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!

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. .

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.

Maldives: Opener

Hi everyone, my name is An Bollen and I will be your expedition leader on this year’s expedition in the Maldives. We will be accompanied by our local scientist and marine biologist Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, who has been the Reef Check coordinator in the Maldives since 2005 and who joined nearly all previous expeditions.

An
Jean-Luc

On this ninth annual Reef Check survey expedition, you will be trained to become citizen scientist divers and help collect data on coral reefs, while also recording sightings of marine megafauna, such as whale sharks and rays. We will be visiting sites on the South Male and Vaavu atolls to survey the health of the coral reefs and their recovery following bleaching events.

I just had my expedition briefing outside Brussels and I’ll be travelling out in advance with Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt on Thursday, to ensure that everything is ready for your arrival, and will be in touch with updates and my local mobile number from Male’.

Looking forward to meeting you all on Saturday at the Coffee Club in the main airport’ hall in Male.

Safe travels to you all and see you soon for an adventure out in the blue!