Friday, November 30, 2007

Samosas by the sea by BV volunteers Alana & Rebecca

"Ah, farine" said the woman at the supermarket, scooping the half-kilo of flour Alana asked for into a plastic bag. We were picking up ingredients for our beloved fish samosas, the best street treats in town, and now we needed some oil. Neither the woman nor the man working there seemed to understand the word oil, so I picked up a bottle of olive oil in an attempt to explain what we needed. The woman walked over to a metal petrol barrel and there was the vegetable oil we were looking for. "Huile" she said, to which we responded "demi-litre?" After laughter and giggles, probably at Alana’s pronunciation, she grabbed a plastic water bottle, not cleaned from the contents it contained before, and started to funnel oil, dirt, ants, sand and all into it! Oh how they laughed at our attempt at gathering these ingredients – vazaha (the foreigners) do not cook here you know!

We then set off to find Angelo (one of our local staff) and his wife at their house on the beach. Down we walked from the supermarket (of sorts), winding our way through the straw and wood huts amidst goats, ducks, chickens and children – lots of children. We found him sitting on his bench outside, setting up an extremely out of place piece of culinary equipment – an old-fashioned metal pasta maker. He started to knead the flour and water (from an unknown source!) together in a tin bowl, rather more skilfully than either of us expected. After much working with the dough, he started to wind pieces of the dough through the pasta maker, forming ever-thinner sheets of dough, until we had reached a paper thin film which either Alana or I would have stuck our finger through in a second. We watched in awe at the grace and speed of his work, until his wife came along, shoved him aside and did everything twice as fast! He then went off to buy some snapper for the filling which he boiled and then scraped off the bone, all with his fingers of course. With a view of the waves rolling up on the pirogues in the background, we watched him mix in sakay (you really must try this if you love chilli!), salt (fresh from the marsh) and a small chopped red onion from his neighbour.

Finally ready (or allowed) to get involved, we started to put it all together. Alana and I each took a square of paper-thin dough, a scoop of the spicy fish mixture and started to fold the edges in to make our “perfectly triangular” samosas – well…practice makes perfect! All during this process, we were watched by a group of locals who were clearly bemused (or maybe amused!) by the 2 vazaha learning to cook. We then moved over to his “kitchen” which was a highly practical tin room, with a small door, even smaller window and decorative soot on the walls and ceiling! The oil had been heating over some burning logs and in went the samosas in batches of 3 or 4 at a time. Watching anxiously, Alana and I stood in the doorway (half dying from smoke inhalation) as Angelo fried them with the patience of a saint. We on the other hand, slightly less patient, had a quick taster of the cooler samosas while he carried on. Oh, and they were good, very good samosas! Probably the best (certainly the freshest!) we’ve had here in Andavadoaka.

15 samosas each later, we’d had our fill and decided to head back to camp - for lunch!

Staff Blog by Fran Humber (Marine and Fisheries Scientist)

Pirogues are the best way of travelling short distances out here and it was time to make the 40km trip north to Morombe. Our purpose: to collect all the shark and turtle fisheries monitoring data in each of the villages scattered along the coast and islands on the stretch of sea between Andavadoaka and Morombe.

A strong wind at 6am made the start of our trip fast, although the waves hit the pirogue at the wrong angle causing water to spray in large sheets over us. Vola took the brunt at the front of the boat but within ten minutes we were all soaked. After two hours we arrived at our first stop, the small, sparsely populated island of Andranombala. We met the first data collector, a young woman who owned the only store/bedroom on the island that was piled high with rice, salt and onions. The wind allowed us to cut back eastwards to the village of Bevato. Here we breakfasted on sweet potato and even sweeter coffee whilst visiting two data collectors, although I noticed that our pirogue sailors enjoyed a spot of lobster for their mid-morning snack. Next stop was the island of Nosy Be, surrounded by salty waters from the nearby mangrove forests, but with a prolific shark fishery. Our final stop was the island of Nosy Lava, which is home to a small village and a deserted lighthouse. By the time the last visit was over the sun was setting and we finally reached Morombe in the moonlight. A shower and dinner were eagerly anticipated and the Malagasy music videos accompanying our meal were just another added bonus to the day.

