Somali Pirates & 30 Humpbacks whales
Somali Pirates have made the route back to Europe via the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea very risky. As a result many yachts crossing the Indian Ocean now make a small northerly detour to discover one of the world's most wonderful cruising grounds – Madagascar – before heading south for the Cape of Good Hope.
Our three-day sail from Mauritius passed very comfortably as White Dragon surged along with 15-20 kts of wind well behind the beam.
As we approached the southerly end of Île Sainte-Marie excitement mounted on board as we eagerly anticipated sighting the humpback whales for which the island is famous. The whale season runs from July to Mid September - when the humpbacks gather to breed and give birth - and we hoped our arrival on the 2nd September would not be too late.
Our fears were dispelled when we saw the first humpback breach. This happened five miles before we even entered the channel that separates Île Sainte-Marie from mainland Madagascar. It’s the main area where the whales congregate.
Still two miles from the channel entrance, we could see whales ahead, behind and on both sides of White Dragon. We were surrounded by these huge animals jumping clear of the sea before crashing back into the water with a massive plume of water. Some were also tail slapping while others rolled. What a display! We saw 30 Humpback whales in the two hours it took us to enter the channel and run up to the quirky little town of Ambodifotatra on Île Sainte-Marie.
Clearing into Madagascar is a pretty hit and miss affair. The tourist information office sent us to government offices that had no idea what we wanted to do and only spoke French, which - despite my surname - I regrettably don't! After much gesticulating and dredging up what French I could remember - all to no avail - a very helpful young French lady called Emily came to the rescue. She told me I was in the wrong place and that I needed to go to the police station at the other end of town. Better still, she offered me a lift on the back of her bright pink Lambretta. We arrived just in time to find the police station shutting for lunch!
After a croissant and coffee lunch I attended the police station then set off to the 'port' to deal with the customs, immigration and coastguard. The coast guard wanted to come aboard at 09:00hrs the next morning - and arrived bang on time in the customs two stroke cutter!
Although the whole process was time consuming - taking up about a day - everyone was very helpful and pleased that we had visited their country and town. No bribes were required and a receipt (with several stamps and signatures) was provided for costs charged by the officials. Regrettably this is not the case in Nosy Be where the officials will charge or expect a 'gift' to issue clearance forms that clearly state 'free of charge'. But more on Nosy Be later.
The following two days we headed out into the channel to see the whales. And we were not disappointed. They were everywhere - mostly mothers and calves - and on several occasions we watched magnificent displays by groups of up to 15 whales. Other species of whale do apparently visit Île Sainte-Marie; but we only saw humpbacks on this visit. We scuba dived several times hoping to see the whales. We were out of luck, but the sound of their songs underwater was incredible. We could clearly hear the deep rumbling sound of the mother being answered by a high-pitched whine from the calf.
Pirate Graveyards & More Great Food
Île Sainte-Marie has some fascinating history. It was the homeport for Captain Kidd and dozens of other pirates so we had to make the short trip out of town to see the famous pirates graveyard. Captain Kidd himself wasn't buried there; but this ancient graveyard is the resting place of many less notorious pirates. Our guide explained that whilst they were pirates in Great Britain, they were heroes here. They brought wealth and prosperity to this remote area of Madagascar.
There is an eclectic mix of good French style cafes and restaurants – and there’s also poverty. But we were not hassled or begged from. In the market we could get good fruit, vegetables and Madagascan spices of all sorts. Meat, fish, prawns and squid were fresh, plentiful and cheap - so we stocked up our depleted fridges and freezer. We had caught some excellent wahoo, tuna and mahi-mahi on our crossing so we didn't need the fish. But the prawns and calamari were welcome additions and very good.
For our last evening we jumped into a bright yellow Tut-Tut and visited Chez Nath - the lovely bungalow hotel and restaurant owned by my clearance guide and Lambretta chauffeuse Emily. It’s just a mile or so out of town and I'm sure it's the best restaurant in the area. We enjoyed a variety of tapas and then grilled zebu; which looks like a cross between a cow and a water buffalo. Zebu is finer grain than beef and is very tasty. Along with a few tots of first class local rum, it made our last evening in Île Sainte-Marie a great success.
We stopped at Île Sainte-Marie for five days and enjoyed every moment.
It's a real ‘must do’ detour to see the congregation of whales. It surpasses any whale sightings elsewhere in the world. The people of Île Sainte-Marie are also to be commended because the tourist industry they have developed is presented in a low-key no-pressure and hassle-free way. I would certainly fully recommend a visit here.