Exploring the magical world of underwater caverns

The Madagascar Cave Diving Association (MCDA) founded in 2014 is an association of cave divers who are, perhaps, the closest thing to real life explorers you can find in this day and age. The association consists of Ryan Dart, Phillip Lehman, Patrick Widmann and Hans Kasperetz, who are currently undertaking the mammoth task of exploring, surveying and mapping the underwater cave systems of Madagascar for the first time. To dive in caves you must have a cave diving certification, and it is not for the feint hearted. The training is intensive and divers have to learn to use side mount tanks as well as learning all of the other diving and safety procedures associated with cave diving. It is a dangerous yet thrilling activity.

But you can dive in a cavern without special training. A cavern dive is defined as one where there is natural light and maximum penetration is 60 meters. And this is how Andre, one of our recent volunteers and I got to have a little taste of the amazing underwater world contained inside the limestone passages of the Aven cave system near Tsimanampetsotse National Park in south west Madagascar. Aven was the first cave discovered and explored by Ryan Dart and the former team of Atlantis Madagascar. Word spread about the cave system and MCDA was born. The association gets to explore amazing sites and carry out very technical, often dangerous dives. They also get called on when anyone wants to access the system. On this occasion MCDA was contacted by a Japanese documentary film crew who needed some footage of water flow in the cavern at the entrance to the cave system and some divers to film it, and Andre and I got to help out with filming. Both of us had dived in caverns before but that didn’t make the prospect of this dive any less exciting as we were diving a cavern that very few other people have seen, and with one of the people who discovered and explored it for the first time.

Last Thursday we made our way to Anakao where we were met by Ryan of MCDA and the film crew. We set off on Friday in 4 x 4s to load up the tanks and make the 50 km journey to the cavern, stopping off to pick up some porters at the entrance to the park to help with the gear. The opening of the cavern is a huge sinkhole surrounded by trees, the roots of which stretch from the edge 10 meters down and into the water. Tanks and gear were lowered down and we started kitting up on the small mound in the middle of the sinkhole. We lowered ourselves slowly into the water so as to disturb the silt as little as possible and finned our way into a beautiful scene that was out of this world.

Smooth limestone walls loomed above us and stretched out from the opening creating a massive circular cavern with the mound we had been standing on a few minutes earlier rising up in the middle and creating a gentle slope to follow into deeper water. Without any wind or current to affect the visibility in the fresh water cavern, the water was crystal clear. It felt like there was no water at all and at about 27 degrees it was the warmest water either of us had dived in in a while. I looked behind me as we swam away from the center and was blown away by the view. The tree roots dipped into the water like something from a fantasy novel. Shafts of light cut through the water and danced on rock formations like the opening scene of a science fiction film, like we were on another planet. One wrong move and silt would be finned up plunging our newly discovered planet into a silt storm. We gaped open mouthed at stalactites (I’m glad I have a good mouthpiece that stays in even when I’m in awe), gawked intently at blindfish navigating without sight, looked at fossils of lemurs and crocodiles, and explored as much of the cavern as we had time to. I could have stared at the trees through the water for days and spent ages admiring the beautiful rainbow reflections made by the sun on the silt. We couldn’t enter the cave properly as neither of us is a certified cave diver but diving the cavern was spectacular and there was so much to see that once we had finished the filming we were very happy to keep swimming until we had used up all our air. My request for five more minutes at the end of the second dive turned into 11 minutes and I still left reluctantly. I’ve been lucky enough to do some really amazing dives and this one is definitely in my top 10. I don’t think I’m going to become a world famous videographer or lighting technician anytime soon but this dive and experience will stay with me for the rest of my days. And I think it will take a long time to shake the desire to get cave certified.

The cavern is closed to the public for the foreseeable future. It seems a little unfair that MCDA get to keep this amazing wonderland to themselves for now but this is to allow MCDA to map and survey the area, log anything of archeological and geological interest and to preserve the caves. As MCDA states ‘Flooded caves are fragile geological time capsules holding clues that could one day help solve the many mysteries of earth’s ancient past’. Therefore their conservation is very important. The closure is also to ensure that untrained divers are not brought to the area and put at risk by diving in unknown conditions for which they have not been certified. Just accessing the sinkhole is tricky work and passing down gear and tanks is time consuming and not without risk. I’d like to say that it was not worth it but it really really was. Thank you MCDA for the awesome opportunity!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

Category: Blog · Tags:

Green School is Cool!

Remember how much fun bunk beds were when you were a child? Ok, now imagine how much fun a triple-decker bunk bed is when you’re a child living in a place where concrete houses are a rarity, not to mention bunk beds to put in them. Can you imagine? Yes! Well, that’s almost as much fun as the Junior Reef Doctors and about twenty other school children from Ifaty had at Green School, or Class Vert as it’s known here, last week. Green School is a three-day summer camp held in the grounds of Solidaire Hotel that teaches children about the environment and socially and environmentally responsible living to work towards sustainable development and a sustainable future. The workshop is run by Bel Avenir, an NGO based in Toliara and Mangily where the children stayed from Wednesday to Saturday. But the children didn’t just enjoy the bunk beds, they also loved the trip to the Spiny Forest, the trip to the beach to watch a video and learn about whales, the swings, the slide, the football pitch, the games, the songs, the trip away from home and the energetic fun people from Bel Avenir who run the summer camp.

I spent the second afternoon with the children at Green School and wished I could stay for the rest of the trip. I arrived at about noon when everyone was having lunch on traditional Vezo floor mats in the main meeting area in the grounds.  There were lots of smiling happy faces and it was obvious that even lunch was fun for everyone. Once the children had finished eating and helped to clean up it was time for a nap. This really meant that it was time to play in their bunk beds for a while before going outside and playing on the swings and slide or having a kick about with a football. After ‘nap time’ everyone lined up in the main meeting area again. The children had already been taught some really great raps and marches by Christian, one of the staff, and when he gave the signal to move out the children marched in pairs listening out for instructions or a funny rap.

Our big group walked through Mangily and down the beach where a local dive center, Atimo Plongee, had a TV set up waiting to show the children a film about whales. The teacher arrived shortly after us and none of the children seemed fazed by the fact that he was a very large imposing figure with a deep voice and a stick in his hand, but I was! But I soon found out I didn’t need to be. The stick was for pointing at the whales on the screen and his deep booming voice carried very nicely over the waves and wind. The children loved him and loved the film and class. They had a great time answering quiz questions at the end of the film about what they had learned. Afterwards everyone formed a huge circle on the beach and played games. A little while later it was time for me to head back to Ifaty and I left the group playing on the beach. I could still hear the squeals and giggles all the way down the beach.

Learning should be fun. Learning about socially responsible living and a sustainable future is great fun at Green School.  Sustainable development is essential for a sustainable future and Green School and its amazing team is doing a great job preparing these children for their future as socially aware and responsible adults.

Reported by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


Category: Blog · Tags:

Not just a drop in the ocean….

Sunscreen is an essential part of almost everyone’s holiday preparations. We choose a sunscreen that we can afford, that offers the right level of SPF protection and that comes in a spray, cream or oil depending on our preferences. But do we look at or even care about what’s actually in our sunscreen? Is your sunscreen giving you and your environment the best protection it can? When it comes to the sea your sunscreen could be letting you down. Any diver who learned to dive with a reputable organization knows that caring for our oceans and everything that lives in them is an essential part of learning to dive and continuing to dive. New divers learn that it’s vital to protect the underwater environment for future generations to visit. But even the most careful diver could be damaging coral reefs systems without even knowing it.  Corals are vulnerable to many threats created by our modern world such as over fishing, rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification and run off from industry and agriculture. But corals are also being damaged by something much less obvious.  Something each and every one of us can do our part to address. Sunscreen!

Traditional sunscreens are loaded with preservatives, chemicals and nano particles that have now been proven to damage coral reefs by contributing significantly to coral bleaching, and cause damage to our bodies through absorption of toxins from the chemicals through our skin. The majority of these sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemically active ingredient that has been identified as one of the most damaging chemicals for corals. The active ingredient in sunscreen is the component that does most of all of the work to protect your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays, which is great as long as the active ingredient is not oxybenzone or other damaging ingredients such as avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and octinoxate or a combination of these chemicals.

