Volunteer Experiences with the Reef Doctor Honko Project

Find out what life is like volunteering with the Reef Doctor Honko Project (mangrove conservation) in this blog by one of our recent volunteers, Elsa Descamps.

“After a 2-day journey from Antananarivo to Tulear via taxi brousse, I eventually arrived in Honko. First, I was introduced to the Reef Doctor project site in Ifaty, 10 km north from the Honko site in Ambondrolava. There, I met diving-passionate volunteers from all over the world.

RD site

Arriving at Honko, the first Malagasy word I learned was mazotoa, meaning enjoy. It illustrates perfectly the atmosphere of the place. Thierry (Honko Project Manager) and Lalas (Volunteer Coordinator and Tour Guide) were very welcoming and knowledgeable. Living most of the time with them, you soon feel part of their family. When I arrived I was the only volunteer but Thea, a beautiful human being from Australia, joined me soon after. We shared the same dorm, a basic but comfortable room equipped with mosquito nets and…Electricity! With November’s heat, you soon learn to enjoy the cold bucket showers. The water extracted from the well is used for showers and dishes but drinking water is filtered in the kitchen. Food is made by a cook and when hunger hits us, we share the meal in the living room. It was mainly bokoboko (local bread) for breakfast, rice and beans for lunch and rice and vegetables/meat (once a week) for diner. Food is available at any time of the day. The immersion in the Gasy lifestyle is great and gives a satisfying break in habits.

honko site

Lalas guided Thea and I through the mangrove and we instantly wanted to learn more about this fascinating ecosystem. Books about mangrove species, birds and Malagasy are available in the living room. So we spent the first days trying to engulf as much information as we could. Eventually through field work and two weekly bird monitoring events – with Lalas giving us some valuable recognition characteristics – we became able to identify most of the species we encountered.

mangrove birds


mangrove channel

Between the several projects that Honko is undertaking I could choose the one that I had the most interest in. Reforestation and gardening were what interested me the most, so planting became the main part of my work during my 2-month stay. Plus, in November, the yellow and black mangrove propagules – seedlings growing on the parent tree – are ready to plant. Along with the Honko team, volunteers and environmental education students we harvested propagules in deep mud (at low tide) or in waist-high water (at high tide). As well as being a lot of fun, it was very efficient and some days we collected more than a thousand propagules that we then planted in deforested areas.


propagulesThe weather was hot and dry, this combined with a sandy soil makes gardening very challenging. To give the soil some nutrients, we launched a new compost with fresh zebu manure and organic food remains. Once a week the compost is turned and watered in order to add some oxygen and moisture. The outcome is already successful! This black gold is then used for planting tomatoes, red peppers, mangoes, baobab and other locally growing trees in the nursery in order to help the veggie garden project and improve the Honko camp site.

Once a week, along with Thierry and Thea, we taught English to the students of the neighbourhood villages. Even though the level is heterogeneous, their eagerness to learn makes it very exciting.

Finally, after a week of work (roughly 7 hours a day) we enjoyed a kayak tour of the mangrove channel that leads to the sea. I would advise an early sunrise expedition. There is also plenty to do in the surroundings: diving with Reef Doctor in Ifaty, walking through baobabs in the Spiny Forest of Mangily or lazing in the transparent water of Anakao.

kayak mangroves

kayak mangroves beach

Last but not least, I’ll always remember when the Women’s Association’s president, Jacqueline, she taught me how to weave reeds as she did to the rest of the community before. I was really moved by her patience even though we only communicated through gesture.

Misaotra betsaka an’i Honko! Amin’ny manaraka indray!

Thank you very much Honko! See you next time!

You can find out more about our Honko volunteer programme here.

Recent Volunteer Insights

Ann-Kathrin and Daniel, from Germany, spent a month volunteering with us back in July-August, here they share their experiences and insights of our volunteer programme and the work we do.

