The Virtues of Pemba
There are no degrees of virginity: either you are one, or youre not. So strictly speaking, Pemba, an island group off Tanzania, is not virgin diving territory. People have been there. But it can claim the virtue of relatively unspoiled waters, with abundant marine life, and the locals are friendly. Also, the varied attractions of the mainland are close by. Pete Harrison sampled dive sites on Pembas west coast (from the liveaboard boat above). Underwater pictures by Simon Pittman(Illustrations: Pete Harrison)

YOU HAVE been diving happily for years, at home and abroad. Then one day you become hitched to a non-diving partner who has no intention of learning. Worse still, you start a family. How do you still get that yearly fix of tropical diving
You could do a lot worse than try Tanzania or, more precisely, the Emerald Isles of Pemba.

Many non-divers might tolerate a weeks liveaboard when bribed with the prospect of a game-park safari on their return to shore. For the more adventurous, there are opportunities for horseback safaris through big-game country, white-water rafting, marlin-fishing (tag and release), trout fishing, and climbing on Mount Kilimanjaro. Virtually any activity can be tagged on to your dive trip.
Pemba is an island group to the north of the Zanzibar archipelago. Its mosaic of forests, swamps, mangroves and lagoons is scattered with ruined mosques and tombs. Now reclaimed by the forest, these sites date back to the Arab conquest in the 10th century. Until British intervention in the 19th century, the islands were a crucial staging post in the Arab-controlled slave trade.
It was not only Islam that ruled these shores: Pemba is the last bastion of African witchcraft. In Remote People in 1931, Evelyn Waugh described Pemba as a centre for the black arts: Novices come from as far as the Great Lakes of Central Africa to graduate there. Even from Haiti, it is said, witch doctors come to probe the deepest mysteries of voodoo. Today the cult still flourishes beneath the surface. What lies beneath the waters surface is equally bewitching. In the channels between the islands are submerged reefs, thickly encrusted with a mixture of sponges, corals and seaweed. In the water above, schools of manta rays feed on the rich supply of plankton.
Diving typically takes place in any one of the narrow channels between islands. Here currents may drift you along at anything up to six knots. Pemba is also noted for its night diving, when a motley crew of nudibranchs, pleurobranchs, squid, mantis shrimps and other strange life-forms come out of hiding.
Murphys Law would suggest that Manta Point would be the last place to go looking for its namesake, but it is in fact a fine location. I have seen as many as eight of the beasts here on a single dive. Like storm clouds, they gather above the seamount, then sweep down over the sandy valleys, their shadows passing silently across the reef.
Manta Point is essentially a chain of three seamounts, topped by gardens of purple anemones. In the sandy rubble between coral heads I have seen fat red frogfish, and a delicate blue and yellow ribbon eel withdrawing into its hole as shoals of black snapper pass overhead.
Stretching northward from Manta Point is a desert of rose coral, and among its leaves hide juvenile humphead parrotfish. It is strange to think that these tiny, orange-masked fish metamorphose into the metre-long goliaths that parade in groups along these shores.
At 40m, where the coral gives way to sand, we encountered an eagle ray. We froze and it was almost on top of
us before noticing. Startled, it turned, and with a quick somersault sprinted off into the green water.
Lying to the south is Fundu island. Beneath the forest canopy are several villages. The people are extremely friendly but be warned: last year visitors taught the kids the Macarena. They now believe this is the white mans tribal dance, so if you plan to go ashore, brush up on your dance moves first.
Several hours to the south by boat is Mesali island. It is named after the Swahili msala, meaning a prayer mat, because it points towards Mecca. It was reputedly the hideout of the 17th century pirate, Captain Kidd. The only residents today, however, are a group of biologists who are assessing its suitability as a marine reserve.
The island makes the archetypal tropical paradise with its palm trees, azure waters and white sand beaches where turtles nest. Kisiwani, the boat on which I sailed, moored up in the lee of Mesali for lunch.
What started as a light pre-dive snack evolved into a feast of calamari salad, grilled prawns and smoked sailfish. By the end I was almost too stuffed to dive and later, as I shoe-horned myself into a wetsuit, I began to have second thoughts: perhaps it would be better to sleep it off in the shade. But the fear of missing something soon had me sitting in the dinghy, and just as well...
As I flumped backwards into the water, expecting a lazy dive, I landed almost on top of two large mantas sailing out from the lagoon. Forgetting all rules of buddying, I raced out after them as they headed for open water. Flipping onto my back, I then sidled underneath the larger of the two like an oversized remora. With arms spread I was still only half the width of this giant. It responded to its tiny parasite with a barrel roll and a series of backward loops.
With its two dark eyes almost crossed, it stared intently down at me. Arms wide, I struggled to keep pace with this dance. By now the rest of the group had arrived and we hung back to watch as the two immense creatures performed loops around us.
I had heard, in the past, of leaf-fish living on this very reef, but in over 3000 dives I had not yet seen one. That is not intended as a boast of my credentials, just an indication of how I rated my chances that day - less than one in 3000.
Of course, one turned up. It was nestled at the centre of a small concave table coral, purple in colour and waving gently in the swell. Beneath the table, staring up at it, was its partner, which was yellow.
The reef had not run out of surprises yet. By the time we surfaced we had added two stonefish, a green turtle and an olive-ridley turtle to the list.
At the southernmost point of Pemba is Emerald Reef. Washed by the cold southerly currents, it has a different mix of plants and corals. Among them is the lurid green grape-weed that lends the reef its colour. A steep cleft in the reef at 45m is home to literally dozens of pig-sized groupers, including the potato cod, malahar, marbled and giant varieties. Fat and lethargic, they peer from their holes.
In the clear water above, vast schools of blackfin barracuda and horse-eye jacks like to patrol. Rainbow runners and Spanish mackerel also cruise by. On the shallow reef shelter schools of humpbacked and bluelined snappers, oriental sweetlips and yet more fat, docile groupers.

