Malawi: Underway

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

After an epic drive half the length of Malawi, including a wrong turn, the expedition team arrived at base in darkness on Sunday. Spirits were high and grumbling non-existent, a sure sign of a good expedition team. So straight into introductions and a talk we went, before dinner and early bed.

Monday started early with tea & coffee at 05:00 followed by a 05:30 two-hour game/orientation drive round a small part of the Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. The rest of the day we spent on training – background, equipment, datasheets, methodology for our various activities such as camera trapping, hippos, elephants, pangolins, iNaturalist and more. It’s an intensive two days of training and as I write this we are into day two. Olivia, our chief scientist, has set us targets. For example 200 species records on iNaturalist and 700 entries. Matthias, a birder, sprang into action and already has 57 bird species recorded. Of course Olivia can always adjust the target… Last night we also set up camera traps.

And all the while Vwaza reminds us where we are: Africa. As we are trained to be citizen scientists animals amble by base: baboons, elephants, kudus, impala, bushbuck and more. Crocodiles and hippos lurk in the lake, the sunsets are spectacular, the dawn chorus beautiful, the food good and plentiful, the (new) showers working. Life is hard as a citizen scientist in Malawi.

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Malawi: Mad Max?

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

Vwaza is as beautiful as ever, the sunsets amazing, the elephants on form (and in camp this morning), the hippos grunting, the sky blue and a balmy 26C during the day.

We’re shopping, writing, building, planning, scheming all day. It’s going well and almost to plan. The fuel situation in Malawi is tough at the moment. Very little around, long queues at the petrol stations, European prices. This morning at 4 we went to a ‘nearby’ station to get our towels down early for fuelling up. We were in the front of the queue and there was fuel – so far so good. When the station opened at 6, there was a power cut. No power, no pump, no fuel. So we rustled up a generator, put it on our pick-up, took it to the petrol station and – voilĂ  – two hours later our tanks were full. Word got round quickly and soon there were crowds.

Is this the beginning of the end game? Will Mad Max become reality? You have to wonder. Still, we soldier on and do what we can to protect nature and our beautiful planet. We are the ambulance that tries to keep the patient alive until the doctors decide to save it. Thank you for your service for the next two weeks.

And so that you know what you have let yourself in for, here’s a taste of what’s coming your way:

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Covid status update September 2022

We have so far run three expeditions (Azores, Sweden and Maldives) successfully without Covid incidences and two more expeditions (Germany and Tien Shan) with incidences, but where our procedures worked and allowed us to continue and finish the expedition as planned. As a result, we are retaining these procedures:

We still require expeditioners to be fully vaccinated, including a booster vaccination. There is no time limit on when the vaccinations must have been received, as long as expeditioners are fully vaccinated and boostered with a vaccine that is either approved by or under the assessment of the WHO.

We will still require you to perform a rapid Covid self-test at the beginning of each expedition group (test supplied by Biosphere Expeditions).

We will still require expeditioners to bring some additional self-test kits and masks, just in case (see below).If this situation changes, we will notify everyone here.

Please also note that our normal terms & conditions now apply again to all expedition signups.

More information and answers to frequently asked questions are here.

Malawi: Slog no more

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

Our advance party is in Lilongwe and it’s good to be back. Malawi is its old self. Chaotic, friendly, hot, sunny, dusty, red. They call it “the warm heart of Africa” and whichever PR agency came up with that tag line did a good job.

We’ve met with Benni, Tom, Olivia from Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT), our local partner, to talk through our Malawi expedition. We’ve run from shop to shop in search of medical supplies, duck tape, tupperware, etc. We’ve unpacked, inventoried and re-orged equipment that has languished in storage for three years, desperate to be let out into the field. We’ve made plans and new friends. We’re typing away at our laptops, updating documents, procedures and datasheets and writing blogs. We’ve negotiated potholes and the ebb and flow of Lilongwe traffic. We’ve stuck out like sore thumbs with our fair skin at markets and shops. Much of it the usual expedition routine – often scorned as we became too comfortable with expedition life, but now much appreciated after lockdowns and no fieldwork for far too long.

Anyway, we are getting ready for you. Roland is sitting in an aeroplane somewhere between London and Lilongwe, and on Thursday morning, we’ll be on our way to Vwaza to get everything ready for you. We’ll report back from there and then we’ll see you on Sunday.

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Malawi: Back in business

Update from our Malawi expedition volunteering with elephants, hippo, cats, pangolins and African biodiversity

After a three-year wait we are now also back in business in Malawi and if the weather in Lilongwe (solid sunshine for the next week with temperatures peaking around 30C) is anything to go by, then the sun is indeed shining on us and this ‘back in business’ expedition.

But we need to get there first and this is proving somewhat difficult. Because of a funeral in London on Monday and the accompanying hysteria in the kingdom, Roland’s flight, which was meant to take off on Monday has been delayed for 30 hours. Quite why remains a mystery. On the topic of hysteria, also see an interesting article about funeral vs environmental crisis coverage.

