Conquering Fish Lengths

They bob in front of me, little grey tubes, swaying gently in the current. Taunting me as they twirl on their ropes. I’m back underwater in the Bay of Ranobe at Rose Garden, the Marine Protected Area set up by Reef Doctor. It’s take 3 for my attempt at Fish Lengths. Three’s a lucky number, right?

I float in the mid-water, watching fish flick backwards and forwards, busy on their daily life. It always reminds me of the reef traffic scene from Finding Nemo. Momentarily distracted I check whether it’s my turn on the tape. The ‘tape of confusion’ as I’m starting to think of it! Sure enough, my turn comes. I fin forward to the start of the tape. The Reef Doctor Science officer shows me two different sized tubes and indicates their length. This is to get my eye in. Or at least that’s the idea. Not sure my eyes received that memo… Buoyed up with confidence that I really have clocked their size this time, I trundle off down the line, finning gently. Each tube is pointed out by the dive officer, and I mark what size category I think it falls into. <10 cm; 10-20; 20-30; 30+.

We go down one side of the tape and start back up the other. I’m trying to keep in my mind’s eye the first two examples he showed me. Is this one bigger than the first one? So that would make it 20 -30. But wait, it looks smaller than the other one, which I put as 10 -20. Hmm. Should I change that other one? Or is this one wrong? You don’t really have time to contemplate relativity like this. It’s an initial judgement game. Really, you’re lucky because the tubes are moored in place. They wouldn’t be in real life, when they would be actual fish which stay still for microseconds. The tubes have also been placed at varying distances from the tape. I know that again this is to try and make it more realistic – when have you ever seen fish obligingly line up? But really it’s just playing havoc with my distance perception.

I have no concept of size and distance when I’m on dry land. The idea that I might miraculously discover an untapped talent when you add water and movement into the mix makes me giggle into my regulator. But I plough on, hoping that we’re nearly finished, earlier confidence pretty much gone with the current. I need to pass Fish Lengths so I can be fully prepped to help with the surveys Reef Doctor do. A key part of the marine conservation volunteer placement really.

Finally we make it back to the starting point. I can hand over my slate and pretend to myself that it’s all gone swimmingly as I watch a snail make its way along the sea floor.

Some people get it. Some people don’t. There are other volunteers here who get a hit rate of 99% first time. And there are some who have failed so many times it’s not really mentioned. Except of course after a beer or two at the weekend. I have a feeling I know which group I’m going to fall into. And this exercise is valuable. In order to carry out the fish element of the surveys you need to be able to assess what size the fish are. That’s what all this shenanigans with pvc tubes, weights and tapes is about. Hopefully practice makes perfect! I’m here at Reef Doctor for a while thank god. And if I don’t make the fish lengths, I can still survey the coral or the invertebrates. My alternate career as an underwater surveyor is not completely over yet.

Blog by RD volunteer Kathryn Cook

Photo credit: Sébastien Boudry

Scrubbing Seaweed Lines

Clutching a handful of fishing line, I slip into the water prepared to do battle. As the water seeps into my hood I shiver but quickly adjust to the temperature. Guided by the aquaculture intern, as my sense of direction is bad when I have road signs and clear paths, and non-existent when faced with an array of waves and the odd bobbing bottle, I set off to ‘my’ line.

Festooned with seaweed, it is one of the lines that Reef Doctor cultivates as part of their aquaculture work. My job was to float alongside it and gently tend to the seaweed by dusting the silt off it, and by using my fishing line to rub the algae off the lines it was fixed to.

When the lines haven’t been cleaned for a few days, the algae growth can be pretty impressive. As you scrub away, clouds of algae fill the water around you. My technique is to waft the fishing line around to catch the worst off the lines, swimming along it, then to go back when the algae has drifted away to stroke the rest off the seaweed itself. This type of seaweed, Kappaphycus alvarezii can grow up to 2% per day and it gets harvested every 40 days by the aquaculture technicians.

The seaweed Reef Doctor grows is used in various experiments to see how local villagers could maximise this marine product and ultimately reduce pressure on fishing stocks. As I write, there’s research looking into producing seaweed flour and work being done on incorporating seaweed into alternative fuel sources.

After about 90 minutes I’m satisfied that the amount of algae and sediment on my line has been dramatically reduced. All the gentle wafting and tending to the plants reminds me of the gardeners who reckon talking to their plants helps them grow. If this is true, then the seaweed has a great chance with its near daily dose of attention.

Splashing back over to the wooden dugout canoe, here called a pirogue, I manage to get back in without capsizing it and we heft our wooden paddles to paddle back to base, leaving the seaweed gently swaying in the current. Until next time, algae.

