Imogen Mowday Simpson takes us back to her diving beginnings. Following on from the success of her Galapagos trip, she fills us in a little on her SCUBA diving prior to that adventure. All photographs have been taken by Christopher Bartlett:
After starting the holidays in Tanzania with an incredible four-day safari in Ruaha National Park we headed to Dar-es-Salaam’s national departures’ terminal. Flying via Stone Town (the capital of Unguja, the larger of the two Zanzibari islands) the short, half-empty flight yielded more picture-postcard aerial shots of uninhabited islands and the reefs, before touching down in Chake Chake, Pemba's biggest town, half-way up the west coast at the end of a long mangrove-lined creek.
The airport was a small ramshackle affair, and despite a plethora of attractions including atmospheric ruins, primeval forest, unique bird species, deserted beaches, and some of the best diving in the Indian Ocean, Pemba’s two resorts and one lodge often host less than 100 tourists at any given time.
Swahili Divers and the Kervan Saray Beach eco-lodge on the northwest coast are run by Farhat Jah, a seemingly eccentric mixture of Turkish and Indian heritage with a resolutely British upbringing, and his Dutch wife, Cisca. Both turned out to be the most wonderful hosts and now I feel very lucky to now count them both as friends. Indeed all the staff were great. The accommodation was built in 2008 from local materials, and the quarry where the bricks were cut is, well, a stone's throw away. Any imported goods come by dhow whose carbon footprint is limited to the fire that the crew use to warm their food at night when at sea. It is the best priced on the island with dorm beds and doubles, and good value packages. Food is wholesome and filling, and is locally-sourced and cooked with love by Chefs Hameez Ramadan (or Hamish as Christopher called him) and Mzee Ali on charcoal (chocolate biscuit cake a speciality), unlike the other two resorts that ship most supplies in. Kervan Saray Beach and is the most affordable Pemba diving option. Known by locals as Mr. Raf, and just Raf to anyone else, the founder pioneered much of the diving from Pemba, and has discovered many of the sites himself, hence the odd names. You'll find no Aquarium here. Deep Freeze, Slobodan's Bunker (after the ex-Serbian warmonger), Le Reef Caché (discovered with a French guest) and Emilio's Back Passage to name a few. With a wealth of knowledge of the reefs and conditions, years of experience, and a passion for underwater photography and videography, and you can pick up a host of tips from Raf.
So there I was, 10 years on, in a warm training pool less than 30 metres away from the Indian Ocean and I was damned if I was going to mess anything up. But I need not have worried. My PADI Refresher for my Open Water was simply and clearly instructed by my Divemaster and the very next day I was out on the RIB and then into the sea.
Ok so I was nervous and panicked at the sensations as they came flooding back and my first dives were not a great success. I was a bit awestruck. I was amazed at the vastness and the clarity of the sea having learnt to dive in such confined and murky places. But the Indian Ocean was exquisite. Warm, clear, inviting and full of beauty. So by the third day I was cautious but hooked. Happy to rise early with the African sun and after delicious breakfasts of my staple – porridge – but adorned with exotic Pemban forest honey, slices of mango, banana, pineapple, cardamoms and strangely sometimes even black pepper (don’t knock it until you have tried it!) and cups of spicy and aromatic Chai, every morning I was eager to go to the dive briefings and kit up and get back to the ocean.
The whole set up was intimate, professional and fun. Divided into small, ability-based groups, we all set out each day knowing that we were in good hands. I was far from the only woman there and during our two-week stay we were joined by a variety of people, including some amazing women who had over twenty years of international diving experience, to others who had just learnt or were here to take their diving up a notch. I loved the fact that one of the Dive Instructors was such a young woman, only twenty-one, but very expert and competent. She exuded an air of serenity and made me feel very safe and diving with her took on an almost meditative calm.
Most of all however I just loved diving with my partner. I revelled in being able to share in his deep passion for marine life and diving and communicate our mutual love of it all. An accomplished and experienced Divemaster, he is also a skillful underwater photographer, conservationist and dive-journalist, so diving with him, and his knowledge, took on delicate nuances as we hovered gently in order to catch a glimpse and image of something tiny and exquisite: like a red leaf fish, a juvenile lyretail hogfish, tiny flatworms and nudibranches, coral crabs and concealed eels.
