Diving Beyond the Barrier

In our latest volunteer experience blog, research assistant Abby Rogerson beautifully describes diving the amazing exterior reefs of the Bay of Ranobe with fantastic photos from our Head Dive Officer Neil Davsion.

“Approaching winter in Madagascar is marked by subtle changes: the sand feels cooler on my feet in the morning; the dawn light shining through the cracks in my hut is fainter. On this April day, the western horizon is deep lavender, fading to a rich pink and pale blue overhead. I lean against the compound fence sipping coffee, watching the stream of pirogues paddle across the glassy, pink-reflected water.

As we motor out to the dive site, I’m afraid we’re interrupting the bay’s silence. Fay’s motor whines as we get entangled in a scatter of Sargassum algae. We look back apprehensively as Manjo lifts the outboard to untangle the mass. Fay, the larger of our two boats, has been out of commission for the past four months. Now that her engine is running again, we’re keen to keep it so, as she’s our only way to reach the exterior of the bay. Once freed, we speed across a mosaic of greens and blues as the waterscape below changes. On a clear morning like today, the seagrass fields can be seen swaying lazily beneath the surface, glowing through turquoise water. Up ahead, glints of silver flicker above the water. “Vary lava,” Manjo says. Small, elongate silverfish commonly seined in Vezo villages along the coast.

Waves build as we near the pass, where a break in the barrier reef allows water to flow in and out as the tide fluctuates. Feeling the hull crash against the waves is a welcome change from the calm of the bay. Manjo grows more conservative though, slowing at the wave’s crest just as I anticipate the next smack. Somehow, he navigates us in a featureless expanse of blue directly to our drop point. Now in the exterior, the chop has transformed into a steady swell. The breakers resonate a deep hum as we kit up.

Six tanks hang off the sides of the boat as we signal our ready to Manjo. In typical fashion, he counts down from three and we flip off the boat. Communication is non-verbal now: a fist on the head means we’re okay, and a thumbs-down begins our descent. I let the weight of my tank drag me down back first. Manjo hangs over the bow railing waving, and the outline of Fay’s hull grows distorted as I drop deeper.

RD boat



At 50 feet, the light is hazy and tinged green. Water constantly flows and surges through this area nearby the pass, resulting in a complex geography of tunnels and caverns. What may initially appear as a rocky expanse is actually a plateau carved by a system of canyons.

None of us are familiar with this site, so we haphazardly drop into a sandy gulch enclosed with rocky walls. Familiar fish seek shelter in the overhangs—big-eyed fish that prefer to stay in the shadows during the day. As we fin deeper into the gully, it grows deeper and narrower. Anthias are plentiful here, although they look like they belong in shallow, light-drenched coral reefs, with their tropical coloration and streaming lunate tails. Overhead, the gully converges into a tunnel, and the Anthias swim oriented to the ceiling. Gravity is less relevant here.

We rise out of the canyon. Already, the sun’s shifting rays have brightened the water. Floating over the stunted branching and encrusting corals, I am reminded of alpine vegetation. Strong winds, shrubby plants. Persistent currents and deep water, scrubby coral. Blanketing the substrate is a vast diversity of life—undulating soft corals, colonies of delicate speckled sea squirts, fleshy turf algae, rust-coloured sponges, fan-like stinging hydroids, translucent sea pens, and organisms I cannot yet recognise.”




While obsessing over the micro, I am distracted from the macro. A hand waves in front of my mask and points. Behind me, a magnificent shoal of rudderfish circles from the seafloor upwards. Their scales flash silver as the sun momentarily reflects off them. As they fade from our view, we rise.

Written by Abby Rogerson
Photos by Neil Davison

Walking On The Moon Underwater

Abby is one of our latest research assistant recruits from the USA. With a bachelor in environmental science, she decided to join Reef Doctor to get hands-on experience and to help her decide if she wants to pursue a master’s degree focused on the social or the scientific side of conservation. In her first instalment, she describes her journey underwater building our newest artificial reef…

“Last Tuesday, five Reef Doctor volunteers/staff and I back-rolled off the dive boat, Ray, and descended about 20 feet to the site of our next artificial reef. At that moment, it was a sandy patch of seafloor littered with limestone chunks, enormous barrel sponges, and sea urchins clustered here and there. Our objective was simple—construct rock bommies in order to create habitat for reef animals—but the preparations leading up to this point have been extensive. Think: planning with community leaders, diving to scout a suitable site, hauling 100 zebu-carts of rock to the beach, blessings to wish the project success, and finally, paddling all that limestone a ways offshore to the buoys demarking the site.

Once we all were positioned underwater with our fins off and booted feet firmly planted on the seafloor, Roberto, the Head Science Officer, signaled to us where to build the first bommie. While the others set off to retrieve the concrete piping we planned to incorporate into the bommie as habitat for large fish, I began collecting limestone. Of course, lifting any amount of weight is easier underwater, but it was almost comical to be able to lift and haul armloads of rock with ease. Soon enough, we had all assumed our roles as collectors or builders and were making progress quickly. With six people stomping about and dropping rocks, the most obvious difficulty to overcome was limited visibility—so limited that at times I could hardly see where my foot was stepping. Although this was a bit unnerving given the urchins in the area, we all managed to keep our feet spine-free. Forty-five minutes into the dive, the first bommie was nearly complete and I had breathed enough air to need to ascend.

