The poisonous pufferfish: Their true story

A floating ball of spines drifts past. This ball of spines is actually the most poisonous fish in the world and is responsible for multiple human fatalities every year. But what are the facts? Should you be worried? No!

Pufferfish are a diverse family of fish. They are found worldwide and have over 100 species. Although some species have adapted to live in brackish and freshwater the majority are encountered around the tropics and subtropical ocean waters. In the Maldives we have 5 genera and 18 species. They have a distinctive appearance with their long tapered body and large round head. These pufferfish can range from two centimetres long to almost one metre. In the Maldives the largest pufferfish is the Starry Pufferfish which grows to almost one metre and the smallest is the White-spotted Pufferfish which is around eight centimetres. Pufferfish are mostly bottom dwelling, inhabiting either reefs or sanding flats. Larvae are pelagic and a few species are completely pelagic.

In the Maldives we also have four species of porcupinefish which are in a different family to pufferfish – they belong to the Diodontidae family. They are very similar to pufferfish; the defining difference is that the porcupinefish’s body is covered in visible sharp spines that become upright when inflated. Pufferfish spines are not so visible prior to inflation. Porcupinefish in the Maldives are uncommon and are encountered individually. During the day they take shelter at depth, at night they become more active. Sometimes large porcupinefish can be found hovering around shallow reefs during the day – the reason behind this is currently unknown.

Whilst some pufferfish species have distinguishing bright markings over their bodies to show off their toxicity, for example the Saddled Pufferfish others camouflage themselves to match their surroundings. They are a scale-less fish with rough or spiky skin, beady eyes and all four teeth are fused together to form a beak. Big pufferfish use their beak to crack open and consume clams, mussels and shellfish. Smaller pufferfish prefer algae and smaller invertebrates.

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Most pufferfish are highly toxic due to containing a toxin called tetrodotoxin. The fish obtain this poison from vibrio bacteria which is found in the animals they eat, specifically from eating starfish and turban shell. Tetrodotoxin is a neurotoxin which is flavorless, odorless, heat stable and causes nerve paralysis. The location of the poison changes between species and is generally found in the liver and ovaries. To humans this poison is 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide and there is enough poison in one pufferfish to kill 30 people. Additionally there is no known antidote. It is believed that pufferfish underwent a spontaneous mutation that caused structural changes in the fish allowing them to incorporate this bacteria containing the lethal toxin in their bodies to their advantage. Sharks are the only known animal to be immune to pufferfish poison. Although the toxin will kill, current research is testing whether low doses have medical benefits. Studies show that the toxin may relieve pain particularly with cancer patients. This could be an alternative to opiate use and it has also been shown to reduce opiate withdrawal pain.

Even though it is well known that pufferfish are highly poisonous and can kill it doesn’t stop people eating them! Pufferfish is popular to eat steamed, roasted, in broth or hot pot and as sashimi. In Japan and Korea it is considered a delicacy. A pufferfish dish, called Fugu which means swell up has been eaten in Japan for over 2000 years, although during this time there have been restrictions. For example, in the 16th century Japan’s supreme war lord ordered that the eating of Fugu was illegal. This was in response to some of his troops dying after eating Fugu whilst he was rallying them to invade the Korean Peninsula. Whilst some people continued to eat Fugu in secret prohibition did not end until 1887 when Japan’s first prime minister went to a restaurant. The local fisherman had not caught anything and only Fugu was available – the prime minister was served it and he loved it. The year after this the ban was lifted in that region. Other regions shortly followed.

In Japan there are now 22 different species that have been approved to eat. To serve pufferfish the chef must have a certification. Training for this certification takes seven to ten years and includes a written examination, together with the chef being able to gut and remove the poisonous parts of the fish within 20 minutes. Two types of pufferfish are very popular: Torafugu (luxury option) and Mafugu (cheaper alternative). Typically one kilo of Torafugu costs $200USD.

The process of toxin removal has improved over time with it now being possible to completely remove the poison from the ovaries of fish. The ovaries are pickled for one year in salt and then for a further two years in rice bran. During the pickling process fermented sardine extract is poured over the ovaries to mature them. This removes the poison and delivers flavour. The science behind this process is unknown and only a few places are permitted to produce it. Additionally in some aquaculture facilities poison free pufferfish are being bred. They are bred in sterile environments where no vibrio bacteria are present. Theoretically the pufferfish should not be able to store the poison because there is no poison in their diet. These facilities are focusing their research on the liver. They have sampled 4000 fish livers over a nine year period and none of these fish were found to have the toxin. Now in special places poison free liver can be eaten and it is said to be very tasty.

The poison is a major deterrent for predators, but this is not the pufferfish’s only defense. When the pufferfish is threatened they can inflate by 40% making them harder to eat since they become a large stiff ball. For a mature fish this process takes around 15 seconds. Inflation is as a result of the fish unhinging their jaw and rapidly gulping large amounts of water (or air if the fish is out of the water) which causes their body to expand/puff up. The ability to inflate is mainly due to the pufferfish having an elastic stomach – the stomach has a special large and folded lining which allows it to expand and accommodate a large volume of air or water. The pufferfish’s skin also has collagen fibers which allows it to stretch and not break. Additionally most pufferfish lack some ribs and have no pelvis which allows them to become a ball shape. It takes the pufferfish around six hours to return to normal size and during this time they are vulnerable due to their increased size and lack of mobility. The process of puffing up is also very exhausting and can be damaging to the fish. For these reasons it is important that divers and snorkelers are respectful of pufferfish and avoid triggering their inflation by scaring or antagonizing them.