My natural curiosity and competitive nature led me to want to dive deeper and for longer. I was delighted when I could see less and less bar go down as my breathing calmed and my efficiency and buoyancy made daily improvements. Hovering carefully over the exquisite array of small sea-life at sites such as Manta Point, or the complex sinuous cliffs of Slobodan’s Bunker, brought me great satisfaction.
Sharing the delights of seeing some lovely tiny tobies move past us, or alerting our dive buddies to the presence of a territorial and grumpy looking giant triggerfish defending a nest deepened all our friendships.
Diving off the West Coast of Pemba was utterly perfect. Each dive site is intricate, exquisite and unspoilt. To dive there was like bliss. You kit up, make your buddy checks and roll off into water like the softest spa. On one side you see a wall, like the top of a submerged mountain, covered in hard and soft corals of all descriptions, positively teeming with fish. On the other, the bluest blue, near perfect visibility, dropping down, and down, and down. Lucky there's no point talking underwater, because I was always speechless. There was not one moment when there was not something to watch.
Our surface interval snacks of still-warm crepes or mouth-wateringly ripe mangos were taken on deserted islands of fossilized coral and white sand before we would head off to our second dive of the morning on another amazing site like Le Trek. There we watched four Napoleon Wrasse pass below us and a school of Barracuda cruise by, as we kept the wall to our left and the allure of the deep to the right.
I dived the sheer face and the huge schools of bigeye trevally of Fundo Gap South Wall, saw beautiful marbled cleaner shrimps and metallic looking bubble algae at Manta Point, anemonefish, shrimps and assorted morays at Egger’s Ascent, drifted over and through multitude of marine life at Swiss Reef, and the ghost pipefish of Murray’s Wall and the schools of snappers, sweetlips and fusiliers, at Misali Island. Dives were broken up by picnics together, tanned and happy, on tidal sand islands and incredible coves in cyan waters under cloudless skies. It was blissful - dream diving.
I was delighted to take the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver Qualification during my second week in Pemba. I had done an average of two dives a day, all of course within the safety parameters of my diving status, so I was eager to learn more and gain in confidence and skills. Raf was my instructor and he taught both myself and another female student from the Ukraine with his personal flair. Each dive was very different.
We did our Deep Dive at 27 metres and both of us really noticed how the depth affected our cognition and skills when we went through our tests. Also even the glorious and balmy Indian Ocean started to feel cold and each day I added more neoprene layers and adjusted my weights. I really felt the cold, so Raf, with his usual humor, astutely advised that maybe I should stick to diving in African seas and go nowhere near the UK or the Atlantic – ever!
At the end of our fortnight there I passed the course and felt an immense sense of pride on completion. I had had a few nervous moments and was initially daunted at the thought that I could navigate in the deep for instance, or had been quite perturbed at my loss of balance on several occasions as I learnt to equalize properly again and deal with a natural tendency to find it hard to relax.
At the end I felt like I had developed hugely on a personal level and I now feel truly like I am following the footsteps of my father who was a Navy Diver and able to join in the explorations of my partner, for whom diving is such a passion. I learnt to dive again in one of the most paradisical places on the planet, with some of the kindest and informative and engaging people, and motivated by love - I loved every second!
Pemba was an awesome place to really learn to dive. I was utterly spoilt by the experience. It's not a place for "big" encounters every dive, but the variety and volume of small to medium-sized species is outstanding, with coral crabs, magnificent partner shrimps, nudibranchs, anthias, morays galore. Now, following Raf’s advice I am afraid I will not brave the UK waters, instead I am heading to dive in the wonders of the Galapagos then see the treasures of the seas off Papua New Guinea – so I will send my next posts from there! In the meantime I urge you to seek out something truly special and rare – and go and dive in Pemba!
For more information on tailor-made tours for all budgets to the Zanzibari islands and the Tanzanian mainland drop them an e-mail.
Copyright ©2012 Clare Wilders Imogen Simpson-Mowday and Christopher Bartlett all rights reserved..