From our working holiday volunteering with leopards, caracals and Cape biodiversity in South Africa

Hello everyone

With a week to go before the expeditions starts, it’s time for the initial introductions. I am Craig Turner and I’ll be your expedition leader in South Africa this year. It is fantastic to be going back to this part of the world to work on this project.

I am not on route yet, but I am in the midst of preparations. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce myself, and Dr. Alan Lee, our project scientist for the duration of the expedition. It’s great to be returning to work with Alan (and his family) for a third year. I’ll save the rest of the introductions until later next week, so they are fresh in your memory.

Craig (front) and Alan (back)

I am guessing many of you, like me, are in a whirl of preparation and beginning to think about packing your bags. So I hope you’ve all been eagerly reading your expedition materials and know to bring many layers of clothing. The weather can be a bit like four seasons in one day, so prepare for warm, cold, possibly wet and hopefully dry. Just like the weather in my adopted home – Scotland!

Hopefully you have also seen the recently published 2016 South Africa expedition report, so will have an idea of some of the planned activities. This also is my opportunity to flag up our expanding bat survey work. As this year, in the spirit of citizen science, we are hoping to turn your iPad or iPhone (if you are travelling with them) into a bat detector.

I’ll leave you to continue your preparations and will be in touch later this week from South Africa. I look forward to meeting group 1 next weekend.

Safe travels…

Craig
Expedition leader

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

One of the questions on a Reef Check site description form is ‘Is this the best reef in the area?’ Distressed by our recurrent findings of unhealthy degraded reefs, we decided to go in search of just that, so on 26 July, after consulting the knowledgeable crew of our research vessel, we surveyed Litholu Kandu, an outer reef on the far eastern tip of Vaavu Atoll. We were not disappointed. This may not have been a pristine reef, but in comparison to what we had been seeing, it was a sight for sore eyes. As we headed north we found that the reefs once again were suffering, and these weren’t just the inner reefs, but the outer reefs as well.

On 27 July we performed our whale shark transect, but were not as fortunate as last week, and no whale sharks were sighted. But a large pod of around 50 spinner dolphins put on a great show of leaping and spinning, really playing up to their name.

For our final day the weather turned and our last transect, on a particularly silted reef, we battled with the wind, rain and poor visibility. The site we were surveying in Embudhu, South Male’, previously had 30% hard coral cover (in 2012), but now foreign investors in conjunction with the ministry of tourism here in the Maldives are reclaiming 7 km of land to build tourist islands akin to those in Dubai. As if the reefs aren’t having to cope with enough already! It was a sad way to end our week, but another example of why these surveys are really important, and why the world, and the Maldives, really need to wake up to what is going on just below the surface!

And what is going on is that inner reefs are devastated. Outer reefs aren’t in the places we’ve been to. If you look at IUCN ratings, over 30% cover is OK, so there may be opportunities for some recovery, but the problem is that impacts just keep increasing – sedimentation, pollution, ocean warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, you name it, it’s all here in the Maldives, which is why the inner reefs are indeed knackered and may not recover…..and this is of course where most of the resorts are….

We’ve been coming here since 2011 and even in this short time things have become much worse. Unless the Maldives, its people and its government wake up to the reality of what they are doing to their reefs, which are after all the basis for everything in the country, including the very country itself, then greed, ignorance, apathy and short-sightedness will win the day and kill the reefs – and with it much of the country’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. There’s no nice way to put this. What we are documenting is the rapid decline of a country in more ways than one.

Thank you to a fantastic team who have worked really hard in the face of an ecological crisis. This was the first time that Biosphere Expeditions has run an expedition for those already trained in Reef Check protocols and methodology, and it has been a great success. To be able to get to work quickly after a brief refresher, and to travel to distant locations has been a real bonus. It has also been great for participants of previous expeditions to meet up with old friends, and to make new ones. Everyone hopes that other diving destinations will follow suit and if they do, I hope to see you all in another location continuing the good work!

