I’ve been here for just shy of 3 weeks now, and what a whirlwind 3 weeks it’s been! In the first week I completed my Advanced open water training and we had benthic lectures and tests. I’ve been on 2 exploratory dives to sites which have never been dived before! Saw some Blue Spotted Rays and beautiful shoals of fusiliers which curiously surrounded us for a closer look- it was awesome.
On our last day off all the volunteers helped with some algae farming and then headed to a lovely little restaurant in another bay close by for a lunch of prawns, rice and fruit, with a beautiful walk back along the white sandy beached coast.
The weather and the sun is really starting to heat up now, so helping to record fish monitoring data the other day on the beach at Andavadoaka was scorching. But it was great to see the local women working as a team to record weights and species of fish the local fishermen had caught and I got some great photos.
Yesterday we snorkelled through the mangroves at sunset to see fish juveniles we’ve learnt about in our lectures. As the tide was going out, the current gently carried us through- although this did cause some minor volunteer pile ups at times!
This morning was an early start with breakfast at 7- but the promise of seeing whales from the Blue Ventures whale watching platform on a nearby island was enough to get me up! Three hours later with 2 tail sightings excitedly recorded, I and my fellow volunteer took a graceful midday pirogue journey back. With a malagash ‘thank you’, learnt from our malagasy lesson earlier that week, we climbed the steps in the cove where our huts are sited. Just in time for lunch, we had a chance to catch up on the mornings diving activities including some of the first benthic transects completed by volunteers.
No doubt tonight will feature the usual routine of chilling on hammocks outside our huts watching the sunset and consuming vast amounts of peanuts! Then followed by dinner, card games and a visit to one of the Epi-bars in the village along the beach.
Over the next week I hope to successfully learn my fish species, I’ve learnt a few already and recognising species underwater feels so satisfying. But along with baobab mapping and shark fishing monitoring there’s plenty of other things left to experience- can’t wait!
You’re probably aware by now that Blue Ventures Expedition 24 are into their third week at Andavadoaka. Personally, I have completely lost track of what day it is and the only reason I know that 2 and a bit weeks have passed is that we’ve had two ‘party nights’! This event signifies the end of the ‘working’ week here and provides the chance for volunteers and staff to let their hair down, knowing that they are free to relax the following day. Without going into too much detail, Expedition 24 have made the most of these evenings and have more than entertained the locals with their exotic dance moves…. Tom’s double-jointed salsa number really gets the crowd going, he definitely has a career outside Environment Impact Assessment, and Stephanie Post (or Echinostephus as she is commonly known, after that household invertebrate the burrowing Echinostrephus sea urchin) can always be guaranteed to shake her glow-sticks after a word or two of encouragement.. Personally, with my 37th birthday looming on the last day of the expedition I have to say I can’t quite keep up with all these young’uns, but I have tried my best and haven’t got too much grief for going to bed early on a few occasions!
As far as the diving and conservation is concerned, things are progressing steadily with the first scientific data coming in from ‘Benthic enabled’ volunteers (Benthic is anything growing/living on the sea floor in case no one has mentioned it). It’s a good feeling to think I have started to identify (at least at a basic level), the coral that I have just stared at in so many places around the world! The next big challenge is fish identification and following yesterday’s introductory lecture we are all reeling from the long list of species that we have to know. Spotting the differences in a book can be tricky, but underwater whilst tackling buoyancy, fast fish, currents and swell is going to be a real challenge!
In general life is good – with the only major stresses coming from those tricky decisions like how many ‘Bolo’ to eat (local chocolate bar) and whether the condensed milk supplies will last as it is vital for daily life support for most people, being ladled into tea and coffee, onto biscuits, into rice, on bread and neat for that pure sugar rush. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen anyone have it ‘on the rocks’ yet, but with 3 and a bit weeks to go, I’m sure it will happen…
That’s all for now – I’m exhausted after offering to paddle a pirogue across to Nosy Hao (about 2km). I was successfully showing that a Vazaha (European) could do a good job of it, that was until I got to our destination and collapsed on the beach in a pool of sweat and started to blackout… They all found it very amusing as you can imagine!
Since arriving in Tulear, Madagascar on July 9, 2006, I have navigated a cyclone of adventure that begins at 6:40 a.m. every morning, and does not let up until bedtime underneath a marvellous blanket of stars every evening. Abby and Jan, Blue Ventures Dive Instructors, have worked me through two levels of scuba training, and have showed me safe passage into an incredible underwater world. Both instructors have a mix of charisma, seasoned dive experience, passion for nature, and uncompromising standards for safety and dive protocol.
With almost three weeks of expedition passed, my focus is now on wrapping up my final tier of benthic survey tests, and learning a vast list of fish species and families. Blue Ventures has put a lot of time into ensuring their volunteers are capable of surveying reef fauna accurately – through lectures, computer and live diving tests, you study and practice until you pass muster, or else you cannot participate in scientific surveys – no exceptions.
Scuba and science training have made up a large part of my days thus far, but they are just a piece of a vast tapestry of experiences. Conservation work begins and ends with people, and Blue Ventures has provided a myriad of opportunities to interact with the people of Andavadoaka. Some of them work directly for Blue Ventures, and are rapidly gaining skills in science, expedition management, and English. We also interact with the locals on a daily basis, through fisheries monitoring, whale watching, exploratory hikes to neighboring villages, and adventures to the local Epi-bar for warm beer and sweltering rum. We even played a football match against a determined set of young men who would not accept anything less than victory, or a tie. Trips to town have also included teaching English, and I am eager to visit a church on Sunday to hear singing that is reputed to be angelic. These are just a few of the ways that we try to forge bonds and relationships with the local people, as their trust is a prerequisite to making any progress whatsoever towards achieving conservation goals such as modifying fishing methods and protecting reefs.
The resident scientists and expedition managers are very committed to conservation efforts. Beyond scientific research and data collection, they are working with local village administrators and presidents to establish a Marine Protected Area (MPA). While the MPA is still in its infancy, I strongly believe this is an initiative that is critical to helping the local people establish management practices that help them live off the land in a sustainable manner, and prepare for the inevitable forces of human population growth, development, and tourism. The final outcome is something that will only become clear over a large span of time, and I hope Blue Ventures will bring volunteers and scientists to Andavadoaka for a long time to give the people and wildlife in this area the best chances for long term survival.