Day 144 , 2nd January 2018 — Reef research surveys in Maldives

It’s finally a wrap! I’ve finished collecting the data for my study on degraded reefs. It’s been a rather rough couple of weeks. We’ve had very choppy waves, uncooperative tide tables, and difficulties trying to get a boat but we’ve eventually collected all the data we needed from Coral Garden. A huge thank you to Charlie, Danielle and Ali for helping me with the data collection and to Tholal as well for being too kind and offering to drive us out on the dinghy early in the morning!

Among the three of us, we observed some 10,385 fish from 191 species over 60 transects. We recorded 6000 points for our benthic surveys in total and found live corals from 23 genera.

 

The project that we’re working on is to compare post-disturbance states of reefs affected by coral bleaching and crown of thorns predation. Collecting the data was no doubt physically exhausting, but now on to the mentally exhausting part…actually analysing the data, running the statistics and then writing up the paper!

Couldn’t be more glad to have all the help and support from my amazing co-authors Danielle Robinson, Charlie Everitt and Dr Steve Newman!

Day 112 , 1 December 2017 — Reef monitoring at North Male Atoll

The Marine Lab team has been preoccupied this past month with reef monitoring surveys at a total of ten sites. This includes the two islands Angsana Ihuru and Vabbinfaru as well as with nearby sites like Coral Garden. It’s been simultaneously tiring and rewarding, and my brain now automatically classifies whatever I see underwater. Whatever I can’t classify or identify with confidence when we’re in the water, I end up having a strong compulsion to take a picture of. This will most probably end up being stored in a folder on my computer, labelled “ID later”, that I may or may not ever get to look through. I guess you could say that it’s an occupational hazard after all.

These are some of the photos of us hard at work at the start of the reef monitoring surveys when we took a boat out to nearby local reefs at Coral Garden, and on the East of Barros. When Steve and I went down at one of the sites there was a pretty strong current we had to swim against as we lay the transects…that’s my workout for the month! I’m really grateful now for the chance to have worked on the reef surveys in Malapascua with Reef Alert and the Thresher Shark Research Conservation Program because there would be no freaking way I’d be able to maintain trim in a stationary position, writing, with a current pushing me down the transect (Medel, if you ever read this, you have trained us well).

 

IMG_0146

Me doing the benthic survey and recording down the coral growth form. Also, this picture is particularly special because it was my 100th dive! What a great way to reach a hundred by doing reef monitoring!

IMG_0330

I swear Steve lays the nicest transects. They are always so nice and straight and I don’t know if he does it on purpose or not, but he somehow manages to get it with the cm side up instead of the inch side up and that makes everything so much easier!?

IMG_0352

Zim holding the benthic cheat sheet and smiling in between our dives at the different points of each island.

IMG_0351

And that’s Danielle! Armed with all her transect tapes, buckled down and ready to go.

IMG_0350

And Steve again! Cause that was a really productive dive!

 

We do the reef monitoring surveys in a team. The first person (usually Steve, Danielle or Charlie) lays out the transect tape to estimate the size and abundance of key functional groups of fish (E.g. Algal grazers like surgeonfish, corallivores like butterflyfish). The second person (usually me or Zim) starts recording the benthic cover at intervals over the 20m-long transect. Finally, we take pictures using a quadrat at intervals along the entire transect so we can later analyse the pictures for coral recruits and to estimate the amount of available substrate corals can colonise onto.

 

The fish surveys sound hard in theory, but I assure you they’re even harder in real life. Imagine a school of fish like these blue striped snappers in front of Charlie, and having to estimate how many there are in a matter of seconds before they swim away. Now in addition to counting how many there are, you also have to estimate a size range. And in addition to that, you need to know what kind of fish you’re looking at. And of course since you’re diving, you also have to pay attention to your buoyancy so you’re not fumbling around like a potato underwater. THAT IS SOME HIGH LEVEL MULTITASKING I’LL TELL YOU.

IMG_0033

Schools of fish such as these blue striped snapper (Lutjanus kasmira) are particularly tough to estimate.

