Part 2: Life as a volunteer
Picking up from where I left off in the last post, after our sojourn through the Madagascan countryside, our initial culture shock somewhat subsided; my fellow volunteers and I were finally in Andavadoake – our home for the next 6 weeks (for some of us, the next 12 weeks). Following that first hypnotic sunset, it was time to get stuck into life on site. Our living conditions were basic but comfortable, with huts situated right above a small cove called half moon beach. We’d wake to the sound of the waves and passing pirogues (wooden sail boats) heading out for the day’s fishing.
Our diet consisted of mainly fish, beans and rice, with a few variations on the theme from time to time, including the delicious Malagasy beef equivalent – zebu; The mighty zebu is also used to draw carts, plough fields and buy wives and is a precious commodity for many tribes in Madagascar. I couldn’t get enough of the fresh seafood, though we did miss the abundance of fresh fruit and veg we’re used to back home.
But basically, we were living in paradise!
A typical day consisted of 2 dives in the morning, many with whale sightings on our ride out to site, a stroll to the village for a cup (or five!) of peanuts, study/hammock time followed by duties, lectures, presentations or language lessons then dinner and ‘tantara’. Tantara roughly translates to ‘story’ in English, and we all took turns to tell a story, run an activity or game, show some pictures etc. for our evening entertainments
A typical week was diving Monday-Friday, Saturday land based activities like visiting mangroves or learning to cook samosas and boko boko (deepfried dough filled with chocolate – yum!), followed by a night of shaking our butts Vezo style in the local bar, Dada’s… the Malagasy’s put us Westerners to shame! Those guys can seriously move. Sunday was our day off where we got to go exploring! We embarked on baobab walks, whale watching, spear and lobster fishing, island picnics, snorkeling trips and even an overnight camping trip on a nearby island. One of the highlights of the trip!
(for more adventures, check out JD’s travel blog here)
We were assigned English partners and spent three sessions a week imparting our knowledge of the English language onto them with varying degrees of success. During the expedition my English lessons consisted of the pleasure and delight of trying to decipher then reinterpret the PADI divemaster manual for one of our boat drivers and dive master in training, Patty. Challenging? Yes. Poor Patty. I think I successfully confused him rather than enlightening him! If you’ve ever read a PADI manual, you may understand my struggle.
But back to my reason for travelling to Madagascar – the marine environment. I was here to count fish! As a volunteer, I had to learn 150 fish species along with 36 benthic and invertebrate species. Thank goodness our coral ID was limited to 11 hard coral formations and simply, soft coral. We didn’t have to be species specific. Those scientific names may have killed me! As it was, when I closed my eyes at night, I would see fish and corals flying at me and I’d be chanting names over and over in my head!
Luckily for me, I’ve been plaguing my brother with fish questions over the years of diving together, so I had a basic knowledge of some fish families before we even started, which was an advantage. But when it came down to species level, I still needed work, especially as not all the names were the same – moon wrasse became crescent wrasse, leather jackets became filefish, bullseyes – sweepers, flutemouth – trumpetfish…
Benthic on the other hand, was a bit of a struggle. I’ve never been overly enamored with benthic life, accepting kelp and sea grass, sponges, and corals as an important part of the ecosystem, but indifferent to their actual role and avoiding invertebrates such as sea cucumbers like the plague (ick!). However, our passionate field scientists were somehow able to convince me that benthic was cool and I subsequently looked forward to a bit of benthic surveying.
I even overcame my fear of sea cucumbers one spring tide, when we helped the aquaculture farmers with their data collection. I opted to be the weigh-er, thinking it would be the best job to avoid handling any squishy, slimy, boneless creatures. Turned out, I had to pick up every. Single. One. Not once, but twice! After a few girly squeals, I managed to get into the swing of things. I can’t say I love them as a result, but I don’t have that fleeting moment of panic when I see them now.
The sites we dived ranged from healthy to pretty destroyed. The ones that didn’t look so great were affected by a combination of cyclone and storm damage plus destructive fishing practices and overfishing. Education and subsequent dinas (local laws) are in place, to outlaw destructive fishing methods such as poison fishing and beach seining. This has improved the health of the reefs in many areas, which is encouraging to see. Most sites were populated with small to medium reef fishes such as schools of snapper, fusilier, parrotfish and many species of wrasse. But the best part was diving in the protected areas and seeing HUGE fish, such as blue spined unicorns, often in schools, which seemed to be a sign that the protection zones were working! Win!
Diving with species knowledge really made it such a rewarding experience. It was always exciting identifying something you hadn’t seen in the water before, or something you struggled with! And I had some really special encounters including seeing a turtle – turtles are rare as they’re hunted as a coming of age ritual – hearing humpback whales sing quite regularly, a myriad of new nudis (colourful seaslugs), schooling, yes schooling Moorish idols, and even a sailfish!!
Expedition life was an incredible existence for me. So far removed from my everyday reality in Australia. It was refreshing to be learning again and to be immersed in a culture and way of life I never knew existed. I will talk more about the people of Andava in my next post…
THINGS I MISS…
Being in or on the water every single day!
The infinite stars at night
Watching pirogues sail by
Constant sound of the ocean
The pace of life
The vazah and vezo friends I made
Kids yelling ‘Salama’ everywhere you go
THINGS I DON’T MISS…
Sand in my bed