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MADAGASCAR: Treasure Island in the Indian Ocean

Sudden close encounter with a Hawksbill Sea Turtle.

by Marlen Hundertmark and Christian Hepperger

From old tales and legends, many people know Madagascar as an island of pirates and treasure. In the past there was indeed much hunting and digging for treasure there, but after a firsthand look for ourselves, we were left with the impression that the real treasures of this island definitely lie somewhere else: in its unspoiled nature and its unique and ancient wildlife.

Madagascar, often called The Sixth Continent, is the fourth largest island on Earth. It separated from Africa 150 million years ago. This subsequent isolation led to the evolution of unique flora and fauna on land and in the sea. We spent six weeks experiencing the natural history of this island and its treasure of unique and ancient wildlife.

From Antananarivo, the capital city, we visited the Andasibe Special Reserve in the eastern rainforest. We found amphibians, reptiles, and lemurs, including an Indri, the largest of the lemurs. From there we headed north to Maroantsetra, a lonely town at the edge of Masoala National Park. The Masoala Peninsula is a pristine rainforest with many rare birds and red-ruffed lemurs. What fascinated us the most is the proximity of earth's two most species-rich habitats: rainforest and coral reef. They practically border one another and provide an intense and unforgettable nature experience.


Continuing our journey by boat through the peninsula, we were startled when a dark colossus approached our small craft. Suddenly a mother whale and her calf surfaced near our boat! After the initial shock wore off, we enjoyed the encounter while they swam around us for some time. We saw more whales later, but they were further away. Having passed up an opportunity to go whale watching earlier, we were exceedingly happy that the whales had found us!

Brightly colored Acropora in a coral garden.

When we swam in coastal waters for the first time, we passed over sea grass meadows to reach the coral gardens. Although there are great expanses of Acropora and other small-polyped corals here, a striking feature of this area is its concentration of enormous stony corals in a variety of colors. We also saw splendid giant clams, a favorite food of the Malagasy people.

The reef, bathed in plankton and with innumerable hiding places, is a paradise for fishes but not for fish-watchers. The fishes disappear beneath a rocky overhang, into a crevice, or among dense coral branches. We moved cautiously to avoid disturbing them, and we saw many fishes peering out at us from their hiding places. Even normally aggressive damselfishes preferred to swim out of our way. The only fish we had no effect on was the huge Napoleon Wrasse.

After a long and arduous trip by plane, truck, and boat, we arrived at Nosy Be, an island off Madagascar's northwest coast. We embarked on a sailing trip to seek out the area's finest snorkeling spots, and we found coral gardens as far as the eye could see. Colorful sponges and gorgonians surrounded hard and soft corals. Skunk Clownfish frolicked in expanses of sea anemones. Giant clams and huge Acropora corals took our breath away with their lovely colors.

Orange-lined Triggerfish approaches a mass of sea anemones.

Brilliant reef fishes cavorted among the corals. Moorish Idols swam to-and-fro across the reefs. There were fishes of all types and sizes to delight any aquarist’s heart. We encountered turtles, large barracuda, and a pod of 20 dolphins. The reefs of the western offshore islands offer a fantastic experience for any marine enthusiast.

Madagascar is a place of exceptional beauty and natural treasures. It is a fabulous destination for anyone who loves nature, enjoys adventure, and is not too concerned about comfort. Madagascar is astonishingly unspoiled underwater.  We saw no evidence of damage from the El Niño that dramatically affected nearby Seychelles two years earlier. We hope the reefs of Madagascar will somehow continue to be unaffected by climatic influences.

Text and Images Copyright © CORAL Magazine and the authors.  Reproduction without written permission is strictly forbidden.  The article in full may be found in the January/February Issue of CORAL: Coral Subscription Center.

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