Malawi: Lilongwe, but not for long

I arrived  in Lilongwe early in the afternoon. No delays, no queuing … almost. I was lucky enough to get out of the plane quickly and into the first bus to the arrival terminal. Right at the entrance you have to present your passport and vaccination card before you can proceed to the visa application check desk. Don’t forget to download and fill in the form back at home so that you can proceed straight away while others are busy with completing their forms.

Amanda (Mandy) picked me up from the airport together with Robert, a local LWT employee who you will be meeting you at Mafumu hotel for assembly. He is briefed on the meet & greet procedure and will make sure that everyone gets on the bus to base where Mandy & I will be waiting for you.

Robert & I went for some last minute shopping before he dropped me off at Mafumu Hotel. It’s a lovely place, the weather is pleasantly warm and the Malawian people are exceptionally friendly and welcoming. They say they’re the heart of Africa…

You have my local phone number from a previous e-mail. Reception in Lilongwe is very good; not sure what it is like on the eight hour drive up to base. Mandy and I will leave the capital tomorrow early in the morning – more from me once we have arrived at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

Malawi: Getting ready

Hello everyone and welcome to the 2019 Malawi expedition diary

My name is Malika and I will be your expedition leader on this year‘s biodiversity monitoring project at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve.

Malika Fettak

Together with our partners Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Conservation Research Africa (CRA) we‘ve been organising over the last few weeks logistics, research equipment and camp so that everything will be in place & prepared for your arrival.

I am currently on my way from Europe to Lilongwe and will meet up with Amanda, Head researcher at LWT straight after my arrival.

Amanda Harwood

Our plan is to go for some a last shopping run in town before we drive up to the reserve on Wednesday, where we will meet head CRA researcher Karen Shevlin.

Karen Shevlin

We already have a work plan including a great variety of activities and can‘t wait to train you up for collecting data in the field. Right…this is not a holiday! 😉

We’ve already sent the work plan to the expedition team and you have seen the 2018 expedition report as summary and culmination of what citizen science and hard work can achieve. So come prepared for two busy weeks full of exciting tasks in wonderful landscapes hosting amazing African wildlife.

I will be in touch again before I leave Lilongwe with an update from the ground.

Bye for now, enjoy your preparations and safe travels group 1!


Romania: Bear visits, lynx photos, fire toads and hummingbird moths

On day 3 we split into three teams to set and check camera traps for lynx, in the vicinity of neighbouring villages. FCC aim to install 64 camera trap stations by the beginning of October, so we are here at the perfect time to help them out.

Team 1 followed a long and winding logging road past signs of deer – tracks and stripped saplings, whose bark is rich in the minerals they need to regrow their antlers. After hopping dead trees and scrambling uphill, we were able to see out across the Dragoslovene Valley to and Mount Tamasel and Draxin, with clearings dotted in amongst the forest.

Approaching the target area, we heard the unmistakable noise of chainsaws and falling trees, meaning we had to carry on further to find unmarked trees, not in danger of being felled. On the way back down, we came across fire-bellied toads, in a pond formed of a wheel rut.

Team 2’s long route took them past a spot where deer had recently slept, to a lookout where they stopped to admire the sight of house martins swooping as they fed. Camera traps installed, they passed an area of cleared forest where FCC is replanting, through beautiful, mature beech forest. On the way they found bear scat and hair, including possibly from a bear cub, from a rubbing tree.

Team 3 both installed and checked camera traps, recovering over 60 photos from one. At one point they encountered multiple tracks in the mud, including of a wild cat.

We awoke on day 4 to find that the camp had been visited that night by a bear, who was attracted by the rubbish bins, and left us our freshest sample yet! When the rangers arrived, they showed us photos of a lynx sighting on the previous day’s camera traps.

Setting off, we drove through Stoinești and Cotenești, to sample future beaver habitat in two locations. The team sampling Valea lui Coman found three sites that contained the right mix of vegetation, habitat and lack of human disturbance favourable to beavers. They also came across otter tracks and markings under a bridge, as well as two species of hummingbird moth. They then made a visit to an FCC fir nursery, nestled in a forest clearing at the end of a forest track bounded up a precipitous gorge.

The team sampling Valea Badenilor found a mix of sites, including one highly suitable for beaver, where FCC are planting more willow. On the way back they made a visit to a monastery perched on a clifftop, built on the site of an ancient Dacian temple.


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. .