WITH FLAPS OF ITS VIBRANT WINGS, Madagascar has flitted in and out of my thoughts for some time now. Perhaps I’ve watched the animated film, or that BBC documentary, one too many times. Either way, I suspect that I don’t fantasise alone.
Since bolting from Africa 135 million years ago and Asia 88 million years back, Madagascar has been left to its own evolutionary devices.
In its isolation, a cauldron of biodiversity has simmered, conjuring up such species as the giraffe-necked weevil, leaf-nosed snake, Parson’s chameleon and helmet vanga. Like 80% of the animals found in Madagascar, these creatures exist nowhere else.
While the pin-up species of Malagasy tourism, such as cutesy lemurs and colour-shifting chameleons, may grab the headlines, the animals in which I was most interested come out of the blue. Much like its sacred forests and expansive deserts, the multi-coloured fingers of Madagascar’s coral reefs have long been beckoning.
A less well-known dive destination than neighbouring Mozambique, these Indian Ocean waters rarely drop below 25°C and offer year-round good visibility. The opportunity exists to see dolphins, whales, sharks and mantas, along with a wide array of macro life.
In which case, why does this large island remain off our nautical radar
To answer this question, I was off to wet my dreams in Madagascar, my castle in the sky.
The island of Nosy Be, meaning “big island” in Malagasy, is the country’s most popular tourist haunt.
Located five miles off its north-western coast, this volcanic island is a springboard to Madagascar’s best dive sites, and a good way of exploring these sites is by dive liveaboard.
The normal schedule of a liveaboard goes something like this: wake, eat breakfast, dive, go fishing, dive, have siesta, eat fresh fish, dive, eat more delicious morsels, drink cocktails, sleep happily. They’re shamelessly indulgent, and I love them.

I ARRIVED WITH GIRLFRIEND Gemma and documentary-maker Chris Scarffe in
tow ready to catch two liveaboards, one north, one south. Our first trip was to the Mitsio Archipelago, a series of silver basalt islands some 40 miles north of Nosy Be.
Our vehicle, home and dive centre for the week was Gecko, an 11m catamaran owned
and operated by the impeccable Harriet of MadagasCat Charters and Travel.
“It’s a raw experience, diving the Mitsios,” explained Jacques Viera, our dive guide for the week and dive manager of Sakatia Lodge.
“You’ll hardly see any other divers or boats during the trip, so if you like empty seas but still want to see big fish, we should have a good trip.”
Our first couple of days were spent diving the Four Brothers. Nesting seabirds including frigatebirds and gannets were the primary inhabitants of these grand islands, and we were treated to large schools of game fish. Toothy barracuda torpedoed past us, along with some sizeable (delicious-looking) kingfish. The walls were dashed with large black coral trees, sea-fans and whip coral.
Tragically malproportioned pufferfish flapped their little fins in successful attempts to avoid my lens. And as hawksbill turtles nonchalantly chowed the unappetising-looking coral, emperor angelfish lit up the reef. So far, so good.
My favourite dive in the Mitsios, however, was at a shallow site, the childishly giggle-inducing Two Tits.
This abstract painting of a dive site plied us with a fishy feast, in crystal clear conditions. It reminded me of diving in Asia’s pregnant waters, a site packed full of life and colour, plus dramatic rock formations, gullies and swim-throughs.
Large friendly batfish pursued us throughout and a big old brindle bass sullenly gave us the eye, before skulking past. A smorgasbord of tropical fish smeared neon trails over the reef.

BETWEEN DIVES WE WERE TREATED to some serious humpback-whale action, as a succession of mothers and calves breached in front of Gecko.
When they concluded their show, I slipped into the water as a pod of around 40 bottlenose dolphins powered past, their movements so fluid and majestic that they could have been generated by special effects experts.
The dive site Manta Reef lived up to its name, as a 4m ray, with flaps of her giant wings, circled the cleaning station, where obliging fish nibbled parasites off her.
We moved on from beauty to the beast. At the site Seven Little Sharks, we bumped into a giant, aesthetically challenged humphead parrotfish, which looked like the lovechild of a parrotfish and John Merrick, the Elephant Man.
The site Banc Louis was swamped by schooling fish such as pickhandle barracuda and blue-finned kingfish, along with crocodilefish and a blue-spotted sting ray.
Finally, the nearby wreck at Mahavelana provided a much-needed breather from all the animal action.
We left Gecko with bodies soothed, eyes gleaming. It was time for a week on land before our next liveaboard to the southerly Radames Islands.
From Gecko we made our way to Ambatoloaka village, the main tourist haunt in Nosy Be. Ambatoloaka consists of a dense strip of restaurants and bars, with decent options for accommodation and dining.
An idyllic, palm-fringed beach was peppered with traditional boats, dive vessels and luxury catamarans.While the ubiquitous tourist tat was peddled on the beach, refreshingly sellers were always polite and never pushy.
English is not spoken widely in Nosy Be, but a good deal of gesticulating and s’il vous plaits or non mercis go far.
Our trip to Madagascar’s most decorated destination for dive junkies was with dive centre Oceane’s Dream.
But before this, manager Paul, scuba’s own Gerard Depardieu, took us to dive at Tanikely marine reserve.
Lying just a short boat-ride away, Nosy Tanikely is the most popular day trip out of Nosy Be, and is lined with a beautiful beach (if you can block out the splattering of silver-haired French men donning tight speedos).
Well-policed by diligent park rangers, marine life flourishes here, making it a great shallow dive and snorkelling site.
Members of this giant marine eco-system inhabited, ate and darted through a coral buffet of what resembled mushrooms, sausages and cauliflower, all served up on giant polyp plates.
Having had our fill of “nice” diving, we prepared ourselves for our outing aboard Lady Corsica, a 13m catamaran.
Our dive guide for this trip was Donatien, an über-chilled and likeable French dude who lived for diving.
Asked what he would be if not a dive instructor, Donatien looked at me quizzically and shrugged.

