Last day unlike any other by Ian Passe

This last week of Study Abroad Madagascar Fall 2017 was unlike the rest of them. Most of our time wasn’t spent in the forest or traveling it was dominated by independent study projects, preparing for our end-of-semester presentations at the University of Fianarantsoa (Fianar), packing and saying goodbye. For many of us the beginning of the week started in wildly different places. Some of the students were out in the rainforest tracking lemurs, frogs, mammals, birds and the elusive Ravenala madagascariensis. Some students were spending long hours in the laboratories studying the intricacies of ancient hippo bones and modern gut bacteria. Others, like myself, were spending their days migrating from couch to couch on our floor’s lounge sorting through data and calculating statistical significance. But by Thursday night we were all back on the same page: preparing our slideshows for Friday’s rehearsal and Saturday’s presentation.

I think that Saturday was difficult for all of us. We began the day with the hour-long bus ride to Fianar, nervously anticipating presenting our independent projects to more than a few notable audience members.

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The Distinguished Prof. Pat Wright of Stony Brook University

Among those in attendance were Stony Brook University’s own Distinguished Professor, Dr. Patricia Wright, our instructors and TAs Tharcisse, Franck and Alicia, all of the CVB senior staff and many other CVB staff members, the  Vice-President and the Deans of Science and literature Faculties of the University of Fianaratsoa and unbenounced to us, multiple members of Madagascar’s various ministries. On top of all of those notable individuals, a few hundred university students made their way in to watch us speak (for a few it was required).

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Some of the notable audience members at Fianarantsoa University

After being opened for by a speech from of the university’s vice presidents we began, one by one announcing our names, our topics and stumbling over our words trying to explain our projects, motivations, data, graphs, results, discussions and future research directions in eight minutes or less. Honestly, I think that everyone was spectacular. Although I understand why some people may not think that they were so great. I was so nervous about my presentation that once I got to the front and saw a production grade camera trained right on me I pretty much blacked out and don’t remember anything until I sat back down in my chair but everyone assures me that I did well.

As tense as that all sounds, it isn’t what made Saturday so difficult for us. We all knew that it was one of our last days together but for many of us it hadn’t quite set in yet. That is until after our presentations and a long round of questions about them our instructors stood up and began to announce our graduation ceremony.

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A long round of questions

Time seemed to slow down for me as I watched Tharcisse hand out Stony Brook banners to those students who were standing close to him with the instructions to hold them up for pictures. I was almost too stunned to move when I heard my name called out, directing me to make my way to the front and shake hands with Tharcisse, Dr. Wright, Benjamin, the Vice-President of the University of Fianar and Franck and to receive my diploma. All of a sudden the end of the semester was real.

Along with our diplomas we each received a shirt that reads “Study Abroad 2017” that features a different animal that we have had the privilege of seeing during our stay. And with each shirt we also received an unsettling feeling that it was time to start saying goodbye. The following celebratory lunch was one filled with awkward silences embarrassed tears. Nobody would be without each other for at least another day or two but it was as if the graduation ceremony broke some universally agreed upon but completely unspoken rule that we weren’t supposed to talk about the end.

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How will we be without each other for one day?

Of course, people spoke about which foods they were going to eat when they got home since week two (maybe even Maromizaha) but we never discussed what leaving each other would mean. Lunch culminated with dozens if not hundreds of photographs that we needed to take to solidify in our hearts that even though over the next couple of months we wouldn’t have each other as roommates and classmates, the memories would remain solid in our hearts. But nevertheless it was the beginning of the end.

Sunday was completely filled with packing, last minute to-dos like visiting the rainforest or town one last time, and goodbyes.

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Good bye dance!

Sitting on the couch at 11:30 p.m. with the head of a dear friend who swore that she wouldn’t fall asleep snoozing away in my lap I remember thinking about how the last night had to be the hardest. Oh how wrong I was. Unlike most of my peers I haven’t left CVB. I’m still right here where we’ve been this whole time. I stood on the side of the road as everyone loaded the bus with their luggage and then hopped in and drove away, but really that wasn’t so bad. The hardest part has been waking up each morning and not seeing everyone’s faces at breakfast (or after breakfast for those who preferred sleeping late), the emptiness of the lounge and the lack of movie nights. There were many times throughout the trip that I felt homesick and this is no different. I am feeling sick missing the the time that we spent together. I am feeling sick missing my family. I can’t wait to see you all again. Enjoy your Thanksgivings with your relatives, sleep well and eat even better, enjoy the comforts of life at home. But keep in mind: home is where the heart is and I don’t want to speak for all of you but my heart is at CVB.

