Reef Doctor: a Malagasy Model for Marine Healthcare

I walked barefoot on the sand littered with plastic bottles and fishing nets. To my left stretched a concrete wall, holding back past-their-prime hotels and half-finished houses from tumbling into the sea. To my right, the Mozambique Channel tickled the shore. Continental Africa lay beyond the horizon, but the curve of the earth had my eyes convinced this water might go on forever.

An outrigger canoe moored offshore from Ifaty Beach.

I’d been told to expect a forty-minute walk from my hostel in Mangily, a tourist town, to the Reef Doctor office in Ifaty, a sleepy fishing village. I can report that the timeline was optimistic. On the lower beach, I slurped through calf-deep quicksand. Higher up, I tiptoed across a gauntlet of razor-sharp crushed shells.

The fact that I stopped to photograph every shorebird probably didn't help my timeliness, either! This common ringed plover reminded me of a semipalmated plover with a stretched bill.

White-fronted plover. Another lifer, restricted to sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar.

Ruddy turnstones in the wrack zone.

This shorebird (a black-bellied plover?) stands on a band of jagged coral bones, a remnant of Ranobe's old fringing reef that was gradually exposed over thousands of years by a shifting river delta. 

The whimbrel, a worldly traveller that breeds in the Arctic and migrates to South America, Africa, south Asia and Australia. (Sounds like a Watson year!)

A bit late and more than a bit sweaty, I arrived at Reef Doctor. It was hard to miss. The retaining wall on my left gave way to a compound of A-frame bungalows interspersed with salt-tolerant trees and hand-painted signs. A pile of rough boulders was labeled “Artificial Reef.” I assumed these rocks would become a future artificial reef, since they weren’t doing much to promote fish habitat up here on the sand. Two energetic volunteers sat cross-legged on the ground, painting an old wooden table with creosote.

The Reef Doctor campus was a beachfront village of yellow A-frames.

“Hi!” I called. “Is this Reef Doctor?”

“Yeah!” confirmed a cheery, tan woman.

“I’m looking for Seb,” I told her. I had been e-mailing with Reef Check’s director, Emma Gibbons, for weeks to set up this visit with the science officer, S├ębastien Boudry.

“Oh sure. SEB!” the woman hollered. She motioned to a thatch-roofed bungalow. “I think he’s in there.”

Soon, Seb appeared to guide me through the workings of this coral-reef conservation nonprofit. He wore a long, messy bun of beach hair and a bandage on his left foot from a bang up with some rock or coral. A pair of metallic blue sunglasses rode on his head, and his flip-flops kicked up sand as we strolled to the science bungalow.

If it weren't for this colorful sign, I might not have recognized this particular bungalow as an "office."

Here, Seb’s surfer aura gave way to the data-minded, detail-oriented persona his job requires of him. "If current trends continue, the world's coral reefs are expected to be gone by 2050," he told me as he flipped through a PowerPoint of carbon-emission graphs. Seb offered me three hours of his time and answered my battery of questions about the fleet of volunteers he manages.

Seb Boudry, science officer for Reef Doctor.

"Yeah, the volunteers used to input their own data, but we had a few too many errors," he said wistfully. "So that’s all me, now." He swept his gaze over the stacks of penciled datasheets and tangle of cords leading to his laptop. The sun-tanned surfer vibe evaporated as I imagined Seb’s eyes turning red after hours of combing through numbers, checking for errors, transcribing thousands of digits from one page to another. So much for the glory of tropical marine biology.

The crooked whiteboard used to organize Reef Doctor's dizzying roster of conservation activities.

May I draw your attention to the lower left corner of the whiteboard, where the "coral disease" survey caught my eye. All coral conservation is about organismal health on some level -- bleaching is an example of non-infectious, environmentally-triggered disease. But what interests me most are the infections: the tangle of microbe and alga and coral that mirrors our own human struggle against pathogens.

