Research Assistant

founded in 2000
Reef Doctor
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Coordinator | Sergei
Coordinator | Sergei
Book with Flex Option! Choose new departure dates or change to a different volunteer program at no extra costs.


Discover the unique beauty of this wonderful island-continent and its people, while directly contributing to both important community action and scientific work
Advance your skillsets: Diving qualifications and practice, team work and marine research, learning directly from professionals in the field at an idyllic yet humbling beachside setting.
Experience a front line battle against environmental degradation; working on one of the largest barrier reefs in the world and the marine conservation in place to help protect it.
Expand your network of like-minded and passionate conservationists working alongside the communities most directly affected by such environmental degradation.
Go back to basics for a while; escaping the trappings of the digital world and literally immersing yourself in the natural one.
Train to become an essential member of our marine research team and get involved in a range of other conservation and social developments projects
This volunteer program is especially suitable for:
Age 18+

Our Research Assistant programme trains volunteers to become integral members of our marine research team. It also provides the opportunity to get involved in a variety of marine conservation and management projects, and community development initiatives.

Research Assistants will receive professional training in scuba diving, species identification, and marine habitat surveying in order to assist us in our long term marine research programme. In doing so you will be directly contributing to the conservation of threatened marine ecosystems in the Bay of Ranobe and to the sustainable development of local Vezo communities.

To undertake our marine research surveys, all Research Assistants must be certified to PADI Advanced Open Water (or equivalent). If you have never dived before, we will train you from scratch and certify you to PADI Advanced Open Water in the first couple of weeks of your expedition. We can also provide PADI Rescue Diver (for 8+ week expeditions) and even the more intensive PADI Divemaster training (for 12 week expeditions).

This programme is also a great way for graduates and undergraduates to gain the essential field based work experience needed to help further a career in conservation and marine sciences. We can also provide the opportunity for BSc and MSc students in the field of environmental sciences and conservation to undertake their own research projects (please ask for further details).

Waking up to the sandy beaches in front of our project site provides an idyllic lifestyle, as does watching the sun set over the lagoon every evening. The conditions aren’t five star, but living simply, next to a traditional Malagasy fishing community, is an incredible life experience.

Expeditions of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 weeks are available.

Expeditions run between January to December with spaces available for 46 people per expedition month.

Research Assistant Training

Upon arrival, your initial training includes a short spell to get used to the life here. You will receive a background to Madagascar, its culture and customs, particularly the local Vezo fishing communities we work with. In addition, you will receive an orientation trip of the local village of Ifaty, and an introduction to our work and project site.

The core diving and science training usually spans the first 4 weeks of the expedition. However, science training can be ongoing throughout the expedition, especially for those wishing to progress to more advanced levels. As we say, the more you put in the more you get out!

The time taken to complete the core diving and science training will depend on the weather, individual dive training progression, number of other volunteers on site, progression of the individual in the science, and the occurrence of any external events and projects that may require volunteer participation.

The length of your expedition determines the level of scientific training you receive. All Research Assistants will be trained to a basic level, but those staying for 8 weeks or more (or any fast learners!) will have the opportunity to receive more advanced training.

Dive Training

PADI Open Water Training Schedule

·      Open Water Book Work/Knowledge Reviews (x 5), Quizzes (x 4), and a final exam.

·      Confined Water Dives (in the swimming pool of a local hotel).

·      Confined Water Dive (lagoon dive).

·      Open Water Dives x 4.

We usually aim to complete your Open Water course in the first week; however, this can vary depending on individual progression and external factors such as weather. The PADI Advanced Open Water course training will ideally start from the second week.

PADI Advanced Open Water Training Schedule

·      Adventures in Diving Book Work/Knowledge Reviews (x 5).

·      Checkout Dive (If Open Water Diver certification was not received at Reef Doctor).

·      Naturalist Dive.

·      Peak Performance Buoyancy Dive.

·      Navigation Dive.

·      Search and Recovery Dive.

·      Deep Dive.

·      Proficiency Dive(s) (Proficiency before certification).

Those certified to PADI Advanced Open Water or above will only need to do a few refresher dives (includes a basic underwater skills test and our own buoyancy test) before they begin science training.

For 8 weeks + expeditions, volunteers may also undertake the PADI Rescue Diver certification (includes the PADI EFR first aid course) for an additional fee.

