A few years ago, I saw a BBC documentary that prompted me to reinvent my life. The documentary was about two marine biologists living in Tofo, Mozambique, studying Manta Rays and Whale Sharks. I was captivated by the Mantas ... I had never seen one while diving or snorkeling, but only on the surface of the water. The scientists, Dr. Andrea Marshall (aka queen of mantas) and Dr. Simon Pierce, were studying these species which at that time were so abundant in Mozambique waters. (Sadly, the populations are now significantly lower due to unsustainable fishing practices). The organization is Marine Megafauna Foundation.
Tofo Beach at Casa Barry Lodge.
I was inspired to search for dive trips where I could do some volunteer work. All Out Africa had a program working with Whale Shark Identifications and fish population counting in Tofo, Mozambique ... helping with the whale shark program I had seen in the documentary! I thought, why can't I do that? It was for adults, not a high school or college program or a gap year, but for adults. Yes, I was 50-years-old, but I wanted to do it. My family had a few reasons they did not want me traipsing off to Africa by myself, and I suppose there were some good reasons among them, but I made the decision to go. I booked my trip.
Did it sound crazy, absolutely nuts, to pick up and head off to Africa for six weeks alone, to live in an unpopulated area where there were no doctors, and the closest thing to a town, Inhambane, was at least an hour away? Probably. Was there a decompression chamber in case of getting "the bends", or decompression sickness from diving? No. The closest chamber was in Johannesburg, South Africa, about 12 hours away by car. (Mozambique is still landmined from the civil war in the 1990s, you really do not want to drive inland.) So ... do not get sick.
So off I went, a midlife woman with a passion for diving and animals, off on my very own adventure! It was the best gift I ever gave myself. I was tested physically (I've had two back surgeries) and I was tested mentally but the experience empowered me and helped me understand my abilities in an entirely different light. The trip was challenging, the environment both exhilarating and disturbing, and certainly the living standard was not what I was used to.
Diving in rough water was a new challenge because the currents and surges off of Mozambique are strong. The water is cold. It took me a few dives to get comfortable, and my first two dives were pretty awful. But I adapted. I learned. I stayed in a volunteer house, sharing a bathroom with eight or more people. Close friendships were formed even though I was the oldest one, most of the volunteers being Europeans in their 20s. Since this trip in 2012, many of us have kept in touch, and we have enjoyed diving together in other locales. I also went on a Citizen Science trip to Ecuador in 2014, and the Yucatan in 2015. The people I meet are passionate about the marine environment, as I am, and it is exhilarating to make international friendships. It is true when I say I have friends all over the world. I can't wait for the next trip ... Komodo, Indonesia in 2016!
Have you ever wanted to do something you thought was "out there"? Do you have a desire to get out into the world and make a difference? There are volunteer programs all over the world for adults. Most of them have nothing to do with scuba, and there are plenty of them on all continents. Here is my advice: be bold. Why not look into it? Eco-tourism, volunteer tourism, will take you to places you've only dreamed of.
Let's face it: if you want to do something, you'd better do it now. Tomorrow is promised to no one, and in midlife who knows what is coming next? You can do something extraordinary, and you won't believe how empowered it will make you feel!