The message is clear. Don’t touch anything. I volunteered in Madagascar with Blue Ventures, and environmental charity working hard to protect the coral reef off the west coast of the island. The charity bombarded us with lots of information from day one, but the first presentation we received was on what to not touch. So basically anything.
Generally speaking, nothing is out get you, not even sharks who seem to just have a bad rep (thanks Jaws!). When animals attack in this part of the world, it’s usually because they have been provoked or feel under threat.
Surprisingly, not much of the wildlife here is particularly dangerous. It surprised me anyway, as they have snakes, spiders, scorpions, sharks and plenty more. After reading the section called “the nasty side of nature” in my Bradt guidebook a few months before my departure, I seriously reconsidered the flights I’d just booked.
There were indeed spiders in the highlands and snakes circling our hut in the arid region, but I was assured neither were venomous. The scorpion we saw on a hike was so tinny I almost missed it. Out of thirty odd dives, we only spotted two jellyfish, and none of us ever spotted a shark (largely due to their overfishing).
We did see two Portuguese man o’wars, and if you watched the latest Blue Planet you’ll know it’s not something you want to come across. A kid from the village passed out recently from the sting of this tinny creature. Amazingly, our boat captain Fredo, a Vezo (person from the south west region of Madagascar), spotted one amongst the small waves. It took me a good few minutes to see it, even with him pointing directly at it. Even close up it looks like a little bubble or a bit of plastic.
We also had the pleasure of seeing a couple of stone fish, one of the the most venomous fish in the world (yay!). The problem with a stone fish, you guessed it, is that it looks like a stone. Their camouflage is incredible, they blend in so well with the reef it’s a real shock when you see the eyes. I only saw two (that I know of), but by the time I’d realised that I wasn’t observing a bit of reef, I was far too close to them for my liking. Part of our work as volunteers was to survey the reef, which meant getting pretty close to it. We did go through some extensive buoyancy control training, as crashing into the reef would mean damaging the coral, and potentially ourselves. The main way to get seriously hurt from a stone fish, is by standing on one. The venom is forced into the foot from their spine. We wore booties when wading out into the water, but I wasn’t convinced that one of the most venomous fish in the world couldn’t get through a bit of rubber.
The lionfish, or as I like to call them, the carnival fish, are as beautiful as they are venomous. Their festival-flag like spines carry the venom. We saw them on most dives, and even though we were warned to steer clear of these ones, their amazing appearance makes you want to stay and observe them. The way they hang there, motionless just above the reef, is almost eerie. It makes you feel like it must be a trap. They tend to hang out in twos or threes, so if there is one hovering in front of you, there is probably one hovering right next to you. I learnt that the hard way.
The real danger for our group of volunteers turned out not to come from animals at all. Beware of the small rocks on the beach! Yep, we laughed in the face of this “danger” at first, but almost everyone cut their foot open at some point on the expedition. And good luck getting that to heal when we’re living on sand and our job is to be in the sea.