sea cucumbers

Sea Cucumbers of Gold!

In his third blog instalment, our aquaculture intern, Nathaniel Maekawa, describes his latest experiences and newly acquired responsibilities working on our sustainable livelihoods programme.

“The water leapt at my knees as I stood next to the watchtower. Headlamp beams darted back and forth, illuminating purple and green plastic tubs that floated along idly. Piled within each bin, to the brink of falling out, were dozens of Holothuria scabra, the golden sandfish. Keeping one hand on their floating harvest and two eyes on the scale, the sea cucumber farmers formed a circle around myself, the technician, and the weighing table. One at a time, each farmer would push his/her haul over the water and up to the wooden station. Within seconds, the table would be scattered with sea cucumbers. Despite the streams of sea cucumber orifice water that squirted onto my sweatshirt, my concentration held firm. With hundreds of sandfish to weigh and 20 farmers depending on our efficiency, my eyes remained locked on reading the scale and recording the market results. Since sea cucumbers below 450 grams were deemed too small for commercial sale, these were effectively sorted and launched across the table into a bin for the farmer to take back to the pens. When a farmer’s harvest had been accounted for, I declared the result in French so that the technician could give the farmer a ticket for payment. Fast-paced and chaotic, minutes quickly became hours. During a moment of reprieve, I paused to take in my surroundings. When thinking of the scenario from an abstract perspective, the incredulousness of the situation began to seize me. Would anyone believe the time that I partook in a starlit sea cucumber sale, off the coast in Madagascar, speaking French, and being doused by sea cucumber juice?

sea cucumbers

As my days at Reef Doctor steadily accumulate, the responsibilities that I am entrusted with have grown in quantity and importance. This past week, I delivered my first sustainable livelihoods presentation to a group of volunteers and interns. Speaking about the importance of our fisheries collection surveys and the state of global and small-scale fisheries, I felt amazed at how easily the information slid from my mind and into coherent words. Through the hands-on work that I have partaken in at Reef Doctor, I have been able to absorb the importance and breadth of the sustainable livelihoods project. It is definitely a good feeling to be in a position to impart knowledge and inspiration for this project to people that have an interest in contributing to its success.

intern presentation

Other aquaculture happenings have included an update on the results of last week’s seaweed sale, and the reconstruction of juvenile pens in Andrevo. Over 13 tons of seaweed were sold across the Bay of Ranobe, which is on track with Reef Doctor’s goal for project expansion, and actually three tons over the projected sale estimates. These promising results are in line with Reef Doctor’s aspirations for community development, and everyone is working diligently to ensure that the results are sustained going forward. With Madagascar’s Independence Day following the weekend of the Bay’s outstanding seaweed harvest, there was much reason to celebrate. As for the rebuilding of pens in Andrevo, a fellow aquaculture intern and I village-hopped the morning after the sea cucumber sale in Ambolomailake, to help with the pen modifications. Since the mesh spacing on the previous juvenile pens was too large, baby sea cucumbers were being carried out of their enclosures with the tides. To avoid future losses, the mesh fencing was replaced with one that had smaller gratings. Although the language barrier was evident while we worked, our involvement with the labours of digging, mesh cutting, and stake re-establishment, brought about an unspoken communion. Working side by side with the farmers also led to my learning of some new Vezo words. While my pronunciation and display of charades to signify my interpretation (or in most cases misinterpretation) brought about some laughter, it was all in good fun.

male sea cucumber farmer

Weekends provide opportunities to experience some of the natural attractions of Madagascar. This weekend, I made my way north to the Spiny Forest outside of Mangily. Walking amongst the funky baobabs and prickly vegetation, I could hear David Attenborough’s voice dramatically narrating in the chambers of my mind. The guide was very knowledgeable about the practical uses of the plants that we encountered, giving examples that ranged from traditional medicine to the creation of pirgoues that we row out to our seaweed farm. One of the highlights of this excursion was seeing my first lemur! My friends and I took an immense fascination with watching the little dude as he chilled in a tree, and after several minutes of our intent observation, the guide ended up shaking the tree to retrieve us from our trance and send the lemur on its way. Overall, it’s been another productive, exciting, and educational week at Reef Doctor. After a long and exhausting day, the stories often continue, as my mind traverses into a malaria-medicine induced rollercoaster of dreams. Yet with midnight sea cucumber sales occupying my time spent awake, it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate my outlandish dreams from my outlandish reality. Until next time.”

trip to spiny forest

Photo credits: Karin Moehler, Ivana Rubino & Lindsay Clark

juvenile sea cucumbers

A Mid-Winter’s Night Sea Cucumber Transfer

Here is the second blog instalment of our aquaculture intern, Nathaniel Maekawa, in which he describes his experiences working on Reef Doctor’s sustainable livelihoods programme and life in Madagascar.

