Citizen science and nature-based tourism

Today is World Migratory Bird Day! One of the best activities to join on the resort is the citizen science birdwatching program. Guests are given a photo checklist of common bird species around the resort as well as a pair or binoculars for them to record their sightings. This birdwatching program starts early…at 7 am in the morning. When you’re in that holiday mood it’s probably the last thing you want to do especially when there’s a nice warm comfy bed to laze the whole morning away, but once you’re actually out and about I guess there’re no regrets.

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Reva and Adlan looking out at some herons along the Laguna Bintan Golf Course

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Adlan leads a birdwatching tour on World Migratory Bird Day

Nature-based tourism actually has huge potential for citizen science, and it’s such an easy and useful program that I often wonder why resorts and tours don’t do this more often.  Some tips on how you can contribute to citizen science as a tourist here and here if you’re based in Singapore. The idea is so simple…

  1. Choose a particular group of organisms to focus on.
  2. Choose a few routes to bring tourists around and keep those routes fixed.
  3. Print out simple checklists that include the photos of the organisms you are surveying, the date, time, route and number of observers that were included in the survey.
  4. Bring tourists around and look at wildlife, recording it as you go along.
  5. Type in all that data into a computer once you’re done!

Aaaand bingo. That’s it. Depending on the time constraints and level of expertise, you can choose to make the type of data collected as detailed or as generic as you would like. You can record animals down to a family level, something quite useful if you’re doing fish surveys and want to look at organisms from a management perspective. Butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) are useful indicators of coral health, groupers are indicators of fishing pressure, etc. At a genus level, there’s a higher specificity that has greater scientific value, as in the case of corals (E.g. Acroporid and Pocilloporid corals support specific symbionts). If animals are easy to identify and photograph, the way birds are, then identifying them down to a species level is not only useful but quite manageable as well. It goes without saying that the more well-designed, robust and specific the survey is, the greater the scientific value. With a field guide (I recommend this one and this one for identifying birds in Southeast Asia), a pair of binoculars and a dash of determination, it’s easy enough to get the common species in no time.

The question is…why bother? Firstly, because this value adds to the particular tourism activity. If you are bringing visitors on a boat tour in the mangroves for instance, wouldn’t it be more informative and interactive if they could actually learn about what they’re seeing? This also sets you apart from other operators and can be marketed as a special program. Finally, it’s incredibly useful to track long-term changes in the environment. If your livelihood depends on the survival of these animals and plants you’re bringing people around to see, then it’s of utmost importance that you can properly identify and describe changes in their populations and their environment.

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Reva holding a copy of our birdwatching citizen science brochure

Having said all of this, let’s play the devil’s advocate. Citizen science isn’t for everyone on a holiday. There will always be tourists who don’t care about anything and are merely obsessed with taking a selfie in the perfect angle just to prove they’ve been somewhere. In other cases, sometimes a language barrier makes it difficult to explain. Whatever the case, that’s why participating in citizen science should still be a voluntary activity that caters to a tourist’s interest. It’s the job of the tour guide to sell the idea of citizen science. Why it’s important, how easy it is and why they should give it a shot. The idea is to make everything as fun as possible so it doesn’t feel like dull research…because it isn’t!

One of my favourite classes at university was a bird race for our Avian Biology class. What we did essentially was to break off into different groups, armed with a bird guide and binoculars, and to identify as many species of birds around Chinese Gardens before the class came to an end. It was chaos as everyone scrambled around, straining their eyes in the sweltering heat to look for birds, but it was one of the most exciting and fun classes we’ve had to date. If a bunch of sleep-deprived 20-year-olds can be incentivized to run around in Singapore on a weekday morning, I’m sure a lot more people might be interested too.

Jumping back to Bintan, guests at the resort help to identify different bird species that have been seen around the resort. The citizen science program started in 2015, so there’s currently almost 4 years of data! To date these trips have identified 41 bird species around the resort and golf course, including some rare species like the Chestnut-bellied Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus sumatranus) and scarlet-headed flowerpecker (Dicaeum trochileum), as well as captivating raptors such as the changeable hawk eagle (Nisaetus cirrhatus), Chinese sparrowhawk (Accipiter soloensis) and oriental honey buzzard (Pernis ptilorhynchus). That’s definitely worth waking up in the morning on a holiday right? Here are some highlights of birds that were found within the premises of the resort.

