As if spending a week spotting whale sharks wasn’t enough!
Another aspect of the first half of the itinerary was to experience some of the other flora and fauna in and around Nosy Be. So one morning we set off to see Nosy Tanikely, a marine reserve with a lovely, preserved reef. We snorkeled there for a bit before heading farther out to look for more whale sharks.
Back at Sakatia, afternoons were for napping or swimming with giant green sea turtles in the sea grasses by the lodge. Alternately, there was a lot of nothing to do if one was so inclined. In hindsight, I’m meshing together days here and calling out highlights because I stopped trying to keep track of sightings and particulars as the days melted into one under the hot sun. There was the afternoon I was sitting on the porch of my bungalow when two chickens very deliberately climbed the steps to have some water from my foot pail. There were brilliant sunsets overlooking the little sacred forest. There were early morning walks in the mangroves at low tide.
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On another morning, we were up and out early to get to a remote island called Nosy Iranja, a 3-hour boat ride out into the waters of the Mozambique Channel. We spotted fewer whale sharks as we entered the deeper (and choppier) water, but as we travelled, a pod of spinner dolphins joined us to play in the boat’s wake. And as we approached Iranja, we watched as a humpback whale family (mom, brand new calf, and dad) slowly cruised through the water, making their way out to sea (and apparently towards Antarctica); the baby getting used to its giant fins, slapping and playing in the water as they swam.
As if the magic of the sea creatures wasn’t sublime enough, we approached the beach where we were to spend the night in beachside “tents”. Pictures cannot do the setting justice, but close your eyes and imagine the whitest sand beach you can conjure, the warm turquoise waters painted in a rainbow of blues. We walked through a small village, up to the phare (lighthouse) at the top of the island, then down the other side to watch the sunset by a spit where at low tide one could walk across to yet another teeny island to hide away from the world. The mojito on the beach felt like an indulgent cherry on top.
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Our last day was spent on dry land, taking a walk through the paths in Parc National de Lokobe. Lokobe occupies most of the southern tip of Nosy Be and is home to 72 species of amphibians and reptiles, 48 species of birds, and even 2 species of lemurs that are considered microendemic to Nosy Be: the Nosy Be sportive lemur (you can see them in the photos below), and the Nosy Be mouse lemur.
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After a (frankly, unexpectedly hard) paddle out to the entrance via local wooden canoe called a pirogue, we entered the park to find more flora and fauna. Here, we saw a tree boa and other snakes, a variety of chameleons, and lemurs – including the very little and very adorable mouse lemur, who we saw curled up and sleeping in some palm fronds. Plied with a local lunch and plenty of fresh, ripe, mangoes (and jackfruit!), the group unanimously determined the outing (as well as the sea tow back to where we started) a roaring success.
Did you miss Part I of this adventure? Click here. Next stop: the mainland!
About 6 years ago, before the world went sideways and back when I had a regular habit of diving in far-flung places, I stumbled upon a post by a marine biologist with the Marine Megafauna Foundation talking about research he was doing on whale sharks in general, and in Madagascar in particular. The Mozambique channel is a whale shark hotspot, and apparently it was discovered that a particular stretch of ocean around Nosy Be had similarly attracted a large and healthy population. With whale sharks, both fortunately and unfortunately, comes tourism. So I was happy to see that an environmentally-aware wildlife travel company called Aqua-Firma partnered with MMF scientists to mix research with eco-conscious travel and came up with a formula to respectfully send willing adventurers to watch (and play) while the scientists did some of their work. I wanted in! It took 6 years, 2-1/2 of which Madagascar was closed to foreigners due to Covid, but I made it happen (and then some…).
I was to learn that locally, the Madagascar Whale Shark Project was well under weigh. Founded by the amazing Stella Diamant, the Project is leading research, education, and conservation efforts on the ground (and in the water) to study and protect these amazing creatures in and around Nosy Be and other areas of Madagascar.
Overall, I was in Madagascar for about 3 weeks. Here’s my telling of the adventure in several parts.
Sharks and palms: A fine line between ecotourism and impact
It starts on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean called Nosy Sakatia. Sakatia is just off Nosy Be, which is off the north-westerly end of Madagascar (which is in the Indian Ocean, off East Africa). The northwest of the country is littered with these idyllic white-sand tropical islands. It’s on one of these that Part I of my adventure was to start: 10 days at a little oasis called Sakatia Lodge for the above-mentioned whale shark trip.
