I am in London now for meetings, one of which was about the Omani government’s plans for Musandam and marine protected areas there, and how we can help in their establishment and designation. Things are moving and we are delighted to be involved.
Meanwhile a good, informative article has appeared in Muscat Daily, summarising the work of our 2015 expedition and the threats the Musandam reefs are facing, and what can be done to safeguard the reefs. Keeping Musandam on the public agenda in Oman is part of our strategy and one of the reasons why we publish press releases about our work.
Tomorrow I will board a flight to Dubai to set up the expedition, a couple of days ahead of you. I have not heard from anyone who cannot make the earlier 08:00 assembly, so I will see you all in the lobby at that time. Those of you meeting us in Khasab, please also be there an hour earlier, so 11:00 instead of 12:00 noon.
I will write again from Dubai with a quick confirmation of my local phone number.
Hello and welcome to the first diary entry of the 2016 Musandam expedition. I am Matthias Hammer, the founder & executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, and also your expedition leader this year. I will work alongside our chief scientist Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt.
This year is an exciting year to take part in the expedition. Things are happening in terms of strategic thinking, including protected areas and national parks, in Musandam and Biosphere Expeditions and the data we have collected over the years is very much part of this process. A lot of the information is still confidential, so not for this forum, but suffice it to say that we at Biosphere Expeditions are excited about what is happening and proud to be part of the processes. And so should you as what you have done and are about to do is very relevant. More on this on the ground when we all meet.
But before this, some admin things: First of all, I would like to make the assembly time on 23 October to 08:00 (instead of 09:00 as per the dossier) to give us more time on that day. Please e-mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a problem with this. If I do not hear from you, I will assume an 08:00 start is fine with everyone and I will confirm this in another diary entry closer to the time. Secondly, I will also confirm my local phone number closer to the time, when I have arrived in Dubai to set things up, which should be a couple of days ahead of you.
Other than that, we are getting ready here at Biosphere Expeditions and all flights and transfers are booked, equipment is purchased, etc. I hope your preparations are going well too. Please do not forget to swot up on Reef Check (see your dossier for details)! The more you can do now, the easier the first two days, which are crammed with lectures and tests before we allow you to collect data, will be for you, so time invested beforehand is time well spent.
I’ll be back in touch from Dubai, if not before, with other updates.
Bleaching and crown of thorns wreak havoc on Maldives reefs – but is this a temporary blip?
Coral reefs have existed for around 300 million years. Today they are under severe threat and the island nation of the Maldives, whose economy and very existence is based on corals, is no exception. Biosphere Expeditions and the Marine Conservation Society report.
Both coral bleaching (where hot water stresses corals) and Crown of Thorns starfish can be considered ‘natural’ events. But when these events happen often and with increased severity, reef survival is threatened, and therefore the very survival of coral reef nations such as the Maldives.
Recent dive surveys by an international and Maldivian team of divers (Biosphere Expeditions, the Marine Conservation Society and Maldivian partners) have revealed a worrying reduction in the amount of Maldivian live coral over the past year. Healthy coral cover has been reduced to below 10% in more sheltered inner atoll reefs by bhe recent El Niño that has also devastated much of the Great Barrier Reef. El Niño hit the Maldives in May this year with two weeks of 32 degrees centigrade waters – at least 2 degrees above the ‘normal’ upper limit of 30 degrees. Outer reefs that are flushed with deeper, cooler water on a more regular basis have fared better (with an average of 25% live coral cover).
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt the Biosphere Expeditions programme scientist from the Marine Conservation Society says: “Our surveys showed a clear pattern, with reefs inside atolls being the worst affected.” Some of the reefs denuded by the warming have also been hit hard by Crown of Thorns starfish, which eat corals. Solandt continues: “Sadly, one of the reefs that was beautiful with upwards of 70% hard coral some four years ago have their remnant corals now being eaten by Crown of Thorns starfish. These coral-eating starfish have decimated the Great Barrier Reef through geological time, and have been affecting the Maldives for over two years now.”
Shaha Hashim, a Maldivian conservationist and linchpin for community-based survey and reef conservation efforts, took part in the expedition to and adds: “More stringent efforts to conserve and build up the resilience of these marine ecosystems are crucial for our survival as an island nation. Development planning and policies need to put a higher value on environmental impacts, which is the prerequisite for any social or economic harmony.”
Dr. Matthias Hammer, founder and executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, concludes: “We are very concerned for the people of the Maldives. Almost everything depends on healthy reefs: The economy, food, welfare, tourism income. If reefs are threatened, so is the very existence of the country and its social cohesion. We hope the reefs will recover, and whilst coral bleaching cannot be locally managed, fisheries, litter and pollution can be. We urge the government to use some of the income from the heavily consumptive tourism industry to pay back – to invest in the very survival of their islands and nation. Without investment from this sector, we believe the reefs will struggle to return.”
But there is a silver lining: “What gives us hope is that the last big bleaching even in 1998 was hotter, longer and more severe, and many reefs recovered good coral growth within seven years”, says Solandt. Hammer adds: “It is not all doom and gloom. Where officialdom is failing, civil society and committed Maldivians are stepping in. Ever since Biosphere Expeditions started running its annual research trip to the Maldives in 2011, it has educated and trained Maldivians in reef survey techniques as part of the Biosphere Expeditions’ placement programme. This culminated in the first-ever all-Maldivian reef survey in November 2014 and other community-based conservation initiatives since then, the latest in March 2016. Shaha Hasihim, for example, has taken part in several expeditions and is now training her compatriots in reef survey techniques and setting up community-based conservation programmes. So there is hope yet!”.
Biosphere Expeditions and the Marine Conservation Society have published a recommendations and action plan. They recommend – at a national scale:
1. Minimum and maximum landing sizes of reef fish within commercial fisheries (as recommended by the Darwin Grouper project).
2. Ensure that resorts only buy fish above breeding age (much of the data of the size of maturity of reef fish is available from http://www.fishbase.org). Any fish below the size of maturity should be refused by resort marine biologists and catering staff.
3. Enforce protection of grouper spawning grounds, as recommended by scientists under the Darwin Grouper project, and gazetted under Maldivian law.
4. Employ marine enforcement officers at resorts to patrol house reefs, and to make them ‘no take zones’.
5. Only allow ‘catch and release’ fishing for resort guests as a matter of Maldivian law, enforced by resorts themselves with their own marine enforcement officers.
6. Use the economic returns from the tourism sector, and fisheries sector to invest in a proper waste recycling system to avoid the dumping and burning of waste.
7. Ensure that each resort uses tertiary sewage systems to treat waste water.
8. Where possible, use renewable technologies to harness the power of the sun, tide and wind to support the large energy demands of the tourist sector.
9. Use national incentives, such as ‘greenest resort award’ and ‘best reef award’ for those resorts who manage their reefs and environmental impact well. Provide tax breaks for such resorts.
Here is a selection of pictures from this year’s expedition. Thank you to everyone who contributed.
We have completed the week with six full Reef Check surveys under our belt and some fascinating variations in what we are seeing underwater. Jean-Luc, our expedition scientist, formed a theory early on in the week that it was the corals on the outer reefs that were doing better than the more sheltered inner-reef corals, and it is a theory that has held true in the areas that we have been surveying.
We have gone from Rasdhoo at the north end of the North Ari Atoll, we have dived Bathalaa, Kuda Falhu, Dega Giri and all the way to Holiday Thila in the South Ari Atoll. Quite a journey involving a lot of travelling between sites in some lumpy seas, but with a great group of divers as company and some really lovely food to eat, it has not felt like that much of a journey.
Our week ended with a whale shark survey, led by Iru who is one of the local placements on the boat who works for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.
She talked us through the work that she does and how we could help with the survey, but unfortunately we didn’t see a whale shark this year. Instead we added in a lazy drift dive on the outer reef, which looked really healthy and Jean-Luc managed to throw in an extra substrate survey as he could not resist adding to his data (he thinks of little else)!!
The week was completed by a visit to Dhigurah Island with Aru (another of our local placements) leading the group, showing us his home. What a beautiful island! We had a fascinating visit, seeing the school and meeting Aru’s biology teacher, seeing the dive base where Aru (aged only 19) is completing his diving instructor training, and seeing how the local Maldivians live. Thank you Aru (and Iru, who is is based there as part of her whale shark work) for showing us your home!
All that was left on Friday was to take the boat back up to the north where we began. The captain set the boat off early for what should have been a five-hour journey, but with force 7 winds picking up, it took a lot longer (some vessels could not get to Male’ that morning). Thanks to our captain for getting us safely back with everyone leaving on time for their flights. And thanks to all the team for a great week. We achieved a lot in a week, with everyone working hard, but we also had a lot of fun – the night time chair fishing will stick in my memory! Final thanks go to Shaha for her dedicated contribution to the science tuition, to Jean-Luc for doing an amazing job working far too hard throughout the week, and to our two dive masters, Chakku and Atho, for helping out with the survey dives and contributing their wealth of local knowledge. And finally the team, who could have just gone on an ordinary dive holiday, but instead chose to go diving with a purpose, giving their time and money for reef conservation in the Maldives, where it is badly needed.
All the best to everyone and hope to see you all again.
Everyone passed all the tests, both land-based and the in-water ‘pointy’ tests, where the trainers do indeed point at things and ask people to write on their slates what they think they are. We also completed our first Reef Check survey at Rasdoo, an exposed outer reef site, and encouragingly reefs were less affected by bleaching – the first reef check survey dive acts as a kind of final dress rehearsal, but if all goes well we use the data. It all went well.
One of our fish teams, however, did look a bit distressed when they came up from the dive. Rajiv had a wide-eyed stare and blank expression and when asked what happened, he just said that everything was ok until near the end and then ‘I was overwhelmed’. ‘What do you mean?’. ‘I was overwhelmed by fish!!’. It seems that the abundance was a bit of an issue. So we’ve done a bit more work on estimating schools of fish in case it happens again…
The dive itself was a really nice one, with a relatively flat reef down to about 4 m and then a wall going down below our survey teams. With low current and good visibility in our favour, the work was done very efficiently by all and several teams managed to see the eagle rays, turtles and sharks that cruised past and even lay undisturbed (in the case of one of the turtles), right next to our transect line.
It seems the faster-growing species have been more severely affected than slower-growing massive species. It appears that even within the same massive species (e.g. porites), some are much more affected than others, at the same depth, side by side. Is this because some have bleaching resistant zooxanthellae (their symbiotic algae) and some don’t? We don’t know the answer, but we are trying to find out…
We’ve completed the second day of training and everyone has passed the first Reef Check test. The test was about identifying particular types of fish that are good indicators of reef health – and is generally considered to be the hardest test that we’ll do – so well done to all the team!
Our training has so far all been done at Baros, where the resort is a partner in our work on reefs. During the training we have found, unfortunately, what we expected – a great deal of bleaching. Bleaching is extensive down to at least 20 m. Particularly hard hit are the more ephemeral branching corals, with significant (more than 50%) bleaching of most of the older, slower-growing massive corals as well. Total coral cover used to be 45% at the Baros house reef.
That fell to only 10% in mid-May. Hopefully we’ll see less severe effects in our other survey sites from tomorrow onwards, but this is all we can do at this stage – hope. In the meantime, the life on the reef is still abundant.
The team is having a great time, with some glorious veggie food being provided on board our very comfortable live-aboard. We’ll be doing more tests tomorrow and a full mock/practice Reef Check survey in final preparation for doing the real thing from Tuesday onwards.
I have been here in the Maldives for 24 hours now and have seen all sorts of weather from heavy rain storms and high winds to hot, steady sunshine. The only constant is the temperature, which has remained at a warm but comfortable 30 degrees centigrade. The sea has been quite choppy with all the wind, so we may get some bumpy crossings.
Our evenings will be spent at quiet anchorages inside the atolls, so we will have calm evenings and overnights.
Arrangements are going well for everyone’s arrival on Saturday and with our usual boat being refitted, we have been given an upgrade so the accommodation will be very nice.