Founded in 2002 by two British men, Reef Doctor has focused on improving the social and biological resilience of the Bay of Ranobe. Reef Doctor draws no arbitrary boundaries between social and ecological wellbeing. In this southwestern corner of Madagascar, the two meld into one enormous sea of urgency. To get a feeling for the socioeconomic state of Ranobe, check out this snazzy infographic:

Credit: Reef Doctor.

This photo, taken out the window of a taxi-brousse, shows the desperately dry Fiherenena River that runs between Toliara and Ifaty. You can see three women walking across the parched riverbed carrying loads on their heads, perhaps clothes to wash or mangoes to sell. This desert region is constantly in a drought, but the situation is becoming dire as deforestation, overfishing, and climate change threaten the last available options for subsistence.

Reef Doctor's major accomplishments include providing primary-school teachers for the community, implementing marine education in public schools, returning 1100 captured marine turtles to the wild through a tag-and-release program, creating a Women's Association to provide training in arts and crafts manufacture, and building a coral nursery to shelter young coral recruits until they are large enough to be transplanted into the reef.

While I was visiting, Reef Doctor was just finishing its three-year Darwin Grant to initiate seaweed and sea cucumber aquaculture in eight villages, providing an alternative livelihood to overfishing. Finally, and most significantly, Reef Doctor helped establish two of the first community-managed marine reserves in Madagascar, both here in Ranobe: Massif des Roses and Ankarajalita.

Seb scattered a handful of dead coral skeletons across the table to showcase Rabobe's marine diversity. Like any animal, corals can be classified by genus and species, but scientists often find it more convenient to describe the coral's morphology. Pictured here are a massive coral (left), a branching coral (top), and a mushroom coral (the circular one), among others.

Branching corals in the genus Acropora are one of the most important reef-builders in Ranobe.

As Seb spoke, the list of projects Reef Doctor juggles grew unwieldy in my memory. How can one organization tackle so many things at once? I came to understand that Reef Doctor is fueled by the two key ingredients: people and money.

The magic of the Reef Doctor system is that the labor not only pays for itself, it pays for everything else, too. Reef Doctor hosts a rotating casts of volunteers (working for 3-12 weeks) and interns (2-6 months) who pay for the privilege of helping conserve the world's third-largest coral reef. In return, the volunteers and interns can be trained in scuba diving and marine research techniques, and they live among an international group of like-minded folks on the breathtaking Mozambique Channel. Apparently, it's a fair trade, because there is never a shortage of eager workers. I was impressed to learn that 60% of Reef Doctor's budget is paid directly by volunteer fees, while the other 40% is furnished by donations and grants.

Seb pulled out these two giant snail shells. On the left is the bull-mouth helmet (Cypraecassis rufa). On the right is the smaller yet heavier triton (Charonia sp.) Both snails are severely over-harvested for the souvenir market. In the year and three months since he arrived at Reef Doctor, Seb has seen only two bull-mouthed helmets and one triton alive in the ocean, but he's seen bucketfuls of their empty shells in the market.

In the middle of our conversation, Seb had to run out for a staff meeting. Triton shell still in hand, out of breath from his steady stream of information, Seb apologized with one flip-flopped foot out the door. "I'm really sorry I just have to talk with the staff because I'm in charge of all the volunteers and interns and I need to get ready for their meeting tomorrow I'll be back in twenty!"

That's how I found myself alone in the Science Office. I felt like a child slinking off from my great-aunt's Christmas party into the recesses of her big, unfamiliar house. What might an unattended ecologist like me discover, poking around an office like this? The corner bookshelf drew me in like a magnet.

Reef Doctor's library consists of four boards in the corner stocked with books, printed journal articles, and a hefty portion of rat poop.

