Life as a ReefDoctor Intern

The 5th of December is International Volunteer day! We thought we would mark the occasion by posting the first in what will be a series of volunteer and intern blogs. In this blog, Saoirse Flood, who started volunteering for ReefDoctor in October, describes her experiences so far as a Research Assistant & Divemaster Intern.

My name is Saoirse Flood and I arrived in Madagascar seven weeks ago which Is still hard to believe – time has just flown by. I decided to become an Intern for ReefDoctor as I had just finished my masters in Environmental Science at Imperial College London and didn’t really know what to do next. I’m from Luxembourg and have spent the past five years studying abroad. I wanted to do something different, travel a bit and experience something new; I didn’t feel ready for a full time job yet. Plus I’d always been interested in conservation and diving so ReefDoctor just seemed to check all the boxes.

One thing that I find extremely refreshing about camp life is that every day is different. A typical week involves waking up at 5.30/6 am; you could be diving, cleaning coral, working on the artificial reef, mapping areas, conducting coral reef surveys or rowing out to help with seaweed aquaculture. The saoirseafternoons are filled with more dives or you could be learning marine science stuff, learning the local language or teaching English to local villagers. I am currently doing my PADI rescue course so I am learning all about CPR and other first aid measures. Then hopefully in a week or two I will start my Divemaster. You are kept quite busy but it’s a good busy. The evenings are then spent reading on the porch or going into Ifaty village for a nice cold beer and some local street food.

Life on camp is good. The conditions are basic but you quickly get used to everything. There’s a good group of people here too – of all ages and from all different backgrounds. Everybody is extremely motivated and passionate about their work. Madagascar is a beautiful country but it is still facing many issues such as poverty, a poor education system, deforestation and overfishing, to name but a few. Life here is a stark contrast to the life that I am used to at home as Ifaty is one of the poorest regions in Madagascar. I am convinced that the 6 months here will teach me a lot: it will deepen my knowledge of conservation issues, provide me with a valuable insight into how NGOs work and what it is like working for them as well as provide me with practical experience. However, I also think that it will help me develop as a person. I think it will make me more conscious of my actions and teach me to appreciate things more. So all in all, I think my 6 months here will be extremely valuable.

I hope that this post was able to provide you with some insight as to what Interning for ReefDoctor is like. I plan to post something each week in order to give you guys an idea of what interns do. Hope you enjoyed the post!


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Dying for the Toilet

Since 2001 the 19th of November has been World Toilet Day. Not the most glamorous of days, admittedly but one that is an essential reminder that billions of people worldwide suffer disease, indignity and exposure to threat daily because of the lack of access to safe clean water, sanitation infrastructure and proper hygiene practices (WASH).  Around the world, 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation (a connection to a sewer, septic tank, ventilated pit latrine or some simple latrines –ref WHO/UNICEF. Meeting the MDG WHO: Geneva, 2004) and one third of the global population has no access to any kind of toilet at all.

When you list the luxuries you are lucky enough to have in your life is your toilet one of them? No, probably not. That might be because you see your toilet as a necessity rather than a luxury, and it is. Toilets are vital because 88% of diarrheal disease globally is attributed to lack of access to WASH ( and diarrheal disease is the second biggest cause of death in children under the age of five worldwide. They are necessary to preserve dignity and to prevent people having to defecate openly and in public. Toilets are crucial and they are a human right.  Article 25 of the Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that ‘Everyone has a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,’ In the 200 years since the toilet was invented it has increased the human lifespan by 20 years. But not necessarily for those who don’t have access to one. S2ome of the people living in the Bay of Ranobe and all over Madagascar are among the third of the world that have no access to any kind of toilet at all.

Can you imagine suffering the indignity of having to defecate in public every day with nothing but a sarong to protect your modesty? It is a daily reality for many people in the Bay of Ranobe. Dina (local laws) are in place in most villages prohibiting public defecation on the beach and heavy fines are imposed but with the only other option being burying your waste in a sand dune, the problem can only be addressed to a certain point. It’s true that the beaches are kept cleaner and human waste is not as commonly encountered in the sea but WASH is desperately needed.

With limited resources ReefDoctor and the community are doing what we can to help. Our education department is rolling out new Health and Hygiene classes for adults and children in January. The classes are free and anyone who wishes to can join. In rural areas around the country Unicef and other organisations are working to provide WASH. In the capital Tana UK based company Loowatt began implementing waterless toilets in late 2012 with their waste to value urban pilot sanitation system that converts waste to energy and fertiliser. These initiatives are fantastic and are sorely needed but they are not reaching enough people. In a country where more people live below the poverty line in 2010 than in 2005 ( the threat of malnutrition and disease is increasing and lack of access to proper sanitation serves only to further increase this risk, especially in women and children (


Access to toilets for everyone by 2030 is listed as one of the Sustainable Development Goals launched in 2015.  But over 13 more years is a very long time to wait to have something as vital as a toilet. Every day people die for the want of a proper sanitation, many of them very young children. Many of these deaths are avoidable. Why wait? Today is a good day to consider contributing to a WASH project that will make peoples lives better and give them a better chance at avoiding disease and indignity in their everyday lives.

