Diving deeper into the underwater world of the Maldives: Reflections from the Marine Systems and Policies field trip
As we trade in our snorkels and flip-flops for umbrellas and wooly hats, now is a good time to reflect on the incredible thirteen days the MSc Marine Systems and Policies students spent in the Maldives. The Maldives is comprised of 1192 islands, 26 natural atolls, 250 species of coral and over 1115 species of fish. The country’s economy is centred around tourism and fishing, with other industries such as agriculture, boats and handicraft contributing to revenue. The main social challenges facing this country are energy production, drinkable water and waste management. In addition, these low-lying islands are threatened by sea level rise, global warming, coral bleaching, tourism, overfishing and ocean acidification. When you look at the vast array of challenges the Maldives are having to try to combat, it becomes complicated very quickly, however it makes for an interesting environment to study.
The aim of this excursion was to introduce us to different field methods and apply these in practice to small-island developing states. Whilst undertaking these activities we were also trying to understand the broader elements that may drive changes. The trip was broken down into three aspects: the marine environment (snorkelling or scuba), geomorphology and social science. In addition, each student was required to undertake their own personal project in an area that interested them within the core subjects. Looking at these complex socio-ecological systems in blocks allowed us to start thinking about the linked nature of environmental and social change.
In total we visited four islands:
- Malé, the capital of the Maldives, and Hulhumalé a reclaimed artificial island created to compensate for the growing Maldivian population
- Magoodhoo, a local island in the Faafu Atoll
- Adanga, an uninhabited island in the Faafu Atoll
- Dhigurah, an inhabited island, popular with tourists in the South Ari Atoll
The majority of our time was spent on Magoodhoo, where we were hosted by the MaRHE (Marine Research and Higher Education) Centre, a research and teaching facility run in partnership with the University of Milano-Bicocca. Here we were exposed to a local island setting and were able to see how the MaRHE Centre worked with the people of Magoodhoo. If we weren’t learning about research methods, collecting or analysing data, we were spending our spare time exploring the reefs around the island. Snorkelling and diving allowed us to learn more about these incredibly diverse ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.
Unfortunately, in 2016 Magoodhoo was hit badly by soaring sea surface temperatures, which caused many of the coral reefs to bleach and die. Acropora, a genera of coral was particularly impacted by this environmental change, as it is extremely vulnerable to shifts in temperature. I asked Alex, one of the staff at MaRHE why the Acropora was important, and if its ecological niche may be filled by another coral species and he used an analogy I really liked… He said “You know in Sleeping Beauty when the city becomes surrounded in a wall of tangled thorns, that is how Acropora grows. It’s a really important structure for fish and other species due to the refugia it creates”. In addition, these structures are important for reef building and therefore creation of coral reef ecosystems.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, there are still some thriving reefs around the island and new recruits can be seen dotted about! Because Acropora is fast growing, if given an opportunity, it can recover. Some students took a particular interest in coral health and decided to undertake their personal projects on coral recruitment. One of the most interesting evenings was when everyone gave presentations on their projects. Areas researched this year were quite topical with many students looking at the impacts of the new harbour development on Magoodhoo, with the following questions considered:
- Local fishing and impacts (or not) on coral reefs
- Seagrass, impacts of the harbour, its ecological role and opportunities for blue carbon
- Impacts and importance of the recent harbour development on Magoodhoo: a social study
- Waste management of small-island developing states
- MaRHE’s economic impact on Magoodhoo
- Acropora recruits, impacts of the harbour and green infrastructure
- Clams: habitat preference and colouration
- Comparing impacts of fish behaviour when scuba vs. free diving
- Damselfish and coral condition
- Influence of drupella (a predatory snail) on corals, including bleaching and factors influencing recovery
- Culcita schimideliana (the spiny cushion star) impacts of the harbour and coral recovery
After gathering the data to be used for our final reports, we moved on to Dhigurah. The idea here was to compare and contrast what we had observed and how we felt on the local island, against an island that had influences from tourism. It was fair to say that these two locations were extremely different from the minute we docked in the harbour! To begin, this island had many more vehicles and much more property development. It wasn’t unusual for the local people of Dhigurah to see tourists, we even stayed at one of the many guest houses on the island, whereas at MaRHE we stayed within the centre. There was also a designated ‘bikini beach’ for tourists to use.
Our hosts this time were a research-based conservation charity, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP). Although established by non-Maldivian researchers, the organisation encourages applications from local people, so when we walked around Dhigurah with our hosts, there was a feeling of integration with the local people and businesses. The MWSRP were incredibly knowledgeable and knew Dhigurah and its waters extremely well. After experiencing the island through a tour led by Basith and Shamyl, they told us how the organisation collects data, why and what they do with it. Their results so far showed that whale shark sightings in Dhigurah have a strong gender bias as 87% of sightings were of males, with 69% of the population having injuries of which 78% are from anthropogenic sources (e.g. from boat propellers). Uniquely this is one of the only places in the world that whale sharks can be seen all year round. We learned about the code of conduct for whale shark tourism encounters in the Maldives, which was extremely useful for our next excursion.
The following day, we were exposed to the ecotourism industry in the Maldives. Guided for the day by the experienced staff of Island Divers we encountered more megafauna than we could have hoped for! We were able to cruise along with a pod of false killer whales on our trip to ‘Manta Point’ and made a stop along the way for a whale shark that had been spotted. This experience bought up conflicting emotions for many people. Although excited to see this enigmatic species, it was heart-breaking to see so many tourists and boats crowding the animal. It was a bit of a mad dash into the water with boat-loads of people jumping in the ocean from every angle. Hordes of tourists swam after the shark elbowing other snorkelers to get the best view… and this was a ‘quiet’ day.
After the realisation of the experience, our group was left in the wake of the madness just treading open water before the boat circled round to collect us. We continued on to the manta cleaning station and were welcomed by five ginormous gentle giants flying through the water. Again, the ocean was filled by masses of divers and a group of snorkelers. One student compared looking down at the scuba divers to ‘zombies crawling out of the darkness’ due to the sheer number of people below. However, it appeared the mantas didn’t care as much as the whale shark, perhaps as our presence was less invasive, with many people remaining still as opposed to chasing them. Our experiences this day were the complete opposite of our time spent in the ocean around Magoodhoo, when it was often just us in the water.
That afternoon, we explored some of the reefs closer to Dhigurah. Here we saw living gardens of Acropora, a sight many of us hadn’t seen. It was clear that bleaching hadn’t affected these corals to such an extent, which instilled hope in many of us. Other activities on Dhigurah included a comparison of the two islands we visited, a walk looking at the geomorphology, and an introduction to whale shark identification software! Comparing similar aspects on a second island, allowed us to be quite reflective, I felt as though it encouraged us to think critically about these islands and the similarities and differences in terms of challenges and priorities.
Coming away from this field trip really demonstrated how complicated and multifaceted the issues facing small-island developing states and systems are. I personally felt reassured about my career path and my goal to protect our oceans. From this experience, I can say that I have a better practical understanding of a truly ecosystem based approach to marine conservation. Although talked about in theory quite a lot, spending time on these remote islands has demonstrated the importance of holistic management, which includes people as a core component. Our programme is made up of students from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and as a result everybody was able to learn something new, and gain new skills on this trip (from writing a field notebook, to considering social aspects of environmental change). Everyone worked tirelessly to get the most out of this field opportunity, working over 12 hours most days. As we gradually habituate ourselves to the rhythm of semester two I know that I will be appreciating this once in a life time opportunity… whilst planning my next trip to one of these amazing islands.