Madagascar

A Madagascan Adventure: Part 2

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.

Beach Huts

Home in Andava

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!

Zebu

The mighty zebu

mackerel

Freshly caught lunch

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!

making samosas

Making Samosas. Photo by JD Toppin

(for more adventures, check out JD’s travel blog here)

camping

Camping at Nosy Ve

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.

Goniopora

My fav coral species, Goniopora; despite it’s appearance, this is a hard coral! Image from Wikimedia Commons

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.

seacucumbers

Zanga! (Seacucumbers)

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!

snapper

School of snapper. Photo by Niki Boyer

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!!

nudibranch

Some kind of Halgerda Nudibranch. Photo by Niki Boyer

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

My hammock

Kids yelling ‘Salama’ everywhere you go

The dancing!

 

THINGS I DON’T MISS…

Sand in my bed

 

hammock day

View from my hammock

hammock sunset

Sunset from my hammock

stars

Stars! Photo by Ben Large

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A MADAGASCAN ADVENTURE: Part 1

Part 1: Discovering Madagascar

When my older brother, asked me to write a guest blog I was at first excited and then terribly daunted. I should preface this post with the fact that I am not a scientist, so the following is purely based on the observations of an amateur!

I have been diving since 2005 and have a passion for all things ocean. I also love to travel. After spending the past 6 years behind a desk, I decided to temporarily abandon my Sydney life to spend some time indulging in some underwater delights and a slower pace of life.

So, I’ve recently returned to Australia after months of diving and travelling, including three months living in a remote fishing village, Andavadoake, on the south west coast of Madagascar. I was volunteering with a UK based marine conservation organization, Blue Ventures, who have been working in the area for over 10 years.

01 Madagascar-map-02

I have wanted to visit Madagascar for many years after seeing an image of the Allée des Baobab in a travel magazine as a teenager. And who doesn’t want to see lemurs in the wild?! However, it was with naivety that I embarked upon this adventure knowing very little about the country and its people, not to mention the extensive reef system – one of the largest in the world! All I knew was that I would be diving everyday (win), and would learn some science to help monitor the local reefs (win)… AND I would be there during whale season (WIN).

Humpbacks passing by. Photo by Sam Blyth

Humpbacks passing by. Photo by Sam Blyth

What I quickly learned was that Madagascar is not a country filled with primordial rainforest and troops of lemur bouncing around, but a country of varying climate and terrains. I drove through endless rice paddies and farmland reminiscent of my travels in South East Asia; vast rocky scapes that hold minerals and precious gems; the desert spiny forests full of the famous octopus tree; and finally, the turquoise, sparkling ocean. It was surprising and sad at times, knowing that much of this land, in fact, used to be primordial rainforest, but that’s perhaps, a discussion for another time.

Farmland in central Madagascar

Farmland in central Madagascar

Rocky scapes

Rocky scapes

Turquoise waters of Salary

Turquoise waters of Salary

I arrived in Andava with my fellow volunteers right on sunset, having travelled four days overland. We were a little disheveled yet full of excitement from our first experiences in Madagascar, which involved descending from the central plateau by hazard lights as our headlights didn’t work; a crazy Chinese hotel where we struggled to find our rooms in the labyrinth of corridors; lemur, chameleon and scorpion sightings; a flat tyre; hiking desert canyons; swimming in freezing pools in small oasis’; our first taste of Malagasy rum and dancing; incredibly rough ‘paved’ and unpaved roads; and more lemurs!

Hiking the canyons of Isalo

Hiking the desert canyons of Isalo

But finally, we were standing on the beach and gazing at the sun as it dipped into the ocean for our first (of many) Andava sunset. I rarely missed a sunset after that, as my thousands of photos suggest. This would become one of my favourite parts of the day.

First sunset in Andavadoake

First sunset in Andavadoake

In my next post, I will delve into my time as a volunteer diver in the village of Andavadoake…