2/2013
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“The ocean is my office”

Sonja Karjalainen's main task is to teach scuba diving but during the whale shark season she also leads whale shark tours in the Bay of Tadjoura. Karjalainen writes for Horn of Africa Journal about an ordinary day of her life.

”Damn… I have missed my alarm again. I hear Safwan knocking on my door. He has already been on his early morning walk to get his tea in the close-by café. It is 05:30 – the time my Yemeni colleague enjoys Djibouti City at its most. The city is waking up and still very very quiet compared to the craziness that takes place later during the day there. He has brought me a chocolate roll, too, which I will eat in the car on the way to the port. But first I need to get myself ready for another busy day on the local dhow [a lateen-rigged coastal Arab sailing vessel with one or two masts] in the Bay of Tadjoura…

Bay of Ghobbet and Gulf of Tadjoura. Photo: Sarah Gray

The day before I talked to Nabil, the owner of the dhow and we agreed on the departure time and the number of passengers. Nabil is an Arab who got his education in France as most of the wealthy Djiboutians do. It is always a pleasure to do business with Nabil as he is very gentle with his words and accurate in what he promises – although he ends all business conversations with an “inshallah”.

A beautiful and rarely seen black lion fish. Photo: Keith Pope

We should leave our office by 06:30. Omar, our Somalian guard, who made us all laugh on Christmas Eve by showing up in a Santa Claus outfit, helps us load the car. He is one of the thinnest men I have ever seen, but he carries the heavy equipment without any complaints. I am not much of a driver so he has to navigate me out from the narrow gate and pretty much stop the traffic on the busy Boulevard de la République so I can reverse the car on it and head to the port.

A spade fish making friends with us. Photo: Sarah Gray

Mohammed, the Ethiopian head of the crew, is the first one to greet us on the dhow. He is also the only one who smiles but then again Mohammed always smiles. He has the nicest smile ever and I am so sorry that I don’t have a common language with this warm-hearted man. We have always found our way to communicate though. It is a weird mixture of languages that neither of us really master – a bit of Arabic, French and Afar. Thanks to my occupation I am also really good in hand signals which often ease the communication.

The crew helps us to load the gear and get organized. They are effective and fast and strong. It takes some muscles and a lot of pure sweat to load 70 tanks. They are singing a rhythmical song while lifting the tanks. Although I don’t understand its lyrics the rhythm makes the task go smoother and the tanks feel lighter.

Gathering of angel fish above a table coral. Photo: Keith Pope

The customers, mainly soldiers from the US military base, have already arrived and boarded but Captain Hamashi hasn’t shown up yet. I am handing the passenger-list to the Coast Guards when he arrives with his bag of khat. He is a true seaman, somehow resembling a bear, who knows the Bay of Tadjoura better than his own pockets. I have never been afraid with him although the sea has been quite rough at times.

A nudibranch aka sea slug. Photo: Sarah Gray

Today, on a very hot (the temperature will be closer to 40 degrees) day in June, nothing indicates that the sea will be rough, though. On the way to Sables Blancs the French Mirages show off by doing their Top Gun style loops just above the dhow and a large school of dolphins tags alongside the boat for a while, too. We arrive couple of hours later at Sable Blancs and the view is stunningly beautiful with the mountains protecting the white beach and the sun reflecting from the crystal clear water.

A bluespotted ray hiding. Photo: Keith Pope

Safwan and I have made a plan for the day the night before but he still wants to make some last minute changes. I have gotten used to his need to change our plans. As if he doesn’t feel he has given his maximum when there isn’t a little bit of hassle involved. I guess he has got used to me getting upset every time he changes our original plan. This is where the Arabic way of doing things meets the Nordic way. Things get done every single time, though.

Finding Nemo. Photo: Keith Pope

We dive in the warm water (today my computer shows 33 degrees). The underwater world is such a contrast to the dry Djiboutian landscape. It is full of life and colors. We see a turtle, lion fish, a big fat eel, tini-tiny sea slugs, banner fish, blue spotted ray, sea cucumber, table corals and so much more. By lunchtime we get everybody out of the water and the crew serves us an amazingly tasty barbeque lunch which is a state of the art achievement prepared in the non-existing kitchen. I can see that the customers, who are used to the not so interesting food at the galley on the base, are blissfully happy.

The whaleshark came to say Hello! Photo: Keith Pope

They are to get even happier as we see a whale shark, the biggest fish in the ocean, when we dive in again after lunch. Although Djibouti is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be seen in such huge aggregations during a time frame from November to February, we rarely see them outside the season and especially in the Northern part of the bay. Everybody is screaming through their snorkels out of excitement when swimming next to this truly beautiful fish that can reach up to 20 meters. Luckily they eat only plankton as otherwise the experience would be slightly scary.

Sonja Karjalainen and the crew. Photo: Safhan Taher.

On the way back Hamashi is chewing through the content of his bag and looking as calm as only a captain can. The dhow arrives back to the port on time and it is time to say goodbye to the customers and thank the crew for a great job. Another day in the office has come to its end.”

Sonja Karjalainen

The author is a scuba diving instructor working in Djibouti since October 2012.

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The main photo by Patrick Los