Going above and beyond

Words by Dr Tessa Hempson
Photographs by Dr Mark Ziembicki

We rolled overboard and began our descent into the deep, vivid blue.

I was immediately struck by a familiar sound. The haunting, melodious tones of humpback whales engulfed us as if we were surrounded by a large pod, yet none were to be seen. Suddenly, beneath us, an amorphous dark shape appeared. Not a whale, but the top of a narrow pinnacle rising from the depths. Around it swam several dark shadows – too many to count. We descended further into an undersea amphitheatre with the pinnacle at its head – an extraordinary underwater architectural wonder unfolding into view. Dozens of grey reef sharks circled us. I estimated I could see about fifty at any one time, but as they came in and out of view from the blue around us, there were doubtless many more.

We skirted along the amphitheatre’s walls, the sides giving way into the blue abyss. The steep walls here descend down to almost a thousand metres in the submarine canyons that run perpendicular to the coast and separate the islands of the Quirimbas Archipelago in northern Mozambique. Just off the wall, dog-toothed tuna, king mackerel, giant trevally and other predators were on patrol. Below us, disappearing into the deep, enormous gorgonian fans encrusted the walls, fanning out to feed as currents pushed nutrient rich waters up from the depths. Rounding a corner we entered a narrow chasm that marked the entrance to a small canyon some fifty metres across. Here there were more sharks, but these were small, and swam around in close-knit packs. I soon realised they were pups, and learnt later that this site was the only known remaining nursery for grey reef sharks in East Africa.

One side of the canyon opened up to a broader area studded with small, underwater inselberg-like pillars around which swirled large schools of fish; chubb, batfish, neon fusiliers and clouds of yellow snapper. Fields of anemones and large coral colonies covered the spaces in between, while bright orange scale-fin anthias, chocolate-dip damselfish and myriad other reef fish dazzled with their bright colours and assorted shapes. All the while the songs of humpback whales soared through the water, filtering through my consciousness. Spellbound by my surroundings, the dive flew by and it was soon time to surface, but there was one last surprise in store. A swim-through cave led us from the canyon’s edge back to the pinnacle where we had started. It was a mind blowing dive – one that changed the trajectory of my life.

tessa hempson coral reef &beyond
tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders Vamizi
tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders shark
From Bush to Sea

Growing up on a farm in the African savanna with parents that were passionate about natural history I developed a love for the African bush from a young age. Learning about the various plants, lizards, birds and all the other fascinating life around us, and how it was all connected, was an endless source of wonder. During the summer holidays we would trek down to our grandparents home on the Natal south coast. They had a house right on the beach with views of the sea from virtually every window. I couldn’t get enough of the place. The salty sea smell, the warmth, the humidity, the exotic sea creatures, the boats, the waves, surfers riding the waves, and the endless expanse of water. The sea held an enigmatic aura. It was endless, mysterious, enchanting, and unknown.

After graduating from school some years later, while working on the Zululand Coast, I joined a scientific survey of marine life of the region, led by the inspiring marine scientist Charlie Griffiths. The experience proved a turning point. The more I learnt about all the immense diversity of species that make up a reef, and unravelling how they all fit together in the ecosystem from a scientific perspective, the more I saw the underwater world in a whole new light. Combining science with the long-term, practical knowledge of locals and their stories of discovery and adventure, gave me all the more appreciation for the ocean and further ignited my passion to make understanding its secrets my life’s pursuit. I was especially fascinated by coral reefs, which are among the most ecologically complex ecosystems of all. Knowing about my fascination for coral reef systems and taste for adventure, Charlie nominated me for a position on an expedition to East Africa that aimed to learn more about recent coelacanth records off Tanzania, and document their habitat use in view of declaring a marine protected area (MPA) to help conserve them.

Arriving in Tanga, Tanzania, our very first dive was on a coral reef that had been recently destroyed by dynamite fishing. The reef had been reduced to rubble, with the odd little coral surviving valiantly, and small fish darting desperately between chunks of debris for cover. It was soul-destroying. Ironically, after so many years of anticipation, this was the first time I actually saw a coral reef in the tropical East African waters I’d dreamt of since I was a child. It was also the first time I cried underwater. Over the next few months I worked on my masters’ degree project trying to better understand the social and economic drivers, and ecological implications, of dynamite fishing on reefs in the region. I began learning of its challenges; the reliance of people on reefs, and the threats this posed not only for marine ecosystems, but also for the people themselves. By the time I was due to leave East Africa I was well and truly hooked. The Swahili coast had crept into my heart, and I resolved to return one day to continue the work.

