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.

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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.

DSC02586

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

Yesterday, on Saturday the expedition team met in Male’, and after a short trip on our dhoni (transit and dive vessel for the week), we arrived at the MV Carpe Diem in all its splendour.

carpediem

Following some safety and other briefings, an excellent lunch and passage to Baros, a resort island whose house reef will serve us as a training ground, we completed a successful check dive, spotting octopus, lobster and a myriad of other reef dwellers. Now the work begins…

After identifying the conservation aims of Reef Check and the environmental challenges facing the reef ecosystem, Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, Biosphere Expeditions’s scientist from the Marine Conservation Society and co-ordinator of Reef Check here in the Maldives, embarks on the methodology. All in all a very busy day!

Today, Sunday, the team knuckled down to hard work with lectures, snorkels, dives (and more lectures!), bringing the reality of conservation fieldwork to the forefront. With a blacktip reef shark circling overhead, we learned to identify the complexities of marine flora and fauna, and now with tests looming, everyone is revising hard.

revision

Good luck everyone!

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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, your Biosphere Expeditions staff, have arrived safely and have had very successful meetings with both Hussein Zahir from LaMer, and with Shiham Adam from MRC (the government’s Marine Research Centre).

In a nutshell, both are very happy that we are continuing our collection of Reef Check data here in the Maldives. Hussein feels that it is very valuable data and can be added to the National Coral Reef Monitoring Framework protocols. Also, there is a desire that our data collected up until now are included in the National Status Report Assessment, currently being compiled by MRC. Both see our placement programme of local Maldivians coming with us on the boat, as they will be this year too, as an excellent way to increase capacity and raise awareness of conservation issues facing these threatened islands.

We are meeting with Shaha from Gemana, a local reef conservation NGO, in an hour or so, and with Gabriel Grimsditch of IUCN and Rafil Mohammed from the Maldives Diving Association tomorrow.

See you in a couple of days. Safe travels.

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)

Welcome to the Maldives diary.

My name is Catherine Edsell and I will be your expedition leader for the Maldives; also coming along from Biosphere Expeditions will be Dr. Matthias Hammer, our executive director.

I will arrive a couple of days in advance with Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, our scientist from the Marine Conservation Society and Reef Check’s Maldives co-ordinator, to set up and meet our local partners. As soon as I get my mobile phone connected in the Maldives, I will email you my Maldivian number (to be used for emergency purposes only, such as missing assembly).

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. We have a packed schedule planned, so please arrive rested and ready to go. And talking about schedules, our expedition route is below.

All subject to change, of course. So anyone thinking they are coming on a cushy dive “holiday” to go deep, please wake up 😉 After our week with us, you’ll never look at a reef the same way again.

My next missive will be from the Maldives. Until there and then!

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

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