Maldives: Hope for its reefs

Hopeful results from our Reef Check surveys in the Maldives: resilience, recovery and adaptability

Our ninth annual Reef Check survey in the Maldives has come to an end. It has been an insightful, rewarding journey with a great team effort to collect valuable reef data. A first analysis of our survey data reveals there are different responses of the coral reefs to bleaching events. Previous surveys in Ari Atoll revealed that corals on inner reefs suffered severely from the 2016 bleaching, whereas those on outer reefs seemed to be coping better. Reefs didn’t recover in 2017 and 2018. However, this year in South Male’ and Vaavu Atoll we’ve noted baby corals growing well at new sites that we thought would be badly damaged, showing a greater diversity of corals ‘pushing through’ from the dead layer below. Before the bleaching event, a type of coral called Acropora were dominant, and almost ubiquitous. These are always badly affected by warming events. Our concern was that with Acropora-dominated shallow reefs being devoid of coral, the new freed up space may be dominated by algae and sponges – leading to a catastrophic decline in the very structure of islands that are built on hard corals (this is what has happened on the Bahamas already).

However, our surveys have shown resilience (of corals that are resistant to bleaching), adaptability (some reefs have other species coming through), and recovery (baby corals are almost everywhere). Water temperatures are still rather high and another temperature spike could still kill many of the corals we have seen and some of the newly settled small corals from the last year were bleached… So, while we are reasonably optimistic about these findings, further monitoring efforts are needed to follow up on these trends.

During our last two days, we were treated to some of the larger marine wildlife. In Dighura (South Ari atoll), we went looking for whale sharks to support the local NGO, Maldives Research Whale Shark Programme (MRWSP) that surveys them regularly in the area. After more than two hours of searching, Arish caught a glimpse of one just as it was diving under the boat. We circled around the area for a while with all eyes focusing on the water, but unfortunately were not able to relocate it and eventually decided to end the afternoon with a dive. While we were enjoying beautiful reefs in the deep, Jilian, our expert snorkeller on board and guide Suhag did manage to eventually find the 4 m long whale shark close to the surface and take some footage and data.

Meanwhile, on our last dive we saw marble rays, reef sharks, hawksbill turtle and humphead wrasse on top of all the smaller reef life we have all learnt to appreciate and understand a lot better during this week.

And there was more to come: a cruising manta ray was spotted near the boat when taking off our gear. We jumped into the blue again, quickly to realise that only the fastest swimmers could keep up and enjoy some precious moments with this gentle giant.

On our last afternoon our local placements on the expedition, Beybe and Farish, guided us around Villimale’ island to show us the efforts of their NGO ‘Save the Beach Maldives’ on tackling littering, coral restoration, as well as the future marine learning centre, where they will train more locals in Reef Check surveys to upscale monitoring efforts across the islands and engage young Maldivians in the conservation of their marine biodiversity. Over the years more than 100 volunteers have become involved, including local scout groups. Their year-long efforts on marine littering have clearly paid off, which was clear as we were strolling along pretty, clean tree lanes with colourful houses. We look forward to following their future conservation actions. This visit was also a reality check into the daily lives of the locals -far away from the liveaboards and fancy island resorts – and a unique goodbye for all of the citizen scientists, who have put in a lot of work, effort and dedication. Thanks to you all for making this a successful expedition. Shukuriyaa and more to come next year!

From citizen science to activism and rebellion for the planet: 20 years of Biosphere Expeditions

See our press release on this and tell us what you think!

From citizen science to activism and rebellion for the planet: 20 years of Biosphere Expeditions

“Sitting on our hands is simply not an option any more”, says Dr. Matthias Hammer, executive director of award-winning non-profit Biosphere Expeditions. The citizen science NGO was founded in 1999 and has worked in wildlife conservation ever since, with impressive results worldwide. To celebrate its 20th anniversary, but more importantly because the undeniable crisis our planet is in demands more action and activism, it has created 20 tips on how to be (radically) greener.

Hammer explains that “in our first 20 years, we were focused on citizen science and wildlife conservation (see the 20 year anniversary magazine). We will continue with this focus, but this, we feel, is no longer enough. The breakdown of our planetary life support systems demands more action and activism. It demands a radical rethink of how we run our lives, societies and the way we treat our planet.”

The 20 tips go from the light green of what we should all do as a bare minimum, to the dark green rejection of neoliberalism and the fallacy of endless growth, to joining the revolution that is gathering pace as we speak.