The following day was spent meeting our two data collectors in Morombe, and by doing a little fruit and vegetable shopping at the market (we had a large number of requests from volunteers and staff for precious pineapples and coconuts). The first meeting was with Rene, a man who buys turtles to sell the meat in Morombe, and the second with Vololo, an officious lady who buys sharks fins to sell to Asian traders. After two days of data collection in the burning heat we allowed ourselves a moment to let the world go by. Sitting on a wall, sipping on a cold beer and eating a fresh mango with Vola, Ben, Thomas and our two pirogue sailors we let the sun set and watched Morombe go about its business. Tomorrow we would spend the day in the pirogue again, journeying back to our home from home, Andavadoaka.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Volunteer blog by Isabel Butcher

I never understood how people on Big Brother, Ship Wrecked etc could spend so much time doing so little. Just sitting around babbling inanely to each other (the only apparent explanation being the evident lack of brain cells between them). But now I do. Sitting around doing nothing but talking rubbish and munching bottomless sacks of kapiki (peanuts) in such an amazing setting a zillion miles from the stresses of reality, is a fantastic experience and antidote to normal life. It’s a luxury we afford ourselves all too infrequently back in the rat race, but here it’s almost too easy and too nice to do it a bit too often.

However, there are so many other amazing things to do that it is (almost) always worth the effort of peeling yourself out of the hammock or out of bed at 6am. There are camping trips to islands to survey sites too far to get to in one day; manta towing (being keel-hauled behind a boat with a snorkel looking for new reefs); night dives; trips to mangroves; sea cucumber counting; overnight stays in local villages; baobab measuring. It’s when you find yourself setting sail in a pirogue at 6am to go manta towing that the reality check kicks in and you think this is better than getting on the tube!

Sometimes a conscious effort has to be made not to start taking for granted being here and all the amazing things there are to do. Is whale watching (sailing by local pirogue to a tiny island and sitting watching for migrating humpbacks from the top of a rickety platform with the most amazing view really a chore?! Hello? Reality check? How many people can say they’ve had the opportunity to do that? Is being on the 6 o’clock dive for third day in a row really a bad thing?! Just another stunning sunset? Yawn (although that may well be the response back home when the 27th photo of said sunsets comes out)

Being ill (as is the form for everyone at some point!) is actually a blessing in that it makes you appreciate being here all the more once you’re better and able to enjoy it all again. Being lucky enough to be here for two expeditions I’ve been able to get sufficient sitting time in the first six weeks to get it out of my system and am extremely glad I’ve now got a whole other six weeks to enjoy everything available here. It also provides an opportunity to observe the differences between the two sets of volunteers.

Seeing the first lot off was really hard. In some ways it was horrid to be left behind, but in others (not least the prospect of 33 hours in the back of a truck) it really wasn’t. But it’s true that you only really appreciate what you had once it’s gone. ­Being here, after the people you’d spent 6 weeks living with had left was very odd. The huts were like a ghost town, haunted by memories of little things that had happened and people had said, and they were sorely missed. (If any expedition 33ers are out there reading this, we miss you! Hope you’re having fun scattered around the globe!) But seeing the reaction of those who did return to camp after the epic journey to Tulear was another wake up call to remember how amazing it is here. The next lot of volunteers have arrived relatively unscathed from their journey, if a little shell shocked at finding themselves in the most incredible setting where they’ll spend the next six weeks of their lives. There are new experiences, fun stuff and memories to be made, and I am determined to make the most of every second, every pirogue trip and every sunset there is going.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Research trip to Belavenoke by BV Volunteer Kristy Benz

We meet outside the huts, ready to go. Our valuables (cameras, toilet paper and biscuits) are in dry bags, the rest of our supplies for the next three days are slung over our shoulders in backpacks. We’re off to Belavenoke to do some research in the mangroves. Our aim is to find out more about these magnificent trees, and especially their role in the lives of the local people. This is Caroline’s project.­ She’s the independent researcher, and has already visited the site. Ben, Stephanie and I are helping her out - a few volunteers looking for adventure and a taste of Malagasy life outside of Coco Beach. Angelo, one of the local staff members is coming along as well.

We meet Angelo in Andavadoaka village and eat a hearty breakfast of bok-bok (lumps of dough comparable to flavourless doughnuts), bele (a root vegetable which tastes something like sweet potato), and coffee with lots of sugar. Afterwards, we clamber aboard the pirogue that Angelo has magically conjured for us.

The journey to Belavenoke takes about two hours with a favourable wind. Once there, we’re greeted by our hosts and shown to our lodgings. It is very easy to settle in to this simple space with its friendly faces.