A report published in 2015 in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology reveals that oxybenzone is a major contributing factor in widespread coral bleaching. Furthermore the chemical does not just kill the coral. It damages DNA in adult coral and deforms DNA in coral in the larval stage making it unlikely to form properly.  Sadly this means that anytime you wear a sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or other harmful active ingredients and swim in waters that contain corals you are actively allowing the damaging chemical to come in contact with fragile corals. The Washington Post (2015) notes that ‘the equivalent of a drop of water in a half dozen Olympic sized swimming pools’ is enough to damage fragile coral reef systems. Just think how much sunscreen it takes to cover every tourist that visits a beach that has coral reefs nearby! A lot, right? Well, it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in coral reefs worldwide annually (Huffington Post). 14,000 TONS!!!!

Sunscreen does not spread or dissipate easily in water. Therefore tourist hotspots tend to have much higher concentrations of the chemical in the water. Unfortunately, a lot of tourist hotspots also have coral reef systems. It is estimated that 90% of dive and snorkeling tourism is concentrated in 10% of the world’s coral reefs (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: NOAA).  But you don’t have to be a diver or snorkeler to contribute to the damage. Even if you haven’t been in the sea on holiday the sunscreen you apply every day gets washed away in the shower and ends up in the wastewater system thereby ending up in the sea anyway in most cases.

This is all very compelling evidence to suggest that we all need to be far more responsible when it comes to what products we take into the water with us. However this may not be compelling enough for those of us who don’t feel a responsibility to our environment (and sadly, yes there are people who don’t). Is there any other reason to switch to a reef safe sunscreen? Well, yes. There is also evidence to suggest that the toxins in oxybenzone are absorbed through the skin every time sunscreen is applied. Based on a representative sampling of children and adults it is estimated that 96% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies (Centre for Disease Control, Calafat 2008).  Laboratory tests have shown that oxybenzone upsets hormone levels and acts like estrogen in the system, altering sperm counts in many animals and causing endometriosis in women. It has also been found in mothers’ breast milk and been found to cause skin allergies. So whatever way you look at it and no matter what you are seeking to protect oxybenzone is bad news.

But do you have to decide between protecting your skin and protecting corals? Thankfully, no you don’t. First of all hats, long sleeve shirts and sarongs provide good shade from the sun’s harmful rays. There are also many different options now available for people who love spending time in the sea and who care about protecting our oceans.  No sunscreen is completely ‘reef safe’ but the term is being used to refer to sunscreens that cause much less damage to corals than traditional sunscreens. Reef safe sunscreens are oxybenzone free and are very often free of parabens, nano particles and other nasty chemicals, of which we are increasingly becoming aware and do not want in our skincare products. Mineral active ingredients such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, which have not been found to harm corals, or a combination of both provide the sun protection in reef safe sunscreens.

One of the main criticisms leveled at sunscreens containing mineral active ingredient is that they are hard to apply and have a ‘paint like’ quality. However this is something that manufacturers are aware of and new more user-friendly versions are coming out all the time. Another draw back critics site is cost. Reef safe sunscreens tend to be all-natural and unfortunately they are often a little more expensive than the cheaper common chemical based sunscreens. However they are similar in price to sunscreens from some of the bigger manufacturers so this argument does not hold a lot of water.  But personal experience confirms that reef safe sunscreens last a very long time and do provide excellent protection from the sun making them very good value for money. They are best applied on well moisturized skin that is dry to the touch So it might take you a little longer to rub the cream in before you hit the water but is it really worth contributing to coral reef damage just to save two minutes and a tiny bit of elbow grease?

When it comes to being responsible for our environment people often say that anything one individual can do will make no difference. Despite the fact that this logic is flawed (but that’s another article for another time) wearing reef safe sunscreen is actually something that individuals can do that can make a very big difference. In fact, everyday average people are those best placed to address this problem. By making one simple change to your holiday preparations you are not only ensuring that you and your family are protected, you are also making sure that one of the most important ecosystems in the world is being protected. It is within your capabilities. Make a difference and go reef safe today!!

