x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Pemba: When the fish know best

Feature Tim Ecott, the author of Neutral Bouyancy, follows the shoals to Pemba island's Fundu Lagoon, one of the best resorts for diving in East Africa.

At Mkoani port, towards the southern end of Pemba island, there are wooden dhows tied up at the jetty. They are crammed with household furniture, lengths of rope and brown boxes of trade goods carried along the east coast between the ports of Kenya and Tanzania. Bare-chested sailors clamber along the sides of the vessels making fast the cargo with lengths of sun-bleached rope. In among the sturdy dhows is the little red speedboat that takes me and other visitors across the lagoon here on the western edge of Pemba to the resort at Fundu. We sit on towels to protect ourselves from the spray and the crew hands out bottles of chilled water for us to refresh ourselves on the 20-minute ride across the bay.

Fundu Lagoon Resort is almost invisible from the sea, just 18 wooden chalets tucked into the trees, either on the beach itself or on the hillside above it. The rooms are modelled after safari tents, but this is nothing like camping: they have wooden floors, proper bathrooms, a veranda equipped with sunloungers and comfortable wicker patio furniture. Enormous double beds look straight out on to a horizon filled with an endless vista of blue ocean interrupted only by the white sails of a few fishing boats. Created by Ellis Flyte, a designer based in London, Fundu has been a well-kept secret known to a select band of regular visitors from Europe over the past 10 years. Now refurbished, and equipped with a stunning infinity pool high on the hill above the lodge, the resort is surely one of the best in Africa. There is also a separate yoga platform tucked among the trees and orientated precisely so that it catches the best views of the sunset.

I have come here for the scuba diving, and my underwater guide is Filbert Ngelenge who has worked at Fundu since it opened. "My office is underwater," he tells me with a broad grin. Originally from a small village on the mainland he is the only one of his family who can swim, let alone dive. "When I go home on leave I try to tell my family about what I do but I'm not sure they can really understand it. They know the African bush, but not fish, or sharks or turtles."

Filbert certainly knows his fish. After breakfast on my first morning he meets me at the diving centre on the jetty. Our first dive requires a 20-minute speedboat ride from the resort, and we jump into the water close to the tiny island of Misali. Slowly, Filbert and I descend into a cool blue world above a reef covered by a field of cabbage coral. It stretches as far as the eye can see, and almost immediately I spot a green turtle having its own late breakfast. Filbert and I swim closer and closer until we are just about a metre from the feeding reptile. She ignores us, nosing among the coral for a tidbit and we leave her in peace to follow the contours of the reef.

Having dived all over the Indian Ocean, it is clear to me that this is a special place. There are pale purple anemone sacs where clown fish hide among the stinging tentacles, dark green sea snails called nudibranchs and pale blue puffer fish nestling under ledges in the coral. And the coral is healthy, with no obvious signs of bleaching or other disease. Filbert leads me to the edge of a coral ridge where we look out into the deeper water. There are fast moving silver shapes here, jacks and snapper that have gathered to feed where the current is strongest.

After the dive we land on Misali itself, a gently sloping stretch of pure white sand fringed with feathery casuarina pines where a thatched shelter sits beneath a lone baobab tree. This is where the island warden keeps watch to make sure that local fishermen respect the rules of the protected marine that was designated by the government in 1996. Fishing is restricted on much of the western edge of Misali, allowing fish stocks to replenish for local communities who fish the eastern and northern edges of the island. And the beach is the perfect place to relax between dives. Fundu provides divers with a picnic lunch to eat on the island, with fresh couscous salad, tuna steak, watermelon and even a slice of chocolate cake for dessert. And as Filbert tells me while we eat, "There is time, too, for a short nap after lunch before we dive, if you would like one."

I forego the napping option, and choose instead to walk along the sand, looking at the unusual limestone rocks at one end of the beach and paddling in the clear warm water until it is time for the dive. This time we are heading towards Uvinje, a headland north of Misali. The drop-off was deeper here, but the reef top was a maze of coral heads that shone brightly in the afternoon sun. Clouds of gold and purple antheas buzzed around the coral, and giant starfish covered with scarlet pimples were scattered across the sand. On the reef wall there were moray eels, and hovering lionfish with their long quills, elegant but venomous. And on the boat ride back to Fundu we were followed by a family of dolphins, sleek backs arching from the still water for just a second as they easily outstripped our pace.

For me, it was the diving that drew me to Fundu, but many of the other guests are content to simply enjoy the setting. A small spa offers Thai massage and aromatherapy, and there are windsurfers and kayaks available free of charge for those who want a little more exercise. One day, I am taken to a nearby village by Uzzi who works at the resort but lives locally. We walk along the shoreline fringed with hibiscus and through small plantations of cassava and bananas and up a dirt track to the village. Small children run after us from the alleyways between the simple houses shouting "Mzungu! Mzungu!" or "White man! White man!". They cluster happily around me to see photographs of themselves taken on my digital camera.

There are three villages close to Fundu and over the years the owners have put funds towards important projects to help the villagers. They have provided wells for clean drinking water, public latrines and even built a school which is run by the Zanzibari government. Staying at Fundu is a happy experience: the staff and the guests are mutually respectful. Even the dive boat has a role to play in community relations, during my stay it is used to ferry a local woman to Mkoani for a medical emergency after she gives birth to her baby on the beach.

Divers tend to go to bed quite early, and get up quite early so as to make the most of their time underwater. Every evening most guests gather at the bar above the main restaurant, attracted by the seemingly limitless range of cocktails on offer. Afterwards, dinner is served on the open deck overlooking the sea. About twice each week there is a beach barbecue with chairs set out on the sand, Swahili dishes and the fresh catch of the day supplied by local fishermen. The delicious tuna steaks, filleted kingfish and succulent snapper accompanied by lentils, rice or even roast potatoes are impossible to resist. With the night sky above and the sound of the waves gently tickling the shores of the lagoon, it seems like the most perfect dining room on earth.

Sometimes, when the tides and the winds are kind, it is possible to make diving excursions to the very southern tip of Pemba. Here there is a special attraction - the wreck of the merchant ship Paraportiani. She struck the reef here in 1967, and her partially intact superstructure is spread out along the sand, now completely redecorated by corals and sponges. Lying in less than 20m of water the wreck is easy to explore, but prone to strong currents sweeping up from Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar archipelago about 60km south.

The Paraportiani is a great dive site. Every nook and cranny of the ship has been colonised by marine life, with scorpion fish, leopard cowries and clouds of coppery sweeper fish taking shelter in what remains of the wheelhouse. At 90m long, the ship is a wonderful artificial reef and although our dive lasted over an hour I felt that it was a site I could return to again and again. Fundu feels like its own world, an island of comfort and tranquillity within the larger island of Pemba itself. With a staff of around 130, the service is efficient and yet retains an authentically East African feel. About half of the tourists who come here are repeat visitors, drawn by the special atmosphere and the beauty of this natural lagoon. Part of that success is due to positive community relations, and the resort's owners work hard at making tourism here a partnership with the local people. Alongside the visible land-based projects such as the school and the drinking wells, they are trying to educate local fishermen about sustainable fishing practices so that this remains a special place and its spectacular reefs have a chance to survive.

Tim Ecott is the author of Stealing Water, Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World and Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance