Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

Our first dive survey went smoothly – reef sharks and an eagle ray spotted off transect – then we sailed to Faq al Asad (the jaw of the lion), a stunning site of crystal clear water, amazing rock formations, even dolphins! We ate our lunch and went for a snorkel to assess the reef, then kitted up as usual. The teams dived in and the invertebrate teams began to lay the transect. As they reached the end of the 10 0m and turned around to swim back to the start of the tape a freak current swept through the bay. The teams struggled back to find that the boat had completely swung on its anchor, one of the SMB’s marking the start of the transect had been swept away and air was running low. All was not lost, though, as we reeled the tapes back in and still had time to sail further round the peninsula with a pod of Arabian humpback dolphins at our bow, to a site aptly named “pray for calm.” It worked, and we managed to complete our survey just before dusk.

Not to be thwarted by the elements, we returned to Faq al Asad the following morning very early and collected the data we had missed the day before, then headed to Khayl Island for a glorious survey dive, complete with shipwreck. The site was so interesting we decided to stay for a night dive and explored the ancient porites mounds with their banded coral shrimp and moray eel inhabitants, with turtles, cuttlefish, giant porcupine fish and squid in the mix.After a scientific wrap-up from Jean-Luc, we moored away from any civilisation and spent our last peaceful night under the stars.

A big thank you to everyone for all your hard work and attentiveness. It’s been a steep learning curve, so much to take in, both in and out of water, and your diligence in collecting the data, even in adverse conditions – swarms of jelly fish and flies – was much appreciated. This expedition has confirmed for us that the reefs here in Musandam really are resilient to the ravages of climate change, and offer an insight into another type of hardier reef that can withstand very significant temperature fluctuations. It may not be as colourful, or as varied as traditional coral reefs, but it has a much healthier future than most!

Thank you also to Patrick for your retrieval skills – masks, fins, SMBs, plastic bags and even a cushion that got knocked overboard during a dawn yoga session! Thank you to the crew, who offered continuous support and demonstrated great expertise in getting us right where we wanted to be. Thank you all for your sense of curiosit, and enthusiasm for getting the work done. It was a pleasure working with you! I hope you continue Reef Checking now you have your certification and look forward to meeting you again on another Biosphere Expeditions project.

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Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

It’s been an eventful beginning to this year’s Musandam expedition – a tire on our trailer blew out as we were en route to Khasab, so we had to wait for another vehicle to transport all the kit. Arriving late at the harbour meant we had no time to spare if we wanted to complete our check dive before dark, though with an attentive team, and a competent skipper and his crew this was not an issue. The dive went well and we relaxed to the light of a huge silvery moon.

moon

The next couple of days were taken up with Reef Check training. From dawn ’til dusk the team studied, dived, and took tests above and under water.  The effort required was considerable but rewarding and by the afternoon of the third day everyone had passed all their tests and were fully qualified reef checkers. Well done! A great achievement for a team with an age range spanning 50 years! As a treat we took the speedboat and visited the local land-locked village of Kumzar, learning about the local customs and traditions from Yusef, our skipper.

kumzar

It is reassuring to see from our preliminary investigation that despite being flagged as a hot spot for coral bleaching, these corals seem to have adapted sufficiently to cope with such high temperatures. Not such good news is the first ever sighting on any Musandam expedition, of the coral-eating Drupella snail at, along with a proliferation of discarded fishing nets and lines. Reef Check veteran Ayesha managed to release two banner fish caught in a fish trap, though bat fish in another trap were not so fortunate.

drupella net

So with another five surveys ahead of us and the full moon tampering with the tide and currents, we still have very few full days ahead of us. But I have no doubt that if the last few days are anything to go by, the next will be filled with enthusiasm, hard work, and good humour.


Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

Greetings from Dubai – our preparation day has been very successful, beginning with a trip out to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) to collect our kit boxes that have been in storage there for the past year. The DDCR is our partner for our Arabia expedition (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/arabia) which runs each January, monitoring Arabian oryx, Gordon’s wildcat, and other flagship species, and they also kindly guard all the equipment we need to run the Musandam expedition as well. Once the kit had been checked and the car loaded, we went back to Dubai in search of an essential piece of O2 delivery equipment, without which we could not set sail tomorrow. After a hectic couple of hours, it was sourced, found, and collected! Thank you Nasser for your help!

Our next port of call was the iconic sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel where we met with David Robinson, their head aquarist. He took us behind the scenes, showing us the turtle rehabilitation work they are doing in Dubai, taking injured hawksbill and green turtles that get washed up on the beaches, and nursing them back to health for release back into the open ocean. David told us that there are only 60 breeding adult female hawksbill turtles left in the whole of the Southern Gulf of Arabia. This dangerously low figure is due to loss of habitat, unsustainable fishing practices and other anthropogenic influences.