For reef monitoring, it’s lucky the fish we count are restricted to key functional groups. Groupers and snappers act as a proxy for food-fishing pressure, angelfish as a proxy for aquaria-fishing pressure, parrotfish and surgeonfish as a proxy for the amount of grazing that takes place on the reef and butterflyfish….well, cause they eat corals and it’s a sign of reef health. It’s about to be way more challenging once I start collecting data for my research and we have to identify the fish down to a species level. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I somehow manage to figure that out, but that’s a whole other story for next time.

IMG_0040.JPG

Groupers such as this white lined grouper (Anyperodon leucogrammicus) act as a proxy for fishing pressure

IMG_0138.jpg

Emperor angelfish (Pomacanthus imperator) act as a proxy for fishing in the aquarium trade. This one was found munching on bits of algae.

 

Benthic cover is basically a fancy way for saying stuff that’s on the bottom of the sea floor. The idea is to monitor how the substrate changes over time. For instance, the reefs before the bleaching event were occupied primarily by the branching or plating types of staghorn coral (Acropora sp.), but now, it seems as though these areas are now occupied by dead corals encrusted with a thin film of turf algae. Also, more hardy types of coral such as the boulder coral (Porites sp.) seem to persist more readily in this post-bleaching environment.

IMG_0391

A large boulder Porites coral doing exceptionally well despite the bleaching event.

IMG_0046

Meanwhile, lots of branching and finger type corals like this cauliflower coral (Pocillopora sp.) don’t seem to do as well. This particular coral is partially bleached.

 

After the bleaching events, algae encrusts the coral, and over time, this coral breaks down into rubble or acts as new substrate for new coral recruits to colonise onto.IMG_0028

Thin films of turf and calcareous algae encrusting the surfaces of dead corals

Even while the corals are dead, they act as refuge for marine life. The complex structure of these branching corals are often home to juvenile fish such as the lunar wrasses (Thalassoma lunare), the blue lined wrasse (Stethojulis albovittata), the brown tang (Zebrasoma scopas) and a whole range of pygmy gobies as well.

IMG_0070.JPG

An incredibly tiny green pygmy goby (Eviota albolineata), that’s barely a centimetre long, perched on top of dead coral.

 

It sounds sad that corals have been destroyed by the bleaching events, but we learnt loads more about corals from Dr. Peter Mumby and Dr. Chris Doropoulos this week. Both of them are visiting scientists from the Marine Spatial Ecology Laboratory, from the University of Queensland, and have been supervising Tania’s PHD work on coral rubble. Pete recounted the bleaching event in 1998 when 25% of the colonies he was observing were almost entirely dead. Yet, it amazed him that small existing patches of coral that survive were able to completely regenerate the reef. “In pristine environments, corals can bounce back and defy our expectations,” he said on an optimistic note. That’s why it is imperative to make sure that there are as little stressors on the reef as possible while it recovers. That means that fishing activities are controlled, particularly for algivores that play an important role in keeping algae growth under control so they don’t outcompete new coral recruits. It also means that coral predators need to be kept under control to, so we need to be consistent in the removal of crown-of-thorns starfish from our reefs. Just the other day, Charlie and I found a crown-of-thorns under the jetty happily liquifying a new Acropora recruit. (We picked it up with a coconut husk and that crown-of-thorns is no more)

Encrusting live_Galaxea_03.JPG

A small encrusting Galaxea coral emerging from all the rubble

“In pristine environments, corals can bounce back and defy our expectations” –Dr. Peter Mumby

Something new I learnt from Chris is that when bleaching events occur, it’s usually the small coral recruits (aka coral babies) that aren’t as affected by the bleaching. These corals, as well as other small patches of coral that survive the bleaching events, can repopulate the reef if they are within the right conditions. For one thing, the reef cannot be overgrown with algae. Pete explained that this phenomenon is similar to what you’d find in a garden…Too many weeds and your plants won’t grow well. You need to keep de-weeding your garden. If you have a healthy fish population in your reefs, these fish will graze on the algae, preventing them from overgrowing the reef. In reefs that have been overharvested or overfished, this ecological chain is disrupted, and severely affects the recovery of the reefs.

