Understandably, there was a fair amount of envy by my work-mates in 1973 when I was sent to Porto Amelia, to undertake an oil-seed potential soil survey, due to its proximity to coral reefs. With haste, three of them organised a few days to join me in an expedition to Ibo Island. Bruce Barichievy, Spine B.J. van Niekerk and Phil Thomas.
It had once been the Portuguese capital of northern Mozambique in the slave-trading days. The three forts there to command the sea approaches were still in quite a good state of repair, complete with their muzzle-loading cannons.We were flown in by Cessna onto the little grass landing strip with our flippers, snorkels and spear-guns. With absolutely no accommodation on the island, we got permission to sleep in the small fish-gutting factory, on hessian sacks in the loft! I won’t try to describe the indescribable beauty of the underwater world there – movies do it better. We hired a boat from the Fish Factory manager and the local driver took us to a world of wonder. This made our long ago trip to Ponto d’Oro seem like a yawn. In my sheer joy, I tried to sing If I were a Rich Man, from Fiddler on the Roof, but, hardly knowing any words, it became Yabba dabba dab dab, which came back to haunt me when I returned to Ibo the next year, as I promised myself I would.
While there, we heard of another foreign visitor on the island doing research on parrot fish. It was Margaret Smith, wife of the late, legendary Prof. James L.B. Smith, who first identified the coelacanth. She was a renowned ichthyologist in her own right, and illustrator of her husband’s iconic book, Sea Fishes of Southern Africa. It was an honour to meet her, and not easy to tear ourselves away from her fascinating company.
There was a small yacht anchored off the island. One of the crew, a Frenchman whose name I forget, asked to join us diving. He embarrassed us with his casual expertise. Even Phil Thomas, a frequent diver off the coast of his native Natal, was put to shame. Bruce said privately that we would show him a thing or two, but he soon shut him up!
I saw the Frenchman spear something in a crevice, then I had to go topside for air. When I returned to the depths, he was still easing his prey out of the coral, and I had to surface for a second time before he unhurriedly came up to put his kingfish into the boat!We sold our catch to the Fish Factory, and got back more than it cost to hire their boat.