Stick to the Code
For many an eco-adventurer, swimming with whale sharks in Madagascar is the hot bucket list item of the moment. Here’s why…
1) Sometimes it’s good to feel small. Weighing in at 12 tons and reaching up to 60 feet in length or more, the whale shark is the largest fish in the sea. No need to worry, however: you’re definitely not on the menu. Despite their enormous mouths and thousands of teeth, whale sharks eat only microorganisms.
2) It’s wet and warm – whale sharks prefer temperate, tropical waters. They are pelagic, living in the open sea but not in the greatest depths of the ocean. You can choose to swim with these epic water beasts in the welcoming waters off Mexico, Honduras, Philippines and Madagascar.
3) You can keep up – with an average swim speed of 3MPH and already accustomed swimming alongside humans, these gentle giants are very docile creatures. Whale sharks are filter feeders and swim close to the surface, scooping up plankton and any other tiny sea-dwellers they can get into their colossal mouths.
4) Shock and awe – like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two whale sharks are alike. In fact, each has its own distinctive pattern of pale-yellow spots and stripes.
All that said, it’s critical to swim in our lane. Enter Stella Diamant, a keen adventurer, wildlife photographer and biologist by training who has become a whale-shark champion. Belgian native Stella founded the Madagascar Whale Shark Project (MWSP) in 2018, setting up an educational program for local children, recruiting Malagasy staff and implementing a code of conduct in Nosy Be. To date, Stella and the MWSP team have identified more than 300 different whale sharks while guiding eco-adventurers from around the world through a whale shark swimming experience that is safe for human and shark alike.
What threatens the biggest shark in the world? Sadly, plastic pollution, boat collisions, bycatch, targeted illegal fisheries and climate change. Sightings of the majestic animal have been declining since 2005 off Mozambique, where a study was being done. No data is available about the population decline or increase in Madagascar, yet Stella and the dedicated team at MWSO are working to change all that in the future.
In response, the country’s conservation efforts and responsible tourism practices are steadily improving. It is critical to choose a responsible operator who promotes a safe and respectful swimming with whale shark experience. Thankfully, the Madagascar Whale Shark Project has made it easier to choose wisely and swim smart.
Designed to ensure better cohabitation between humans and whale sharks, the CODE OF CONDUCT advise boats and swimmers how to help protect whale sharks and their sustainable future. Diamant explains, “Adopting a code of conduct for swimming with whale sharks in Madagascar is about minimizing significant risks for sharks and humans while maximizing the guest experience. Our respectful approach to engaging with whale sharks promotes a relaxed atmosphere between operators and provides clients with a life-changing experience.”
This American Revel Traveler has made a $25 donation to the MWSP and encourages your support to help gather more data, educate and inspire others to launch their own conservation efforts. We’ve got something for all speeds –
Name and adopt a whale shark with a one-time contribution to the Madagascar Whale Shark Project. This includes naming rights, for life. You’ll receive monthly updates each season about your shark, as well as regular newsletter and a certificate by mail. For options please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
JUST DO IT
Whale shark season is Nosy Be runs from September to December; the best time to see them is in October and November (along with humpback whales). Join Stella and her team for a day in the water to swim with whale sharks. For private trips with Stella and her team, please email at email@example.com.
STATE OF SUSTAINABLE GRACE
The Galapagos archipelago is an awe-inspiring, one-of-a-kind destination. No other place on Earth offers travelers the opportunity to get so close to such a wide variety of wildlife, sea life, and gorgeous landscapes.
Since the islands were first discovered in 1535, a large number of species have been introduced by humans – often before we understood the impact they would have on the natural ecosystem. Some were deliberately brought to the islands for agricultural and aesthetic purposes (such as chickens, cows, dogs, ornamental plants), while others were introduced unintentionally, including rats and various insects and pathogens. Today there are estimated to be almost 1,500 introduced species in the Galapagos Islands.
Quasar Expeditions – a UK-based luxury adventure outfit – is doing something about it.
While a trip to the Galapagos is certainly not just about the boat you take, that vessel can either detract from or enhance the experience of your adventure—which is why picking the right one is so important. Quasar Expeditions offers luxury cruises through the Galapagos Islands on their newly renovated yachts, the M/V Evolution and the M/Y Grace (formerly owned by Grace Kelly).