We would also like to thank the fantastic crew of our research vessel. The food has been amazing, and the knowledge and skill of the dive guides has really helped the whole operation run smoothly. A special thank you to Inthi, for being flexible and accommodating at all times.

So until next year… we wish the Maldivian reefs a year of recovery. `They need all the luck and help they can get.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

To continue in the general trend, Vaavu Atoll has, so far, heralded a mixture of good and bad news for the reef. Fotteyo, the first site we surveyed on 24 July was a welcome example of a healthy reef, even though it was an inner reef. Could this be because it was uninhabited, we wondered?

Our second site caused some consternation as the latitude and longitude of the historic data we were using, didn’t match up to the name of the reef we were supposed to be surveying. We stuck with the lat/longs but were disappointed when we found most of the coral dead. The following morning, just to corroborate our findings and to make sure that we had covered all our bases, we also surveyed the actual Maaduvaree reef (across the channel from the lat/longs we had), in the hope that we may find a completely different story, but it was only marginally healthier. The upside was that there was a resident pod of spinner dolphins in the area and a couple of the team, Lori and Farah actually saw them underwater during the dive. For those who missed them, a stunning double rainbow, caused by a sudden downpour lifted the spirits of everyone else.

On the way to our next site, Vattaru, we dropped in to witness a school of reef sharks, some of them visibly pregnant, and then continued on to survey another completely uninhabited island reef. We had high hopes, due to our experience at Fotteyo, but here, the sub-aquatic picture was completely different. This reef was made up of individual coral outcrops, some of which were healthy with some evidence of new recruits, but the majority of the rest of the site was dominated by rock, rubble and sand. There was also some indication of recent bleaching and bleaching in progress, which was unsurprising as the water temperature was 31 degrees Celsius – too hot for coral to tolerate.

Tomorrow, 26 July, we will continue to survey the reefs of Vaavu Atoll, and do our best to document what is going on in this underwater ecosystem. We are trying to remain positive, but what we have seen so far of the Maldivian reefs, reveals a story of very significant degradation.

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Team 2 arrived on Saturday, and already, in only one day, we have completed so much. This is the first ever Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check expedition to take previously trained Reef Check EcoDivers only and dedicate the whole expedition to gathering data. With the training process removed, it has allowed us to plan a new itinerary that will re-visit historic Reef Check sites that have not been surveyed in many years due to their distance from Male’ and also for the fact that in one week, to collect repetitive data sets, there just isn’t the time!

Some of the sites we will be surveying have had no data collected since 1997, prior to the last big bleaching event. Most of this week’s team trained with Biosphere Expeditions in other locations such as Musandam (Oman) or in Malaysia during the last couple of years, although Graham and Janet, from New Zealand, have had a seven year break! Adam from the USA gained his Reef Check qualification in the Phillipines and is new to Biosphere Expeditions.

So after a quick refresher in methodology and an intensive reminder of indicator species, we set off to Bandos to perform our first ‘mock’ Reef Check survey. It went well and everyone was comforted by their ability to ‘slip back into it’. The fish survey was given a great opportunity to tell the difference between snapper and emperor fish when a huge mixed shoal swam through both transects.

Happy with the lessons learnt, we re-surveyed the site ‘for real’ and are looking forward to our first survey tomorrow on Vaavu Atoll – our first uninhabited reef!

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Our final Reef Check survey at Holiday Thilla was completed on 20 July, and again we were witness to near complete degradation of live coral caused by last year’s bleaching event. Coral recruits are visible throughout the substrate, but they are still very small. The survey itself ran like clockwork, and indeed all the surveys have been executed extremely well – you know it is a great survey team when the only complaint is that the transect tape has twisted so as to not instantly be able to read the cm side!

