DIVE TRAVEL – Nosy Sakatia, Nosy Be

In this article: Exploring Sakatia IslandSnorkeling with Green Sea TurtlesTraveling There | Scuba DivingMadagascar’s WildlifeSnorkelling & Excursions

I have to lift my legs off the burning seat, the warm air from outside rushes into the bumping van through the vents on full blast. The aircon is on but there’s no sign of cool air. Travelers are excitedly chattering, wide eyes taking in the new surroundings of the tropical island life playing through our windows. It's a long 50-minute drive from the airport on a narrow winding road through the villages, plantations, and forests of Nosy Be. 

We watch locals go about their daily lives, and then the village ends and tropical plants and tall trees appear. Now and then, a new village pops up, dotted with small stalls lining the roadside, selling various items. We drive by plantations of strangely bent trees. Madagascar is a world-renowned Ylang-Ylang producer.

Here, time seems to drag its feet. This is great when you’re on holiday, lest it goes by too fast like the pictures swiftly passing our windows.

Exploring Nosy Sakatia Island

Nosy Sakatia is a small island that can easily be reached with a 10-minute boat ride across a narrow channel from Nosy Be. The island is quite impressive for such a small place, offering all sorts of interesting wildlife encounters. 

Panther Chameleon (Furcifer pardalis)

Quietly drifting around in the lodge garden, chameleons and neon-colored geckos caught my eye. I decided never to leave my room without my camera. Early in the morning, and around sunset, the local lemurs can be seen playing in the branches and calling in the tall trees. At night you hear their calls.

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Black lemur (Eulemur macaco)

A sacred mountain graces the island, it’s completely overgrown with a forest and no one ever enters there. This creates an untouched sanctuary for the local wildlife to thrive.

A large seagrass patch in the shallow water next to the sacred mountain has been deemed a sea turtle sanctuary. The variety of sealife that can be found on and around this patch is wonderful.

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The sacred mountain on Sakatia Island.

Snorkeling with Green Sea Turtles

After our second dive, we arrive back to a sun-beaten beach at low tide. Happily treading the long way in the shallow water back to the lodge, feeling a bit tired and lazy.

We hardly finished our lunch before the clear warm water started calling us back again. We asked around and the guide said 3 o’clock would be a good time to go see the sea turtles. He will take us there by boat. We try to take a quick nap before we go.

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Divers returning from a dive.

A short boat trip around the seagrass patch gets us there and the skipper immediately starts pointing out the turtles in the water. I get my snorkel gear on, fiddle with a weight belt and finally grab my camera, the last one to enter the water. The visibility is clear, the late afternoon sun is shining in through the surface like long sharp fingers reaching down into the water. What a magical and surreal scene this creates.

This is a super comfortable snorkel experience that anybody can enjoy. The water is comfortably warm and not more than 1.5 meters deep. Unless you swim farther out. There are patches of coral reef surrounding the seagrass patch which is deeper and beautiful to explore.

I’m called over to a spot where Marius found a turtle feeding. We approach him slowly, a large male calmly grazing on the seagrass. As I dive down to be at eye level with him, I see him staring back at me. I give him space and stay quiet and calm as I position myself to take a few shots of him. I don’t want to scare him off or impose on his feeding. But he doesn’t seem to be bothered about me.

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A large Green Sea Turtle in the shallows.

He is massive. How old is he and what has he seen and experienced, I wonder. I would love to write that story.

I take a few pictures and then we move on. We keep bumping into more turtles as we swim along exploring the area.

The amount of turtles we encounter is pleasantly surprising. This also goes to show that their conservation efforts are working.

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Some of the smaller individuals are more skittish, they move off at the slightest approach. The large turtles are calm and tolerant of us humans. They appear to have learned they are safe here.

I didn’t want to leave this place. But finally, we decided to return to the boat. The sacred mountain cast its long shadow across the sea grass patch leaving me with too little light to take pictures.

This is a highlight of the island. It’s truly an exceptional experience.

Traveling There

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Direct flights out of Johannesburg to Nosy Be International Airport are available. Once you land it's about an hour's taxi ride to where you meet the boats to take you across to Sakatia Island. The travel is not strenuous but very relaxed.

We were greeted on our arrival by the friendly staff of Sakatia Lodge, once welcomed, everyone got settled in their rooms. Dive briefings are at 6 pm in the lodge restaurant. It’s a beautiful lodge nestled into a corner at the foot of the sacred mountain.

Scuba Diving

Diving off Sakatia Island is varied with many options. The dive sites heavily depend on the tides as well as the currents. The diving here is relaxed. Walking in the shallow water to the boat where all the gear has already been loaded for us. Cruizing on a calm sea to the dive sites with the deep blue water whisking past.

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Divers ready to leave for the morning dive.

Open Water certified divers would be comfortable diving here and there are many dive sites available for diving within your certification and skill limits.

Deeper reefs and wrecks will only be for Advanced Open Water divers. Most of these dives require comfort and skill to descend quickly. This is to prevent you from being swept away by the top current. It takes up too much of the group’s air to swim back to the reef if they’ve been swept off it by the top current. So, when a diver does not descend quickly with the group, the whole group needs to surface and get back on the boat. The boat will then take the divers back to the reef and drop them off again.

Diving on the Inside of Sakatia Island

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The small channel between Nosy Be and Sakatia Island is sheltered. These conditions allow you to dive here most of the time. The visibility may not always be as good here, compared to the dives on the outside of the island. When I say ‘not good’ visibility, it means it’s slightly milky or down to 15 meters visibility. In my book, this still makes for an amazing dive.