Sleeping just 18 guests, the uber-chic M/Y Grace comes complete with 360-degree decks and panoramic windows. The cruises operate on seven-night itineraries, allowing guests to get up close and personal with the islands’ amazing scenery and animals through snorkeling, swimming and kayaking. Not stopping at sexy and sophisticated, Quasar is inspired by the sensitive ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands and proudly operates with an impressive commitment to responsible tourism.
The Galapagos National Park system consists of approximately 95% of the 13 volcanic islands and associated islets west of Ecuador. Together they are home to one of the most evolutionarily significant environments in the world – one conservationists are working hard to protect. It’s a process that’s vital for the longevity of hundreds of exceptional species and one that’s managed together with the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS).
The company also supports the Galapagos Scouts, a group dedicated to the children of the Galapagos, providing them with the resources needed for conservation education, and it has begun working with scientists and activists in stopping the tragic sport of shark finning.
One of Quasar’s key partners on the ground is Godfrey Merlen, a local biologist committed to the conservation of wildlife on the islands. Originally from the UK, he moved to the Galapagos more than 45 years ago to work as a volunteer researcher. Since then, he’s worked for the National Park Service and other conservation agencies to positively and dramatically affect the state of flora and fauna throughout the islands – including aiding in the creation of the Galapagos Whale Sanctuary, working to develop the Special Law for the Galapagos and fighting illegal fishing in the Galapagos. These days, Merlen is working with the Galapagos National Park to control, limit and eliminate the risk of any further invasive species entering the islands. Efforts range from scanning every visitor’s bag on arrival and departure from the islands, to capturing and removing existing invasive mammals and plants.
Most recently renovated in 2017, the Grace and Evolution now include the latest technology in water treatment plants to protect the waters of Galapagos. “White” waters like shower and sink runoff go to a treatment plant that removes residues and large particles. In addition, all amenities onboard are biodegradable and non-toxic.
Quasar’s two yachts are also both single-use plastic free. They don’t use plastic straws and don’t serve any food or sweets in single-use wrappers. Drinking water comes from a desalinization plant that then purifies the water and adds minerals to make it drinkable. Guests are given their own stainless steel water bottles to refill daily at the water purifiers for their excursions.
Organic waste from the yachts is separated from non-organic by Quasar staff daily. The non-organic waste is partially recycled in Puerto Ayora’s recycling plant and the rest is stored to be returned to the mainland on one of the rubbish ships.
Quasar is currently compensating for 50% of the carbon emissions of its two ships with a reforestation effort in the Amazon of Brazil.
For more information visit https://www.quasarex.com/galapagos
GIVE AND TAKE
There is hope emerging from conservation efforts in Namibia, and the story of the Zannier Reserve is one of the most inspiring. The reserve was initially intended for development into an urban area, but thanks to the joint intervention of international athlete-turned physician Rudie van Vuuren and his wife Marlice and the Zannier family, the land has been converted into a pristine conservation area. Set on a 7,500-hectare, family-owned swath of land, the Zannier Reserve is blessed with a great biodiversity of habitat and wildlife.
Meet “the Cheetah Whisperer,” Marlice van Vuuren, a native Namibian woman who was raised with an abundance of love for Namibian bush. She has dedicated her life to the conservation of the magnificent animals and people who make Namibia the unique country that it is. Marlice grew up surrounded by the orphaned and injured animals on her parents’ farm where, for more than 30 years, all creatures in need of desperate care have found a haven and the loving touch they so desperately need.
In 2000 Marlice married her perfect match, Dr. Rudie van Vuuren, a man sharing her love for Namibia, its oft-threatened animal species and unique people. Together they founded N/a’an ku sê Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary, Namibia’s only charity lodge, a place where the conservation of animals and culture are interlinked. And true to its name, N/a’an ku sê means “God will Protect us” in that beautiful San language.
Located inside the Zannier Reserve, the N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary provides a safe haven and second chance for countless injured, orphaned and conflict animals. More than just a “run-of-the mill” game reserve, it is a vibrant, dynamic sanctuary that plays an active conservation role in Namibia. An impressive 120 carnivores have been rescued and released in the wild by Naankuse in 10 years!
In accordance with Namibian law as stipulated by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), using captive large carnivores for breeding is strictly forbidden, as is the touching them. At N/a’an ku sê, human contact is limited with large carnivores earmarked for potential release, as habituation of any kind can lower their survival chances in the wild. The Sanctuary’s motto to keep the wild in the wild where possible, and to return the wild to the wild if circumstances allow. Whenever possible, animals are released into suitable habitats – from the smallest meerkat to the largest leopard. Only animals too ill, abused or habituated remain at the sanctuary.