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Olive-winged bulbul (Pycnonotus plumosus)

Yelow vented bulbul_Pycnonotus goiavier2

Yellow-vented bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier)

Emerald Imperial Pigeon_Ducula aenea

Emerald imperial pigeon (Ducula aenea)

Chestnut-bellied malkoha_Phaenicophaeus sumatranus

Chestnut-bellied malkoha (Phaenicophaeus sumatranus)

Brahminy kite_Haliastur indus

Brahminy kite (Haliastur indus)

Black winged stilt_Himantopus himantopus

Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)

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Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos)

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Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis)

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Grey heron (Ardea cinerea) and Intermediate egret (Ardea intermedia)

Birdwatching actually started out for me as a hobby, because I just enjoyed being able to identify the birds I saw along nature walks and hikes. Over time, however, it’s truly amazing to learn how to identify birds not only by sight but by their calls as well. With more training from Adlan and the rest of the team, I learnt how to identify the common bird species around Bintan. We got some help from an application called Burungnesia as well. This is great for Indonesians to learn about local flora and fauna as descriptions come in Bahasa Indonesia. Sadly, it’s only available for Android devices and isn’t on the Apple store.

 

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Burungnesia, an app that helps you identify and record birds from all over Indonesia.

As for the other calls that we couldn’t identify, I turned to a website called XenoCanto…think of it as YouTube or SoundCloud, except just for bird calls. The site has 411’236 recordings to date of 9864 species of birds. Not only does it sort bird calls according to species and regions, the database allows you to upload sound recordings of birds that you need help identifying. When I uploaded sound recordings onto the site, I got replies from other birdwatchers to help me identify the calls. What an amazing way to learn about bird calls wherever you may be!

Coastal cleanups & waste management in Pengudang, Bintan

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On Sunday, in lieu of the Earth Day celebrations, our team co-organized a local beach cleanup and mangrove planting event along the coast of the Pengudang village in Bintan. It was great to see so much enthusiasm from everyone. We had school groups participating, NGOs, even government officials as well and everyone signed their names onto a pledge to take strategic steps that would contribute to the fight to end plastic pollution. The event was a collaboration between Banyan Tree, ISKINDO KEPRI, Pengudang Bintan Mangroves and Kabupaten Bintan. The coast here is adjacent to a huge seagrass bed, and a feeding ground for dugongs.

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Seeing so many people involved was really heartening…a reminder that coastal cleanups don’t just help to clean up the environment, it also serves a larger purpose to educate and inspire the public to enact change. This is the power of Gotong Royong, the Indonesian term to work together as a community to make a difference, and it is heartening to see the drive of the local community to participate in tree planting and other environmental events. Shout out to the amazing team at the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab, my colleagues Pak Henry Singer, Renald Yude and Adlan Bakti for organizing the event! Thanks too to Pak Iwan Winarto for helping us out. Here are some of the photos from our event.

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Signatures of NGOs, government officials, students and businesses together to end plastic pollution. GREAT NEWS ALERT! Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts has also made a bold pledge to reduce to eliminate all single-use plastic as well by Earth Day 2019, and we are now phasing out all use of plastic straws and bottles at the resort. This is an excellent example of how tourism industries can lead the way in promoting environmentalism. Read more about this pledge and the interview with Dr Steve Newman, our Group Sustainability Director over here!

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Plastic bottles accounted for the vast majority of waste that was found. All of these bottles were separated from the rest of the trash and given to a recycling facility later on.

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Our wonderful participants having fun while keeping the beach clean…Even the rain didn’t dampen their spirits!

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Too many small styrofoam pieces to pick up 😦

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Fishing nets were one of the most largest types of waste collected, and their micro-fibres were found embedded in lots of sand

 

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IMG_7140Presentation on why plastic is such a problem in Indonesia and how we can combat it (e.g. committing to reusable bags and bottles)

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Local dance and martial arts (Silat) performances

The more rubbish we collected, the more I was starting to realize that we were truly fighting a losing battle. To be honest, it felt like we were trying to shift a landfill into garbage bags. I learnt from my team that solid waste disposal is truly one of the biggest challenges that Bintan faces. One estimate I found was approximately 400 tonnes of solid waste produced by the island’s 230’000 residents a day . The island’s solution to solid waste management is to put all of it into ‘sanitary landfills’, and there is currently little to no formal collection of wastes in non-resort areas. There have been steps to improve such landfills; installing a methane gas collection and energy production system at the Ganet TPA landfill in the capital of Bintan, Tanjung Pinang, but leachate from this landfill alone could be polluting up to 0.684 km of waters in residential areas. For most residential areas, waste is typically disposed off in ‘backyard landfills’, so each kampong (Bahasa Indonesia: village) designates an area for waste to be dumped. Sometimes, this waste is burned in open fires, but most of the time, it is left to degrade on its own. In some coastal communities, unfortunately, this waste easily makes its way into mangroves and the sea. It’s great that Bintan is taking steps to start capturing methane in its landfills, and definitely a step in the right direction, but is that enough? According to the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council in Columbia University, there is a hierarchy of waste management systems which starts at the top (reducing waste completely), and ends with open landfills and burning.