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My heart is at CVB!

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The Beginning of the End – Our Last Full Week in Madagascar by Katie Carlson

 

Today the 12th of November marks the beginning of our last full week here in Madagascar! For many of us, the day began with breakfast and a hot cup of coffee to break through the morning mist and sleepy haze. It’s the tail end of the weekend, and students and researchers alike are moving slower than usual. However, we are still getting some work hours logged in. Aside from a  few hours spent at a housewarming party for Simon, our in-house doctor, I have been spending my days organizing endless data on various excel sheets. The last week at CVB has undoubtedly been the quietest week thus far, with many of us camping in forests or visiting villages to work on data collection for our independent projects. Our projects range a large span of topics, including biodiversity surveys, lemur behavior, threats to biodiversity, habitat restoration, environmental education, health and hygiene, and malagasy culture.  

My research project falls into the biodiversity survey category; I will be comparing the diversity of birds, lemurs, and plants from three separate fragments of forest to help determine whether or not diversity is potentially influenced by forest size, location, and isolation. Instead of collecting data independently, I have been working with the Tropical Environment Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network group based in Ranomafana National Park, and using data that they have collected over the course of the last three years. Once a year, over the course of approximately three days, researchers went out to three separate forest sites : Mangevo, Ambatolahidimy, and Ambodivoangy. At the sites, as many as three different transects were followed, and every large tree, bird, and lemur species sighted was recorded. Of the locations, Mangevo is the only site that is fully isolated from a larger plot of forest, and the working assumption of my research is that this will result in a lower diversity of plants and animals in comparison to the other forested sites. My work largely includes organizing, compiling, and analyzing data, which has taken an excessive amount of time considering my lack of technological prowess.

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Eulemur rufifrons, one of the species of lemur in my biodiversity study : photo by James Lee

Aside from data work, myself and other students have been filling our time with packing, cleaning, and last minute souvenir shopping as we prepare to head home next week. On a more fun note, we have been able to throw a few activities into our schedule as well, such as hiking and basket weaving. Learning to basket weave is a much more difficult task than one would think. For several hours, many of us were crammed into a small room accompanied by several Malagasy women, and piles of colorful raffia to work with. Although we worked all morning, many of us only had small, hand sized baskets to show for our efforts, while the Malagasy women wove circles around us. All in all, the experience was both a wonderful cultural experience, and a great way to get our minds off of coursework for a while.

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Jst some pals enjoying the swimming and sunshine in Isalo

The thought of going home is both exciting and bittersweet. On the one hand, going home means friends, family, food, and the holiday season, but it also means leaving the rainforest, the animals, and all the friends we have made along the way. After spending every waking hour with the same 21 people, it’s hard to imagine hanging out with anyone else. But with every study abroad, there are always people and places to go home to, and normal practices to fall back into. It’s crazy to think that we have almost finished up a semester of college in the time that we have been here, considering this program has felt largely like an extended vacation with readings and hikes thrown in. It seems like just a few weeks ago we were camping in Maromizaha, and learning everyone’s name. Finishing this program, for myself and a handful of other students here, means that we are now only one semester away from finishing our undergraduate career. What a scary thought.

Until then, you will find me spending the rest of my days at CVB soaking in the rainforest, finishing my project, and mentally preparing myself for the jet lag that will hit me upon return to the states. Perhaps another trip to Madagascar is even in my future.

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A bomb photo of me with my chameleon friend

 

 

Individual project time by Rojo Ravelojaona

First I would like to thank all the staff who organizes this fall study abroad 2017. And also all the students who have participated in this program.

After the cross country trip we started to setup our own projects. Our dormitory was quiet because some of the students started to leave CVB to collect their data from campsites in the forest. During these last two weeks I also camped twice for my individual project. I chose to study Ranomafana frogs. So I’m going to talk about this amazing adventure…

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Beautiful frogs of Ranomafana National Park

I did my first camping trip in Valohoaka (VALO), a primary forest within the Ranomafana National Park (RNP), over 6 km from CVB. I went there with two other study abroad students and my guide. My guide’s name is Dominique and he is a serious guide. Along the trail to reach the campsite Dominique started teaching me about the frogs of RNP, and then quoted a list of frogs that we expect to see during our work. Once we arrived in the campsite we setup our kitchen and our tent, and then we went to looking for the best site to conduct the frog inventories. According to my own criteria and the experience of Dominique we selected appropriate study sites and start the first night-walk.