With its outstanding reputation, it’s no wonder visitors from all corners of the globe come to N/a’an ku sê Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary in search of enrichment through its impressive volunteering opportunities, which can last anywhere from two weeks to three months at five different sites around the country. Wildlife Conservation Volunteers provide an important resource in caring for and feeding the animals on a daily basis, as well as, helping to maintain and develop the sanctuary. Volunteers feed the animals, take them on walks, prepare the animals food and help with any other projects that may arise at the sanctuary. Although the focus is hands-on animal welfare, there are also educational and recreational activities for volunteers, and all fees help sustain the Foundation’s ongoing work. After all, all work and no play is a big “no no” at N/a’an ku sê.
Looking for the perfect place to treat yourself after “doing good” at N/a’an ku sê? Just a short distance away, Namibia’s newest luxury adventure lodge, Omaanda by Zannier Hotels, offers discerning guests not only front-row access to Namibia’s most emblematic wildlife, but also serious rest and relaxation. The experience comes complete with 10 well-appointed round thatched huts along with a cozy bar, spa, boutique and heated infinity pool overlooking the majestic savannah. Guests can take advantage of twice-daily excursions and safaris to top-off their thirst for adventure, including VIP access to N/a’an ku sê and the Shiloh Wildlife Sanctuary.
Photos and Sources: The Omaanda Lodge by Zannier Hotels; N/a’an ku sê Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary; The African Wildlife Foundation
THE AQUALFILES ASIA
Liquid luxury lovers are always looking for new ways to peel back the ocean’s mysterious layers. Trouble is, they all seem to involve getting soaked, fighting your way into a wetsuit or butting against the limits of human speed, lung capacity and temperature sensitivity.
The Four Seasons Maldives Landaa Giraavaru is the first resort in the world to launch DeepFlight Adventures, a submarine excursion for up to two guests (plus a pilot) to explore the Maldives’ only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Baa Atoll. The DeepFlight Super Falcon 3S features individual viewing domes so passengers can enjoy 360-degree views of this incredible underwater world, reaching depths up to 37 meters (120 feet). The battery-powered vessel produces minimized electric and acoustic emissions, so the sub glides unobtrusively through the turquoise blue waters, over reefs and alongside teeming schools of fish or marine mammals. The hour-long DeepFlight Adventures excursion is the latest, most enviable way to immerse yourself in the breathtaking majesty of the Indian Ocean – no bathing suit required.
World renowned for its pristine beaches and breathtaking array of blue hues, the Maldives is home to some of the richest coral reefs in the world; a safe haven for many threatened species, including the world’s largest population of reef manta rays. Manta and devil rays, known collectively as mobulids, are some of the most beautiful, fascinating and enigmatic creatures in our oceans. Landaa Giraavaru is just 20 minutes from one of the world’s most renowned manta ray hotspots – Hanifaru Bay. Every year between June and October, the lunar tides and monsoon currents trap high concentrations of plankton in the bay’s steep side, attracting manta rays and whale sharks from all over the Maldives.
Mantas are some of the largest and most intelligent animals in the sea, reaching up to seven meters in width and weighing up to two tons. Their complex behaviors set them apart from other fish, but much of their lives remain a mystery.
Formed in 2011, the Manta Trust is a UK- and US-registered charity that coordinates global mobulid research and conservation efforts. The Trust’s expert team is comprised of a diverse group of researchers, scientists, conservationists, educators and media experts. The mission? Working together to conserve mobulid rays, their relatives and their habitats, through a combination of research, education and collaboration.
The Manta Trust’s conservation efforts now extend across the globe, but the Maldives is where it all started. Founded by Senior Marine Biologist Dr. Guy Stevens, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP) is the charity’s flagship research project. After more than a decade of research across this island nation, together with the support of Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru and Save Our Seas, the MMRP has amassed the largest number of identified manta rays on record anywhere in the world, combining new discoveries with active conservation and education.
Despite their colossal presence, mantas are gentle creatures. They have the largest brain of all fish, and their intelligence and curiosity make encounters with manta rays a truly magical experience. Four Seasons Maldives aims to excite, educate and spark action through a greater understanding of these legendary marine wonders.