These dive sites are close by, very easily accessed, and beautiful. The reef is covered with varied corals and lively tropical fish as well as interesting small animals such as the ornate ghost pipefish, cowfish, cuttlefish, whip coral gobies, nudibranchs, and seahorses can be found here.

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Wire Coral Goby (Bryaninops yongei)

Many orange and green color whip corals swirl up into the blue everywhere, different hard and soft corals and beautiful swaying sea anemones that provide homes for various species of anemone fish can be seen here.

These dive sites are on the shallow side ranging from 10 to 17 meters.

Diving on the Outside of Sakatia Island

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The beautiful colors of the coral on the deep reefs.

When diving on the outer side of the island, you leave the sheltered inside channel and move around to the Mozambique Channel. Here the dive sites are a little deeper and diving heavily relies on the currents.

Drift dives can be done here, which is a great experience. It’s a wonderful feeling to weightlessly and effortlessly glide over the vast expanse of the reefs. Hardly ever having to fin throughout the entire dive. If you haven’t done this before I would recommend it.

These dive sites boast vibrant reefs with large plate corals and gorgonian sea fans decorating the colorful underwater landscape.

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A diver with a large sea fan.

Large schools of yellow snapper graces the reef like a yellow tornado spinning upward toward the water surface. Smaller schools of barracudas zip past like silver darts and rush over the reef away into the blue. Small schools of dotted sweetlips shyly hide under the giant plate corals. A trickle of dotted snappers flows through the reef expanse like a little yellow river.

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A large school of snappers on a deep reef.

All the usual smaller sightings like the mantis shrimp, scorpion fish, paper fish with beautiful colors, and flathead flatfish are to be found here.

It was otherworldly listening to whales conversing throughout some of our dives. It makes one feel quite small. Immersed in their world, I imagined characters from the different voices heard. Perhaps a mom with loud and deep vocalizations followed by her baby’s shrill smaller sounds.

I felt ecstatic. Looking up into the blue ever so often. Because maybe, just maybe today, we look up and there they are. Unfortunately, they never materialized out of the vast blue expanse, but listening to their conversations was a treat on its own.

Madagascar’s Wildlife

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Mouse Lemurs (Genus Microcebus).

Madagascar’s wildlife is renowned for its exceptional diversity and uniqueness, over 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth, including iconic species like lemurs, fossas, and chameleons.

WHALES

There is a wonderful array of whales that one can encounter off the coast of Madagascar, making this a prime destination for whale watching.

Among the most common are humpback whales. They migrate here to the warm waters of Madagascar’s eastern coast to breed and calve. They gradually start arriving around July and remain around Nosy Be until November. The high season is between August and October. These majestic giants are known for their acrobatic displays, including breaching and tail slapping.

Additionally, sperm whales, Bryde’s whales, and occasionally blue whales can be spotted in the deeper offshore waters. Madagascar’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean makes it a vital habitat for these magnificent marine mammals, contributing to the island’s allure as a wildlife hotspot.

LAND ANIMALS

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Madagascar Ground Boa (Acrantophis madagascariensis), found in a tree on our forest walk.

Madagascar has a diverse landscape, ranging from lush rainforests to arid spiny forests, fostering a variety of specialized adaptations among its fauna. The absence of large predators has allowed for the increase of unusual species such as the aye-aye and the bizarre leaf-tailed gecko.

Some of the smallest described lizards can be found here, like the Minute Leaf Chameleon (see below). This little guy is smaller than most insects and reaches a maximum total length of 3.4 cm (1.3 in) for females and 2.8 cm (1.1 in) for males.

Madagascar is a significant global hotspot for biodiversity.

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Minute Leaf Chameleon (Brookesia minima), is the third-smallest lizard ever described.

SEA TURTLES

Madagascar’s coastal waters are home to several species of sea turtles, including the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle, the endangered Green turtle, and the vulnerable Loggerhead turtle. Madagascar serves as an important nesting ground for these turtles.

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Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata).

However, threats such as poaching, habitat destruction, and accidental capture in fishing gear pose significant challenges to their survival. Conservation efforts, including protected marine areas and community-based initiatives, are vital to safeguarding Madagascar’s sea turtle populations for future generations.

WHALE SHARKS

Whale sharks frequent Madagascar’s coastal waters, they are the biggest fish in the ocean. These gentle giants, known for their distinctive spotted patterns and enormous size, can often be spotted near the surface, particularly in the waters surrounding Nosy Be.

Madagascar serves as an important seasonal feeding ground for these migratory sharks, drawn by the abundance of plankton and small fish.

Snorkelers and divers are treated to unforgettable encounters with these awe-inspiring creatures, which can reach lengths of up to 12 meters or more. Despite their immense size, whale sharks are harmless filter feeders, posing no threat to humans.

Conservation efforts, including research initiatives and responsible tourism practices, are essential to protecting these animals.

They can be seen around the island of Nosy Be between the end of September and December.

Snorkelling & Excursions

As mentioned before, there is a turtle sanctuary off of Sakatia Island. It can be reached by walking there if the tide is low and at high tide, you can swim out, although it can be quite a swim. The boat will also take snorkelers around to the area in the afternoons.

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Bright and beautiful trinkets sold at local markets.

Numerous excursions are available to other islands, for fishing, snorkeling, and to a wildlife preserve area on Nosy Be, to name a few.

This vacation lingered with me, it’s truly left its mark. We will most certainly return to explore more of Madagascar. A nature and marine life enthusiast’s paradise.

We Protect what we Love. Join the movement!

by Madelein Wolfaardt
Images ©️ by @sealife_madeleinwolf

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