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino 

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Vato Mahavelo Official Launch

The purpose of our artificial reef project, Vato Mahavelo, is to bring life to a deserted area of Anatirano fishing ground. On Friday 28th October it also brought a lot of life and excitement to Ifaty when the project was officially launched with a day of festivities that involved the whole village. Not only was Friday the launch day of the project it was also the day the Debarcadere (government fisheries landing building) was officially placed under the management of ReefDoctor. But most importantly it was a day of community celebrations that saw everyone in the area working and celebrating together. Here, our Communications Officer Ivana Rubino reports on this landmark day!

As dawn broke on Friday morning a small group wearing lamba (traditional sarongs) against the cold and as a mark of respect gathered at the Debarcadere in Ifaty to witness the slaughter of a zebu to provide blood for a very important blessing of the artificial reef and to provide meat for the party later in the day. It was a somber but necessary start to the day. Blood was taken from the freshly slaughtered zebu to bless the rocks and concrete tubes using leaves from the Tamarind tree. Tamarind trees are sacred and hold a very important place in traditional ceremonies. Most villages have a tamarind tree under which meetings take place and they are often a focal point in the village providing a meeting place for activities and events.

As the ceremony came to a close the rest of the village and the Reefdoctor camp started preparing for the day ahead. Everyone had a job to do. The Ifaty Women’s Association arrived early at the Debarcadere to begin preparing food in the temporary kitchen they set up on site. Street vendors prepared extra bokobok, mokary and sambosa for the crowds expected. Vendors from other villages arrived with ice pops and cold drinks. Various people moved all the tables, chairs, water, crockery and cutlery that had been provided by people in the village and ReefDoctor the day before. Children ran around in the middle of the preparations alternately helping out and getting in the way. Covered seating areas were erected in the school with a large stage for officials and posters and banners hung. And the final touches were put to one of the bommies of the Artificial Reef that had been temporarily reconstructed in the Debarcadere for the occasion.

By 9am everything was ready and the officials, Monsieur Francois Gilbert, Minister of Fisheries Resources and the Mayor of Belalanda region among them arrived in style together with a national news crew and Emma Gibbons, Director of ReefDoctor. We met their procession just outside the village and the crowd including Ifaty women’s rugby team, the women’s association and a band danced and sang their way to the school where the officials took seats to enjoy some entertainment from local women’s groups from Ifaty (yes these ladies can multi task!), Ambondrolava, Tsivonoe and Mangily. Between groups a band of traditional dancers entertained the crowd.  And speeches were given looking forward to the growth of the reef and the future of the Debarcadere.

It was now time to go to the Debarcadere for the main event. The most exciting part of the day was about to take place. The first rocks that will make up the artificial reef were being placed at the site. Fay, the ReefDoctor boat captained by Manjo, headed out to the site with the Mayor of Belalanda, Bruno Keza Souvenir of the fishermen’s association FI.MI.Hara and the news crew to place the marker in the water to let the fishermen know where to sink the rocks. Richard Tyrrell, science officer, who has been working on the project since his arrival at ReefDoctor and myself set the marker and surfaced in time to see the pirogues arrive. We jumped back on board Fay as the pirogues got into position and the fishermen began hurling rocks off the side of their pirogues. The strong current whipped boats around while everyone dropped their rocks, some people jumping and swimming from one boat to another to help lift heavier rocks and bail out pirogues. It was thrilling to see everyone arrive at the marker maneuvering their boats expertly against the current to eject their loads and head back to shore.

With all the rocks and tubes dropped and the marker retrieved Fay arrived back on shore in time to see the official signing over of the Debarcadere. Debarcaderes were built in most villages in the Bay of Ranobe some time ago in order to prepare fish for transit. Unfortunately they never fully realised their function and most of the buildings across the bay have little use. ReefDoctor has signed an agreement with the Ministry of Fisheries allowing the Debarcadere to also be used for sustainable livelihoods activities including storing dried seaweed for sales and equipment. Seaweed sales have been held in the building since they began in 2015 and now it will now provide a center for sustainable livelihoods activities in the village. The Junior ReefDoctors finished off the morning’s festivities with a song for the crowd after the signing was complete and everyone sat down to a huge feast.

Friday was an important day not only because it marked the beginning of construction of a prototype artificial reef that, if successful, will increase biomass in the lagoon or because it saw the Debarcadere receive a new purpose and lease on life but because it was something the entire community did, together.

