Madagascar’s marine world — magical but fragile
NOSY BE, Madagascar: Like a ghostly apparition, the manta-ray floated out of the blue, its massive “wings” seemingly propelling it in slow motion.
Its cruising speed was deceptive for the creature quickly vanished back into the depths, leaving behind a group of eager scuba divers trying fruitlessly to keep pace with it.
Two more of the majestic beasts would be sighted on this dive — a rare treat for underwater enthusiasts.
Madagascar is famed for its unique and bizarre land animals, such as the enchanting primates called lemurs and a colourful cast of chameleons.
But the world beneath the waves that encircle it is also a magical place.
The reefs around Nosy Be, a tropical island off Madagascar’s northwest coast, offer world-class diving. But its marine ecosystems — like the terrestrial wildlife on the world’s fourth largest island — are under grave threat. And the dangers to both are often linked.
Teeming with life: “Sometimes we do get lucky and see manta-rays,” said Bles, a jovial Frenchman and local dive operator, after the sightings, as his boat sped to its next destination.
Lucky perhaps, but the waters around Nosy Be brim with life, making it almost impossible not to see something interesting over the course of a few days’ diving.
This correspondent briefly spied a whale on the surface, while a pod of dolphins played around the boat one day.
On the tiny island of Nosy Tanikely off Nosy Be, it is possible to see turtles while snorkelling just metres (yards) from shore as elegant tropic birds and huge fruit-bats, known as flying-foxes, soar overhead.
There are reefs resembling watery gardens with intricate fan-like formations and schools of shimmering bait fish which are sometimes pursued by king mackerel or sleek baracuda. But there is a lot of fishing by the poor local people. Madagascar faces the same demographic problems which cause social and ecological upheaval across the Mozambique Channel in Africa — too many children and not enough jobs.
“Over-fishing and destructive fishing practices are serious concerns (on Madagascar’s west coast),” said the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in a 2000 profile on global ecoregions.
Dozens of hand-carved wooden pirogues dot the blue surface of the water off Nosy Be, with fishermen casting nets or diving with snorkelling gear in search of lobster. What big commercial trawlers are doing further offshore can only be imagined.
Seafood is cheap, abundant and often superbly prepared in Nosy Be restaurants, but this state of affairs, ideal for fish-loving tourists, may not be sustainable.
“You can eat fish every day here but this really can’t go on forever,” said one diving tourist, an American marine biologist, as she surveyed a feast from the sea spread out on a table.
Impoverished and rapidly growing rural populations on this island-continent of 16 million are also devastating rain forests with disastrous consequences for land-based wildlife — and the problems are literally spilling into the sea.
Red soil seeps into the sea: Madagascar is one of the most heavily eroded places on the planet — a fact that can clearly be seen from the air — and its rich red soil is seeping into rivers and the sea, with unforeseen long-term consequences for its marine life.
“Livestock grazing, deforestation, construction, destruction of sandbars, and poor agricultural practices result in the run-off of sentiments that harm the coral reefs in this eco-region,” says the WWF report.
“DDT and other pesticides, oil, and raw sewage contaminate the water. Coral is mined for cement, and both corals and shells are taken to sell to collectors,” it says.
At manta-point — the reef where Bles takes clients to view the gentle giants of the ocean — sightings have been less frequent this year.
The reasons may not be sinister. Migration and feeding patterns can vary from year to year, and there is often an element of luck in wildlife watching. But it could also be an ominous sign of things to come. —Reuters