Saturday, 3 November 2012

Reef thinking - tales from Madagascar

Also published in Elephant Journal November 12 2012

For my 30th birthday I booked myself a flight to Madagascar. Too long spent on the bogs and otherwise solid Irish ground. It wasn't for the lemurs I was going, but if I did see one I wasn't going to complain. It was for the coral reefs. 

I flew out from Dublin on a cold December day and landed in a hot and steamy Tulear in the south west of the country. From there, united with a dozen or so other volunteers who had decided to give up a cosy Christmas in the  UK (I was the only Paddy), we travelled for 22 hours in the back of an army truck over the dirt-tracks of Madagascar's outback to get to our base in Andavadoka.

Pirogues moored - Malagasy fishing boats
For six weeks I lived in a beach shack with no door - if there had been a door I'm sure we wouldn't have bothered to close it. We had electricity for a couple of hours every evening. There was no internet, no phone. We got messages transmitted once a week from family by satellite phone. It was more than the locals had, but they were happier than most folk you'd meet in a busy cyber-ridden street in the developed world. This place was a paradise. It was - is - a beautifully quiet and peaceful, and un-interrupted rural corner of Madagascar. 

The research centre is tagged on to the small fishing village of Andavadoka and run by an award winning charity called Blue Ventures. The base was set up initially by a couple of UK guys who were concerned about the degradation of coral reefs globally. They were equally inspired by the pristine coral reefs off the west coast of Madagascar and the need to preserve these exquisite, vulnerable ecosystems before overfishing and pollution could wreak irreversible damage. 

I spent my first week there learning how to dive - perfect buoyancy was required for the work to be done. Further training was necessary in order to carry out the monitoring work on the reef - we each had to learn over 100 species of reef fish, coral, starfish and other reef dwellers that we would encounter. I thought it would be difficult and it was, but it was like learning the species of the Burren as an undergraduate - once you got your eye in on the varieties and colours, the differences became clear and obvious and each species became a new acquaintance, and a new wonder. 

We would wake at 5.30am and the first dive of the day would be out soon after. The mornings were calm, and I never tired of watching the local fishermen set out early in their pirogues - south bound - for the daily fishing. The wind would carry the boats easily home in the afternoon, and for this reason too most of the diving was done in the morning when the Mozambique Channel was kindest. 

The diving was superb. The silence of that underworld and the absolute beauty of the reefs that were literally just a stone's throw from our base camp perched on Coco Beach, hidden from those on land by tropical blue waters - well, it was deeply humbling and truly inspiring. Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Grouper, Parrotfish, Conger Eels, Starfish, Surgeonfish, Goggle-Eyes, Jacks, Barracuda, Anemonefish...all this life supported by a tiny, teeny life form with the ability to create superstructures of great beauty and mystery - coral. 

Mi casa, zebu casa ;)
Since that precious time spent in Madagascar I have only returned to the coral reef twice - once in Cuba and the last time in Barbados. In both places the beauties were to be seen but there was also the worrying presence of coral skeletons and foreboding algae. 

I got to worrying and found that the trend is not good for the Caribbean coral reef. All those small islands with growing populations means more fishing and more nutrient run-off. The likes of Hurricane Sandy and her sisters aren't kind to coral reefs but natural disasters coupled with overfishing, development projects, soil and nutrient run-off do not make for a bright future. Rising temperatures present another gloomy figure on the scene. In the words of Father Jack - feck

Beach clean up time in Andavadoka

We have to support the work of groups like Blue Ventures and we have to do what we can to raise awareness of the degradation of these spectacular ecosystems so that we can preserve their exquisiteness now and into the future. The folk at Blue Ventures work closely with the local community - approaching the problem from social, economic and environmental perspectives. More projects like this and more will be achieved. In the meantime, check out your nearest coral reef....

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