After a quick lunch and surface interval (nap) on the boat, we swapped tanks and dropped down again. Hovering above our first finished bommie, we could already see sandperches weaving within its crevices and resting upon the limestone surfaces. We finned a few meters away, and Roberto gave us the ‘okay’ to start constructing there. During the previous dive, I had been mainly focused on keeping my balance and checking my air, as it was my first dive beyond the realm of recreational diving. However, on the second, I came to realize why the others had compared this type of diving with moonwalking. With eight kilogrammes on my weight belt, I was heavy enough to avoid floating away, but light enough to leapfrog and launch myself a couple meters. Then once I was weighted down even more with rocks, it was easiest to bound back to the site on the seafloor. With that strategy, four of us were collecting while the other two were carefully selecting and placing rocks. In order to create desirable habitats, it’s important to position the rocks in a way that creates gaps and tunnels, so that small fish and invertebrates can hide within these shelters. On the contrary, it’s even more important to build the structure sturdy enough to ensure it doesn’t topple when confronted with powerful waves.

Again, I was the first who needed to ascend, so my dive partner, Katharina, and I headed up. A few minutes later, the others finished the second bommie and joined us. With the wind blowing towards us, we made a slow journey back to ReefDoctor. In the coming weeks, we will work to complete the next eight bommies. The finished artificial reef will be named Vato Mahavelo II, after our very first artificial reef located next to the MPA Rose Garden.”

Written by RD volunteer Abby Rogerson

Photo credit: Karin Moehler

A Healthy Life From a Healthy Sea

At the beginning of the year, three German students came to Reef Doctor to start an aquaculture farming pilot project in the Bay of Ranobe. In this blog, Jasmin, Wiebke and Anna tell you more about their project, objectives and hopes.

“Our project comes from the student initiative Enactus Aachen e.V., Germany, a registered association composed of students of the RWTH and FH Aachen since 2015. We have made it our mission to improve the living standard, the quality of life of people in need, and to implement ecologically sustainable projects. According to the principles of social entrepreneurship, we are developing projects that create long-term economic benefits for our target groups. This is how we establish sustainable structures together with our local partners and provide help for self-help.

At the moment ex aqua itself contains 11 members, 3 of us traveled to Madagascar in January to make the first steps in initiating our project, together with our partner Reef Doctor. But let me start at the beginning:

On the island Madagascar, the fishing industry is the base of existence for many coastal communities. The urgent problem of overfishing is threatening their already small income of less than $2 per day. Due to the low availability of fish and lack of income, there is lower access to food, causing many people to suffer from malnutrition. A major consequence is that 50% of the children under the age of 5 are affected by anemia. The region of Toliara where our project takes place is the poorest region of Madagascar. Due to long dry periods, there is not much opportunity for growing any vegetables. Another problem is the degradation of the coral reef, caused by overfishing, coral bleaching, and eutrophication, resulting in a loss of habitat for many target fish.

Our solution is the concept of ocean farming. Our vertical farming system grows algae, peppered with seedlings, along ropes. Algae farmers attach these ropes to buoys, which are chained to the ocean floor. From that point forward, the system requires zero inputs, making it the most sustainable form of biomass production on the planet, while sequestering carbon and rebuilding reef ecosystems. The algae are very nutritious and so, they are the perfect addition to the local food, which consists primarily of rice. Another great possibility is created by selling the algae to local restaurants who can use it to earn a fair price.

Since this income would not be enough to support a whole family, we also grow sponges along the algae lines, which lay just over the bottom. Together with the algae they filter the water while giving the reef and fish population a possibility to recover. Sponges also have the advantage of being a great export product, being light and easy to prepare, so our farmers have a minimal amount of labour to perform in exchange for a good income.

Together with Reef Doctor, we have created a prototype to be placed in the ocean right in front of Reef Doctor’s base. Furthermore, we made contact with the women’s association of Ifaty, in order to collaborate on incorporating the algae into their daily diet. We created some cooking experiments on camp (and most of the people liked what we did!), and we also successfully made contact with local restaurants.

The next steps are to supervise the prototype and evaluate its current effectiveness, and to make improvements to the system as best as possible. In the middle of this year we will return to start the actual project with fishermen from the village. Stay tuned for further updates!”

Written by RD volunteer Wiebke Thürlings

Photo credit: James Woodruf & Karin Moehler

Volunteer Interview: Jean Fernando Randriamiajason

Throughout the year, Reef Doctor welcomes volunteers and interns from all over the world. From time to time, some young Malagasy people come and join us to volunteer for a couple of weeks or months. Recently, a young Malagasy student joined us as a volunteer for 3 months. He is originally from the North of Madagascar but is currently studying in Costa Rica. As all volunteers who join us for an expedition, Jean Fernando has quickly become an essential member of the team.


