Maldives: Last surveys

Update from our Maldives coral reef expedition

We have now undertaken five Reef Check surveys on five different reefs, and all has gone well. The whole team have managed to work on all the different aspects of the survey and nobody got lost after the first practice dive. We saw manta rays while laying the first transect tapes, an abundance of fish, some fascinating hermit crabs, turtles, sharks and sting rays. The reefs themselves, however, are not very healthy and indeed some of them are largely dead wastelands now. The bleaching event in 2016 severely damaged the reefs, and even the ones on the outside reefs (that weren’t so badly damaged) are not looking good.

We had a magical night dive on a 5 m mound, around 50 m across, with sides that fell away to around 30 m. There were a multitude of small sharks, tuna and sting rays, plus turtles cruising through at intervals. We also did one afternoon looking for whale sharks to support a local NGO that surveys them regularly in the area. After more than two hours of searching, we came across one small male, around 3.5m in length, and managed to get in the water to experience swimming with it (and take photos of its gill area). It was a very beautiful animal and although there were many people from other boats in the area, the fish did not seem bothered, and gently cruised past all the curious on-lookers.

We celebrated our last survey dive on Thursday with a sunset snorkel. Dinner was rounded off by viewing old Jacques Cousteau DVDs – amazing footage but it’s nice to note how conservation diving has improved its methods – at one point Jacques remarks that dynamiting the fish is the only was to get an accurate count of the ones in the area, a technique that we are glad to say has been replaced by Reef Check!

Jean-Luc, our scientist, sums up the expedition like this:

“Findings are pretty startling – inner reefs are still faring badly, with little sign of any recovery other than the very shallowest top 2-3 m with recruits on coralline-stabilised and heavily grazed reef flats. All other depths (that are in our permanent transects) are showing algae and turf covering dead branching, table and plate Acropora corals, which used to dominate these inner reefs. Outer reefs are actually faring much better with 14-40% live coral, with many recruits on the most exposed slopes down to 12+ m. And these recruits are the more resiliant Pocillopora eydouxi species and Acropora. And of course the more resistant encrusting and massive growth forms. So there is hope there.

But for the inner reefs – very little cause for optimism for a recovery as rapid as I witnessed between 1998 and 2005.

Other than that, the predator fish / megafauna population seems to be OK. Grey reef, black-tip, white-tip sharks on most sites, one whale shark sighted at the Mamigili Marine Protected Area (an MPA for whale sharks), snapper populations seem to be OK at some sites. Grouper numbers pretty good, but sizes small as usual.”

All these insights would not be possible without you, our brave citizen scientists. You could have gone on an ordinary dive holiday, but instead you chose to put your time, money and skills to better use. Thanks you so much for this.

I leave you with best wishes and the hope to meet you again some day, some place on this beautiful blue planet of ours. I also leave you with some pictures and videos below. Do share yours too please.

Best wishes



Maldives: First surveys

Update from our Maldives coral reef expedition

The team all arrived on time on Saturday, with briefings and talks on the first afternoon and our first dive at Baros. The following morning we went on one of our longest crossings, over to Rasdoo, and a more interesting reef for us to dive on for the next two days. Here the team learnt to identify the fish, invertebrates and substrate that they need to know to carry out the Reef Check surveys, looking at things underwater and in the ‘classroom’ that the main salon on the boat turns into for these few days. The time was filled with talks and tests, interspersed with dives, and our final dive was a practice Reef Check dive, with everyone working across two survey teams. The dive was enlivened by one buddy pair descending down the wrong marker buoy and not finding the survey area :), but all ended well and everyone else completed the survey work successfully.

This morning we have moved to the area where we will start our formal survey work, everyone having passed the necessary tests, congratulations. The first Reef Check dive is upon us!


Tien Shan: Amazing pictures by Noël van Bemmel

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

And here are some great pictures from group one, taken by Noël van Bemmel of De Volkskrant newspaper. Thank you for sharing Noël!


