Madagascar – Sainte-Marie – Ocean life

My previous post explored the local lifestyle in Sainte-Marie island, in relation to the island itself. The present essay extends the artwork through a perspective embracing the Indian Ocean. 

All facets of social life on a small island arguably connect to the surrounding water environment. However, there are some more obvious and direct links to consider in this context. The latter constitute the subject of the last part of my trilogy on Sainte-Marie island. 

There is much appreciation and respect for the Indian Ocean in Sainte-Marie. The Ocean water shapes the island’s geography and ecosystem. It feeds the local population with halieutic resources (fishing, aquaculture), carves the beauty, the charm and the identity of the island. 

The Indian Ocean is not only majestic and benevolent, but also moody, irascible and dangerous. Sainte-Marie’s inhabitants have learnt to decode the Ocean’s moods and warning messages to adapt their deeds accordingly. Based on weather forecast, local authorities monitor and regulate boat travel and fishing activity. 

At times, respect morphs into fear. Tropical storms or even cyclones generated by the Indian Ocean increasingly threaten people living in coastal areas or on islands including Sainte-Marie. However, life must go on.

Pirogues and nets

Even after years of visiting numerous islands across the globe, I remain fascinated by wooden pirogues – their aesthetic beauty, their physical fragility and yet, their achievements as traditional transportation mean. 

Nets are equally important and fragile when it comes to fishing activity. Those fishing tools need very frequent repairs, which speaks volume about the fierce fight at play between human beings and creatures living in the Ocean. The fisherman does not always win.


In the late afternoon, fishermen board their wooden pirogues to head to green or blue water where they will spend the entire night fishing. They play with winds and water streams to identify and reach the best fishing locations. Once there, they use petrol lanterns or electric lights to attract fishes. Fishermen return to the coast at dawn, more or less happy about their night catches and for sure exhausted. 

An important part of fishing activity is carried out with low or moderate water level in the vicinity of reefs with other techniques than nets or lines operated from pirogues. Equipped with simple tuba, divers fish with knife, harpoon or speargun, catching not only fish but also crab, squid, octopus or lobster. 

As alternative technique, groups of people standing in the water closer to the shore fish with a large net in low water, narrowing gradually their circle until they extract their catch. Hoop net fishing is also very commonly practiced in low water.

Regardless of the fishing technique, it is always fascinating to observe the daily catches of the folk who venture into the Indian Ocean for food. Hereafter are presented only a very modest and partial overview of the food resources available. 

At times, things turn sour unfortunately. Losses of human life are not exceptional as fishing in the mighty Indian Ocean entails a variety of risks. Damo, a young and talented sailor, fisherman, diver, passed away near Sainte-Marie’s shore during the very last day of the year 2023 while practicing his passion. May he rest in peace.

Life must go on. Children in Sainte-Marie have fun playing in the Indian Ocean, but also prepare their fishing expertise even without a pirogue. They often build rustic raft to move along the shoe and train for line fishing.

Ile aux Sables

Off the eastern coast of Sainte-Marie, the Ile aux Sables is easily reachable with good weather. As the place is sacred to the local population, access is limited along a number of cultural taboos. 

Surfacing from nowhere from the pristine water of the Indian Ocean, the Ile aux Sables is like a bare sand bank which hosts no vegetal, animal or human life in permanence. Interestingly, the islet remains above Ocean water level throughout the year regardless of tide movements. Furthermore, local people strongly believe that the Ile aux Sables hosts the spirits of their ancestors, which explains the sacred character of the place.

Skies and hues

Sainte-Marie’s charm is to be found not only inland or off the shores but also in the air. Dawn and dusk create awesome sky sceneries that are typically short in duration but very colourful. Tropical skies are very spectacular prior to a strong atmospheric depression generating a storm. 

Sainte-Marie island, you are small but stunningly beautiful.


By Bertrand

Trotting the globe with vision, values and humour