As expedition leader one of my main concerns is everyone’s safety and as part of this role, I have visited one of the main hyperbaric chambers on the Maldives and met with the manager.
They have a very good set-up here and I was impressed with the organisation. We have never needed to use these facilities as all of our survey dives are relatively shallow and we work well within PADI diving protocols, but it is important to be prepared.
Hi, my name is Kathy and I’m going to be your leader for this year’s Maldives expedition starting soon. I’m going to be leaving the UK at the weekend to ensure that everything is well prepared for your arrival on 9 July. Once I have made it to Male’, I’ll be in touch again with my local mobile number and some updates.
We are expecting a substantial amount of bleaching to have occurred this year, so be prepared for some strange sights on our surveys. Our scientist, Jean-Luc, knows a lot about the phenomenon that has caused this and the extent of the impact around the world, so expect to learn a lot about it and the work that has been going on around the problem. We will be documenting an exceptional event and your work on this will be crucial.
This is what Jean-Luc has said about the expedition this year: “The reason we’re doing this route is unfortunately one of sadness – to see the impact of climate change. As everyone’s probably aware, a massive bleaching event has hit the Maldives in May as a result of a strong and long El Niño. It has killed many shallow water Maldives reefs. El Niño increases surface sea water temperatures in coastal and oceanic waters, stressing many corals. Our trip is to see the extent of the damage caused by the hot water that was over Maldives reefs in early May. As our trip is in July, it allows us to see the short-term recovery of the reefs that we’ve been surveying since 2011. Our work this year, and in subsequent years, is to see which sites are more resilient.”
Below is our proposed survey route FYI.
I’m really looking forward to meeting you all and I hope your travels go well.
Divers rediscover Eden for coral reefs in the face of climate change
The waters of the world’s tropical coral reefs are warming and getting more acidic in the face of increased C02 concentration. Reefs in most parts of the world are dying from such stress and it appears that the ability for coral reefs to recover from periodic El Nino events is being diminished – because of increasing frequency of warming, pollution, increased sedimentation and disease. However, the corals of the Musandam in northern Oman are currently an exception. Here reefs are extremely healthy, covering the shallow waters of the mountainous peninsula with extreme variety of growth forms from massive 400 year old 4m high ‘boulder’ coral to the delicate yet important branching and ‘bushy’ corals. Coral cover regularly exceeds 70% in nearshore embayments
Elsewhere in the world, corals have been reduced to rubble, their once great carbonate structures being eroded by boring sponges and worms, whilst successive warming events and overfishing of herbivores has resulted in massive plant growth, suffocating what’s left of corals, and attracting opportunistic algae. The majority of Jamaica’s once spectacular reefs have been turned from ‘coral’ to ‘algal’.
Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Reef Check Course Director of the region said: ‘The past six years of Biosphere Expeditions surveys confirm the vitality and resilience of this area. At a time when we’re seeing the degradation of the world’s most diverse marine habitats, relied on by 100s of millions of people for food, Musandam is withstanding the current temperature hikes. Our survey findings offer hope that there are some areas of the world that can withstand such environmental change.’
The temperature of the surrounding waters differs considerably from that of the Gulf of Arabia. Musandam lies at the entrance of the gulf and is enriched by cool deep waters of the Gulf of Oman to the east. The current exchange between the waters of the gulf flowing over the reefs allow for currents to wash the reefs with clear waters, whilst the cooler water from the east prevents catastrophic climate effects. Furthermore, some of the corals have been seen to harbour temperature resistant algae, allowing greater resistance to bleaching.
Whilst Musandams coral reefs are faring well, the fisheries of the area are being exploited at ever increasing effort. The most important commercial fish species of the reefs – grouper (hammour) are only ever recorded at 50 cm in size at very few more isolated sites. We recommend the development of an MPAs and minimum landing sizes for grouper to achieve a sustainable fishery, though none of this will change if it doesn’t have the support of the community. Jenan Alasfoor from the Environment Society of Oman, a scholar on this year’s expedition, knows too well that before any changes in fishing practices occur, full consultations with the local communities need to be undertaken.
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.