Welcome to the Costa Rica 2017 expedition diary! My name is Ida Vincent and I will be your expedition leader. This will be my second year on this expedition and I look forward to being back at the Pacuare field station and working together with Latin America Sea Turtles (LAST).
The field station is located just behind the beach where the turtles nest and during our time in Pacuare we will work closely with the onsite biologist from LAST, Fabian Carrasco, who will be training us in sea turtle monitoring. Lucy Marcus, expedition leader in training, will be assisting me throughout the expedition and we all look forward to meeting you on 8 May.
Lucy and I will already be in Pacuare helping to prepare the field station for you arrival, however, Nicki Wheeler from LAST will be meeting you at 09.00 in the lobby of Hotel Santo Tomas. Make sure to be on time as our first night of patrols starts that very evening and there is a lot to learn prior.
Have another look through your dossier and check your packing list, remember that your head lamp needs to have a red light mode.
Hopefully you will all have read the 2016 expedition report too, so you already know why we are there and do what we do. As you can read in the report, support from citizen scientists such as you is critical, so thank you for your support and see you in a couple of weeks!
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.
Leatherback turtles frequent much of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica during the months of February and July to lay their eggs. One egg has a market value of $2 and one turtle can lay a clutch of up to 100 eggs. For poachers this is a significant income and poaching is rife on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. But without eggs hatching, the species will disappear. This is where Biosphere Expeditions and its partnership with LAST (Latin American Sea Turtles) comes in.
Our joint mission is to patrol the beach on a nightly basis and relocate as many clutches of eggs to a guarded hatchery as possible, thus preventing the poachers from taking all the eggs. For this a whole host of trained “foot soldiers” (Biosphere Expeditions team members) is need to monitor the beach, catch a turtle before she lays, wait as she digs her nest, then catch the falling eggs in a large plastic bag and whip them out from beneath her before she starts to fill in the nest and camouflage her tracks. Biometric data are also taken, and the nest re-dug by hand by the team member on duty in the hatchery. The nest, now safely in the hatchery, is guarded 24 hours a day for the next 60-70 days until the hatchlings emerge.
Magali Marion MSc is the lead scientist at Pacuare Research Centre. For the past three years she has worked tirelessly training volunteers, delivering lectures, leading night patrols, working with the local community and generally acting as the perfect role model for a successful conservation programme. “The key problem,” she says, “is that this is a public beach, so we have no control over who comes onto it.” The weekends are the worst with a noticeable increase of poachers lurking in the undergrowth. “Foot soldiers are really important,” says Magali, “as their number determines the amount of patrols we can run.”
“I’m amazed at myself and the energy this project unleashed in me!” says Janet Hoffberg a 76 year-old passionate animal advocate from Florida. The reward? To spot a turtle before the poachers and safely deposit the eggs in the hatchery. But, as Theresa Bowman, aged 43 from Germany, points out, “it’s not all black and white – we are used to the poachers being the ‘evil ones’, but there is more to it.”
This is a complicated issue and Magali has put herself right in the middle of it, working with the local association (La Asociacion para el Ambiente de Nuevo Pacuare) to offer poachers the chance to become guides for the project. There are ground rules – no alcohol or drug consumption, no more poaching, a willingness to learn and work with volunteers from around the globe. Some pass the test, some fail, but the beauty of Magali’s strategy is that whichever camp you fall into, there must be no confrontation between poachers and patrols. “Our mission is long-term. We will not eradicate poaching from Pacuare in the next year, but we believe that by providing alternative livelihoods to the community and involving children, we will change their mindset so they understand that natural resources must be exploited in a sustainable way. It involves long hours of talking and exchanging with different people without judging them. When we get to understand what is the social reason that pushes people to poach, then we can get to the root of the problem, which in Pacuare is geographical isolation, low education and poor job opportunity.”
As rainy season sets in a second threat to the turtle population is revealed – erosion. With constant storms raging out at sea, the high tides flood the beach, reducing the availability of viable leatherback nesting sites. Cyclical erosion has always occurred on this coastline, but with the added pressure of climate change, this erosion is becoming more extreme. “Nesting grounds are degraded by erosion”, says Magali, and this year’s El Nino event has been very intense, which is now leading to an equally intense rainy season. We have reinforced the hatchery, so that it will not be eroded by the waves, but if the water table gets too high, the nests can be flooded from below.”
