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

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.

 

 

From Doomed Voyager to Victorious Wreckage

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

Part One

When Mohamed Saeed first stepped aboard MV Victory as the Chief Electrical Officer, little could he have known that it would be his first and final voyage on the doomed cargo ship.

“I was one of the last to be rescued,” he revealed, thirty-seven years after the freighter sank off the coast of airport island Hulhule to become the most famous shipwreck in the Maldives.

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

An error in judgement

It was the night of February 13, 1981, with clear skies under a bright waxing moon. Victory had just returned from Singapore, carrying general cargo from cement and iron to timber and cooking oil. Recalling the events of the fateful night, Saeed said he had not expected Victory to enter the capital’s harbour until the following morning, as it was illegal to enter Gaadhoo Kolu, Male’s main cargo route, after dark.

“What happened was that, on the night we left Male for Singapore, we saw a larger ship entering Gaadhoo Kolu,” narrated Saeed. “So our captain figured he could do it too.”

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

Saeed was surprised when the Chief Engineer ordered him, the Second Engineer and Third Engineer to be on standby for docking that night itself. Despite his misgivings, he took up his duty as the Chief Electrician while Victory entered Gaadhoo Kolu, making her way to Male’s commercial port.

“The popular belief is that Victory ran aground Male’s reef, but that’s not true,” said Saeed, explaining that they had seen the shallows clearly in the moonlight and kept their distance from the capital’s shore.

Once the freighter came upon the island of Fonadhoo, which lies between the capital city and Hulhule in the cargo route, she was steered around to enter the channel between Fonadhoo and Hulhule, since the Male-Fonadhoo channel is prohibited for freighters and tankers,

Here the freighter’s fate was sealed: a misjudgement by the helmsman coupled by the vessel’s near-ancient hydraulic steering system failed in swinging her around and, at approximately 10:00 p.m. on a particularly unlucky Friday the February 13th, MV Victory hit Hulhule’s house reef.

A battle in vain

“It wasn’t caused by equipment failure,” said Saeed stoutly. “The Chief Engineer and I checked; it was a steering fault.”

Their first cause of action after the collision was to try and save the ship. She was steered urgently back out of Gaadhoo Kolu while Saeed and the three engineers below deck tried to pump out water from the double-bottomed tank.

It was a futile attempt. The hull was breached a level above the cargo storage and there was no stopping the water flow. The sinking of the freighter was guaranteed.

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

With Victory already beginning to keel, it soon dawned on everyone aboard – 30 crew members and seven passengers – that they would be left to the mercy of the waves if she remained in open water. Saeed and a handful of other seamen quickly sought the captain, urging to take Victory back through the cargo route.

“If we’d sunk outside Gaadhoo Kolu, we would’ve been done for. The ocean currents there are very strong.”

Options exhausted, the captain gave the dreaded order: scuttle the ship.

Engines at maximum power and keeling more than 12 degrees to the side, Victory reentered the cargo route where under the captain’s orders, she was deliberately run aground.

The bereft crew

News of the wreckage spread swiftly across the capital despite the late hour. Representatives of authorities gathered at Male’s shore while the military were dispatched to evacuate the people aboard the sinking ship.

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

“We were the last to be rescued,” said Saeed, referring to himself and the three engineers. While the passengers and the rest of the crew were on deck and promptly evacuated, the four had remained below, still working fruitlessly to pump out water.

When the four finally emerged, it was to an empty deck. Fortunately, rescue soldiers soon returned for them, while work was underway to tow Victory away from the reef to be floated.

While there were no casualties in the incident, several of the mostly-foreign crew were left bereft afterwards, losing nearly all their worldly possessions on the freighter.

With nothing but the clothes on their backs, the dismayed seafarers had watched MV Victory, with all of her lights still blazing, sink below the waves in the early hours of February 14.

Please visit next week for Part Two of MV Victory’s journey from above to below water

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

 

Earth Day – Sunday 22nd April

On Sunday 22nd April, the Prodivers team and guests of Hurawalhi joined the largest civic-focused day of action in the world – Earth Day! The campaign for Earth Day 2018 was ‘End Plastic Pollution’, a movement dedicated to providing information and inspiration needed to fundamentally change human attitude and behaviour towards plastics.


Plastics are a substance the earth cannot digest. The very qualities that made plastics such an attractive material initially; durable, flexible, versatile and inexpensive, have ultimately generated rubbish with staying power – a huge environmental issue. Our voracious appetite for plastic goods, coupled with our tendency to discard, litter and thus pollute, has led to an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year. Plastics not only threaten our wildlife through entanglement, ingestion and habitat disruption, but their ability to absorb chemicals and accumulate in the human food chain has also led to plastics negatively affecting human health.


