From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Sunday and Monday was business as usual on Okambara. Our small group finally caught up with all the “everyday” field work and we were able to turn to some of the less physical tasks such as waterhole observation and data entry.

Monday our Tracks & Scats team had a very nice walk up at the lodge and along the northern fence line we found two holes in the fence that we reported to Christian, the farm owner. Not usually something very notable unless the large ungulates can get through them (we did report one of those), what was unusual was that we found two snares imbedded into the holes. These wire snares would be difficult to see in the normal surveys of the fence lines, but on foot and with Ligeus’ keen eye, our team found and disabled them.

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Barbara, William and I went out to observe the elephants yesterday and were rewarded with watching them at the Boma waterhole. We followed them on their grazing journey for almost a kilometer and then nearly bumped into two of them demolishing a tree when we rounded a corner. It never ceases to amaze me how stealthily these large animals move through the bush. The cow and her offspring didn’t seem to mind us, and we were able to observe them from quite close.

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Monika and Rebekka volunteered for an all-day-out-in-the-field on Tuesday and looked happy and very tired upon their return. They checked all the camera traps in the mountains (#s 11, 13, 1, 3 and 6), then in the afternoon checked the Frankposten box trap and sat at the waterhole there.

While previous groups this year reported very few animals, this group has definitely seen more animals. Monika and Rebekka reported seeing an entire herd of impala at Frankposten, along with 13 waterbuck, heaps of kudu, several giraffes. Two rock monitor lizards even came for a drink. So much for the empty waterholes of August!

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Vera and I want to say a hearty THANK YOU to Team 4 for your hard work and get-it-done-without-complaint attitude. It was really great to work alongside of you and we were sad to drive you to the gate this morning. Lucky for us, Rebekka will be with us again on the next group. We’re looking forward to seeing all of you on Team 4 on Sunday!

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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.

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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 working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

William, our new guide, arrived in camp Wednesday night straight from fighting a large brush fire on a neighbouring farm. I have to commend Team 3 on their teamwork and bush relay communication skills, because Barbara and Diane had spotted the fire when they were in the mountains near Kuduposten. There’s no cell phone coverage up there, so they took the initiative to drive back to the lodge and tell Christian about the fire.

Fires are an extreme hazard here in the dry season, and can spread quite quickly. Normally everyone drops what they are doing to extinguish them because they gain speed rapidly. We volunteered ourselves and our team to help, but we were not needed. The fire was on a neighbour’s farm and many people from several other neighbouring farms went to help. Thanks Team 3 for being willing to do whatever is required out here!

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Thursday Team 3 got up early and drove out to our respective start points for the vehicle game count. On Route 1 there was much excitement: the entire team heard a leopard in the distance and Ligeus saw it through the binoculars before the animal disappeared into the rocky hillside. Route 2 members saw the baby rhino near CS house. Route 3 members, well, we found an ostrich egg. Fun stuff for every team.

Friday everything hummed along as usual. It’s really getting hot here during the days, and the team suggested we start earlier. Good thinking! We’re now starting our morning activities an hour earlier in order to beat the heat. Those of you at home who have yet to pack don’t need that extra sleeping bag I mentioned at the beginning of the diaries, but still be sure to pack lots of layers because some nights here are still quite cool. The best thing you can bring now is a sun hat and long, light sleeves to protect you from the burning rays of the sun.

Saturday was our “day off”. The team volunteered to check box traps in shifts and then drove to see the rock art. Nothing exciting to report except for a reluctant porcupine that decided it was quite cozy inside our box trap. Monday was a stellar day for tracks and scats—seven cheetah and three leopard scats were waiting for Vera when she came to evening briefing. We’re seeing leopard tracks all over the farm, including some quite nearby our box traps, so it seems only a matter of time….

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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!

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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!

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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!).

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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.

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From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, elephants and cheetahs in Namibia, Africa (http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/namibia)

Group 3 arrived on Sunday, and we’re a notable group because we’re all women. (Our male staff are having a blast I’m sure!) Training went very quickly and smoothly, and group three stunned us with their ease at adapting to our tasks. It’s always great to see how adaptable, eager and open the volunteers are to trying new things. We’re having a blast AND getting the science done. Go girlpower!!!

The first night Monika and I got a nickname: Team Gecko, because we shepherded a small gecko out of the lapa using our bare hands as corrals. We finally herded him out and onto the steps outside where we hope he’ll grow large and hearty.

Group 3 is the smallest team of volunteers Vera and I have worked with, so we’ve had to adapt some of the activities in order to get all the tasks done. It’s only this team’s second day out in the field and they make me so proud with their flexibility and willingness to dig right in.

Yesterday, Tuesday, their first task was to collect the repaired box trap (the one that caught the female leopard last week) and install it up at Bergposten. In the afternoon the entire team piled into the back of a truck to learn telemetry and observe the elephants, and was rewarded with a viewing of the entire elephant herd at the Sandposten waterhole for their first elephant encounter.

We got to watch the elephants drinking, then bathing and cavorting around in the water, and then witnessed their sand bath while one clever little one went back to the waterhole and drank from the source instead of the nasty elephant-bath-and-poop water. Team 3 is still in for their bush surprise when they learn how well camouflaged an elephant is and how easily they slip away from our sight. Right now team 3 thinks elephant observation is easy…the elephants will set them straight… J

Both teams stayed out in the field all day today getting a lot done. Our box trap/scats & tracks 3/camera trap/elephants team of Rebekka, Monika and Ligeus came back first and popped three cold ones to beat the heat. Diane and Barbara looked like they, too, needed a cold beer when they came back from the mountains…turns out they’d reset two box traps in addition to changing a flat tire as well as their bit of box traps and camera trap.

If you look closely in the one picture of Rebekka and Monika processing and labelling the scats, well, I can assure you that I’ll be having my dinner on the opposite end of the table.

It should be a very interesting briefing tonight…

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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)

By Monday 11:00 the team had already completed an invertebrate test and a substrate test, and dived to complete the third underwater ID test when Rex said: “This is like that advertisement for the U.S. Army – We do more before breakfast than you do in the entire day!” How true!  By 19:00, we had gone on to complete a full Reef Check survey on a site that was pristine before the big bleaching event in 1997/8. Now, 17 years later, it was entirely colonised by corallimorphs (not corals). We also completed a final test (with 100% pass rate).  As a reward, everyone got a lie-in for Tuesday – until 06:30.

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On Tuesday a beautiful full moon set as the sun rose over the ‘yoga deck’, and a few early risers dutifully saluted it. The calm was not to last, however, as the current on the first dive, coupled with the shallow gradient of the reef caused a few problems, though not insurmountable and the quality of the reef lifted everyone’s spirits. The second Reef Check survey was equally as successful and the day rounded off nicely with a beautifully relaxing night dive. More Reef Check surveys today with the boat slowly waking up as I type this at 05:50….

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