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

 

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.

Jean-Luc getting ready to dive
Jean-Luc getting ready to dive

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.

Iru explaining whale sharks
Iru explaining whale sharks

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!

Dhigurah Island
Dhigurah Island

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.

The team
The team

All the best to everyone and hope to see you all again.

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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)

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…

Lots of fish...
Lots of fish…

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.

Diver
Diver

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…

Bleached and unbleached side by side
Bleached and unbleached side by side
Shaha and Atho
Shaha and Atho

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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)

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.

Baros and its house reef
Baros and its 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.

Survey divers with bleaching
Survey divers with bleaching
Reef life
Reef life

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.

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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)

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.

sea

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.

Ahmed Wafir, Manager, Bandos Medical Centre sitting at the controls of their state of the art hyperbaric chamber
Ahmed Wafir, Manager, Bandos Medical Centre sitting at the controls of their state of the art hyperbaric chamber

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.

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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)

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.

Kathy Gill
Kathy Gill

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.

Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt
Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt

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.

Regards

Kathy Gill
Biosphere Expeditions

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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)

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

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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 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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