bucket showerTime is certainly flying by over here in Madagascar. Where once I was stranded with two cups of well water to rinse suds off of my entire body, I have now perfected a bucket-shower water distribution ratio (trademark pending). I’ve lost sight as to what parts of my skin have tanned, burned, or simply darkened as a result of the several layers of dirt that blanket its true pigment. In just two weeks, even my threshold of surprise for a taxi-brousse ride has been elevated. My first day’s journey with over 25 people seems pretty ordinary when you compare it to the time that I clung to a brousse’s roof rack and dangled on the side of the truck with four others. As the inside of the brousse had finally been filled to capacity, the drivers still wanted our business, and we still wanted a ride, this was a course of action consented to by all parties. Although the speed bumps (and interpretation of said speed bumps) could ignite the pulse and force a quick readjustment of hands and feet, everyone on the brousse had a laugh or at least a smile about the situation at some point. As the brousse chugged along, it occurred to me how if you disregard the amount of fuel that the refurbished engine is probably guzzling, its overachieving standards for transporting large amounts of people is a cool blend of environmentally friendly action and community building. Alas, these, and the wish to stay alive, are the thoughts of an environmentalist while clinging to a taxi-brousse.

This week in aquaculture, I helped to continue the therapeutic maintenance of our seaweed lines (it’s a mutualistic relationship), inputted data on regional turtle mortality (calculated by the recording of turtles that were sold in markets), and got involved in a session that focused on the goals and direction of the aquaculture program. Since aquaculture works closely with the communities where sea cucumber and/or seaweed initiatives have been started or are developing, there are many opportunities for interns to get involved in ground-level work. For example, when news arrived that a sea cucumber transfer was happening in the village of Andrevo, we were invited to go to the village and see how the process is carried out. Meeting one of the aquaculture staff members in the early evening, he guided us through Andrevo and introduced us to aquaculture farmers, technicians, and friends of Reef Doctor. Since the sea cucumber pens are most accessible at low tide, and sea cucumber behavior is most active at night, we had plenty of time to kill before the 11:30pm transfer. Thus our party of eight, composed of local technicians, Reef Doctor staff, farmers, a fellow intern and myself, walked to one of the village bars.data entry


The structure of the building that we sat in differed from the typical wooden huts seen in most of the villages. I would soon realise that the aluminium encasement, supported by wooden beams, was to entrap the booming sound of Malagasy and French House music. Despite the upbeat auditory atmosphere, the eight of us sat quite properly at a small, wooden table, becoming acquainted over a few drinks, shouted words, and gesturing when our lungs could no longer compete with the speakers. As a bowl of grilled fish was brought over to our table, I felt a cultural test looming before me. With no utensils and several medium sized fish sitting between all of us, I waited so that I could hopefully mimic the right technique. One of my bosses reached in first, and without hesitation, took a chomp out of the fish’s head. With a demonstration complete, I did the exact same. Chewing the head and realising it wasn’t that different from the rest of the fish, I watched the next man go. A local technician, the man picked up his fish and delicately removed the head before placing it in the bone pile. Apparently fish head was more of a personal preference than a cultural thing.

After our time at the bar, we walked back to the hut that was offering us accommodation for our overnight stay. The residence belonged to a sea cucumber farmer named Perine. One of the most productive farmers in the region, Perine is a spectacular icon for how the sustainable livelihoods project can provide economic opportunity and autonomy for women in Southwest, Madagascar. She was also a wonderful person to meet, and graciously supplied us with a delicious meal, rice tea, and warm beds to sleep in.

Following our dinner, our group of four (Reef Doctor staff and interns) took a rest until the beeping of an alarm called us from our slumber at 11:30. Under the light of the stars, we walked to the beach and wandered towards a covered pavilion. Silhouettes in the night, thirty men and women sat waiting there for the signal to head out to the pens. When the go ahead was given, we all sloshed out in the low tide for the juvenile sea cucumber transfer. While I witnessed the farmers and technicians counting and collecting sea cucumbers, and killing predatory crabs, I was able to learn more about why the process takes place. Since the sea cucumbers start out very, very small they need to be raised in nursery pens with extra mesh protection to avoid their predation. As each sea cucumber is a potential profit, their vitality equates to economic sustenance, and is therefore very important. Once the sea cucumbers reach 50 grams, they are large enough to avoid predation on their own, and can be moved to the adult pens to grow until they are of commercial size. Reef Doctor acts as a facilitator between the sea cucumber supplier and the community, so that villagers have access to this opportunity but are also given fair representation. This representation is pertinent as it is the foundation for the community to develop sustainably and with agency.