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On our tour we saw the aquarium’s leopard shark, now 7 years old, born parthenogenetically, i.e. without external fertilisation. David was very excited, as yesterday, she too exhibited the first signs of laying her own clutch of eggs. Leopard sharks are only the 3rd species to show parthenogenesis in captivity.  David is not only working in Dubai, but is conducting research on whale shark ecology. As part of his PhD, David formed Sharkwatch Arabia, a database to collect whale shark sightings throughout the region. He recently discovered a massive aggregation of over 150 whale sharks in Qatar. Protected by the presence of oil rigs, the waters are not fished, and tourism is prohibited – a strange but effective MPA. He asked us to keep a lookout for whale shark and other shark species during our time in Musandam, as they are likely to be present in the areas we are surveying. We did indeed have a whale shark encounter two years ago, in the same location, so keep your eyes peeled – and remember, it may be above you!

So, after this very informative and enjoyable meeting we bid our farewells and rushed back to the Holiday Inn to collect another consignment of equipment – all in a day’s work!

It may be a few days before I can send another diary entry as internet connection out on the Musandam peninsula is sporadic to say the least, but I look forward to meeting you tomorrow at 09:00 – let the expedition begin!


Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

For those of you still under the impression you are coming on a cushy diving “cruise”, we thought you might like to see the itinerary and dive sites 😉

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Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman (www.biosphere-expeditions.org/musandam)

 

Hello and welcome to the first instalment of the Musandam diary.  I am Catherine Edsell your leader for this year’s expedition to the Musandam Peninsula. I have led this expedition for the past three years and feel privileged to be able to take you to such a stunning environment – we have a great expedition ahead of us. I trust all your preparations are going well, and I look forward to meeting you in Dubai at 09:00 on 25 October in the foyer of the Holiday Inn Express Jumeirah, our departure point to the northernmost tip of Oman.

It is our aim to replicate the surveys we performed in 2013 and 2011 as only by obtaining comparative data can we gain an insight into the true state of reef health. This year is an El Niño year. Sea surface temperatures are rising and as I write this, corals around the world are dying due to the intensity of this phenomenon. The temperature of the waters surrounding the Musandam Peninsula are always higher than the global average, making it a unique study site, as the corals here are already adapted to warmer temperatures. It will be interesting to document how much resilience they have and whether they are being affected. This is our quest.

To be able to collect accurate data, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt our expedition scientist, and I will first need to train you in Reef Check methodology, so please have a look at all the training materials available on our website (see your dossier for details), as the more familiar you are with the indicator species of fish and invertebrates and types of substrate we will be studying, the better!


Update from our SCUBA diving volunteer opportunity & conservation holiday on the coral reefs of the Musandam peninsula, Oman.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

No bleaching and lots of teaching on Biosphere Expeditions’ Maldives reef expedition 2015

If you have ever visited the Maldives, you will have seen fleets of luxury liveaboards motoring around the atolls taking their guests to well-known dive sites to experience the underwater beauty that the Maldives is famous for. This September, one of those liveaboards, the MV Carpe Diem, housed a rather different clientele – the honeymooners and adventure divers were replaced with studious environmentalists embarking on a training course to learn the monitoring techniques necessary to collect reef health data – Reef Check.

From five different countries, 10 participants, two of whom were Maldivian, came together to learn the Reef Check methodology on an annual research expedition organised by nonprofit conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions. Biosphere Expeditions recognizes the importance of training local Maldivians, alongside citizen scientsts from around the world. Once the expedition is over, and most participants have returned to their temperate homes, the Maldivians have continued access to their reef and with their newly acquired knowledge, can support Biosphere Expeditions’ work with additional Reef Checks, amongst them the first such all-Maldivian survey in 2014.

So, with the lounge of the Carpe Diem transformed into a classroom and its dhoni (dive boat) now a research vessel, the ten newly qualified Reef Check team set out on a survey route previously visited in 2011 and 2013. “We revisit the same sites to get a clearer idea of what’s going on,” says Catherine Edsell, expedition leader and Reef Check trainer, “much can be gleaned from repetitive datasets – they helps us to see what is changing, especially when it comes to the issue of bleaching.”

With a global El Niño event and documented sea surface temperatures rising, the team were on high alert for signs of coral bleaching. leaching occurs when corals are stressed resulting in expulsion of the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae), which not only give them their colour, but provide them with food via photosynthesis. Without their zooxanthellae corals appear bright white or luminous yellow and it was this sign that the team was on the look-out for.

Initial training dives around Baros Resort’s house reef revealed no such incidence, but Mariyam Shidha Afzal, this year’s expedition scientist and a previous Maldivian recipient of Biosphere Expeditions’ training programme said, “Bleaching can be quite localised, so we may find when we travel south that things are different.” Fortunately this was not the case and there was minimal bleaching at all survey sites. Storm damage, on the other hand, was quite severe, especially at Bathalaa Maaga and Holiday Thilla, and it was easy to see why, as throughout the expedition, monsoon storms battered the more exposed atolls, causing one of the surveys to be aborted.

“Understanding the factors that are affecting the health of the Maldives’ reefs is the ambition of the programme”, says Dr Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society and Reef Check co-ordinator for the Maldives. “It is never a simple story – when we put our heads underwater at each site, we have a basic understanding of what‘s likely to be affecting the reef, but Reef Check allows us to nail this down further with data on a wide variety of factors. At the same time we are able to train Maldivians and conservationists from other countries to do the same, so we are delighted with the long-term results of the trainings and collaborations we are forging in the Maldives.”