Dominique and I spent eight to ten hours a day looking for frogs. And upon returning in the campsite I learned more about the frogs especially about the frogs of RNP. We found many species of frogs and most of them were so amazing as well as their behavior and their morphology like an adult Ivohimanita Madagascar Frog (Mantidactylus majori) that take care of their offsprings, and the ability of Grandidier’s Madagascar Frog (M. grandidieri), a huge frog that can grow up to more than 100 mm long, to camouflage in their surrounding environment. Beside frogs we found also some species of reptiles, among them the famous Leaf-Tailed Gecko, the gecko that has flattened on a tree trunk imitating its color.

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Leaf tail gecko. Can you find it?

My second camping was in Vohiparara; it’s one of the touristic sites in RNP. It was just fourteen minutes drive from CVB and fifteen minutes walk to the campsite. After arriving at the second campsite, Dominique and I established study sites following the same processes as in the Valo. We got less species number in Vohiparara than Valo but we found one of the prettiest frog in Madagascar; it was Baron’s mantella (Mantella baroni).

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Mantella baroni

 

These camping trips were satisfying; I got enough data and exciting forest adventure. I came back at CVB on Friday.  Even if the forest was awesome, I am so happy to be back and see all my friends here. So now, I’m going to review some of the lectures and the readings that we have already had regarding data analyses, and get ready for presenting my results next week at the University of Fianarantsoa.

                                                           

 

 

 

A rewarding adventure and lots of first time by Rohin-tsoa Ravelosaona

It all started on September 04, 2017, and since then I have had the opportunity to follow this program “Stony Brook University Madagascar study abroad Fall 2017” with students coming from the other side of the world, i.e. from the USA. In fact, I want to thank all people near or far who are involved in the organization of this wonderful program.

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The first dance!

Ten weeks have already passed, different places in Madagascar have been explored, we were moving from one type of ecosystem to another, while discovering many species, most of which are found nowhere except in my country, Madagascar. Studying these species with these new people from afar has made me feel the importance of my country and its vast biodiversity, and that we must act to conserve and value this wealth.

Many moments have stuck with me, especially during the cross-country trip. Aside from discovering the beauty in nature of the island on every move, I have also enjoyed doing a remarkable activity. Snorkeling in the middle of the ocean (Ifaty) with the whole team, something that I have never done before. I was totally scared for this first time, I drank a lot of seawater (2 to 3 liters I do not know anymore), I did not know how to use the tube, fortunately there were Rojo, Rachel and the local guides who helped me. Then for the second time at sea, I was less scared but could not enjoy it long enough because the ocean started to get a little bumpy. However it remains an unforgettable first experience at sea on my list.

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Break time in the ocean with friends

Since last October 24, we’ve been back from the cross country and settled at the center Valbio Ranomafana National Park, back in the microclimate of the park, in all its freshness. Then the evening of Halloween came, there was a party in the dinning room, a lot of people were there, the study abroad team, the staff of the Valbio center, and some researchers. Everyone was happy, and it’s always fun to have a party in Madagascar. In any case, for me it was my first celebration of Halloween.

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The very first halloween!

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Delicious halloween cake!

Then after that, it was time to focus on our own “independent projects”. Some students left to camp in the forest, others surveyed villages and or assessed biodiversity in nearby forests and did not have to camp but went to the field and returned to CVB the same day. My project is assessing the success of the reforestation project in the Valbio center. I worked with the reforestation team, and we chose to assess two sites including Ankevohevo and Ambodiriana. Because the survival rate of seedlings continues to decline, we will try to find out what the problems are. So, I collected data as much as possible, such as the inventory of young plants that are still alive, their respective heights, collected soil samples to test the nutrient contents … and now we have just a week left to analyze the data and prepare the presentation. It is stressful, but good preparation for everyone.

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CVB tree nursery and reforestation poject

Finally, being able to communicate with these native English speakers has been a great learning experience. It was a little hard to understand at first, because most of them speak very quickly, I had to say this sentence over and over: “Can you repeat please? “. Although, being close to them during our semester has really helped me to understand this language, and I want to thank them for helping!