Our artificial reef project is being executed as a joint effort with Directeur Régional des Ressources Halieutiques et de la Pêche, Région Atsimo Andrefana – DRRHP (Ministry of Marine Resources and Fisheries), IH.SM (Madagascar’s national marine research institute), IOT, COPEFRITO, FRDA (Madagascar Regional Foundation for Agriculture Development), and, importantly, FI.MI.HA.RA, representing all 13 villages in the bay.

If you would like to donate to this project please visit our fundraising page. Thank you!

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“The Rock That Gives Life”

Back in August we posted some pictures of the blessing of the rocks being used in a new reef restoration project. It has been months in the planning but we are very excited to confirm that everything is now ready for construction. On Friday 21st of October the site of the first artificial reef in the Bay of Ranobe will be blessed during a huge day of events in Ifaty village and on the beach. The community event will even be attended by the Minister of Fisheries and the Mayor of the Belalanda region.

So first a bit of background on the project. The bay’s 32 km reef forms one of the largest coral reef systems in the world. However, the majority of coral reef habitats within the bay have been heavily degraded over the last decade due to bleaching, sedimentation, and overfishing. The majority of reefs have now been overgrown with algae and are mainly composed of dead coral rubble. This ecological degradation is in turn compromising marine resource availability for local fishermen. It is therefore imperative to implement a sustainable and widespread reef restoration programme in order to prevent total collapse of this valuable ecosystem and to reverse declining fishery catches for local subsistence communities.

Our earlier attempts to protect coral reefs in the bay comprised the establishment of two marine reserves (2007–2008). While the prohibition of fishing in the reserves has resulted in an increase in fish populations and the maintenance of coral cover at these sites, the establishment of additional marine reserves has not been feasible. This is because the continued degradation of reef sites in the bay has limited the availability of productive fishing reefs for local fishermen. Therefore, in order to address the social and economic needs of the local fishing communities, alternative fishing grounds must first be provided before the few remaining viable reefs can be protected from fishing.

Our new artificial reef project plans to install simple, relatively low-cost and replicable artificial reef structures on degraded reef sites to increase fish and invertebrate populations in order to improve fisheries productivity, reverse declining catches and redirect fishing pressure off over-exploited fragile coral reefs in the lagoon interior. We also intend to speed up the regeneration of corals reefs at these sites by transplanting coral fragments from our nurseries on to the artificial structures as part of our coral gardening project.

Back in March, we sourced low-cost limestone boulders from a local quarry in Ifaty village (providing direct financial benefits to Ifaty village quarry workers) to trial a simple artificial reef method. Limestone is ideal for artificial reef work as it mimic natural reef systems and is the perfect material to encourage reef organism settlement. Arrangement of these boulders into artificial reef bommies (a reef outcrop) will create structurally complex habitats in areas devoid of coral reefs to encourage colonisation of algal and invertebrates (including coral), which will in turn attract fish. In the long-term, we aim to install a network of these bommies across the bay in order to restore coral reef habitat and create alternative fishing sites.

We purposefully choose a simple structural design and low cost local materials for these artificial reefs so that local communities can maintain and replicate these structures in the future without external assistance or intervention. This project is being executed as a joint effort with Directeur Régional des Ressources Halieutiques et de la Pêche, Région Atsimo Andrefana – DRRHP (Ministry of Marine Resources and Fisheries), IOT, COPEFRITO, FRDA, Institut Halieutique et des Sciences Marines (University of Toliara), and importantly FI.MI.HA.RA (regional fishermen’s association), representing all 13 villages in the bay (> 20,000 people), in order to promote community ownership and project sustainability.

For the initial pilot scheme, we decided to start our efforts near the Rose Garden marine reserve, where years of protection have increased fish populations over a relatively limited reef area. Therefore, by placing a network of interconnecting artificial reef bommies in a region close to the reserve, we hope this will encourage a species spillover effect, and provide a corridor of new substrate to be inhabited (connecting other intermittent bommies and seagrass beds in the vicinity), regenerating marine life in areas of degraded reef. This in turn will provide alternative fishing sites so that the fishermen can directly benefit from Rose Garden’s high productivity, whilst allowing the marine reserve to continue to flourish in the absence of fishing pressure. In addition, we hope that this artificial reef site will be further protected by FI.MI.HA.RA with the implementation of open/closed fishing season rotations under a sustainable fisheries management plan.