For 12 week expeditionsPADI Divemaster certification is also available to those who are interested and already qualified to Rescue before arrival. This is performed under a tailored program incorporating core Research Assistant programme science training. 

However, please note; due to the amount of course-skills to cover and course-diving, the volunteer will be concentrating more of their time on the PADI Divemaster course compared with marine research diving. Spaces are limited per expedition so this option is based on a first-come, first-served basis. Due to the specific manuals required for this course, volunteers need to pre-book this programme before departure.

Science Training

Research Assistants will receive the following core training:

·      Introductory lectures on our various conservation, education, management, and development programmes.

·      General overview of coral reef biology and ecology, and conservation.

·      A series of marine species identification lectures. We train you in the underwater identification of commercially important reef species (fish and invertebrates), coral reef health indicator species (fish and invertebrates), and benthic substrata, this training ranges from basic to a more advanced level (time and individual progression permitting).

·      Theoretical and practical training on coral reef surveying techniques.

·      Fish length and biomass estimate training.

·      Theoretical and practical training on seagrass habitats and their monitoring.

·      Field excursion to visit mangroves and learn about their conservation.

The science training commences from the start of dive certification to PADI Advanced Open Water level (or straight away for those already dive qualified). It begins on land (with computer and literature based learning) and, as your identification skills develop, you’ll go on snorkel and scuba trips with our science staff to practice species identification and coral reef surveying techniques.

All volunteers will be given marine identification and survey methods study guides a month (or earlier if you wish) before departure. This allows learning to begin in advance of the expedition in order to speed up the progression of training on site and maximising time spent as qualified reef surveyors!

Research Assistants MUST pass computer-based species identification exams and assessed underwater surveys ‘mimic survey dives’ before they can take part in Reef Doctor’s surveying programme. This ensures that we are collecting scientifically accurate data for our long-term research goals.

Following Your Training

Once you have completed your training and passed our exams, you will be qualified to participate in our long-term coral reef monitoring programme, becoming a vital member of our surveying team. The role you will play (either fish, invertebrate, or benthic surveyor) will rotate as you gain experience. You will have the chance to participate in fun dives every Saturday. In addition, night dives can also be arranged along with other PADI specialty dives (e.g., deep dive), though these do come at an extra cost (please ask for details).

We will introduce you to ecological data entry and you will be responsible for logging the data you collect onto our database. You will also have the opportunity to assist our team in a variety of our core research, management, and conservation projects. Research Assistants undertake regular diving, though this is only one aspect of the programme.

Additional activities may include the following (some are subject to season):

·      Monitoring and maintenance work on our coral nursery and artificial reefs.

·      Seagrass surveys and mangrove replanting.

·      Participate in local community aquaculture initiatives e.g., help maintain algal farms and/or assist in sea cucumber monitoring (with the opportunity to stay in a fishing village for 1–2 days to help with sea cucumber harvesting/monitoring).

·      Assist staff in turtle tagging and release as part of our turtle conservation project.

·      Fisheries catch monitoring alongside our fisheries team.

·      Environmental education: get involved with our Junior Reef Doctor’s initiative and Kids Club.

·      Assist in our English-language lessons for local villagers.

·      Take part in our tree nursery and reforestation project.

·      Learn the local language through our weekly Malagasy classes.

Further information can be found in the programme schedule provided upon application.

Typical day

Your days will be eventful and the work will be challenging, rewarding, and fun. While you can expect to undertake regular science diving, this is only one aspect of the programme. We pride ourselves on offering a unique volunteer experience that gets you involved in several different aspects of our work. Your efforts will be of huge benefit to the continuation of our work and you will gain immense satisfaction knowing that you have assisted us in conserving threatened ecosystems and helping the local communities secure valuable marine resources for future generations.

Upon arrival, your initial training includes a short spell to get used to the life here. You will receive a background to Madagascar, its culture and customs, particularly the local Vezo fishing communities we work with. In addition, you will receive an orientation trip of the local village of Ifaty, and an introduction to our work and project site.

The core diving and science training usually spans the first 4 weeks of the expedition. However, science training can be ongoing throughout the expedition, especially for those wishing to progress to more advanced levels. As we say, the more you put in the more you get out!

Typical Day:

Our working week runs from Monday to Friday. 

We offer‘fun dive’ on Saturday, while Sunday is a non-diving day.

The working day can start early (between 57 am) because we are dependent on the tides for taking the dive boat out, typically;

diving takes place in the morning, and then again in the afternoon

We break for lunch at noon, after which we rest for the hottest time of the day. 