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As far as I know, there are no incineration plants for solid waste in Bintan. The benefits of installing incineration plants in Bintan are twofold—firstly, it helps reduce the quantity of solid waste and the chances of waste leaching noxious chemicals into the natural environment and secondly, it can produce energy when heat from combustion is used to produce electricity. Why hasn’t it been done? Well…because it costs a bomb. To put things into perspective, Singapore’s waste to energy incineration plant and landfill at Pulau Semakau cost a whopping SGD$ 610 million. Singapore produced around 7.70 million tonnes of solid waste in 2017, an average of about 21’096 tonnes a day. We produce around 50 times more waste per day than Bintan, so perhaps Bintan does not need something quite as elaborate and costly. But how feasible would it be to create a simpler incineration plant here and how much would that cost?

Anyway, I digress. As part of the organizing team, we requested for the event to be as plastic free as possible. That meant providing cups that participants could drink from by filling it up from a large container, rather than distributing plastic bottles. We asked caterers to prepare lunch boxes with cardboard instead of the usual styrofoam that they use. It was difficult to be completely plastic free for the event (E.g. the latex gloves that we distributed for hygiene, cutlery that came with the lunch was still plastic), but on a whole, I felt like it was a pretty good attempt. Imagine my dismay at the end of the entire event, where I realized that some of the same participants who had just helped us cleanup the beach 30 minutes ago now left their lunch boxes strewn all over the floor, plastic cutlery in the grass, gloves lying around, when trash bags were put up around the site and were definitely easily accessible.

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Our attempt to reduce plastic use at our own event

Some of the team and I spent the end of the event picking up after ourselves. ‘Oh the irony’, I sighed to myself, ‘that we had to do a cleanup of our cleanup event’. I take it as a lesson learnt, that the next time we organize such an event, that we need to be explicitly clear to everyone to clean up after themselves. Perhaps…it’s easy to forget that the first step of conservation and environmentalism is to start with ourselves? What use is taking part in events or organizing these monthly activities frequently, if we offset all this good work with our everyday bad habits? It’s definitely something to think about for sure, and I certainly hope that this cleanup will be one of many more events to come, and if you’ve got ideas on how to change the mentality people have toward plastic and waste, do leave a comment below! Next time round, we will be trying to improve our cleanups by measuring the waste collected, maybe we could even do something similar to ICCS? Something to think about I guess!

 

Disclaimer: The views reflected on this blog are mine, and do not represent the thoughts, intentions or plans of my employer/Banyan Tree Bintan. It’s a stream-of-consciousness, spontaneous collection of what I did and what I thought so my horrible memory can get a bit more help. I hope you find this interesting or inspiring in some way or another, and feel free to let me know if there are any errors/mistakes in my posts! Thanks!

Life on the water’s edge – Mapur Island

Today, we visited one of the local islands, Mapur. Mapur Island is situated within Kabupaten Bintan, an area of 4729.05 km² that is protected for its rich marine biodiversity. It is located approximately 16 kilometres east of Bintan and is famous for some dive sites such as the Igara Wreck that sits at the bottom of the sea at 40m. This is considered a locally managed marine area, a system of community-based management. I’ve seen some dive companies offering opportunities to explore the area, but most of these are from liveaboards and through day trips. It’s really nothing like living together with the community.

Going onto Mapur is like stepping back into time. It’s rustic nature and quaint little kelongs (houses and fish farms on stilts) are particularly charming. Most of the residents within the island rely exclusively on fishing for their livelihood. There are multiple methods for catching fish, but one of the most common methods is to set fish traps made from chicken wire along the seabed with a bit of bait.

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Fish traps hanging underneath a house in Mapur

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Rooster perched on top of a fish trap

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Some of our Seedlings youths from Bintan, really bright kids who join the CSR team at Banyan Tree Bintan to learn about environmental issues and to partner with resort staff for a vocational mentorship program.

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Our cosy home for the night that was literally on the water’s edge!

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Taking a walk in the morning around the island. Thanks for the photo Francisca! 🙂

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After we had settled into a new home for the night, we took the Seedlings out to snorkel. There was heavy rain and it was so cold and windy outside that jumping into the sea felt like going into a jacuzzi. All the same, even though there was very heavy rain, that didn’t dampen our spirits.

Most of the youths we had from Seedlings weren’t strong swimmers, so we took some time on a sandbank to teach them how to snorkel with a life vest. For those who were more confident, we taught them how to float and try basic swimming strokes so they could keep themselves afloat.

Snorkelling trip with the Seedlings (Photos: Henry Singer)

I was so proud of them for overcoming their fear of the water. Everyone started off rather shy and hesitant at first, but by the end of the day, they were splashing around and having a whale of a time. It was also heartening to see a giant clam and coral nursery a short 5 minute boat ride away from the stilt houses on Mapur.

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That’s a pretty good sized clam right there! One of 50 clams protected within Mapur’s clam conservation program. As we were snorkelling along the reef, it was great to see a giant clam every now and then peeking out from the reef!

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Visibility wasn’t the best in the water especially after the rain, but it was clear that the fragments of Acropora they had on their table nursery were thriving particularly well.