Written by RD volunteer Kathryn Cook

Photo credit: Nathaniel Maekawa, Tom Rutterford & Karin Moehler

Aquatic Triage

Over the weeks, you have probably become familiar with Nathaniel Maekawa, our aquaculture intern, and his way with words. Sadly, as his internship is now over and he has gone back home, this is his final instalment. No spoilers, I leave you to enjoy the reading…

“Slipping from its owner’s tiny fingers, the stuffed animal began its freefall. Held by her mother, the little girl stretched out her arms to the floor. Despite the child’s pawing efforts to save her fluffy friend, she only succeeded at swiping the air around her. Just as the stuffed animal collapsed into a slumped position on the ground, a gentle hand scooped it up and delivered it to the fumbling child. Hugging the stuffed animal tightly, she grinned in gratitude at the ReefDoctor intern that had come to her rescue. The intern returned a smile, nodded warmly to the girl’s mother, and then proceeded to catch up to our group. In the blur of just arriving, witnessing this shared moment of compassion reoriented my wandering senses and emotions. Amidst vibrant colors, distinct smells, different languages, and new people, I found myself realizing that I was in the company of those who care. This simple realization set a beautifully positive precedent for my experience at ReefDoctor. As my time here has now reached a conclusion, I think back to this simple, yet wonderful moment that happened the day that I arrived in Tulear. I think of what brought me to Madagascar, and I think of all that I have learned since arriving.

Sustainability has many definitions. It is a multitudinous aspiration that seeks to protect the planet and its many inhabitants. I was introduced to the concept of sustainability at my university, when I discovered a passion for medical anthropology. Medical anthropology is a field that examines how different sociocultural contexts can elicit different understandings about the self, and in turn, affect interpretations of disease and illness. In our increasingly interconnected world, medical anthropology has the potential to serve as a platform to tailor the benefits of western medicine, into forms that are better received by people of various communities and cultures. This focus on holistic healing creates greater opportunities for people to receive the medical care and attention that they need, by respecting the traditions and structures that they abide to. It shifts acute symptomatic treatment to a practice with the capacity to address these symptoms’ root causes. As I studied anthropological reports and inspiring global health efforts, I became acquainted with an idea. In cases where an NGO had stepped in to provide medicine or healthcare, I wondered how communities would fare if the NGO was to leave or collapse. To maintain the positive benefits of an NGO and its mission, the NGO must work so that it too is sustained.

In seeking field work to expand my knowledge of sustainability, ReefDoctor’s focus on development through environmental, social, and economic initiatives captivated my interest. With sustainability being an ambiguous and interdisciplinary goal, ReefDoctor’s use of an interdisciplinary toolkit, seemed to be a sensible and promising way to approach sustainable development. As an aquaculture intern, it has been as educational as it has been fascinating to play a role in ReefDoctor’s enactment of healthier communities and environments. Through its diversification of projects, ReefDoctor’s strategy for development is multi-pronged and centered on holistic aid. This diversification has contributed to ReefDoctor’s own sustainability by attracting project funders, and by creating initiatives that are reliant on community interest and commitment. With dwindling local fish stocks and a population increase along the coast, food security is a serious issue in Southwest, Madagascar. Simply providing food may solve the symptomatic issue of hunger, but it would not solve the underlying problems of unreliable incomes, unsustainable fishing techniques, and degraded marine habitats that contribute to the lack of food availability. ReefDoctor’s aquaculture project, community involvement, data collection, and artificial reef project, complement each other. They work together to encourage the natural environment’s recovery, while also promoting social and economic prosperity.

In my final week at ReefDoctor, I spent my time training the two new aquaculture interns. Delivering presentations and readings, I sought to provide them with a strong foundation for understanding the project’s background and trajectory. I took them on a fisheries survey, taught them seaweed cleaning techniques and pirogue navigation, and gave them a transition document that entails most everything I’ve learned in my two months onsite. This document, a kind of “Aquaculture Intern’s Guide to the Galaxy”, was something that I set out to create upon undergoing my own aquaculture training. With information that ranges from why we conduct certain projects, to ideal times to catch a taxi-brousse, the document intends to serve as a guide and reference for the two new interns, and any future aquaculture contributors. It is my hope that this document adds to the sustainability of ReefDoctor’s infrastructure, as it enables project inheritors to continue the initiatives with a clear and informed direction. While training the two new arrivals, I was inspired and reassured by the enthusiasm that they displayed for the project. This excitement and positivity propelled their ability to learn quickly and assimilate into their new roles. I have no doubt that I’m leaving aquaculture behind in great hands.