“After arriving in Toliara at the end of the beautiful Route Nationale 7, we headed straight for Reef Doctor, about 25 km north, for a month of volunteering in the small village of Ifaty in the Bay of Ranobe. Reef Doctor (RD) is an NGO and, as the name suggests, its primary goal is to conserve marine life. RD wants to achieve this by active marine research and conservation, but also, and probably much more important, by educating the communities and creating sustainable livelihoods for the people in the Bay of Ranobe.

In this blog we would like to focus on our time at Reef Doctor and some the projects we were involved in.

Reef Doctor site
RD is located on the beach in Ifaty, which lies in the Bay of Ranobe. The living conditions here are very basic, but it is such a beautiful site!

Reef conservation and artificial reefs
Some of the main projects conducted by RD involve diving. There are now two marine protected areas in the Bay of Ranobe that were established by RD in collaboration with the local fishermen’s association. This was a long and strenuous process because you have to convince the locals that it is actually good for them to stop fishing in certain areas. The main protected area where RD operates is called Rose Garden. The edges of this reef are quite damaged, but in parts you can still see how amazing the whole site once must have been and will surely be again in the future.

Next to the Rose Garden reef, RD installed a coral table which acts as a nursery for corals. During our time at RD we collected coral pieces from an unprotected area that were fragmented due to natural reasons, fishing with nets, or probably even by snorkelers or divers, and brought them up to the boat. There we superglued them to dead pieces of coral and then transported them to the nursery table, where they were attached and left to grow. The crucial part is the superglue, because corals have to be firmly attached to something to be able to grow and the process is very slow. In exchange for the newly added corals, we took corals that were already strong and big enough off the table and transplanted them onto rocks on the reef with epoxy putty (used in plumbing and in aquariums) that hardens within 24 hours and keeps the coral stable on the rock.

In parallel, in a collaboration with the villagers, stones have been sourced, brought out with pirogues and placed on the seabed. The volunteers and staff at RD then organised the rocks to create an artificial reef where marine life can find a new home. These artificial reef structures are supplemented with concrete dome-shaped habitat enhancement structures with lots of holes to attract even more marine life, specifically juvenile fish and invertebrates. In the long run, the artificial reef sites should take the pressure off the established and overfished fishing grounds.

Dive training and marine research
While working at RD, volunteers are able to begin or continue their dive training. We completed our Advanced Open Water Diver, others started with the Open Water Diver or even Dive Master. But there is more! All volunteers receive science training comprising a lecture series and training in identification of fish, invertebrates and benthic composition. Completing this training to the indicator level (there is also an expert level with more species) enabled us to actively participate in coral reef surveys. By doing so, we helped provide information on the health and status of the reef. For the protected areas, the prognosis quite good. The conservation efforts are making a difference! Yay!




To have an idea about how much the people in the area fish and which gear they use, RD performs regular assessments of catches and fishing efforts in different villages. It is a very interesting to participate in one of these surveys, to see the pirogues with their beautiful sails coming home and being crowded by people who want to be the first to buy some fish. But it is also sad to see the many exotic and rare fish and invertebrates (e.g., squid or octopus) that the people catch. The only fish locals won’t eat are poisonous ones. If a shark or even a dolphin finds their way into the bay, you can be sure it will be found on the market very soon after.

RD is trying to control catches of marine turtles with a tagging project: fishermen are paid for every turtle caught under a certain size and brought to the RD site. Here, it is measured and tagged and then the fishermen can release it again where they found it and get a cash reward for it. This worked quite well while we were there and roughly 3-4 turtles per week were brought in. While this surely helps to protect young turtles, there are wider issues still needing to be tackled concerning adults.

To further reduce fishing pressure, RD is trying to establish alternative livelihood projects with the villagers. There are several aquaculture projects, such as pisciculture, and growing seaweed or sea cucumbers for the Chinese market. Farming seaweed also has the fantastic side effect of providing a perfect nursery habitat for juvenile fish, undisturbed by fishing. Furthermore, in collaboration with Indian Ocean Trepang (IOT) in Toliara, RD helps provide selected villagers from Ambalomailake or Andrevo with juvenile sea cucumbers. IOT is specialised in breeding sea cucumbers and agreed to provide juveniles to locals who then let them grow in enclosed pens. When they reach a certain size, they can sell them for a profit and give a percentage of the money back to IOT. This enables the sea cucumber farmers to generate an extra income to fishing.