I learnt that these conservation projects were led by the organization Balai Pengelolaan Sumberdaya Pesisir dan Laut (BPSPL), or in English, the local Centre for Coastal and Marine Resource Management and carried out by Lembaga Pengelola Sumberdaya Terumbu Karang Desa Mapur or the Coral Reef Resource Management Institute of Mapur Village. Mapur Island, being part of the Marine Protected Area, is of high conservation priority, planned with the hopes that such conservation projects will increase the welfare of communities and the area’s potential for tourism. Apart from protecting the clams in nurseries, efforts to raise awareness among the locals to refrain from hunting these clams have also been put in practice.

Giant clams are among some of my favourite marine animals because of the striking iridescent flesh they have within their shells. The colours are so unearthly, it reminds me of the Milky Way. For giants, they’re shy and sensitive to light, retreating if you try to come too close. They are filter feeders, but also rely on symbiotic algae for an extra dose of nutrition.

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Infographic courtesy of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute

Giant clams are particularly threatened around the world, and in Asia, are often harvested for their shells and meat. However, they are incredibly important reef-building animals and luckily, the protection of these beautiful molluscs have stepped up in recent years. In Indonesia, two species of giant clams, the fluted giant clam (Tridacna squamosa) and boring –as in embedding rather than uninteresting– giant clam (Tridacna crocea) are considered locally endangered. Mapur alone is currently home to four species of clams (From most common to least common: Tridacna crocea, T. maxima, T. derasa and T. squamosa). 

One of my favourite overviews of giant clam conservation by Dr Neo Mei Lin in her TED talk over here:

 

Thank you to the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab for organizing such an amazing trip! And I can’t wait to explore more of the waters around Bintan soon!

 

A new journey…Bintan, Indonesia

After my six month stint in the Maldives, it was time for me to return to an area closer to home. I was fortunate to have the incredible opportunity to work as a Conservation Specialist in the Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab. In the Maldives, there’s an incredible amount of research and monitoring done on a regular basis. In Indonesia, they have been accomplishing so much in terms of community outreach and raising environmental awareness, but more needed to be done in terms of research. My task was to establish an avian and forest habitat monitoring program aligned to the lab’s citizen science birdwatching program. In addition to this piece of research, I will also be helping out with guest activities such as nature walks, conservation talks, etc.

1. About Us

Where I’ll be spending a lot of time over the next three months (Bintan Conservation Lab)

The team here is small but incredibly effective, led by Mr Henry Singer, our environment naturalist, who has been running the lab here for more than a decade. Renald Yude, who supervises marine conservation activities and runs the Seedlings Youth Mentorship Program and Adlan Bakti, who runs terrestrial conservation in the lab. I also worked with one of their interns from the Bogor Agricultural University, Revani Utami, who helped out with the operations and conducted her research on characteristics of sea turtle egg-laying sites.

One of the most remarkable success stories and testaments to the resort’s success in community engagement is the turtle conservation program. I learned that the resort is adjacent to a village called Kampong Baru, a small conglomeration of around a hundred artisanal fishermen and their families. In the past, turtle eggs were often collected and consumed by locals. A study in 2004 observed estimated that approximately >90% of sea turtle nests were collected for consumption. Hawksbills have been observed nesting most frequently on the shores of Bintan between March and September. Today, however, the fishermen use their indigenous knowledge of the sea to aid conservation efforts. They’ve been trained to collect the eggs without damage and then to help with relocation efforts to a safer area where the eggs are free from both natural predators and poaching from humans.

The vast majority of nests are laid on the Northern coast of Bintan, on a long stretch of sandy beach known as Pasir Panjang (the same name as Singapore, except this beach is actually long). One morning, Renald had some incredible news to share. He’d received a call that a large female green had come ashore on Pasir Panjang to lay a clutch of eggs. I remember beating myself up for not being there and seeing the videos of this large female, but knowing we were on the same island for a couple of hours or so still felt pretty magical.

33782009_10209983768104322_8620191567153463296_n33864189_10209983767784314_5322899720375369728_n    Usually, turtles lay their eggs at night, but this female was found in the early morning (Photos from Renald Yude)

As mentioned earlier, Banyan Tree Bintan’s outreach and education work with the community enables an extensive network of people on the lookout for nesting sea turtles. Once these turtles are sighted laying eggs, we receive a call and we’ll be down to collect these eggs in a bucket hours later. The whole process is quite speedy. Then, the turtles are transferred to our hatchery, where they’re protected and accounted for.

24. Sea Turtle Conservation Program

Relocating my first nest of turtle eggs, green sea turtles!

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IMG_8875 2Sea turtle eggs are spherical, and look like a bunch of ping-pong balls buried in the sand!