It’s hard for me to believe that my time with ReefDoctor has come to a close. The end of my internship and departure from Madagascar has been particularly poignant for me, as it signifies the end of a six and a half month academic, professional, and personal journey abroad. From trekking through breathtaking mountains in New Zealand, to de-stressing some ReefDoctor seaweed, I am in awe of the experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have, and of all the wonderful people that I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Thank you so much to ReefDoctor for helping to publish my ideas and stories, and thank you to those of you that have followed me on these spectacular adventures. On my last day at camp, I went whale watching on the exterior. As the sun shone brilliantly on the bay, and gentle swells rocked our coasting boat, humpback whales and their calves surfaced around us. Their backs arched out of the water as they glided through the blue. In the distance, two male humpbacks launched themselves out of the water to breach. It is truly a beautiful world that we live in. I am so humbled to have had the opportunity to be here at ReefDoctor and contribute to a mission that I genuinely believe in. Thank you again for tuning in, and wherever you may be, cheers to the adventures of tomorrow.”

Written by aquaculture intern Nathaniel Maekawa

Photo credit: Ale Fruscella, Nathaniel Maekawa & Karin Moehler

Cooperatively Blurple

In his sixth instalment, our aquaculture intern Nathaniel Maekawa looks into his different experiences of cooperation, and especially the cooperative living at ReefDoctor…

“Home is an ambiguous term for me. It has come in the form of different apartments, houses, cities, states, and countries. It has been synonymous with names like Camp Algonquin, Mich Haus, and EcoQuest. For me, home is constituted by the memories and people that have left ripples on who I am as a person. It is often a place where I can rest and be at ease. A recharging port of sorts. For nearly two months now, ReefDoctor has been my home. It is certainly a place of inspiring work and adventure, but it is also a place for community. With people that arrive from all over the world, speaking different languages, and embodying different lived experiences, the community at ReefDoctor is one that is diverse and full of unique perspectives. While a shared passion for environmental conservation and community development is a notable unifier for ReefDoctor’s inhabitants, ReefDoctor’s cooperative infrastructure is the platform for each of us to pursue our nuanced interests. Whereas daily activities and tasks are constantly fluctuating, ReefDoctor’s cooperativeness is a reliable consistency.

My first experience with cooperative living happened when I opted to live off-campus at my university in the states. Nestled in the middle of North State Street, Ann Arbor, a purple house sits adjacent to a blue one. They are connected by a wide river of gravel, flowing between them towards a shared shed that has been appropriately painted alternating stripes of purple and blue. A part of the Inter-Cooperative Council, the houses abide by a constitution and governance that is agreed upon by residents from each house. Since no one profits from the rent, the blurple house tenants hold the responsibility of house maintenance, food acquisition, and community building. To promote communication and representation, meetings are held to give voice to ideas and allow for changes to be voted upon.

It was a wonderful experience to be a part of, and it has been equally as wonderful to recognize ReefDoctor’s own cooperative nature. Whether it be taking turns to feed the dogs, water the veggie garden, or simply clean up after oneself, ReefDoctor’s operation runs on a respect for living together. Community is strengthened by things as subtle as walking into Ifaty to share a cold beer at Jose’s (local bartender, general store manager, gym owner, movie theater director, and budding pharmacist). As new volunteers and interns arrive, people who have had more time onsite can help them to acquire their bearings with taxi brousses, restaurants, and wifi zones. Meetings occur every Wednesday to provide a space for announcements and updates. At this time, reminders are also shared to uphold a standard for communal living. Jurassic Park in the main office (funded by pooling money together for extra electricity), singing Bohemian Rhapsody by flashlight (encouraged by copious amounts of communal rum), rejoicing when its Tuesday and bolognaise is served (accentuated by a ubiquitous love for bolognaise); living together brings about many shared experiences, and approaching them cooperatively creates for a more positive outlook.

Cooperation was a theme in aquaculture this week as well. As a leader for overnight trips to Ambolomailaky and Andrevo, I helped my fellow interns and volunteers by imparting knowledge on village navigation and sea cucumber sales. As the weeks have passed, I’ve begun to feel accustomed to my role as an aquaculture guide and reference, and the responsibility of providing information to my colleagues so that they can continue to work towards the progress I’ve seen in my time here, is one that I take seriously. Following the sea cucumber sales, many people from ReefDoctor went to Andrevo to the community-driven mangrove reforestation project. In celebration of World Mangrove Day, a cultural performance kicked off the event, many officials came out to commend the community for their work, and then in a mass movement, the community marched to the site and planted 4 hectares of mangroves. The enthusiasm and festive atmosphere of the planting made it a lot of fun to attend, and served as a source of inspiration. It was incredible to witness a community’s cooperation propel a project to improve the environment. Not only will it provide benefits to the people that call Andrevo home, but it will also create homes for a wide array of flora and fauna.

