During the 2018 Maldives expedition citizen scientist SCUBA divers used the Reef Check methodology to record coral health, species and life forms from three inner sheltered reefs and three more outer reefs exposed to the open ocean. Results have shown that the outer reef sites are resilient to temperature-induced coral bleaching (from the warming event in April 2016). They also appear to attract the greatest number of recruits (young coral polyps living in the water settling down to start growing) from shallow to deeper waters. Inner reefs, by contrast, have been very badly affected by the bleaching, suffering almost total coral death since the 2016 warming event. Some sites are now dominated completely by macroalgae, others by sponges and turfs. Alarmingly, once reefs have undergone this ‘phase shift’ from coral to algae, sponges or turf, the ‘rainforest of the seas’ with high underwater biodiversity and beauty has gone and is unlikely to return.
Snapper, grouper and other commercial fish species were absent, small, or at low densities on all dives, suggesting that there remains heavy fishing pressure throughout the atolls. Although the prospect for many reefs is poor, particularly around the sheltered house reefs of inner atolls, there remain remarkable wildlife spectacles at some channel reef sites, and well-known dive sites. Sharks (grey reef, black tip and white-tip; manta and whale shark were all seen on the expedition), and some of the diving in more remote areas (away from resorts and inhabited islands) is still excellent. The overall outlook, however, is deeply concerning. The new Maldives government, which has made positive noises in terms of reef conservation, must act now to prevent a collapse of the reef ecosystem, which forms the very bedrock of the Maldivian geography, economy and culture.
Below are some pictures and videos of the expedition. Thank you to Gemma Thompson for sharing many of them.