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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
June 2000 (Part I): Worse Things Happen at Sea
Ruth Tingay — in Madagascar Project    Share

Up at dawn to find a group of men skinning a freshly slaughtered zebu on the beach whilst young boys carried handfuls of zebu innards to the surf to wash off, presumably to make into entrail stew. I made do with a cup of tea and half a packet of biscuits. Rivo announced that they would take the broken tiller piece back into Mahajanga to try and get it fixed and I was to stay in camp to guard our equipment. It seemed a bit odd to leave me to guard things as I stuck out like a sore thumb in this village and attracted plenty of attention (and thus so did our gear), but if I’d gone into town the local mechanics would have taken one look at the colour of my skin and tripled the price of fixing the tiller. Vazaha = money in this country. Money was already tight so I settled down in front of the tents and watched the guys hitch a ride back across the Baie in a traditional dhow sailing boat.

The first few hours passed with about 30 people standing nearby, arms folded and happily staring at the Vazaha. Each time I stood up, they would nervously take a few steps backwards, never taking their eyes off me. I guessed they were probably scared of me, having grown up listening to mythical stories about child-eating Vazaha from strange lands. At around lunchtime the village drunk re-emerged, still inebriated, and made a beeline for me. I managed to casually ignore him for a while but this seemed to make him angry and he started ranting and kicking sand into the faces of some sleeping dogs near our tents. I thought it was probably a good time to get out of the way so I padlocked our tents and swam out to sit on the boat, anchored about 100 yards from the beach. As I hauled myself on board, I turned around to see the drunkard lurching down the beach in my direction. Luckily he was distracted by the zebu carcass and he veered off further down the sand. He cut off the zebu’s tail and the last I saw of him he’d tucked it into the back of his trousers and was cavorting along the beach looking like he was auditioning for a part in A Midsummer’s Night's Dream.

I stayed on the boat for the rest of the day, watching the tide come in and then watching it go back out again and then finally at dusk the guys returned. They’d found a mechanic who could fix the tiller but it wouldn’t be ready for another two days. Rather than sitting around all day tomorrow we decided we’d try to survey the nearby mangroves. We’d still have to use the broom handle as tiller but the mangroves were relatively quiet and the water calm so it was worth a go. I began to feel unwell later in the evening with a sore throat and swollen glands. My immediate thought was malaria, which is a huge risk in this country, so I swallowed another Larium pill and tried to get some rest.

Aerial view of Betsiboka Mangroves.
Aerial view of Betsiboka Mangroves.
We set off before dawn the next day as we had to catch the tide, so we paid a local boy to keep watch over our tents and slowly chugged off towards the mangroves. The Baie de Bombetoka and the Betsiboka Mangroves have earned a certain degree of notoriety amongst some visitors to Madagascar. One author who flew over the area described the scene below as “looking as though the island is bleeding to death.” It’s not difficult to see why. Parts of Madagascar have a red-coloured laterite soil and when widespread deforestation takes place inland, catastrophic amounts of red soil are washed off the hillsides and into the rivers, looking like bleeding arteries running into the sea.

We reached the mangroves just as dawn broke and we stopped at the entrance to look at some waterbirds foraging on the mud flats. Closer inspection through the telescope revealed 50 Bernier’s Teal, a critically endangered duck that shares some of the western lakes with the fish eagles. A few other endemic species were present, including the very handsome Humblot’s Heron and Madagascar Sacred Ibis, along with the more common flamingos and assorted egrets. This was an excellent start to the day—now we just needed a fish eagle or two and I’d be happy.

Any thoughts of finding a fish eagle in these mangroves were swiftly removed the further down we went. The silt load must have been right off the scale as the water was just a thick murky dark brown sludge, very much like the chocolate river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I put my hand into the water but couldn’t even see it at an inch depth. As their name suggests, Madagascar Fish Eagles eat fish, but unlike the other seven fish/sea eagles of the genus, they are fish specialists and don’t eat carrion. Part of their specialisation is that they watch for surface-feeding fish and then fly low over the water to snatch their prey in surprise attacks. They even have tiny spicules on the soles of their feet (as do Osprey) in order to help them grasp their slippery wriggling food. I couldn’t believe that even a fish eagle would be able to see any fish in here, the turbidity was so high.

Typical "chocolate" sludge mangroves.
Typical "chocolate" sludge mangroves.
In addition to the apparent poor water quality, the mangrove trees were a pretty spindly and uniform lot and not what I’d expect any fish eagle to choose for a nest site. A few years ago an American doctoral student named Jim Berkelman had studied the nest sites of some Madagascar Fish Eagles and had demonstrated that they generally choose the largest and tallest trees available, presumably for practical reasons like holding up a heavy stick nest and also for easy access and perhaps territorial defence. I couldn’t see anything but thin, short trees here and I was convinced we were wasting our time (and fuel). However, five years ago Rivo had recorded a pair of breeding fish eagles right at the end of the mangroves and so we carried further in just to make sure.