Inside the neighbouring lagoon lies the wreck of the Paraportiani, sunk in a storm in 1967. Over 100m long, she lies broken on the shallow seabed. The stern is intact, its phosphor-bronze propeller still clearly visible above the white sand. A large helm is still in place on the aft deck, giving her the appearance of a much older ship.
To say this wreck is well-colonised is an understatement. Every surface is encrusted in sponges, corals and weed. Every nook is crawling with shrimps or crabs and oozing with flatworms and nudibranchs. There are the inevitable glassfish that colonise every tropical wreck, and great herds of bumphead parrotfish grazing algae from the hull. Like any reef in Pemba, there are also large schools of moorish idols.
These are just a few of the many excellent dive sites. At Uvinge Gap and Mesali Gap can be found deep-water dropoffs, home to schools of bigeye jacks, barracuda, giant sweetlips and groupers. At Njao Gap are vast shoals of humpbacked and blacklined snapper. Off the shores of Kokota are steep blue walls.
Pembas viz ranges from the divine (60m and blue) to the diabolical (6m and green). Those who demand crystal water on every dive best stay at home, but on the positive side, it is this occasional green soup that draws in the mantas and the other vast profusion of life.
To maximise your chances of good viz, go between July and November, when cold clear water is driven up from the south by the autumn winds. This is the season that Kisiwani uses to visit Pembas east coast, where hammerheads are commonly sighted.
Liveaboard diving is undoubtedly the way to explore Pemba, as the best sites lie in the remote southern isles. Kisiwani is not elegant or luxurious by any measure. She is, however, solid, functional and extremely comfortable. The exquisite meals are served on the top deck accompanied by good South African wine and views of the surrounding forests and lagoons.
If I have any criticism at all, it is that the aft deck is a touch cramped for 10 divers. Having been built in a big shipyard, her engine room is equipped with big-ship systems, so I imagine she is largely trouble-free - an important consideration when operating so far offshore. She is also fairly seaworthy for her 20m-size and took the odd squalls in her stride.
Pemba is the rustic farm girl to the Red Seas flamboyant tart. While the latter enjoys a steady stream of clients, save for a few youthful explorations Pemba is still a virgin. She is, however, game, and depending on personal tastes every bit as sexy. The water is not always as clear as the Red Sea, nor the reefs always as colourful. This is, however, more than made up for by their condition.
In more than 200 dives there, I have never once seen a reef damaged nor, for that matter, any other divers apart from my own group. This situation is mirrored above water, with equally unspoiled island scenery. n

  • Pete Harrison sailed with Kisiwani, and prices start at£550 for flights and a six-day cruise. Kisiwani can be booked direct, tel. 01334 472504, or through Somak Holidays (0181 423 3000). Somak can also arrange any land-based activities or safaris to go with your diving package. Manta Reef Lodge charges US$170 per person per night with full board and transfers, plus $70 for three dives over two days. Book through the Lagoon Reef Hotel, Diani, Kenya, tel. 00254 127262.