This is basically how the relocation of the nest happens here in the program after they’ve been collected:

  1. Dig a circular hole at the hatchery that is approximately 1m deep and 30cm wide
  2. Scatter some sand from the bucket to line the bottom of the nest
  3. Slowly transfer eggs one at a time into the new nest, being careful to place it in the same position it was found in, avoid rotating the eggs.
  4. Count the number of eggs as they are placed into the nest, record information about the nest.
  5. Scatter the sand loosely from the bucket on top of the eggs.
  6. Loosely scatter and cover the nest with the surrounding sand, forming a small hill on the top of the nest.
  7. Wait patiently for several weeks!

There are a few things we need to be careful with as the whole process is delicate. When relocating the eggs, I learnt from Renald that it’s important to handle them very carefully, without tilting the egg and to place them in the same orientation they were found in. This apparently increases their hatching success. We also use gloves whenever they are handled to minimize contamination. As one person carefully transfers the eggs into a new hole, the other counts and records information about the eggs.

Green turtle eggs hatch between 45 to 75 days after they’re laid (of which between 50-75% will naturally hatch successfully), and hawksbill eggs hatch around 60 days after they’re laid, so it’s hard to predict exactly when these little hatchlings will first poke their heads out of the sand. A week before they’re due to hatch, we place mesh net around the nest and monitor the nest daily. Most of the nest hatches within the same day, but there always seem to be a few latecomers to the party, so we give them a couple more days or so before excavating the whole nest. It’s important to account for each egg when they are transferred in, so we know we haven’t left a single turtle hatchling behind.

The first mad rush of hatched sea turtles scrambling out of their nests in a race towards the sea. Turtles know their way by instinct and naturally orientate themselves towards the sea! (Check out the Bintan Conservation Lab Instagram for regular updates!).

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Once the hatchlings have emerged out of their nests, they’re transferred into a bucket and measured at our nursery. However, not all of them emerge from the nest at the same time. Some still have their yolk sac attached to the base of their shell or the plastron, so we leave them inside the nest a while longer. Occasionally, some eggs haven’t even hatched too…so we wait another day if needed.

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This little hawksbill was among one of the last of its nest to hatch, and we found him still in his shell as we were checking the nest. Once the whole nest is checked and excavated, these turtles are split according to their species and placed in the nursery.

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One little hawksbill takes its first dive into seawater at our nursery!

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Two more hawksbills who are completely worn out from all that flapping around and are just resting along the surface.

This is their temporary new home. Here, we feed and keep them for around one to three months before releasing them into the sea. It’s a chance for them to gain a little bit more weight and size, and hopefully even harden their shells a bit before facing the oceans on their own. We measure and check on the welfare of these turtles regularly so we can keep track of their growth!

A baby green turtle (Chelonia mydas) on the left and a baby hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) from our nursery after getting measured!

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While they stay in the nursery, we take turns feeding them and cleaning their tank regularly. If we’re lucky, we get a bit of help from our guests (like this aspiring veterinarian, 10-year-old Mia) too!

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A bunch of baby green turtles transferred out momentarily while we’re cleaning the tank!

Before long, it’s time for us to say goodbye. The turtles are released from our beach instead of the sea so that they can imprint on their surroundings and hopefully return here to nest some day. Scientists have evidence that turtles rely on the magnetic field of the earth to navigate their way back to the beaches they nested at. This ability to return back to where an animal is born after years and kilometres of migration is called natal homing. Another new piece of research published a couple of months ago shows that loggerhead turtles sometimes mistakenly nest on the wrong beaches with similar magnetic fields, even if the beach is not within close proximity to the location they hatched from. Even so, it’s remarkable to me that any animal can, whether instinctually or otherwise, be able to ‘remember’ where they came from. I can barely remember any aspect of my life until the age of 4, perhaps, let alone where the hospital I was born in was located.

As these turtles scramble off into the surf, I feel wistful. I’m overjoyed to see them wild and free, but it’s simultaneously sad that turtles have naturally low survival rates. For sea turtles, it’s a tough world out there, and some estimates are as low as 1 out of a thousand eggs that will survive to adulthood. It’s strange to think that if they’re lucky, these little guys we released can outlive me. The maximum lifespan of a green turtle is estimated to be 75 years (although some anecdotal evidence suggests they can live beyond a century).  A part of me hopes they will all outlive me someday, but I know the odds are just not in their favour. 

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These are some of the unfortunate yet important anecdotes that must still be shared. Before the turtles are released, we invite resort guests to come and participate in wishing the turtles all the best as they embark on their next adventure in the open sea. This is also a great chance to share with guests about the urgent need for turtle conservation, the threats to their survival, as well as how they can play a part to help make the oceans a better place for turtles to live in. Many are often surprised that survival rates are so low, but I sincerely hope that this only encourages them to keep the oceans free from litter and to also be more actively involved in an environmentally friendly lifestyle.

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My first time giving the briefing for the turtle release

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The mad scramble towards the sea…all the best little ones!

