by George (Bic) Manahira, Blue Ventures Dive Manager & Coral Reef Monitoring Coordinator, Madagascar
Running parallel to the southwest coast of Madagascar is one of the longest reefs in the world. It starts south of Toliara, the regional capital, and extends north as a barrier reef for many miles. It eventually disperses to form the fringe reef, complete with a handful of deep water patch reefs, off the coast of Andavadoaka. The reef at Toliara was once considered to be the most diverse in the Indo-Pacific, with 52 genera of coral recorded in a paper published in 1972. The city has expanded and led to the reef’s degradation and the original authors of that study probably wouldn’t recognize the site. I dived the reef in 2008 with Alasdair, the founder of BV, to monitor bleaching and recruitment, and although there was good coral cover in many places, there were few fish (and the few fish that I did see looked very self-conscious!).
In contrast, I found diving in Belo-sur-Mer, a village that lies 100 kilometres north of Andavadoaka and is famous as a hub for galleon construction, superb. The reefs are very shallow and healthy – in fact there were times where I couldn’t see the reef for the fish, which was a shame as I have never seen such a diverse assemblage of corals in one place. More recently I dived in the Barren Isles, a set of remote islands that lie around 20 kilometres off the coast from Maintirano. Although Vezo fishermen have long migrated to the islands from Velondriake, lured by the lucrativeness of shark fins, the islands are now attracting far too many fishermen and are in danger of being overfished. I was therefore surprised to be greeted by a profusion of large, pelagic species, including half meter long red snappers, bulky jacks and huge mackerels. I also encountered a one meter long leopard shark, lying on the sand outside the fringing reef. The Vezo call this species “andrangita”, and think its bad luck to catch them – which is great news for leopard shark conservation! Leopard sharks are solitary bottom dwellers, normally loitering on sand or rubble at depths of 5 to over 30 meters, and are totally harmless (unless provoked!).
Although I was amazed by the beauty of the reefs at Barren Isles, nothing compares in my mind to the reefs here in Andavadoaka, where BV is based. Here we have reefs that are rich in branching corals such as Acropora, which is really important for ecosystem health. Research shows that reefs that have complex, three-dimensional architectures – what scientists call high rugosity – can support a greater profusion of fish, and greater biodiversity. Thanks to Velondriake, the locally managed marine area that BV helped to set up in 2006, I hope that the reefs stay this way, so that the Vezo can continue to fish and live with the sea, long into the future.
When I was a boy, I thought that someday I would grow up and leave southwest Madagascar to join the military, even be a legionnaire and see far-off places. I never expected to stay here working in conservation and responsible tourism, meeting people from far-off places all over the world. I am 100% Vezo, born in Morombe but with family in Lamboara, a small fishing village just south of Andavadoaka. Like all Vezo boys, I learned to swim when I was young, and slowly trained myself to snorkel as deep as 30 meters without oxygen .
When Blue Ventures first arrived in Andavadoaka it was exciting to me, and by the second expedition I was working for them. I began as a boat captain and handyman, and soon learned to fill the oxygen tanks for the diving programme. By early 2004, the director of BV caught me using a PADI instruction book to learn about diving and to improve my English, and soon after that I found myself in PADI dive training. By 2007, I was fluent in English, and a PADI-certified dive master. By 2009, I had become Madagascar’s first PADI dive instructor, teaching diving courses to Blue Ventures Expedition volunteers and even teaching them to conduct underwater scientific data collection, which is an important link between the Expeditions and Conservation programmes in BV, I had found my calling.
I am also involved in environmental education for local youth in Andavadoaka. I want to inspire young people to be a new generation of Vezo conservationists, like my experience with BV has inspired me and I helped establish Andavadoaka’s first environmental club, and now five years later, I’m working with BV and UNICEF to turn that club into the strongest youth environmental club in the southwest, part of a network of similar clubs all over Madagascar. These are the future managers of our natural resources, and I want them to learn that our actions have long-term impacts on the local environment, and that our survival is tied to the survival of this unique marine ecosystem. Most importantly, I want the youth to learn that we can be responsible conservationists, and still be a seafaring, fishing, thriving Vezo community.
Having dived recently in the Barren Islands I am looking forward to being part of the first team documenting their health and I am excited to return with photographs, films and stories that we can use to inspire others to learn more about this amazing place in which we live.
You can find out more about my work with Blue Ventures here