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

The team worked hard today, studying furiously both in and out of the water. Reef Check training means complete immersion in the marine environment, mentally and physically, absorbing new information about all aspects of the reef – the substrate, the fish and invertebrate life, as well as the impacts on the reef such as destructive fishing practices, coral bleaching and predation.

This year is an El Nino year, with predicted rises in surface ocean temperature, and we have already seen small signs of coral bleaching here on the Baros house reef, but nothing to be alarmed about. As our expedition continues and we travel further south, we will no doubt glean more information about other effects here in the Maldives.

As the day drew to a close, all the hard work paid off – with a glorious sunset as a backdrop, the entire team sat, and passed their fish test! Well done everyone! Only the substrate test and invertebrate tests to go tomorrow.

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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)

 

With all team members present and correct, we made our way to the Carpe Diem, our magnificent research vessel.

Boat 2010 (1)

Ours is a busy schedule, so without further ado, briefings were given and the Reef Check programme initiated, whilst we cruised to our training site at Baros to complete our first dive.

Baros, as with many islands in the Maldives, is a resort island and boasts well-kempt house reefs complete with megafauna.

baros from carpe diem

Though here, unlike many of the resorts, Reef Check training is offered to their guests. Ronny and Karin, the managers of the Baros Dive Centre, uphold the ethos of Reef Check and fully understand the benefits of long-term monitoring. Sadly, this is all-too uncommon around the Maldives, a country which depends on reefs for everything from its existence to substanance to tourist income.

The team had a great first dive and for some, who hadn’t dived in a while, it was a chance to become reacquainted with the ocean – some even saw their first shark, a white tip that moved silently through the group and off into the blue.

Rob Byron

Tomorrow the pressure is on with training lectures and dives all day, and the first test tomorrow evening!  Now though, it’s been a long day, so time for a good night’s rest.

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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’ve arrived in Male’ – descending through stacks of cumulonimbus to be greeted by spectacular sights of atolls framed by a turquoise sea. It’s hot and sunny –  30 degrees celsius in the shade, but the forecast shows a front on the way, so we may meet some cooling showers during the week.

Shidha and I have met, shared our expectations for the expedition and discussed the week’s programme – she is familiar with the route we are taking and looking forward to training you, as am I.

Shidha and Catherine

I have a Maldivian phone number now – (+960) 768 3387, so if you need to contact me in an emergency this is the number to call.

Wishing you all a safe journey, and see you tomorrow at 11.00 at the Coffee Club

Catherine

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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)

Biosphere Expeditions 2015 reef survey of the Maldives is on ‘bleaching alert’

In 1998 there was a significant global El Niño event that virtually stopped water circulation in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, resulting in floods in west, north and south American arid regions, and drought in the Australian and New Guinea rainforests, eventually resulting in forest fires. It upset the Asian subcontinent monsoons and led to crop failures and food shortages in the tropical nations of the world.

In the ocean, the ‘blocking’ of the equatorial oceanic gyre of currents led to significant warming of the shallow seas of the tropics, failure of the anchovy fishery of Peru, and the death of many coral reefs. The Maldives reefs suffered at least 90% coral mortality, because a lens of hot water, about 3-5 degrees (Celcius) above the usual maximum (that is 30-31 degrees Celsius) lay over the reefs of the country for four weeks. This stressed the corals and led to significant ‘bleaching’. Bleaching is a process where stress to the corals results in them expelling their colourful symbiotic algae (called zooxanthaellae), thus going pure white and exposing their calcium carbonate skeletons. It is often the initial cause of death to the corals as the symbiotic algae give up to 80% of the energy to the corals from the sugars they produce by photosynthesis. Corals can survive initial bleaching, but only if the hot water stays over the corals for a short period, or at a lower temperature. In these circumstances, corals can reabsorb zooxanthellae into their tissues from the water column. However, the 1998 Maldives bleaching event was so severe, that it killed most corals outright. The recovery of the reefs has been from juvenile corals settling on the dead coral reefs, and re-growing.

Biosphere Expeditions has in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has been doing four things since 2011:

1. Monitoring the recovery of the 1998 bleaching event at reefs that were first surveyed before the event, in order to see the amount of live coral that now exists at shallow depths.

2. Re-surveying sites first visited by MCS in 2005, such that we have indications of reef health, fish populations, and any large megafauna such as whale shark, manta rays, turtles, large fish and reef sharks. We recorded a ‘new’ whaleshark in 2011.

3. Training, via Biosphere Expeditions’ placement programme http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/placements, of local Maldivians from government and civil society to monitor their own reefs and providing training and funding, courtesy of LaMer and the Rufford Foundation, for exceptional individuals to become Reef Check trainers themselves. These individuals trained up three local Reef Check teams since 2014 and undertook the first ever all-Maldivian Reef Check survey in November last year.

