Monday, August 21, 2006

Another expedition begins...

We have a new group of intrepid volunteers on site who have survived a slightly lengthy boutre journey and have spent the last few days getting to grips with benthic life forms, BCDs and bok bok. It promises to be a fun expedition, with exploratory diving on new sites for the Marine Protected Area, shark and turtle monitoring trips to neighbouring villages, bird surveys in the spiny forest and, of course, whale watching from our new platform. To tell you more about that, I’ll pass you over to Field Scientist Lea Fennelly, aka Captain Maintenance, who is just back from Nosy Hao…
The day has finally arrived! After three months of meetings, planning and construction the whale watching platform is ready to go. As I get ready to be dropped off on Nosy Hao, the island the platform is constructed on, I feel excited but am plagued with a certain apprehension: what if the platform isn't high enough; what if there are no whales left; what if they are too far away for us to see them through our binoculars; what if…?! You get the picture, I'm sure. Anyway, as we land on the beach, our first priority is to meet up with the island president to collect the whale sightings data he has been gleaning from his shark fishermen. In one week only seven whale spottings and these guys are fishing 10 miles out - prime humpback territory! We say our goodbyes and walk through the spiny forest, to the western side of the island.

We burst out of the undergrowth some distance from the tower, but are in no danger of missing it. It is by far the largest structure on the island, standing seven metres tall and looks an impressive sight. We scale the ladder and set up camp for the four-hour survey session. Dollops of suncream and vast quantities of water are the order of the day, and once sufficiently greased and thirst quenched we get down to work. After 20 minutes of spying on pirogues (small fishermen’s vessels) and a lone heron, I can feel my doubts creeping back, but these are vanquished by an enormous breaching humpback about three miles in the distance. Seconds later this behemoth is joined by a friend - this time a giant tail fluke flicks out and slams back into the ocean.

For 20 seconds we sat there awestruck, the realisation slowly dawning that this platform is going to be really successful. The locals must have wondered why there were two crazy vazaha on a large platform whooping and hollering at the top of their voices. Anyway, as we follow our whales, another two humpies became evident, bringing the total to four - not a bad start! These showmen play around in front of us for an hour, showing us their complete repertoire of full and half breaching (jumping out of the water), side finning and tail slapping, then head west into deeper water. Over the course of the day we only spent 10 minutes without our cetacean friends, and spotted 10 individuals in total. The most magical moment came around midday when a pod of 25-30 spinner dolphins came leaping past us, and then at the back of the group a humpback tail fluke appeared. I sat there laughing, happy to be part of it all. One o'clock came around far too soon and it was time for us to catch our lift home so we bade farewell to the whales - until tomorrow that is!
That's it from Lea for now, but expect further whale-related updates in the weeks to come. Next up is a contribution from Lea's partner in humpback crime, Alan, who has joined us on site as a new member of staff and who was on the platform with Lea for the first day of whooping and hollering. Alan will be with us for around six months, and we all wish him a very warm welcome. His duties on site will be numerous and varied, and will include science training, teaching, working with the ecology club on a new musical, giving guitar concerts, construction projects and being Ashley's boyfriend.
Arriving in Madagascar is like a tornado - worn out from the trip but wide-eyed with anticipation. I had been sent loads of information and pictures from Ashley who has been here four months already, but nothing could prepare me for the greeting. Ashley was sweet enough to make the trek from Andavadoaka to Tana to meet me and was very easy to pick out of the sea of taxi drivers waiting to take my bags. We spent a few days exploring Tana, collecting supplies for the crew and, with Dave Raza's wonderful help, getting some paperwork in order. The scenery along the road in Tana was really something: beautiful rice fields, zebu carts and seemingly no traffic laws. The most impressive had to be the Malagasy women carrying piles of bricks on their heads… amazing!

Soon we were off to Toliara where we met Christina, Alex and Noel, our driver from Toliara to Andavadoaka. The drive was again a breathtaking journey along the coastal route - very slow going but perfect for taking in all the little villages and countryside. We made a stop in Salary where Alex treated us to a zebu kebab and chips, then we were off again through the spiny forest and I saw my first baobabs. A thousand pictures couldn't convey the magnitude of this incredible tree. I was greatly excited to hear these were only small ones - I can't wait to see the big ones!!

We arrived in Andavadoaka just after dark, but just in time for supper. I have now been here a week and Nahoda has yet to let me down. The staff at Coco Beach have been working wonders to make us feel at home and the entire community welcome BV with open arms. Everyone greets you with a smile, but nothing compares to the Vezo children who really seem to get a kick out of my beard. They also have an incredible perception of harmony, it is so beautiful that it doesn't matter that I don't understand the words. Ashley is also having a "kely kely" (little) guitar made for me by Zafy, the BV security guard. He only has one out of three strings on it so far and I can't wait to add another instrument to my collection.

There is a wealth of interesting research being done here by BV. I have been building reptile traps (we’ve caught a few animals already) and accompanied Lea for the maiden trip to the Whale Watching platform on Nosy Hao. In one day we saw over ten whales splashing and spouting huge amounts of water that were visible way back on the horizon. We also got to watch a pod of about 30 dolphins skimming the surface just beyond the reef. It was a true feeding frenzy.

All this excitement in just the first week, I know my time will pass too fast here but I'm surely going to remember it all vividly.

That's all for now - tomorrow an update from some of our current volunteers. Alex

Some contributions from two of our new volunteers, Lexa and Stephen

Lexa's update:
What an amazing first six days at Andavadoaka! To begin our expedition we left Tulear by boutre (a sailing boat). To everyone back home this will initially sound like a fairly normal transfer to site, but let me fill you in with a few details. We walked out to the boat at midnight (low tide) and climbed up a rickety ladder to get on board. The adventure had certainly begun! At about 4am the rigging of the boutre began. The crew climbed the rigging, and the sails went up… and down… and up… and on top of us as we tried to get a few hours sleep. On the rising tide we set sail for Andavadoaka.

The next 24 hours was spent sleeping, sunbathing, eating samosas and watching the odd whale go past. Around 2am we arrived by moonlight at half-moon beach. Looking to the back of the cove we could see the beach huts, our homes for the next few weeks. We stumbled up to them and were all quickly asleep. After our sleep we got to see the surroundings in daylight. Wow! It is beautiful, better than any of the pictures on the website. It was just the type of location I’d hoped for!

Since that initial arrival on site it has been busy, busy. The first day of diving was on day three and since then most of us have done one dive a day. Wednesdays we have the opportunity to teach in the village and our first trip was great fun. The children's new words for the week were: shell, ball and hat. All quite normal, but then Geoff added in ‘flip flop’ which went down a storm, the kids just loved saying flip flop! Goodbye for now from Andavadoaka (or in Malagasy “Veloma!”)
And from Stephen:
Well, here we are in lovely Andavadoaka. The boutre journey on the way here was a great experience and a great way to meet the people on the expedition. All the diving is now underway. The first exploratory dive has been out and the Open Water and Advanced Open Water divers are all nearly trained. All that is left is for us to learn to identify underwater species - the first test on coral went ahead yesterday and saw some people becoming 'benthic enabled'.

Although we've only been here one week, it's really easy to fit in and there's a lot to keep me occupied. In the time I do find to myself, I can't get over Andavadoaka and the surrounding area - I can't wait for the next few weeks so I can see more of the area!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006 Case Studies

Two of BV's previous volunteers are featured on Caroline Gosney writes about how she took a rather unplanned gap year, after she didn't get the grades she wanted for uni, which worked to her advantage (she found us)-- "I went to Madagascar alone, although I met other volunteers at various airports along the way so the whole experience was less daunting. Leaving your family and friends for two months to go somewhere that has no mobile phone reception and email only once a week is terrifying but is a truly valuable experience as you learn pretty quickly to fend for yourself."

Laurence Thackwray, deciding he needed some proper time-off from studying, found BV-- "[Blue Ventures] appealed to me instantly because of the number of different activities that are covered in each expedition. Scuba diving, teaching English, Baobab excursions, science training, pirogue sailing, further scuba diving training and a whole host more, all in the exotic location of Madagascar."

Check out BV's page.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Times Gap Year Show

What are you doing on the 17th-18th November? We will be exhibiting (our forthcoming expeditions) so come down and see us at The Times Gap Year Show, at ExCeL in London. We'll be running the stand alongside the Embassy of Madagascar. Plus loads of advice at the show on travel, Gap Year jobs, lifestyle and careers.

The Times Gap Year Show
Get the floorplan (we're stand P91).

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

BV's Polish Fanbase

One of our previous volunteers, Aga, has set up a Polish website, describing her experiences on our expedition, even being interviewed in Poland about her trip. Check out her website here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Coming to a WWW near you soon

Website redevelopment going well at BV Towers. Maddy, office mascot, provided help in the initial stages of the project, but lacked the impetus to see the assignment through to the end.

Old website (left)

New, clearly improved
website (right)

A treat for our francophone readers - thoughts from Stephanie Pédron, Blue Ventures' first French field scientist

Le calme est revenu sur la cité perdue d'Andavadoaka... L'autre nuit, une petite tempete a menacé, le ciel a grondé, comme pour signaler son mécontentement... Le lendemain, ce sont les baleines qui sont passées dans la baie d'Andavadoaka, avec des souffles flamboyants, comme pour dire au revoir, oui, à la 23ieme expedition de volontaires qui s'est achevée aujourd'hui,dimanche, avec un depart à 7h30, apres un petit déjeuner debordant de "bocs bocs" - quel bonheur! Je ne vous cache pas que c'est avec un petit pincement au coeur que le camion s'est eloigné, signalant egalement pour moi la fin de ma premiere expedition en tant que toute nouvelle recrue "field scientist" de 'Blue Ventures'!

Petit retour en arriere...
Le dépaysement a été total, Madagascar d'abord, Tulear ensuite avec le Boutra, et enfin tous ces anglais! L'arrivée à la cité perdue a été une découverte... du village, des habitants, de l'équipe, des sites de plongée, de mon futur métier, des volontaires, et un émerveillement ensuite, à la vue des nouvelles responsabilités qui m'incombent, des histoires de chacun et aussi d'anciens projets realises et au commencement de nouveaux: la plateforme d'observation des baleines sur Nosy Hao de Lea, le suivi oiseaux par Ashley et le suivi des requins et des tortues marines prochainement par moi même. Quelle Équipe! Alex, quant à lui, a été mon premier interlocuteur sur le terrain :) et a favorisé mon installation et mon adaptation sur le site! Je decouvre maintenant ses talents de coordinateur et d'orateur, notamment pour la mise en place de la MPA sur toute la zone!

Cette première expédition n'aura pas été de tout repos, certes, mais restera un enorme souvenir, tant au niveau professionnel que relationnel. Je n'en dirais pas plus pour ce premier blog, sachez, chers volontaires, qu'une experience unique vous attend ici! et promis, juré, craché, mon prochain sera en anglais! _ "in english in the text" comme dirait mon petit papa! :) J'oubliais, mon surnom est déjâ tout trouvé, par Bic bien evidemment, alors c'était kelykelynan sur radio mada!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Notes from a Pretty Large Island by Jan....

I’ve now been in Madagascar just short of two months with my girlfriend, Abby, who has taken over the Dive Manager’s role. The remoteness of this amazing place has come as a welcome change from the hectic lifestyle of home. You’ll find no 7/11 on the corner, nor Mackie D’s as the food out here is outstanding - imagine eating lobster, crab, large tunas, massive mackerels and the odd zebu kebab for six weeks with a cool THB beer (given an award from Belgium, so it can’t be bad). All this while watching one of the best sunsets you’ll ever see - and I’ve seen some good ones! For example, Whitsunday’s (Oz), Grand Canyon (America), Hout Bay (South Africa) and not forgetting that purple, grey haze over the UK. Alex has slowly eased me into the Expedition Manager’s role, as I too have to train in my benthic and fish identification, which as a diving instructor has been a little easier for me than some. They both give exciting and very informative talks on marine conservation and marine protected areas (MPAs) as well as play a mean game of football! The other day, the girls drew 0-0 and the guys won a historical 1-0 victory, to which I am sad to say I played no part as I was studying, then being tested on my benthic, but there will be plenty of opportunity to keep our winning streak on a roll (bring some moldies & shin pads!!!).

The diving out here is really good, visibility around 10 -15 metres on average with some days 20metres+ vis - never thought I’d get such a kick out of identifying coral but I truly am, mainly thanks to Lea & Ashley’s lectures and enthusiasm. Saw a turtle yesterday while diving at Javic. My diving buddy and science colleague, Stephanie, who was at that point supposed to be testing me on my benthic, couldn’t resist following the turtle as it was apparently the third turtle she’d ever seen. For those of you who’ve never seen a turtle it truly is an exhilarating experience when it actually happens. Humpback whales have been sighted and it’s only a matter of a week or two before our whale watching platform is built - I know some people out here will be having kittens when it’s finally up. Talking about kittens, a Coco Beach cat recently gave birth to four adorable kittens, so as long as the birds of prey don’t swoop down on them, they will soon be running around causing havoc and getting lots of attention from everyone, as if they don’t already!