When you sign up for the Manta-on-Call service, you’ll be contacted immediately when manta rays are sighted near the resort. Once you get the call, you can hop on a speedboat to embark on an unforgettable adventure with experts from The Manta Trust. If you love to get wet, take a swim with these gentle sea giants or free-dive into the Indian Ocean to observe them in their natural underwater habitat.
Determined to stay dry? You can still see it all from the luxurious comfort of the DeepFlight Super Falcon’s personal pressurized – and air-conditioned! – cockpit. Passengers also enjoy real-time ray educational commentary from the knowledgeable pilot throughout the tour. (Unconfirmed whether or not The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” features in the journey.)
Sources: The Manta Trust; Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru
Photo: Water Villa with Pool: Ken Skeet; Four Seasons Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru
Photo: Two-Bedroom Water Suite, Four Seasons Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru; Photographer Ken Seet
Photo: DeepFlight Super Falcon 3S, Four Seasons Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru; Photographer Don Riddle
At the most basic level, a guide is a person who advises or shows the way to others. In practice, however, being a guide is more than a profession; it is an art that requires creativity, enthusiasm, love for all living things and a lot of patience. To the best of the best out there (you know who you are), the American Revel Traveler says thank you!
Meet GodBless Mamuya.
“Isn’t that enormous heard of elephants a little close?” I asked my guide. In his kind and reassuring way, GodBless whispered back, “We respect the animals and so they will respect you.”
As with any profession, safari guides bring their individual strengths, personality and style to the job. Of course, it begins with enhanced knowledge of wildlife, habitat and everything that falls under that, including conservation, behavior and so much more. And guiding includes the need for exceptional people skills in order to understand the dynamics of dealing with different guests and managing their individual needs and expectations. An exceptional guide doesn’t just find wildlife; he/she makes the moments leading up to the encounter effortless, interesting and enjoyable.
GodBless fits the bill as a world-class specialist who knows his trade, understands the landscape, enjoys people and is proficient at every aspect of his job. Having attended tourism college in Arusha, his native city, GodBless first began his extensive training in tourism and hospitality with Africa’s premier luxury outfit, the Elewana Collection, nearly five years ago.
The origin of the name Elewana is the Swahili word meaning “harmony”, a concept that perfectly embodies GodBless, and I will always remember his kindness and wisdom as he guided me and my fellow travelers through Tarangire National Park during a recent stay at the Elewana Collection’s Tarangire Treetops luxury property. During one of our many effortless conversations, he passionately described how Elewana’s Life & Land Foundation is the company’s commitment to responsible tourism, ensuring future generations can enjoy the wonders of Africa and safari adventure.
With the support from The Life & Land Foundation, Honey Guide Foundation manages the Program which focuses on reducing human-elephant conflict through methods of crop protection for local landowners in the Randilen Wildlife Management Area of Tanzania. Elephants frequently leave Randilen and Tarangire National Park to raid crops grown in the villages north of Randilen. This risks not only the livelihoods of local farmers, but also the lives of the elephants themselves, as people often target them with spears to protect their crops. This often creates a negative attitude towards wildlife and conservation among the villagers hence the necessity for a Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation Program.
As part of the Program, Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) Toolkits are provided for farmers to deter elephants from raiding. GodBless’ knowledge and care for his surroundings and the wildlife in Tarangire actually inspired me to make a donation, in the form of a badly needed Elephant Horn, one of five key interventions in the HEC Toolkit used to redirect elephants, thus protecting crops and reducing conflict. The horn humanely encourages the majestic animals to turn a different direction, removing them from harm’s way.
I learned so much from GodBless, but I know I only scratched the surface of this man who is so committed to his profession, his surroundings and the future of our planet.
The American Revel: Your name is very special. Where did it come from?
GodBless: My full name is GodBless Mamuya. It is a name that came from my grandfather. Before he died, he told me that he chose his name for me because it means, “the one who will come help people.”
TAR: Why did you become a Driving Guide?
GodBless: The bush is my office! I couldn’t think of a better place to spend my working day than at Treetops and in Tarangire National Park. I enjoy sharing my knowledge of nature and animals with visitors from all over the world. And I get to show them my beautiful country. I am very passionate about the wildlife and conserving the environment that we live and work in. Helping in any way to make sure humans and animals can coexist successfully is very important to me.
TAR: What do you love about Tarangire National Park?
GodBless: The management of the Tarangire National Park is amazing. I am inspired by the dedication of everyone involved in the protection of our wildlife and the enjoyment of our guests. The park is famous for its huge number of elephants, baobab trees and tree-climbing lions. Making a donation to the Land & Life Foundation for equipment and people to support the coexistence of the communities and the wildlife is always welcome.