Four hours and 45 km on and my understanding of fish eagle ecology was turned on its head. Right at the end of one of the long mud channels, perching precariously at the top of a spindly tree and calling loudly sat two adult fish eagles! Fifteen feet away was a large stick nest that had been crammed in amongst the crown of a slender and frail-looking tree. As I sat and stared in disbelief the male flew from his perch, swooped down over the chocolate sludge and picked out a shiny silver fish not 20 ft from our boat! He carried it straight back to the nest and was joined by the female, who head-butted him out of the way, grabbed the fish in her foot, and took off to consume it in peace!

We were thrilled to have finally seen our first fish eagles and decided we would stop here for lunch. We set up the gas stove on an exposed sand bank in the middle of the chocolate river and as Lily began to heat up some water, I took out my GPS to take our position and mark the eagle’s nest site on my map. As I plotted the coordinates I froze. The place name on the map read Marovoay. Last year I’d learnt a few of the important Malagasy words, like those for the fish eagle, water, hello, please, thank you, etc. One of the first ones I’d memorised was the word for crocodile (‘Voay’). I also knew that ‘Maro’ meant many. These were two words that I really didn’t want to see together on a map, especially when they related to the sand bar we were currently sitting on! During my last six months at home I’d done a lot of reading up on crocodile behaviour. I now knew that saltwater crocodiles were the most dangerous, that they could stay submerged for up to six hours whilst stalking their prey, and that their favoured hunting technique was to swim unseen under the water towards the shoreline, explode out of the water with immense power, grab their unsuspecting prey from the shore, slide back into the water and go into a ‘death roll,’ crushing and drowning their prey at the same time. I chose to eat my rice in the safety of the boat.

We headed back towards camp in the afternoon but didn’t see any more fish eagles (or crocodiles). I felt lousy by now with full-blown cold symptoms and was back in my sleeping bag by dusk. The following morning we were up again before dawn to dismantle our tents and pack everything back into the boat. We slowly motored back across the Baie towards Mahajanga, keeping a close eye out for on-coming tankers. Once again I was left in the boat to guard our equipment whilst the guys went into town to collect the repaired tiller. Unfortunately the on-lookers weren’t quite as reticent to approach as the villagers across the Baie had been. I presume they were more used to seeing vazaha in and around Mahajanga and it seemed they’d learned that lone blonde females were easy targets. I’d tried to cover up as much as possible with long clothes, hat and dark sunglasses, not just to discourage unwanted attention but also to try and protect myself from the burning sun, as we had no shade on the boat. All to no avail, though. For the next five hours they hissed and spat and shouted from the jetty and even threatened to board the boat. I ignored them for the most part and spent my time writing a few letters home and praying that the tiller had been fixed so we could get away from this town once and for all. I was very pleased to see the guys return at lunchtime carrying the mended tiller and large bottles of cold coke.

With the tiller piece fixed and a new supply of food we were ready to go. Rivo had had the foresight to phone The Peregrine Fund office in Tana and ask for an email to be sent to Boise, explaining the boat problems and asking for a replacement piece to be shipped over, as the mechanic had only fixed ours as a temporary measure. The new part was to be delivered to the post office on Nosy Be, an island further up the coast, where we could collect it in about a week’s time, all being well.

We headed out of Mahajanga cautiously at first, just making sure our steering was okay, but soon we opened up both engines and were skimming along at speed as we headed north, hugging the coastline and making the most of a calm sea. By mid-afternoon we’d travelled a good 55 km and decided to try and find a suitable place to set up camp for the night. We found the perfect spot on the beach of a peninsula named Mariarano (‘strong water’). A small village was nearby and they gave us permission to stay and access to their well so we could collect fresh drinking water. Luckily they hadn’t spotted me and so we were left alone to camp away from the village without attracting curious observers. As night fell we were treated to a spectacular star-studded sky and an equally spectacular view of 800+ dancing crabs, scuttling and scurrying along the white sands. We all took bucket showers by the well and then cooked up a feast of rice and tinned corned beef whilst discussing our plans for the next few days.

Lily and Ruth on the boat.
Lily and Ruth on the boat.
The following morning we were up before dawn to catch the tide again and we took the boat inland to search another small area of mangroves. It looked identical to the Betsiboka mangroves except that here the water was a clear tropical blue instead of the brown slush we’d been through two days ago, as there was no inland river feeding into this bay. We searched these mangroves for about six hours but unbelievably we didn’t see or hear any fish eagles. If I’d been a fish eagle I would have chosen this area above the Betsiboka mangroves, as the water was clear and the trees a little more sturdy. But obviously the fish eagles knew something I didn’t because they certainly weren’t here! Rivo told me he hadn’t ever seen fish eagles in this inlet so perhaps there was a history of persecution in this spot.

The next morning saw us up before dawn again and packing up the beach camp to move further north. The sea was still calm and clear and we took it in turns to steer the boat and keep a lookout for dolphins. By late morning we turned into Mahajamba Bay and all hell let loose. This bay was as large as the Bombetoka and was also the same chocolate brown colour from the silt being swept in from the Mahajamba River. As we headed inside the bay the wind picked up and whipped up huge walls of waves that crashed over the bow and threatened to swamp us. All our gear had been tied down under large plastic tarpaulins and I struggled to keep my balance as I slipped from one side of the wet tarp to the other.

