October 30, 2015

No Bleaching and Lots of Teaching on Biosphere Expeditions’ Maldives Expedition

By Biosphere Expeditions

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 organized by nonprofit conservation organization Biosphere Expeditions. Biosphere Expeditions recognizes the importance of training local Maldivians, alongside citizen scientists 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 divers 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 help 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 was on high alert for signs of coral bleaching. Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed, resulting in expulsion of the symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae), which not only give them their color, 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 localized, 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-coordinator 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 organizations 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.\”

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