So, instead of diving with sharks or snorkelling with manta rays, the 48th Earth Day saw Hurawalhi staff and guests dive and snorkel for debris instead! They were let loose to clean up as much plastic and rubbish they could find off a nearby reef. Whilst they may have made only the tiniest dent in removing some of the debris currently be in our oceans, every action counts. There are so many simple ways to reduce plastic consumption in our day-to-day lives, here are some of the tips our Marine Biologist, Kirsty, shared with all of our volunteers this Earth Day:

1. Refrain from using plastic straws, even in restaurants. If a straw is a must, purchase a reusable one.

2. Forget the plastic bag. Purchase a reusable produce bag and be sure to wash them often.

3. Give up gum. Chewing gum is made of a synthetic rubber, i.e. plastic.

4. Ditch bottles for boxes. Often, products like laundry detergent come in cardboard which is more easily recycled than plastic.

5. Leave the single-use plastic bottles on the shelf. Use a reusable bottle or mug for your beverages, even when ordering from a to-go shop.

6. Don’t buy foods in plastic containers e.g. berries, tomatoes etc. Ask your local grocer to take your plastic containers back.

7. Disregard the disposable nappy. Use cloth nappies to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint and save money.

8. Stop purchasing single serving products. Buy bulk items instead and pack your lunch in reusable containers and bags.

9. Refuse to buy disposable razors and toothbrushes. Purchase replaceable blades instead.

Abstain from buying frozen foods. Even though those that appear to be packaged in cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic, plus you’ll be eating fewer processed foods.

A great quote from Marine Biologist, Sylvia Earle, sums up perfectly the importance of looking after the ocean: ‘No water, no life. No blue, no green’

PADI’s guest blogger Kirsty introduces herself:

Growing up in Mallorca, surrounded by the riches of the Mediterranean Sea, Kirsty’s ambition to pursue a career in marine biology was ignited from a young age. Kirsty completed both her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Newcastle University in England. During her studies she had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Maldives. It is not surprising then that her research interests to date have focused on tropical reef ecology. More specifically, Kirsty is interested in studying the movement patterns and habitat use of sharks and rays. Kirsty is currently part of the Maldivian Manta Trust research team, collecting data around the country’s manta population, its movements, and how the environment and tourism / human interactions affect them.

 

 

Earth Hour

Earth Hour is an annual worldwide movement to encourage individuals, communities, and businesses to conserve our resources. Celebrating it is a symbol of our commitment to our planet.

At Gili we celebrated Earth Hour on March 24th with the rest of the world, we hosted a Coral Conservation themed day with multiple events leading into each other. For each event, all guests and hosts were invited to attend and take part.

Our first event was a coral workshop hosted for Marine Biologists and enthusiasts. In attendance were three participants from our local island Himmafushi who have a keen interest in protecting their reef and inspiring locals. Additionally, Marine Biologists from Four Seasons Resort, Bandos Resort, Atoll Marine Centre and Hurawalhi Resort attended. Jinah, a journalist from Hotelier Maldives covered our event celebrations.

Our coral lines project launched in 2014 and currently has 190+ lines, each containing around 50 coral fragments. The aim of the project is to rehabilitate our degraded house reef through direct transplantation of mature corals and through indirect coral spawning from the nursery. The project was the first low-tech and high efficiency coral recovery project that involves rope in the Maldives.
Due to the optimal location and care that goes into the project we had 68% survival after the El Nino event and the crown of thorn starfish outbreak. Due to the success of our project, many Marine Biologists are interested in learning more as they want to launch their own projects or further their current projects in other locations. This is why we invited them to join us in celebration of Earth Hour.

 

We felt that hosting a coral conservation themed day would create a platform for a discussion on possible project improvements and new project ideas. Overtime the coral line nursery will contain heat tolerant coral species, fragmenting these species and planting lines could lead to natural spawning of more heat tolerant species which will increase survival rate in future warming events. This will lead to the creation of more healthy reefs decreasing the pressure of predation, providing a healthier habitat, refuge and nurseries for marine organisms like turtles, juvenile fish and other fish species as well as conserving a key ecological ecosystem.
On the day the visiting Marine Biologists arrived at 14:00pm and a land based presentation was carried out, topics included an in depth overview of the project, project creation, management, challenges and future plans. This was followed by a practical demonstration of making a coral line, monitoring the lines and general maintenance including cleaning and removal of invasive species. To view the coral line made by the Marine Biologists click here. To conclude there was a group discussion on possible project improvements and a question and answer session.

 

Following the success of the coral workshop together with guests, Marine Biologists and hosts we designed and created a coral shape in the sand on Library Beach. In celebration of the official Earth Hour which is between 20:30 – 21:30 we turned off none essential lights and filled the coral shape with sustainably sourced candles – coconuts and used cooking oil. During the official event our coral shape was beautifully illuminated by flickering candle lights and guests, Marine Biologists and hosts were able to enjoy this display whilst attending our Earth Hour cocktail evening.