Rivo did a terrific job of keeping the bow facing into the waves, which meant we were taking on board a massive amount of water but if the boat had been turned sideways to the waves we would certainly have been engulfed by water and capsized. Lily and Thierry were out of their seats at the stern and were bailing out the water from the engine compartment as quickly as it was coming in. Our progress up the bay was slow but steady and after an hour or so we’d got far enough in to be able to turn so the waves were behind us and it was easier for us to scan the shoreline trees for fish eagles. There was deciduous forest lining a rocky shore so we had to keep a fair distance from the shore for fear of underwater rocks splitting open the hull. Using the telescope was out of the question in these conditions but with good binoculars we managed to find a few fish eagles, and even saw one hunting amongst the waves as it battled against the wind to get back to the trees. As we headed further around the other side of the bay we tried to find a sheltered spot to stop for lunch. We saw a few beaches with potential but each time we tried to get ashore we were beaten back by the rough sea, so eventually we had to leave the bay and try further up along the coast. Once we were out of the bay the waves dropped and we were able to find a small inlet beach and set up camp for the night.

The deforestation is evident.
The deforestation is evident.
Another pre-dawn departure saw us pushing north once more. It was a calm sea so we were able to take our time scanning the coastline. The extent of the deforestation along the coast was quite frightening to see, with bare grassy hills dotted with tiny pockets of fragmented littoral forest. We found a couple of fish eagles perching on a dead tree on a cliff edge but about 600 ft away was an enormous construction site which had been cleared of trees and was the location of what appeared to be new holiday chalets. Rivo told me this was a traditional fish eagle nest site but I bet it wouldn’t be for much longer.

At mid-morning we entered a place where I’ve only dwelt in dreams. It was the most beautiful bay, sheltered from the open ocean and sprinkled with half a dozen small rocky islets made of limestone karst and topped with small baobab tree forest, surrounded by the clearest, bluest tropical water and fringed by strips of white sandy beaches. This was Moramba Bay. We arrived at high tide so decided to survey the bay first and then stop for lunch at low tide when we wouldn’t be able to move the boat over the coral reefs. It was difficult deciding where to look first—under the clear water we could see the coral reef and hundreds of brightly coloured shoals of fish darting back and forth, but then on the islets we could see fish eagles all over the place—it looked like we’d stumbled upon fish eagle central! We found a total of five pairs in all, about the same high density as our study site at Camp Handkerchief. Some of these pairs had very obvious nests on overhanging tree branches and others with stick nests placed directly on top of the limestone cliffs. I hadn’t seen cliff-nesting Madagascar Fish Eagles before as all the nests in the Antsalova region had been built in trees. Having said that, cliffs are few and far between in Antsalova, although there are some high cliff gorges along the Manambolo River which might be worth searching in light of this newfound knowledge.

Cliff-top nest.
Cliff-top nest.
We dropped anchor outside the reef and swam towards a small beach carrying our gas stove and food supplies above our heads. Moramba Bay appeared to be inaccessible by road according to the maps. However, this hadn’t stopped the tourists finding it as several yachts arrived over lunchtime, crewed by local tour guides and carrying high-fee paying visitors who had come to picnic on the beach. I watched groups of middle-aged South African men and women stripping down to their underwear and plunging into the water, then sitting together on the beach without a care in the world, apparently oblivious to their state of undress. I tried to imagine a group of university lecturers from home eating their lunch like this in the staff tearoom—it might be a useful method for breaking down some of those academic egos!

We met a group of young Malagasy guys who were living in a mud and grass shelter on the beach. A French entrepreneur who lived further up the coast had seen the tourism potential of the bay and had employed this crew to meet and greet and cook barbeques for visiting guests. They were gracious to allow us access to their well for fresh water in exchange for some of our rice. Moramba Bay was uninhabited except for these guys and a large shrimp farm situated further around the coastline. The shrimp farm was of concern because of the potential damage it could cause to this pristine marine ecosystem. They had large shrimp nurseries out in the bay where they fenced in young shrimps and fed them with genetically modified ‘fast-grow’ food which could cause ecological havoc if it escaped into the surrounding waters, with a knock-on effect for the fish eagles at the top of the food chain. Unfortunately, environmental impact assessments are not yet a common feature of Malagasy policy, although gradual improvements are being made. They can’t come soon enough for the fish eagles.

We had planned to camp here overnight but for some reason Rivo decided we would leave around 4:30 p.m. and carry on pushing northwards. I was a little uncomfortable with this plan as I knew from the map that our next destination was about 45 km away and I didn’t think we’d make it by nightfall (6 p.m.). I voiced my concerns and found I wasn’t alone but was then informed that we would still leave as ‘Rivo is Captain.’ There was that hierarchical illogic again. I decided against debating anymore as it would just waste more precious daylight hours so we packed up quickly and headed out of the bay and out towards the open sea again. Two hours later we would realise what a near-fatal decision this had been.

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