The Masoala Peninsula is one of Madagascar’s key wildlife regions and home to more than 50% of the island’s biodiversity. Unbroken primary forests meet the shores of the Indian ocean and make this place a must for those looking to experience wild, unspoilt Madagascar.
To cap it all, this is one of the best places in the country to see humpback whales between June and September.
At 2,400 km2, Masoala National Park itself is the largest unbroken rainforest on the island, its iconic rainforests are home to prolific wildlife - red-ruffed lemur, white-fronted brown lemur, aye-aye and the diminutive, but intriguingly named tenrec are all present – as is the cat like and elusive fossa.
There are more than 90 species of bird, including the endemic helmet vanga as well as numerous exotic and brightly coloured amphibians. Much of the wildlife can be hard to spot in comparison to places like Andasibe, but the showy behaviour of the headline act – humpback whales – more than makes up for the shyness of the rest of the animals in this part of the world.
Humpbacks whales migrate here from Antarctic waters, gathering in large numbers to breed and mate in the shallow protected waters of Antongil Bay. Their elaborate behaviour makes for some of the most exciting and dramatic wildlife viewing imaginable.
The only way to reach Masoala is by boat and the journey from Maroansetra can be an excellent place to encounter the whales. Very little prepares you for your first encounter.
You might spot the tell-tale balloon shaped “blow” that can be as high as 3 metres and easily visible for many hundreds of meters, but frequently the first indication that the whale is there at all will be an elaborate piece of surface behaviour. Tail or fin slaps are common, where the whale lies on its back of front repeatedly slamming its fins or fluke onto the surface of the water with a loud report.
But humpbacks are perhaps best known for full breaches which see the entire whale (all 40 tons) launching at full speed out of the water only to land with a detonation like a depth charger exploding.
If you’re staying at Masoala then there are chances to hop into a kayak and watch as humpbacks glide past, occasionally just a few metres away. Alternatively you can watch from the comfort of the restaurant at the stunning Masoala Forest Lodge, which sticks out into the sea with a clear view of passing whales.
Masoala forms the eastern shore of Antongil Bay, one of the most productive bays in the Indian Ocean and an area of extraordinary fecundity fed by nine rivers. The bay covers almost 3,000 km2 (and includes a significant marine reserve along the shore of Masoala) and sits at the point where the South Equatorial Current divides around the east coast of the island.
Apart from the whales, the relatively shallow protected waters of Antongil along with huge numbers of pelagic fish make this a vital mating and nursery ground for a number of key marine species including 19 species of shark. In 2015 a new shark sanctuary was established in Antongil Bay with the aim of handing responsibility for management of marine areas into the hands of local communities that have a vested interest in their longterm sustainability.
What are my chances of seeing a humpback whale?
As with any wildlife, it is impossible to guarantee a sighting, but if you travel between July and mid September you stand a good chance of seeing whales. The great thing about humpback whales is the amount of highly demonstrative surface behaviour they indulge in; tale slapping, breaching, fin slapping etc, all of which makes them easier to spot than other cetaceans.
Is there the opportunity to see the whales from boats or is it just from the shore?
There are (sensibly) strict rules governing the way in which whales can be approached from a boat, however in our experience - with luck - you can experience remarkable sightings from a boat. In places it’s also possible to see the whales from a kayak, which brings takes things to a whole new level.
What other wildlife is there in Madagascar?
Madagascar is famed for its endemic lemurs of which there are currently 101 species. These are among the most engaging animals you’re likely to find anywhere. For more information on the island's lemurs take a look at here.
How long would you recommend I stay in Madagascar?
For most, a trip to Madagascar is a once in a lifetime event. Consequently it’s tempting to try and fit everything in, but we would advise you don’t try to cram too much in and – importantly you give yourself plenty of time to allow for the (not brilliant) transport links. Ideally give yourself a minimum of 2 weeks in country.