 

The Ups, the Downs and Everything in Between by Emily Gaines

It’s week eight and Madagascar has been quite the rollercoaster. Despite the happy faces and exciting adventures that fill Facebook and Instagram, a lot of us have been struggling with the emotional challenges of being away from home along with the physical challenges of long hikes and food adaptations. One thing I’ve learned throughout my life that has especially been true here is that life is full of ups and downs. My therapist once described it to me as a sine curve on a graph. If you are at the bottom, you can be assured that life will get better when you keep moving forward. And when you are at the top, well, enjoy every moment so you can remember and hold onto that happiness when you inevitably end up back at that low point. Obviously, that is a very simplified version of real life, but thinking this way has always helped me handle the low moments. So, this blog is dedicated to celebrating those ups and recognizing those downs through giving voice to both our triumphs and our trials as we move through this tropical paradise.

As we flew across the Mozambique Channel and watched the island come into sight, the landscape seemed unreal. In the capital I was overwhelmed by streets filled with people and omby (humped cattle). We spent the first day exploring Antananarivo, the capital city, and getting to know one another. We went to the Queen’s Palace, saw an aye-aye at the zoo and ate at a restaurant with a beautiful overlook of the city. Yet that night, the first disaster hit. I realized I had lost my passport. Don’t ask me how, I still am not sure. But if it was going to happen at least my timing was perfect—we were still in Tana, so it only took one day to collect all the paperwork necessary to reapply!

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At Bellevue, Maromizaha

When the weekend arrived we set off on our first camping trip at Maromizaha Reserve, Andasibe. There, I was able to put the missing passport out of my mind and enjoy my first encounter with the unique biodiversity of Madagascar. In the forest there, we observed and followed the largest of the lemur species, and my personal favorite: the Indri (Indri indri). Their haunting, beautiful calls were surreal. After tracking indri during the day, night hikes were filled with chameleons, frogs, and various wide-eyed, nocturnal lemurs. That experience was the reminder I needed of why we came here.

When we arrived back in Tana, I stayed to finish my passport application before I finally traveled the long, windy drive down to Centre ValBio (CVB) a day behind my peers. At CVB, I spent a blissful week filled with drawing by the river, observing lemurs on hikes, exploring the town of Ranomafana (just 7kn down the road from CVB), meeting the researchers and artists who work at CVB, and even playing with dogs! On top of that, I identified a new goal: see as many creepy crawlies of Madagascar as possible! From giant millipedes, to the numerous moths that seem to spend more time inside than out, to strange iridescent beetles, this place seemed out of a dream. Yet, as we snuggled into giant blankets and watched Netflix together, this place quickly became our home.

Then life, as it does, continued along the sine curve and I hit my next low—the intense awareness of the devastating poverty in this country. I struggled on a personal level with being conscious of how privileged I was to be born in middle class America and wondered if I was responding appropriately to what I was seeing every day. A friend assured me that it would be weird for me not to be struggling with my privilege. As we visited villages I was troubled by what I understood as a stark difference in living conditions compared to what I was used to: small mud houses, chickens and ducks wandering, garbage scattered about, and children running around in dirty clothes asking us for “bon-bon” or sweets. Intellectually, I was aware of the poverty here; I had learned the statistics and seen the photos. But until you travel to a place and interact with the people there, you can’t truly comprehend the reality.

My response to this realization, has been to try my best to learn as much about the culture through talking with local people, and investigating the support organizations in place (like PIVOT, a local NGO that provides health care and emergency help to remote villages). My experiences here have motivated me to make certain lifestyle changes when I get home to be more environmentally and socially conscious, as well as made me aware of, and grateful for, the opportunities and support system I have in my life.

One thing I think this experience had done for all of us is force us to question career choices over and over again. For myself I wonder: Do I want to do research? Maybe I should teach? Maybe I can go into activism through theater? Maybe I should do animal rehabilitation? Do I need to think more big picture and work in conservation? How do I help the people as well as the environment? I, like many of my peers, still don’t have answers for these questions and as such, we are all in a continual state of existential angst.

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Giraffe-necked weevil, Ranomafana

Hiking in Ranomafana—a fool-proof salve for any sort of existential crises has provided us with plenty of time to consider these and other of life’s big questions. One weekend a few of us chose to do a long hike into town. It took us 5.5 hours, but brought us through parts of the park that still had primary, undisturbed, old growth forest. There were giant trees, ferns and vines. I even got to see mating giraffe weevils (Trachelophorus giraffa) (one of the more funky bugs here). On another impromptu hike to go study at Bellevue (a little platform viewing area in the park, so named for the scenic vista it offers) we got sucked into a lemur seeking adventure! We ended up spotting 5 different species, including the only two Greater Bamboo Lemurs (Prolemur simus) in the park.