Nosy Sakatia has its own sacred forest in which black lemurs, fruit bats, chameleons and other critters live. There are no cars…and an unwritten no shoes policy. In other words, my kind of place. So I arrived there a couple days before the itinerary was to begin in earnest to shut the rest of the world out, get some dives in, and take much-needed naps in the tropical air. Sakatia lies roughly 13° below the equator, so it’s late spring here, the opposite of the impending dreariness of autumn back home. The lodge resides in a small bay that opens to the waters between Nosy Be and the Mozambique channel proper.
A portent to the days to follow came in the form of a sighting of a small humpback whale greeting us in that little bay to say good morning before our first dive. Getting back in the water after not diving for nearly 4 years was like coming home.
It’s hard to explain diving to a non-diver, but it was like reinflating something within myself that had dried out. Just making bubbles underwater again felt like a gift. I’m happy to report that the corals are in remarkable shape, and although warming, the waters and its denizens seem to have withstood many of the fates of much of the (over-) developing world. So I spent 2 days diving: small reefs and sandy plateaus and even a small wreck that gave way to one of the most gorgeous coral gardens I’ve ever seen. I clocked my 200th dive on this trip, so it felt significant to dive with a team that appreciated the sheer joy of diving and natural wonder more than just delivering a guest experience. During the week, I’d do a couple more: a night dive and a final early morning dive on an exquisite reef that could double as a work of art. Back on the boat, I remarked to another diver that it looked like someone painted what a reef should look like.
On the evening of my 3rd day there, the rest of the group arrived: our fearful trip leader, an assortment of Brits, Scots, and Americans, and Stella, our whale shark researcher for the week. A genial group, some divers, some not, and even a couple on their honeymoon! Fingers crossed that the shark gods would deliver.
Lights out came early for me and I slept like a log, the dreamless sleep of recovery from 6 months of going non-stop. I woke most mornings with the sun. I was beginning to feel more human.
How to hunt for sharks
The daily plan was to head out into the sea after breakfast, in search of circling seabirds and tuna leaping on the surface, a froth that indicates bait balls of sardines and other tiny fish schooling in the waters below. In this part of the world, whale sharks feed on these tiny fish, so where there’s a bait ball there’s usually a whale shark.
ID: Each shark has a unique pattern, like a fingerprint. So for research, they are looking to identify resident and new sharks against the sharks in the Sharkbook international database. This is done by observing an area just over the left fin. Part of the process is easing into the water near the shark in order to get close enough to get an ID photo (the experts freedive), and when possible, the researchers attach tags: flagging and tagging, as it were. The wonder of it all is the work between the boat driver, the guide and the scientist to spot the bait balls and spot the shark and position the boat (quickly and safely) so we have the best chance to get in the water and see the animal. It’s all done quite orderly and safely, but seems a tad chaotic with the excitement never seeming to wane as we find shark after shark each day. We’d locate a shark, enter the water gently, and swim to (and with) the animal, in awe of each giant mouthful of teeny fish, of every elegant swim-by. It is breathtaking to watch the grace of these massive fish – and the ones here by Nosy Be are small in comparison (5-10 metres vs. more mature whale sharks that can be up to 15-20+ metres long).
Over the 5 days we were at sea, we spotted a total of 15 unique whale sharks (all male, as they trend in these waters) and a whopping 7 that the Project hadn’t previously identified. Fun fact: 9 of our sighted sharks were the first sighted this year (yay, us!). One shark, Ernest, has been a regular here for years…he was first identified in 2015.
To throw in bonus critters, we also saw mobula rays, two mantas, turtles, and schools and schools of the tiny baitfish that are so critical to the food chain for these marine giants. To date, and through the Project, there have been over 500 individual whale sharks identified in the waters off Nosy Be. When tags are deployed, they can be tracked and monitored for feeding and migration activity. It feels like they are doing important work to protect these gentle giants. I’m glad to have contributed minorly to the efforts.
I am so grateful to have spent this time here, but I’ll be honest, I’m worried about the sharks. Because if we were 10 people on a boat doing things the right and responsible way, there are or will be 10 boats that don’t. Research is important. So is education and conscious action and leaving soft footprints in the sand rather than the harsher kind. People like Stella and the Madagascar Whale Shark Project and the caring folks at Les Baleines Rand’eau are leading efforts to ensure this goes the right way. Read more about what they’re doing here.
I’ll be back there, of that I’m sure. It’s one of these places that works its way into your heart, delivering turquoise-infused dreams. Or maybe it was just the rhum arrangé.
