Our last blog we’d arrived in southern Madagascar in a town called Toliara, where our Blue Ventures expedition officially kicked off! It began with an epic eight hour journey to one of the most remote locations anyones likely to visit. This part of Madagascar is so amid it’s hard to imagine anyone or anything managed to live here, but they do. In the book I’m currently reading ‘The Eight continent’ a past traveller describes it well:
“Every green plant, including the cacti such as prickly pears and Barbary figs, was withered and burnt to a sickly brown colour, the earth was baked to the hardness of asphalt, and it was almost inconceivable that a living creature could exist amid such a scene of desolation”
The journey was completely sand roads, which progressively got worst as the hours went on, and if you are susceptible to travel sickness you’re out of luck!
It was beautiful coastal route however, and as you were thrown around in the back of the truck we could see our first glimpse of the amazing baobab trees! Most of the population here live near the sea as it gives them a lifeline to a livelihood.
Life’s a beach!
We arrived to our new home – by a small fishing village called Andavadoaka, which is next to a lagoon protected from the ocean by some fringing and submerged coral reefs, which is the vital resource for the local villagers.
It was worth the effort of the long journey, with our wooden hut overlooking a white sandy beach and turquoise blue sea, and thankfully there was to be a constant breeze (well most of the time), which helped the souring temperatures which regularly would reach 35-40 degrees at this time of year!
We were to settle into village life with our weeks submerged with marine research and community conservation work. We are currently six weeks into our ten week stay here, and all of our fellow volunteers (and new found friends) have now left us, and we are waiting to meet the next batch of volunteers who we will dive and live with for the next month.
Living by the sea, we always get to see the sun setting over the water!
Settling in came with some challenges – being in such a remote and arid location resources as sparse, and our food diet consisted largely of fried fish, rice and beans. We also would get water from a well and filter it ourselves, the taste took a bit of getting used to. So with the addition of a few bacterial infections along the way we took the phrase ‘getting into shape’ to a whole new level!
Spider tortoise monitoring
Spider tortoises are listed as critically endangered and are native to the forests and sandy coastlines of Madagascar, their populations have declined by 80 percent since 1970 and populations continue to dwindle due to habitat loss and wildlife trafficking for the food and pet trade. So for one day we traveled down the coast (by way of pirogue), and helped monitor these cute little reptiles, it was extremely hot work, but pretty rewarding as we found over 50 of them in a few hours, including some snakes and two fighting chameleons!
Pirogues are what the locals use to fish, they are wooden canoes with square canvas sails called ‘pirogues’, and also serve as our means of transport when we travelled around the coast.
Community and education
We would get involved with the local community in many ways. We are all paired up with local staff from the village which we would teach english three times a week (and learn some Malagasy along the way).
We also did a couple of home stays, where we spent an evening at a local families hut and had dinner with them. This would put many people out of their comfort zone (including myself!) as the language barrier can make for some awkward silences, but armed with a few written phrases and a bottle of rum, we managed to get through it ok. Also once I started taking photographs of the children they soon got right into the spirit of things!
The following day we would spend a ‘day in the life’ with the same family, so we could get an insight into how they live. As the man, I got to go fishing which was pretty cool, but Liwia however was left to clean the dishes from the night before, and visited the well to collect water. She also helped prepare the lunch which was to be ready for when I returned from my ‘tough’ morning at sea!
One week we travelled south a small remote village called Vatoavo, where the locals only ever see white people (vazaha which we are called, meaning ‘visitor’) when Blue Venture volunteers visit, which is only a few times a year, so we caused quite a stir when we turned up. Unfortunately this area of Madagascar is so remote and hostile (and this village even more so than Andavadoaka), poverty is clear to see, and these villagers have a tough life surviving!
We spent time with the villagers, playing games, doing a treasure hunt with the kids and teaching english to the adults.
They also put on a talent show for us, which was quite an eye opener, with some local dancing which looked very much like twerking! Another highlight was one lady singing whilst playing some homemade xylophones balanced on her legs. Pretty impressive!
One of the ways Blue Ventures is supporting coastal communities is offering alternative livelihoods, for example seaweed farming and sea cucumber farming which we had a chance to get involved in. At night under the light of a full moon and head torch we waded out into the lagoon and collected and weighed 2,000 of them. At first light the next morning we helped eviscerate these sea cucumbers, which is in essence cut them open and squeeze their guts out – they are then boiled, dried out and sold to the Asian markets. They use it kind of like tofu, where it reabsorbs the moisture from a beef stew for example and is a bulking agent and alternative to meat. Yummy! It is also considered a delicacy, health food and aphrodisiac!
We also visited the areas where they farm red seaweed, which is widely used in food and cosmetics industries as a texturing agent.
Diving and science
This is a diving expedition so obviously a massive part of our time here is spent surveying one of the Indian Ocean’s most extensive coral reefs! It’s a tough job but someone had to do it!
In the first two weeks we completed an intensive science training programme run by the marine biologists, where we had to learn 150 fish species. There was a computer test where 50 random fish had to be correctly named, and then an underwater fish test, where 30 fish are pointed and need correctly identifying! The current marine biologist who has been based here since last June has never had a student pass all tests first time, that was until we turned up! So it meant we were qualified to participate in underwater surveys straight away!
There are various near and far shore dives site, and the volunteers and marine biologists are the only people who dive them! Surveying the sites comes in various forms – fish belts, benthic surveys, biomass surveys, coral bleaching monitoring to name a few.
We did lots of fish belts, this is where you measure out 20 metres of the reef with a reel, and identify all the fish species within a 5 metre squared area. It can be pretty intense writing all the species and number of individuals as you swim along, and finding your own shorthand for fish such as the Indian Ocean Bird Wrasse (IOBW), Madagascan Butterflyfish (Mad but) or Big Longnose Butterflyfish (Bignose)! Then in the afternoon all the data is inputted into the computers. This all feeds into a 10 year database collection which shows the impact sustainable fishing initiatives have on the population of the fish and the health of the reef.
Five days a week we would dive 1-2 times a day in the morning, but on a couple of days the weather was too choppy, so we headed into the village and made some boko boko, which are local doughnuts stuffed with chocolate.
This is the volunteers and staff at the end of the expedition looking natural in front of the bat cave, which is the dive hut.