“Because sitting on our hands is simply not an option any more”, says Hammer. “We have a duty to act if we want to be able to look our grandchildren in the eyes. On our 20th anniversary, we joined the revolution and we are becoming more activist for the sake of our planet. We need 25% of the population to reshape society. Be on the right side of this revolution and join us now!”

Romania: The hills are alive with the sound of life

Another group, another arrival, introductions and training day. Another night with our two ferocious guard dogs, Labuși and Lucia standing watch against bears 😉

After some some more training on day 2, including hunting for gold on our GPSs, we set out in three teams to look for signs of bears and other animals. Team one began in the orchards above the village of Podul Dâmboviței, then to the meadows and forest margins above. Team two covered mixed meadow and forest terrain. Team three’s route took them through beech forest.

Our haul across the groups were signs of the high biodiversity we have in these mountains: all sorts of signs of deer, wild boar and of course bear. Birds of all sorts flitting about, mushrooms (including parasol and chanterelle, which we enjoyed back at base), the humming of a multitude of insects and birds, the sun shining on us, with mountains high and valleys low, and a group fully engaged. These hills are indeed alive with the sound of life and the work of citizen science.

Tonight were delighted to receive a visit from Christoph and Barbara Promberger, the founders of Foundation Conservation Carpathia, whose vision is to create Europe’s largest wilderness reserve, here in the Făgăraș Mountains. It’s great to be a part of this effort.


Maldives: Really seeing reefs – and some nurse sharks

Tomorrow morning we complete our last Reef Check transects and do an afternoon whale shark survey before slowly making our way back to Male’.

The last few days have been very productive with interesting data collection that start to reveal some positive and hopeful insights into how the reefs of the Maldives are faring. It is great to see how our citizen scientists have really made the routine of reef monitoring their own, recording everything they observe, keen to understand how the reef has changed, what tomorrow may bring and excited with every new observation that is then meticulously identified in the books.

In recreational diving you often cover quite a distance during a dive remembering only the turtle, shark, trevally and large fish schools afterwards. With Reef Check, your diving range is restricted to a transect of 100 m by 5 m, but it truly is an up close encounter and totally different exploration of the reef. Trainees marvel about the actual beauty and diversity of coral, notice the tiny coral recruits popping up, interpret predation and bleaching, discover the hidden groupers and moray eels. We even have a new ascidian fan on board, otherwise known as sea squirts 😉. Reef Check opens one’s eyes to the dynamics of the reef, the relationship between organisms, the role of each species within the habitat and to understand the health status of reefs in a broader environmental context.

The days are long, intense, but satisfying, with a yoga start on the upper deck and evening marine observations on the lower deck. Today we were treated to a devil ray off transect cruising over both transect lines. There was even time for a lazy non-data recording night dive. Little did we realise entering the water that about 20 nurse sharks would be cruising around us at arm’s length and still be with us when back on board, swimming at the surface close to the back deck. Funny to realise that we started with algae and zooplankton, became excited about squid and are now in the excellent company of these gentle giants….

Read more about the results of our Reef Check efforts in our next diary!

The reflections of one of our citizen scientists, Elfie’s, give a good insight on what it is like on board of this expedition:

It’s almost impossible to describe how incredible this expedition is – but I’ll give it a go! Each morning I pinch myself to check it is still real . . am I really in the Maldives, surveying coral reefs, and learning about their complex ecology from expert (yet funny) scientists? Yes, I really am here!

Then begins another day of choosing a coral reef to survey for research, and breaking into survey teams, choosing a task (my favourite is fish ID) and then the best part – diving on the reef to gather the data. The amount to learn is substantial, and the days of studying and diving are long, but the sense of reward is indescribable – as are the vegetarian meals prepared by our amazing local chefs.

Being here is a million miles away from my day job as part-time swimming teacher and part-time finance manager for the Manta Trust. The expedition has given me a real insight into the reef ecology of the Maldives, a chance to meet a wide range of interesting people and above all to put my diving skills towards something worthwhile. Plus I learnt to count to ten in Dhivehi today, so what more can I ask for!

Maldives: Trained and ready to survey

Over a two-day in-depth and hands-on training on substrate, fish, invertebrates and impacts, a new team of eleven Reef Check citizen scientists has been certified! We have a great group on board; eight nationalities, ranging from 26 to 63 years old, some very new divers, others quite experienced and with different backgrounds. What they all have in common is a motivation to go beyond recreational scuba and wanting to dive with a purpose and do their bit for the protection of coral reefs.