It’s been so much fun having everyone around, and I’m sad to have to seen some of them go off slowly one by one!

FullSizeRender 43.jpg

That’s all of us (except Aru, the birthday boy who was off celebrating)! From left to right, Ali, me, Steve, Zim, Pete, Tania, Chris, Charlie and Danielle! (Thanks Steve for the photo!)

IMG_1310

We’ve got a pretty big team now! From left to right, that’s Steve, Aru, Zim, Tania, Charlie, Danielle, me and Esther, squinting in the blinding sun.

It’s been a busy month so far, and I also got stung by some plankton pretty badly on my cheeks and sadly missed out on the last few days of reef monitoring. I now look like I’ve contoured my face really badly but some new skin is growing over so yay I can’t wait to get back into the water soon.

Day 98, 17 November 2017 — Shark conservation awareness in the Maldives

It’s been a long time! They always say that time passes by in a really unusual way on the island. It goes slowly, at times, and then all at once. I now understand what they mean. After a long break what with me going back to Singapore and with my family and Theo visiting, it’s been really nice to be back and busy at work.

I’ve spent some time trying to help out with making infographics, and we launched a new one about sharks for the citizen science programs. The idea is simple, and hopefully effective. When divers go out and spot different megafauna at the various dive sites, they would note down key species observed. These species of megafauna include species such as reef manta rays and hawksbill turtles, but also usually includes different species of sharks. The main species of sharks observed within the vicinity include blacktip reef sharks, white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, tawny nurse sharks, shovel nose rays (If you consider that a shark), and the zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum).

IMG_9022.jpgThe tail of a tawny nurse shark I found sleeping under a rock during one of our local sandbank cleanups

The idea behind these check sheets is to have a basic understanding and long term records of key iconic species within these areas. This is not only important in helping us manage conservation efforts, but also provides us with an idea of where the best places and times to see these animals are.

citizen science.png

Citizen science sheet used by the Banyan Tree Marine Lab (Picture courtesy of Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

One of the most frequent questions asked by guests about the sharks is whether they bite or attack humans…or as a lot of the Chinese guests ask, “鲨鱼会咬人吗?” And the shortest most honest answer I have, is probably “Not unless you give them a very good reason to”. Humans are not part of a shark’s natural diet, especially not the species of sharks I just mentioned above. Then, the next question that the girls shyly ask is, “What if I’m on my period? Won’t the sharks come straight for me because they’re attracted to blood?”. Again, the answer is no.  The only thing that stops me from going into the sea during my period is probably just the crippling pain that comes with cramps. So… being on our period isn’t an excuse for Zim, Danielle, Tania or me to get off work for the entire week.

It’s surprising to me that sharks are so severely misunderstood. It’s also important that divers and snorkelers observe proper etiquette around sharks.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.14.53 AM.png

Here’re a few general guidelines that might seem like common sense to you, but is still not common sense to everyone. (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Sharks are especially important in the Maldives because of the sheer amount of tourism they bring. Shark diving contributes around USD $38.6 million a year in the Maldives, so that means that a single shark can be worth as much as USD $33’500 per year. That’s a whole lot of money, and a great incentive for them to be well taken care of.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.25.51 AM

 

The Maldives is one of few countries in the world to have a complete ban on shark fishing (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Most countries that have legislation to protect sharks only protect certain species, for certain periods of the year in certain parts of the country. The Maldives is doing it right…they protect all species. While sharks probably still do accidentally get caught by recreational anglers, they are not allowed to be landed and the locals seem to respect that. However, there are a few loopholes or shortcomings with shark conservation still.

 

While the country does not allow shark fishing, trade in shark products is still legal. In addition, it is also legal to sell shark products provided they were caught before the ban was implemented, or if they were caught overseas and imported to the Maldives. Perhaps this makes it possible for a black market in locally caught sharks to still exist? When I went to Male, almost every single souvenir shop had shark jaws on display. When I asked the shopowners where the sharks came from, their answers varied. Some said that they were imported, others that they were caught “a very long time ago”, and the most unlikely one I’ve heard is “they were all found washed up on the seashore”.