  • Meeting Mr Maktao
    Mr Maktaos domain is the sea near his holiday lodge on the north-west tip of Pemba. Simon Pittman sampled its delights.
    According to our host divemaster, the friendly and knowledgeable Mr Maktao, the dramatic drop-offs and superb visibility of Pemba have often drawn divers to exceed their depth. However, it is difficult to see the need for such diving, because by far the richest life is within the first 30m.
    Mr Maktao has played a key role in discovering and even unofficially naming most of the popular dive sites around the northern end of the island.
    We had barely started to unpack our bags at the Manta Reef Lodge - 15 stilted wooden cabins on a hillside above a sandy beach, the only hotel on the island with diving facilities - when he called for us to go diving. He took us approximately 15 minutes south-west along the mangrove-lined coast and fringing reef to Mandela Wall, a site he discovered and named on the day Nelson Mandela was freed.
    This was a slow drift dive. The reef slope dropped steeply to some 30-35m, and visibility was at least 30m. A rich reef community proliferated across the reef flat and down the wall, where hard corals formed small terraces and ledges where yet more corals and sponges grew.
    The coralline ledges teemed with fish; we noted at least nine species of butterflyfish and three of angelfish within the first ten minutes.
    Our second dive took us back up towards the house reef. This is called the Natural Gardens, a gently undulating and extensive site with even better visibility and more complex reef architecture.
    Abundant tube sponges such as miniature church organs, huge acropora plate corals and mushroom-shaped, multi-tiered plate corals offered a plethora of hiding places for nocturnal feeders, large sweetlips and groupers.
    Anemones and their associated fish swayed gently, and resting black feather stars punctuated the blue-green hues of the reefscape. Taking full advantage of the glut, the flower-like polyps of xenia soft corals pulsated as they fed on the zooplankton delivered by the currents.
    That evening we strolled down the beach that stretched below our cabin. As we walked along the shoreline, ghost crabs danced among the trove of shells deposited by the ebbing tide. The beach was conspicuous, not just because of the brilliance of its coralline sand but because of the absence of the waste products of human society.
    On our second day we were fully relaxed after a comparatively luxurious night on the island - airline ear plugs work well against bush-baby chanting.
    Our first dive took us to Maktaos Kitchen, another undulating reef coming down from the fringing reef slope. Again this was a site featuring high topographic complexity with a super-abundance of anthias. As we drifted above this coral metropolis, it was hard to imagine any habitat in which competition for space could be more intense.
    This site also included a wall reported to be a favourite feeding area for manta rays, and Mr Maktao recalls having seen these animals appearing to line up along the wall to feed. Unfortunately, we saw only one manta briefly flapping at the surface some 100m from the boat.
    Our last dive was to be the most interesting and varied. This site was Shimba Hills, named after the Kenya mainlands popular safari park. It appeared to be a huge spur-and-groove formation extending out from the fringing reef, again on the north-west coast. The coralline hills were steep-sided, some 5m high with sand gullies or valleys in between, and appeared to roll on infinitely.
    Noxious flatworms and nudibranchs robed in flamboyant warning colours moved nonchalantly over the reef, feeding on the plentiful supply of sponges and tunicates. This area showed numbers of plankton-feeding fish and large areas of fire coral, reflecting the extent of prevailing currents over this reef.
    These all appeared to be pristine, healthy reefs. However, at one of the sites a buddy pair reported seeing an area of dead corals with rampaging crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) in very large numbers.
    Other areas are said to have suffered heavily due to dynamite fishing. We did not visit these, as they are reserved by Mr Maktao for the minority of badly behaved divers who have been seen treating the reef as some sort of climbing frame.
    Pemba is not a designated protected area under Tanzanian law, but marine park status is under discussion, and various organisations have recommended protection schemes. Low population and limited development will ensure the integrity of these habitats for now, but the potential for exploitation is great.
    We spent the journey back contemplating a return trip to explore the islands wildlife and culture, the mangrove forests and the more exposed eastern side.
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