It has been a steep learning curve with lots of new information to process and even the occasional ‘information overload’ in our liveaboard classroom. However, once in the water during our test ID dives, the corals and fish were quite cooperative providing more clarity, while the invertebrates decided to stay away. A never-ending fish diversity became more familiar and easier to remember when our trainee citizen scientists started to attribute personalities to them, such as the grumpy grouper, the sexy sweetlips, the snobby emperor and the angry-eyed snapper. The latter one being the main cause of confusion. Aidan described it being just what a classical fish would look like and Greta wisely concluded ’ When in doubt, it is probably a snapper….’ The combination of science and storytelling clearly worked somehow, because everyone passed the test and with good scores! Congratulations and thanks for putting in the effort.

We are very fortunate to have Farish and Hassan (Beybe) on board, two experienced Maldivian divers passionate about marine biodiversity and determined to protect their reefs. On this expedition, they are being trained by our scientist Jean-Luc to become certified Reef Check Trainers so that they can in turn train local Maldivian divers further to increase Reef Check input and ensure local long-term monitoring efforts, which is much needed.

On top of this, we have been blessed with good weather and calm winds, the currents are a bit tricky at times and the ocean-atoll views when cruising from one site to the next are quite breathtaking, reminding us to enjoy this slice of paradise in between surveys. The liveaboard staff takes good care of us and in the scarce moments of downtime our team has been enjoying sunset views on the upper deck, nocturnal observations of zooplankton and cuttlefish coming up to the light at below deck and just getting to know each other better.

Now that everyone is fully certified, we will focus on in-water data collection in several new locations. Stay tuned for more and to find out what these new sites will reveal about the health of the Maldivian reefs. .

Romania: Stags, wild boars, bear, lynx and beautiful views

On day 5 we undertook habitat surveys for future beaver reintroduction sites. From base, we drove through the small town of Rucăr to the first area, past some daunting boulders and other extreme terrain.

After assessing areas at this first site, as well as finding bear prints at a ford and catching sight of a nutcracker – a bird found only in higher-altitude forested areas – we travelled to the second site. The drive took us up through a narrow and beautiful densely-forested valley, along a former logging road, now a hiking trail.

Humid, with dense, thick vegetation and fallen trees criss-crossing the narrow gorge, the area felt like a primeval forest.  We carried out more habitat surveys, and found more sites suitable for beavers. FCC plans to reintroduce pairs at numerous different locations around the reserve, next spring. Using the results of surveys including today’s, they will soon choose those locations, and monitor the animals’ impacts with subsequent surveys.

On day 6 we set off on a two-day excursion to Bunea and Comisu hides. Set on or near the mountain tops, they provide beautiful views over the forested hills, sometimes gleaming in the sunlight, sometimes hidden in clouds and sometimes with mist swirling around the trees. FCC has set the hides up as a conservation enterprise, to generate income to help fund their work. They are also also interested in understanding the impact of hides and associated feeding regimes on the behaviour of wild animals.

After a break at Bunea, the largest and most luxurious of the hides, the group split and one team trekked up to the hides at Comisu. On the way, we were thrilled to find a clear lynx print in the mud beside the path. Comisu hides 1 and 2 are higher up, and enjoy stunning views out over the surrounding mountains, including the unmistakable ridge of Piatra Craiului. While the team at Comisu made no observations that evening, those at Bunea enjoyed the sight of a large stag, spotted by Mihai, the cook, by torchlight after nighfall.

Rising at dawn on day 7, the team at Comisu were able to observe a wild boar, feeding for an hour just a few metres from the hide, followed by a spectacular sunrise. The Bunea team were visited by the same stag, at 06:15. Immediately upon his departure fifteen minutes later, those still in bed were swiftly awakened by the shout of ‘bear!’, as a small brown bear made a brief appearance, scavenging for corn not eaten by other visitors the preceeding day.

After breakfast, the two teams swapped hides. The team at Comisu split into two groups for the descent to Bunea. One group took the longer route, which initially ascended, past a mountain refuge, to an area with panoramic views. From here we could clearly see patches of forest which had earlier been clear-cut, then replanted by FCC, who are working hard to reintroduce a greater diversity of tree species, in contrast to the ecologically poorer spruce monocultures, which predominate in areas with a history of silviculture.

That evening, the group at Comisu observed two roe deer – likely a female and her foal, while those at Bunea saw a magnificant stag, thought to be the same individual, followed by a large wild boar at 21:00.