IMG_9418

IMG_8561

Very discreetly taken (aka poor quality) photos of shark jaws taken with my phone when I was looking for souvenirs in Male.

This is perhaps one of the ways we need to educate tourists in Male, that they should buy souvenirs home that don’t harm the seas. Lots of people claim to love the sea, but end up buying huge decorative ornaments with corals, large seashells, and shark jaws home…It’s just better to see these things in their natural environment rather than on your shelf I guess.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.50.42 AM.png

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.49.35 AM.png

More information that is shared with guests during the citizen science dives (Infographic from Banyan Tree Marine Lab)

Today, I joined two guests from Hong Kong for two dives, one at Hulanga Hangu and another at Holholaga, and briefed them about our citizen science program and shark conservation in the Maldives. Both of them were experienced divers and it was so great to feel their enthusiasm about shark conservation, and they diligently filled in their citizen science sheets after both dives!

IMG_0002IMG_0009Pre-dive briefing with two guests from Hong Kong about sharks in the Maldives

Hopefully they pass on the message to their friends and family, and there are more guests who will take part in our citizen science programs in the time to come!

Funnily enough, after all that talk about sharks, we didn’t spot any sharks on that dive. But we did see some of their amazing relatives! 7 huge eagle rays gliding right past us and some pretty large marbled stingrays.

IMG_0042.jpg

The black blotched or marbled stingrays (Taeniurops meyeni)

I can’t believe this counts as work…I had so much fun with it! Looking forward to more citizen science dives and snorkels soon!

Day 23, 3 September 2017 — Manta Rays at Lankan Point, Maldives

Another day off! Seeing that I was sick on my previous days off or spent them in Male trying to finish the medical checkups, finally we went out for a dive to find some manta rays! We took the boat out to Lankan Manta Point, a spot often boasted to be one of the best places to see manta rays in the world. Mantas come to the reef here to be cleaned by small reef fishes such as the blue streaked (Labroides dimidiatus) and bicolour (Labroides bicolor) cleaner wrasses.

I hopped onto the boat trying not to get my hopes up too much, and was joined by two guests, Maxim and Noa. This time, it was Macy who was leading us along and we were both pranked by the boat crew who kept swapping all our equipment and tying my slippers to the zipper of my wetsuit…but all the laughter aside, I was dying of anticipation. Lanka point is a fringing reef that gently slopes down to a depth of around 20m, but it is somewhere along the middle of the slope where we wait for these giants to pass us overhead.

Screen Shot 2017-10-09 at 5.26.03 PM Here’s a rough map of what the dive site looks like courtesy of iDive Maldives.

We loiter around the slope for what feels like forever and I distract myself looking at a school of headband butterflyfish (Chaetodon collare) with their striking red tails, unusually gathered in a small school, hovering above the reef.

IMG_0060

All of a sudden, I hear the sound of Macy’s underwater horn, it sounds like a strange beep and echoes around. I whirl around looking far into the blue but I see nothing. Turning back at Macy again, I see her pointing above me. 5 HUGE MANTA RAYS JUST SWEEPING RIGHT OVER MY HEAD. I almost forgot to breathe, and almost instinctively, I floated up to get nearer. Fumbling around with the camera, I got a badly shot video of the belly of a manta as it swooped by above me. There were so many of them I just couldn’t figure out which to focus on. Rookie’s mistake. One after another, they glided past and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I always knew they were big animals, but having them this close to me really made me understand how majestic they really were.

IMG_0066 2

I looked out for their eyes, and it was probably my imagination, but somehow there was a small sparkle of curiosity I glimpsed in them. We might have spooked them a little, because two of them glided straight on to a further part of the reef. Another three lingered and circled slowly around the reef, like children playing ring a ring o’ roses. I stared captivated and dumbfounded as their shadows rotated, slightly blurred because of the poorer visibility in the water that day.