The books in front were well-used but in good condition: a field guide to reef fishes of the Indian Ocean, a manual of bleaching-survey methods. I dug deeper. One shelf, I discovered, had been claimed by a rat: the books' pages had been gnawed into powder, and a cozy-looking (yet thankfully empty) nest was squeezed into the corner. I found a yellow and brittle Nature Conservancy pamphlet featuring a quote from Darwin I'd never before heard:

Deep in a stack of French tomes, I unearthed another reference to our own and only Darwin. It was a 1976 volume by a University of Illinois geologist, its canvas cover engraved with gold lettering: The Coral Reef Problem. I read the introduction:

"It is of great philosophical interest to recall that Darwin's theory of coral reef formation was derived in a pure deductive fashion aboard the Beagle while sailing along the west coast of South America, before Darwin had ever seen a true coral reef... Through the middle of the nineteenth century the coral reef problem had a glamour about it."

A hidden gem in the bowels of the Reef Doctor library.

I was struck by the gulf in perception between this author, writing in 1976, and today's coral researchers. Forty years ago, the Coral Reef Problem was a delightfully puzzling question of how coral reefs are formed. Today, pondering the ancient origins of the reef feels like a reckless luxury when the corals' future is grimly predictable. Our new coral reef problem is this: how can we coax this "most extraordinary of natural structures" to survive past the year 2050?

That first statistic Seb had thrown out surfaced in my mind. If current trends continue, the world's coral reefs are expected to be gone by 2050. I started the mental calculations. By that time, I will be 55 years old. Will I have kids? If so, they'll be teenagers. Will they get to see a reef before it's too late? They'll have to learn scuba diving young... Where will we go to see the world's last reef, a scrap of corals taking their dying breaths? Will it be a secret lagoon, off limits to tourism? Will the cost for diving that last reef skyrocket, as demand increases and supply constricts to zero?

A bowl of salted reef fish for sale on the main street of Mangily. Can you find the threadfin butterflyfish, the moray head, and several species of snake eel? Reef Doctor has worked with local communities and the tourism industry to develop open and closed fishing seasons for vulnerable species, but enforcement is out of their hands. Only FIMIHARA (the local fishermen's association) and the chronically-underfunded Ministry of Fisheries have the power of enforcement. I was offered out-of-season lobster and octopus every day at lunch.

One night, we bought fried fish for dinner on the street. Haja and Mahery taught me how to make street food safe by asking the vendor to re-fry to fish in boiling oil right before handing it to us. The fish vendor wrapped our hot, greasy fish in the only paper available: reused pages from her child's homework.

Of course, my diving concerns are negligible compared to the burden carried by coastal communities who depend on reef-based fisheries. It's just my way of conceptualizing a massive global change that's happening too quickly to believe. 2050? One lifetime after that Illinois geologist scratched his head about Darwin's theory of coral accretion, his Coral Reef Problem will no longer be available for experimentation. Like the color of the dinosaurs or the reason why our fishy ancestors crawled from the sea, it will be a question for paleontologists, to be answered by fossils of things that have ceased to live.

An underwater probe that sends temperature data from the reef straight to Seb's computer. Corals expel their symbiotic algae and turn white (a process called bleaching) when they experience heat stress, typically when the water is 1 degree Celsius above average during the warmest months of the year.

Before I knew it, the staff meeting was over. Seb came back to find me as promised, and I jumped when I heard the door creak open. It's startling to be found when you're lost in a book. In our final minutes, I asked Seb how he maintains enthusiasm for his job as a reef doctor in the face of such a gloomy prognosis.

It was one of my first questions that gave Seb pause, if only for a moment.

"The 2050 thing, that's just a prediction," he started by clarifying. Three hours ago, Seb had asserted the 2050 expiration date with data-driven confidence. But that was Seb the Scientist. Now, I was speaking to a different persona, the conservationist, the coral-lover, the optimist whose hope is derived from within the scientist's margin of error. Yes, the data predicts that all the world's reefs will die by 2050 -- but what if the data are wrong? What if we can change the trend? What about that error bar?

"What I do," Seb continuted, "it try to slow it down, try to be positive. We know if nothing is done, it’s just going to die."

"Will this coral reef still be here, in Ranobe, in 2050?" I asked.