We have a variety of pufferfish that can be seen around Gili Lankanfushi. So next time you’re here grab your snorkel and camera and take a look!

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.

 

Dolphin encounters in the Maldives Part – 2

The Maldives is a tourist hot spot for dolphin cruises. These majestic animals are found commonly around Gili Lankanfushi and never disappoint with their impressive aerial displays and playful attitude.

The Maldives is a dream destination for wildlife seekers and ocean adventurers. The ocean temperature averages between 27 – 31°C, contains plentiful fish and has incredible visibility. This makes it an ideal location for cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises. They are aptly named as the word cetacean means huge fish.

Spinner Dolphins:

Spinner dolphins are a common species of dolphins seen in the Maldives and worldwide. They are easily identified due to their tricolor pattern, the upper side is dark grey, the middle a light grey and the underside white. They have a defined dark line from the eye to the flipper and an elongated nose. They get their name due to their unique jumping behaviour, they are the only species of cetacean to spin laterally in the air. The maximum number of spins recorded is seven. These spinning displays can vary, these variations are thought to be caused by habitat differences.

Spinner dolphins are usually found in coastal environments generally associated with island chains or atolls. Spinner dolphins have a high re-sighting rate which indicates high site fidelity. During the day they use bay areas to rest and socialise, at night they venture offshore to hunt. These resting bays are generally in close proximity to feeding grounds, have a flat and sandy bottom with a depth around 20m. These features allow the dolphins to use only vision (instead of echolocation) to keep a look out for predators. If visibility is poor the dolphins are unlikely to rest as they are vulnerable to predation.

Reproduction in spinner dolphins varies greatly between sub-species. Their calving period is year round with a gestation time of 10.5 months, after birth the calf will nurse for two years. The period between calves is three years. Females reach sexual maturity earlier than males (seven for female and seven to ten for males).

Spinner dolphins have predictable daily patterns but there social structure is variable. Group size varies with habitat, with some open ocean populations traveling in groups numbering thousands. Group size could be dependent on the size of the sandy bay bottom and activity, for example resting group size is smaller than hunting groups. Dolphins living in remote reefs and atolls have higher affinity to each other whereas coastal population are more changeable. In coastal environments individual groups rest separately during the day and can come together at night to hunt. These dolphins typically hunt prey that live in deeper water but migrate vertically at night following the plankton. Feeding occurs at depths between 200 – 400m and includes fish, shrimp and squid. The size of the prey is small (five – 15cm) with males preferring lantern fish and females cuttlefish. Spinner dolphins along with bottlenose dolphins are vulnerable to a variety of human activities and developments.

Potential Threats:

The majority of bottlenose and spinner dolphins in the Maldives reside in coastal environments which makes them highly susceptible to human activities. Coastal habitats are becoming degraded and as such management of coastal environments is critical for dolphin survival. Both species of dolphin are particularly vulnerable to human activities including dolphin watching, swimming with dolphins, pollutants including acoustic and chemical pollution, gillnets, by-catch, hunting, habitat degradation, boat traffic, sea planes, climate change, purse seines and trawling fisheries.

As awareness about the threats to the planet grows there is a shift from activities that degrade wild animal populations to activities that educate and raise awareness. The number of participants for dolphin watching activities is growing and highly profitable. Dolphin watching has many positives; less invasive than swimming with dolphins, reduced desire from aquariums, alternative employment, reduced hunting and by-catch. Unfortunately some dolphin watching activities have little or no regulations and can be conducted in a manner that is negative for the dolphins. These activities can alter feeding, resting and reproductive behaviours. Stressed behaviour can be exhibited as changes in swimming speed and direction, changes in communication, respiration rate and aerial behaviours.

It has been observed that cetaceans avoid areas with heavy boat traffic and it is thought that disturbances to dolphins could lead to increased injury rate, unsuccessful reproduction, increases stress and damages survival probability. Prolonged disturbance may lead to permanent relocation of dolphin populations. A common misconception people have with dolphins is that they can leave if they aren’t happy, dolphins can find themselves too stressed, confused and blocked in by boats to leave. Additionally, many dolphins are reliant on coastal environments, moving away from the coast can lead to diminished survival chances. As more research is conducted it has become apparent that dolphin watching can be executed in a sustainable way.

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.

Dolphin encounters in the Maldives – Part 1

The Maldives is a tourist hot spot for dolphin cruises. These majestic animals are found commonly around Gili Lankanfushi and never disappoint with their impressive aerial displays and playful attitude.

The Maldives is a dream destination for wildlife seekers and ocean adventurers. The ocean temperature averages between 27 – 31°C, contains plentiful fish and has incredible visibility. This makes it an ideal location for cetaceans: whales, dolphins and porpoises. They are aptly named as the word cetacean means huge fish.


The Maldives is home to 23 out of the 85 cetaceans species globally. The most common encounters are spinner and bottlenose dolphins. The cetacean species here are very diverse; they range in size from one metre with a weight of 50kg to 30 metres and weighing over 150,000kg. The distribution of coastal dolphins is thought to rely on a number of factors including temperature, prey concentration, location, salinity, depth, tides, habitat type, type of ocean bottom and predation pressure.

The closest living relatives to cetaceans are hippos and other hooved animals like camels and pigs. They diverged from this group over 50 million years ago. The ancestor that made the leap from land to ocean is Ambulocetus which translates to running whale for it could both walk on land and swim, although it wasn’t great at either. This mammal lived in Pakistan and was around three metres in length. Its home was the brackish waters that reside in mangrove ecosystems. Over many millions of years Ambulocetus evolved into the cetaceans that we see today. The changes include the streamlining of the body, the hind limbs regressing, a decrease in hair, increases in blubber content, expansion of the hand bones into flippers, the relocation of the nostrils to the back of the head and changes to the snout.

Bottlenose dolphins:

Bottlenose dolphins are a long lived and larger species of dolphin with a length between two to four metres. Females live around 50+ years while males reach their 40’s. On the upper body they are grey in colouration whilst the underside is paler with the belly being white. Stripes can be observed from their eyes to the blow hole, older dolphins can exhibit spotting on the underside. These dolphins live in a variety of habitats including the ocean, tidal creeks, rivers, lagoons and estuaries. Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most extensively studied species of dolphins as they inhabit inshore environments making them more accessible.

The main calving period for bottlenose dolphins is late spring/summer when the water temperature is at its peak, although they can give birth year round. These dolphins have a yearlong gestation period with an interval of three years between each birth. After birth the calves remain with their mothers for three – four years, this duration is dependent on nutrition and size. These years together are critical for development of social, foraging and courtship skills. These skills can vary greatly between habitats. Weaning of calves starts after three years and within 10 months of the mother’s next pregnancy. The age at which dolphins reach sexual maturity ranges considerably. Females are considered mature between four and 13 years and males at seven to 16 years, the difference in age is dependent on geographical and environmental differences.

Different species of bottlenose dolphins travel in different pod sizes, for example one species prefers travelling in pods between five – ten individuals whilst others in pods between 25 – 100. This variability depends upon food availability, activity, time of day and number of calves. Within these dynamic groups there may be an affinity between a few of the dolphins. These associations are hierarchical and depend on individual range and habitat type. These affinities usually occur between same sexes and mothers and calves. They have been known to last many years, with one association lasting 13 years. It has been observed that females have stronger associations and a larger social network than males.


When hunting bottlenose dolphins use the entire water column and feed on a variety of prey including fish, cephalopods, eels, small rays and sharks. Foraging methods depend on habitat, number of individuals and prey type. Dolphins are known to feed individually, in small groups and can use cooperative feeding strategies including circling, herding and bubble blowing. Dolphins are intelligent hunters, for example some have learnt to follow trawlers whilst others have been observed to use sponges on their nose for protection during hunting. These dolphins can make seasonal movements in response to prey location, water temperature and predation threats.
Bottlenose dolphins share their habitat with other dolphins including spinner dolphins. It is thought that the different species are able to live together due to differences in prey requirements and social behaviours. This co-existence is seen more commonly in the tropics and around coastal islands. This could be due to the higher concentration of nutrients compared to the open ocean.

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.

Ribbon Eels – the stars of Nakolhu Giri

Scuba diving in the Maldives brings with it the chance to see many ‘must-see’ creatures such as manta rays, sharks and turtles as well as huge shoals of tropical fish congregating on the reefs. All of these things are hard to miss and there is a whole lot more to see when you start diving very slowly and really looking at the reef, the critters that can be found can be just as mesmerising and special as the big stuff…

One such critter is the ribbon eel, also known as a ghost moray, Rhinomuraena quaesita, it is widespread in Indo-Pacific but not so common in the Maldives so finding one is a real treat. Divers in the Lhaviyani Atoll are in the fortunate position of being able to have a go a finding them on Nakolhu Giri where sightings have been occurring for many years.

Known to inhabit the same spot, once found the ribbon eels are easily found again – as long as they are not hiding in their hole at the moment the diver passes by. It pays to be patient and keep very still,just watching the area until it eventually pokes its head and neck out again. Patient observers will be rewarded with the distinctive flattened ribbon eel with its flared, extended nostrils. They reach a length of up to one meter but typically only the head and neck are seen. Their colour is very distinctive and eye-catching; males/juveniles have a black body with a bright yellow dorsal fin. As the ribbon eel matures it slowly turns to the more commonly sighted bright blue colour, also with the yellow dorsal fin and accents around the mouth. It’s not only the colour that changes as the ribbon eel matures, upon reaching a certain size, the body of the male starts to turn yellow and develop female parts until it can eventually lay eggs, making them sequential hermaphrodites. These completely yellow females are the rarest ribbon eels to spot.

For a chance to see these fascinating creatures come and dive with Prodivers and visit the beautiful underwater island reef of Nakolhu Giri.

Mobula Ray madness at Gili Lankanfushi

What’s that…? A bird? A dolphin? No it’s a ray! A mobula ray can be seen leaping over one metre out of the water and making an impressive splash for reasons only known to itself.

Even with its large size the mobula ray is an elusive animal with the largest brain to body ratio of any fish. It has a complicated classification record and life history, making it not only a mystery to divers and snorkelers, but also researchers. It is from the family called Mobulidae, which also includes oceanic and reef manta rays. They can be found worldwide in temperate and tropical waters. Different species prefer different oceans; for example the giant mobula ray can be found relatively commonly in the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic, whereas the short-fin pygmy mobula ray can be found in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Large aggregations can be encountered in Hawaii, Republic of Maldives and Mexico, but recently due to population decline these aggregations are getting smaller and less frequent.

Mobula rays are often referred to as devil rays, due to their horned appearance which results from their cephalic fins (fins on either side of their mouth) being rolled up. Despite their name devil rays are considered harmless and shy. Originally there were thought to be 12 distinct mobula ray species, but due to advances in molecular biology and genetic studies it has been concluded that there are only nine species and that manta rays are included in the mobula ray family. Currently two separate species of manta rays are recognised, but there could be a third: the black morph manta ray (Manta birostris sensu). This species is currently undergoing DNA examination by Dr. Andrea Marshall of the Marine Megafauna Foundation.

The current classifcation of mobula rays. Picture: Zoological Journal of the Linnaean Society.

From fossil records it has been concluded that mobula rays first appeared 25 million years ago with other species evolving over time. For example, the manta ray species appeared in fossil records five million years ago. Mobula rays originally evolved from stingrays, which is why some still possess the stinging spine at the base of their tail. Unlike their predecessor who have spiracles to aid their breathing mobula rays must constantly stay mobile to oxygenate their blood.

Mobula rays are the only species of vertebrate that have three working limbs (pectoral, pelvic and cephalic fins). The smallest species of mobula ray is around one metre in wingspan whereas the largest, the oceanic manta ray has an impressive eight metre wingspan. Mobula rays are known to perform amazing aerial displays, including high jumps, twists and belly flops. There is debate over the reasons behind this; theories include communication, courtship displays, escaping predation threats and removing parasites.

Mobula rays are ovoviviparous. This means that females produce eggs which are hatched internally so that they give birth to live young. Normally a single pup is delivered, but occasionally two can be born. Mobula rays have long gestation periods; for example the giant devil ray has a pregnancy period of two years. All species of pups are born relatively large; for example manta ray pups are around one metre in wingspan at birth. This is because there is no maternal bond between mother and pup, and so after birth the pup is left to fend for itself, usually its only defense against predation is its size. Some species, however do have the additional defense of a stinger.

It is estimated that mobula rays live between 40 – 50 years, with females reaching sexual maturity between eight to ten years and males at six years. There is a period of two – five years between each birth and females can have offspring for around 30 years. The mating seasons for these rays depends on the species and location. In Japan oceanic manta rays have been seen to mate in summer, whereas in the Maldives higher sexual encounters are seen in October, November, March and April. Mating occurs in warm water and generally around cleaning stations. Males will venture to cleaning stations in search of a receptive female. These females illustrate their reproductive readiness by releasing mating hormones into the water.

Courtship displays are long (sometimes lasting weeks) and very expressive. Up to 30 males surround the receptive female and compete to mate. They form mating trains whereby they follow the female, who performs elaborate acrobatics that the males must follow. The most impressive male will be selected and have mating rights. The male will then bite the left pectoral fin of the female to hold her in place. They will then go belly to belly and the male will insert one of his claspers into the female for fertilisation. This process takes place in a couple of seconds after which the male disappears. Mating brings together large numbers of rays as does feeding.

Mobula rays can be found individually, although they generally form large schools when food is in high concentration. They are considered planktivores, although they can feed on small fish and zooplankton. They consume food by using their cephalic fins to funnel the plankton into their wide mouth. Different feeding methods are used depending on food availability; for example benthic feeding can be seen in low food concentrations, whereas surface feeding using barrel rolls and feeding trains can be seen when concentrations of plankton are higher. Cyclone feeding is the rarest type of feeding and can only be seen when the plankton concentration is 80% or higher. Hanifaru bay in Baa Atoll (Maldives) is a world renowned manta feeding site and one of the few places on Earth where cyclone feeding can be seen. In manta season (June – November) sightings of 200 manta rays and a couple of whalesharks are common.

It has also been found that devil rays can dive to depths of two kilometers for over an hour to find plankton, making them some of the deepest diving animals in the world. As the temperature at this depth is low the rays must come up and bask in the sun to rewarm and oxygenate their blood. Some rays have a dark band between their eyes which helps warm their brains faster. The oceanic manta ray also has a counter-current heat exchange system which allows them more control over their body temperature than other fish, making them effectively warm-blooded and enabling their deep dives.

Mobula ray populations are declining because they are vulnerable to overfishing, boat traffic, habitat decline, pollution, by-catch and entanglement. They also have limited reproductive capacity, limited habitat range and are slow growing. The biggest threat to mobula rays are targeted fisheries. They are hunted for their gill rakers which are used in ‘medicine’. There is NO evidence to suggest that gill rakers help with any ailments, in fact it is suggested that gill raker ‘medicines’ may actually pose a significant health risk to those taking it, especially pregnant mothers. In a study mobula ray gill raker samples were chemically analysed and arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead were detected in all samples. Arsenic levels where found to be 20 times higher than permissible levels and cadmium triple permissible levels. A study found a 163% increase in profitability in gill raker markets in China over a three year period, highlighting that this trade is getting worse. A mobula ray population reduction of 50% has been observed in some areas.

In the Maldives all mobula ray species are protected. More countries are also now protecting their mobula rays due to the tourism potential. For example, in 2011 in the Maldives mobula rays were worth eight million dollars to the dive tourism industry – rays are certainly worth significantly more alive than dead.

Over the last two months we have had many sightings of the short-fin pygmy devil ray on snorkels, dives, from the jetties and the villas. Although we cannot be sure why we have had a sudden increase in mobula ray sightings we have hypothesised that it could be due to upwelling currents bringing in plankton which the mobula rays are then feeding on. Either way we are very lucky and we hope to share the experience with you!

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.

Coral Lines Findings 2018

Our 2018 Coral Line update brings together different success stories, in the form of expanding the nursery, creating a workshop, and most importantly seeing a steady survival rate of our coral fragments.

IMPROVEMENTS

After four years, the Coral Lines Project was in need of expansion. Therefore, in May 2018 we added six new metal frames alongside the existing nursery.  This will allow us to continue the project into the future without the limitation of space.  We have phased out the use of plastic cable ties and now attach the lines to the frames by tying the end of the rope to each frame. We also up-graded the project by retagging all 204 lines to ensure identification is up to date. During this process, we removed all coral lines with no living colonies. Now we will have a much clearer view of the project into the future.

In March 2018, the Marine Biology team conducted training on how to implement and manage a coral line project. We invited interested researchers from resorts and local islands to Gili Lankanfushi to participate in a Coral Line Workshop.  The full day tutorial taught others to create their own project using a step-by-step process.  Some of the Workshop attendees have now begun their own coral rehabilitation projects on local islands.From November 2017, we began a coral recruitment project which will measure the coral larvae settlement and survival. This project is ongoing today with results expected in three months.Finally, in February 2018, we moved our Marine Biology blog and Coral Lines blog onto the Gili Lankanfushi Resort official website so it is more easily accessed by our guests and interested readers. As of June 2017, this blog is now published by PADI and reaches five million readers.

SURVIVAL

We have planted 204 lines in the nursery over a four year period and after a recent survey of re-tagging and removing dead coral lines we have found that 158 lines still remain in the nursery. Out of the 9928 colonies planted, 6713 remain alive.

 

 

There has been a steady increase in colonies added to the project with an overall survival rate of 68% which remains the same as our findings in May 2017.  The rate of survival is less than pre-bleaching in 2016.  However, it far exceeds the survival rate of coral on the house reef which was found to be between 5% – 10% after a recent coral cover survey.

GROWTH RATE

Every three months after planting a line, we measure the widest point of the coral fragments to determine growth rate and note the fragments survival level. We measure each line for a period of one year.The species found to be most resilient post bleaching were A.aspera, A. pulchra and A.muricata. Although P.lichen does not show a huge increase in growth it has a high survival rate. Whereas, A. digitifera has a particularly high mortality rate (90%) and we have consequently not planted any more of these.

GROWTH FORMS

Species of coral can more simply be grouped into ‘growth forms’. We are mostly using bushy and digitate species as these are the growth forms that have survived best on the lines.We have an abundance of Porites lichen on the house reef which we have just started using on our lines when it is broken off in storms.  This accounts for a 2% increase in submassive form 4% in 2017 to 6% in 2018.

TRANSPLANTATION

In June 2017, we transplanted 15 fragments of A.humilis onto our house reef.  It was our biggest transplantation post bleaching.  The line survived for around two months but bleached due to predation despite our attempts to remove all coral predators.Due to the fragility of coral, our rehabilitation plans are very flexible, and subject to a long monitoring period.  We adapt our approach and long term management to ensure we keep up with the changing environment of the reef. So far in 2018, the ocean surface temperature has not been stable enough to transplant our lines on the reef but we will continue monitoring the situation.

FUTURE PLANS

Many of our lines are so large and heavy after four years of growth that we have had to hang the lines over the frames in order to keep them off the floor.  In these cases, we would like the lines to hang from frame to frame and therefore we plan to attach flotation devices at intervals along the line to reduce the total overall weight.

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

Quick wins to target new markets

Easy steps every dive centre can take to attract customers from China

With Chinese tourism making up more than 30% of all visitors to the Maldives, every dive centre benefits from ensuring that these potential customers know about the PADI courses being offered.Did you know that PADI has a dedicated Chinese marketing tool kit especially for you? You can access it free of charge by logging into the PADI Pro Site, and then clicking this link:

http://padi.co/cnkit

There are a huge number of resources available to you.

Each link in the tool box has two options. The option on the left is ‘simplified’ Chinese. The option on the right is ‘traditional’ Chinese.Tourists from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau are most likely to speak Traditional Chinese, whilst those from China, Malaysia and Singapore are most likely to speak Simplified Chinese. Depending upon the tourists in your area you may choose to use one or both versions.The more you tools use, the better the results will be. However, if you are short of time, here are a few key steps to take:

  • Exterior signage is a key step to show visitors that you are able to cater to their needs. The marketing tool kit includes a PADI Open Water Diver course poster and banner that you can download – this represents a great starting point.
  • If you work with a hotel or guest house, you can use the specific images to create brochures or hand-outs for guests
  • There are dedicated promotional videos available for you to use on TV screens in your centre, or at welcome events for arriving guests.
  • If you need help employing Chinese instructors, you can advertise jobs on the Chinese PADI Pro Site – simply log into the PADI Pro Site and click the link below:

https://www2.padi.com/mypadi/pros/my-pro-development/jobs/mainpage.aspx

You’ll find the Chinese employment board at the bottom of the screen.

If you need further assistance in accessing the Chinese diver market, contact your regional manager at matt.wenger@padi.com

How You Can Help Sustainability and Eco Tourism in the Maldives

Eco tourism and sustainable tourism may be a hot topic in the travel industry at the moment but it has always been an integral part of our philosophy and part of our mission statement.

Secret Paradise tours are designed to allow our guests to experience the best from the paradise we call home, whilst ensuring that there is limited or no negative impact on the community or the environment.

We are committed to informing and demonstrating to our competitors, our team, our partners and ultimately our guests that we are committed to following social and environmental best practices.

At Secret Paradise we see this as an ongoing commitment in the development of sustainable tourism in the Maldives and pride ourselves that we were longlisted for the World Responsible Tourism Awards 2015.

The following are a few simple tips that require very little effort on your part during your holiday but which will help ensure that any effect you have on the locations you visit is positive rather than negative.

Reusing towels and saving electricity in your guest house

It is seen all over the world in small and large hotels, businesses trying to reduce their carbon foot print and the Maldives is no different. Re-use your towels in your guest bedroom rather than having them refreshed each day. Turn off your air conditioning when you leave your room. Make sure all the lights are switched off. All small actions that will provide long term positive results to the environment for you and future generations.

Plastic in the Ocean

The Maldives, like many countries has experienced a real challenge in recent years with plastic bottles, straws and plastic bags washing up on the beaches. Local Island residents are making huge efforts to work together with many islands organising regular beach clean ups. Education and awareness regarding littering and how to reduce the use of plastic in daily life has also started to be introduced led by NGOs and dive centres in particular. But as a tourist you can also help. Bring a re-useable bottle with you and re-fill your water bottles where possible. Take your own bags with you when you go shopping and refuse plastic bags every time you leave a shop. Remove packaging from newly acquired items before leaving home and consider taking home as much plastic waste as you can.

For more details on local initiatives check out http://www.savethebeachmaldives.org

Buy Local

By staying in local island guest houses you are contributing to the local economy and increasing local employment. Local island guest houses in the Maldives are usually run by local island families where everyone is instrumental in the day to day running of the guest house. As a guest you benefit from meeting these local families and learning about their cultures and traditions; take it from us nothing beats Maldivian hospitality.

Buying local and eating local means that you are contributing to the local economy just like when you stay in the guest houses. Buying locally made souvenirs and eating local produce means that local farmers and small businesses benefit.Don’t be afraid to ask where produce or souvenirs have originated as there unfortunately is still a lot of imported souvenirs on offer.

Leave no traces of your visit behind

Many people say ‘I am just one person how can I make a difference to the environment on my own?’ But all you need to do is take responsibility for yourself and the people you are travelling with. Don’t leave litter on the beaches or around the islands. Don’t throw garbage over board when on the boats travelling around the islands. Lead by example and pick up rubbish and dispose in the nearest waste receptacle. Every small effort like this will have a positive effect on the future of our environment.

Leave the ocean as you found it

As tempting as it is to take a piece of beautiful coral home or chase after the sea turtles, mantas or whale sharks and touch them – you are destroying the oceans natural habitat by doing these things. Maldives turtles and Whale sharks are endangered species and need protection. Feel free to view the beautiful underwater world of the Maldives but leave it where it is. The ocean life is wild and we want it to remain that way. The Maldives is one of the many countries affected by coral bleaching due to rising temperatures in the sea and global warming. Campaigns run by Save the Beach and local island guest houses like Eco Dive Club in Maafushi are working hard to rebuild these areas by planting coral nurseries and researching the effects of global warming.

Respect local culture and dress codes

The Maldives is an Islamic country and tourists should respect cultural differences not try to change them, we are after all only guests in someone’s home. Dress respectably away from beaches, ask permission (and ladies cover your head) if you are visiting religious places. Note local dress codes and follow them. There is so much culture in the Maldives and the local island people love to share their traditions and culture with tourists so ask, learn and enjoy.

Want to help more?

Volunteer/beach clean up

Many local islands are running initiatives like volunteer beach clean ups on a regular basis. Ask your Secret Paradise guide or guesthouse owner if there is one scheduled during your stay, it’s a great way to meet the local community and you are contributing to environmental clean ups.

How about learning more about the local communities and initiatives?

Secret Paradise Maldives and Sun sHADe Volunteers provide opportunities for responsible and meaningful working holidays in one of the most beautiful places in the world. More details about this program can be viewed here: https://secretparadise.mv/product/volunteer-local

Remember together we can make a difference #letusguideyou

You can also view our full Responsible Tourism Policy here

https://secretparadise.mv/responsible-tourism-policy

 

From Doomed Voyager to Victorious Wreckage

The story beneath one of the most famous dive sites in the Maldives

Part Two

The skeletal beauty

“Victory sank on the captain’s second voyage to the Maldives,” said Saeed. “On his first journey, the captain miscalculated the distance to Male and ended up all the way in Vaavu Atoll. Then on his second journey…” he trailed off with a wry laugh.

Though Victory met a watery death on the unfortunate captain’s second trip, the expensive goods she was carrying were not beyond saving. A team was put together which, led by Hassan “Lakudiboa” Manik, began the operation to salvage the wreck’s cargo.

“The cars were the first things we salvaged,” he had said in an interview to veteran diver Adam Ashraf. The recovered goods were later auctioned off.

A diver during an excursion to the wreck of MV Victory. PHOTO – MOHAMED SEENEEN

Amongst those who got to see the salvage process was Hussain “Sendi” Rasheed, a renowned name in the Maldivian diving industry.

“My first dive was at the Victory wreck,” revealed Sendi, who had regularly visited the site between 1981 and 2003.

Over the course of 20 years, Sendi was able to observe MV Victory’s metamorphosis from lifeless skeleton to a vibrant ecosystem pulsing with life. Lying upright and parallel to Hulhule’s reef, she naturally became a breeding ground for corals; and the multitude of marine life she attracted, along with great visibility due to the currents in that area, established Victory as one of the hottest dive spots in the Maldives.

The wreck of MV Victory off the coast of Hulhule. PHOTO – MOHAMED SEENEEN

“This is one of the most beautiful wrecks, and one of the biggest. It’s around 110 metres in length,” stated Sendi.

However, even 37 metres underwater, Victory did not lie undisturbed for long. Bits and pieces began to disappear. Portholes, doors, the anchor and steering wheel fell prey to scavengers until all that remained by the year 2000 was “a metal skeleton”.

The culprits behind the robberies included local and tourist divers – a foreigner had personally shown Sendi one of Victory’s portholes, wrapped up and ready to be shipped to her home country as a souvenir.

“Everything that could be physically removed was gone … It’s like breaking into a museum,” said Sendi, expressing frustration over the lack of established laws and regulations to ensure the protection of shipwrecks.

Though the rich coral life and abundant fish surrounding MV Victory remained ever picturesque, Sendi noted with remorse that her true beauty remained lost to those viewing her after the new millenium.

Onslaught of damages

Victory, and by extension the diving sector, suffered more blows years later when the site was closed down in March 2016 for the development of the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge between Male and Hulhule. The bridge is a mere 500 metres away from Victory’s resting place.

The first setback was the abrupt cessation of revenue. Wreck diving, though a rather obscure activity for most civilians, holds a significant popularity for divers who travel to the Maldives from around the world. As such, MV Victory was responsible for contributing to the attraction of hoards of visitors daily from within the central atoll dive circuit.

According to Sendi, local dive guides typically escorted a minimum of eight dive boats, with around 15 divers on each, to Victory every day.
“That’s an income of at least USD 3  million from Victory alone, every year,” said Sendi.

Illustration depicting the value of Dive Sites around Central Male region. IMAGE_ RAE MUNAVVAR_THE EDITION

The second blow to MV Victory did not take place till later that year when Dive Instructor Adam Ashraf, having extensively researched the wreckage for years, approached the government regarding protecting the wreck during the construction and development of the bridge. He led a team of divers to set up four buoys to mark Victory’s location so that bridge workers would steer clear of the wreck site.

Damages caused to Victory Wreck

However, later it was discovered that Victory had sustained damages of magnitudes that could only be caused by dropping anchors of vessels, which were deployed around the bridge, onto the wreck. With the housing ministry’s permission, a team of divers inspected and documented the damages: two wings of Victory’s wheelhouse had been destroyed, while several cabins on one side, including the captain’s, were crushed.

Subsequently, Ashraf proceeded to meet with the boat captains working around the bridge, intending to expand their awareness on MV Victory’s importance. However, her proximity to the bridge meant other adverse effects continued; the ongoing construction work disrupted the ocean floor, encasing the wreck in the suspended sediments, thus suffocating the corals and chasing marine life away from their homes.

Heaving a sigh, Sendi recalled his last dive to Victory, accompanied by Ashraf: “There’s no more life now.”

“Shipwrecks are underwater museums”

Though Sendi and Ashraf remained optimistic that coral and other marine life would return to Victory once the bridge has been completed, both admitted that all the damages might not be repairable – damages that could have been prevented had there been proper protocols.

“We need to regulate diving, or establish standards and regulations for wreck diving,” said Sendi.

The divers stressed that it was imperative for authorities to protect shipwrecks for the sake of heritage and tourism promotion. Though all sunken vessels become state property under Maldivian law, they claimed that proper steps have not been taken to preserve them.

Inside the wreck of MV Victory off the coast of Hulhule. PHOTO – ADAM ASHRAF

“[Victory] belongs to the museum. It should be an asset of the museum,” Sendi declared, stating that all shipwrecks in Maldivian waters should fall under the ownership of the National Museum.

Describing them as underwater heritage sites, Sendi said that under the museum’s protection, shipwrecks could be properly maintained and conserved for future generations.

He added that preserved shipwreck sites could possibly generate sustainable revenue towards the maintenance of these sites by providing additional income serving the needs of the hospitality sector.

The wreck of MV Victory off the coast of Hulhule. PHOTO – MOHAMED SEENEEN

“Wreck sites could be sold as facilities for wreck diving training,” said Sendi. “… The museum could also charge fees for divers to visit wrecks.”

It is the divers’ long-enduring wish to see a day when the shipwrecks, scattered across the atolls, would be properly protected and conserved. Listing some of his favourite sites such as the wrecks at Fesdhoo, Halaveli, and Macchafushi, Sendi added, “Every individual wreck has a story” – such as the tanker “British Loyalty”, which was torpedoed by the German navy in 1944 and later scuttled by British forces off the coast of Addu Atoll’s Hithadhoo in 1946; a unique relic of the Second World War that is now another top dive site in the Maldives.

“Underwater archaeology, museums, history – shipwrecks are symbols that represent all of these.”

PADI’s guest blogger  Fathmath Shaahunaz  introduces herself:

Fathmath Shaahunaz is a long-established shinnichi currently writing as senior Journalist at The Edition. A self described ‘english nerd’, she also harbours a deep appreciation for ocean and all things magical.  The Edition brings readers the most comprehensive news coverage throughout the Maldives delivering the latest in breaking news and updates covering defining moments in politics, business, sports, travel, entertainment and lifestyle across the country and the region. 

www.edition.mv

Reef Restoration at Gili Lankanfushi – “Mahuge Veshi”

Home to more than a quarter of all marine species, coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. But these reefs are now under threat.

Of the many problems facing coral reefs, rising sea temperatures due to global warming are perhaps the most serious. In 1998, a complex climate event in the Pacific Ocean known as ‘El Niño’ pushed global temperatures to new highs and killed 16% of coral worldwide; this was declared the first major global coral bleaching event. The El Niño of 2010 triggered the second global event, and in October 2015 The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a third global bleaching event – so far this has been the longest event recorded, impacting some reefs in successive years.

Here in the Maldives, we witnessed the effects of global warming first hand when the bleaching event caught up with us in 2016 – affecting about 60% of corals.

In view of the environmental and economic value of coral reefs there is considerable interest in preventing further damage as well as rehabilitating and/or restoring coral reefs subjected to damage. A widely adopted method for reef restoration is the construction of Artificial Reefs (AR’s). The main purpose of these structures is to attract fish by providing them with habitats that are as favourable as those that are present in the original environment.

Gili Lankanfushi is surrounded by a beautiful and diverse coral reef, but we weren’t exempt from the bleaching of 2016, and some of the varied habitat once provided by corals has disappeared. To aid the reef we recently constructed a small AR adjacent the damaged coral. In this instance, the term ‘artificial reef’ is somewhat of a misnomer as its purpose is to rehabilitate an already existing reef; so a better way to think of our project is the building of ‘fish homes’. To maintain the natural aesthetic we are accustomed to here at Gili, the AR was constructed using natural rock from around the island. After settling on a location the rocks were assembled in a pyramid shape and care was taken to leave several openings as previous studies found that reef blocks which had a higher number of holes also possessed the greatest fish species richness and abundance. We have named our structure Mahuge Veshi (Pronunciation: ma-hoo-geh veh-she), meaning fish environment.

AR’s tend to develop in fairly predictable stages: When an ocean current encounters a vertical structure it creates a plankton-rich upwelling. This upwelling provides a reliable feeding spot for small fish, which draw in pelagic predators such as trevallies and sharks. Next come creatures seeking protection – hole and crevice dwellers such as grouper, snapper, squirrelfish, eels, and triggerfish. Over months and years the reef structure becomes encrusted with algae, tunicates, hard and soft corals, and sponges which add to the structural integrity of the AR. There is an expectation that ecologically the AR will resemble the local natural environment over the long term as plant and animal assemblages associate with the structure.

We know from previous studies that AR’s can increase the total aggregate of fish and invertebrate species, and in some cases the abundance of corals have exceeded that of adjacent natural reef areas.

The use of AR’s to increase fish populations goes back at least 400 years, but there have been suggestions that they don’t actually increase the total numbers of fish, and act simply as attractors; moving fish from one place to another. However, we know from well documented studies between animals and their environment that when a habitat range is extended their numbers tend go up. Imagine an island populated with birds: their population is at its limit, until one day another island appears within flying distance. What we would expect to see is a sequence of events:

  1. Arrival – Some of the birds would migrate from the old island to the new one.
  2. Population increase – With more nesting space available the populations of each island would increase.
  3. Persistence – Assuming a steady supply of resources (food, nests, etc.) the birds on each island would thrive.

AR’s can be thought of like underwater islands, and for each one built we essentially extend the geographical range of the animals that live within reef structures, and so we would expect to see the same sequence of events mentioned above.

So far Mahuge Veshi has been visited by large schools of surgeonfish, butterflyfish, and on last inspection a large moray eel had made itself at home within the structure. The Mahuge Veshi project is a simple, environmentally friendly and self-sustaining venture. All being well, the structure will help grow the natural area and support help marine life while our corals recover.

PADI guest blogger Jon Fry introduces himself:

After receiving my degree in Marine Biology & Coastal Ecology from Plymouth University I worked in Madagascar where I gained experience in reef restoration and tropical biology. I believe awareness is the most important tool we have in conservation, and I am pleased to be here at Gili Lankanfushi where I can educate the curious about marine life and sustainability.