Banyan Tree is beautiful!!! As I was coming in from the ferry late at night, I saw about four or five black tip reef sharks in the shadow of the reef and stood in awe. The two Maldivians who picked me up from the ferry were not amused. Ali looked at me and said in a deadpan voice, “They’re there every day”. I couldn’t mask my excitement one bit, and I tried to justify it to him that I’ve only ever seen two species of sharks in the wild, the whitetip reef sharks and thresher sharks…oh wait no, three…just recently saw a bamboo shark too.
Apparently, the hotels and resorts in these areas have protected the reefs so well that sharks are finding it a safe place for them to hunt. They’ve been doing a bit too well though, because even the stingrays don’t like loitering here anymore. The two most common species of sharks found in Vabbinfaru (that’s where I am!) are the blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and nurse sharks (Nebrius ferrugineus). If I hadn’t had to bring up all of my baggage, I would have been so tempted to sit by the edge of the jetty and watch those blacktips hunt all night.
Marching across the sand at night toward the staff dormitories, I finally stepped into my room. This is where I’m going to be for the next 6 months, please let it be decent. There were blue fairy lights, and I soon found out that my roommate was 23-year-old Gera from Kazakhstan. She speaks so many languages, and is working at the front desk of the resort. The next morning when I woke up, we settled some administrative matters, and then I saw the baby turtles which are the center of the Banyan Tree’s turtle rehabilitation program!
These are green (Chelonia mydas) and hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata), and both (like all sea turtles) are listed on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List of threatened wildlife. Progress with the conservation of green turtles has been made, particularly around Florida and the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
One thing I learnt from these baby turtles is that they haven’t really developed their lungs fully yet and have to stay near the surface until they get better at diving into the water. To make things worse, their shells haven’t even hardened yet, and you can actually feel them breathing when you hold them. It’s hard for them at the start, because their this tasty little morsel that’s not so good at escaping, and it’s so much easier for birds and other animals to catch them. It’s only when they get much bigger that they rarely have natural predators. The babies hovered at the surface, sometimes tucking their flippers back onto the shells, with their eyes half open and I laughed at how silly they looked with Vim and Aru.
Aru explained that these turtles sometimes nest on the islands beaches and when they do, their nests are marked and protected from other predators. Once a turtle has been sighted coming ashore to lay her eggs, Around 10% of all the hatched baby turtles are kept for the turtle program. Here, they are raised until they reach a shell length of around 30cm where they stand a much better chance of survival in the wild. Compared to the wild, they grow rapidly when they’re fed well. Here, their length and weight is measured regularly so we can keep track of their growth. The turtles here have it really good, I must say, and they’re fed with a diet of tuna, lettuce, seagrass harvested from a nearby patch and even the occasional unfortunate jellyfish they find floating past. “They go nuts for that”, Aru added, “It’s like their favourite thing”. Vim also mentioned that they like cuttlebone…strange isn’t it? I can’t wait for these guys to grow up…after about 20 to 30 years, they will become sexually mature and females will return back to the shores of Banyan Tree to lay their own eggs again. The program is still fairly new, and they’re still waiting for their babies to come back again. They make a small notch on the side of each turtle’s shell, and this is how the staff manage to tell each individual apart. It would be amazing to see them return someday.
We rushed over to the jetty where twenty pink whiptail stingrays (Himantura fai) waited for their afternoon snack. Aru sped right over and I must be really unfit because he managed to swim right to the marine lab to grab their food and get back out to the jetty within the amount of time I swam to shore. Struggling to catch my breath, he started introducing the hotel guests to the horde of really restless stingrays. There was Big Momma, a very large female who looked like she was pregnant, Wonkey, who had a very strange kink at the base of her tail and Stumpy, who we suspect had her tail eaten by a shark when she was younger…as her name suggests, she really looks a bit more like a grey pancake than a stingray because her tail is just a short stump. I learnt that stingrays were fed the raw leftover bony scraps of tuna from the resort, and that they’ve become quite good at knowing when it’s 5 o’ clock and time for their meal. What a great way to reduce food waste! Most of the tuna caught here is strictly regulated and caught by pole and line fishing methods. That’s one of the most sustainable methods of fishing, as opposed to dynamite or cyanide fishing that ruin coral reefs, or other types such as long lining or drift netting that traps loads of marine life that aren’t the intended catch.
This is what pole and line fishing looks like in the Maldives (Image from the International Pole & Line Foundation)
Stingrays are benthic feeders, aka a fancy way of saying that they’re the vacuum cleaners just sucking up food from the ocean floors. Their natural diet includes animals with hard shells like clams, crabs and lobsters, so they grind up all the food with modified plate-like teeth rather than having rows of dagger-like teeth similar to their cousins, the sharks. That means the bones in tuna don’t bother them much and clearly, they like it A LOT.
This is an image of the jaws of a different species of stingray, the cowtail stingray, but you get the idea…their teeth are made to crush food, not tear it up to pieces.
Hopefully I get to feed them tomorrow! Crystle will also make a mental note to take a picture of the flappy stingray crew.
When the day was finally done, I went snorkelling with Zim, and couldn’t believe my eyes when about 5m below the surface, this green turtle was just chilling among some coral rubble. He didn’t seem to mind me taking a photo of him.
Out of the blue, a blacktip reef shark swam diagonally across my path and looked a bit startled to see me following behind. Before I could even take a good picture of this girl (notice she doesn’t have claspers, aka shark penises), she swam off hurriedly. I’ve been told that the sharks here are usually quite skittish and shy, and that the only way you can see them is if you’re quiet! This is definitely the closest I’ve swum behind any shark before and it was simply a remarkable feeling. How many of us had sinking feelings and fears of shark attacks when we waded in murky waters…and here this shark was just minding her own business. SO SURREAL.
I amused myself watching Zim duck down below the reef slope and swim like a fish before it started to get dark and we needed to head back. I honestly don’t know how she does it…the thermocline there makes the water suddenly go from nice and chill to shockingly cold. As we headed back, I sighed at Zim and said, “I don’t know how we’re gonna top off today, it was amazing”. “YOU HAVEN’T EVEN GONE DIVING YET…just you wait!”, she laughed at me.
Disclaimer: The views reflected on this blog are mine, and do not represent the thoughts, intentions or plans of my employer/Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru. 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!