IMG_0081

If you look carefully at the photos, you can see little specks of fish coming up to clean the rays. I’ve observed something similar with the thresher sharks in Malapascua when we volunteered with the Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Program. There, they studied two species of wrasses that were commonly involved with the cleaning behavior–the blue streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

Left: Blue streaked cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) and Right: Moon wrasse (Thalassoma lunare)

Over here in the Maldives, it seems as though there are quite a few species of fish that were involved in the cleaning. As far as I’m aware of, there aren’t any studies done in the Maldives that look at the cleaning behaviour of reef fish on manta rays. Would be really interesting too to find out how the abundance of these cleaner fish changes as many of parts of the reef were lost to last year’s bleaching event.

We continued the rest of our dive after the rays left the cleaning station and saw more beautiful animals, but my head was still reeling from the experience of seeing wild mantas up close in the wild for the first time.

The badly shot videos I took of my overexcited encounter

Left to right: Me during a safety stop, Noa from Germany, Maxim from Russia and Macy…stretching underwater.

As we did our safety stop during the dive, one of the manta rays glided beneath our fins, a final goodbye before one of the most memorable dives in my life.

IMG_0161

 

Day 18, 29 August 2017 — Night dives at Angsana Ihuru

When night falls, the entire scene underwater shifts dramatically. Butterflyfish and all the brightly coloured reef fish go into hiding, and the nocturnal fish emerge to hunt. I have quite a lot of fun peeking into the dark holes of corals and seeing fish fast asleep.

Parrotfish, wrasses and triggerfish hiding in the coral at night, hoping they don’t get noticed by the predators on the prowl. Most are safe within the rocks and crevices. Some fish even have an added layer of protection. Parrotfish have been observed to secrete a bubble of mucus that they encase themselves within. This purportedly conceals their scent from predators like moray eels, but another interesting theory is that it acts like a sort of mosquito net, preventing them from being fed on by blood-sucking, parasitic isopods. How cute is that. Parrotfish mucus is secreted from glands within the gill cavity and helps them to sleep too, a combination of features that has still not been observed in other animals. Just imagine only being able to sleep when you’ve covered yourself in your own snot.

IMG_0772
White spotted hermit crab (Dardanus megistos)

IMG_0764

IMG_0760
Looks like a familiar face, the coral guard crab (Trapezia cymodoce)!
IMG_0684
Very entrancing featherstar (Crinoid) that I couldn’t stop watching as it rolled its tentacles slowly into the mouth.

IMG_0721

IMG_0749
Surgeonfish
IMG_0688
Soldierfish
IMG_0774
Crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster plancii) coming out to gorge itself on coral polyps. 😦
IMG_0679
Lionfish

IMG_0701IMG_0752

IMG_0727
Lots of Tubastrea or sun coral…named because I guess they look like the sun. Ironically though, they live in darker places and are more active at night. Unlike most corals, they are not photosynthetic and rely almost exclusively on catching plankton with their tentacles at night.
IMG_0677
Banded coral shrimp

IMG_0731

IMG_0734
A very huge, probably pregnant map puffer (Arothron mappa).

IMG_0757IMG_0697IMG_0673

IMG_0709
Velvet snail (Coriocella hibyae), a very confusing name because it looks more like a slug or sponge than a snail. This stumped all of us for quite a while and we couldn’t figure out what it was until we got back and checked it up.

Creatures of the night

Lots of marine animals undergo diel vertical migration, especially plankton, where they rise from the depths of the ocean at night to the shallower areas. At night, they are less likely to be hunted by visual predators. Also, the water at night is usually cooler, meaning that it can present a metabolic advantage for organisms to conserve energy. One of my favourite things to do is to just look at the crazy number of strange worms, larvae and plankton zooming around near my flashlight.