MUCH LIKE THE MITSIOS, the Radames is renowned for hardcore, deep diving. The cutesy marine life of Tanikely would be a distant dream. It is also home to the notorious Greg’s Wall, perhaps Madagascar’s best-known dive site.
Devastatingly, a mask mix-up ensured that my dive there was spent in foggy ignorance. I saw what I believed to be our first lionfish of the trip, dramatically silhouetted among the giant fans, though for all I knew it could have been Aslan himself. And then maybe a couple of mobulas I gave up speculating.
Chris and Gemma’s assurances that the site was topographically breathtaking offered scant consolation.
Three Rocks was a wall dive similar to Greg’s Wall, replete with sea-fans.
It supplied me with my favourite photo of the trip: a diver silhouetted among the skeletal fans.
This image, to me, epitomised the deep diving in Madagascar; the feeling of isolation and insignificance among dramatic coral formations.
Our evening was spent at Baramahamay, a small fishing village where traditional boats are produced. Baramahamay is also famous for its lemurs and mangrove crabs which, cooked in a rich curry sauce, didn’t disappoint.
Next morning we dived South Canyon. This contained a greater diversity of fish than any other site we had dived in Madagascar: some big-conked unicornfish, a lippy potato bass, sleek mobulas, shimmering scribbled filefish, stealth-like dogtooth tuna, perma-surprised bigeye trevally, more unidentified grouper, muscular Spanish mackerel, thousands of charming garden eels, a bitey clown triggerfish. You get the drift.
Somehow, our day was to get even better – cue Nosy Iranja, cue heaven.
Connected by a mile-long spit, Nosy Iranja consists of two islands. One is privately owned, the other contains a boutique lodge, small village and some bungalows. Visitors can stay with the locals for around $10 a night; hotel rooms are rather pricier.
After hiking to the islands’ lighthouse, we stopped to take in the magnificent views. Here was another banquet of colours, multiple hues of green sprouting out of the deep red earth.
Layers of fluffy white cloud, cast over the shimmering turquoise waters, hung in a cobalt blue sky.
I could have got lost in the village of Nosy Iranja for some time – ditched my bag, speared fish for dinner and gone feral.
Sadly, our packed schedule meant that a few hours had to suffice. Anyway, there was more diving to be done.

AS WE SURFACED from our final dive and slipped our fins off before handing them to Richard our skipper, a pod of dolphins surrounded Lady Corsica.
It must have been a schoolday. Calves, barely a couple of months old, propelled themselves out of the water and performed a few passable flips, before belly-flopping back into the water.
Their efforts were enough to induce a few “ahhs” among the group, and offered a heart-warming finale to a packed and unique dive adventure.
As we sailed back to Nosy Be, slurping Malagasy vanilla rum and coconut-milk cocktails, we reflected on our trip. It may have been a touch decadent, but it wasn’t half fun. The “eighth continent” had surpassed my expectations.
Madagascar, with all its endemism, is as magical and beguiling a place as one could wish to visit, and still relatively untouched by tourism’s marauding fingers.
Those who brave the distance, and eye-watering airfares, will be welcomed by wonderfully hospitable people.
The service everywhere is exceptional, the food varied and tasty.
Madagascar is a breathtaking arena for its original brew of plant and animal life. Long known as either “the Red Island” for its red laterite earth or “the Green Island” for its plant life, it could be that the richness of these waters would make “the Blue Island” seem just as fitting.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly from London to Antananarivo, via Paris with Air France or Kenya Airways
DIVING:MadagasCat Travel, www.madagascat.co.za. Oceane’s Dream. www.oceanesdream.com
ACCOMMODATION: Sakatia Lodge, www.sakatia.co.za; Hotel Sarimonak, www.hotel-sarimanok-nosy-be.com; Hotel Gérard & Francine, www.gerard-et-francine.com
WHEN TO GO: Diving conditions are good year-round, with generally good visibility and water temperatures at 25°C or more. October-December is the most popular time to dive; the rainy season from late December-April is best avoided.
MONEY: Malagasy Ariary (MGA).
PRICES: Dive Worldwide says its most popular Madagascar option is a two-week trip in the north with both shore and liveaboard diving and plenty of wildlife. Prices from £3895pp include all flights and transfers, eight nights’ half-board on land and five nights on Oceane’s Dream (all two sharing), wildlife excursions, trekking and an island tour of Nosy Be, but packages can be customised, www.diveworldwide.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.madagascar-tourisme.com