To say Week 7 was heavily anticipated is an understatement. Many of us had spent hours before we even touched down in Madagascar combing through photos of previous groups, and some of the most captivating pictures came from the cross-country trip. From the dry, extreme landscape of the Spiny Forest, with its thousand-year-old baobabs, to the white sand beaches of Ifaty, framed by the sun setting over the Mozambique Channel, these new landscapes were far removed from the rainforest we had come to call home. Piling onto the bus, the excitement was almost palpable. As someone who’s never been very good at sleeping on buses, I stared out the window for most of every drive, watching the towns and villages and zebu whip by as the landscape changed.
Typical zebu road block, somewhere in Southern Madagascar
Ifaty was the place I had been most excited for, being an ocean girl at heart. I also had set it up that I would be able to start my advanced SCUBA certification while on the coast, which was something I had been wanting to do for years at this point. So, when we at last pulled into the Bamboo Club after days of driving and desert hikes, it took me all of 5 minutes before I was in the water. We had caught the sunset from the side of the road, and it was already dark when we arrived, but the water was still so warm, and felt amazing after the sweaty bus ride.
Our first activity planned for Ifaty was snorkeling in a marine protected area, and I was so excited for everyone to experience a tropical reef. After the group geared up with fins, masks, and life jackets, we all climbed into traditional boats called pirogues, and headed out to the reef.
Expert pirogue handling by our fantastic guides
The sailors maneuvered around the tiny vessel with incredible ease, walking way out on to the reaches of the runners to catch just the right amount of wind. It truly felt like we were in Moana. This particular patch of reef, being a protected area, had Malagasy guardians tasked with ensuring no fishing took place inside the boundaries. From 6 am to 6 pm every day, these individuals would sit in their boats and watch over the reef, making sure that every visitor paid the fee that kept the area maintained, and that no damage came to the corals. Shortly after we arrived, and tied our boats to the buoys, a guardian came over to check in with our group. Watching the interaction was incredibly interesting, and I was touched by how much the guardians seemed to care for the area.
The weather was perfect while we swam and explored the coral, and I loved seeing how excited everyone was about being in the water. A lot of people hadn’t been snorkeling in years, and some had never been, so it was an incredible experience to be in the marine protected area.
Alicia and Ian cheesing while taking a quick breather over the reef
There were hundreds of fish everywhere we turned, and at one point, Alicia and I even got to listen to a parrotfish crunching away on coral. Despite all the life and movement surrounding us as we swam, there was still a saddening amount of damage to the reef. Between the bleached coral, the broken coral, and the bright purple coral disease visible, it was clear that the reef we were seeing was supposed to look vastly different. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like had the reef been in its prime.
Soon, it was time to head back in on the boats, and we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the beach and by the pool. We were lucky enough to be staying mere feet from the beach, so the sunset was unbelievable.
First sunset in Ifaty
The following day, I split off from the group to begin my SCUBA course. There was a series of 5 dives required for the certification, which included a night dive. As someone who has never been super comfortable in the dark, I was a little worried to hit the reef equipped only with a small light and an even smaller backup. The first impression I had when I arrived at the reef was how different everything seemed. Having just done navigation dives at this same site during the early morning, I hadn’t expected everything to look so different. Even the reef itself, a stable structure, appeared strange and new, as the corals were open and feeding, giving everything a fuzzy appearance.
Swim-through at 27 metres – Canyons Dive
The most nerve wracking part of the night dive was cutting the flashlights to practice locating a backup in the pitch darkness. But as soon as we hit the switches, thousands of tiny pin prick sparks lit up around us, illuminating every movement. I was used to the phosphorescent plankton that bloom in late August in the Long Island Sound, but to be completely surrounded by bioluminescence, with no other source of light, was an alien experience.
The last two of the five dives took place as the sun was rising over the Mozambique Channel, which was an unforgettable sight. These dives were the deep dives, 30 metres down, past the breakers out in the open ocean. I was, to say the least, pretty terrified to do these dives. But as soon as we hit the water, I was in love. The first site was Bevato, an enormous wall of coral reef 100 feet down. We were lucky enough to have incredible visibility, and I had never been in water so blue. There were hundreds of schooling fish while we drifted along the reef, absorbing the vibrancy and life surrounding us. From mustache triggerfish bigger than a basketball, down to juvenile clown fish smaller than my pinkie, the reef was thrumming with movement.
Grumpy anemonefish spotted in the Canyons
While we swam along, we ran into divers from Reef Doctor, a marine conservation group, conducting coral surveys. To watch them work was an incredible experience, and solidified my desire to work in a similar environment, doing meaningful work. As part of the requirements for this dive, I had to observe the color difference in a slate that I had brought to depth with me, and note how the colors were different in the underwater conditions. This lesson was highlighted when my dive instructor Anne was bit, hard, by a particularly voracious moray eel. The blood seeping out of the cuts on her finger appeared emerald green. All too soon, it was time to ascend, and move on to the next dive.
The next dive was also a deep one, and aptly named Canyons. The reef had formed natural canyons and swim-throughs full of life, with almost as many fish as Bevato. For this dive, I had to identify corals, algae, and sponges, and was blown away by the incredible diversity. In every crack and crevice, there was something new and foreign for me to look at (like this crazy sea slug).
A crazy sea slug
I could’ve picked any square meter and spent hours watching everything that happened inside of it. Even the water seemed alive and we floated through it. With the end of the Canyon dive came the completion of my advanced certification, something I am extremely grateful to have been able to accomplish in such a beautiful area.
All the reef fishes
With the success of the first round of snorkeling, we headed out again, this time to a different location. The wind was stronger today, and the pirogues flew along the surface of the water. In no time, we were out to the reef. This area had a lot more seagrass, and because of that, a lot more juvenile fish. There were anthias every were, squaring up to us as we snorkeled by, defending their little slices of the reef. Juvenile grouper flitted in and out of the crevices in rocks, hiding from us in their rocky homes. After only a short time, we had to head back to shore, as the winds had picked up and so had the surf. The sailors didn’t want to risk the pirogues getting stuck in high waves, so we hit the beach early, and explored before lunch. Coming in early had its perks, because we got to watch the Vezo fisherman pull in their nets, and start to prep our lunch. The skill and ease with which they cleaned all the fish and lobster they caught for us was incredible. Even more incredible was how good the food was when it was finally time to eat. Nothing had ever tasted so fresh.
After the meal, some of us opted to head back to the Bamboo Club via the boats, while the rest of us hopped on the bus for a nice shower, and to start packing. To finish off our dreamy beach vacation, it felt only right to lay out on the sand and look for shooting stars. While the entire cross country trip was an incredible experience, and we had the opportunity to see so many amazing places across Madagascar, to me, Ifaty will always be my favorite stop.