Written by: Jaii Fredregill
Destination: Nosy Be, Madagascar
Visited: September 2019
For many, Madagascar is a far-off, exotic destination reserved for bucket lists and daydreams. Tourism is growing at around 11% each year and, with reasonably priced daily flights between Madagascar and France, it is no surprise that French travelers account for 60% of the tourism in Madagascar, especially scuba diving.
One of many lionfish at Les Epaves
Nosy Be, is a scuba diving utopia and Madagascar’s most popular dive destination. With each dive I found myself excited for the next, because there was just so much to see. Sealife is abundant and during most dives, visibility was 30-meters or more. Dolphins, sharks, turtles, nudibranchs, schooling fish and stunning coral add to the allure of the turquoise waters that surround the island.
Conservation efforts in Nosy Be are helping to increase the number of turtles and tortoises in the area. This green turtle was photographed while freediving between dives. You can also visit the Village of tortoises on land.
Parc National Marin de Nosy Tanikely is a protected marine reserve filled with pristine coral. It is bustling with life and its busy cleaning stations are frequented by turtles and fish alike. Giant potato groupers, hawksbill and green turtles, schooling batfish, nudibranchs, and a cable coral forest top the list of what we saw while exploring the park.
Outside of the marine reserve mobula rays, black tips sharks, blue-spotted stingrays, and giant green turtles were soon added to our sightings. As the list grew, so did the spirits of the divers on our boat and we enjoyed three fun days diving with the staff and crew of Scuba Nosy Be, who offered top notch services and tremendous insight into the dive sites.
Blacktips herding fish at Shark Point.
We saw a total of six blacktips diving Shark Point. It is always a treat to see sharks and watch them move so sleekly through the water. On this dive, three of the sharks were hunting together. Coming in from opposite sides, they herded the fish they were after into one panicked bait ball and quickly began to snack from it. Amazing, and very intimidating.
One of the more spectacular wrecks at Les Epaves
Les Epaves is a collection of four small wrecks at depths between 22-28 meters. Due to the depths of the wrecks, multiple dives can be done at this site. The wrecks offer great opportunities for underwater photography, though a bit of caution is required, as each is covered in coral, scorpionfish, lionfish, and crocodilefish.
What is most notable about Nosy Be is, of course, the whale sharks. There are whale shark sightings year-round, and 360 separate whale sharks were identified and photographed in 2018 alone. These numbers are not a result of feeding the whale sharks. Nosy Be just happens to be surrounded by the plankton that makes up the bulk of their diet.
A batfish visiting a cleaning stations at Parc National Marin de Nosy Tanikely
You do not have to be a diver to see whale sharks in Nosy Be. There are daily boat tours available for snorkelers as well, and the great respect held by boat and dive operators for marine life largely helps to promote responsible ecotourism on the island. This in turn allows marine life to continue to thrive here. The marine diversity and excellent health of the reefs also makes the respect with which the ocean is treated with here very evident.
I do not support tourism that encourages the feeding or manipulation of animals for human entertainment. Tourists swarm to places like Cebu in the Philippines to crowd and harass whale sharks that are being fed to tolerate them. If you do not want to participate or support this, come to Nosy Be, where you can observe these phenomenal creatures in the wild without harming or stressing them.
The tiniest nudibranch making his way along a large polyp stony coral.
You can increase your chance of seeing whale sharks by coming during the peak season which is October through December. However, we dove in September and encountered four whale sharks in a single day. We thought we had had the best day ever until another diver told us he had just seen seven whale sharks.
August through October is humpback whale season. Omura’s whales are known to pass through around this time too, and typically stick around through February. Hammerheads arrive in January and stay through February, but whitetip and blacktips sharks stick around all year.
For most of us, Nosy Be is a bit more challenging to get to than other highly traveled tourist destinations, which is precisely why now is the time to go. As it becomes more accessible, it also becomes more crowded and more expensive.
The Scuba Nosy Be boat heading out for the day.
Fascene airport is located on the eastern side of Nosy Be. There is some tourism in Helle-Ville, but the beaches and diving along the west coast are the big draw. Ambondrona is a quiet resort area, and Ambatoloaka lined with bars, restaurants and shops, is where the action is.
Along the Unnamed Road in downtown Nosy Be
If you’re not coming from Paris or Ethiopia flights to Madagascar can get expensive and/or require multiple connections, so it may be helpful to get yourself to Paris or Addis Ababa first. We traveled just from Johannesburg, South Africa and had to choose our date carefully to find a flight that was less than 12-hours.
The airlines with the best options during my research where Ethiopia Air and Madagascar Air. Travel to Madagascar will probably be less expensive if you plan ahead and watch for deals. I saved a lot because I was able to be flexible with my dates.
Twerking sexy shrimp (Thor amboinensis) at Parc National Marin de Nosy Tanikely.
We had to find a connecting flight to Nosy Be due to changes in our plans that came up after we had already booked our flight to Antananarivo, AKA "Tana". When I was figuring out our travel to Nosy Be, I came across a domestic airline called Tsaradia Air. There is not a lot online about them, because they just launched in July 2018. Tsaradia Air can be expensive, but if you choose the right dates or come across one of their deals, you can fly between Antananarivo and Nosy Be for as little USD 100 one-way.
Yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus)
A taxi from Fascene airport to the west side of the island is between 40k-60k Ariary, which is USD 11-16. Most hotels charge around 60k Ariary for a 30-40 minute taxi ride. If you can find a group taxi you will pay less.
A NOTE OF PRECAUTION: Carry your valuables on with you, especially cash. Our luggage was opened and torn through between Antananarivo and Nosy Be while flying Tsaradia Air and a camera lens was stolen. Tsaradia Air has not been particularly proactive about doing anything about this.
Bluespotted ribbontail stingray
Some travelers fly first to Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo before heading to Ankify by car. The roads throughout Madagascar are notoriously poorly maintained., so if you choose to travel by car, you are probably looking at 19-24 hours of bumpy road travel.
You will have to go to by car or catch a public taxi-brousse from the bus station in Antananarivo. Renting a car, or hiring a private taxi is expensive, more expensive than the 100 bucks I spent to fly. Taxi-brousse (mini-bus) are dirt cheap, even if you do have to buy a second seat for your luggage. They are also intended to fit no more than 15 people but be sure if more people or things can be crammed in with you, they will be.
If you are up for an adventure this is probably the way to go, unless you can find some other tourists willing to chip in for a shared car. Here is a brief write up I found by some folks that took the journey from the bus station in Antanarivo to Ankify by taxi-brousse.
Slowest boat (90-minutes) – 6,000 Ariary (USD 1.60)
Slow boat (maybe 1-hour) – 9,000 Ariary (USD 2.40)
Shared speed boat (up to 20 people) – 13,000 Ariary (USD 3.50)
Private speed boat – 80,000 Ariary (USD 21.40)
NOTE OF PRECAUTION: Don’t accept help from local guys claiming to be ticket agents or somehow associated with the sales of tickets. This is just a hussle. They will ask you for a kick-down simply for showing you to the ticket booth. Don't interact with them, find the booth on your own and definitely don’t give anyone your passport.