Report by RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino


Category: Blog · Tags:

Protect Earth. Restore Land. Engage People.

On Friday 17 June we were invited by YSO Madagascar (Young reSearchers Organisation) to attend their fifth birthday celebrations. We’ve had the opportunity to work with the YSO on a few different projects recently including coral bleaching surveys, so we were very happy to be included in the celebrations. The YSO’s fifth birthday happened to coincide with World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought which has been commemorated every year since 1994 when the United Nations implemented the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Both of these occasions meant that last Friday’s celebrations were important to a lot of people.

So, what does an organisation of researchers, conservationists and scientists do to celebrate their birthday on World Day to Combat Desertification and why is it important? They plant trees, of course! The slogan for World Day to Combat Desertification this year is – Protect Earth, Restore Land, Engage People. And that’s exactly what the YSO aimed to achieve on their birthday with the help of the local community and a number of local NGOs. Early on Friday morning a taxi brousse brought our interns, volunteers and staff to the Songeritelo sand dune. The sand dune provides protection to the mangrove forests in Ambondrolava, where NGO Honko Conservation and Management and VOI Mamelo Honko are based, and in Ambotsike. However due to deforestation the motile dune system requires stabilization to preserve the barrier it provides. As the ReefDoctor team climbed out of the taxi brousse we could see that work was well underway.  A line was forming in front of us through the field and to the edge of the water, made up of people from the nearby village of Songeritelo, YSO members, NGO Honko Conservation and Management and VOI Mamelo Honko, NGO Hunger Hilfe and GIZ –Page environmental magazine.  We quickly joined the human chain and began passing Causina equisetifolia saplings, known in French as Filao, from the roadside down into the muddy banks where they were ferried across a stretch of water by pirogue. Once we had passed about 400 trees across, we all waded over and met the pirogues on the other side to unload all the trees and take them to the planting site.

After being welcomed to the planting day by a representative of the Mayor of Belalanda, the members of the local community and YSO, we were given a tutorial on how to plant the trees by Faustinato Behivoke, a member of YSO, and we got to work. Filao are salt tolerant trees found in sand dunes and form an important part of sand dune vegetation. They can be found growing naturally along the coast of the bay and provide, among other things, fuel for fires, dye for tanning and of course, stabilizing vegetation for sandy soil. It was tiring work but with so many people involved the majority of the planting was done in a few hours, after which we were treated to lunch.

‘Today, the land is considered a vital link in solving many other development challenges’ Faustinato explained to Lexpressmada.com who brought the event to national attention. Every member of the community benefits in some way from protecting the land or, in this case, sand dune whether it is from having access to managed resources like wood, having a food supply when juvenile animals survive under the protection that the mangroves provide or protecting land from coastal erosion.  The activities of the 17th of June brought people from many different parts of the community together to protect a natural resource that can contribute greatly to the overall objectives of sustainable development.

Report by RD Comms Officer, Ivana Rubino

Category: Blog · Tags:

The Future is Bright Green

Near the middle of Toliara sits the Notre Dame de Nazareth School. From the outside it looks like many of the private schools in Toliara. High walls surround the yards and two storey cement school buildings. Vendors wait at stalls full of sweets and snacks outside the imposing iron gates as children in blue uniforms walk in and out in groups. But inside there is a lush little green oasis of nature with lots of ecologically sound ideas bubbling up, thanks to Eco-schools. Eco-schools is a global initiative that encourages socially responsible learning in primary and secondary schools.  The initiative began in 1992 and projects are now established in 49,000 schools in 62 countries. 15 million students worldwide are involved in Eco-schools and learning about a sustainable future (www.ecoschools.global). Notre Dame de Nazareth School joined Eco-schools in 2015 and set up Club Vintsy to run its Eco-schools projects and curriculum. The club, named after a local species of bird, is made up of girls and boys aged between 10 and 16 years old.  We got to visit Notre Dame de Nazareth on Saturday 4th June along with NGO Honko and some of their Juniors when we were invited by Club Vinsty to hear about these ideas and see some of their projects.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk through the gates of Notre Dame de Nazareth School is the plants. They’re planted in pots in rows outside the canteen, planted in beds outside almost every building and planted in plastic bottles cut, linked and attached to the bars of classroom windows. Much of the planting has been done by Club Vintsy.  The second thing you notice is the enthusiasm all the club members have for the Eco-schools projects.  Throughout the morning everyone spoke confidently about their projects. You could hear the enthusiasm in their voices and see how proud they were to show us their work. Every club member was engaged and also spoke knowledgeably about Malagasy culture and environmental and sanitation issues.  They really knew their stuff and were very eager to show us what they’ve done.

