The Quirimbas Archipelago has become known as the 'African Caribbean' because of its breathtaking diving, snorkelling, fishing and surroundings. The natural beauty of the area includes mangroves, coral reefs, tall coconut palms and endless white beaches; every island has a story to tell – a story of slavery, pirates and ivory! The Quirimbas islands lie in the Indian Ocean, off the north-east coast of Mozambique and stretch for 100km along the coast. Getting to the islands is not as difficult as one would imagine – there are direct flights from OR Tambo International Airport
These tropical islands contain some of the richest coral reefs in the world and provide a habitat for an abundant array of marine life. The Quirimbas Archipelago consists of over 30 captivating tropical islands stretching from the quaint city of Pemba and the capital of Cabo Delgado Province to the Rovuma River, which forms the natural frontier between Tanzania and Mozambique. The area is undeveloped and remains a largely unexplored tourist paradise. The southernmost 11 of the islands and a vast portion of mainland forest are included in the Quirimbas National Park, which was established in 2002 as a conservation effort to preserve and protect the area. Spectacular coral formations and plentiful marine life including dolphins, turtles (hatching happens in February), dugongs and seasonally migrating whales with their calves (July to December) make diving and snorkelling in this National Park simply unforgettable.
Quirimbas has enormous cultural and historical value, with a combination of Arabian, Portuguese and African influences. The magnificent old fortresses on Ibo Island boasts intriguing historical and fascinating sites – its history can be read in Fortaleza São Sebastião, where you can also visit the silversmiths who are hard at work skilfully designing and making intricate jewellery from melted down coins. The mangroves, white beaches and palms create the perfect setting for the real-life tales of pirates, slaves and the ivory trade.
The impressive 1 500km² marine area of Quirimbas National Park includes 11 coral islands that feature phenomenal vertical drop-offs, some up to 400m. These walls are abundant with coral covered caves and tropical fish ranging from goldies to enormous Napoleon wrasse and game fish including kingfish, barracuda and Spanish mackerel. The temperatures vary from 23 to 31°C in the summer months, and 18 to 27°C during winter, which makes this area a lovely place to escape to during South Africa's winter months. Describing the beauty and awe of this part of Africa wouldn't really do it justice – it's something you simply have to see for yourself.
We had the fortunate experience of visiting Pemba Mozambique and the Quirimbas Archipelago during the second week of August and spent 5 unbelievably spectacular days diving on un-dived, pristine, tropical reefs that surround 37 deserted Islands.
Flying to Pemba is an experience, the coastline of Mozambique is absolutely stunning, as we all know, but from the air, especially as you pass over the Bazaruto Archipelago, the "shades of blue" viewed from above provide a new understanding of this phrase. From here the flight path takes you across the indigo blue Indian Ocean to Quilemane where again shades of blue and pure white beaches filled our small oval view. Peering out of the window, with our noses up against the glass like school kids on a bus, we knew we were in for an experience of a lifetime.
The final leg of the 3hr 30minute flight from Maputo took us across a fascinating landscape of mountains dotted with hundreds of Baobab trees. The most amazing thing was these Baobabs continued right to the point where we started descending to pass over the gigantic Pemba Bay before landing in Pemba. These ancient bizarre looking trees almost dominated the area right up to the shoreline, which gave us the feeling of being inland and not on the coast.
PembaTownis not much more than local houses build of stone and coral covered with clay, a small town centre with typical Portuguese buildings providing the entire necessary infrastructure and a bay with numerous small shops, restaurants a dive shop or two and several pubs. Coconut palms, enormous mango trees, cashew nut trees and hundreds of Baobabs provide shade to the houses, shops and buildings. A good tar road took us directly to the Pemba Beach Hotel where we based ourselves. Wow...what a Hotel, the setting, architecture and views are breathtaking. Think of a Sultan's Palace and you start to get the picture. We walked around in awe as we passed through huge Arabian style arches, Zanzibar style doors and along wide intricately paved marble passageways.
Perfectly manicured rolling green lawns punctuated by coconut palms separate the Hotel from the beach and the warm, flat, clear Indian Ocean.
The Quirimbas Archipelago consists of 37 coral Islands of which only a handful is permanently inhabited. A lack of water is the main reason that prevents local Mozambican from living on these perfectly situated Islands. The term Coral Island is given to these Islands because of what they are made of; ancient prehistoric coral reefs that millions of years ago were alive and under water. The shear number and proximity to one another are a clear indication that they once formed a barrier reef of several hundred kilometres. The Islands were formed over a period of millions of years due to continental upliftment, receding ocean levels and erosion by relentless wave action. Today, as individual Islands of varying size and shape, they protrude approximately 2 to 4 meters above the high-water mark. Passing currents have deposited Casuarinas seeds, Coconuts and Mangrove seeds that have germinated and thrive in varying combinations and concentrations, providing a unique Island vegetation.
Passing sailors over hundreds of years and a wide range of migratory birds have further contributed to the plant species diversity.
The drop-offs in front of these Islands drop vertically to 200, 300 and even 400 meters in some cases. If you can imagine that during previous Ice Ages sea levels were 30 to 50 meters lower than they are now and what effect this had on the vertical walls you can picture the caves, caverns and overhangs. We swam along several walls that were riddled with deep caves that in some cases must have been blowholes. We were able to swim into them at 24 meters, ascend vertically to pop out on a plateau at 12 meters that was covered in amazing varieties of hard and soft coral. The walls, besides being punctuated by these caves, had gorgonia of gigantic proportion, measuring some 4 meters across and protruding out from the wall by about 2 meters. The Sea Wips or Wire Coral of about 3 to 4 meters meandered out into the gentle current that carried us parallel to these magnificent walls.
The variety of tropical fish ranged in size from the tiniest gobies, peeping out of holes in the vertical wall, to mammoth Napoleon Wrasse and Potato Bass that patrolled the drop-offs in search of a meal. Game fish ranging from schooling Queen and Kingfish of numerous varieties to giant Ignobalus King Fish, Barracuda and Spanish Mackerel either swam past in the deep indigo blue abyss or circled us on our ascents. On other dives we swam over endless natural arrangements of unimaginable varieties of hard and soft corals. We saw varieties, formations of coral so spectacular that we initially kept pointing them out to one another until eventually we swam along having to concentrate on keeping our mouths closed for fear of loosing our regulators.
We saw fish that we were not able to identify in our Collins Pocket Guide - Coral Reef Fishes of the Indo Pacific & Caribbean and are sure that this area is going to reveal quite a few new species.
To compare this destination with any of those we have previously dived would be impossible to do with just 5 days of diving but what we saw places this destination in a unique category. The fact that this area is so vast and has 37 diveable Islands that are almost totally unexplored is inconceivable. The potential of what will be discovered from the point of new specie to the possibility of discovering lost unknown wrecks, to knowing you are one of the first divers to dive these reefs and walls, to being involved in naming them makes this a destination we strongly recommend you put at the top of your list.
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