Matthias, leaving from a republic, is on schedule to depart tonight. He will prepare the ground for Roland and then double up as chauffeur to drive our great expedition leader up to Vwaza after his red carpet arrival, with all the prep work having been done.

Matthias will report back in from Lilongwe. For now, enjoy your packing & preparation, make sure you swot up on the science using your field manual, and start getting excited. It is happening again after a long wait!

Some impressions of the 2019 expedition:

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Maldives: A dozen years, done

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

We have just finished our twelfth (!) year of Reef Check surveying in the Maldives and who better to talk about the results of this coral reef expedition than our scientist Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt:

Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt summarising the expedition’s results

Over the last week we surveyed eight sites, collected hundreds of data points, saw good reefs and bad, big things such as sharks and manta rays (but sadly no whale sharks), but more importantly little things such as butterflyfish, snapper, coral banded shrimp, diadema urchins, hard and soft coral, rubble, rock and nutrient indicator algae. Our newly qualified EcoDivers now know and appreciate the significance of these indicators and their dedication and attention to detail is what makes this expedition work.

Dr. Solandt will now write up our findings into a report, to be published within a few months and given to government and decision-makers in the Maldives. Our placements Shuga, Bas & Hampti will continue surveys whilst we are away, keeping the Reef Check fire burning until we return in a year’s time. A twelve year dataset is an impressive achievement in any kind of scientific study and it is the time and money that our citizen scientists put in that makes this possible. So thank you again Paula, Steve, Olivier, Peter, Rick, Mark, Shuga, Bas, Toshia, Ann, Tine and Hampti and all those that came before you, and happy birthday Mark on top. What a great excuse to have a farewell and birthday party put together.

Expedition team 2022

What a great expedition. I hope to see most of you again on expedition some day on this beautiful and fragile planet of ours!

Dr. Matthias Hammer
Expedition leader

Thank you to Jean-Luc Solandt for all the pictures in this year’s Maldives expedition blog

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Maldives: Giving, not taking

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

We are half way through our annual coral reef and whale shark expedition here in the Maldives. Training in Reef Check was the usual mad dash. Everyone got there in the end. Congratulations to all new Reef Check EcoDivers!

Today is our first day of surveys only. Like a fairly well-oiled machine we descend onto the reef, lay the line of science, then count fish, invertebrates and impacts as well as substrate along it. The numbers and codes we glean from two depths tell us tales of reefs hanging on, despite multiple stresses: oceans that are getting warmer and more acidic due to climate change, land reclaims through artificial sandbanks whose grains in the current smother the corals, building works on many islands and increased tourist activity as if continued growth on a finite planet and building bridges between islands was the answer. It is not. The former is a mathematical impossibility and the latter a short-sighted pipe dream.

So we do what we can. There are 250 liveaboards in the Maldives taking tourist divers around all year. We are one liveaboard of 14 scientists and citizen scientists doing surveys for a week. We are the only ones. You can do the maths yourself.

We may be one in several thousands and a quiet voice in the chatter of growth and development, but it is a beautiful experience nonetheless. A holiday with a purpose with Reef Check as our zen companion. Reef Check teaches you to look at a reef in a totally new way, to appreciate the little things and not obsess about the megafauna. We enjoy coral banded shrimp, the skill to be able to tell a soft coral from a hard coral from rock or rubble. We delight in watching grouper behaviour, small as they may be, or spotting snapper that have not been overfished. Sure, there are lobsters, humphead wrasse, turtles and sharks too. But this is not what it’s about. Instead it is about doing our bit for the reef, giving up our time and money in the process. It’s about hard work, not pleasure diving to satisfy your very own self-centred needs. It’s about giving, not taking. And this really is what the planet needs now.

Thank you Jean-Luc, Paula, Steve, Olivier, Peter, Rick, Mark, Shuga, Bas, Toshia, Ann, Tine and Hampti for giving.

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Maldives: A reef bouncing back

Update from our Maldives coral reef and whale shark expedition

The Baros staff passed their EcoDiver tests with flying colours, congratulations. Amongst them is Shuga, a local marine biologist, who will join us on the boat and who will be a great asset to the team.

As the culmination of our two days of diving, we conducted a first survey of the Baros house reef. And what better place to record the data and celebrate certification than the beaches and the bar of this beautiful little island. The data confirmed my initial impression of a reef in recovery mode: good hard coral cover (38%), decent fish populations (with parrotfish and butterlyfish dominating, and groupers, sweetlips and snappers present), and very little coral damage such as bleaching or evidence of anchoring or pollution.I hope this is a good omen for the rest of our surveys. See you later today to find out.

Newly qualified (from right): Shuga, Ali and Ambra
Data entry
Baros house reef from above
Data entry

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