The science team conducted survey dives and manta tows at various areas in the search for a suitable site, and in early August a site was agreed and mapping survey dives took place to map the area. They also carried out a considerable amount of artificial reef literature research. Armed with this knowledge and approximately 21 tons of limestone and five concrete tubes, design began on the bommies with prototypes being built on the beach and various different designs tested. The bommies had to be secure so that they wouldn’t collapse in strong currents but they also had to provide lots of interesting hiding places for marine life. The concrete tubes are going to provide habitats for octopuses and lobster. The science team have also been busy researching and developing monitoring methods to evaluate the impacts of the artificial reef on marine life, fisheries, and reef regeneration over time.


Once the team had a good idea of where and what needed to be constructed, it was time to present the idea to the local community to obtain agreement and permission to bring the artificial reef project to life, since this is a community project that belongs to everyone in the area.

Monsieur Bruno Keza Souvenir, president of FI.MI.HA.RA, visited the site in late August. The matter was discussed with the members of FI.MI.HA.RA and the idea approved. The team was now ready to present the idea to people of Ifaty and this phase began with a meeting with the Olobe (village elders) of Ifaty at the end of August. The Olobe approved of the plan and we were honoured to be visited by the Olobe on 24th August when a traditional blessing with rum was carried out on the rocks on the beach.

Following the meeting with the Olobe a presentation was made in the village in mid September to discuss the idea with the community. The team discussed the difficulties faced by fishers in the bay and those present agreed but felt that there was nothing that could be done. This provided the perfect opportunity to introduce the Artificial Reef Project, as the team was able to confirm that there was definitely something we could try and they had been planning a solution for some time that would be implemented if the community wanted to proceed. Everyone agreed and the team awaited word of the start date from the residents of the village.

Preparation continued throughout the months of August and September. The protocol for survey methodology was agreed in mid August and the bommie position markers were put in the water. By the end of September building on land was finished and it was agreed that the final design would consist of two large bommies with three small bommies connecting them. At the end of September the first trial construction took place underwater. As the rocks had to be brought back to the surface, just 14 rocks were used. The dive was a success as the construction methodology was decided upon. On the 5th of October the markers were placed for permanent surveys and the first mimic survey took place the following day. Meanwhile the community agreed upon the 21st of October as the official start date for construction.

With just two weeks left to go before the big event everyone on camp and in the village is preparing. A day of traditional Vezo festivities is planned, with events taking place throughout the village including traditional Vezo dancing, songs from the Juniors, official speeches and traditional sporting events. The main attraction, however, will be the blessing of the site where the limestone rocks will hopefully become a vibrant reef providing an improved fishing ground for the area. The site has been named Vato Mahavelo meaning the rock that gives life and we are all optimistic that this will be the case.

If you would like to be part of the construction and maintenance of Vato Mahavelo get yourself signed up as a ReefDoctor volunteer and come and join the team hard at work. Alternatively, another great way to help is by donating to the project to help fund monitoring and bommie implementation expansion across the bay; fundraising details will be provided later this week. Thank You!!

Report by RD Comms Team Ivana Rubino & Viv Stein-Rostaing

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Seagrass Mapping and Surveying

The science team has been working on a very big mapping project since January and we thought we’d give you a little insight into what’s been going on. Izzy Sweeting, intern from January to July 2016, spent a lot of time creating an accurate satellite map of the bay. Izzy passed the project onto volunteers that followed and mapping work continues. It’s estimated that this project will take approximately 1 year to complete.

Once completed this will be hugely beneficial as it can be used visually to complement fisheries data and aid in surveying sites in the bay. Currently, the focus is on being able to accurately survey sea grass coverage in the area. Sea grass beds provide essential shelter, and act as critical feeding and nursery grounds, for a diverse community of marine life, from tiny invertebrates to large fish, crustaceans, and turtles. There are nine species of sea grass in the Bay of Ranobe. Sea grass meadows are often composed of a number of different co-existing species. The variety of grasses increases the biodiversity of meadows, which in turn provides a habitat for a more diverse range of other animal and plant species. By protecting the onshore areas where sea grass grows the juvenile fish and other animals that make their home there have a chance to reach sexual maturity.

Sea grass meadows also provide key sites for blue carbon storage. Blue carbon is the carbon captured and stored by the world’s oceans and coastal ecosystems. Unlike terrestrial systems that reach soil equilibrium within a matter of decades, depositions of carbon dioxide in coastal ecosystems can continue for millennia. Sea grass meadows occupy less than 0.02% of the world’s oceans but they are responsible for 10% of the blue carbon buried annually in the ocean.

Since January the ReefDoctor sea grass survey team has been carrying out weekly surveys where they record total percentage of sea grass coverage, percentage of individual species coverage and canopy height. Surveys are carried out on foot during low tide and with dive gear where suitably deep. The team uses quadrants of 1 m x 1 m to record the data at points throughout the bay. Once complete the map will contain approximately 80 points where data can be assessed every 2 months and compared with previous data to assess the health of these important sea grass meadows.

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

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