These hikes lead up to our week long camping trip in Mangevo. As people mentioned in previous blog entries, getting there was quite the ordeal. Eight hours of hiking through rice patties, up and down hill sides, and then straight up into the primary forest of Mangevo. It was one of the singular most incredible experiences in many of our lives. And yet, at the end of the camping trip the blues hit us again: RAIN, RAIN, AND MORE RAIN! Most of my personal journal entries for those days started out as “everything is wet and sad.” Even the lemurs were sad! Yet, we struggled through and were rewarded with warm showers and blankets when we returned to CVB.

The next weeks were spent coming up with research project ideas. I had been struggling to choose what I wanted to study because although I really like learning about different endemic species, I wanted to find something that looked more ‘big picture’. Then we got a lecture about the TEAM Network.

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My independent project: Camera traps & terrestrial vertebrates

The TEAM Network, or Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network, is an international organization that collects long-term data on the diversity of different tropical rainforests by teaching monitoring methods to local communities. In Madagascar, the TEAM group collects data on climate, vegetation, and terrestrial vertebrates. Learning about their research inspired my own project—to access species diversity and richness over a variety of forest versus forest types. Specifically, I hope compare data from within the park, from a fragment still connected to the park and from an isolated fragment, in order to assess how effective conservation methods have been in conserving native terrestrial vertebrates. To do this, I had to set up camera traps, which are non-invasive, motion sensing cameras. Working with Laza, the TEAM coordinator working out of CVB, I was able to personally set up a portion of the cameras before I had to leave for the cross country trip and through that work, I learned what types of areas were best to set up the cameras, how to test if the camera is working, and how to take notes on the surrounding area.

Things were going great and then, just before we were meant to leave for our cross country trip, the plague hit. Can you believe it? The black plague! Luckily, it seemed to be contained to north of us, but we still took precautions when planning the trip—mostly by avoiding big cities. It didn’t stop us from seeing the amazing national parks though! It amazed me how only a few hours west of Ranomafana the landscape changed from greens to browns and reds. Giant rock formations scattered the landscape. At Isalo National Park we got to climb these formations! It was like being at the Grand Canyon. What made it so unique was that there were these oases tucked into the canyons. The natural pools there were like a tropical paradise.

Next stop: Ifaty. We stayed in bungalows on the water and fell asleep to the sound of the ocean waves—it was a peaceful and beautiful experience. Yet then, like clockwork- the sickness hit. Stop, don’t panic, it wasn’t the plague. But it did seem to take us out one by one, a combination of heat exhaustion and stomach sicknesses. I was one of the lucky ones; I was little nauseous the first night, but after going to bed early I was fine the rest of the time. It was hard to see the other students suffering. But as always, we chugged through and still went on amazing adventures. My personal favorite was walking around the beach next to our hotel at night. It was low tide at night, and everywhere you stepped there were little crabs scuttling around. Plus, I found a new creepy crawler: the Madagascar hissing cockroach!

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A night walk on the beach during low tide

Now we are back in CVB, preparing to start our independent projects. Unfortunately, the plague has been getting worse. I am not worried about one of us catching it because we know the symptoms and we have the medication available to us. But it is still shocking to hear about the numbers of deaths and I only hope more aid comes to help the families affected by this spreading sickness. We have been taking precautions to protect ourselves, which unfortunately has affected many people’s research projects. “Start thinking of Plan B” is not what you want to hear several weeks in to working on project proposals. We have been on lockdown at CVB. To say we have been going a little stir crazy is an understatement.

To handle the situation: Hikes and movie nights! This week was filled with morning hikes in the park. After important statistics lessons from our wonderful TA, we spent afternoons and evenings working on our proposals while simultaneously binge watching TV shows and movies. It almost feels like college life at home! However, it only takes one look out the window at the backyard rainforest to remember how truly amazing it is to be spending a semester in the mysterious and magical Madagascar.

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“You can be assured that life will get better when you keep moving forward”

With Friends Like These, Who Needs Anemones? By Mary Bertschi

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

Fishies

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.