After a leisurely lunch we head out for the small mangroves. Caroline already has a few plots set up here. The work is simple enough: tag, measure and classify trees, as well as count all stumps and saplings in the ten by ten metre plot. We get through two plots that first afternoon and set up one more before retiring.

Not long after our return to the village, we begin to realize that we’re being watched. It seems as though half the children of the village are peering at us from behind various obstacles. I doubt they see many tourists (vazaha) in their tiny village. We venture out play jump-rope and football, and sing and dance with them. They love being photographed and shown the photos, and we all laugh along with them.

The sunset signals dinner time. We say goodbye to the children and gather around the table under the open-air shelter. It’s a simple meal of fish and rice, but satisfactory following the afternoon’s work. Afterwards we sit and chat with our hosts. The sky is now inky black, and the night cool enough to savour the feeling of trousers and a long-sleeved top. I’m reminded of camping trips from my childhood, except that we’re drinking local rum and speaking a confusing combination of English, French and Malagasy.

We wind down and head to our hard (but extremely comfortable) beds. We rise more or less with the sun, eat breakfast and are back at the mangroves by eight. After finishing the kelikely (small) mangroves, we tackle the bevata (big) ones. More trees, more mud, more confusion and more fun. We’re making terrific headway, though getting from one plot to the other is becoming some kind of extreme sport. We wade across murky streams and clamber over roots and branches. There is an astounding amount of mud and we all wind up covered in it. Each of us gets stuck at least once. By means of the assorted twigs and lichens we also manage to shed enough of our own blood for a proper sacrifice to the mangrove gods. Lunch is forsaken in the name of science and we finish, famished, by four. Somehow we make it back to the epi-bar and are well fed for our efforts.

The next day Ben and Stephanie head homewards on a zebu cart and are replaced by Lucia. We eat lunch, and after a quick briefing set out for the biggest mangroves yet. Today¹s transect lies on an island and we get there by pirogue. Four exhausting hours later we are completely finished and Caroline is ecstatic. As we sail back to Belavenoke, not even the loss of our bailer and a sizeable hole in the bottom of our pirogue can dampen our spirits.

In the morning we catch the pirogue back but with no wind, we each have to take a turn with the paddles. After two hours we’re barely halfway, and are considering delving into the last of the biscuits, when we hear a motor. Four Blue Ventures comrades pull up next to us in a motorized pirogue. We offer to swap the biscuits for a tow, and they agree. Finally the two boats are tied together and we’re off homeward. Later on, Caroline thanks me for coming along. I look back over the past three days and cannot figure out what she is thanking me for. It should be me thanking her, and I do.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Time for afterthought by Ida Vincent

Leaving Andavadoaka is hard for anyone who visits this unspoilt area of Africa. No matter how long you stay - 3 weeks, 6 weeks or indeed 9 months - it never feels enough. Coming back to the real world is a shock, and novelties such as hot showers and varied food soon wear off. But my time in Andavadoaka has taught me to appreciate the little things in life and realise how many good people are out there. The work carried out by Blue Ventures is amazing and hugely important not only for conserving the environment, but also for the continued livelihood of the villages.

Some of my favourite memories include:

  • Going to the octopus no take zone opening – seeing the villagers reaping the benefits of temporary marine closures
  • Open day – the whole village cramped into Nosy Cao (the classroom), eager to learn about sustainable marine practices
  • 6am dives – heading out on a perfectly flat ocean as the sun rises above the village
  • Camping on the islands – carrying out exploratory diving for the proposed Marine Protected Areas
  • And last, but definitely not least – enjoying a lukewarm beer in the village with fellow staff and volunteers
So I just wanted to say a huge thank you to all you locals, staff and volunteers for making my 9 months some of the best ever. Keep up the good work!


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Seagrass Mapping by Field Scientist Tristan Brown

After a recent visit from an American research company, SeagrassNet, Blue Ventures have gone on a seagrass mapping mission. So far in expedition 33, with the help of some very keen volunteers, we have managed to find and map 3 substantial seagrass beds. We've tried to do this in a few ways, some proving more fun than others. The manta towing in particular has gone down well. For those of you who don't know, basically this means being dragged behind a speedboat with a mask and snorkel and shouting and screaming for the boat to stop when we drive over a new exciting patch. It was slightly harder to find willing volunteers for the long walk at 6am through the spiny forest to get to a different shallow bed! This has been an exciting new project as the beds here haven't been mapped in any detail before and we are now getting a much clearer idea of which species we find in the different areas, including some species of seagrass that have never been seen in this part of the world before.

