The memories of my time in a Madagascar are as wonderfully diverse as the country itself. I can highly recommend spending as much time there as is possible! Whether you travel independently or work with an organisation, you cannot fail to be impressed by the country.
I decided to join a research expedition for numerous reasons, although I suppose the main factor was a desire to broaden my field experience. I was keen to take part in a project that I felt was more than just a holiday. However, as an experienced independent traveller, I didn’t want to feel like I was being "restricted and controlled" 24/7. Following lengthy investigations, joining a Blue Ventures expedition seemed perfect for me – and it was.
The immersion into Malagasy culture starts right from the word go. The journey from the capital, Antananarivo, to the meeting point of Toliara on the southwest coast is a good introduction to everyday life in Madagascar. That is, assuming you join the overland tour as opposed to flying! It's an unbeatable way to see the country, from the highland plateau via rainforests and lemurs down to the beautiful coast.
Arriving on site, I was blown away! Andavadoaka is one of the most breathtaking areas that I have ever been to. Perfect sandy beaches, stretching as far as the eye can see, broken only by small isolated coves. A short walk to the north or south will find you discovering dramatic rock cliffs plunging into the warm waters of the Mozambique Channel. Looking out to sea, the stunning azure blue is only punctuated by offshore rocks and islands.
The landscape is not the only thing this location has going for it. The field site is very comfortable despite the isolated location, with everything from a well-stocked bar to a flushing toilet! The camp is situated just on the edge of the village, which makes for frequent interaction with local villagers in both work and social capacities.
The expedition starts with an intense training course. Dive training runs simultaneously to the marine ecology and species identification programmes. There is a lot to learn, both above and below the water, and the standards are high. But that's why people are there, to take part and contribute to the research. So yes, it isn’t easy, but I found that reassuring, as it was good to see the research we would be undertaking was of a sufficiently high standard to be used. It's also worth noting that you're not alone when trying to take in all of this information, there are plenty of other volunteers in the same boat, and all the staff are there to help. The research team were all very knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and created a great learning environment.
Following the initial training, the underwater surveys start and you get to put all that you have learned into practice under the guidance of Blue Ventures' research staff. I had never dived before joining the expedition and was completely amazed by the underwater world. I have since dived elsewhere and can honestly say that the diving in Andavadoaka compares very favourably. The diversity on the reefs is mindblowing! It was an amazing way to spend six weeks.
When you’re not in the water there's still plenty to do. Whether it's helping with general camp maintenance, teaching local school children English or entering survey data into the computer, the variety of tasks is diverse. While you're encouraged to work hard, using you own initiative is key.
When the evening comes, enjoying a cold beer and watching the sunset is a great way to unwind. Considering the remote location of the site, I was really pleased with the quality of the food. During the working week, evenings are fairly relaxed as early starts for the best dive conditions are to be expected. The end-of-week party night is a lot of fun, with the occasional fancy dress theme testing our resourcefulness!