Day 198, 25th February – Whalesharks in South Ari Atoll

One of the highlights of working down south in Velavaru was that we were in close proximity to a place in South Ari Atoll that was frequented by whale sharks. It’s been an absolute dream of mine to swim alongside a wild whale shark so I’d begged the dive centre to let me tag along on my day off. Several days ago, I joined a trip and spent several hours looking for them to no avail. When I heard they were having another whale shark trip to South Ari Atoll, I tried not to get my hopes up again, but eagerly climbed aboard the speedboat with my fingers crossed.

Today, we wait with the sun beating down our shoulders, squinting for a shadow over the rippling waters, trying not to be thrown off-balance from the lurching boat. With the sun glaring down at the sea, the blue becomes reflective and even more difficult to look through. Wave after wave, all I see is an infinite blue, incapable of even gauging how deep we are anymore. All of a sudden, someone shouts, “Vaaiy faraaiy! To the left of the boat!” I catch a glimpse of a dark shadow slowly cruising across the reef and then it disappears. The next few minutes pass by in madness. Everyone scrambling to put on their snorkel gear, the captain trying to keep an eye on the shark and lots of shouting to get into the water as fast as possible. I help the kids into the water first and soon enough I’m the last one on the boat. “Where is my stuff! And….I can’t find my fins.”

Everyone is off the boat, in the water, and I can’t find my fins. Ageel is drifting away and I see him waving his arms, calling me to get in the water…but my fins are not on the deck, not under the seats, and then a moment of dread washes over me. Can I keep up with an 8-m long shark without any fins? No…HAS ANYONE SEEN MY FINS? The boat crew scramble around helping me to find them and finally we find them stowed in the lower deck. I don’t bother to ask why and without hesitation, I jump off the bow and straight into the water, putting on my fins as I swim towards the large shadow. My jet fins are heavy, and definitely not ideal for swimming fast at the surface, but I press on.

I spot it around 6m from the surface, polka-dotted and huge, the foot-long remoras clinging on to its side look as small as cleaner wrasses. It swims unhurriedly, its large tail sweeping slowly in the dim light. Should it have been swimming any faster, I’d probably not be able to close the distance between us. Just as I manage to keep directly overhead the shark, I take a deep breath and pull myself deeper, my heart still racing from trying to keep up with this giant, my lungs gasping to take another breath, but all this discomfort escapes. It’s massive! It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. Following it deeper, I watch as it swims placidly, barely brushing its body on the seabed. The reef is just a bluish blur of boulder corals scattered around, the shark crosses over it with ease, completely dwarfing everything.

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I need air.

I rush back up to the surface, heaving and panting, still relentlessly swimming above the shark, trying to catch my breath to descend once more. I feel so small, my fins feebly trying to keep up with this giant, who is very annoyingly swimming effortlessly against a current towards the drop-off. This is where the reef gradually trails off into a deep slope, and the water temperature ominously drops into a spine-chilling cold. All I feel is pure adrenaline, and before I’ve taken a large enough breath, I find myself chasing the shark into the deep blue until soon enough, it completely disappears, engulfed by the far-reaching depths of the sea. And I, limited by my lungs, am forced to retire to the surface once again. I wish I had gills.

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After I haul myself back onto the speedboat, I am an absolute mess and continually stutter about what might have been one of the greatest experiences in my entire life. I feel like I’ve known whale sharks, read about them and how large they can grow to, watched documentaries chronicling their fate today and spoken to people about how gentle these giants are. Well, let’s just say that all that did absolutely nothing to prepare me for this encounter face to face.

Before I had the time to process what was going on, the boat had set off again in search for more whale sharks. One of the boat crew received word from other operators that another shark had been sighted on the radio, and we followed their directions for our next sighting. This time, we weren’t the only boat around and another four more boats with loads more tourists were starting to enter the water.

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The second time around, I was way more prepared. Fins, mask, snorkel, camera all within an arms reach and ready to go. Once the boat stopped, I dived in without hesitation and followed Ageel, mentally prepared to keep up with the shark once again. This time, he helped me snap a few photos of the incredible encounter. “This one is still considered small”, he explained to me as I tried to catch my breath again, as I stared slightly dumbfounded at him that he was referring to an animal more than thrice my height. This is without a doubt the largest animal I’ve been in the water with in my life. Whale sharks are the largest recorded species of fish, the longest individual being 12.65 metres in length. They’re still smaller than whales for sure, but at least double the size of a great white shark.

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The second whale shark of the day, a ‘mere’ 6m long (Thanks Ageel for these photos!)

For such large animals, our understanding of them is still very limited. Believe it or not, but nobody knows how and where whale sharks mate or give birth. The bulk of what we know about whale shark reproduction is from a single female caught in Taiwan, which was found carrying with 300 embryos.