"I don't know. I hope yes," he said. "Maybe our generation will see the extinction of it, because it’s just going too fast.  But recently on the new reef, we saw the first humphead wrasse in ten years, so the water must still be clean enough for that. And the humpback whales are still coming. It means there is still some life, and it needs time to grow. That’s the problem, we haven’t given them time to grow. You never know what is going to happen."

Most of the Malagasy living in this region belong to the Vezo ethnic group. They are known for their perfected seafaring and fishing techniques which revolve around the pirogue, a wind-powered outrigger canoe similar to the ones that brought the first Indonesians to Madagascar 2,000 years ago. The sea is used for transportation because roads between villages can be rough or nonexistent. Here, a pirogue is weighted down with a load of tree trunks that will be used to construct houses.

Later in the afternoon, I spotted the same bundle of logs loaded onto a taxi-brousse.

A few days after talking with Seb, I went diving on the outer rim of Ranobe’s fringing reef. My dive instructor, Anne Furp, asked if I’m certified to dive deep.

"Yeah, I'm an Advanced Diver. I can go to 100 feet," I told her.

"Good," said Anne. "We only do deep dives here. Anything the fishermen can reach by freediving has already been destroyed."

Tip for backpackers on a budget: search thrift stores for tight athletic leggings and a long-sleeved swim-shirt. It's a lot cheaper than a wetsuit.

Knowing about my love for microbes, Anne pointed out a massive, lavender mound of Porites coral with white rings circling several of its pores. I don’t know what pathogen was causing those white rings, but I noted that coral disease does not discriminate among depths. We saw a scaly crocodile fish, a marbled grouper as long as I am tall, angelfish, moray eels, and (my personal favorite) a healthy sea star.

A few days after that, I went snorkeling in the shallow section of Massif des Roses, the first community-managed marine reserve established by Reef Doctor.

The sun was shining as a wind-powered pirogue carried Haja, Mahery and me to our snorkel site.

It was Haja and Mahery's first time snorkeling! They have studied Madagascar's terrestrial plants and animals all their lives, but never had they seen their ocean's algae, corals, or fishes.

The difference between the deep dive and the shallow snorkel was heartbreaking. In two hours, I swam above a seafloor that was half garden and half graveyard. Spiny black Diadema sea urchins clustered in crevices, and a school of dark fish flashed by. One Acropora showed the purple fluorescence of new growth at its tips, and a lime-green Porites photosynthesized under our masks. These live corals were surrounded by rubble, the skeletal remains of their dead kin. Seb’s prediction that coral reefs will go extinct in our lifetime appeared to be coming true in front of my mask. One of the healthiest patches in Ranobe, Massif des Roses, harbored life. Yet it was a ruin, an ecosystem drawing its last shaky breaths in the Intensive Care Unit of planet Earth.

Here is a GoPro video I made to document the condition of Massif des Roses and celebrate Haja and Mahery's inaugural snorkel.

Seb knows this bay will never be pristine, at least not for many generations. At best, Ranobe will become a fragmented habitat composed of a few hardy coral species, an artificial reef of boulders, and a rebar garden of transplanted coral recruits. Tourists will dive deep to glimpse the abundance of the past, while locals will scrape a living from the marine life that remains. Yet he, Emma, and all of Reef Doctor's staff and volunteers are moving toward something different, something alive.

Rather than forsake this seafloor as a lost cause, they embrace its knotted web of relationships: with scientists and fishermen, pirogues carrying away forests into houses, drier summers, drier winters, climate and weather and carbon dioxide, fried fish in torn pages of lined paper, stinging plankton and crumbling calcium carbonate.

The death within Ranobe is easy to see, but it is not complete. Life makes its way in this ruin: a school of snapper, a toothy eel, a jellyfish. The first humphead wrasse in ten years. Seb knows our survival is entangled with the survival of the reef. And for him, a sliver of uncertainty in his patient's prognosis is enough.