TAR: When I visit your native Arusha, what should I do?
GodBless: When you visit Arusha, you might go to a small restaurant called Fifi. It has the best hot chocolate.
TAR: What would you like people to know who haven’t been to Tanzania before?
GodBless: Tanzania is a peaceful country with a diverse ecosystem, rich cultures, wildlife, beautiful scenery and warm, welcoming citizens. Warm during the day and cool at night, Tarangire Treetops is the most marvelous place to enjoy and get a good night’s rest on the planet – at least so our guests tell me!
TAR: If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
GodBless: I have always wanted to visit New York. After that, I’d see Dubai so I could see the Skyscrapers in person.
Produced by Corry Cook
Sources and Photos: Many thanks to: the Elewana Collection; The Life & Land Foundation.
“Conscious travel is a catalyst for social change.” So declares the website for Sweet Bocas, a luxury eco-retreat in Panama that puts serving its surrounding community on par with serving its well-heeled guests.
Set off the shore of its own private island in the pristine Bocas Del Toro archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast, Sweet Bocas offers a 15-acre all-inclusive retreat that pays homage to nature, sustainability, relaxation and style. The 20,000-square-foot, 7-bedroom, 3-story handcrafted overwater villa is the vision of former Montreal restaurateur Annick Belanger, who blended first-class amenities with unbeatable seclusion. The villa houses seven suites, a fully-equipped kitchen with culinary team, an espresso bar, entertainment-driven den, living and lounging areas, state-of-the-art gym, infinity pool and yoga studio. Additionally, two lakeside bamboo accommodations provide a tropical “glamping” experience under the stars.
An exclusive-use property available for one party at a time, it is ideal for those seeking a place to unwind with a group of family or friends. With virtually no neighbors in sight, guests of all ages can experience this private paradise independently or with assistance by the house concierge. That includes getting acquainted with the surrounding marine environment with full use of the 30-foot motor yacht and boats, as well as premium experiences like surfing with world-renowned pro Terry Simms. Of course, there’s plenty to do away from the water as well, including bat cave explorations, indigenous tribe encounters, shaman healing, and more. Speaking of the fruits of the land, the island’s own sustainable gardens, orchards and farms provide the bulk of the ingredients for meals prepared by a world-class in-house chef.[
Born in Canada and raised in Africa, Annick Belanger created this eco-paradise in order to provide a space for socially conscious travelers to truly engage. Sweet Bocas is a self-sustaining natural ecosystem, known as a permaculture, where sustainability is not just a buzzword. Commitment to guests is matched only by the commitment to the natural environment that envelops every aspect of guests’ stay, from the crystalline water, to the handcrafted teak house, to the farm’s handpicked produce and pure rainwater that guests consume.
That includes opportunities to visit local communities, participate in culturally immersive activities and leave a positive imprint on those that have called these sacred lands home since the beginning of time. Following the footsteps of her father, a pioneer and founder of trade schools and educational vocational programs that impacted many lives, Belanger believes education to be at the core of the mission at Sweet Bocas.
Under Belanger’s direction, Sweet Bocas operates its own Dreamcatcher Foundation, which works in partnership with local nonprofit Give & Surf to support education and sustainable empowerment for the indigenous community in Bocas del Toro. Prior to 2011, there was just one small primary school offering inadequate education in unsatisfactory facilities in the Bahia Honda region of Bocas del Toro.
Today, Give & Surf serves over 1,000 students per week in five indigenous and two local communities. The organization builds schools, staffs teachers, provides transportation to school (especially helpful as kids live in remote mangroves) and funds secondary education and university. More than 40 community development projects have been completed to benefit the communities of Bocas del Toro, with upgrades that include enhanced school buildings and a new community center.
In addition to letting guests shadow Give & Surf professionals during their stay, a stay at Sweet Bocas automatically includes a donation to the Dreamcatcher Foundation. Through the Foundation, the property is able to donate a percentage of every booking directly to Give & Surf.
All told, Sweet Bocas offers an out-of-this-world escape that packs a punch when it comes to positive social and environmental impact. Heaven? You bet!
Sources: Sweet Bocas; Give & Surf
Photos: Many thanks to: Sweet Bocas; Give & Surf; Nicholas Giombi For Photographers Without Borders 2015