Notes from a small hammock

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    It’s been a while since the last blog update and lots has happened in the meantime. An expedition has ended, a new one has started, staff have come and gone. I’ll try and cover everything that’s happened here on site, plus report back on events in Toliara and Tana.

    I’m writing this to you from my hammock – the generator here at Coco Beach gave up the ghost the other day and I’ve resorted to pen and paper. Hotel staff have been tinkering with it, and beating it encouragingly with hammers, but so far no permanent solution has been found. It’s roared into life a couple of times, but after half an hour or so the string, elastic bands or trousers that it’s been fixed with give way and we’re back to candlelit suppers and head torches again. If you’re reading this, however, then that means all is well and we have power for computers and modem again. One day we’re hoping to get green energy installed on camp in the form of wind and solar power – indeed, one of the reasons the volunteers here collect weather readings every day is to prove the viability of such an option and provide data for a funding application. Until then, however, we’ll have to put up with the occasional blackout.

    So what’s been happening here? Well as I said in the last blog update, Minna and Mark have now left us, and new staff have arrived in the form of Jan and Abby, who arrived with me and our seagrass researcher Micah from Toliara on a yacht (a lucky find by Jan, who overheard a Frenchman in a bar in Toliara saying that he’d just arrived from South Africa and was looking for passengers to share the voyage north to Morondava). So instead of grinding our way here in a bumpy taxi-brousse or lying around on a boutre for half a week we arrived in some style, on a forty-two foot cruiser. Nearly ran it aground on the reefs next to Andavadoaka rock, but never mind. Abby has taken over from Mark as Diving Manager, and has already shepherded new volunteers through an open water course and half of the advanced course. Jan meanwhile will be taking over from me as Expedition Manager, as I move into a slightly different role as project co-ordinator.

    It was with this new job in mind that I left site at the end of last expedition and flew to Antananarivo (or ‘Tana’, the capital), both to meet with our existing project partners such as WCS and also to attend a high profile international conference organised by Conservation International (CI). The event in question was a prestigious and lavishly organised gathering of people from CI and elsewhere, and was titled “Global Symposium 2006 – Defying Nature’s End: The African Context. Running over five days, from 20-24 June, it brought hundreds of people from the world of conservation, government and industry together to talk about environmental and poverty issues in Africa. Although primarily a CI event, and a forum for CI staff from all over the world, the guest list was diverse, and included people working in conservation all over the African and Indian Ocean region. Madagascar’s President, Prime Minister and other Ministers were there, as were members of NGOs from all over Madagascar, and discussions covered everything from terrestrial and marine protected areas to the bush meat trade and HIV prevention.

    The symposium was also of course a fantastic opportunity to network, and that’s one of the reasons I was there, armed with a set of pretty BV business cards. BV is a small organisation, and we don’t often have the resources to send people off site in Andavadoaka, so this was a chance for us to see what else is happening, to tell people about BV’s work here, and to make contact with other research and conservation organisations in the region. I’m still ploughing through all the information I gathered and notes I made during the trip, but I can already see several interesting new possibilities for collaboration with other organisations, notably on bird-related research in the spiny forest and along the seashore, and on the work we’re doing here establishing a marine protected area (MPA). And of course (most importantly) I was able to go to the supermarket in Tana and stock up on things that we can’t get in Toliara, including marshmallows to toast over the campfire, and the priceless treasure that is peanut butter…

    While I was in Tana the last expedition team were planning their departure, and getting in a few last days of exploratory diving. Most significant was the exploratory dive on the new site south of Recruitment that the village of Ampasilava had suggested as a no-take-zone to be included in the MPA. This has been named Javic – a mixture of the names of the three people who first went and scouted out the site (Jade, Gavin and Bic) – and promises to become a fascinating new patch reef survey site. So far we’ve done some perimeter mapping of the reef (as far as we know it’s never been dived by humans before) and have done some ad-hoc fish belts. What needs to happen now is a more detailed scientific baseline assessment, both to evaluate the site’s suitability for inclusion in the MPA and to provide data against which to monitor change over time.

    This will be something for the current expedition team to work on. Expedition 22 left site at the end of June with Lea and Ashley, who were heading back to Toliara for meetings with sea cucumber people (more on this in the next blog), and the new team has now been here on site since the start of July. It’s a big crowd – we have a full team of volunteers, plus Katia from the BV office in London and three independent researchers: Micah (aka Captain Sea grass), Claire (studying mangroves) and Elanor (studying chameleons, if and when she can find any; at present they’re proving elusive and/or spectacularly well camouflaged). We also have a new field scientist with us: Stephanie Pedron, who joins us from the University of Marseille. She is a welcome addition to our research operation and to the team on site, and we wish her well during her time here (and commiserations on the result of the match we watched recently at the Catholic Mission in the village). We also wish her well in trying to improve the quality of French on site – maybe we can even have some blog entries for our French audience in future!

    What other news? Volunteers have been busy with dive training and with science lectures. Some have already passed their benthic test, some are still struggling to identify a sponge from a soft coral. Most have been out in the spiny forest mapping baobab trees for our geographical information system (GIS), some have been down in the village teaching English, and all have sampled the delights of an epi-bar (although not necessarily the toakagasy that Gavin took such a liking to on the last expedition). One has even been out paddling after humpback whales, which have started cruising through the lagoon and will become more numerous as the weeks go on. One of our urgent tasks at the moment is to get the telegraph poles we sourced in Morombe across to Nosy Hao, and turn them into a five-metre whale watching platform for volunteers armed with binoculars. We might also have to get the boats out to go chasing after the humpbacks further on shore – expect further whale-based updates here in due course.

    OK that’s all from me (Alex). But now here’s a blog contribution from Jo Osmont, our doctor on site:

    Hello from Andavadoaka. Things are going very well here on site with lots of new science being done. Several new sites have been identified thanks to the local fishermen. One of these, Javic, we are now doing fish surveys on.

    I’ve been out here for two months now working as the expedition medic and so far everything is going really well. The volunteers that come here are a pretty healthy bunch, the only problems seem to be related to all the diving we do – ear infections and colds. This means I have plenty of time free to participate in all the science – both diving and shore based. This expedition I have taken responsibility for the seashell surveys. This is part of the research we are doing in partnership with ARVAM (part of IRD, an international research organisation). The variety and quantity of seashells is an indicator of sea health. Apparently sea shells hold quite an appeal for doctors as some of the previous medics have been involved in this too. [Editor’s note: this means you Simon and Lucy – aka Doctors Shell.]

    We have also had several independent researchers join us for this expedition so the mangroves, sea grass beds and chameleons are all being thoroughly surveyed [Editor’s note: for ‘chameleons’ read ‘chameleon’]. This part of Madagascar is so remote that these areas have never been studied before!

    Work on our whale watching platform continues apace. As we sighted some whales just off Andavadoaka today we are really keen to get this up and running. We’ll update you as and when we have more news.