Sometimes when the rain is pouring down outside and you’re on your last-minute packing frenzy for the next adventure, you pull up video from the last epic dive holiday and hope the Universe is kind and the water is clear and the land and sea critters cooperate and the forces of whatever conspire to allow the spaceship to fling you safely towards the little speck of an island in the middle of some faraway ocean…
Yeah, this is real. I took the footage myself. There are even some clips I should include but didn’t get around to editing (and, yes, at the end…the current was that strong!).
The tropical air hits my senses as I step off the plane and onto the tarmac. Warm, dense, smoky, organic air that wraps itself around you like a woolen blanket on a 27-degree (C) day. This air feels almost colourful and somehow different than the Central American jungle aromata I’ve experienced. There is a tinge of jasmine and spice and human je ne sais quoi…
I complete the form and hand it to the immigration officer. “How do you like your President Trump?” is the first question I’m asked on African soil as I hand over my US passport. And so, the first interaction here is laced with humour; the local smiles are infectious and inviting. I’m travelling with my co-adventurer, Chris, the Calvin to my inner Hobbes, and we’ve just landed in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous archipelago off the coast of Tanzania in East Africa. We’re not in Kansas anymore.
And so begins my first foray onto this new and exotic continent. We board the 12-seater Cessna that will transport us from bustling Ugunja (the main island, to which we’ll return at the end of the trip for a day of sightseeing) to rustic and less-travelled Pemba, for a week of diving in its pristine waters 50km to the north. I’ve been incredibly busy these past weeks, and have had little time to do much more than find lodging. So what I know of where we’re headed is roughly this: Pemba is a volcanic island (unlike Ugunja, which was attached to the mainland at some point in its geological evolution); as such, Pemba is purported to be hillier and more lush than its sister-isles. These are fertile spice islands, known worldwide for their quality cloves. They also grow cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. The dive sites are reportedly pristine. Electricity is via generator. Internet is sporadic. There is no hot water. Local fauna includes the galago or bushbaby. All my senses (tentacles?) are on high alert.
C and I are the only foreigners on the small plane (I, more foreign than he in these parts, since Americans are not travelling abroad much these days, especially to predominantly Muslim destinations) and I am seated next to a petite older woman with perfect skin. She’s wearing traditional Islamic dress, the Abaya and headscarf, and mouths prayers to herself for the duration of the flight. We two are the only women on board and she and I smile and nod at each other in greeting. The men chat in Swahili and take selfies. This flight feels no different than any of the other small puddle-jumpers I’ve taken in far-flung locales over the years, save the outfits; the cobalt and turquoise of the water as we fly over reminds me of what awaits.
Eddie picks us up in his air-conditioned van, and with good humour tells us of his life on Pemba. He is one of 5 children from one of his father’s 4 wives. In the back seat, we do quick math and estimate 28 siblings. We’re not-so subtly reminded that we’re the anomaly in a culture accustomed to child brides and polygamy. Real Housewives of Pemba could be a thing, I think, as Eddie alludes to the modern challenges inherent to these old customs.
I can’t help but feel, as we pass scores of half-built, thatch-roofed mud houses during this ride to our destination, that we’re meant to find gratitude for the plenty we have that enables this adventure in a land of have-not. Houses half-built due to lack of resources, the building of which I could probably fund with my meagre pocket money. It’s a mixed feeling: a respect for those who can do so much with so little and shame (or maybe it’s guilt) for having relatively much and with it buying hedonistic thrill. I find comfort in the fact that my bag contains some gifts for a local school in Zanzibar, which I will deliver at the end of the trip.
We bump and bounce across subtly-paved roads, dodging chickens and scrawny cows, motos, bicycles and pedestrians as we wend our way through Pemba’s remote villages to Swahili Divers and Gecko Nature Lodge on the northwest side of the island. It’s remote, for a given value of remote in this place. The nearest village is called Makangale, about 5km away. The jungled countryside is a lush and vibrant rainbow of greens; the ground, in contrast, is dusty and dry. Rainy season looms in the not-too-distant future. We pass multiple dala dalas, the local mini-buses, piled-high with bodies and cargo; going where, I’m not clear, as larger villages give way to smaller and we enter a stretch of road that takes us through the Ngezi Forest Reserve, a protected swath of jungle at the north tip of the island. As if on cue, a band of Pemba vervet monkeys makes an appearance. We slow for a photo op, and they retreat into the trees after seeming to approve our passage. After over an hour of driving, we arrive at our destination; one of only a handful of guest houses and hotels on the entire island. Remote is an understatement. The air smells of jasmine, and the contented buzz of the honey bees in the trees resonates along with the sound of cicadas and birdsong to create something of a soundtrack to the already long day (and it’s still before noon).