With one week left at ReefDoctor, thoughts of friends and family in the states have been floating through my mind. While these thoughts often bring me a smile, there is still a way to go before I can give them much heed. Next week, two new aquaculture interns will arrive on camp, and I will be working my best to leave them feeling confident in their abilities, and confident in their new home. It’s amazing how fast time is passing out here in Ifaty, and as I’ve said before, I am ever grateful that it has passed with a purpose that I believe in, a purpose that is fueled by cooperation.”

Written by aquaculture intern Nathaniel Maekawa

Photo credit: Inter-cooperative Council, Ale Fruscella & Karin Moehler


Scarecrows For Turtles

Here is the fifth blog instalment of our aquaculture intern, Nathaniel Maekawa, in which he describes further his experience working at Reef Doctor, some projects he has followed and even a spark of tourism…

“Seaweed flour and fertilizer, water bottle crab traps, a harvest day salt shaker, and scarecrows for turtles. These are all projects that embody the creativity and inspiration held by past and present aquaculture interns. The need for an aquaculture intern to have a schedule that is flexible with current events, allows for opportunities to follow more specific interests and apply one’s own unique skill set. Although I cannot take credit for the idea or the ambition that started the, “Turtle Scaring” project at ReefDoctor, I am more than happy to be carrying on its progression. Inheriting one steel wire shark, some technical knowledge, research papers, and raw materials in the form of wire and extra mesh from a juvenile sea cucumber pen, I began with a solid foundation for project development. Over the past couple of weeks, another shark has been constructed, and tests have been planned to gather data on line measurements, shark buoyancy, and seaweed baseline data. If all goes according to plan, a methodology will be drawn up, and our sleek sharks will be patrolling a portion of our seaweed farm, lurking to prevent any potential turtle grazers from munching up our produce.

Scarecrow ScarecrowScarecrow

Besides the applied arts and crafts sessions, work at aquaculture continues in the form of village visits, data input, presentations on sustainability, and report writing. The general quarterly report that I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks, has finally been finished and was sent on for further review. Once it has been fully edited and finalized, it will be translated and utilized by the Ministry of Fisheries in Madagascar. It is pretty cool to have crafted something that will inform many people on the status of our project, and that will potentially guide the project’s future. With our seaweed lines in a forty-day harvest cycle, last week prompted an opportunity to go to the farm with some of our technicians and replace a recently harvested line. Tying propagules into little blue loops, we floated on the pirogue. After we had finished adding fresh plants to the line, the technicians added water bottles for buoyancy and identification, and then proceeded to tie the line into our farm’s design. It was certainly a welcome experience to see and learn the process behind placing the lines that we clean so often. On a side note, it was also remarkable to see how much speed a pirogue can build when properly paddled. Since the technicians are highly skilled in the art of pirogue rowing, their being on board resulted in my looking back several times to see if someone had attached a motor to our hull.



To ensure that interns, staff, and volunteers have time to see the unique ecological beauty of Madagascar, ReefDoctor allows its workers to take a certain amount of time off. The length of holiday varies for the position someone holds with the organization, thus, after over a month of work, I was able to take two days off for a long weekend trip to Isalo National Park. Catching a taxi brousse from Tulear, my friends and I arrived in a town called Ranohira. Surrounded by towering sandstone ridges, we worked out a plan with our guide, and then, the next day, we trekked into the rocky embrace. As the gentle orange of dawn crept across the vast savannah, our guide led us across rustic trails, and through breathtaking landscapes. Time went on, and we started a descent to arrive at our campsite. Porters who had carried in camping equipment and food, served a delicious three course meal, and ring-tailed and red fronted brown lemurs were abound. Since the campsite was placed (rather strategically) in an area with many fruit bearing trees, the lemurs come in dozens every day around lunch to feast. We were particularly lucky to see a lone Verreaux’s Sifaka snacking near camp. After a while, either her belly or her patience became full, and she did her little Sifaka dance back into the forest. The excursion continued with treks that followed winding rivers whose banks teemed with vegetation whose green color was strikingly vibrant. The rivers fed into natural swimming holes that offered a refreshing dip. That is, until the sun disappeared behind a ridge, and relaxed floating became a mad scramble to exit before contracting hypothermia. The night was spent drinking rum, eating another delicious meal, and getting informal Malagasy lessons from our guide and porters. Much laughter was shared.

Isalo lemur

Another day of trekking through canyons and then another day of broussing along Route 7, brought us back to Tulear. We scrolled through our track phone’s contacts to dial up our favorite Tuk Tuk driver (appropriately named “Big Boss”) and rolled on past the checkpoints, villages, dunes, and mangroves that have become so familiar. The sun was setting as we rode back, just as it was the first night that I rode into ReefDoctor. Despite several weeks of adapting to life in Southwest, Madagascar, it’s a humbling feeling to be connected to my former self by an unwavering awe for the beauty this region, and this country has to offer.”


Photo credit: Karin Moehler, David Fishlock