We start again at 1.30 pm with land based project work or diving.

The working day finishes at around 5 pm

Dinner is at 6 pm, before the sun sets - a sight that’ll have you running for your camera every night and then it’s time to rest and relax under the stars. 

In addition to diving and other Reef Doctor project activities, you will be expected to get involved with the day to day running of the camp.

Our schedules have plenty of time for work, fun and relaxation. After all there is no point visiting such a unique place as Madagascar without taking some time to enjoy it!

Free-time activities


You are free to do as you wish at the weekend; simply relax in the peaceful surroundings on site, go into town for shopping, take a pirogue trip, walk to the popular beach resort of Mangily, visit local parks such as the Spiny Forest, or take a long weekend to go further afield in order to visit one of the regional national parks.

The sandy beach outside the Reef Doctor site stretches northwards for miles. After an hour’s walk you’ll reach Mangily the main beach and diving tourist destination in the region. This region is also an important area for Humpback Whales. Every year (JulySept), approximately 7000 of these majestic mammals migrate from the Antarctic to breed in the coastal waters off southern Madagascar.



In order to join the program you need to be at least 18 years old on the program start date. There might be exemptions if you can provide the permission of your legal guardian(s) or if your are accompanied by your parents.
Language Skills
You need to speak English (fluently)
Nationality Restrictions
No restrictions. Helping hands from all over the world are welcome.
Other Skills
Just a general enthusiasm to learn more about the marine environment and the ability to get on with and respect other people in a working environment.

HOWEVER: Research Assistants MUST pass computer-based species identification exams and assessed underwater surveys ‘mimic survey dives’ before they can take part in Reef Doctor’s surveying programme. This ensures that we are collecting scientifically accurate data for our long-term research goals.
Time Commitment
Your helping hand will be required on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday

What's Included

Services by Reef Doctor

Services Included in the Expedition Fees

  • Airport pick-up in Toliara and transport to the Reef Doctor site in Ifaty.
  • Arrangement of hotel in the capital city Antananarivo, if required.
  • All meals, Monday–Sunday.
  • Filtered water, brewed local coffee and tea.
  • Lodging: with bed sheets, pillows, and mosquito net provided.
  • Standard first aid medical care.
  • Electricity for charging cell phones, laptops, etc.
  • (limited to weekdays).
  • Internet access on site (limited to weekday lunch times for personal use).
  • Dive training: PADI Open Water and Advanced dive certification.
  • Project equipment and educational materials: dive slates, paper, pens etc., all required
  • for your working activities.
  • Dive equipment, including: BCD, full regulator set, weights and tanks.
  • Occasional excursions to help some of our conservation partners in the area, such as HONKO (mangrove conservation and re-plantation).
  • Science training: level of training will vary according to the expedition duration, dive certification, and progression of the individual.
  • Pre-departure support and pre-departure guides: advice on flights, equipment, Madagascar, medicals, vaccines, insurance etc.
  • UK based support/communication throughout the expedition for the volunteers' friends and family.
  • Fuel, equipment, and staff (international and local) to make this all happen!

NB- Your programme fees include training up to PADI Advance Open Water. Therefore there is a £100 discount per dive level, applicable to the stated fees if you are already certified.

Airport Pickup at Tulear

·       Airport pick-up in Toliara and transport to the Reef Doctor site in Ifaty. 

(This does not include pick-up from the international airport in Antananarivo although this can be arranged for you with your hotel if you ask us)


ReefDoctor Site & Facilities

Our compound is situated on a sandy beach with beautiful views of the Bay of Ranobe. This enclosed area is made up of one main house, eight brick bungalows, eight interconnected single volunteer huts, one dormitory, kitchen/dining area, dive shed, and utility room for the dive compressor and generator. The main house is used as a work area for all volunteers. A generator provides electricity for the compressor, pumping water to the house and bungalows, lighting, charging appliances, and computer/internet use.

Next door to this compound is land belonging to the University of Toliara. Here there are three interconnected single huts (to sleep 6 people in total) and two double huts. This is usually the main staff and intern accommodation. Our newly- refurbished community classroom from which we run all our community education programmes, is also located on this site. Our aquaculture offices are located on the opposite side of our compound on a separate property.

