's housed digital Betacam. It turned and rushed again--wham! His third time was with open jaws; the marvelous footage that resulted was all shark and teeth, with a perfect soundtrack--hard, sharp enamel across the housing's aluminum surface.
For more than 20 minutes on the bottom, during the safety stop and even as we clambered into the pitching inflatable in the last few moments of dusk, the awesome sharks pressed us, bolder and more aggressive than I had ever seen. Our last sight of the Bulls from the boat was of their dorsal fins cutting the surface as if looking for us. They were still curious, still interested; predators until the very end.
As we headed back toward the barely visible shore, the last pink and orange vestiges of an African sunset slipped below the distant horizon. Spray blew into our faces from the wave tops on a gathering wind. We were all quiet; no one spoke. There was simply too much to consider: the reality of a place consumed by war; the faces of a quiet, still subdued people; the slowly ebbing intensity from being with the majestic sharks; and, all together, the combined impressions of a marvelous, wild land called Mozambique.