IMG_0702

Plankton at night

Some of this plankton can even bioluminesce. So when we switch off our flashlights and are in complete darkness, you can see a glitter of glow-in-the-dark plankton tracing your every movement. It’s hard to capture on camera because it flutters for a second before dissipating quickly again. I could make out the outline of Macy flapping around crazily like a strange octopus, and as I laughed, the bubbles rising from my regulator lit up with plankton as well. It’s almost impossible to capture the biolumniscent plankton in a photo underwater…it’s like trying to take a picture of stars at night, only this time you are moving, the stars are moving and everything is a beautiful surreal blur.

As we ascended slowly towards the end of the dive, I spot a little movement in the sand. Ducking quickly into its burrow, a white mantis shrimp peered back out at me carefully. It edged out slowly, then ducked back inside further.

IMG_0712

The eyes of a white mantis shrimp hidden within its burrow.

 

It’s strange how night dives are now one of my most favourite dives. I remember my first night dive and feeling suffocated because of the darkness, and feeling a sense of dread that something would burst out of the shadows and charge straight at me. Now it’s become one of the most exciting dives and I can’t believe how different the entire underwater world looks when the sun goes down.

 

Day 17, 28 August 2017 — The aftermath of Maldivian reefs after bleaching (Mas Giri and Barros reef)

Is a reef condemned to be a wasteland once the corals are dead?

Not necessarily. When corals grow to form a reef, they create a three-dimensional habitat in a desert of blue. With the vast variety of shapes and sizes corals come in, each type of coral provides a unique range of habitats for marine life. A goby makes its nest in the sand, just at the base of a coral where there’s a small hole. Humbug damsels are so tiny they can flit in and out of the branches of an staghorn coral. The all-too-well-known clown anemonefish peers from an anemone, the curtain of tentacles sweeping past their faces as they watch me cautiously. Not all of these animals disappear when corals die. Yes, when live coral in an entire reef dies it is a tragic sight. It’s eerily way more quiet than the live reef that bustles with the clicks of snapping shrimp and the munching parrotfish. Filamentous algae creeps over the dead coral, like cobwebs in an abandoned storeroom.  At first glance, it does look like a wasteland. Many of these animals, especially those that are SUPER dependent on corals are likely to go locally extinct. You can read more about what happened because of the 2016 bleaching event last year in Maldives here, and they type of marine life that is heavily reliant on corals.

One particular fish that has completely disappeared from many of the reefs is the Citron goby (Gobiodon citrinus), which resides in branching corals like Acropora. Danielle, our head of the marine lab here, told me sadly that they haven’t seen any of them since the bleaching event last year. She thinks it’s likely that they went locally extinct.

The brightly coloured citron goby that has been wiped out in many of the reefs in Maldives, resting on an Acropora or staghorn coral (Image source).

Today I dived in two locations the first was Mas Giri, the second, Barros reef. Almost all of the hard corals at the Barros reef were killed off, and a large portion of the corals at Mas Giri was dead too. It was a tragic sight to see the corals as rubble, covered with the fine hairs of algae. That said, it was remarkable to see how much life remained. To the untrained eye, divers who can’t tell the difference between rock, live coral and dead coral probably wouldn’t even be able to tell!

IMG_0488

A mushroom coral (Fungia sp.). Luminescent corals are sometimes a signal that they are about to bleach, simultaneously sad and beautiful. 

The reef at Mas Giri was scattered with soft corals and tonnes of red-toothed triggerfish just going around and nibbling at algae. As I approached, they’d dart straight into the crevices of rock and coral rubble, just their long tails sticking out oddly.

IMG_0427

IMG_0435

The red-toothed triggerfish (Odonus niger) literally filling up the entire reef. They must have been around in the thousands. All triggerfish swim with their dorsal and anal fins, undulating them instead of their tail fins like most other fish.

IMG_0418

Another rather common triggerfish we spotted was the boomerang triggerfish (Sufflamen bursa). You can see it with its dorsal spine raised up high, and it probably didn’t like that I was taking a picture of it so I stayed at a distance. Triggerfish have a retractable spine at the top of their heads that they use for defense or to lodge themselves in rocks when they sleep.