Protecting mangrove trees at Honko
Mangroves are a very important habitat for marine life. These coastal trees have several functions benefitting the reefs. They provide a perfect habitat for juvenile fish, they filter the water and improve its quality, and they protect the coast from erosion which reduces sedimentation on the reef. Honko means mangrove in Malagasy and at the Honko site, RD manages a protected area for mangroves that were in the past cut down by people to make coal (which is the primary material for cooking) or simply to make space for reeds, which can be used for building houses and roofs, or for use as a salt pan. The protected site offers guided tours and canoe trips through the mangroves. When we were there measured replanted mangroves and analyzed how much they had grown since they had been planted. In another project at Honko, the staff and volunteers there are trying out different compositions of soil from available materials (such as zebu poo!) to be able to grow vegetables despite the dry conditions.

Teaching English
This was a fun way to connect with the villagers. Most of the people here speak only their local dialect and not more than a few words of French. Speaking English could enable some of the people to work in tourism, especially in Mangily, Ifaty’s neighboring village, where a lot of tourists come to enjoy the beach. Every week at RD, volunteers that are interested in education or interacting with with the local community, can participate in the preparation of courses and assist the English class in Ifaty or in Ambondrolava villages.

Leisure time
Of course, we also had free time while being a member of RD and we usually used it for relaxing, going to the local bar in Ifaty, going on fun dives, or going on weekend trips! There is a lot to do in the area!

We really enjoyed our time at Reef Doctor and are proud to have been a part of the amazing work they do. It was a pleasure to meet so many motivated and awesome people there. The time we had in Ifaty went by way to fast!”

Blog: Ann-Kathrin Bott & Daniel Gaul

Photo credits: Dan Gaul, AK, Liz Pasea, Lucy Fisher and Margot Chapon

Winter Doesn’t Just Mean Thicker Wetsuits…

Volunteers and interns play a significant role in our reef restoration programme in the Bay of Ranobe. Here, Reef Doctor volunteer Elizabeth Pasea describes our coral transplantation project which takes place in Madagascar’s winter months (June-October).


“Cooler waters in winter in the Bay of Ranobe means it’s coral transplant season here at Reef Doctor. We transplant coral to repair existing reefs damaged by fishing gear, storms, or divers’ fin strikes, increase biodiversity of coral species within particular coral environments, and also to create new reef habitats or supplement artificial reefs.

The Bay of Ranobe is largely enclosed by a barrier reef and its calm waters require careful stewardship to prevent overfishing. By increasing the areas within the bay that are populated with coral, additional habitats for fish spawning and feeding will become available, increasing the general fish population and ensuring a more sustainable fishery. It is also hoped that rich coral environments will attract more tourists and create new types of livelihoods for people here.

Transplanting coral starts with searching for ‘corals of opportunity’. These are broken bits of hard coral that are detached from their former colonies during storms or contact with fishing gear. We have favourite spots where we search around the likely types of coral on the seabed. I was surprised that fragments as small as my little toe can be viable for transplantation. If we did not gather these fragments, it’s unlikely that they would form new colonies where they fall. Gloves are necessary to handle the fragments- oil on human skin can damage coral, (and some coral can damage human skin!); then we place them in zip lock bags under water. Back on the boat, they are placed in a shaded bucket as we motor to our next destination, either a coral nursery or artificial reef site. We take care to keep the fragments cool, to prevent them from secreting mucous, a sign of stress.

