Our fourth week started with proper science training dives. Learning how to identify the different types of corals was one thing; next we had to learn how to collect the data from the seabed. In our buddy pairs, we conduct PIT (point intersect transect) dives, where we lay a tape measure along the seabed for 10 meters, then record the various coral types every 20cm, capturing 50 data points from each transect. The best position in which to capture the data is head down, fins skyward, slowly moving down the length of the transect. This allows you to hover just above the tape measure, permitting easy views of the coral, whilst also keeping our fins well away from that which we are trying to protect. From afar, we look like we’re standing on our heads, dive slates and pencils in our arms, clipboard-style, staring intently at a white line. Lord knows what the fish must think of us. For some of us yet to fully master the art of total buoyancy control, the position means we bob up and down, upside down, desperately trying not to head-butt the seabed as we negotiate the currents and coral formations whilst keeping a beady eye out for any scorpion fish. Even upside down, in water, with no gravity, I seem intent on trying to use my legs for balance. Often, I find myself slowly twisting, performing a slow motion version of a summersault, legs splayed. Underwater ballet it is not. Learning to rely on one’s lungs for direction and not one’s legs is a strange – and slow – concept to grasp.
Having passed our in-water fish tests, we’ve now all practised the fish equivalent of a coral PIT. Laying a tape measure out for 20 meters, we slowly swim its length, recording every type and number of fish we see within a five metre reach. The task would be much easier if the fish would just stop still for 5 seconds, but for some reason they seem intent on swimming past us at a rate of knots. The really devious ones then decide to come around again for another look. Trying to figure out which ones I’ve counted already, and which are new, is an entertaining exercise and I’m sure they deliberately try to confuse me. We have learnt 150 different types of fish and can identify them all within a few seconds. Thanks to the diverse nature of Madagascar’s coral reef, we get to see a great range of these fish on every dive.
Our afternoons have been busy with lectures and chores including scrubbing the boats to rid them of algae and prevent salt water damage. On our day off, we headed to the baobab forest, about an hour’s walk away, our picnic lunch stashed on the accompanying zebu cart. We were fortunate to be accompanied by one of Madagascar’s leading field biologists (the kind of guy who arrived for dinner that night with a chameleon perched on his shoulder), so we had a fascinating field-trip through some of the region’s terrestrial make-up.
As usual, there have been plenty of other things to keep us busy out of the water this week: lunch with the Andavadoake Women’s Association; more classes at the school; and football games on Sundays, played between local Andavadoaka and neighbouring village teams. These are fast, hard games. Most players are in bare feet, running the length of the compacted sand pitch in the heat of the afternoon sun, as we foreigners – and the goats – shelter in the shade of the trees. You don’t see too many illegal fouls in these games and no one argues with the ref, a far cry from the antics of footballers in the UK.
We are flying towards the last week or two of our expedition, with the slight change in weather indicating we’re experiencing Madagascar’s balmy winter, markedly warmer than the winters we’re used to in our home countries. The mornings and evenings have a slight chill to them, but the days are still hot, sunny and wonderfully rain-free. The idea of leaving this all behind in a few weeks is not sitting comfortably.