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.