Léa, a whale shark ecovolunteer

Léa went to Madagascar as an ecovolunteer on the island of Nosy Be to study the whale shark. Read her story.

Cap sur la Terre: Léa, could you introduce the association you worked for in Madagascar?

Léa: The program was run by the Madagascar Whale shark Project and Mada Megafauna. Mada Megafauna is based on Nosy Be, a small, fairly touristy island in northwest Madagascar. Its aim is to study and protect the marine biodiversity of Nosy Be and the Mozambique Channel, namely cetaceans, sea turtles and whale sharks. The whale shark project was initiated by Stella Diamant, a biologist from Belgium, who discovered the large whale shark population in the Mozambique Channel during a trip to Madagascar. Stella set up a project to study this whale shark population, which to date is very poorly known. In 2017, she set up an ecovolunteering program in which I got involved.

What does this ecovolunteering program involve?

From October to December, ecovolunteers are working on whale sharks. The aim of this identification program is to contribute to a worldwide database on the whale shark population. The study is being carried out in partnership with the FIU Florida Institute University. On Nosy Be, juveniles are the main visitors from September to December. To date, almost 300 individuals have been identified. In practical terms, as a volunteer, we carry out boat launches, i.e. we get into the water, take photos of the whale sharks, note their behavior and their GPS location. All this information is then fed into a computer database.
A second ecovolunteering program runs from August to September, focusing on humpback whales. Humpback whales mate and calve in the waters off northwest Madagascar. The aim of this program is to survey them in order to study them and better protect them.

The Meda Mega Fauna team.
The Meda Megafauna team.

In concrete terms, how does an ecovolunteering mission with Mada Méga Fauna work?

The first three days are devoted to training. This is why the association requires the ecovolunteer to be present for at least three weeks. These three days are used to develop knowledge of the species studied and to learn the right technique for approaching them. We are accompanied by a scientist. Once this training is complete, we set off on our own, with the excursion boats, to carry out the identification work. We have two days off a week when we can visit this little island paradise called Nose By. From time to time, we even bivouac!

Is the local population involved in the project?

Yes, of course. Already, we are working with tourism providers who organize outings to get closer to areas where whale sharks live. More generally, the association is working to promote responsible tourism. It works with schools and with Malagasy animators. The association works extensively with tourism providers to develop a responsible approach to whale shark and cetacean watching. An approach charter has even been created.

How do you observe whale sharks without disturbing them?

There are several rules to respect, for our safety (even if the whale shark is not dangerous in itself, as it feeds on plankton), and for theirs. The aim is to establish an intelligent cohabitation between whale sharks and humans. First of all, there's a distance to respect when you're a swimmer. You have to stay at least three meters away from the fish, and not dive into the water, but glide through it. Of course, you mustn't touch the specimens, and you mustn't use the flash when taking their picture. We estimate the number of swimmers to be a maximum of ten, in keeping with our ethical approach.
There are also rules for the boats, which must stay at a distance of fifteen meters from the fish, be in neutral when the swimmers are launched, and not exceed 6 knots in a 150-meter circle around the whale shark. Only one boat is allowed per shark. The others wait 150 meters away. Many service providers on Nosy Be have adopted this approach charter.

How do I get involved with whale sharks?

Contact Madamegafauna or the Whale Shark Project. Ecovolunteers stay for 3 weeks and pay a contribution of 1,200 euros. Accommodation is in rooms just above the association's office. You'll also have half board, which means you'll have to pay for one meal a day. But you should know that you can eat for just a few euros on the island.

What are your next projects?

I'm off again in September to Nosy Be as a volunteer coordinator. This year, I'm doing the whole season!

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