Tien Shan: Group 1 summary

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

2018’s first Tien Shan expedition group has arrived back in Bishkek after a busy two weeks. Thank you to Judy, Sophie, Marilyn, Allycia, Tristan, the two Peters, Holger, Jim, Ross, Markus, Peter, Andreas, Noel and Stanley for putting in lots of effort to collect a solid amount of data. We covered 34 cells (2×2 km each) in our study area, some of them multiple times. Our surveys showed that of those 34 cells, 23 of them had snow leopard prey species living in them. This included ibex, argali, marmot and snow cock. We set up eight camera traps in various locations (results pending). We also collected records for three bird and two butterfly species that are completely new to our study area this year. Most importantly, we collected two distinct records of snow leopard. The first record was the dead body of a cub in Sary Kul valley that we found out about from a shepherd. In Chong Chikan valley a survey up near the glacier came across two sets of prints, likely belonging to a mother snow leopard and her cub. This is not only a strong indication of snow leopard presence, but it is also great to see that there is likely to be a breeding population here in our study area.

Group 1, it was a pleasure to spend two weeks with you in the mountains “suffering for science”. All the best, and I hope to see each of you again!


Maldives: Opener

Update from our Maldives coral reef expedition

Hello everyone

I’m Kathy, the expedition leader for the Biosphere Expeditions coral reef research trip to the Maldives this year. I’m heading off from the UK tomorrow, so just packing up, checking kit and paperwork today.

Kathy Gill
Kathy Gill

We are very lucky to have two great science trainers with us this year, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, from the Marine Conservation Society, and Dr. Matthias Hammer from Biosphere Expeditions. Both are highly experienced in Reef Check surveys (and surely you recognise their names from having read the Maldives reports anyway! :). Jean-Luc has been going to the Maldives for many, many years.

Drs. Jean-Luc Solandt (right) and Matthias Hammer
Drs. Jean-Luc Solandt (right) and Matthias Hammer

The learning over the first couple of days will feel quite fast-paced, but you are all in good hands as these two haven’t failed to get anyone through the tests yet! And of course you will also have swotted up on the Reef Check methodology, so you’ll be prepared….

Jean-Luc is already in Male’ meeting with local partners as we speak. He’s also set the survey route for us.

I’m just heading off to collect my newly-serviced BCD; please make sure any kit you’re bringing with you has been given any necessary once-overs, and don’t forget important paperwork such as your diving certification cards, PADI medical forms (where necessary), insurance details and Biosphere Expeditions checklist.

Happy packing and I hope you all travel safe. I’m looking forward to meeting you in Male’.

When I get to Male’ myself, I’ll get a local SIM card and let you know the number in case you need to get in touch with me. See you on Saturday!

All the best




Tien Shan: Successful but wet week 1

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

With temperatures reaching above 40C in Bishkek, group 1 was more than ready to get up to our Alpine base camp where cool weather abounds. On the way there we had our lunch stop at the top of the Too Ashu mountain pass. Looking down on the Suusamyr valley was a fantastic way to break up the driving. When we arrived at base camp we quickly settled in, thanks to Bek, Beka and Volodya having already set up tents for everyone. We did pitch our third yurt all together tough.

Training on Tuesday and Wednesday morning went well and so we were able to get out for our first transect walk Tuesday afternoon. We went to Sary Kul valley, where interestingly this year there is a shepherd’s yurt for the first time. And not only that, while talking to him he told us that a week ago he had come across what he thought was a dead snow leopard cub. Unfortunately he did not take any pictures, and even more unfortunately is the fact that this cub was found dead, but this does give us a very strong indication of snow leopard presence in the valley.

We have also been up a few other valleys, including Issyk Ata valley, where we have previously discovered snow leopard tracks. There was a lot of snow in the higher elevations, and so we were not able to get up as high as we would have liked, but Volodya found two good locations to set up camera traps. Beka has also placed camera traps along the ridge in another valley near our base camp. However, even with all the effort we’ve put in so far, the weather is very uncooperative. As I mentioned in my initial diary entry, it has been an unusually wet summer, and that is very true up in the Alpine valleys too. I don’t think we’ve had a day without rain yet! As a result, we’ve only had direct sightings of secondary snow leopard prey (marmot and snow cock), but with one week left to go there is still lots of time left for group 1 to collect more data!

Something else very special that happened during the first week was the birthday celebration of the grandson of our shepherd neighbour. It really felt as though all the shepherds in the entire valley showed up for the party! There was lots of food, Kyrgyz traditional games like wrestling and Kok Boru (horse polo), and an opportunity for us to ride horses, meet lots of local people, and get dropped right into an amazing cultural experience!

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Successful but wet week 1”

Biosphere Expeditions becomes Ireland’s first IUCN member, enjoys its Brexit

Just over two years ago Brexit won a narrow majority in the UK. In the aftermath, Biosphere Expeditions announced it was moving its HQ to Ireland, resulting in a lively debate with 80% in favour of the move. On 1 January 2018 the move was completed. Biosphere Expeditions has also become the first Irish member of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).

Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, says: “We have been welcomed with open arms in Ireland and are proud to have been Ireland’s first IUCN member, with our friends at the Irish Environmental Network following suit.”

There are also plans to conduct wildlife conservation expeditions in Ireland, “but it’s too early to reveal details”, says Hammer.

The "Black Church" business centre in Dublin, Biosphere Expeditions' new HQ in Ireland.
The “Black Church” business centre in Dublin, Biosphere Expeditions’ new HQ in Ireland.

He adds that “although Brexit currently does not look good at all, ultimately the outcome and repercussions of it are unknowable and only time will tell. For Biosphere Expeditions it therefore came down to a choice of visions of the kind of world we want to operate in. Do we want to exist in a world where nationalistic interest, attitudes of ‘them and us’, suspicion and fear of the unknown – be it people or challenges – rule the day? History has told us where this leads – and besides wildlife conservation today is a global, trans-boundary issue. Or do we want to live in a world of collaboration, common visions, shared values, working towards a greater good, compassion and kindness? For me the answer was always obvious. The EU may be a behemoth in serious need of reform, but it has given us collaboration, shared values, freedom, peace and prosperity on a continent that until very recently had been at war with itself for millennia. For that alone, the EU deserves the highest praise (and its Nobel peace prize). We are glad to be staying part of that project and have not regretted our decision to move our HQ to Ireland.”

Germany: Feedback and spoofy videos

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany

Thank you so much for your feedback videos

As well as the spoofy masterpiece “Mole epic” by James :))

And a dung beetle video by Clare :))

Continue reading “Germany: Feedback and spoofy videos”

Tien Shan: Base camp set

Update from our snow leopard expedition to the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan

The staff, a truck and a few cars made it to our base camp location in the mountains and started, and have now mostly finished, setting up.

We have put up two of the three yurts and are waiting for group 1 to build the third. Within minutes of our arrival, we had our shepherd neighbours, who have by now become friends, there to help us. Kyrgyz culture is definitely one of friendship and lending a helping hand!

I am now back in Bishkek for last minute shopping and arrangements and group 1 starts tomorrow, Monday. I hope everyone arrives safely and on time. See you all tomorrow morning, group 1.

Continue reading “Tien Shan: Base camp set”

Germany: Final results and diary entry

Update from our monitoring expedition studying wolves in Lower Saxony, Germany

Peter & I dropped team 2 at the airport on Friday morning after a pleasant last evening together on Thursday.

Here is a summary of what team 2 achieved: 330 km of survey routes were covered on foot and 31 km by bike. 89 scat samples were collected (and have been deep frozen for dietary analysis). Of those 89 samples, 14 samples were fresh enough for DNA analysis and for this were also put in ethanol. Our findings were made in eight different cells of the European 10 x 10 km grid. Overall, the results of teams 1 and 2 were very similar. Well done to both!

Taken together, the resulting total numbers of this year’s expedition are exceptional: More than 200 (!) wolf scat samples were deep frozen for dietary analysis. They will be forwarded to the official wolf monitoring authority of Lower Saxony for final evaluation. 25 scat samples were fresh enough for DNA analysis and put into ethanol, to be analysed in the laboratory over the coming few months. All findings were collected over 638 km of foot survey walks and 100 km of bike surveys in 29 different 10 x 10 km cells of the European grid. Even more findings, which were classified as C3 (hint but not conclusive proof of wolf) are: seven tracks and 50 more scats that were too old and had no wolf typical smell, as well as one sighting of three wolves that could not be proved by a picture, because Jelle and I were not quick enough 😉

Once again these numbers exceeded Peter’s expectations! Thank you to everyone on the team – you have done a fantastic job! Our thanks go also out to the wolf commissioners Kenny, Holger & Theo, as well as to Dorit and Lotte who supported the project by sharing their time & knowledge with us. And of course thanks also to the staff at NABU Gut Sunder who made us feel at home and kept us so well fed, as well as our overnight base Kenners LandLust. Peter & I very much enjoyed our time with you all and it has been a great pleasure to work with you.

We hope you have arrived back home safely when you read this or are enjoying your holidays. Thank you once again and we hope we will meet again in the future, on an expedition or somewhere else on this beautiful planet of ours.

All the best,

Continue reading “Germany: Final results and diary entry”

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