4. We have published four technical reports on the condition of the reefs since 2011.

This and last year are also El Niño years, where the east–west surface current movements of water across the planet’s equator is stalling and stopping. This results in the sun heating up surface waters in some locations, such that bleaching events have occurred. They have occurred in the tropical west pacific, Hawaii, French Polynesia, and to a lesser extent, the Maldives. Northerly Indian Ocean reefs (around the Arabian Gulf, Thaliand and Andoman and Nicobar Islands) appeared to have had the brunt of the hot water, but the Maldives remains on high alert, as this El Niño event is not over yet, and indeed could strengthen.

This year’s expedition is therefore ‘highly tuned’ to looking for bleaching events in the Maldives, or evidence of recent bleaching events (where the whitened corals start to be overgrown by algae). We are re-visiting sites we first surveyed in 2005 and four other sites that have been regularly monitored (once every two years) since 2011, going down the beautiful Ari Atoll from north to south. We have a survey team of eleven individuals, two trainers – one British and one Maldivian – and nine trainees (including two Maldivian placement recipients). The two placements are from the local NGO ‘The Maldives Whaleshark Research Programme’ and a local marine consultancy. The trainers on the expedition have both been trained by Dr Jean-Luc Solandt of the Marine Conservation Society, a Reef Check Course Director and the national coordinator of Reef Check for the Maldives.

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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)

My name is Catherine Edsell and I will be your expedition leader for this years Maldives expedition. Coral reef conservation is one of my passions and I led the Maldives expedition in 2014, so look forward to continuing our ongoing research with you. As you are aware, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt is unable to join us due to personal reasons, but Mariyam Shidha Afzal, formerly from the Marine Research Centre of the Maldives, a marine biologist and experienced Reef Check Trainer will be taking his place, giving us the added benefit of her local knowledge.

I’m very much looking forward to meeting you in Male on Saturday, 12 September at 11:00 at the NEW meeting point in front of the Coffee Club at Maldives Airport. I will be arriving in Male on 10 September and as soon as I get my mobile phone set up, will email you my Maldivian phone number (to be used for emergency purposes only, such as missing assembly).

Our survey route for the week is below

I hope all your preparations are going well and that you’ve had a chance to study all the Reef Check material and whale shark info available on the website as this will not only save you revision time on board, but also stand you in good stead for a fruitful expedition. We have a packed schedule planned, so please arrive rested and ready to go.

Until then!

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

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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)

And here is another summary of our expedition from our scientists Dr. Jean Luc-Solandt:

Biosphere Expeditions, in collaboration with the Marine Conservation Society, Maldives Marine Research Centre and Carpe Diem had a very successful survey covering the reefs of North Male’ atoll, Maldives from 6-12 September. We trained three people (one UK, two Maldivian) to become EcoDiver trainers, and seven others to be EcoDivers. We re-surveyed sites previously visited before the ‘98 bleaching event. So in some ways we were looking at resilience since that event.

team-mv

We did patch reef, channel, and outer reef surveys near Summer Island (see map). Patch reefs were most significantly affected (e.g. Deh Giri) that was covered by corallimorphs (Discosoma) carpeting >60% of the seabed. Another (Reethi Rah), where there was a significant COT outbreak, which was concerning, particularly when coupled with the recent disease outbreaks we’ve seen in previous surveys. There also appear to be more coral-eating cushion starfish, and Drupella.

map

Outer forereef slope reefs appeared to show the greatest uniformity of good health (particularly Madi Gaa). Other more sheltered channel and patch reefs showed good coral cover (and recovery) from the 1998 bleaching event in shallow transects (< 6 m), but not for the deeper transect (most commonly at 10 m). This to me is caused by the provenance of rubble fields from the breakdown over the past 15 years of dead coral from the bleaching event, gravity pulling it down to the slightly deeper, more sheltered waters of the reef slopes. We’ve seen this pattern for years in our data now. I believe it is surprising that there aren’t more reefs that have then moved onto a different stable state (such as Deh Giri) that are dominated by opportunistic colonising lifeforms such as Discosoma. The rubble-strewn areas appear to be poor potential recruitment surfaces in the deeper waters for new corals.

Commercial fish species are worryingly absent over these North Male’ reefs. Herbivorous parrotfish were also not that common.

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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)

Kuramathi Island Resort is running a “Clean up the world” weekend with the support of Rafil Mohammed, a Maldivian who has just been trained up to Reef Check Foundation trainer level during his recent placement on our Maldives expedition. Well done Kuramathi and Rafil. It is great to see our capacity-building efforts come to fruition so rapidly. Please keep us informed about your local efforts. This bottom up, civil society approach is just what the Maldives need.

kuramathi

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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)

Here’s a summary of first conclusions that our scientist Jean-Luc sent to IUCN, which we thought you might all like to see:

We had a very successful survey covering the reefs of North Male’ atoll. We re-surveyed sites previously visited before the 1998 bleaching event. So in some ways we were looking at resilience since that event.

