From Vamizi, one of the islands in the Quirimbas Archipelago, comes the story of a marine biologist who’s found her piece of heaven.
When she first moved to Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado Province in the north of Mozambique, Isabel used to have to climb a palm tree to be able to text her family. Eight years on, and now settled in Vamizi – one of the 27 islands in the Quirimbas Archipelago –, the marine biologist can give interviews via Skype. Even though we don’t have visual contact so as not to mess up the connection (which is still a bit precarious), I can tell by Isabel’s voice that she’s content with life: a life devoted to the sea, which first took her to two of Europe’s biggest aquariums and which she now spends, better than ever before, in the rich, crystal-clear waters of Vamizi – an underwater sanctuary and a nirvana for tropical destination lovers.
First there was the sea
The history of this curious character – and curiosity is an attribute – began 42 years ago in a maternity ward in Oporto. Her formative years were spent in Leça da Palmeira, where the sea, the main feature on the landscape, stole her heart. It was also in Greater Oporto, in Matosinhos, that Isabel made her first dive. It was 1992 and “even though I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, I was overwhelmed”. It was obvious that the sea was an important part of her life and the experience encouraged her to take a degree in Marine Science.
After graduating from the Instituto Abel Salazar, she got her first opportunity to broaden her horizons. An internship that ended in a full-time job at the Genoa Aquarium in Italy set her up for another project that brought her back to Portugal. “I got to the Lisbon Oceanarium in 1997, a year before its inauguration as the focal point of EXPO’98 [the world exhibition that took place in Lisbon in 1998 with the theme of the Oceans]. I was the Oceanarium’s third biologist and in the eight years I spent there I did a bit of everything: among so many other functions, I was responsible for the well-being of Eusébio and Amália – the Oceanarium’s otter mascots – and also for the central tank, where the sharks and manta rays live alongside the enormous moonfish. I spent over two thousand hours diving in the central tank alone. It was just short of a decade that served as a great lesson for life and as an incentive to get even more involved in underwater habitats. If it was a lesson for me, then just imagine what it was for the Portuguese: the Oceanarium [www.oceanario.pt] was a great gift for the country, a technologically and educationally advanced space that brought with it a whole new perception of the oceans”.
In 2005 Isabel packed her bags once again. “The idea was to go to the Dubai Mall Aquarium, but the construction work got delayed and since I was dying to devote my time to real habitats, especially coral reefs, I glimpsed a window of opportunity to fly to Mozambique and get to know the impressive world of the Quirimbas [one of the favourite places of the legendary oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau]”.
When the biologist reached Mozambique, she realised that Dubai would have a long wait. First, she passed through Pemba and then settled in Vamizi which, among other attributes, has the richest biodiversity in the entire Indian Ocean. But not everything was a bed of roses and a lot of hard work was needed to protect the place. Isabel gave a hand in helping to make the Vamizi Community Sanctuary a success. The project – carried out by the Vamizi Island Resort in partnership with the local community and with the support of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) – established a three-kilometre radius of sea protected from the abusive fishing that had been endangering the area’s flora and fauna for years. Four years later, not only had the fish increased in number, but they’d also grown in size and the local fishermen, who were initially reticent about the change, are now “the first to participate actively in preserving the Vamizi Community Sanctuary”. And it’s this project that’s at the basis of the PhD that Isabel is doing for the University of Aveiro, on the impact of community management sanctuaries in alleviating poverty.
One of her greatest challenges when she exchanged Europe for Africa was doing without some of the technology she was used to, and being deprived of products that are commonplace here, but a rarity there. “After a year in Mozambique I went back to Portugal and I almost had a fit when I saw row upon row of milk to choose from in the supermarket. In Mozambique finding even a litre of milk was hard work”, comments the biologist.
Now with the Skype connection threatening to a break up, I ask one more question. “And what about the future, Isabel?” “First I want to finish my thesis! Then, I hope to keep working with these amazing people, passing on knowledge to them and learning from them, helping this place to develop – which often involves the sea”. And who knows, maybe learn a bit of Swahili, a language the biologist can already get by in. “A while back I told some friends that my dream was to live on a tropical beach with white sand and the bluest of seas. And here I am living my dream, as happy as can be”.
by Maria Ana Ventura
… how much of your salt is the tears of Portugal”, said the poet Fernando Pessoa. And it’s precisely the smell of the salty sea of Portugal that Isabel misses the most. “That and the waves like the ones in Leça da Palmeira”. In Vamizi the sea’s like a huge pond, so Isabel has to go to the south of Mozambique to see waves. “In Ponta de Ouro or in Zavora I can see the waves I miss so much. The smell of the sea isn’t the same, though, but it’s enough to ward off the nostalgia”.
“The best advice I can give anyone who comes to Vamizi, or any other island in the Quirimbas Archipelago, is to put your head in the water. Go snorkelling, go diving, throw yourself into the sea and get to know this wonderful marine world. Even in Pemba, which is a fair-sized city, you’ll be blown away by the underwater life. Another thing you’ve got to try is the traditional dish of Mozambique: matapa. It’s a mixture of cassava leaves with coconut milk, peanut and crab”.
The waters of Vamizi boast 183 species of coral, 400 fish species, green turtles and hawksbill sea turtles, which are on the verge of extinction but are managing to hang on there. Humpback whales, dolphins and sperm whales also swim through the emerald waters of this sea. Alongside all this marine frenzy is the Vamizi Island Resort, which is not only partly responsible for maintaining this natural heritage that would make paradise itself blush with envy, but is also an incomparably luxurious and comfortable resort. If you have any doubts, why not go to their site and feast your eyes?
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