We are greeted by a veritable United Nations… our hosts are Russian, French and Batswana. Staff is local. We later meet other guests from the UK and Ireland, Argentina and Denmark. You never know who you’ll meet in these sorts of places, and among our diving companions are an IT geek, an Argentinian telenovela star, a pediatrician, a kite surfing champ and a Richard Branson wanna-be.
The first day is for getting settled and acclimated to the place, as the term “Africa hot” is articulating its definition. After this, we quickly fall into the diver’s routine: Wake. Eat. Dive. Surface interval and snacks. Dive. Eat. Siesta. Play. Eat. Talk about the day’s dives. Crash; hard.
On our first day of diving, we head south to Njao Gap. This easily becomes one of my top 5 dives ever after the first 5 minutes of the first dive. And so goes the rest of the day. Unlike the diving we did in Thailand last year, these waters live up to their reputation as containing pristine and insanely vibrant reefs. Being hard-to-access has its benefits, namely thriving schools of fish and spectacularly healthy soft and hard corals.
Day 2 is Lighthouse Point. Less impressive because it is a more exposed dive site and therefore more susceptible to damage from storms and current. That’s not to say the dives weren’t amazing, just… already spoiled by Njao.
Day 3 blows both Njao and Lighthouse out of the proverbial (and crystal-clear) waters. At Fundu Gap, we’re carried away, quite literally, by the massive current. I am nonetheless mesmerised by this dive site, with its exquisite coral and teeming schools. The dive is not without its hazards, as I am bitten by a rogue clownfish protecting its den from the paparazzi. I’ve nicknamed him Cujo. And, although I’m ridiculed on the dive boat, I wear my battle scars well. The boat ride home treats us to a rainy season surprise; a downpour of the tropical torrent variety, soaking our already waterlogged bodies to the core.
Grey faced moray
Anemone fish/clownfish (AKA Cujo)
Schools of fish
Manta point, Pemba
Day 4 is back to Njao and then a final farewell at Fundu for Day 5, where the (even stronger) current whisks us across the wall at what felt like warp speed. Imagine sticking your head in a jacuzzi jet, trying to swim and simultaneously navigate its rollercoaster of current. Hearts racing, we surface, and glad to be back on the boat too…that last dive was harrowing at times.
Over the course of the week, we see impressive schools of surgeonfish, glassfish (cardinalfish), and butterfly fish, some little brownish-red ones I need to look up. We see tons of clownfish and anemonefish, plus my favourites from this region – the Moorish idol (think Gill in Finding Nemo), plus moray eels, spotted garden eels, trumpetfish, triggerfish, a very cool mantis shrimp, which I had never seen on a dive before, a dozen types of nudibranchs and the little goodies – fire gobies and a little orange and white cutie that looks like a drum of some sort and I can’t find it in a fish book. Of Nemo fame, we’ve seen the gang: Jacques (banded coral or cleaner shrimp), Peach (starfish), Deb (black and white damselfish), Bubbles (yellow tang), Bloat (puffer), Gurgle (fairy basslet) and of course Dory (blue tang), as Pemba is known to be home to over 400 fish species. My inner mermaid does backflips at each dive site.
Between lunch and dinner, which is eaten late here to accommodate sunset-watching, there are siestas on the deck and mini adventures. One afternoon we took bikes to nearby Ngezi Forest Reserve for a guided walk through the jungle. Our guide was most useful in pointing out the ginormous millipedes that he promised wouldn’t kill us. And the gracious great hornbills that took my breath away on first sight. Then he showed us the bats. Pemba is home to a species of giant bat called the Pemba flying fox that looks more like a cross between a Pomeranian and an accordion, only much larger. Luckily, they live high in the trees and don’t seem to have much interest in humans.
Pemba flying fox
Vervet monkey, Pemba Island
Green tree snake
The locals, however, show a great deal of interest in us, greeting our foreign faces with shouts of “bye bye” – its origin indeterminate. We’ve learnt some local greetings, too: jambo (hello); asante (thank you); karibu (welcome); and we try to incorporate these as we ride through the village. The smiles, stares and waves follow us like we’re celebrities. There are simply No. Tourists. Here… Bliss.