East Africa – Ground Zero for the Sustainable Development Goals

As the world has increasingly come to recognise the implications of our impacts on the planet, there has been a groundswell of international effort to join forces to work together to meet these mounting challenges. In 2015, the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as a framework for nations to work towards a sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all. At its heart is a series of 17 ambitious and transformative Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that address the global challenges the world faces. The goals recognise that ending poverty is dependent on building economic growth and addressing social needs including health, education, employment, gender equality, and governance, while tackling climate change and ensuring the protection of the environment.

SDG14 relates specifically to the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and marine resources for sustainable development. In East Africa, more than 30 million people depend directly on healthy coastal forests, rivers, mangroves, coral reef systems and seas for their food and livelihoods, with that number set to double by mid-century. Despite their rich natural resources, nations in this region face some of the world’s most pressing development challenges with among the highest rates of population growth and lowest rates of per capita income globally.

Ocean protection in Africa also lags far behind most other parts of the world in terms of MPAs, and effective management of those that do exist. For example, only 2.4% of Mozambique’s territorial waters are formally protected compared to an average of 11% worldwide. Furthermore, while the need for food and livelihoods grows as local populations boom, so too does demand for the region’s natural resources from an increasingly depleted, wealthy and hungry world outside. Over the last decade, global demand for East Africa’s resources, led by Europe and Asia, has risen considerably. Much of this trade is unsustainable, and all too often illegal. Although often formally sanctioned by national governments, harvesting of coastal resources and fisheries by foreign enterprises often occurs at the expense of local subsistence communities. Limited capacity to regulate use and trade, monitor catch and illegal activities, and mitigate negative impacts on marine environments means that countries in the region are not only losing their natural resources threatening local food security and livelihoods, but also losing valuable revenue desperately required for development.

tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders
tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders
Oceans Without Borders

Tackling the complex, interconnected social, economic and environmental issues the world faces requires novel perspectives, integrated approaches and new partnerships that transcend disciplines and sectors. This need is what drew me to take up the reigns as Programme Manager of Oceans Without Borders, an innovative inter-sectoral partnership between Africa Foundation, a not-for-profit community development organisation, and &Beyond, a conservation-focussed travel company. Working closely with local communities, leading marine scientists, education institutions and other collaborators, the partnership aims to positively influence marine conservation and community development at &Beyond’s three island lodge sites that link over 2000 kilometres of East African coastline – Vamizi and Benguerra Islands in northern and southern Mozambique and Mnemba island, off Zanzibar in Tanzania.

Located in the Quirimbas Archipelago in Cabo Delgado Province in northern Mozambique, Vamizi Island is the centre of Oceans Without Borders both geographically and operationally. Cabo Delgado is among Mozambique’s least developed regions, itself one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also extraordinarily important and rich from an ecological perspective. For these reasons the region is a major focus of the Oceans Without Borders project.

Vamizi’s biological riches are a result of a unique blend of environmental, social and historical drivers. For millennia, an abundance of life has been carried westward by the south equatorial current, flowing from the teeming reefs of the Coral Triangle in the Western Pacific, across the Indian Ocean, to collide with the east African coast in the Northern Mozambican Channel. Hitting the coast here the current diverges splitting to travel north towards Tanzania and Kenya, and south towards South Africa. As a result, the coral reefs around Vamizi are among the world’s most biologically diverse, having the highest recorded diversity of corals outside the Coral Triangle, and an exceptional array of fish and other reef life. They also serve as a critically important source of replenishment for marine ecosystems along the East African coast, where coral reef ecosystems are more heavily impacted. Regular upwelling of cool water from the depths of the nearby Mozambican channel means the reefs are remarkably resilient, as the cooler water reduces the risk of bleaching due to rising ocean temperatures that are devastating coral reef environments in many other parts of the world. As a consequence, these healthy, diverse and resilient reefs are also remarkably productive, being an important breeding site for green and hawksbill turtles, humpback whales, grey reef sharks, and a multitude of fish species. And, on one or two special nights each year, all corals on the reef simultaneously release eggs and sperm into the water column in an event known locally as the ‘Kitukulu’, creating a pink soup of baby coral larvae – one of the few such synchronised mass coral spawning spectacles recorded worldwide.

Compared to many other parts of East Africa the islands and reefs of the Quirimbas region have been relatively well preserved. Until now. The region is under increasing pressure and facing mounting threats. New emerging markets in Asia and other places are opening up new opportunities and placing significant pressure on vulnerable species including sharks, reef fish, crabs, crayfish, sea cucumbers and turtles. Rapidly growing local populations swelled by high birth rates and the influx of migratory fishermen from neighbouring areas where fish stocks have declined is putting increasing pressure on local coral reef systems. Perhaps most significantly, one of the largest ever natural gas discoveries was recently made in the northern Mozambique Channel near Vamizi, resulting in one of the largest infrastructure development projects in African history. The development brings not only a large onshore processing plant, shipping traffic, offshore drilling, and the potentially severe impacts of sedimentation, pollution, and noise, but also significantly, an influx of multitudes of people from across the region and the world. Mozambique is in desperate need of revenue, but balancing its needs for economic development with the critical need to adequately protect natural resources and the environment while ensuring equitable social benefits, is one of the country’s most pressing challenges.