Volunteers sleep in the huts or in the dormitory in the compound. All huts are built from locally- sourced wood and reeds with a cement floor. The dormitory hut has dividers for privacy and plenty of windows for staying cool. Showers are taken in enclosed wooden shower stalls using water from the on-site well. There are two wooden stalls housing hygienic drop toilets.

Bedroom (Single) Bungalow Bedroom (Double)
Food & Beverages

We provide meals three times a day, seven days a week. 

All of our meals are cooked by our Malagasy chefs who serve up a mix of Western/Malagasy cuisine, consisting of the staple Malagasy diet of rice and beans, fresh vegetables, fish, meat, and fruit. 

We source all of our food locally to generate revenue for local communities. 

Our drinking water is locally sourced, delivered via traditional zebu cart, and treated on site.

Internet Access
Good access at the project site
What's NOT included?
Visa, flights, travel insurance or vaccinations are NOT included in the program fees.
Flight Tickets
The nearest airport is Tulear (TLE) in Tulear. We assist you to find cheap flights to Madagascar.
Travel Insurance
Going abroad is an adventure and it is always best to be prepared. Sudden illness or injury, cancellation or theft - a travel insurance for Madagascar provides security and is a plus to have.
If you are intending to volunteer in Madagascar you should seek medical advice before starting your social journey. Check your required vaccinations for Madagascar.

Dates & Fees


Details on arrival

South West Madagascar Climate

Month:    Dec/Jan/Feb/March      April/ May     June/July/Aug     Sept/Oct/Nov  

Season:         Summer                       Autumn                 Winter                  Spring         

Malaria:         High (risk)              Medium (risk)        Low (risk)           Low (risk)

Avg Day     

Temp°C:   32   36   40    38     |       35       30     |     26    23    23   |    25    25    30

Avg Night                       

Temp°C:   28   33   35    30     |       28       20      |    17    15    15   |    20    25    28


Research Assistant Expedition Start Dates 2020


Unqualified Divers PADI Open Water and Advanced (or equivalent) qualified divers 


13th January          20th January

2nd March              9th March 

6th April                  13th April 

4th May                   11th May

8th June                 15th June 

6th July                   13th July

3rd August             10th August 

7th September      14th September

5th October            12th October 

2nd November       9th November 

7th December       14th December


N.B. If you are interested in joining us off these dates please just get in touch.




Reef Doctor’s base camp is in the South West, close to Toliara (Tulear) but all International flights arrive at Antananarivo, in the centre.

If you require an overnight stay (and most volunteers do), we can arrange a hotel room in ‘Tana’ that we have a good relationship with. This includes pick up from the airport into Antananarivo, for the €20 per night mentioned in the above table.

You must decide whether you will fly to and from our nearest airport in Toliara or ‘tour’ down (and back up) via public transport or mini van.

In general we do recommend that you fly down to us upon arrival and then take the public bus or rent a mini-van back to the capital. This gives you a chance to make sure you get to basecamp in time. Then take the more adventurous, touristic or economical route back up, once you’re more familiar with the country.

Upon Arrival

 Your initial training includes a short spell to get used to life here. You will be given a background to Madagascar, its culture, and customs, particularly the local fishing communities we work with. 

In addition, you will receive an orientation trip of the local village of Ifaty, and an introduction to our work and the project site.

For those lacking dive certification; your first week will be dedicated to PADI Open Water training.In week 2 you will start your PADI Advanced training which will take about another week to complete. During this second week you will also begin your science training (lectures and point out dives).

If you are already dive certified to PADI Advanced level (or equivalent), you can immediately begin the science training.

In general, core science training is conducted over a 2 to 3 week period (2 weeks if you are only with us for a 3 week expedition), though ultimately your training is ongoing throughout your expedition.

This program is paused due to COVID-19 and reopens October 2020. Apply Now!

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
6 - 12 weeks

Program fees

Costs: Prices in USD
6 weeks (min. stay)
8 weeks
12 weeks (max. stay)
Average fees
$393 /week

The organization charges its fees in GBP. The price table in USD is subject to currency fluctuation. Reef Doctor will let you know about the final price during your application process.
Deposit (15%)
The deposit is simply to reserve your volunteer placement. Payments are handled by PayPal, our trusted global payment provider. If you don't have a PayPal account, you can also pay using a credit card.
Final Payment (85%)
Your final payment will be agreed with Reef Doctor during the application process. Common solutions are either via bank transfer or a cash payment at the project site.

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Research Assistant

Train to become an essential member of our marine research team and get involved in a range of other conservation and social developments projects


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