After the survey, we de-camped to the dhoni (our dive boat), and took our positions for the whale shark survey transect, and after about an hour scanning the shallow waters the dark shape of a whale shark, was spotted. The team jumped in and snorkelled behind it, it initially dived, but then resurfaced giving half the team a great view of the gill area, important for ID purposes, and Charlotte managed to get some excellent footage.

Unfortunately, for the rest of us, a group of divers then jumped directly in front of the shark, (against all protocols), and the shark dived, but we had collected the data! A storm blew through, causing us to abandon our survey, but we took the data to the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme HQ on Dhigurah, and analysed it using I3S software – a program initially used by NASA to identify constellations. We discovered that the shark we had spotted was called ‘Adam’, the same shark we identified in 2015. He must have known we were in the area!

So as the expedition draws to a close we have to say goodbye and a massive thank you to Charlotte, Hani, Christina, Ida and the majority of the Maldivian contingent. Fathimath ‘Farah’ Amjad will be staying with us, representing Reef Check Maldives, and assisting with next week’s survey. Michele, Ian and Richard will also be staying on board, and we look forward to welcoming the new team tomorrow.

It has been an absolute pleasure working with Hussein Zahir, whose expertise and sharp wit have been immensely valuable and entertaining. Ibrahim Shameel’s dedication to Reef Check data collection and whale shark research was duly noted, and Hassan Ahmed is an inspiration to us all – his positivity and passion for reef conservation amongst the next generation makes him an excellent ambassador for Reef Check here in the Maldives. Thanks also to Nizam Ibrahim and Adam Saaneez – it has been an excellent week. We will miss you all!

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

It has been a very interesting couple of days with excellent survey work by the team, coupled with interesting lectures from Hussein Zahir and Ibrahim Shameel, from La Mer, and The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme respectively.  Unfortunately the condition of some of the reefs we have surveyed show significant loss of coral cover due to the 2016 bleaching event, and there has, as yet, been little recovery.  There is some hope though, as the substrate is not yet covered in algae, so coral recruits do have a place to settle and grow.

We learned from Hussein Zahir, that it took almost 12 years for the reefs to recover from the previous massive bleaching event in 1997, but by 2009 there was significant coral cover once again.  As we had just had to witness an almost completely dead reef in Kudafalu, these statistics did give us some comfort.  The problem is that due to climate change, pollution and other human impacts, events threatening/killing reefs/corals now come around so frequently that there is little time for reefs to recover from one impact until they are pummelled by the next. There is no denying it: the reefs of the Maldives, and elsewhere, are in serious trouble.

Before work, on Tuesday, we managed to squeeze in an educational dawn dive, with most of our indicator fish species presenting themselves in all their glory, including the magnificent humphead wrasse.  Apart from that it has been systematic survey work followed by the all important data entry.  Spirits are high, and we look forward to our whale shark survey tomorrow.

From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

The team is working hard and the last couple of days have seen us studying from dawn until dusk, taking tests in and out of water, and learning all the methods and identification skills needed to successfully complete a Reef Check survey.

It is important to practice everything, from completing the relevant forms prior to the start of the survey, gathering all the information we can about the local area, to the laying of the transect tape, and of course practicing collecting all the data underwater. As we have such a wealth of experience in our Maldivian partners, each expeditioner from abroad can be teamed with one of them for the first survey. This will help improve everyone’s confidence and hone the skills needed to be a great Reef Checker – after all, that’s why we’re all here!

So, on Monday 17th July we conducted our first mock survey at Rasdhoo Madivar. It is the healthiest reef we have seen so far, as sadly much of the reef at Baros, our inner reef training site did not recover from last year’s extensive bleaching. Rasdhoo, on the other hand, being an outer reef with stronger currents and increased water flow has, from first glance, recovered completely. The survey itself was hampered by a swarm of jellyfish and some strong currents towards the end, but was none the less a great learning experience.

So with all tests completed, and all team members successfully obtaining Reef Check Eco Diver status (congratulations), the data collection begins!

