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.
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.
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.
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.
Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.
But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.
The waiting is the hardest part.
So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).
So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.
Once again, Nature as antidote.
In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.
Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.
The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.
Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….
With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.
And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.
One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.
Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!
My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.
Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!
And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.
Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.
The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!“
It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.
So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:
Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!
Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.
Once upon a time, when the line between myth and history was even thinner than today, there was a tree called Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Nordic myth tells us that Yggdrasil was the nucleus that connected the 9 worlds: the world of the humans (Midgard) and those worlds of the two tribes of Norse gods (Asgard and Vanaheim), the world of the giants (Jotunheim), the primordial worlds of fire (Muspelheim) and ice (Niflheim), the worlds of Alfheim (elves) and Svartalfheim (dwarves), and Hel (well…).
Yggdrasil’s roots held the underworld down, and kept Midgard (land of mere mortals) at a neutral place, where prankster-gods like Loki couldn’t cause (as much) mischief from his perch on the upper Asgardian branches. That said, according to legend, he did his fair share. Yggdrasil was the home to myriad woodland creatures and a dragon, and was the epicenter of woodland resources. I paraphrase (and probably get some of it wrong), but if Yggdrasil were to fall, this would signal the end of days.
Oh, the irony.
So yesterday, when I wandered along a new trail and came out of the forest into a meadow on a hilltop, where this gleaming green giant simultaneously welcomed one into, graced, and held dominion over the space, I was awed. Yggdrasil is merely a symbol, of course, because gods and dwarfs and elves and giants don’t really exist. But the World Tree, whose roots tether the real world in all its fragility to the stories, and reach down into the well of Mimir, whose waters hold the depths of knowledge (sought by Odin for which he sacrificed an eye, but that’s another story), stands tall and solid and proud nonetheless.
Trees hold the keys to the wisdom of the land. One must be kind to nature (or trade an eye?) to drink from its well. But, I digress…
Norse Mythology is especially fascinating to me because if you look at it in parallel to the other polytheistic belief systems and their pantheon of gods and goddesses (Hindu, Greek, Roman, etc.), there are striking connections between their symbols and stories and philosophies, yet the Scandinavian relationship with the natural world is much more deeply-pronounced, as evidenced in their folklore (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface!).
I’m spending more time on local trails in these dragging Corona months, hunting egrets for marshy photoshoots, seeking refuge in quiet, wilder spaces (nearby, with safe social distancing and the fewer people the better); escaping the trappings of Zoom meetings and over-blocked Outlook calendars, daydreaming of the day I can hop a flight and head East. If I’m honest, where is of less concern to me right now than when.
But before I wander down a forest path and get lost in a macramé of Indra and Zeus and Thor and Jupiter, I’ll come back to my quiet present, walking these trails with flamboyant ancient characters spinning their stories in my mind, blue skies holding any thunderstorms at bay. Thanks to Surya or Freyr or Ra or Apollo or Sol for the skies on this brilliant afternoon!
So before me stands Yggdrasil, or a simple Oak (or beech or ??) standing tall, surrounded by a ring of boulders. Mind wanders to covens or whatever the collective noun is for philosophers, scholars, arborists, students or, like me, curious photographers that have stumbled upon this wonder… The tree, and its empty auditorium, stands in a meadow whose ridge overlooks the overbuilt town below. The clear day enables me to see beyond the rooftops towards the sandy shores of Plum Island, and from there, out to the Atlantic, only a few miles away as the osprey flies.
I sit in the embrace of Yggdrasil’s shade for minutes, or maybe half an hour, contemplating what, I can’t now remember. But the shriek of a quite small but very insistent human (read: petulant) refusing to move any further “or else” jolts me out of my quiet reverie and back into the real world of he who yells loudest gets the snacks. I get a “he does this all the time” look from the mother and Damien gets rewarded in the form of a juice box and cheese crackers, the bright orange ones whose cello packaging I often see littering the beach. Practice is stopping there: you don’t know her circumstances, I remind myself, and wish them happy trails as I traipse onwards.
I look to the tree as if it could understand my dismay with the world as it is, envisioning the irony of a tree offering a hug to a human, understanding its precarious footing these days.
The birdsong resumes, as does my walk. I spot a scarlet tanager, a fleeting flicker of blood-red in the lush green treetops, and I remind myself to log these outings as I do each of my dives. When we log experiences, we are less likely to take them for granted, I suspect.
I end the day with egrets and an oriole (or was it an American redstart?) and big toads and slithery garter snakes; even a curious white-tailed deer who looked on, perhaps even entertained, as I was assaulted by greenheads (note to self: leap year or non, these f*ckers are always on time).
And there it is: another Day ticked. In the logbook of my mind, I note that as with the now-waning light, we are entering into the spring of the last half of this famously infamous year. I’ll look to the gods of humility and patience and tolerance and forgiveness and humour to guide me through these next trees.