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Egg cases and embryos found from a single 10.6 metre long female caught in Taiwan in 1996 (Photo from WL Chen)

Whale sharks are endangered and internationally protected species, listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), meaning that exports of these animals must be done with a valid license. In the Indo-Pacific region, whale shark populations have collapsed by 63% within the last 75 years. Globally, the decline is estimated to be more than 50%. In recent years, however, the value of these sharks has increased in the tourism industry relative to the fisheries industries. A single whale shark fin can be valued at as much as USD$57’000 in restaurants, but recorded prices paid to fishermen can be as low as USD$3000-4000 for a whole shark. In terms of tourism, whale shark watching is far more lucrative here in the Maldives. The value of whale shark tourism in South Ari Atoll alone was estimated to be about USD$7.6 million in 2012 and USD$9.4 million in 2013, with between 72-78’000 tourists on the look for these sharks annually. Whale shark fishing was banned in 1995 across the whole of the Maldives, and by 1998, all shark fishing in tourism zones were prohibited. Clearly, the value of sharks is much higher in terms of tourism than it is as a fishery species.

With so many tourists traveling to the Maldives to see whale sharks, it’s easy to see how this can all get out of control. Whale shark tourism has been particularly controversial, especially in cases where sharks are lured intentionally. In some places around the world such as Oslob, the Philippines, tour guides deliberately empty loads of baitfish into the water to attract these sharks. In other cases, these sharks are captured for display in live aquaria, such as in Okinawa, Japan, and Georgia, USA.

So, the question is this…how can we ensure that tourism is sustainable and minimizes impacts on wild whale sharks? Here’s a great video on ethical guidelines to whale shark watching by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), I found out about after the day’s events. It’s a charity that carries out whale shark research and fosters community focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives.

I learned that they’ve also put together an amazing app ‘Whale Shark Network Maldives’ that helps you to contribute citizen science data from recording sightings of whale sharks and identify different individuals. Basically, it provides a live feed of whale shark sightings around the Maldives, and using the dots on each individual helps identify each whale…it’s basically like a human fingerprint! The app now even lists the name of these sharks with some pretty creative names such as “Mohammed Ali”, “Nemo”, “Sparkle” and “Hook”. Pretty neat huh? I thought it was a great way for operators to cooperate and not only share information about the whereabouts of these animals but to also contribute to a better understanding of the population at large.

It’s heartening to see tourist and boat operators here looking towards sustainable tourism for whale sharks so that many more people like myself can truly enjoy and experience these majestic and beautiful creatures first hand. What an amazing day, and I’m so glad to finally be able to cross that off my bucket list!

Day 197, 24th February 2018 – Coral Planting

It’s hard to say why, but the reefs at Velavaru are doing exceptionally well despite the bleaching even that’s occurred. Corals seem to grow rapidly along the reef slope as well as within the lagoon! As Shameem and I took a snorkel out in the lagoon to clean some of the coral frames, we caught a glimpse of a large patch of Acropora that oddly enough seemed to be growing from a sandy bottom. Usually, corals need a hard substrate for them to anchor themselves onto, and sandy bottoms mean a higher likelihood of eventually getting smothered and buried under piles and piles of sand. But there they were. I’m still puzzled, but perhaps the lagoon was deep enough and sheltered enough to not be affected by waves and severe fluctuations in sea temperatures? I’m not sure…

Because of the sheer success of coral propagation programs here in Velavaru, the island has multiple frames and nurseries for baby coral fragments to grow up gradually. It’s heartening to see rope nurseries with fragments that have grown so large that it makes the entire nursery sag with its weight. Shameem and I cleaned the Goshi frames a couple of days ago and today it’s time for us to transfer the large corals from the rope nursery over to the frames where they have even more space to grow larger. We’re lucky because we get a bit of help from Sylvia, my lovely roommate and an amazing dive instructor, today to help us slowly remove and transfer the corals.

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Sylvia hard at work trying to clip off some of the fragments from our nursery for transplantation onto the frames

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Shameem inspecting an Acropora coral fragment for transplantation

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Our haul from just three lines of the rope nursery! There were more corals on the nursery but we really couldn’t fit anymore into the basket…the remaining fragments will just have to be transplanted next time then!

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We used a lift bag to carry the fragments up towards the surface and then swam over to our new coral frames

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Sylvia making sure nothing falls out from the basket

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Our Goshi frame in horrible visibility! Goshi is apparently the Maldivian name of a basket cover used to prevent flies from accessing food. The frame reminded them of those baskets, hence the name

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Pre-transplantation…The frames look pretty bare. We attached corals with cable ties, spacing them out at regular intervals. Silly me, I didn’t take a picture at the end after we’d finish all the attachment.

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An incredibly adorable baby yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) I found on our frames while transferring the corals

That was a particularly long dive…around 90 minutes? And although we were only at a maximum depth of 10 metres, I found myself shivering slightly towards the end. It was totally worth it though and even though we were all pretty exhausted and hungry after that, I can’t wait for these corals to overgrow their new home!