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Greetings from Male’! I have arrived to a beautifully sunny day, but sadly Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt is not with me. Due to unforeseen circumstances, he has had to withdraw from this expedition at the 11th hour, and will no longer be on board the MV Carpe Diem with us. He will, however, be working with us remotely and will support and advise throughout. On expedition we are always reminded to, ‘expect the unexpected’, and this is a true example of that maxim!

Dr Jean-Luc has asked me to pass on this message to you:

“Unfortunately – for critical personal reasons – I cannot make the expedition this year. For that, I’m very sorry. However, you are all in excellent hands with an exceptional expedition leader (with excellent coral reef teaching skills), and two Maldivians who are competent in Reef Check methodology, and who are developing the new in-country NGO ReefCheck Maldives. I hope you have a truly successful and brilliant time, and thank you for your endeavours to help save Maldives reefs.”

As Dr Jean-Luc has alluded to, we are fortunate to have a wealth of experience and expertise on board, with a passionate and pioneering Maldivian presence and a number of marine biologists as part of the team, and it is now all of our responsibility to work hard and collect the data as planned.

I now have a local mobile number +960 789 2930 which should only be used for emergency purposes (such as missing assembly).

I hope your travels are going well and I look forward to meeting you tomorrow, Saturday, at 11:00 at the Coffee Club in Male Airport.

Best wishes,

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

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From our scuba diving conservation holiday with whale sharks and coral reefs of the Maldives

Hello, my name is Catherine and I’m going to be your expedition leader for this year’s Maldives expedition. I led this expedition in 2014 and 2015, and am looking forward to investigating, with your help, the recovery from last year’s bleaching event (do read the 2016 report in preparation).

Catherine Edsell
Catherine Edsell

I’ll be travelling out in advance with Dr. Jean-Luc Solandt, our scientist, to ensure that everything is ready for your arrival, and will be in touch with updates and my local mobile number from Male’.

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

On this expedition we will be training and passing knowledge to our new Maldivian partner NGO Reef Check Maldives, which was formed recently as a direct result of our local placement and capacity-building programme.

During the first slot, we will visit our permanent monitoring sites and re-test our theory that those sites in more exposed waters are faring better than the more sheltered sites.  In the second slot, we have the chance to complete an extensive set of surveys in more isolated locations, well away from most tourist islands. This will provide very interesting data comparison, and give us more information on the impact of last year’s bleaching event.  We will also be recording sightings of rare and spectacular species such as whale sharks and mantas, with a brand new survey site for whale sharks, south of Vaavu reef.

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  www.biosphere-expeditions.org/methods as this will not only save you revision time on board, but stand you in good stead for a fruitful expedition. For those of you who are already Reef Check qualified, this is also a great resource to refresh your memory!

I look forward to meeting the first team at the assembly point, Coffee Club at Male Airport on 15 July at 11:00.

Best wishes

Catherine Edsell
Expedition Leader

Update from our conservation holiday protecting leatherback and other sea turtles on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica

Here’s a first report of the season by our expedition scientist Fabian Carrasco:

Fabian Carrasco

The leatherback season started on 26 February with the first nesting female. Unfortunately she was poached. Later we had a nest in situ on 1  March. Her tracks were hidden by the waves in a couple of hours and the eggs remained safe from poachers. Our patrols with local assistants and international research assistants have started and in the past 43 days we have recorded 52 successful nesting activities:

* 1 natural nest (in situ)

* 25 nest relocated in Styrofoam coolers

* 9 nest relocated higher up the beach between markers 95-104

* 19 poached nests

* 1 nest saved by the Coast Guard and Police O.I.J.

Among the nests relocated in styrofoam coolers is one of green turtle (from 2 April). The others nests are from leatherbacks. No hawksbill have been seen yet.

The fist hatchlings are due between 1 and 8 May at marker 79.

Green turtle returning to sea after nesting
Leatherback turtle returning to sea after nesting