Name: Jean Fernando Randriamiajason

Age: 26

Position: Student and Research Assistant at Reef Doctor



  • What motivated you to join Reef Doctor as an intern? How did you find this internship and why did you choose Reef Doctor?

First of all, in 2014, I did an internship with Blue Ventures in the Southern Madagascar area. I joined the education program at Blue Ventures and we went different places in the Bay of Ranobe. I saw there was a lack of things, such as education, and also a lot of opportunity in the area and I wanted to make a difference. I am passionate about the environment, both marine and terrestrial, and I feel that we need to give the people the tools to protect their home, their natural resources.

What made me come to Reef Doctor is that I saw they were working on a coral transplantation project and showing the communities how to fish sustainably. Showing how this can be feasible in, and beneficial to, the community. As an environmentalist, I wanted to see the connection between the farmers or fishers and their resources, how the connection can help both sides. In addition, the coral is very important for recycling and cleaning the fish habitat and I wanted to gain more experience in the field.


  • What has been your volunteer or professional experience so far?

I did an internship with Blue Ventures in 2014. In 2013, I did an internship in the Bahamas in a Marine Ecology and Sustainable Agriculture program. In 2011 and 2012, I completed a research assistantship with a scientist from Virginia Tech University in terrestrial research in which they conducted carnivore research. Before that time, in Maroantsetra, I was in an environmental education club sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society.


  • Where is home?

Maroantsetra, which is in northern Madagascar.

  • What are you studying at university? Do you plan to continue your studies?

I am currently studying Agricultural Engineering and Natural Resources Management in Costa Rica. I will be awarded a License in December 2018 in that subject.

Yes, I plan to continue my studies. I want to move on to do my Master’s degree in Marine Biology research, but I am not sure where or how as yet.


  • What are your hopes for Madagascar in general?

I think that someday Madagascar is going to be developed. I believe there are many educated people in my country and I hope that all of those educated people take action so that we develop and protect our environment and natural resources. I believe as well that the only way to do so is from the Malagasy people themselves. As I believe this will come from the young people, I am passionate about education and training people as to how to make it happen. There are a lot of challenges, but there is one thing that I’ve learned and that is to not give up.


  • How will what you have learned at Reef Doctor and/or in university be applied in Madagascar?

At Reef Doctor, I have been interning in the Science Department. One project there is to try to find what type of coral can be easy to transplant and easy to grow. If all of the marine conservationists in Madagascar know how and which corals to transplant and grow, that knowledge from this Bay can be transferred all around the country.

Another project is looking at MPAs as a way to benefit the villagers. For example, the Rose Garden MPA area results in more and bigger fish throughout the bay. It would be good if we could create different marine protected areas around Madagascar, if feasible.

At university, there is a lot of knowledge that can be applied to Madagascar. We try to help these people by finding sustainable alternatives to using their natural resources and overfishing. We need to find proper agricultural systems to apply on the land, as there is lots of free land not being used. In university, we try to understand the different crops and types of compost and how to grow food. All can be applied in Madagascar.


  • What new projects/initiatives have you started and how do they help the community?

I started English training for the Malagasy staff at Reef Doctor. It helps the community because so many foreigners come here and work here, but if the staff cannot communicate with these foreigners, good ideas cannot be transferred between them. Knowledge transfer can help the community to develop, plus open staff minds in terms of development and certain ideas.


  • What do you like best about interning at Reef Doctor? And what have you gained from your Reef Doctor experience?

First, and most importantly, is sharing the experience with all of the people who come from around the world. Every one of us has specific skills and communicating with others helps me to develop my own knowledge and skills. Secondly, the underwater environment is amazing. Seeing the coral transplantation and fish makes me even more curious and interested in protecting the underwater environment.

I have gained a lot of experience here. Now I know how to conduct surveys about fish, benthic, invertebrate and important indicator species. I understand the process and what the analysis shows us. For example, if the fish are decreasing, what is the negative impact for the community and how does that affect the conservation of the surroundings.



  • What is your hope for Reef Doctor and/or how would you like to see it evolve and grow?

I hope someday that Malagasy people will run this organization and the local people will conduct the surveys here and do the analysis, in order to protect their own environment. I hope that there are more Malagasy people who gain their dive master so that the data collection and surveys will then continue.


  • Where do you see yourself professionally in 5 years? In 10 years? What does the future hold for you?

For me, basically, I will be finishing my PhD in a marine conservation area. Ten years from now, I hope to be running my own conservation project. I need to create projects to employ the many uneducated people here in my country. If we can fund a project that can help these people, that will be so nice.

While I’m at Reef Doctor, sometimes I do my own research around the area to find other people who are passionate about conservation and understand if my conservation project ideas are applicable.

Interview by RD Comms Officer Karin Moehler

Photo credit: Jack Farley, Clara Nuber & Karin Moehler

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