I participated in the second expedition of 2017. Unfortunately, my experience with Blue Ventures (Expeditions) Ltd is a bit less positive. The way the research programme was described appeared inaccurate and the facilities increasingly deteriorate. I only did 3 research dives; a lot of things broke down and apparently there was not such big data need. Secondary activities, like language teaching, were very unstructured. For me the highlights included a sense of remoteness and remote communities, the beautiful sunsets, the amazing night skies, the turquoise ocean (although it looks better halfway to the site) and the cool creatures in the ocean and on land; but the programme itself was not really a highlight.
We did have a few days of unideal weather conditions, including some effects from a cyclone on the east coast of Madagascar, but nothing too bad. A couple of days after that cyclone I actually had one of my best dives there, with the best visibility so far. I think that on some days when the organisation cancelled dives if not for equipment reasons, for example when the wind picked up, we could have gone out for a dive, specially if the crew did not mind to get out of bed a bit earlier, since like elsewhere in Africa (such as South Africa and Mozambique) you typically get the best diving conditions in the early morning. In terms of visibility it was quite site-dependent, with the near shore sites generally not that good. Unfortunately we were a bit stuck to those, also due to equipment issues. The boats are not the most oceangoing anyway. A faltering very weak (only 25 hp) outboard engine and a missing satellite phone were not such good starting point to get to further sites, including the reserves.
Hopefully the organisation will do something with the extensive feedback that has been provided to them during the expedition and afterwards, but at this moment I see that the inaccurate, misleading programme description has not been changed.
From that information you get the idea you will receive your training in the first two weeks and then collect data until the end of the expedition, all structured. Unfortunately it was nothing like that. For those that needed a dive qualification, their PADI Open Water course only already cost a staggering two weeks to complete. After this the PADI Advanced Open Water course still had to start, meanwhile a lecture here and there, followed by the research training. By the time everyone was about ready to finally do some research dives, it was almost the end of the expedition. Those who already had dive qualifications, like me, started survey training a bit earlier than others. Like everything it was slow-paced and unstructured, with quite some of dives cancelled, but l passed my in-water test as part of the training at the beginning of week 3. Still I only did 3 research dives.
Then on site they explained that around 4 dive sites are surveyed during an expedition. If there are for example 12 participants, and half of them do the fish surveys, this means that there are 32 transects (at each dive site you typically do 8 transects) to be done by 6 participants. You can do about 2-3 transects per buddy pair per dive. With one, ideally two dives per day of diving, this means all these transects for the expedition can be done in 2-3 days of diving already. That is by far not the idea you get when you sign up. We ended up surveying 3 dive sites. With my 3 research dives I even did more than others did. Even with double the sites surveyed, it seems unfair that the organisation provides information that you collect data for weeks. When the Monitoring & Evaluation Manager, also former field scientist, was visiting towards the end, we had a talk about the set-up of the programme and the disappointing dive operations. It seems like the programme description is more representative for how it maybe was several years ago.
In terms of diving facilities, a lot of things broke down or were already broken. My diving experience started off with a torn BCD, a leaking regulator, insufficient spare parts, difficulties to find an adequately filled tank, one available boat in the first weeks with very limited capacity and engine trouble, incapable to even reach the reserves, missing emergency equipment; it ended with pretty much all of that but now also including a second very slippery boat not only with engine trouble but also a hull that already started to crack after a few weeks, a broken air compressor, a borrowed compressor from Laguna Blu (a nearby hotel) that was pretty much pushed beyond its capacity in an attempt to make up for missed days of diving, and even less spare parts for everything. I did not expect the diving facilities (and the overall facilities by the way) to be so badly managed.
On site they would typically say something like ‘this is Madagascar’ when equipment broke down. To me that is bit of a lame excuse, in other remote (African) places I have had much better equipment and also in highly developed places you still have to maintain your own gear. And if you know it takes a bit longer to get spare parts, it might be an idea to have a few in stock. I think that the number of times dives had to be cancelled or plans had to change due to equipment issues or missing gear is simply not proportional to the amount of resources trusted to the organisation with the idea they would deliver something decent to work with. The organisation also did not inform beforehand about issues really impacting the expedition, like the boat situation.
With the idea that the amount of data collected is quite limited and the amount of participants seemed beyond the reasonable capacity, it is like you are just there for the money.
Money it seems for the homestays (it was still a bit of an experiment) too. Of course it can be an enriching (not in money terms) experience to be in contact with the locals, and throughout my Africa travels I have had a lot of those contacts, but via the programme it felt less genuine. We shared some meals with some of the villagers and were expected to sleep at their homes two nights a week (all still optional) but I did not really like the idea of them having to sign all contracts for this and offering their place to the point where they were sleeping outside on the ground so expedition participants could use their bed, in some cases with plastic over it, just so they could make some extra money. I liked the contacts I made via activities that were not directly part of the programme, such as sports, exploratory walks or a drink in the village, much more. Very friendly people. I also liked the normal transactions (like buying fruits, bread, cookies, a coffee in a local café, other drinks and other products) much more than the forced and paid ‘private dining’ experience as part of the homestay concept. The food experience was better though than at the place where you normally eat; Coco Beach messes up any of the very few ingredients and their dining area really lacks atmosphere, I think it is not really a nice place.
The programme also included some other activities, such as a monitoring spider tortoises for a few hours during a multi-day trip to a nearby bay. Unfortunately again not the full potential was used and structure was missing. I think it did not really make sense to go survey close to midday (very warm, tortoises hiding too much, transect cancelled). Most of the time there was probably spent on drinking and sleeping. I do not really understand why we did not do something more, for example find more spider tortoises at a better time on one of the other days. I didn’t just want to sit around there and explored a bit of the area and the village myself. The language teaching programme, if you can even call it a programme, again was very unstructured.
Unfortunately the fun dives (dives that were not training / survey related) were not that good either. Those could have made up a little bit for the disappointing programme, to at least explore the reef quite extensive then without surveys if you happen to be there anyway and paid for the diving activities. My dives were mostly tagging along with others that still needed to do their training and hold a SMB. There was one night dive, for which all the creatures you might encounter were presented with great fanfare, but the dive itself was not so good. Sometimes there was an exciting find, but looking at my logbook I think I would not rank the dives higher than the bottom 20 or so of my 129 logged dives to date. It would have been cool if we could get to the far shore sites a bit more. I am sure it is possible to have amazing dives at the Great Reef.
As you can see my experiences with the organisation are not so good. Once again hopefully Blue Ventures will soon make improvements; if they at least provide an accurate outline of the activities and situation on site that would already be an improvement.