As I mentioned previously, time is truly flying by. However, it is reassuring to know that this time is being well spent. Other projects that I have been fortunate to be a part of this week were an anti-desertification planting to protect mangroves, and a community’s first seaweed sale since an outbreak of the tenacious seaweed disease EFA (Epiphytic Filamentous Algae – gnarly stuff). I’ve also become the proud (and skeptical) owner of a laptop bought in Tulear! With my original laptop sustaining water damage somewhere in my traveling, and my phone’s charging jack out of commission, this little laptop stands as my strongest connection to the world back home. I’m pretty happy with it at the moment, but it is a little unfortunate that I will probably be put on some sort of watchlist the minute I turn it on in the United States. Until next time.”

dune stabilisation

Photo credits: Karin Moehler & Viv Stein-Rostaing

seaweed internship

Seaweed Gets Stressed Too

Nathaniel Maekawa is one of our latest aquaculture intern recruits from the USA. He is passionate about aquaculture, and was drawn to the inter-disciplinary nature of our aquaculture internship. He is going to be sharing his own personal experiences of the programme over the next few months. Read his first instalment below…….

“Brushing my teeth at the sink, my mind began to wander. In a few hours, I would arrive in Tulear to begin my summer with Reef Doctor. My time in Tana had been short and uneventful, but just long and restful enough for me to feel rejuvenated for the days ahead. Spitting, I proceeded to rinse my toothbrush and mouth. I’d only been out a couple of times, but Madagascar had already left me with a novel impression. The fascinating spectrum of colour found on houses and reposed market stalls, the worn dirt roads and the overpopulated refurbished vehicles that traversed them. My senses were enthralled by stimuli in all forms. Turning from the faucet, I paused. Then, swivelling back, I reacquainted myself with the sink and my toiletries – specifically the rectangular plastic box marked with bold, capital letters for each day of the week. Tossing the malaria pill to the back of my throat, I congratulated myself on remembering to take it. As the capsule descended towards my belly, my satisfied smile slowly folded into a sobered line of remorse. In my prideful moment of malarial prevention, I had swished my medicine down with water from the untreated tap.

Having spent about a week in Madagascar, my body, routine, and clean water awareness have started to settle. I’ve shared a taxi-brousse with over 25 men, women, and children in a vehicle designed for 11, I’ve played sea urchin minesweeper while out on a fisheries survey, and I’ve started to get to know and feel part of the incredible orchestra of staff, interns, volunteers, technicians, locals, dogs, and cats, that give Reef Doctor its breath. For the next two months, I will be working as an aquaculture intern to contribute to Reef Doctor’s sustainable livelihood project. Specifically, I will be working to assist local communities achieve greater economic autonomy through sustainable practices that emphasize social equality and oceanic conservation. In the process of earning my bachelor’s degree in Global Health and Environment from the University of Michigan, I hope to offer my own interdisciplinary understanding of sustainability to this inspiring project. With introductions and orientations comprising my first couple of days, most of the work I’ve done so far has been geared towards developing familiarity with the project’s background and trajectory. Readings on aquaculture implementation and the social life of sea cucumbers have proven to be as interesting as they are informative. In regards to fieldwork, the fellow aquaculture interns and I took a pirogue (canoe carved from a tree trunk) out to Reef Doctor’s seaweed farm to do some maintenance. Jumping into the salty water, I floated along and stroked the seaweed branches to relieve them of their silty stress. When too much silt builds up, seaweed growth becomes inhibited and their delicate limbs become a shade of white. This pathological state is referred to as “Ice-Ice” and unlike Vanilla Ice’s one-hit-wonder, “Ice-Ice” is not something we like to see around here, baby.

seaweed internship

seaweed internship

seaweed internship

seaweed internship

When the dark hours of the evening fall upon camp, I find myself amazed at just how much has transpired since I stumbled out of my hut to start the day. As I lay in bed, listening to geckos chirp and the wind gently rattle my hut’s branches, reflection often brings me to a place of gratitude. It’s truly remarkable to have the opportunity to work for something you believe in. It’s even more special to be working alongside people of all different backgrounds and places to call home. Wonderful people united by a passion to learn and contribute to the protection of the earth. People that are willing to work towards a sustainable future that is accessible to all. In the next couple of months, I hope to share my experiences in Madagascar as a guest and Reef Doctor intern. It is my goal to convey these moments with the same humility with which I have been received. Thank you for tuning in, and wherever you may be, cheers to the adventures of tomorrow.”

-Nathaniel

seaweed internship

natural pool

Life as a Reef Doctor Intern: Week 14

Hi guys! It’s been awhile since my last post, we’ve all been quite busy on camp. I am now in my 14th week of interning for Reef Doctor. Things are going really well. My last post was before Christmas; I therefore thought I’d give you guys a quick update on what a bunch of us did for New year’s. We decided to go to a nearby village called St Augustin which is around an hour and a half away from Toliara. We choose St Augustin as it isn’t too far away, as well as being relatively cheap and the place is known for its natural pools and grottos. We spent New year’s eve hiking, swimming in crystal clear water and watching the stars on a deserted beach. It was an adventurous and very fun trip. I learned that in Madagascar you have to be very patient with everything – on the first day it took us 12 hours to get to our destination! I also learned how interesting and diverse the landscape is, how quickly it can change. It is a beautiful country and I definitely want to see more of it.