So what does the expedition mean in conservation terms? 15 clutches of eggs safely relocated to the hatchery; clutches, which if left in their natural condition would have either been poached or washed out to sea. This amounts to over 1000 potential hatchlings, and based on statistical probability, that is one adult who against all the odds will return in 15 years to lay her own clutch. This may not sound like much, but for a dwindling population of fewer than 4,000 leatherback turtles on the Caribbean coast, every single one counts.
This week it has become increasingly obvious that beach erosion is also a big problem in Pacuare. As a result of global warming more extreme weather events have been observed in the area in recent years, and due to current storms in the Caribbean we have seen very high tides and strong wave action eating away the beach from under our feet. This has also impacted the number of nesting turtles we have encountered. There have been fewer females coming out to nest at night, as there is little to no beach above the high tide line to nest on.
We did, however, encounter a turtle camouflaging her nest, that sadly had been poached, on Tuesday night. Fortunately we managed to recorded her tag numbers and get her measurements. She was an interesting turtle as her carapace was deformed and not very streamlined, and her back left flipper was missing, probably as a result of a shark attack. Only the previous day when we released a clutch of hatchlings, where a few had deformed carapaces, did we wonder if these juveniles would ever make it to adulthood. It turns out they do!
Wednesday, our last night on patrol saw more rain and therefore little turtle activity. Brad joked that, “it is like being on Survivor and preparing for a marathon each night!” But morale was still high. “Camaraderie doesn’t happen unless you’re doing something challenging”, said Janet from the UK. It certainly has been a challenging, but also a very rewarding time for the team, and turtles alike, but as the expedition draws to a close another nest emerges – 34 writhing hatchlings ready to begin their adventures at sea.
So with a joyous farewell dinner, with cake from Magali, candelabras by Theresa, and Scottish folk songs from Gordon, it is time to leave our rustic abode, and return to whence we came. We will not forget our experiences here in Pacuare and it has been an fruitful inaugural expedition for Biosphere Expeditions, with a total of 15 nests recovered and relocated in the hatchery. That’s over 1000 potential hatchlings! Thank you team for all your hard work in making this a reality. Many thanks also to our project partners LAST and especially to Magali for her knowledge, skills and dedication in the field – it was a pleasure working with you. A big thanks also to all the staff on site, to Silvia our cook, to the research assistants, to Pablo and especially the local guides, Mauricio, Carlos, Nene, Hernan and Steven who led us to the turtles each night. The poaching issue, although far from being resolved, is under the watchful eye of LAST and the Environmental Association of Nuevo Pacuare, and we look forward to continuing our relationship next year on another expedition.
Longest-known sperm whale match recorded during the Biosphere Expeditions Azores project. Male sperm whale returns to the “scene of the crime”
Biosphere Expeditions, now in its 13th year of collaboration with marine biologist Lisa Steiner, observed a sperm whale 29 years after she was first seen swimming in the Azores. Nº19, as she is known, was first observed as an adult in 1987. This is the longest recorded re-sighting of a sperm whale anywhere on the planet. Nº19 was observed ten times (three times during an expedition) over at least half of her life, since sperm whales live for 60-70 years.
The expedition also had an unbelievable sighting, a real “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” moment. A male sperm whale seen on 20 April 2016 was re-sighted in almost exactly the same position and at the same time as it was on 20 April 2009, seven years to the day and hour previously.
Also sighted during the 2016 expedition were a couple of blue whales that had been seen previously, one in 2006 & 2013 and the other from 2010.
This long-term research is showing that these ocean giants utilise the same migration corridor year after year. Three different humpback whales recorded during the expedition have also been observed on the breeding grounds in the Cape Verde Islands. The Azores is a “snack stop” on their way back to the Norwegian or Icelandic feeding grounds.
All of these data are collected using citizen scientists that come from all walks of life who may have never seen a whale before. Without them, this valuable information would not be collected.
Lisa Steiner says that “Photo-ID projects take time to bear fruit and it’s great that Biosphere Expeditions is in for the long haul. We are starting to generate some amazing results from our efforts. Inter-annual matches of these migrating giants shows that they tend to migrate along the same corridors year after year. Matching some of these animals to breeding grounds or feeding grounds gives us clues as to how whales are split into separate stocks. And the icing on the cake, for me, is identifying a sperm whale 10 times over the last 29 years; that is absolutely incredible.”