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

aquaculture interns

Passing the Paddle

In his fourth blog, aquaculture intern Nathaniel Maekawa describes the latest opportunities and experiences our internship programme has presented to him…….

“On my third day at Reef Doctor, I woke up at 6:00 am, ate some breakfast, and went down to the aquaculture shed with my wetsuit pulled on halfway and my snorkel gear slung in a bag across my shoulders. After our team of three had assembled, we each grabbed an oar and made our way to the beach. Setting our paddles and equipment inside the pirogue, we then hoisted the tree-carved boat off its sandy perch and lugged it towards the water. As we drifted along towards the seaweed lines, a thought emerged in my mind. It was a thought that made me nervous, but it was a thought laced with inevitability. In a few weeks, the resident aquaculture intern, Tom, would be off on a new adventure, and I would be responsible for leading volunteers and interns in a boat made from a tree, in the direction of the most shark-populated channel in the world.

aquaculture interns

How strange that this thought has now been actualised. As Tom prepared for his journey, this week I had the opportunity to take a couple of volunteers out to the seaweed farm on my own. Although I was incredulous at the idea in my first week on camp, by the time that it was my turn to lead, I felt confident in my abilities to do so. Steering the boat, providing instruction on pirogue entry and line cleaning, and crafting a knot to anchor us in, came about with ease after all the practice that I’ve had this month. With the training portion of my internship mostly complete, I’ve begun to work on and delegate projects that are pertinent to the sustainable livelihoods project. In order to provide the aquaculture team with consolidated information on progress, and potentially appeal to current and future project investors, I have started to analyse data from sales, turtles, and productivity to create a monthly and quarterly report. This is something that has been done by past interns and staff, and is a way for me to contribute to the longevity and sustained nature of the aquaculture project. Informing the reports with current events and mentally making sense of the data also serves to establish ideas of what to look out for in the coming weeks. One aspect of my internship that I particularly like is how my tasks are fluid and in line with daily events. When a department from the ministry of education expressed to our director an interest in fusing aquaculture into school curriculum, I created a document to provide examples for the idea’s feasibility. As there was no room to create a subject category for aquaculture in the existing curriculum, my goal was to incorporate aquaculture into pre-existing fields. Composing questions that used Pythagorean theorem to find the length of a sea cucumber pen’s cross-section, and writing a blurb about a man’s decision to pursue aquaculture to test reading comprehension, gave me a surprised feeling of gratefulness for the many academic examples I’ve encountered in the ritual of American standardised testing. While I did not expect to have opportunities like this, their spontaneity and potential for impact adds to the fresh and positive perspective I have in my work.

In the community this week, a commemoration ceremony was held in the village of Betsibaroke. A village that has high rates of seaweed farming productivity, Betsibaroke has finished and now opened a building called the Magasin de Stockage. Designated for seaweed drying and storage, the building stands as a symbol for the collaboration between the community, Reef Doctor, and other organisations that have invested in Betsibaroke’s aquaculture initiative. Attending with members of the aquaculture team, I witnessed the community’s outstanding pride and commitment to their work. With a large turnout, guest speakers, a blessing made with rum and some humour, a ribbon cutting, and then food and music, the celebration was one that I felt very fortunate to attend. In a moment that revealed the acknowledged success of aquaculture for socioeconomic development, the village president declared in his speech that Betsibaroke would be supplied with sea cucumber pens to complement their seaweed lines. While this statement of grandeur had not been previously discussed and came at a surprise to the aquaculture team, the expression of interest certainly cements how the region recognises the benefits of the sustainable livelihoods project.

In the past month, goodbyes have been said to interns, volunteers, and staff who trickle out of camp at the completion of their service. This week there was a particularly large farewell, as several long-time interns, staff, and volunteers left around the same time. With some spending several months, and others spending a full year at Reef Doctor, their departure was certainly felt. All hard-working people that share an authenticity for enacting a healthier community and environment, it was inspirational to see how they spent their last days on camp working to ensure that the newer arrivals would have a meaningful experience at Reef Doctor. Sustainability has many definitions. It can range from the protection of our planet’s environment, to the retention of indigenous culture. Even an organisation that works to promote sustainability has needs so that it too can be sustained. One such need is the enthusiasm by workers to voice their perspectives that progress projects and guide project inheritors with knowledge to make the organisation’s work impactful. As someone who learned from them and the others that have left this month, I can confirm that each possessed this enthusiasm, and each have inspired me to do the same for those that will take over when I leave in August.”

Photo credits: Karin Moehler

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 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.”


seaweed internship