On the morning of day 8, both teams made an early start to meet at the vehicles. We bade each other fond farewells, then set off, to the airport at Bucharest, and other destinations.

Thank you group 1 for being trailblazers! See you tomorrow group 2.

20 tips for 20 years: how to be (radically) greener

Biosphere Expeditions was founded in 1999 and to celebrate its 20th anniversary has created 20 tips on how to tbe green. In our first 20 years we were focused on citizen science and wildlife conservation (see our 20 year anniversary magazine). We will continue with this focus, but this, we feel, is no longer enough. The undeniable crisis our planet is in demands more action and activism. It demands a radical rethink of how we run our lives, societies and the way we treat our planet. We have a duty to act if we want to be able to look our grandchildren in the eyes. On our 20th anniversary, we joined the revolution and we are becoming more activist for the sake of our planet. Join us now and look at our 20 tips!

Maldives: Ready to dive

Jean Luc and I have arrived safely on the MV Theia, a beautiful vessel and our research base for the next week.

The weather is looking promising and we are excited to get started. The first few days will be quite intense getting the Reef Check training done, but you will learn everything you ever wanted to know about coral reefs and more. No worries, you are in good hands and no doubt come prepared 😉

Don’t forget important paperwork such as your diving certification cards, PADI medical forms (where necessary), insurance details and Biosphere Expeditions checklist. Safe travels and I look forward to meeting you Saturday, at 11:00 at the Coffee Club in Male Airport.

Romania: Lynx & bison work

Day 3 saw the team embark on a full day of camera trapping. After a short session at base learning how camera traps work, and viewing some images of bears, lynx and wolves taken earlier, we set out in three teams, to check on existing cameras and install new ones.

The main focus of this work is lynx. These are hard to study using other non-invasive methods as their hair rarely contains enough DNA to successfully identify individuals, and their scat is hard to find, unless tracking them in snow. In contrast, it’s possible to identify individuals based on the unique patterns of markings on their flanks, so the camera traps we’re using take colour photos (with a flash at night) and are positioned in pairs to maximise the chances of photographing both flanks of passing animals.

Our suspicions as to the rangers’ descriptions of the terrain were verified – routes included some pretty steep and challenging sections. Trails involved four of five hours walking, with breaks for views. Along the way we encountered several fresh bear scats and prints, as well as a den.

During day 4, the team was working with Oliviu, an ecologist with FCC, on the enclosures, which will house the bison, due to be translocated in October this year. We drove, then hiked to Bunea hide, then located a suitable site on the forested slopes below, which will form part of the bison enclosure.

We undertook vegetation surveys along a transect, contributing to a baseline habitat assessment prior to the bisons’ release. This will allow FCC to understand the impact of the bisons’ presence on the forest, by comparing changes in the enclosed areas with ‘exclosures’ control plots in which the bison cannot graze.

The day was cooler, with a high temperature of 18 degrees, and light rain.

Tien Shan: Another snow leopard! (addendum)

We have a bit more to write to you. We know that at this point nearly all of you will have been home for a while, gotten back into your daily routine, and have forgotten what it is like to wake up to frost on your tent!

But we hope to grab your attention and awe once more before the weight of “real life” truly sinks back in. Volodya was recently going through some camera trap photos of where we had a camera knocked over by bulls. [For obvious reasons we are not mentioning exact camera trap locations here, but this particular trap was set by Bek, Kurt, Lothar, Guillaume, Christiana and Tessa on 5 July, and removed by Hubert and Jörg on 20 August]. There were nearly 3000 images of these bulls feeding in front of it in the end, and a couple images of foxes that were immediately recognisable. However, Volodya found a series of images that were late in the evening, that appeared to show something walking in front of the camera, but the exposure levels were way off and it was indistinguishable. After editing the contrast etc., Volodya discovered that prior to the bulls knocking it over, we had a snow leopard walk right in front of the camera on 15 July at 19:50!

The image shows the cat walking to the right of the camera, just like the other image taken in another location, which means we can compare the rosettes and see if it is a separate individual. Likely this could be inferred just from the location that each image was taken, but we’ll let you take a look at the two images side by side. This is your chance for one last bit of citizen science on expedition this summer!

What an amazing extra photo captured! And again, this photo wouldn’t have been possible without all the hard work that each of you put in to the project. So I’d like to once again say thank you for making this season’s expedition the most successful yet!

Do e-mail us your conclusion on whether it’s one or two individuals. Or comment below.

Right-click on images to download them to your computer to see them full size.

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