Apart from the triggerfish, there were a lot more different types of fish as well! I guess it just goes to show that despite a lot of the coral dying from last year’s bleaching event, there is still a significant amount of biodiversity within the vicinity. All hope is not lost!! Come, let me bore you with more fish ID and facts about sea creatures now. It’s actually good practice for me because I’ll have to learn how to identify them to species level soon and it’s definitely a daunting task with so many different kinds of fish! As always, if you think I identified some animals wrongly do let me know so I can learn!

IMG_0404

Spotfin lionfish (Pterois antennata) These are venomous fish and ambush predators, they have very few natural predators.

IMG_0413

One of the most common residents of the reef here are the pinstriped butterflyfish (Chaetodon lunulatus). They usually occur in pairs, and feed exclusively on live corals. Coral loss due to bleaching can be a problem for them, but luckily they eat a variety of corals, so they’re still able to survive.

IMG_0414

The long-nose butterflyfish (Forcipiger flavissimus)…remember this guy from Finding Nemo? That’s Tad, one of Mr. Ray’s students who dared Nemo to touch the boat! 

IMG_0447

Pin cushion sea star (Culcita schmideliana) These blobby looking guys are a bit problematic because they unfortunately feed on corals here and can cause a lot of damage in large numbers! 

IMG_0452

This is a feather star or crinoid, a strange looking animal related to sea stars. The long tentacle-like parts are actually its feeding arms. Each arm is covered with hundreds of tube feet that traps small particles of food drifting in the sea. Then, it rolls in slowly into the center of the body where the mouth is.

IMG_0462

Saddled pufferfish (Canthigaster valentini), a poisonous fish that other non-poisonous fish (such as the Mimic filefish) very convincingly try to look like.

Don’t they look the same!? Guess which is which! You can tell them apart by looking at its fins…the file fish has generally longer dorsal and anal fins (left) compared to the puffer (right). More scientifically, the puffer has a single dorsal spine while filefish has two dorsal spines (Image source)

IMG_0475

Phantom bannerfish (Heniochus pleurotaenia)

IMG_0496

A huge school of blue-striped snapper (Lutjanus kasmira), probably finding shelter in the reefs from strong currents.

IMG_0502

I spotted this elegant sea star (Fromia nodosa) hiding under a rock, these sea stars are nocturnal, coming out to feed on molluscs, corals and microalgae at night.

IMG_0508IMG_0509

Anemonefish with a bubble-tip anemone

IMG_0525

Soldierfish and squirrelfish

IMG_0534

A cushion sea star…or as I like to call it…the Patrick sea star (Choriaster granulatus)! Looks pink and squishy and derpy just like Patrick from Spongebob Squarepants. Unlike Patrick, it doesn’t eat crabby patties but just feeds on algae and detritus.

IMG_0548

An insanely well camouflaged scorpionfish (Scorpaenidae) that I almost overlooked. Was looking around for nudibranchs when this guy was in front of my face. I’m honestly quite pleased with myself for spotting that because I usually tend to miss out these guys. They’re also venomous, so good thing I didn’t stick my face too close to it too.

IMG_0551

Grubfish

IMG_0560

This beautiful flowerpot coral (Goniopora sp.) had some of the polyps retracted into the skeleton. These corals are entrancing to look at, their polyps opening and closing like millions of small hands reaching out for food! Also, this is quite a disgusting image, but when the polyps emerge, it kind of looks like blackheads being squeezed out. Not for those with trypophobia for sure!

IMG_0597

This warty looking thing is a nudibranch (Phyllidia sp.), or a sea slug. I absolutely love looking out for them when I’m diving because they’re so brightly coloured and beautiful to look at. Their colours act as a warning to predators not to eat them because they’re supposed to taste very nasty (no, I haven’t tried eating them). Also, I love that they’re incredibly slow moving and will stay still for you to take a good photo…so that’s always an added bonus!

IMG_0616

 

IMG_8524.JPG

So that’s it for my first fun dive in the Maldives. I’m especially happy because the boat crew offered me some fruit (god I could kill for some durian sago now), and we saw a pod of more than a hundred dolphins in the distance! My face is at least 6 shades darker than my belly now, but I’m obviously just over the moon.