With regard to the last two weeks, I am nearing the end of my Divemaster training. I completed most of the necessary water skills and passed the written exam last Friday. 13 new people arrive tomorrow. The other soon-to-be Divemasters and I will then be accompanying them on scuba refresher dives as well as assisting with any other dives or skills that need the new interns and volunteers have difficulty with. You have to be quite patient and exaggerate every movement when demonstrating surface or underwater skills. The dive master training made me realise that people learn at different paces, pick up knowledge in different ways and not everybody finds diving easy. The training definitely gave me a good foundation of how to teach people. Perhaps I’ll train for instructor next!

Apart from that, the tree project is going well. A few people on camp have signed up for a tree contest. The aim of the contest is to plant a tree, experiment with different planting techniques and see whose tree grows the best. We each have to choose a different tree species. Each person has to then decide where to plant the tree, what soil and fertiliser to use e.g. seaweed or mulching, how often the tree sapling needs to be watered as well as if it needs protection e.g. in the form of a mosquito net for example. The competition will allow us to collect notes on how best to grow the different tree species. This will provide us with essential information that we can then use when we properly start planting our trees.

tree planting

We have also started creating a tree database on the various trees found on camp. A sign will then be constructed and put up near the tree. This will enable people to learn more about the different plants found in Madagascar, what their different uses are as well as making people realise how many of the plants are native to the island. Madagascar is such a unique place with thousands of animals and plants being endemic to the island; increasing people’s realisation and knowledge of this could be a decisive way to encourage protection and respect for this extremely diverse environment.

On another note, the weather has been very warm and humid the past couple of days. In the evenings there is often a storm with showers of rain. This cools the temperature down, however it is also the perfect weather for breeding mosquitoes. Tip for new interns and volunteers: bring lots of DEET!

Hope you all have a good week,

Saoirse Flood

group vol shot

Life as a Reef Doctor Intern: Week 9

Its Saoirse’s 9th week here interning at Reef Doctor, in her latest diary she fills us in on her progress, including her latest reef research training, participating in our new tree project, and taking on important Divemaster responsibilities.

“I’ve had a really good week filled with lots of different activities and jobs. We had a lot of early starts starts due to the tides; most mornings required waking up at 4.30/5am. The majority of the diving this week focused on coral cleaning, mapping the new artificial reef site as well as receiving expert fish and benthic point outs. At the beginning of my internship I had to learn the key indicator species present in the Bay of Ranobe. These species were chosen by Reef Doctor as their absence or presence are good indicators of how the marine environment is doing. However, as the other interns and I have now been here for 2 months we have started to learn about more species in order to be able to conduct expert surveys. It’s extremely interesting to learn about all the different species and their characteristics. It also makes diving more enjoyable and really shows you how complex and unique the marine life here actually is!

The other interns and I are starting to receive more responsibilities; we are now base managing which involves opening the dive shop, preparing the oxygen tanks and first aid kits as well as keeping the radio and dive phone on you at all times in case of an emergency. We have also started leading dives, which can be nerve racking at the beginning, especially if you have to find your way back to the boat in tricky conditions and on a dive site you don’t know very well! It is however a really good learning experience and has really increased my confidence as a diver. The main goal of leading dives is of course to practise being dive masters as well as to prepare ourselves for when the new interns arrive, whom we will then have to train. So even though some of the new responsibilities may be quite tricky at the beginning, I am overall really enjoying the new responsibilities and increased independence it gives us.

Furthermore, I have also become involved in a new forest conservation project. Madagascar has a huge problem with deforestation; the human population is constantly increasing and people are using too much wood for cooking, construction purposes among other things. Consequently, the aim of this project is to provide the local community with an alternative and sustainable source of wood by establishing a tree nursery. It will educate villagers on the importance of protecting and restoring forests as well as providing them with a renewable resource. We are trying to use trees that will grow quickly but that will also be beneficial to the environment, for example important nitrogen fixers, or effective erosion controllers that will then help minimise pollution as well as attracting wildlife. It’s a great project that aims to confront one of Madagascar’s biggest environmental issues while at the same time trying to find solutions, which will benefit the locals as well as the environment.

And finally, it’s a week and a half until Christmas but it doesn’t feel very festive at all here. Not in a bad way, it’s just hard to think of Christmas when it’s 35 degrees outside! We are however planning to cook a big feast together so I will keep you updated on how that goes.

Hope you enjoyed the post!”

Saoirse Flood