Good data underpins sustainable development. Long-term monitoring and research programs are vitally important to both understand how social and ecological systems work, and to establish baselines against which to measure the progress of actions, monitor change and help guide decision-making. This is a major focus of Oceans Without Borders’ work, which includes documenting marine biodiversity, monitoring of coral reef health, fish communities, threatened species, and terrestrial vegetation and fauna, and targeted research to address key questions relating to the marine ecosystems in which we work. Such long-term programs are often difficult to maintain because of traditional short-term funding cycles, but through a long-term investment structure, Oceans Without Borders is committed to ensuring the sustainability of such work at each of its three island sites well into the future.

Ocean conservation knows no boundaries. Working between our sites that span most of the East African coastline, across multiple political boundaries, much of our research focus is on ecological connectivity in marine ecosystems. Harnessing the power of exciting new technological developments in genetics, satellite tracking and passive acoustic monitoring, we are beginning to gain insight into the movements and ecology of large marine predators, including sharks and giant trevally, humpback whales and marine turtles in the region. Such highly mobile species can travel large distances each year, and are dependent on healthy marine ecosystems and different habitats, often in disconnected parts of their range. Unravelling the secrets of their movement patterns and key habitat needs, including breeding aggregation sites like those of Vamizi, will help us better target limited conservation resources, and design and manage more effective protected areas.

tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders crab
tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders Vamizi islands
tessa hempson coral reef oceans without borders studying reefs
Future frontiers

As it turned out, the world that I entered on that fateful first dive off Vamizi was to become the gravitational pull that would keep me firmly connected to this magical Swahili coast. Sadly, those first awe-inspiring encounters with sharks in the waters around Vamizi less than a decade ago are now only a memory. Shark populations have crashed worldwide, as they have here too, to the point where today we are lucky to see just two or three sharks on the same site at one time. The change happened quickly; it doesn’t take long to fish out an important breeding aggregation. But there is hope. Encouragingly, effectively managed MPAs have been shown to work. Populations can bounce back. Going forward our immediate priorities are to establish new protected areas at these key sites and improve the effectiveness of existing ones. But, the need to act is urgent, the challenges faced by our oceans are extreme and growing, and the potential implications of inaction are severe.

Education and inspiration are essential. As scientists and conservationists, we have a responsibility to effectively communicate what we learn and see. The survival of coral reef areas and the coastal communities that depend on them is, to a large extent, reliant on changing behaviours of people that often live thousands of miles from coral coastlines. From overfishing, to rising ocean temperatures due to carbon dioxide emissions, we can all make everyday choices that cumulatively make a difference. One of the things that excites me most about Oceans Without Borders is the potential to engage at so many levels. Through our on-site projects, we live and work intimately with local coastal communities on a day-to-day basis, while through our international collaborations we are able to provide the infrastructure needed for leading scientists to work in these remote locations, and contribute to building local capacity. Then through visitors to &Beyond’s lodges we have the opportunity to immerse some of the world’s most influential people in the astounding underwater world and rich cultures of East Africa. Our Ocean’s Pledge is one of the ways that we are trying to spread awareness and offer suggestions on small changes that everyone can make in their daily lives, anywhere on the planet, to contribute to a more sustainable future for our oceans.

The more time I spend in East Africa, the more I appreciate the complexity of these uncharted ecosystems, the intricacies of how the local communities depend on these waters, and how these relationships have been shaped through eras of history, trade, politics and war. Despite significant hardships and challenges, the people of the region are remarkably resilient, with a deep-rooted positivity and strong connection with the natural world. We hope that our work will help to bolster this resilience and effectively conserve these awe-inspiring ecosystems that have captured my imagination all my life, and on which so many lives depend. The urgency has never been greater. Oceans truly have no borders. They are fundamentally connected by the currents and tides that wrap around our blue planet each day. They are the ultimate commons. The responsibility for their care lies with every one of us. If we are to secure a sustainable future for our oceans, ourselves, and future generations, it is essential that we work together. Like oceans, we need to transcend political, social, cultural, and economic boundaries, forging meaningful collaborations and powerful alliances to catalyse positive change. Our very survival depends on it.


Unplug. Reconnect. 


Photographs by Dr Mark Ziembicki