Firstly, the club showed us how they make briquettes for fuel.  Two of the older girls explained the process to the group in Malagasy and excellent English, and dealt expertly with questions from the group while they mixed the ingredients.   The briquettes, made from a small amount of charcoal, water, clay, sawdust and zebu manure, provide an alternative to burning traditional charcoal, which is the only fuel source available to the majority of people in Madagascar for cooking. The production of charcoal for cooking fires has contributed significantly to deforestation throughout the country. The briquettes made by the young people at Club Vintsy contain approximately a quarter of the usual amount of charcoal needed and can be shaped in a press or by hand.  They are a simple and practical step in addressing charcoal use throughout the country, as the other ingredients required are freely available or are inexpensive to buy.  

The charcoal briquettes are easy to make and everyone had a chance to have a go.  After the demonstration, the briquettes were left in the sun to dry while the members of Club Vintsy took us to their ‘tip taps’ to wash our hands.  Tip taps are made from reused water bottles with a hole in the lid and tied to a frame with a piece of rope wound around a nail. To ‘turn on the tap’ you just tip the bottle. A small amount of water comes from the hole in the lid. Tip taps provide an inexpensive, water saving solution to hand sanitation that can be used in schools or homes. There was also a soap dish, made from a water bottle cut in half, attached to the frame. ‘Do you think eco-school is good?’ Science and Education Officer Apolline Mercier asked club member, Estella, as they washed their hands. ‘Yes,’ Estella smiled. ‘Why?” Apo asked. “It makes life better’ she replied.

Once everyone’s hands were clean it was time to get them dirty again in the school’s tree nursery. Some of the younger club members demonstrated and explained how to fill small plastic bags with soil and plant saplings that they had grown on site. We asked what they do with the saplings and some of the older girls took us outside to have a look at the planting on the pavements surrounding the school. The club has planted saplings in protective frames along the entire block surrounding the school. They are really going to brighten up the street, and provide a filter for air pollutants when they have grown. On the way back we dropped into a classroom where a class of 10–11 year olds beamed as they showed us their Eco-schools award. Back at the tree nursery, the club had lovely gifts of Moringa saplings for us to take home.

The group then made its way to the school’s vegetable garden where we saw the tip taps being used to water the plants and were shown what vegetables were growing. On the way we also got to see waste collection points made from cooking oil containers that have been cut, with a separate bottle for compostable waste beside it. The compost is used as fertilizer for the vegetables that the club sells to the market in Toliara. We asked where the money goes, fully expecting to hear that it is put back into the club, but were surprised and touched to hear that the club gives any money made from selling vegetables to the many street children in Toliara.  At this point the club explained the ethos of the school. Notre Dame de Nazareth was originally a catholic girls school but in recent years the school has started admitting boys. Our guides also told us that, although the school is still a catholic school, children from any religion can attend. Prayers are said every day at the school and every child’s religion is accommodated. And that is very much the impression you get from the school, that everyone is welcome and we were made to feel very welcome during our visit.

Eco- schools projects are amazing.  There are so many good ideas at this school. If the young people of Club Vintsy are anything to go by, the projects do encourage socially responsible learning, and teach socially responsible habits. They help people to engage with nature and make it a part of everyday life, make it a consideration in everyday life.  15 million young people throughout the world are interacting with their environment through Eco-schools projects and learning that everything in our ecosystem is connected including the people.  They are taking this knowledge and these habits with them into adulthood where, hopefully, they can make the future bright and very very green.

 By RD Comms Officer Ivana Rubino

Category: Blog · Tags: