Whale sharks of the Maldives

‘What is it? A shark? A whale? Whatever it is it’s massive!’

The whale shark is the biggest fish in the ocean, and therefore is also the biggest shark. It is one of three species of filter feeding shark; also including the basking shark and the mega mouth shark. On the 7th January we were lucky enough to spot Pedro who is a juvenile male at six metres. It was a truly breath taking moment! The best time to look for a whale shark is three to five hours before high tide and a few days before the full moon. However, finding a whale shark cannot be a guaranteed experience.

For many, seeing a whale shark is a once in a lifetime experience, with a place at the top of numerous bucket lists. These enigmatic and gentle creatures can be seen year round in South Ari Atoll, only a short seaplane ride from Gili Lankanfushi. The whale sharks are attracted to South Ari Atoll due to the vicinity of the Chagos-Laccadive Plateau, which provides very deep and highly nutrient rich water. Whale sharks are a pelagic species, able to travel around 100 miles per day and dive to at least 1600m – probably deeper, but this cannot be officially recorded due to tracking tags breaking under the phenomenal pressure at great depth.

Whale sharks are fascinating animals that predate the dinosaurs by 220 million years. All sharks, including the whale shark are cartilaginous fish, which means that their skeletons are made from cartilage, not bone. As with all sharks the whale shark’s skin is covered by dermal denticles, a substance more like teeth than fish scales. The dermal denticles are a couple of millimetres thick and protect the shark’s skin from damage and parasites. They also provide better hydrodynamics. Under this layer of protective armour is a fatty layer, around 10 to 15 cm thick that is most likely used as an energy store and protection from injuries, together with insulation during deeper dives. Whale sharks have over 300 rows of tiny replaceable teeth which are made from a stronger version of dermal denticles. Scientists are still debating the use of these teeth as whale sharks are filter feeders so their teeth are not required for feeding. Another anatomical feature which perplexes scientists is that the whale shark has spiracles. These are a breathing aid for stationary sharks, but the whale shark is classified as a highly mobile shark so what is the use? It could be that the whale shark is very closely related to bottom dwelling sharks, and it is a feature that will eventually disappear through evolution, or it could be used on the rare occasions that the shark is stationary and not feeding.

Whale sharks are known to make seasonal feeding aggregations in 20 countries, including Australia, Gulf of Mexico, Belize, Gulf of California, Seychelles and Maldives. Whale sharks feed on microscopic plankton and small fish that they suck into their one and half metre wide mouths. Their throats are much smaller in comparison; around the size of a drain pipe. They have two known methods for feeding, ram filtration and suction feeding. Suction feeding allows whale sharks to feed on more mobile prey such as small fishes, which they actively suck into their mouths, together with volumes of water that are then expelled through their gills. By comparison ram feeding is passive; the shark swims through the water with their mouth open and plankton filters in. It has been suggested that whale sharks are more suited to suction filter feeding because the gaps between their five to seven gills are small. This small gap is more effective at filtering out plankton when the shark is suction feeding. Whale sharks have very weak eyesight, they can probably only see three meters away, and so rely on their nostrils to find prey. Their nostrils are very sensitive due to their well-developed olfactory capsules; they can detect chemicals in the water produced by their planktonic prey.

Plankton tend to shelter at depths between 100 – 200m. This is the oxygen minimum zone and is not a suitable habitat for many organisms which would prey on them. Whale sharks however are able to feed at these depths and will spend the majority of their time between 50 – 250m. They do venture to deeper depths where the temperature drops to 3 degrees Celsius but scientists believe that due to the infrequency of these dives this is related to parasite removal, not feeding. Whale sharks cannot internally control their body temperature and so return to the surface to warm up and reload oxygen. This is why they can be found in the shallow waters around South Ari Atoll. During this warming and reloading period the sharks can be impaired cognitively and physically which explains their sluggish and relaxed behaviour.

Due to the sluggish behaviour of whale sharks and the shallow depths they travel in they are under threats from boats. It is estimated that 67% of whale sharks have injuries ranging from scratches to amputations. The effects of pollution, poor waste management and increased sedimentation on the whale shark population have not yet been suitably evaluated. Another issue is disturbances to their habitat resulting from tourism – if the guidelines for whale shark encounters are not followed the sharks can negatively be affected. For example, if a large group of tourists are crowding a shark it can cause the shark to dive before it has properly warmed up and reloaded oxygen. Adult whale sharks can also be targeted by great white sharks and orcas, whilst babies have been found in the stomachs of blue sharks and swordfish. In some parts of the world whale sharks are hunted for their meat and fins. In 2010 the Maldives implemented a ban on all forms of shark fishing. However, due to the longevity of whale sharks it will take many years for the population to return to optimal levels.

It is estimated that whale sharks can live between 70 – 100 years, reaching sexual maturity after 25 years at a size of eight to nine metres. Although some people report sightings of whale sharks up to 18 metres in length the largest confirmed has been 12.65m. It is easy to identify a male whale shark because when it has reached sexual maturity their sexual organs have a ragged appearance called claspers which extend past their pelvic fin. The whale shark is classified as ovoviviparous which means that they produce eggs which hatch inside the body. A female whale shark can store sperm for many months and can have babies at different stages of development. For example a female was found with 300 embryos at numerous stages of development. Due to whale sharks storing sperm and having babies at different stages of development the gestation period is unknown. Upon birth the pups are around half a metre in size and weight one kilo.

Whilst whale sharks are regularly sighted, 98% of these sightings are juvenile males with a length of six metres. At any one point it is estimated that there are 200 whale sharks in the waters of the Maldives. The most common behaviour observed of these sharks is cruising, only 12% of encounters are feeding.

We can’t wait to show you these gentle giants next time you are at Gili Lankanfushi. Please ask your Mr/Ms Friday and we can book a trip for you.  When you see one be sure to snap a photo of the checkerboard pattern on their side by their pectoral fins. This can help us with identification and research.

For more information and to upload your whale shark encounters please visit: https://maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org/

PADI’s guest blogger Emma Bell introduces herself:

I am a marine biologist and scuba diver from England. I have had the privilege of working in Greece, Seychelles and Maldives. I have worked in an aquaculture research centre where I focused on hormonal manipulation of a pelagic fish species. In addition, I have experience with coral restoration projects including frames and ropes; habitat restoration – crown of thorns, drupella and invasive plant species removal; educational activities and social media updates including blogs. I have also monitored population dynamics of bird, turtle, shark and cetacean species to aid in their conservation. I started my career working in the Maldives and I have done a round trip via Greece, England and Seychelles, I hope to increase my skills set and knowledge further whilst I am at Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives.

Bioluminescence at Gili Lankanfushi

The sea never sleeps. Even at night it is bursting with a wonder that seems almost magical – flashes seeming to appear out of nowhere when the ocean is otherwise shrouded in darkness

When the lights go out nature doesn’t stop communicating. Similar to our adaptations to cope with the dark, by making light, many organisms have developed the ability to produce light. This is called bioluminescence and is created by a chemical reaction within the organism. It is not the same as fluorescence which results from the organism absorbing light at one wavelength and then re-emitting it at another wavelength. Bioluminescence is therefore an active form of communication, whereas fluorescence is passive communication. Whilst visual light is required to observe fluorescence, bioluminescence can be witnessed in pitch black environments. It is generally blue/green in color and this is due to the shorter blue/green light waves travelling further under water.

Bioluminescence can be found throughout the ocean
It can be found in many different groups such as jellyfish, sharks, fish, algae and worms to name a few. In each group the chemical reaction that produces the light varies, which is evidence that bioluminescence has evolved multiple times. Generally, bioluminescent animals contain the chemicals required to produce light, but occasionally an animal can take in bacteria or a different bioluminescent organism that has the ability to produce bioluminescence. For example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid takes in bioluminescent bacteria which are stored in a special light organ and at night they then work together to produce light. This light acts as a cloaking device preventing the squid from casting a shadow and hence camouflaging the squid from predators.

For light to be produced organisms must contain the molecule luciferin which when combined with oxygen produces light. Different organisms will contain different types of luciferin. Some organisms can contain a catalyst called luciferase which can speed up the chemical reaction. Additionally, luciferin and oxygen can be bundled together to make a photoprotein which can be activated instantaneously when a certain ion becomes present. The intensity and colour displayed can also vary and this is very important for communication.

 
Bioluminescent animals can be found on land and in the water column, from the surface to the deepest part of the ocean at challenger deep (10,994m), and in coastal and oceanic environments. In coastal environments around 2.5% of organisms are bioluminescent whereas in pelagic environments the number is significantly higher. Studies estimate that around 70% of fish and 97% of cnidarians (jellyfish, corals, anemones and hydroids) are bioluminescent. Due to the vastness of this form of communication it could be said that bioluminescence may be the most abundant form of communication on earth. Humans see only a small portion of bioluminescence – we generally observe bioluminescence resulting from physical turbulences of the surface water due to waves or boat hulls. The aggravation of the water triggers a bioluminescent response in surface dwelling bioluminescent organisms. One of the most common bioluminescent displays observed by humans is from planktonic surface dwellers. When blooming they form a dense surface layer, which by daylight is reddish-brown in colour but at night transforms into a light display. We can see bioluminescence at Gili Lankanfushi – turn your torch off on a night snorkel and wave your hands around to disturb the water. Bioluminescence is unpredictable but the best times to observe it are when the moon is waning. 
 
Animals can light up for a variety of reasons:
to defend themselves, to procure mates and to camouflage or hunt. The dark is an unforgiving place and finding food can be life or death. Some animals concentrate their bioluminescence in a lure and dangle it around their mouths. The deep-sea angler fish has this adaptation – its lure is lit by bioluminescent bacteria. Prey are attracted to the light and can be engulfed before they realise it. The Stauroteuthis octopus which lives below 700m has replaced some of its suckers with bioluminescent cells that direct their planktonic prey into their mouth. The production of light by the cookie-cutter shark tricks whales and squid into venturing closer and once close enough the shark takes a bite out of the animal before it escapes.

Long wavelengths like red light are absorbed quickly in the surface waters and it is due to this that many deep sea animals are red – they become invisible. Additionally many organisms have lost the ability to see red light. However, the dragonfish has evolved to emit and see red light. This allows it to see red coloured prey and also they can light up the surrounding water to hunt or look for a mate.

 
Finding a mate in the dark can be a major hardship.
Flashing bioluminescent displays can be used as a signal between males and females of the same species to signify the desire to reproduce. For example, a type of male Caribbean crustacean (ostracod) lights up its upper lips to attract females. 
 
Even though bioluminescence lights up the darkness it can be used for protection and camouflage. Many animals will produce a strong flash of light to confuse predators and swim off whilst the predator is blinded. Some squid can produce bioluminescent ink – upon ejection it can stick to the predator and light it up. This can lead to the predator becoming a meal for something even larger. If a predator manages to take a bite out of a bioluminescent organism the stomach of that predator will glow making it an easy target and giving the prey time to escape
Bioluminescence can also be used for counter illumination. This is where the animal can manipulate light to prevent itself producing a shadow and making it almost invisible. They can use bioluminescence to match the light coming from the surface. This makes it almost impossible for predators below to see their prey. The lantern shark is an example of this – it can make itself look invisible by producing blue/green light to blend in with the background.
It’s surprising how any organisms create light, even in an aquarium you may notice it.
Next time you are at Gili Lankanfushi try and see the bioluminescence yourself. You never know when the next flash of light will catch you by surprise!

PADI’s guest blogger Emma Bell introduces herself:

I am a marine biologist and scuba diver from England. I have had the privilege of working in Greece, Seychelles and Maldives. I have worked in an aquaculture research centre where I focused on hormonal manipulation of a pelagic fish species. In addition, I have experience with coral restoration projects including frames and ropes; habitat restoration – crown of thorns, drupella and invasive plant species removal; educational activities and social media updates including blogs. I have also monitored population dynamics of bird, turtle, shark and cetacean species to aid in their conservation. I started my career working in the Maldives and I have done a round trip via Greece, England and Seychelles, I hope to increase my skills set and knowledge further whilst I am at Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives.

Carpe Diem Maldives Introduces Coral Reef Awareness Campaign in Celebration of IYOR 2018

January 2018: Carpe Diem Maldives Pvt. Ltd. begins a 12-month social media campaign to celebrate International Year of Coral Reefs 2018.

Crystal clear waters teeming with colour and marine life surround The Maldives, making it one of the most appealing and diverse coral reef destinations in the world. The new digital campaign led by Carpe Diem Maldives promotes awareness towards the status of the destination’s coral reefs. Recreational and professional divers are invited to share their underwater images through Instagram and Facebook channels using hashtags #maldivesreefawareness #carpediemmaldives and #IYOR2018 stating information to three related Ds – dive, date and depth – on each image.

2018 was announced International Year of the Reef (IYOR – www.iyor2018.org) for the third time since 1997 by International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), an informal partnership between the Nations and organisations that strive to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world. IYOR is a global effort to increase awareness and understanding on the values and threats to coral reefs, as well as to support related conservation, research and management efforts.

Francis Staub, International Coordinator for the Year of the Reef for ICRI states, “We welcome this initiative embracing modern media and recognising public awareness as an essential element of coral reef conservation. Campaigns such as this ensure that the general public understands the value of, and the threats to coral reefs. Furthermore, the ongoing stream of images through #maldivesreefawareness on social media channels provides marine scientists and other stakeholders around the world access to real time data on coral reefs in The Maldives.”

Regularly visited dive sites across the Maldivian atolls will be captured to show the real time reef status amidst the effects of global warming, while also recording the ongoing recovery and conservation efforts being carried out by organisations such as Coral Reef CPR. At the same time, the digital campaign encourages public engagement and general awareness to the importance of coral reefs globally.

Haris Mohamed, Acting Managing Director for Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation says, “Recently awarded World’s Leading Dive Destination at the 24th annual World Travel Awards, the Maldives attracts divers from around the world to experience the beauty of our underwater marine life and reefs. This initiative by Carpe Diem Maldives highlights the conservation efforts various organisations are carrying out to ensure our reefs remain resilient and healthy for generations to come. We strongly encourage all divers to the Maldives to share their images on social media with the hashtag #maldivesreefawareness.” 

Likewise, PADI Regional Manager for The Maldives, Matt Wenger, explains “Coral reefs are among the most beautiful ecosystems on the planet and PADI works with local communities around the world to ensure that residents understand the value of their local treasure. With close to 1.2 million tourist arrivals a year to The Maldives, initiatives like Carpe Diem’s #maldivesreefawareness are so important to get the message across about the beauty of the underwater world and why we need to do everything we can to protect it. We wholeheartedly encourage all divers to participate in this simple yet effective image sharing campaign.”

The digital campaign, which will run exclusively in The Maldives until December 31st, 2018, will be promoted to guests on Carpe Diem’s liveaboard dive cruises and at the upcoming resort in Raa Atoll. Carpe Diem Cruises welcome up to 60 divers weekly across all three of their luxury liveaboard cruises. Towards the end of 2018, campaign images posted throughout the year can be submitted to a panel of professional photographers, conservationists and IYOR officials, with a chance of winning a 4-night stay in 2019 at the new resort Carpe Diem Beach Resort & Spa.

 

For more information on Carpe Diem Maldives Pvt. Ltd., please visit www.carpediemmaldives.com

Things you should know if you are travelling to the Maldives on a budget

This blog has several parts, next week read about general tourist information……

Currency Exchange

The Maldives has a non-convertible currency – Maldivian Rufiyaa – this cannot be purchased beforehand. One Rufiyaa is 100 Laari and is available in 500, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5 Rufiyaa notes. The US Dollar is accepted as legal tender throughout the Maldives. Should you arrive with no USD$ then other major international currencies can be exchanged at the Bank of Maldives Foreign Exchange counter located in the arrival hall. This is the only dedicated foreign exchange counter in the Maldives. It is advised not to exchange currency in Male where bank queues are common and waiting time lengthy.

Only major foreign currency will be exchanged for local currency MVR. Hold on to your exchange receipt as you will need to present this upon departure at the exchange counter if you wish to change local currency back to foreign currency.

Paying in USD$

One US Dollar is equivalent to 15.42 Rufiyaa. However, the exchange rate offered on US$1 and US$5 notes by local businesses may be lower.This is because there is a 3% handling charge made by the bank on the deposit of US$ notes of US$5 or less.

The banks in the Maldives are very particular about the condition of bank notes and will refuse deposits of old style US$, even though still an active currency, damaged notes, badly creased, well-worn, or defaced notes will also be rejected. Therefore, if presenting such a note as form of payment you may be requested to change to a note of better condition. Please do not take offence, it is purely that the note will have no worth to the individual to whom you are paying.

Generally, any change given on a purchase made in US$ will be given in local currency MVR.

IMG_3670

ATMs and Credit Cards

Most banks represented in Malé provide ATM services. The Bank of Maldives has several branches in Male as well as other major population hubs such as the Male International Airport, Hulhumale and Gan. Several other regional banks also operate in central Male, including the State Bank of India, Bank of Ceylon, and HSBC. There are no banks on resort islands nor on many local islands. Only local currency MVR will be dispensed from ATMs. There is an ATM at the Male branch of the Bank of Maldives dispensing US$, however, it only dispenses to Bank of Maldives cardholders.

All major credit and debit cards can be used at resorts, hotels and many shops and restaurants in Male as well as on local islands. Note however, that a credit card payment fee may be applied to the total value of your bill. This charge can fluctuate dependent on the credit card payment processing company and may be up to the value of an additional 5%.

Local Tax

All services directly related to guests will incur 10% service charge and 12% T-GST (Tourism Goods and Service Tax). The 10% service charge is applied to the total value and 12% T-GST applied to the total value + service charge.

On local islands GST (Goods and Service Tax) is imposed on the value of goods and services supplied by a registered business such as a local café, local restaurant or local shop.

Environmental ‘Green’ tax will be applied to all stays in accommodation registered as a hotel, resort or liveaboard from 1st November 2015. This adds a further US$6 per person per night and is not subject to T-GST/GST.

From October 2016 $3 will be charged per person per night for guests staying on local islands in guesthouses.

Always check the small print online or ask if it is not clear to ensure that all appropriate local tax is included. What at first appears to be a great deal may not turn out to be.

to be continued…….

About Secret Paradise

Since 2012 Secret Paradise has been at the forefront of the Maldives local island tourism industry, promoting and supporting guesthouses, dive centres and activity operators based on locally inhabited islands throughout the Maldives archipelago. Offering group and private tours or independent travel packages, Secret Paradise holidays are designed to allow guests to engage with local people and experience the best from a paradise generally known as a luxury resort destination.

Responsible Tourism plays a very large part in what we do. We are mindful of ensuring we promote local tourism in line with Maldivian culture and beliefs and through education of both guests and locals we aim to protect the environment and limit where ever possible any negative impact to local life. We partner NGOs such as Save the Beach and marine charity organisations such as Maldives Whaleshark Research Program to provide opportunities for our guests to learn and support local conservation initiatives.

The benefit of travelling with us is that Secret Paradise guarantees you prompt and efficient personal service. We deliver high standards of service and professionalism and you can rely on Secret Paradise to provide expert local knowledge, clear communication and honest advice.

www.secretparadise.mv

Things you should know if you are travelling to the Maldives on a budget

This blog has several parts, next week read about money and taxes……

With the advent of local island guesthouses and low cost flight carriers there has never been a more affordable time to travel to the Maldives. At Male International airport it is becoming a far more common sight to see guests arriving with backpacks and not matching Louis Vuitton luggage. These travellers are here to experience a destination previously perceived to be only for those seeking luxury. So maybe it’s time you considered putting the Maldives on your travel map!

Whilst budget travel in the Maldives is a growing sector of the tourism industry there still remains limited information available for would be travelers and backpackers. So the team at Secret Paradise put our heads together to provide what we feel are the Top 10 tips every budget traveler should be aware of.

Clearing Immigration and security

To enter the Maldives no pre-arrival visa is required, a thirty day free visa is issued on arrival to all nationalities, provided the following conditions are met:

Be holding a valid passport (requires to be valid for 6 months from date of arrival) and have a valid ticket to continue your journey out of the Maldives

Confirmation of a reservation in a tourist resort or a hotel either in the form of a hotel voucher or online reservation and have enough funds to cover the expenses for the duration of your stay (US$100 + $50 dollars per day)

The right to refuse entry lies at the discretion of the Immigration official, so make it easier for yourself and organise your accommodation prior to your arrival. Online sites such as Booking.Com, Airbnb and Trip Advisor are a great place to start or if you are looking for more of an experience and not just accommodation contact Secret Paradise.

Once you have cleared immigration, collect your luggage and enter the arrivals hall where a representative of the guesthouse or resort should be waiting for you. Importing goods such as alcohol, pork items, pornography, idols of worship and narcotics into the Maldives is strictly forbidden. To make life easier declare the Buddha that you have purchased in Sri Lanka and the bottle of vodka picked up in duty free, the authorities will hold any items declared or undeclared for you to collect as you depart at the end of your stay.

to be continued………

 

About Secret Paradise

Since 2012 Secret Paradise has been at the forefront of the Maldives local island tourism industry, promoting and supporting guesthouses, dive centres and activity operators based on locally inhabited islands throughout the Maldives archipelago. Offering group and private tours or independent travel packages, Secret Paradise holidays are designed to allow guests to engage with local people and experience the best from a paradise generally known as a luxury resort destination.

Responsible Tourism plays a very large part in what we do. We are mindful of ensuring we promote local tourism in line with Maldivian culture and beliefs and through education of both guests and locals we aim to protect the environment and limit where ever possible any negative impact to local life. We partner NGOs such as Save the Beach and marine charity organisations such as Maldives Whaleshark Research Program to provide opportunities for our guests to learn and support local conservation initiatives.

The benefit of travelling with us is that Secret Paradise guarantees you prompt and efficient personal service. We deliver high standards of service and professionalism and you can rely on Secret Paradise to provide expert local knowledge, clear communication and honest advice.

www.secretparadise.mv

 

Coral Reef Research at Gili Lankanfushi Maldives

We encourage scientists to visit Gili Lankanfushi to share their knowledge with the Marine Biology team and carry out in-depth research of our local environment.

In an ever changing world, research is an important method of tracking environmental fluctuations and sharing information about our surroundings. After the coral bleaching event of 2016, Gili Lankanfushi wanted to learn more about the damage caused to our beautiful house reef. We hosted a team of experts funded by Rufford Small Grants Foundation, Chiara Pisapia, Dr Morgan Pratchett, and Deborah Burn who assessed the changes on the reef.  They focused on coral cover, coral size, and the number of young corals that have grown on the reef since the bleaching. Morgan Pratchett, the leading expert in Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) Ancanthaster planci, also monitored the size, sex and distribution of COTS.

 

The team carried out an initial study in the Maldives in 2016 and then returned to the same sites in 2017 in order to carefully assess any changes in their original findings.  On Gili Lankanfushi’s house reef, the team carried out line surveys at five and ten metres along the drop off and found that after the bleaching, coral cover has dropped to 6% at five metres and 2% at ten metres. This low coral cover is predominantly due to the ocean warming event in addition to COTS predation. Yet, in comparison with other study sites, Gili Lankanfushi had a higher number of coral recruits than expected which means new coral is beginning to grow again on the shallow section of our reef. This results from the hard work of Gili’s Team.

Dr Morgan Pratchett, collected data on COTS around the resort.  Despite their beautiful appearance, COTS are far less captivating once you understand the threat they pose to a struggling reef. They eat the remaining hard corals and new coral recruits. Over the past year, their population has spiked into an ‘outbreak’ therefore they have to be removed from the reef and our team works tirelessly to find each individual. Morgan brought COTS to Gili Veshi, our Marine Biology Lab, to teach us techniques on how to better understand these starfish. By dissecting individuals Morgan was able to show our team the interior of each specimen and explain if the animal was well fed or reproductive.  We were able to highlight certain features under the microscope.  We found the starfish living on our house reef were starving and not yet reproducing which leads us to believe the outbreak is over.

 

The aim of monitoring our house reef over time is to predict and track recovery of different species. We are extremely grateful to the knowledge shared by Chiara, Morgan and Deborah hope they can visit the resort again in 2018 to assess how much our reef has recovered.  We look forward to their return.

PADI’s guest blogger Clare Baranowski introduces herself:

I am a marine zoologist from the UK who has worked throughout the tropics researching mega fauna and reef ecosystems in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. I have experience monitoring and restoring coral and surveying manta, turtle and dolphin populations. I began my career as a science communicator before moving into research and management roles, this is why I incorporate outreach and education into every project I work on and I hope to continue this at Gili Lankanfushi.

 

 

Sun screen: A new threat to a vulnerable reef

Is it our health for theirs? Gili Lankanfushi begins an eco-sunscreen revolution.

Sun screen is a holiday essential – from children covered in a thick layer, to the bald spot on Dad’s head. We think sun screens are safe, but is this the reality? A key ingredient in more than 3,500 sun protection products is oxybenzone. This chemical is absorbed into our bloodstream, can cause allergic reactions and very worryingly was last tested as far back as the 1970’s. It is also possible that oxybenzone may act similarly to a related chemical, benzophenone which attacks DNA when illuminated, and can lead to cancer. Studies are currently being carried out. Annually four to six thousand tonnes of these chemicals enter our ocean through wastewater effluent, and by swimmers slathered up with sunscreen. Acting like an oil slick, the chemicals settle on marine life and the reefs become suffocated.

Reef safe sun screen with no oxybenzone

Corals are animals called polyps that share their home with algae called zooxanthellae. They work together in a symbiotic relationship which means both parties benefit. The coral animal produces a skeleton to shelter the algae whilst building the reef and the algae through photosynthesis provide the coral animal with 95% of its food. In the Maldives, the reefs are under severe external pressure. Sun screen is an added significant hazard which threatens the resiliency of the coral to climate change.

Healthy coral with blue-green chromis population

Bleaching is the term used when coral loses its symbiotic algae; this can happen for a variety of reasons. A study by R. Danovaro and a team of scientists showed that oxybenzone promotes latent viral growth in the symbiotic algae. In the study, fragments of coral were taken throughout the tropics and incubated with seawater containing small quantities of sunscreen (10 microlitres). Bleaching occurred within four days, whereas in the control group which had no sunscreen there was no bleaching. Water samples taken 18 – 48 hours after sunscreen exposure showed that the symbiotic algae, instead of being a healthy brown colour were pale/transparent and full of holes. Additionally viral particles were abundant; 15 times more viral particles where found in water samples exposed to sunscreen than in the control group. This suggests that the coral animal or algae contain a latent virus activated by chemicals in sunscreen. This latent infection is found globally. Oxybenzone is a photo-toxicant, which means that its negative effects are accelerated by light – something which the Maldives does not lack. In other studies, oxybenzone has been found to alter the larval stage of the coral from a healthy swimming state to a deformed motionless condition. It has also been found to cause DNA lesions and endocrine disruption, resulting in coral larvae encasing themselves in their skeletons and dying. The severity of this is proportional to chemical concentration.

Bleaching experiment by R. Danovaro and his team. They tested the effects of 100-μL sunscreens on Acropora divaricata nubbins after 24-hr incubation at various temperatures. (A) control; (B) nubbins incubated at 28°C; and (C) nubbins incubated (photo credit to R. Danovaro and his team)

In some parts of the world oxybenzone found on the surface has reached concentrations that indicate the potential for bioaccumulation of this chemical within reef organisms. Since oxybenzone mimics oestrogen it is causing male fish to change into females. This has been particularly noticed in turbot and sole feeding near sewage outlets. Since a healthy fish population is vital for reef survival this feminisation of fish will have a devastating long term impact.

As the effects of sunscreen are becoming more apparent positive action is being taken. In Mexico, several marine reserves have banned the use of none marine safe sun protection products after high mortality was noted in reef organisms and currently Hawaii is trying to ban the sale of harmful sunscreen. In addition, the development of eco-friendly sunscreens is now booming.

We at Gili Lankanfushi want to become part of this movement and understand that we need to protect our delicate marine environment, which is why the boutique is now selling a range of marine safe products, so next time you are here please help us protect our reef!

Reef safe sun screen with no oxybenzone

Please refer to this link for reef safe sunscreen: http://scubadiverlife.com/top-four-reef-safe-sunscreens/

PADI’s guest blogger Emma Bell introduces herself:

I am a marine biologist and scuba diver from England. I have had the privilege of working in Greece, Seychelles and Maldives. I have worked in an aquaculture research centre where I focused on hormonal manipulation of a pelagic fish species. In addition, I have experience with coral restoration projects including frames and ropes; habitat restoration – crown of thorns, drupella and invasive plant species removal; educational activities and social media updates including blogs. I have also monitored population dynamics of bird, turtle, shark and cetacean species to aid in their conservation. I started my career working in the Maldives and I have done a round trip via Greece, England and Seychelles, I hope to increase my skills set and knowledge further whilst I am at Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives.

Support Sea grass

We all could do with reducing our carbon footprint and one easy way is to support local and global sea grass conservation initiatives.

Known as the lungs of the ocean, sea grass can produce 10 litres of oxygen per 1m2 everyday! Sea grass meadows are also a fantastic carbon sink as they sequester carbon dioxide from the water and this can slow the effects of ocean acidification created by global warming. This beautiful plant could be the key to stabilising the negative effects of climate change.

Yet despite this, 29% of global sea grass beds have already disappeared with 7% more being lost per year. In an attempt to address this issue, the Marine Biology team at Gili Lankanfushi is conducting a sea grass regrowth experiment. At the resort we have sea grass growing in shallow lagoons around the island and in a 10m2 area on the south east side of the island, we have been collecting data on how fast sea grass regrows after it has been removed.

The experiment has currently been running for six months, so it is too early to be accurate, but results currently show that 10% of the area has signs of regrowth. To date, we are only seeing shoots of a robust species of sea grass called E.acoroides. This is a species found in the tropics in water depth of one to three metres with light wave action.

Aerial view of Lankanfushi Island and sea grass beds

In the beds we find nursery fish, crustaceans, worms and sea cucumbers using the leaves as a nursery and haven against the current. We also often see resident green sea turtles feeding on sea grass as it is their primary diet and they consume 2kg per day!

Marine Biologists are very pro sea grass because sea grass beds stabilise sediment and reduce erosion by creating a network of roots. They also increase the water clarity and quality by soaking up nutrients or chemicals that run into the water. If given the choice, we would regenerate the meadows surrounding the island as with an increased meadow size, the resort would benefit from cleaner and clearer water and an increased population of nursery fish species and green sea turtles. By regenerating the full size of our sea grass meadows we would also offset some of our carbon footprint.

We have been in touch with sea grass specialists from Seagrass Watch and SeagrassSpotter and hope to work with these global conservation projects in the future. We have learnt from their wealth of experience that it takes around 3-4 years to naturally replenish a small sized, single species sea grass meadow and around 10 years to replenish a large sized multi-species meadow. If we helped regrowth by planting sea grass seeds, the areas would be replenished in around 2 years.

This brilliant plant could be the key to stabilising the negative effects of climate change. We hope resorts in the Maldives consider regenerating their sea grass beds to help offset their carbon footprint.

PADI’s guest blogger Clare Baranowski introduces herself:

I am a marine zoologist from the UK who has worked throughout the tropics researching mega fauna and reef ecosystems in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean. I have experience monitoring and restoring coral and surveying manta, turtle and dolphin populations. I began my career as a science communicator before moving into research and management roles, this is why I incorporate outreach and education into every project I work on and I hope to continue this at Gili Lankanfushi.

Crown of Thorns Eradication

As the corals of the Maldives are already vulnerable our understanding and removal efforts of the crown of thorns starfish is paramount to the health of our reef.

Everyday Gili Lankanfushi has sightings of the voracious crown-of-thorns starfish (COT) Acanthaster planci. Native to coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific region and the largest species of starfish (Asteroidea), they are generally seen at depths of up to 30 metres. However, they have also been known to travel between Atolls at great depths of around 200m. There are four species of COT, but it is A. planci which is responsible for coral mortality in the Northern Indian Ocean and the coral triangle. COTS are corallivores and during optimal conditions can grow to over half a meter in diameter and have more than 30 arms.

Crown of Thorns

Generally COTS can be considered a keystone species because they can maintain healthy coral reef diversity by primarily feeding on fast growing corals, such as staghorn and plate (Acropora sp.) and enable the slower massive corals to establish and develop. When coral coverage is low, often resulting from COT outbreaks, COTS will eat PoritesMontipora, sponges, algae and encrusting organisms. One COT can consume all the coral in a 6 to 10m square radius annually, so the impact on an already vulnerable reef is catastrophic. The feeding behaviour is dependent on population density, water motion and species composition. COTS are covered in venomous spines coated with saponin which causes irritation and pain at a puncture wound. The spines are long, sharp and lowered to avoid drag.

Fossil evidence suggests that COTS developed millions of years ago. However, COT outbreaks have only occurred in the last 60 to 70 years and with increasing frequency and intensity. The first recorded outbreak occurred in the 1950s in the Ryukyu Islands off Japan. Combined with anthropogenic threats and other stresses outbreaks are greatly detrimental to coral reef survival and the fish associated with the reef.

Crown of Thorns destruction: 1 – healthy coral, 2 – freshly killed coral, 3 – recently killed portion colonised by algae and bacteria, 4 – long dead coral

COT outbreaks in the Maldives are relatively recent; the first recorded outbreak was in the 1970’s, the second in the 1990’s. Currently we are experiencing an outbreak which started in 2013. It began in North Male Atoll and has spread through to Ari Atoll, Baa Atoll, Lhaviyani Atoll, South Male Atoll and large densities have recently been documented in Shaviyani Atoll.

Outbreaks result for a variety of reasons. Firstly, when there is an excess of nutrients entering the water as a consequence of runoff from sewage, fertiliser and other island practices. The resulting eutrophication leads to increased plankton for the COT larvae and decreased juvenile mortality. Secondly, loss of COT predators; napoleon wrasse, lined worm, harlequin shrimp, starry puffer fish, titan and yellow margin triggerfish and triton’s trumpet (red and spangled emperor and parrotfish have been known to feed off young COTS before they have spines).

COT being predated upon by Triton’s Trumpet.

Loss of predators occurs due to overfishing for the souvenir trade, bycatch and habitat destruction. This leads to a drop in already low predation pressure and results in a COT population surge. Finally, COTS have excellent adaptations as they are resilient organisms with an selected life history (high growth rate, typically exploit less crowded ecological niches and produce many off spring). COT females can produce 65 million eggs annually between October to February. The eggs are released into the water column and are fertilized by clouds of sperm from nearby males. After fertilisation larvae are in their planktonic form and remain that way for weeks. After settling on the sea floor and developing into their adult form they develop their spines and start feeding off coral. This process can take around a year. COTS are most vulnerable before their spines are developed. Additionally, they can survive between 6 to 9 months without food, and body parts lost due to stress or predation can regenerate within 6 months.

Short and long term methods are being established around the world to minimise the effects of current outbreaks and to help prevent future outbreaks. The marine biology team at Gili Lankanfushi is focused on the removal of COTS. Our primary aim is removing these creatures from the overwater villas and jetty’s. Guests and hosts report sightings of COTS, and our team of marine biologists will remove them by injecting them with vinegar. This method is labour intensive and is carried out as regularly as possible by both the Marine Biology team and the Dive Centre.

PADI’s guest blogger Emma Bell introduces herself:

I am a marine biologist and scuba diver from England. I have had the privilege of working in Greece, Seychelles and Maldives. I have worked in an aquaculture research centre where I focused on hormonal manipulation of a pelagic fish species. In addition, I have experience with coral restoration projects including frames and ropes; habitat restoration – crown of thorns, drupella and invasive plant species removal; educational activities and social media updates including blogs. I have also monitored population dynamics of bird, turtle, shark and cetacean species to aid in their conservation. I started my career working in the Maldives and I have done a round trip via Greece, England and Seychelles, I hope to increase my skills set and knowledge further whilst I am at Gili Lankanfushi, Maldives.

 

Deep Blue Divers became 100% AWARE partner

Deep Blue Divers at Six Senses Laamu this week partnered with Project AWARE, a global non-profit organization, to join their growing number of 100% AWARE Partners who put ocean protection at the heart of their business. From August, 2017 Deep Blue Divers will make a regular donation to protect the underwater world our dive business relies on.

100% AWARE is a Partner Giving Program. All student divers who complete a course with a 100% AWARE dive center receive a Project AWARE limited edition card. It’s a great way to remind divers that the place where they learned to dive or furthered their diving education made a gift to protect the ocean on their behalf.

Deep Blue Divers at Six Senses Laamu is proud to join dedicated dive centers across the world who act locally and think globally.” says General Manager Marteyne van Well “We take pride in knowing that our donation to Project AWARE for every student diver who completes a diving course with us not only helps educate divers about ocean conservation but also supports Project AWARE’s mission to mobilize the world’s divers into a global force to protect the ocean one dive at a time.”

Deep Blue Divers has shown dedication to ocean conservation through their participation in Project AWARE activities. Their commitment to the 100% AWARE program makes them shine as they not only lead by example but demonstrate to their students the importance of supporting ocean protection. Thank you for leading the way,” says Alex Earl, Executive Director Project AWARE Foundation.

For additional information about Project AWARE’s 100% AWARE Partner program and to join the global movement for ocean protection, visit www.projectaware.org.

Please visit the website of Six Senses for more information