Saturday, February 13, 2016

Madagascar: Traveling to Base Camp

Dr. Salvatore Cerchio is a marine mammal biologist who has studied free ranging populations of cetaceans around the world for more than 30 years. He is currently a Visiting Scientist at the New England Aquarium, with a guest affiliation at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In November 2015, he went off the grid to study Omura's whales off the coast of Madagascar. 

Getting to Madagascar from Cape Cod (my home) is a bit of a process. After a 4 a.m. wake up, 3 flights, 4 airports, and 28 mostly sleepless hours, one finally arrives in Antananarivo (more commonly referred to as simply “Tana”), and with any luck in possession of all of one’s luggage.

This was not one of my lucky trips… the Rubbermaid crate with most of my equipment appears to have been left in Johannesburg. In fact, during the 11 years I have worked in Mada, I think about one or two in every 10 bags gets lost in transport! So far they have always turned up in Tana later, and on this occasion I was pleased to be able to return to the airport and pick up the crate the very next day. And an added bonus – with all of the equipment still in it!! That was a great relief, because this year I was carrying four precious remote acoustic recorders, each about the size of a soda can, cutting edge technology called SoundTraps manufactured by Ocean Instruments New Zealand.

Beautiful scenery in Madagascar: View of Nosy Be outside Hellville 

Next, onto Nosy Be after a couple days in Tana (which I always plan, just in case a bag doesn’t make it on my flight…).  A 2 hour local flight from Tana, Nosy Be is an island located on the northwest coast of Madagascar, and means literally Big (Be) Island (Nosy). A spectacular setting, lush and green in the wet tropical belt that includes the northwest and east coast rain forests, with dramatic mountains and rocky coasts, white beaches and various small islands scattered about the region.  It is one of the few infrastructure centers in Madagascar, and a center of the tourism industry due to its beauty, accessibility and relatively modern conveniences. I have worked here since 2007, and know the area well, so always greeted by familiar faces in a hotel I stay at each year in the working town of Hellville. Ah, Hellville…  in some ways aptly named, in other ways an exhilarating center of culture and real people, with an energetic central open-air market, a main strip with a litany of small, overstuffed and random shops, two small harbors and a variety of low to mid-range hotels, all amid the dirty streets and acrid smells typical of a least developed country.

Sal and Boris on Sakatia—with a chameleon friend!

Here I meet my team, headed by Boris Andrianantenaina. I have worked with Boris since 2010, and last year he just completed his Masters degree (DEA in the Malagasy system) on coastal dolphins of Nosy Be at the Institute of Fisheries and Marine Science (IHSM), University of Toliara. Boris is a brilliant and highly motivated young man, and manages the field work we do in Madagascar. Also based in Nosy Be, in the beachside town of Madirokely, are partners Les Baleines Ass’eau, a Malagasy NGO formed by brothers Tanguy and Arthur Guillemain who we began to work with in 2014 and have become essential support for our research.

Bringing necessary gasoline to fuel the field research

From Madirokely and Hellville, we spend a week setting up for the coming 4-week field season, buying necessary supplies, arranging for our boat rental, building moorings for our acoustic recorders, and meeting with our regional partners at the National Center for Oceanographic Research (CNRO). Finally we make our way aboard our 8m fiberglass boat from Hellville to our field site on Nosy Sakatia, with all of our equipment and 1000L of gas in tow.

Humpback dolphins | Photo: S. Cerchio

Sakatia is a small island off the west coast of Nosy Be, and a new base of operations this year chosen to be closer to the concentration of Omura’s whale sightings identified in the last 2 years. On the way we have a brief encounter with a pod of Indian Ocean humpback dolphins, the previous focus of our work from 2007 to 2012, so kind of like a welcoming party from old friends!

Research accomodations

We have a pretty nice setup Nosy Sakatia, renting two bungalows at Sakatia Passion, a tourist lodge on the beach that is undergoing renovations; this means there are no tourists right now and we were able to get a discounted price. The accommodations are a little rustic for some tastes (no hot water, for example), but actually quite luxurious for a field camp, with electricity and running water full time (really unusual), great food, and a somewhat finicky internet connection.  It's a slice of tropical paradise and I feel really lucky to be here for a little while!

A beautiful base to launch our field research

Now that we are set up and ready to go, next week we start the field work!!

Sal Cerchio

Facebook Comments


Post a Comment