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Madagascar Marine Sat Camp August 2013 - Araminta Critchley

Satellite camp – two very welcome words in the wake of the July rush. Four days, three nights on a boat sailing, soaking up the sun and the chance to explore unfamiliar dive sites containing a variety of fish species uncommon to the regular sites.

All images courtesy of Frontier Madagascar Marine Conservation & Diving project

Tuesday morning at 5.30am we assembled on the beach to watch the Hippocampe, translated as sea horse, emerge from the gleaming sea; and the reality, alongside with the associated excitement kicks in – the long anticipated Hippocampe has returned. Loading the heavy kit, such as the cylinders and the junior compressor went smoothly but we were slightly delayed waiting for the famous bread lady, who provided us with one aspect of our luxury food budget. Bread loaded, we started the two hour journey to our first dive site Gorgonia 2.

Gorgonia 2 was the deepest site we visited, with the coral ending at 27m with sand dropping down to 40m dark depths. Deep dives are particularly exciting as the six sites we survey average at 5m, and we found two wrasse species, including the spotted black leopard wrasse, which we don’t find at our usual sites.

After a few sun filled hours of sailing we arrived at the next dive site, which was by far the best dive of my career so far! Visibility was at least 15m plus, remarkable as the site was only around 15m at its deepest. Pure white sand surrounded isolated coral bommeys, each containing a different array of exquisite fish in every colour of the spectrum. We dropped down into the sand and were greeted by a school of golden trevally, 40 strong, each 30cm plus. They circled us almost as protecting guards as we slowly swam towards their pristine and untouched reef. A honeycomb moray of 2m plus awaited us, and on our arrival began to freeswim toward us showing us his sheer size and power (whilst diving other volunteers also saw manta rays).

After diving one ARO slid into the water scouting out a potential dive site only to be greeted by a pod of dolphins. On looking from the boat, on compressor duty, I couldn’t help but be overcome with jealousy at the ARO’s proximity to the acrobats of the sea.

Wednesday brought a 6am wake up with the loud churning of the engine powering up and the first dive site, a shallow blue. A mainly rocky site with few coral formations, we were presented with an emerald green mantis shrimp, a giant lobster with a 20cm plus antenna and on the other end of the spectrum a tiny white octopus cowering away into the sanctuary of its rocky home.

On the surface back on Hippocampe, we were lucky enough to spot a large dark shape emerging from the water. A whale surfaced 100m from the boat, and those who had binoculars zoomed in for a closer look. The species of whale was unidentified but due to the season and location we believed it to be a whale shark.

Thursday contained a stunning 20m plus wall dive and a night dive. Having completed my rescue diver qualification I’d been leading dives confidently at the six familiar sites but this was to be my first experience guiding and holding responsibility for others in an unfamiliar site. The wall dive was beautiful and we found a very high abundance of a tiny starfish multiflora. We saw nearly every angel fish on the target species list and two others – the midnight and many spined angelfish. Despite nerves the dive went perfectly and gaining confidence meant my dive skills improved greatly.

We decided to return to the second dive site, Ankacoberavina, and swam to shore, greeted by a rocky beach. Once on the island we walked uphill along a ridge with spectacular views. A dark figure sat proudly on a branch which we believe to be a fish eagle, a very rare species with only 90 breeding pairs left in the world. Having spent the day on land I was glad to be back on the water and we continued to our mooring site for the night.

Watching the sun set that evening was breath-taking and under orders the skippers sailed into the sunset until it dropped below the horizon. Beginning in fiery oranges the sky gradually gave way to soft pinks and finally fell, allowing the darkness of the night to take over.

We anchored for the night and decided to explore the bay at night. Dropping into 2m plus viability at night without the guarantee of coral was daunting but I trusted the leader of the div, and under his guidance we saw some unreal creatures. Reassured by my buddy having spent 20 minutes seeing only sand we found coral. Out of the dark we found two huge remoras, longer than my arm at 60cm plus. Shocked by the size of the remora it took us a few seconds to realise what they were casting on: under the remoras was a huge shell – a turtle’s shell. The turtle was at least 2m from head to tail and much bigger than my buddy and I, both standing at 160cm. We left the turtle to sleep and surfaced close to the boat excitedly discussing the things we saw.

On the Friday, the last day, we headed back towards home and stopped off close to Nosy Comba and the last site. Deeper than our local sites, dropping to 16m, there was a wide variety of coral species but fish were a little sparse. We spent the remainder of the afternoon in the sun demolishing the last of the luxury food budget.

Leaving Hippocampe and returning to camp was sad, she had been a good home for four days and had taken us to some incredible places, but there is still the anticipation of seeing her again. The sun sets and sun rises will always burn brightly in my memory and the mutant turtle will remain etched into my mind.

Learn more about the Madagascar Marine Conservation & Diving project and how to get involved.