 

 

On Shifting Landscapes by James Lee

The differences in landscapes, and what may be found there, become apparent with travel, but the results of such travel may differ greatly depending where you are in the world. If you were to travel the United States by car, bus or by rail, the differences between areas seem minor at first, but with greater distances the differences compound on one another, and eventually the landscape becomes foreign from the place from where you departed, as one may see as they travel from forest to grassland to desert, or from cities to suburbs to farmland. But Madagascar does not easily fit into this model – as so little of the original vegetation remains (some believe that less than ten percent of the original forest is left), the remarkable locales for which Madagascar is often known by the rest of the world for area as islands in a sea of degraded landscapes, and thus the amount of contrast between them is staggering.

palms

A scene from the Mangevo primary rainforest area in Ranomafana National Park  © James Lee

Much like in North America, changes in the biogeography of Madagascar can be observed by travelling from north to south and from east to west. Traditionally, the eastern part of the island lay covered in tropical rainforest, a result of warm winds from the Indian Ocean depositing moisture on its lowlands and eastern mountains. While most of the forest is now gone or degraded, there is still a strip of rainforest covering the eastern mountain range, which, while imperiled, are brimming with life. Here may be found a variety of Madagascar’s incredibly diverse biota, including lemur species such as the indri (Indri indri), the largest living species of lemur which may be found in the northern rainforests, as well as the golden bamboo lemur (Hapalemur aureus), whose discovery prompted primatologist Dr. Patricia Wright to advocate for the founding of Ranomafana National Park, where Centre ValBio is located. In addition to lemurs, these forests are home to a dizzying array of reptiles, frogs and birds, as well as a rich but mostly undescribed invertebrate fauna. Among its plant life, in these forests may be found the coveted but highly threatened rosewood trees, as well as the iconic traveler’s palm trees that are emblematic to Madagascar, and fern trees that harken to Madagascar’s long isolation since the Mesozoic era.

To travel from one of Madagascar’s biomes to another may be somewhat jarring to an uninitiated person, in departing from the lush, verdant rainforests of the east, and traversing across the degraded landscapes of the central plateau, often consisting of brown, non-native grasses on which people graze their zebu (cattle) and other livestock, and the red soil that is found across Madagascar. Yet while it may be difficult to determine changes in the vegetation on this journey, one may use other cues, be it the increasing heat but decreasing humidity, or changes in the cultural landscape itself. One may notice that as one travels further south that there is less rice cultivation, as the Betsileo and Tanala peoples that inhabit the areas near Ranomafana often practice, and more livestock grazing, such as the Bara people of the central-south, who are often noted for their relationship with their zebu in their culture. One may also remark that cultural practices in the southern parts of the island are more “traditional” as opposed to some in the north, as evidenced by the stark and elaborate tombs built by various cultures that permeate throughout the landscape.

Granite

Andja Community Reserve © James Lee

When one finally reaches the intact patches of habitat of the central region, they may find an extraordinary array of endemic plants and animals, including the incredibly iconic ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta), as well as succulents and other plants that appear to have come out of a science fiction movie, such as the admirable elephant’s foot (Pachypodium spp.). These incredible species are remnants of the deciduous dry forest that once dominate central and western Madagascar, which was easier to be degraded as a result of being easier to burn for agriculture. In certain areas, such as parts of Isalo National Park, one may be forgiven for thinking that they were in sub-Saharan Africa (albeit without any large game species).

 

Perhaps the most distinct among Madagascar’s locales is the spiny desert biome that covers Madagascar’s easternmost and southern portions. As it is so dry in these regions, practicing large-scale agriculture is often not viable, and many people here make a living from raising goats and cattle, or from fishing by the coast. One may also note that while Madagascar has immense cultural diversity across the entire island, it is especially apparent here – ethnic groups including Vezo, Sakalava and Bara are all found in these regions, and foreign residents (predominantly French and some people of Arabic descent) may be found with greater prevalence along the coasts. Despite being a desert, the biodiversity of this region is stunning – there is an incredibly high rate of endemism among vascular plants in this region, especially among succulents, which have evolved to be highly resistant to evapotranspiration like cacti, as well as the iconic baobab trees, which have slow growth rates but can live for thousands of years. Many species of reptiles and birds are endemic to this biome as well.

As the spiny desert biome borders the western and southern coasts, one may see mangrove forests dot the coastline, which are just fragments of once extensive habitat, as well as sandy beaches that may epitomize the idea of a “tropical getaway”. In some areas, coral reefs may be found a short distance from shore, although much of the reefs are suffering from bleaching due to increasing ocean acidification and climate change, among other factors. But these habitats still add to the incredible biological and cultural diversity which permeates across Madagascar’s landscapes, and while they are increasingly fleeting and scarce, they become all the more precious and entrancing.

sunset

Sunset over the Mozambique Channel in Ifaty © James Lee