Day 189, 16th February 2018 – Maldives from the skies

Today, I start another exciting journey to the southern part of the Maldives, Dhaalu atoll, where I will be spending two weeks at the island of Velavaru. The marine lab at Velavaru has lots of work on its hands, I’ve heard that the rope nursery for the corals is doing super well and there’s lots of live coral around the reefs…so that makes for a lot of coral planting! To get to Dhaalu atoll, you have to take a seaplane flight from the airport at Hulhumale. Seaplanes are strange. They remind me of something out of an action movie…or a war film or something.

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Waiting for my flight at the seaplane terminal and watching the rest of the planes take off!

I snag a seat right at the window next to the propellers and watch as I see Hulhumale and Male shrink from a distance. It’s strange to think that when people think of the Maldives, they think of white sandy beaches, coconut palms and resorts, but this is also Maldives. Male is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with an area shy of six square kilometres and a population exceeding 133’000 people. That’s actually just slightly larger than Sentosa which is around five square kilometres!

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View of Male from the sea plane

The Maldives was a name thought to be derived from a few languages, namely Sanskrit mālādvīpa (मालाद्वीप), Malayalam Maladweepu (മാലദ്വീപ്), Tamil Malai Theevu (மாலைத்தீவு) and Kannada Maaledweepa (ಮಾಲೆದ್ವೀಪ), but they all mean something similar “garland of islands”. Also a side note…it’s pronounced Mall + Deeves, not Mall + Dives, though the latter seems to make sense since lots of diving happens in the Maldives. After taking my first sea plane flight in the Maldives, it’s easy to see how the country got its name.

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It’s amazing to see the Maldives from the air, every single ring after ring of microatolls and reefs. The Maldives is a nation of around 1190 islands, of which around a tenth is inhabited. This is the lowest lying country in the world— Maldivian islands have an average height barely 1.5m above sea level, and with sea levels rising as a result of climate change, it is expected that an 80cm rise by 2100 will flood a significant portion of the country.

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These natural formations have Funnily enough, the first time I encountered the word ‘atoll’ was in what is now one of my favourite poems, “Bearded Oaks”, by an American poet, Robert Penn Warren.

The oaks, how subtle and marine,

Barded, and all the layered light

Above them swims; and thus the scene,

Recessed, awaits the positive night.

So, waiting, we in the grass now lie

Beneath the languorous tread of light:

The grasses, kelp-like, satisfy

The nameless motions of the air.

Upon the floor of light, and time,

Unmurmuring, of polyp made,

We rest; we are, as light withdraws,

Twin atolls on a shelf of shade…

 

The English word for ‘atoll’ was apparently taken from Dhivehi word “atholhu” by early geographers and reef scientists. Atolls are perhaps one of the most spectacular natural formations—rings of reefs scattered in the sea like garlands, their lagoons the most brilliant shades of turquoise or aquamarine. The origin and formation of these atolls have puzzled scientists for years and the most popular theory of atoll formation today was conceived by Charles Darwin, illustrated in his book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ in 1839. Darwin’s Subsidence Theory proposes that atolls start off as fringing reefs that surround volcanic islands, and that these volcanic islands eventually subside partially or completely, leaving a ring of reefs behind. Pretty cool animation of what this looks like here:

Then, there’s another theory by Reginald Aldworth Daly, the Glacial Control Theory. This Canadian geologist believed that atolls were formed as a result of a fall in sea levels during the Pleistocene glacial period when ice caps were formed. Atolls formed around along eroded island peaks after wave cut platforms were submerged. Atolls remain one of the most remarkable formations in the Maldives, and these reefs and islands are so central to local culture that there are multiple names for these different formations.

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The different local names for reef and island structures

The atolls and islands of the Maldives are beautiful, but because land is scarce, more and more islands and atolls are filled up or reclaimed for the construction of resorts and residential areas. Efforts to control coral mining for building materials have been put in place for instance, and mining is not allowed on island house reefs, in common bait fishing reefs, and applications declaring the quantity of corals that will be mined must be approved beforehand. In some sense, I think this is a problem that small island states like Maldives and Singapore share in common…how can you mitigate the impact of coastal development, and what are the costs implicated? In areas that have already been developed, how can you help ecosystems to recover?

IMG_6397The 1.39 km long China-Maldives Friendship Bridge under construction, which will connect the capital city Malé and Hulhumalé, the neighbouring island that houses the main airport.

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Man-made channels in the reef (Dhivehi: Neru)

Another way to limit the amount of damage to reefs is to create designated channels in the reefs surrounding the islands. This is quite common in many resorts including Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana, so boats/snorkellers don’t end up getting stranded on parts of the reef that are too shallow or that they don’t end up damaging the entire reef.

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I’ve been flying on the cheapest budget night flights from Singapore and Maldives that always and vice versa, so I haven’t really had a chance to see the Maldives from the air but man, I think Maldives might be one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen from a plane.

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AAAAND TOUCHDOWN! HELLO VELAVARU!