Madagascar Memories Series: Working Under the Waves

The first time you descend underwater, the one thing that no one prepares you for, is the quiet. The bubbles clear. You adjust your kit that is now inexplicably lopsided or un-tucked. A quick clear of the mask, and then, silence. And the scene in front of you rocks into focus. Waves of colour. Layers upon layers of fish, bizarre creatures and shapes burst across your vision. You check-in with your buddy – a look, a nod, an OK. And breathe. The noise into your regulator interrupts the tranquillity of the secret world you have just entered into. You are weightless, you feel free. This, is scuba diving.” – Diary entry, 03/04/2017.

The coral reef that surrounds the volcanic island of Nosy Komba in north west Madagascar is a haven for marine life. From inshore sea grass beds to the outer reef, this compact little ecosystem provides a home for all. It is also a source of food. In 2016, Madagascar Research and Conservation Institute (MRCI) teamed up with the local Malagasy people to create a no-fishing Marine Protected Area (MPA) around a section we call ‘home reef’. The hope is that over time, the MPA will be a sanctuary where corals and fish can thrive. And the bounty of fish will ‘spill over’ beyond its borders, providing a more sustainable source of fish for the neighbouring local communities. And that is where I came in. My job was to monitor the reef for signs of change or recovery. Also, to gather information on the overall health of the reef within and beyond the MPA.

MRCI marine volunteers carrying out one of the monthly ‘coral health’ surveys. MRCI monitor the level of coral bleaching (degraded coral) vs healthy coral over time on the nearby reef within a Marine Protected Area. Bleaching is often due to climate change induced temperature changes in our oceans. The data MRCI collect goes to CORDIO (Coastal Oceans Research & Development Indian Ocean & East Africa).

6am. My team of dedicated volunteers and right-hand woman, intern Amy, wade in from the chalky white beach. It is the first of four survey dives for the day. Laden with slates, quadrats, reels and cameras, the sweat already trickles down the back of my neck, nose and chin. The sky is stained red. The dawn calls of the forest are still echoing in my ears as we submerge into the bathtub warm water. Juvenile reef fish, perfectly formed, yet smaller than my thumbnail hide amongst blades of sea grass. A huge Green Turtle cruises alongside; popping her head out she flares her nostrils with a splash. She is just checking in, as she does most mornings. Smaller hawksbill turtles flit underneath us. I stare after flashes of colour as something darts back into its hide. As we reach the reef, towers and domes of coral create a silhouetted skyline of some ancient forgotten city. Yet everything here is so alive. And here our daily work begins.” – Diary entry, 16/06/2017.

Out on home reef, it soon became apparent that parts of the reef are in deep trouble. Huge areas are bleached from climate induced acidification. Invasive urchins and patches of algae are multiplying like a plague. I sent our data to a climate change research organisation, but we needed to do more. I partnered us with the Madagascar Oceanic Research Institute and together we started to build ‘artificial’ coral reefs. These additional structures provided a substrate for new coral to grow in deeper, cooler waters, and hopefully helping the reef to replenish.

MRCI Marine Science Manager Roshan Hannamseth placing coral into a new artificial reef.

Back on land, the local Malagasy call turtles, ‘sokatra’. Or ‘tortue’ in French, as they will often say to me. As a ‘vazzair’ (white person) living and working in Madagascar, there’s an assumption that you can only, and are only willing to speak French. But if greeted with, “Bona serra, in vo vo?” You receive a beaming smile in return, “si vo vo, misotra besika”. The simple act of trying to embrace the world you are in, not bringing your own with you, means you are welcomed with open arms. Though perhaps a few giggles at my strange sokatra tattoo and the consistent peppering of mosquito bites.

Diving every day, you soon get to know the locals underwater too. ‘Mama turtle’ is always around, whilst the grumpy Titan Triggerfish tirelessly guards his tiny patch of reef with a nip or a charge at your fins. Some of our residents, like our family of ‘Nemos’ are a joy to see. Others however are less welcome. The resident stonefish, well disguised with enough poison to kill a man, keeps you alert and buoyancy on point! And despite the fixed routine of surveys, there is always an element of uncertainty (word of the year). You never know what you might find, or who you might come across out in the blue. Sharks, whales, dolphins..? They often appear just when you are least expecting them!

MRCI Marine staff teamed up with Conservation Nature Recherche Océanique de Madagascar (CNRO). CNRO to put out our new artificial reef ‘coral garden’ to provide more habitat and help support the natural reef ecosystem in our Marine Protected Area.

The work that we achieved allowed home reef to remain a monitored, protected sanctuary for marine life. But whilst the world is being rocked into a strange world of a pandemic, it is hard to focus on what is going on underwater. How can we ask the Malagasy people of Nosy Komba to respect a line on a map, to actively protect a coral reef, when they need to put food on the table? We have done everything we can to provide support, employment and self-sustaining futures for the communities we have worked with, but our work is far from finished. And now the pandemic has taken that support away, the community of Nosy Komba are in trouble.

We need to find ways to continue to support them. To help fix the problem that we ourselves are contributing to, and help to rebuild lives in a self-sufficient and sustainable way. And we are asking everyone for help.

Donate to Project Komba today.

Submitted by Emma Bagnall, former MRCI Marine Officer

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