We did patch reef, channel, and outer reef surveys near summer island (see map). Patch reefs were most significantly affected (e.g. Deh Giri) that was covered by corallimorphs (Discosoma) carpeting > 60% of the seabed. Another (Reethi Rah) where there was a significant crown-of-thorns outbreak, which was rather concerning, particularly when coupled with the recent disease outbreaks we’ve seen in previous surveys. There also appear to be more coral-eating cushion starfish and Drupella. This is all apparent when put together in the RC protocols and datasets.

2014 reefcheck sites

Outer forereef slope reefs appeared to show the greatest uniformity of good health (particularly Madi Gaa). Other more sheltered channel and patch reefs showed good coral cover (and recovery) from the 1998 bleaching event in shallow transects (< 6m), but not for the deeper transect (most commonly around 10m). This to me is caused by the provenance of rubble fields from the breakdown over the past 15 years of dead coral from the bleaching event, gravity pulling it down to the slightly deeper, more sheltered waters of the reef slopes. We’ve seen this pattern for years in our data now. I believe it is surprising that there aren’t more reefs that have then moved onto a different stable state (such as Deh Giri) that are dominated by opportunistic colonising lifeforms such as Discosoma. The rubble-strewn areas appear to be poor potential recruitment surfaces in the deeper waters for new corals.

Commercial fish species are worryingly absent over these North Male’ reefs. Herbivorous parrotfish were also not that common.

If  you want, I can send you the raw data. However, we also have archived reports that put this into context from 2005 to 2013. The Biosphere reports (2011, 2012 and 2013) are on www.biosphere-expeditions.org/reports. Just scroll down the Maldives. The 2012 report details North Ari atoll bleaching recovery assessment of east, north and central Ari sites.

On the capacity-building front, we trained two Maldivians – Rafil Mohammed and Shaha Hashim – to become RC trainers. They are both Male’-based. Our longer term aim is to enable them to start some RC surveys near Male’, and with Shaha and Shameel Ibrahim (the latter from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme who trained to be an eco-diver this year, and next we’ll train him to become a trainer) to start some surveys, capacity-building and education down at Dhigurah. I’d very much like them to use RC methods to survey the reefs in and around the islands – either by snorkel or dive. And then to go on and use the RC method called ‘Discover RC’ to raise awareness of their work, and why the reefs are important to whale sharks, fisheries and the very bedrock of their homes.

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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)

With megafauna on our minds, we gathered pre-dawn for a dive briefing, then off on the dhoni at sunrise. The plan was to find mantas, but the first site we visited was barren. Lankanfinolu promised more rewards even if there were no mantas and it certainly delivered! The current was ripping, and we flew down to 20 m where all manner of huge fish resided. Enormous Napoleon wrasse and ancient turtles stayed still as we were tossed like weeds in the current. If we’d been at all sleepy on the outset, that feeling had passed as we held onto our masks to stop them being torn off our faces.

Back on the Carpe Diem, we performed the whale shark transect and Gordon did think he saw something, so a party went on the dinghy to investigate – no luck.

But all in all the expedition was a great success, and thanks to the hard work of an excellent team of newly qualified Reef Checkers, we now have a better understanding of the state of the coral reefs of North Male’ Atoll. I want to thank the whole team for their efforts; from the Carpe Diem and its amazing crew, to our Maldivian placements who bring so much added value to the expedition, to our participants from three continents who could have gone for a sun and sand holiday, but instead chose a reef conservation expedition. Thank you to all of you.

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So which reefs need checking next…..

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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)

On Wednesday we successfully completed two Reef Check survey dives. The first with a nurse shark sleeping at 09:00 along the transect tape for the duration of the survey – we didn’t seem to bother him at all!

shark

The second dive culminated in a motivated group effort to retrieve a huge discarded fishing net from the substrate. Rex, Shamee, Francoise and Lars were the instigators, and although it had become ensnared in the coral, they had enough air left to disentangle it painstakingly.  Back on the dhoni, we cut out 50 cm squares for identification purposes for part of a Maldivian effort to trace the origins of such ’ghost’ fishing nets and get a clearer picture of the illegal fishing trade in the archipelago. Good work!

net

On Thursday we were not sure what this morning’s dive was going to reveal as it was on a patch reef (and the last patch reef we dived had been completely colonised by coralliomorphs). However, this site was free of them (good news!), but had an exploding population of coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish (not so good news!).

team

In the afternoon, after an excellent whale shark talk by Shamee on behalf of the Maldivian Whale Shark Research Programme, half the team surveyed, while the other half took a lazy dive down to the depths where huge shoals of snapper hung in the mouths of a caverns, and giant sweetlips fed on deep water crustaceans.

Although the expedition was not quite over, with still the megafauna transects to complete, Jean-Luc presented the Reef Check data.  Thank you to everyone for working so hard and collecting so much valuable data in such a short space of time!  Your work has added to the global picture of post-bleaching reef regeneration.

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