The feeling here after diving is bittersweet…So much of the reef has been damaged by the extreme weather last year, with the El Nino, but despite all this carnage life still carries on. The coral skeletons here still host a vast array of marine life and the reef WILL recover!

Day 16, 27th August 2017 — Maldivian food, friends and the Nakaiy

The days are flying by so quickly I barely have had the time to write anything! I’ve spent most of the days really just catching up on all the fish identification, settling administrative stuff like medical checkups, trying to learn how to translate information about marine conservation to Mandarin for the Chinese guests (玳瑁海龟= Hawksbill Turtle, 绿海龟 = Green Turtle, 乌翅真鲨 = Blacktip Reef Shark, etc.), making very slow attempts to learn the names of the staff here and soaking in everything.

I’m also starting to get the hang of snorkelling without swallowing too much water when the waves get choppy. Went out for a snorkel alone a couple of days ago and saw this big guy (look at the claspers at the base of the tail!), a pink whiptail stingray, probably hovering around and being curious.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 8.10.01 PM

He’s one of the many pink whiptail stingrays that keep coming at 5pm to the beach at Vabbinfaru! This one really startled me a lot as I was snorkelling in the bay.

 

Also right now it feels a little quiet around here because Zim and Aru are both taking a short break. I have to admit that they’re both a lot of fun to be around. Also it’s really hard not to like Zim because she does show me a lot of good food.

IMG_0177

My new friends here from the marine lab and dive centre who have been patiently showing me the ropes! (Left to right: Zim, Imana, Tutu, Hamdan, Aru!)

IMG_0181A traditional homecooked Maldivian meal by Zim’s mum when I went to Male!

Basically, it’s a clear tuna soup (Garudiya) and fried leaves (Thelli fai) which you mix together with some chilli, pickles, a squeeze of lime and rice. It looks and sounds quite simple, but man I get why this is the Maldivian comfort food.

FullSizeRender 11Me gingerly trying to mash up my food without getting rice up to my wrist.

Of late the weather in Vabbinfaru has been changing to be more wet and humid, often storming late at night. Another thing I learnt from Zim is that the Maldivian lifestyle is heavily affected by cycles in the monsoon seasons. The entire year is split into two monsoon seasons. The first is Iruvai moosun, or the Northwest monsoon coming in from the Africa and the Arabian Sea while the second is the Hulhan’gu moosun, or Southwest monsoon coming in from the Indian Ocean nearer to Indonesia. They even have a specific calendar that is shaped by these changes, known as the Nakaiy. The Nakaiy calendar is specific to the Maldives but heavily influenced from the knowledge of Indian and Sri Lankan traditions.

Nakaiy readings are actually interpreted from 27 constellations of stars, so each constellation or Nakaiy lasts for around 13 to 14 days before shifting into the next. Right now, we’re in the Nakaiy known as Maa (which will last until the 23rd of August) where the weather is generally calm with a lot of rain. During this period, fishermen still go out to fish, but the catch is better when there is no rain. Zim also told me that calm seas like what we saw today also mean that there are more frequent sightings of dolphins. Interestingly enough, I also found out that the water becomes more turbid just before a huge storm approaches.

Apart from being part and parcel of everyday life, the Nakaiy also shape cultural beliefs and traditions. People look to the Nakaiy to plan when weddings should be, or when they should build a house. For instance, children born in the Maa Nakaiy are also thought to be highly successful in life http://elysianmaldives.com/nakaiy-monsoon-calendar/ In some sense, it reminds me of Chinese Fengshui as well. Now even traditional knowledge is made pretty high tech…they even have an app to tell you what Nakaiy you’re in and what the weather is good for.

Screen Shot 2017-08-29 at 8.19.02 AM.png

Unfortunately it’s only on android, here. But it’s still pretty cool!

Seeing that so much of their traditional lifestyles are dependent on weather, how does indigenous knowledge have to adapt to new conditions as climate change prevails? Something to think about I guess.

 

More next time because I’m gonna run late for work.