Madagascar: The Scientific Anomaly of Africa

Madagascar 2018

Cave diving, fossils, palaeontology, and adventures

During May and June, ProTec instructors Jaime de la Puerta and I (Skanda Coffield) travelled to Madagascar to take part in a scientific expedition that focuses on learning about paleoecology and extinct animals by studying remnants of the past found in underwater caves. We were following in the footsteps of previous expeditions which Patrick Widdman and DRSS divers have been a crucial part for several years now (see ProTec friend and Dominican Republic Speleology Society Phillip Lehman’s Madagascar Karst Exploration Projectvideo).

Science projects

The 2018 expedition was led by researchers from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, the City University of New York, and the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar. The science team consists of two disciplines, palaeontology – led by Dr. Laurie Godfrey and Zachary Klukkert – and geosciences – led by Drs. Stephen Burns and NickScroxton. Both teams were assisted by Malagasy graduate students Noramamy Rahantaharivao, Manjaka Rasolonjatovo, and Peterson Faina, and accompanied by professor Lovasoa Ranivoharimanana from the University of Antananarivo. The cave diving team was made up of Zachary (the only scientist-diver on the expedition), Ryan Dart (president of the Madagascar Cave Diving Association, original explorer of “Aven” aka “Vintany” cave, Australian, all round good guy and best cricket batsman in Madagascar), and Jaime and myself.


The cave of “Aven” (aka “Vintany”) is littered with bones. In the sediment around the central debris cone countless skeletons lie buried under many layers of silt. At this site our goal was to support the mission to systematic collect and map these exquisitely-preserved “sub-fossils” (they have not fossilized, so they are very delicate). First off Jaime and I laid out transect lines from the existing cavern line so that we would have a clear reference of each of our excavation sites. With this information the scientists would be able to refer to a clear location for the bones collected. Zachary also took photographs of the cave floor to create a 3d model using a photogrammetry program, to create a 3d map to study the context of the bones and their distribution. We spent a few dives in Aven collecting fossils, which were then taken by the palaeontology team for preservation, cataloguing and study.

Geology sciences and Paleoclimatology

Stalagmites can provide really interesting data for climate science. Stephen and Nick have been able to use stalagmites found in both wet and dry caves to reconstruct past changes in climate in Madagascar. The stalagmites contain records of past rainfall patterns and vegetation changes through time. This year the dive team focused on extracting stalagmites from Mitoho and Malazamanga caves with specimens recovered from both sites

Documentary Filming

For two days the team was involved in a documentary filming project, which will be part of a PBS special on evolution. The focus in Madagascar was on a species of extinct crocodile found only in Madagascar, the Horned Crocodile (Voay robustus). Dr. Evon Hekkala from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is an expert on these crocodiles and arrived with the film team to learn about what these caves can tell us about the extinct Voay robustus. Amazingly, there only exist 5 fossils of this species in museums around the world, yet in the water filled caves of Aven, Amboley and Anjanamba, there are dozens of individuals represented by delicate skeletons. On the last day of filming in Aven, the team discovered the first juvenile specimen ever seen, there was a lot of excitement! The documentary will air in mid 2019 on PBS and has the working title Lineages.

Expedition Results

Some of the details of what were learned from this expedition are still under study, and will be released to the public in scientific journal reports before they can be reported here. However, what we can say, is that in this one expedition we succeeded in increasing the biodiversity of the animals that were previously known from these caves! In Aven, we found several species of birds that had not been discovered in previous expeditions. Also, in both Aven and Mitoho caves we found the remains of a bat, believed to be extinct, that has only been found in the very north end of the island before this year. Other important finds for the investigation of paleo habitats and the ecology of the cave systems include the discovery of remains of an (extinct) giant fosa (Cryptoprocta spelea) bones in Aven, which is otherwise rich with lemurs, and the bones of an extinct lemur (Pachylemur insignis) in Mitoho cave, which has many fosa bones but no other lemurs. This is new information for each site, as these animals had not previously been seen in those sites, and show an interaction between the ecology and inhabitants of these caves. Please consider donatingto help us build a museum to support and showcase this research.


There will be a field season in 2019 in which ProTec will again be taking part… But to tell readers a little more about the 2018 expedition, Jaime has another little read coming up about Madagascar, diving logistics and the caves.


July 13, 2018   2 Comments

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Here in Mexico, as it is all over the world, and in any diving environment, You will often meet divers who dive beyond their certification because they do not want to take the time to hone the new skills. All they want to do is “The next cooler or bigger dive”.  You will also meet divers who are afraid of taking the “plunge” to the next level for whatever reason.  Those are 2 very different kinds of divers.

As a full-time cave diver, I see this first one happening every day.  Be it the newly certified cave divers taking a stage(s) or certified Open Circuit cave divers coming back on Closed Circuit Rebreathers (CCR) to dive the same caves. Truth be told, this happens a lot of the time here in Mexico from local guides to sometimes even people trying to get fast-tracked to a cave instructor.

If you think back to your initial cave training, during the course you would have taken some theory lessons in Accident Analysis. During this portion of your training, you have would have learned the famous 5 golden rules of untrained cave divers

You will remember that the very first rule is to “seek proper training “. Another one of the golden rules is “don’t dive beyond your certification”. These two “rules” go hand in hand with safety.  One such example of the most common error I see in personal judgement is diving with stages.  This seems to be a day-to-day occurrence here in Mexico.  There is always a “reason” why this diver does not undergo a stage class.  Here are a few of my favourites: “My friend took a class and they showed me” or “ I’ve seen it on the web and it looks easy”, or “I won’t take a class from X, who is he to teach me?”. One of my personal all-time favourites is “ I have my advanced nitrox and deco course.  Isn’t it just the same?”. In short… No, it is not the same, not even close.

I try to understand how their mindset works over something as dangerous as diving beyond their own certifications.  I try to explain that anyone can dive with extra tanks, that part is simple.  For a cave diver (as this is my business), I try to explain to them that there are a million different factors that influence a staged cave dive at any one time. I explain this is the reason why we take a course.  Learning the small details, listening to how things are really done, and not just how you think they are done.

Next, we go to the other kind of diver as we previously mentioned.  This is where divers are afraid to take the next step in their education, for whatever reason. Maybe the dive industry does not do enough to show newer divers that “tech and cave” diving is easier than people think.  Possibly the sight of divers using multiple tanks in the ocean, or in the cave is putting people off. Maybe the “ go get some experience” is too daunting for them between courses.   Maybe, just maybe, we the instructors are making the training too difficult?  For whatever reason, we must all understand the one simple rule.  Slow and steady will always win the race.  This is the message that we must pass on to our current and future students.

Sometimes what people do not understand is that by not taking the next step in their diving education, they potentially can make the mistake of going on a dive and biting off more than they can chew.  I myself have fallen foul of this, and it is not a nice feeling I can tell you.  These errors range from the newly certified sidemount cave diver, who then goes and starts to dive really small cave, to the back mount/ CCR/Diver Propulsion Vehicle (DPV) diver to do exactly the same.  They dive further into the cave then they should, further than there comfort level will allow.

It is at this point in the dive when the voices in the diver’s head start to become louder and louder. This is the point they wish they had undergone proficient training, and taken the time to perfect and gain experience on their qualified level.  We all know that when we are stressed we are most likely to make a potential life-altering mistake.  This is when you will have wished you had taken a course, listened to a seasoned instructor, taken a proficient well-balanced course and practised these skills.

The problem with today is everyone is in a hurry to get to the “destination” and they forget the journey.  When I teach any class, especially my cave classes, I always tell my students the dive is the journey, not the turning point.   When you take time to learn the skills you just learned from your last class, you not only get more experienced but also log more dives. If you have just passed your DPV class for example, and 2 dives later your double stage, double DPV diving to the Blue Abyss (an awesome dive by the way). Odds are your awareness is pretty much zero.

On the other hand, by taking the time to build up experience doing the kind of dives you did on the course you give yourself time to grow.  If you have just completed your cave class, take time to dive the caves.  Take time to learn the cave, learn the jumps.  Take time to build your mental awareness up, then by the time you come back for your next level class, or you come back for a CCR Cave crossover, for example, you will hold the awareness of a great diver.

Awareness is king for any diver, we all should aim to build our awareness little by little.  It is the time taken to dive, learning everything that you can build this awareness. During any of our classes here at ProTec, we teach that awareness comes in three forms.  First is self-awareness, this is vital to keeping those voices quite when we are in the inside the overhead by self-diagnosing how we feel, how are we breathing, going through the “what if” scenarios.

The second part of awareness is team awareness. Being able to look at your team members and assess how they are mentally and physically. Being able to assess how they are from their light movement. Again going through the “what if” scenarios.

The third portion of awareness is global awareness. This involves knowing, understanding reading the environment you are in, knowing what part of the dive plan you’re currently in and what your next waypoint will be. At the same time, you should be going through the “ what if “ scenarios in your mind.  All of these combined levels of awareness create a diver that is a valuable team member.

You cannot be taught all of this. Only time spent diving, learning the skills you have been taught, building on your awareness and your comfort will help.  Then the journey through any future course will be exciting.  Excitement about wanting to go practice, wanting to learn the “wreck better”, know the “cave better”

I always tell my students the same thing. If you have real awareness, you have spent time in the open water practising hovering, line laying etc.  Going through your immediate actions drills for gas problems. I always say “ a free flow is a free flow, be it 5 minutes into the cave, or 125mins into the cave”. A well rounded aware diver will handle it with no problems. Because nothing can replace the experience of having spent time learning and practising the core skills.

Be that diver who enjoys the journey, become that diver who you want to aspire to be. Take time to perfect your skills, take your time to become an effective team member.  Too many times I’ve seen people diving out of their comfort level because of their mate. “John” has said they would be ok.  Being that rock solid diver doesn’t take forever; it just takes a little time, practice and some hard work.

We all started with Open Water certifications, now we all dive at different levels.  But we all should want to be the best diver we can be, the best team member we can.  Sheck Exley once said.  “Survival depends on being able to suppress anxiety and replace it with calm, clear and correct reasoning “.

I encourage you all to take your time, to grow to practice the skills you get from any course you take, be it an open water course or a cave class. It is these skills you will rely on when the time comes. Enjoy the journey, and dive safely.

June 21, 2018   1 Comment