Biosphere Expeditions’ placements this year, kindly supported by the Rufford Foundation, were Mohammed Ryan Thoyyib, currently working for LaMer (Land and Marine Environmental Resource group – a local environmental consultancy), and Irthisham Hassan Zareer from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. Both organisations have an ongoing relationship with Biosphere Expeditions and offer up their most promising candidates to become Reef Checkers. “I feel extremely lucky to be part of such an expedition that brings people together from different corners of the world for the same goals, to try and conserve the beautiful reefs that we are blessed with,” says Irthrisham, “I am hoping to get in contact with some of the other Reef Check trainers from the Maldives and with the help of some more dedicated divers, carry out more surveys at the end of the year.”

2015 expedition slideshow:

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

So, sadly all good things must come to an end. It has been an excellent expedition, with a hardworking, diligent, enthusiastic team. The fact that everyone passed their Reef Check tests first time was testament to the effort put into studies. And despite being a diverse group from many different countries, with an age difference of over 30 years, the team gelled really well and we all had a lot of fun together. Thanks also to Shidha, our scientist, who stepped in at the last minute and did a great job.

I must mention the fantastic crew of the Carpe Diem who supported us both on board and under water – without them, some of our transects would not have been laid, due to the extreme weather and currents we encountered, so they really were integral to the success of the expedition and the collection of valuable data. Thank you!

In addition to all our Reef Check data, (which will be published in the 2015 Maldives Report), we also collected ID shots of manta rays, which I will submit to Manta Matcher www.mantamatcher.org. This a conservation group that endeavours to learn more about the habits of Manta rays worldwide, with a view to their protection. Of course our whale shark encounters that were also mapped and logged will also be submitted to the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme http://maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org. Using IS3, a programme initially designed by NASA to identify constellations, we were able to identify two of the sharks we saw by matching ID photographs of their markings to those already on the MWSRP’s database. Our sharks were called Adam and Kokko, two juvenile males taking refuge in the warm sheltered waters of Ari Atoll.

So thank you all for your energy, your laughter, for joining me on the sun deck for yoga at dawn, for revising late into the night, for supporting and helping each other throughout the week – you really made a fantastic team, and I hope to meet you all on another expedition someday.

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

 

Our final Reef Check survey at Holiday Thilla went exceptionally smoothly. We recorded a lot of storm damage, but fortunately there was no actual storm during our data collection.

Next on the agenda was our whale shark survey, but the whale sharks beat us to it, interrupting our data entry! We grabbed our masks and snorkels and hopped back onto the dhoni (our dive boat) and set off down the transect to catch up with the shark. All in all we had five encounters with three individuals, the last unfortunately disturbed by a dive boat and jumping divers who scared it away. Iru, our placement from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), and the dive guides were outraged by the behaviour of the dive boat and rightly told them so! Encounter protocols are so rarely followed and although we were in an MPA (marine protected area), there is no enforcement and no limit on the amount of boats (and people) that can safely enter an area where a whale shark is present. It is very common for the sharks to bear scars as testament to this unregulated behaviour.

After a couple of hours of surveying, we headed back to the Carpe Diem and listened to Iru’s excellent presentation about the whale shark and the work that the MWSRP are doing, and later visited their headquarters on Dighura atoll – it was great to see such inspiring work taking place.

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

Our third Reef Check survey at Kudafalu went well and we arrived at Digga Thilla with high hopes and great expectations. Digga Thilla is a submerged pinnacle, rather than island and does not break the surface of the ocean. Its exposed position means that it is at the mercy of unpredictable wave action and current – and due to the recent storms we have been subjected to, Wednesday was one of those days! After fighting the current and surge for a while, we had to abort, leaving our survey unfinished. Well done though to Lori and Shidha for battling through and actually finishing their part of the transect!

Saddened by the fact that we had failed in our data collection, we came up with the idea that perhaps in the coming months a team of Maldivian Reef Checkers (trained by Biosphere Expeditions in previous years), could return to Digga Thilla and survey the reef in our place!  Iru and Ryan, our current Maldivian trainees thought that was a great idea  – we look forward to hearing their results!

buddies safety stop

Continue reading “From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)”

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/maldives)

 

Our first transit across open ocean from one atoll to another greeted us with storms – and these continued into the night. With the Carpe Diem rocking wildly in the wind and waves, it was quite a rough night’s sleep, for everyone except Yannick and Desiree who slept through the whole affair!

It’s been an exciting couple of days for the Maldives team – we’ve dived with reef sharks, eagle rays and enormous humphead wrasse during a dawn dive before work, and snorkled with Manta rays after dinner! Everyone passed all their tests first time round so no re-tests were necessary. Congratulations to you all!  This also meant that we could all focus our attention on the survey work.   We’ve now completed two full Reef Check surveys in Rasdhoo Atoll and Bathalaa Maagaa, and so far the news is good – no significant bleaching.

The stormy weather is still with us, but let’s hope it will be a calmer night tonight, with clear skies for tomorrow’s survey in Kudafalu.

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