My third week was just as action packed as the last two, with plenty of in-water activities to keep us busy! We focused on underwater surveys this week, which included a few SharkWatch and TurtleWatch dives, of course plenty of those amazing Manta dives, as well as continuing our coral bleaching surveys, and implementing a new project looking at Crown of Thorns Starfish behaviour. We used a range of different techniques as each survey is assessing totally different aspects of the reef and the creatures that inhabit it. Ecological monitoring is an important tool in science. It allows us to take a snapshot and quantify what is currently in a system, to monitor any changes over time, and to compare different sites.
SharkWatch is a Citizen Science project where dive operators from around the Maldives submit their species sightings to the central Marine Research Centre based in Male. For me, it meant I got to go on several dives to help the dive guides collect the data. For the guides it can be difficult to look after a guest and simultaneously remember how many of which species they saw, especially when we can see up to 30 white tips and 20 black tips on one dive! So it was my job to go along to quantify their sightings! This data helps inform policy regarding the protection of shark species, as we track if the shark populations are increasing or decreasing following the shark fishing ban in 2010. So far it has been noted that all shark species sightings are on the increase in Maldives – great news for a healthy system!
The Manta Point is full of white tip reef sharks. We counted 12 on one dive!
Left ID shot of a friendly Hawksbill
The right side of the same turtle
TurtleWatch is a similar project, but with an added aspect of photographic identification! The scales on the faces of each turtle are unique like finger prints, allowing us to tell the difference between individual turtles on the reef. We managed to spot some golden oldies who were ID’d years ago, like Pippin at the Manta Point (She zooms around the cleaning station pretending to be a Manta..), but we also managed to capture some new faces, which was pretty cool – I’m keen to name one Dylan! The aim of this project is to determine the demographics of the sea turtle population in Maldives. We collect data on the species, sex, carapace (shell) length, any injuries, and also take photo ID’s of the facial scutes. This project also helps inform policy. Turtles in Maldives have been protected since 2005 by a 10 year moratorium. In 2016, this policy needed renewing and our data from TurtleWatch was used to ensure a new poaching ban was imposed for the next 10 years. The project also includes data collection on turtle nests, which enforced a new ban to protect turtle eggs in the Maldives too!
This juvenile Green turtle would sit in the same spot every day!
I learned to take any opportunity for data collection as the beautiful Green turtle photographed above was ID’d during an entirely separate survey dive: BleachWatch. BleachWatch is a project that was implemented in March 2016 to assess the mass bleaching of corals caused by the El Nino weather event on the reefs surrounding Gili Lankanfushi. We surveyed permanent monitoring sites at two different depths using belt transect methodology. In March this allowed us to gain a snapshot of the original health of our reef, and over time it has helped us gain information on how coral colonies reacted to the temperature increase, allowing us to map bleaching and mortality of different species at each depth.
One of my jobs was to lay the 100m transect – that’s a lot of swimming!
Using similar methods, I was excited to be involved with implementing a new project on our house reef regarding the behaviour of the Crown of Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci). This species occurs naturally in Maldives however, recently we have been seeing outbreak populations which can decimate reefs by eating the corals. Debs tells me that they have removed over 2000 individuals from the surrounding reefs in about 8 months! These starfish can be quite cryptic- hiding in crevices in the reef- making it difficult to remove them. It was our aim to discover how the starfish act during different times of the day at different depths, thus allowing us to determine the most efficient time and depth to begin our next set of removal efforts! During one of our survey dives, a friendly eagle ray came to inspect our transect tape! It was amazing to witness this bizarre behaviour as she flew in from the blue, right towards me!!
I had to stop my survey for a second because of this amazing encounter!
So all in all, I had a busy week of diving; surveying coral health and taking photos of amazing mega fauna for ID purposes! With just a few days left on Lankanfushi, I’ll be sure to miss island life! Stay tuned for my final post summarizing the highlights of my final week here!