If the fragments are destined to be placed straight onto their next permanent home, we dive with minimum delay, moulding epoxy on the boat and remembering to work it to keep it soft, as we descend to the reef. Once we have found a suitable small depression in the substrate (usually rock or dead coral), we clean any algae away with a toothbrush and mould epoxy around the base of the coral fragment to hold it in place. Over the next day or so, it hardens. In time, a successful coral transplant’s polyps will start to encrust over the epoxy and the substrate, and a thriving colony will form.

coral transplantation

coral transplantation

If we don’t have a new permanent site for our coral fragments, we place them in a coral nursery. Before we dive for the second time, we superglue the live fragments to pieces of dead coral; the dead coral can then be affixed to underwater structures such as tables or metal rebar arches with cable ties. The live coral will start to encrust over the dead coral, instead of over the nursery structure, which makes it easier to perform the transplant once a new permanent home is found. As with any garden, we check on it frequently, and clean away algae (with toothbrushes), from our coral ‘babies’ weekly.”

coral transplantation

coral transplantation

coral transplantation

Blog by Reef Doctor volunteer Elizabeth Pasea
Photo credits: Daniel Gaul

Elizabeth Passea

‘Reef Safe’ Sun Protection: an update

We have previously written about the damaging effects of sunscreen on coral reefs and have banned the use of commercial non ‘reef safe’ sunscreens at Reef Doctor. In this new blog, Reef Doctor volunteer Elizabeth Pasea updates us on the issue and recommends the best approach for protecting your skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation with minimal impact to coral reefs:

“Growing up under a hole in the ozone layer in New Zealand, I was aware of how important sunscreen is to protect against skin cancer. I have more recently learned that the ingredients in most commercial sunscreens are damaging to coral. Awareness is spreading; Hawaii has recently banned the ingredients octinoxate and oxybenzone due to their negative impact on coral ecosystems.

Studies have shown that even ingredients advertised as ‘reef safe’ can still increase oxidation and acidity levels in water and contribute to coral stress, where they may expel the algae which reside in them and give the coral it’s colour; the process known as coral bleaching. Non-organic sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, are less toxic than petroleum-based ingredients; however their nano particles may still damage coral.

Elizabeth Passea

80% of the ReefDoctor volunteers currently on camp have titanium dioxide based sunscreen, and 20% zinc oxide. Most of us found that we had to search hard for these products – they were not the most readily available products.

One of the things to notice when arriving in this part of Madagascar is that some of the women wear mud on their faces during the day for sun protection, as demonstrated in the photo below by Reef Doctor Support staff member Hortence. As it happens, titanium dioxide is just about to start being mined in Ranobe, not far from the Reef Doctor camp, science is catching up with local Vezo custom!

local women with facepaint


When diving at Reef Doctor, whether gathering data on the health of the reef or transplanting coral, we try to minimise our application of ‘reef-safe’ sunscreen to dry skin; when applied to wet skin it is liable to rinse off straight away. We also prefer hats and clothes to protect our skin when on the boat and during surface intervals.

It’s not only swimmers and divers who introduce sunscreen and other chemicals to the coral environment: chemicals used on land and washed off into many municipal waste systems also end up in the ocean. A recent study (Corinaldesi et al, 2018) showed that patented titanium based ingredients ‘Optisol’ And ‘Eusolex T2000’ have significantly lower levels of toxicity to coral than zinc oxide. Hopefully, we will see more products with these ingredients available to buy soon.

In the meantime, please read the ingredients! The conservative application of products containing non-nano zinc oxide and titanium oxide applied to dry skin remains the best option to help ensure coral ecosystems survive beyond 2050.”

Blog by Elizabeth Pasea

Photo credits: Elizabeth Pasea & Margot Chapon 

Night Diving in the Bay of Ranobe

In this volunteer blog, Research Assistant Abby Rogerson describes her memorable experience of night diving in the Bay of Ranobe, in what marked her final dive with us.

“I’m always weary of building up lasts. I need no culminating spectacle to seal an experience, and I find that reflections of my past are more often marked by seemingly trivial occurrences that elucidate a time’s importance. Perhaps this attitude is subconsciously built on a foundation of self-preservation—an indifference towards great endings ensures disappointment will not ensue.

My final dive at Reef Doctor was on a calm Friday night at Rose Garden Marine Protected Area. Rather than my interest waning as I became more acquainted with this reef—its resident species, their behaviours and habitats, the geography of the reef perimeter—I’ve become more attached. Familiarity is a settling feeling as a person uprooted from the subtle details that make one feel at home. Despite my reservations about lasts, the prospect of seeing this place in a different light is exciting, akin to visiting a beloved spot with a new companion—the draw remains unchanged, but details are amplified and refracted through a new perspective.