Hopefully over the coming weeks we will be able to look at the beds that are further away from Andavadoaka, which means that we should be going on some more camping trips. These are always fun, as we simply find a nice beach close to a village and sleep there for the night next to a campfire, whilst the women of the village bring us freshly cooked fish and rice. Again, it's usually easy to find willing volunteers for these jobs.


After one of the best sleeps I've ever had, in a proper bed, and for more than four hours, I awoke to an absolutely pristine environment. Cameras out (and unlikely to be put away anytime soon) we all started taking hordes of photos of the beach adjacent to our homely little huts before heading off to breakfast. When you're in a new and exciting place for the first time a stale piece of bread doesn't seem like all that bad an option for breakfast. However, even at this early point people were already starting to slightly resemble fire-breathing piranhas at the sight of marmite and peanut butter.

After breakfast we undertook the obligatory tour of the site and subsequent familiarization with Blue Ventures protocols. The tour was loads of fun; the protocols were boring, but important, and also served as a fantastic insight into the true isolation and remoteness of Andavodoaka. After only a few days, it is this remoteness that seems to be a stable and highly rewarding facet of the overall volunteer experience.

Lunch was goat curry Yes! Proper red meat is rare out here and a fantastic luxury when it shows up on your plate. With all the goats around, you also start to wonder what may have happened to the black and white spotty that used to routinely sip at your shower run-off, yet seems to have suddenly and mysteriously disappeared overnight.

Having passed our swim test earlier that day, a 400 meter doggy paddle, with the current, in about a meter of water, we could all properly go for a swim. A brief stint of snorkelling followed, however, with not much to see and six weeks of diving almost everyday ahead of us we chose to just laze about in the swimming pool of clear water instead, not a bad compromise at all.

As day quickly grew into night, it's interesting how quickly the sun sets here, we made our way down to the local village for our meet and greet session with the Nahudas. The Nahudas are essentially the village elders, and as such their views and opinions are held in high esteem and their influence widely felt. Furthermore, they are vital to the maintenance and sustainability of Blue Ventures' working relationship with the local Vezo population. We met the Nahudas at one of the local Epi Bars, where we all introduced ourselves (a slightly lengthy process as everything had to be translated into Malagasy), and in return received a heartfelt and warm welcome before the party started. It's also interesting to note that most of the Nahudas, as the village elders, are aged somewhere in their thirties, an ominous reminder of the poverty and lack of infrastructure rife throughout Madagascar that affects people's lives on a daily basis.

Yet all things considered, you will struggle to ever find a Malagasy person who isn't smiling and they definitely know how to throw a party. Official greetings quickly gave way to song and dance and toka gasy. It should carefully be noted at this point that toka gasy is largely indistinguishable from petrol, it burns at about the same rate, smells the same, is about as equally as damaging to your insides, yet cost about 20 times less, making it even more nasty. One glass of the stuff will ensure the worst hangover you've ever had, after two you'll start reciting obscure Monty Python quotes with pure clarity. If you make it to four, you are likely succumb to a demonic stupor, your night ending as you try to summon forth your long lost Malagasy ancestors to purge yourself of the pick-axe wielding lemur that has taken up residence in the left side of your skull.

Thus although our meeting with the Nahuda's is a little fuzzy round the edges to all involved, we definitely had an awesome time in one of the most unique bars you'll ever set foot in. All in all it was a fantastic way to cap off a fun and introductory day to the culture, environment, people, and way of life that we would be immersing ourselves in, in the coming weeks.

BBC Photo Journal

Andavadoaka, the location of Blue Ventures' conservation research site, is featured in a new photo journal on the BBC website about shark fishing in Madagascar.

The article quotes Blue Ventures' scientist Volanirina Ramahery about the threats shark fishing poses to the region's endangered sea turtles, which often get caught in fishing nets.

Last year Blue Ventures launched the first long-term shark and turtle monitoring programme in Madagascar, the largest programme of its kind in the entire West Indian Ocean.

At least 51 species of shark and six species of sea turtle live off the coasts of Madagascar. Blue Ventures is monitoring the capture of shark and turtles by local fishermen, and is developing conservation plans to ensure the animals are not hunted out of existence.