Another afternoon, we kayak south to Njao gap, exploring the unspoiled coastline, hoping that this place remains as undeveloped as most of the other places one reads about in travel mags aren’t. We explore the rocky shores, finding limestone outcroppings teeming with crabs (the click-click of their claws on the volcanic rock sounds like a miniature tap dance recital) and a mangrove-lined lagoon rife with birdsong, paddling back to home base just as the sun begins to set over the Indian Ocean.
Sunset over the Indian Ocean
And so the African sun also sets on our last evening at the lodge. The next morning is an early wake-up call to catch a flight back to Zanzibar for a day in Stone Town, the island’s old capital.
As I was walking my dog on a dreary, rainy, cold early December morning, I noticed some haphazard shoots growing out from under the rickety wooden steps of a multi-family house. I pass this house daily, sometimes multiple times a day, on my walks. It’s an unimpressive front lawn, arbitrarily sprouting ornaments in the form of random trash or the occasional creepy garden gnome. Shoots noted, I walked on.
The thought occurred to me then, that if it were an underwater common-as-anything porch (coral outcropping, if you will) sprouting tendrils from a dark place, not only would I have stopped, but I would have circled back, pulled out my camera and strobe and stuck head (and/or hand) into the unknown, full of hopeful wonder.
I’ve been a scuba diver for two decades. In the deep blue, magic lurks in the crevices, sea life sparkling and undulating with the current. Above water, magic barely splutters, remaining hopeful like un-popped corn, that it might get a chance to fly before the heat is switched off.*
What diving has taught me is patience and observation and wonder and marvel… it has taught me to notice small things that look just a hair out of place. It has taught me to appreciate the fragility of our ecosystem. Diving has taught me the subtleties of breath and to believe that there is subtle magic in what we encounter every day, depending how we look at things.
Sure, it would be peculiar here on dry land, poking around under strangers’ porches, rooting around in their garden beds, standing uninvited in backyards looking for critters… But let’s take Poseidon’s teachings to dry land and see if they work.
1. Pay attention to the natural world.
Look and listen. What is it trying to say? What is unique about today? Are we missing everyday beauty by walking too quickly, looking down at our phones, avoiding eye contact with strangers?
2. Observe one exceptional thing every day.
Think about its place in the Universe…contemplate yours. I saw a pileated woodpecker in the woods last weekend, watched as it flitted tree-to-tree. I spent ten minutes watching this amazing creature. It wasn’t the first one I’d ever seen, but each time I do brings out a swell of wonder that is hard to quantify.
Divers know that underwater we never hold our breath. We know that slow, deep and steady breathing helps conserve air. We know that small inhalations and exhalations manage buoyancy. We know that bubbles are our friends.
On land, observing our breath helps us be present — it helps us relax and evaluate the cacophonous chaos unfurling around us. Breathing consciously and not always just mechanically makes a world of difference. Nature sometimes makes us hold our breath, awaiting the cool thing that comes next… on dry land, seek that feeling out. Underwater, we learn to breathe in harmony with our surroundings.
4. Anticipate…don’t just wait.
There is a sense of entitlement in the act of waiting. I am a firm believer that we are not entitled to anything, and that we must appreciate each day, each sunrise, each kind person that enters our lives, each small treasure and each creature comfort. As we walk (drive, ride, run, jog, swim…) through our very fortunate Western lives, we plan well into the future, we think about the next thing to consume, we save for the unexpected, focusing on ourselves and taking for granted today. Instead of simply waiting and wanting more, let’s relish the anticipation, appreciate and delight in what’s to come, find joy in the planning, all without neglecting the small wonders of the sometimes unremarkable Now.
5. Believe in magic.
Not hocus-pocus trickery, but the marvel and the spectacular that is inherent in everyday life. Someone shares a secret; the silly thing a pet does to make you smile when you’re sad; a child’s discovery that made you grin from ear to ear; the blooming flowers where you least expect them; a call from an old friend out of the blue just when you’re thinking about them; pieces of a plan, like synchronicity, falling into place; the shoot growing, just peeking out from underneath a porch…
With daily headlines that border on the absurd, the darkness of winter closing its ranks, the chaos of the holidays bearing down on us, I invite non-divers to share in the spirit of Poseidon, Neptune, Varuna, Njord or the myriad other sea deities and borrow ocean wisdom from a diver on dry land.
*Alternate wisdom on the decline of magic, courtesy ChrisGoja: Above water, magic has become scarce, faltering like embers about to die, merely winking at us at times, as if to attract that one morsel that might nurture it back to life… 💜