As we make our way offshore, I look back on the once homogenous coastline, which is now distinguished by time spent and knowledge gained. The dottings of dull green-grey trees are now Euphorbia; the faded red bungalows tucked in the dunes are remnants of the dilapidated Mangily Hotel; the dense stand of pines mark entry into Ifaty. Walks along this beach are differentiated by conversations on the phone with missed loved ones, by slow afternoons spent inspecting tide pools, by disjointed French conversations had with children met on my way.

We tie up to a buoy as the sun dips below the horizon. Flicking on our flashlights, we descend down the algae-laden anchor line. The artificial light illuminates particulates drifting in the water column, and I avert my eyes from the cloudy beams. The ensuing clarity is stark; I’m struck that a medium that exerts such resistance is as invisible as air.

Dusk seamlessly merges into dark. Fifteen feet above, I see the moon’s image stretched across the meeting of mediums and elongated into a rippling spectrum of color. With the moon’s light above and the presence of five others around me, I think about a conversation with my mom in which she said night diving must be unnerving. Although I understand the sentiment, the idea of being frightened in this moment seems irrational. To get a sense of this unnerved feeling, I let the others pass by and turn to see the darkness. My mind drifts to the possibility of being solitary in this blackness, and a pang in my stomach urges me to abandon this curiosity.

By night, short-spined urchins roam freely. Untethered from their daytime congregations, they shuffle singly across the substrate and continue their ramblings up the walls of massive coral bommies. Tiny red fish shimmy amongst their spines and reaching tentacles. Constantly I realise how little I know about the inhabitants of this ecosystem, and I wonder if these hitchhikers are parasites or partners in a welcome symbiosis. Three-spot dascyllus have also shed any semblance of shyness. By day, they nip our fingers to defend the eggs they’ve laid upon the coral nursery’s rebar as we scrape algae off its frame. Now, these small, drab grey fish do not dart away like other species as we pass by; rather, they flare their dorsal spines to the alert. Their prevalence and apathetic disposition begs me to label them the squirrels of the reef.

A circling beam ahead catches my attention. My eyes scan the matrix of tan and brown textures and catch the domed form of a cuttlefish—the first I’ve ever seen. Although they are capable of hypnotizing color displays, this one relies on a mottled appearance to keep it disguised among the rubble. A waving flap skirts its squid-like body, which allows it to hover slightly above the seafloor. I reluctantly move on, now distrustful that the broken shards of algae-encrusted coral are as they seem. My suspicion is warranted. An octopus’s bulbous head gives away its camouflage; it is not angular enough to blend into the surrounding mess of coral fragments. As we crowd around, it slithers its tentacles more tightly underneath its body. Its obvious tenseness makes me certain it will flee once free from our attention. Just as my fins pass out of its radius, it launches itself away with a swift extension of its tentacles into the safety of darkness.

Gradually, a faint crackling noise becomes loud enough to catch my attention. Typically, my breath is the only noticeable sound while diving, and it tends to fade from consciousness just as the feeling of breath does. Upon becoming conscious of sound again, I fixate on the mechanical sound of air travelling through my regulator and the purge of bubbles as I exhale. I wonder about the source of the crackling and if the others notice it as well. Although we dive together, each of us has isolated experiences defined by thoughts that cannot be shared, questions that remain unasked, and curiosities that disappear before being pointed out. Our spheres of awareness are separate and overlapping in unknown ways.

This inability to express amazement and confusion is readily relieved upon surfacing. Our hanging flashlights illuminate the water a pool blue as we bob on the surface, breaking the night’s silence with our exclamations and questions. Hypotheses for the source of the crackling are pitched, and descriptions of unknown species discussed. To me, it seems my indifference towards a memorable last dive was met with a barrage of novelty, as if to disprove that this ocean and its many ecosystems could ever cease to be novel.”

Photo credits: Abby Rogerson & Neil Davison