Have you ever encountered a live sea cucumber?

by Taylor Mayol, Communications and Programme Development Officer, Madagascar

I hadn’t either until just a few months ago. I knew I was in for a wild ride during my fellowship after I dove into a crystal clear turquoise bay in southwest Madagascar to check out Blue Ventures’ (BV) community-led aquaculture project, and resurfaced with a grey, cucumber-like sea creature in hand. Sea cucumbers are delicate bottom-feeders that feel a bit like wet paper mache and are an expensive delicacy in many Asian countries. BV works with fishermen who are traditionally dependent on the sea for their cultural identity and subsistence, to run sea cucumber farms, which provide a lucrative source of income and offer an alternative to relying on dwindling marine resources. The strangeness of the concept of farming sea cucumbers is pretty much a microcosm of my experience so far in this fairly schizophrenic and unique country, which is quite far from “Africa” in both the literal and figurative sense.

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Farming seacucumbers? A strange idea for me at first!

As the communications and program development officer for Blue Ventures, a marine conservation NGO with a holistic “Population, Health, and Environment” approach, I must intimately know our entire project portfolio: from these aquaculture farms to UNICEF-funded youth education programs to reproductive health care to coral reef research, to mention just a few. At BV we believe that conservation can’t take place in a bubble and that the health of an environment is intrinsically linked to the well-being of its community, particularly here in southwest Madagascar, home to some of the country’s most isolated people.

With admittedly zero background in conservation, I was expecting to be surprised and challenged by my post, but I had no idea how much I would actually need to absorb right off the bat. It was pretty much a sink or swim kind of situation: to truly succeed at my job I head to jump headfirst into BV and learn all the ins and outs of its work over the last decade. Now, I can spout facts I never imagined I would know, like life cycles of octopus, the importance of tidal fluctuations, the carbon sequestering capacity of mangroves.

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Taylor training some of the BV staff in communications

A perk of my job has definitely been the travel, undoubtedly extra special here in the world’s so-called “Eighth Continent.” I have traversed many of Madagascar’s ecosystems, from the chilly plateau in Antananarivo, southward through rolling red hills and endless green rice paddies to dry savannah and my coastal home in Toliara. I have ventured up the sandy and bumpy coastline through the incredible dry Spiny Forest and recently spent half of October trekking around and camping near Belo sur Mer, where we work with communities to conserve mangroves and increase fish and crab catches, about 30 hours from Toliara by taxi brousse (packed in sardine-style, of course).

My most notable memories include hiking in the massive, rocky Isalo National Park and jumping into magically appearing natural green pools of water to cool off; seeing mouse lemurs at night; traveling by dug-out canoe in the open ocean and getting soaked to the bone; and fighting off Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Professionally, I’ve been given incredible responsibility and independence, and I’ve learned how to write grants and scientific research reports, am working towards publishing my first journal article, and even met with National Geographic. Along the way, I’ve picked up a (small) bit of Malagasy from my coworkers and am (very) slowly but (somewhat) surely working on my French.

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Taylor with Kate England and Sylvia Paulot from the Blue Forests team

The last four months has given me new friendships, deeper insight into my own life, and a new appreciation for conservation and its ties to food security and poverty alleviation. The absolute highlight, however, has been working for a mission-driven organization that operates at the junction of academia and reality, and is actually implementing development theory in a setting with tremendous poverty and political instability. Although I have been out of my university classroom for over two years now, everyday at work feels like I am learning again, translating development lectures into meaningful and tangible outcomes, and perhaps even doing something a bit strange, in the best way.

About Taylor Mayol

Taylor worked on supporting our communications from 2012 until 2013, based in our southwest Madagascar regional office. She joined BV through the Princeton in Africa fellowship programme. Taylor is a California native who loves playing volleyball, travelling, reading and being out on the water.