 

To conclude our Earth Hour celebrations we hosted the documentary Chasing Coral in our Jungle cinema and Host Village. Chasing coral is a fantastic documentary about a group of divers, photographers and scientists who set out on an ocean adventure to discover why the reefs are disappearing and to reveal the underwater mystery to the world. They found that coral reefs around the world are vanishing at an unprecedented rate and documented their discoveries and explained them in a way that is accessible to everyone.
Overall the event was a huge success with all participants learning something new and being inspired to help conserve our resources. We hope that you will join us in celebrating Earth Hour next year!

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.

Green Sea Turtles hatchlings on Kuredu

Guests at Kuredu Resort recently had a very cute surprise in the sand: a green sea turtle nest hatched! Late in the evening, while walking back to their villa, the guests spotted the tiny turtles making their way quickly across the beach into the ocean. A few hatchlings wandered astray and were collected by resort staff, soon to be released under the supervision of resident Sea Turtle Biologist, Stephanie, along with volunteers from the Prodivers Team.

According to previous reports, it takes green turtle nests 49 to 62 days to hatch here in the Maldives, but the baby turtles on Kuredu were a little slower – it took them 64 days to make their way out of the nest.

To evaluate the hatching success of the nest, Stephanie and a volunteer digging team from Prodivers went to exhume the nest 48 hours after the hatching event. After quite some digging, they successfully discovered the nest and out of 105 eggs laid, only three had failed to develop – that’s 102 more baby green turtles in the ocean! Such a successful nest is great news for the sea turtle population and we hope to see some of the hatchlings back on Kuredu to nest in about 10 to 15 years’ time.

Snorkelling or scuba diving at Kuredu Island Resort Maldives gives a very good chance of seeing turtles – the island is blessed with a large community of green sea turtles that can be seen at Caves, either on a Prodivers snorkelling excursion or dive trip. Turtles can also be spotted grazing in the lagoon.

Want to learn more about turtles? Visit Stephanie at Kuredu’s Marine Center and join her snorkelling on the reef for a turtle tour while she collects valuable data for the Olive Ridley Project.

Common crabs encountered in the Maldives: Part 1

Crabs are an underappreciated species. Whilst living in a harsh and arid environment they dedicate their lives to keeping the beach pristine.

The Maldives is rich in life and biodiversity, but the majority of this diversity is marine based. Due to the great distance of the Maldives from large land masses there are relatively few land based species. Crabs, are one of the most common. These shy little critters are abundant, entertaining to observe and vital to the island’s survival.

Hermit Crab. Picture by Laura Pola
Hermit Crab. Picture by Laura Pola

Land Hermit Crabs

Land hermit crabs are completely adapted to life on land, living under leaf litter or in other sheltered areas. A common error made by people is completely submerging these crabs in water, mistaking them for marine animals. Unfortunately hermit crabs can only survive for a few minutes when completely submerged. They are not true crabs because they do not have their own shell. Instead they use shells from dead gastropods in order to protect their soft abdomens. They are a long lived species – sometimes reaching the age of 40 years and older – so they go through a lot of shells!

Hermit crabs start their lives moving through a variety of larval stages whilst floating in the ocean. The larvae spend the first 40 – 60 days of their life alongside plankton until they change into a hermit crab/lobster shape. In this final larval stage they find a small shell and over the period of a month will spend more time on land until they finally molt and leave the ocean for good. By feeding on vegetation, insects, detritus, other smaller hermit crabs and microbes in the sand the crab grows in size. To accommodate this growth their hard exoskeleton must be shed periodically during the year and this process will carry on through-out the hermit crab’s life. As they grow in size the hermit crab molts less frequently and the molt process takes longer, during which time the crab will stay completely submerged in the sand.

When sexually mature the male will knock on the female’s shell to signal mating. Both genders will then extend out of their shells and the male will fertilise the female. After fertilisation the female will carry her eggs around on her abdomen where they are protected from predation. The bigger the female the larger the quantity of eggs. After one month the eggs are fully developed and the colour of the egg will have changed from brick red to grey. To hatch the eggs the female will enter the water at low tide. Upon contact with water the eggs burst open and the larvae are released.

Ghost Crab. Picture by Hans Hillewaert
Ghost Crab. Picture by Hans Hillewaert

Ghost Crab

Another common crab species is the ghost crab which is aptly named due to its nocturnal activity and sandy colouration, making the crab perfectly camouflaged into the beach backdrop. These crabs are found on sandy beaches and live in burrows. The narrower and shorter the burrow the smaller the crab. Their burrows serve a number of purposes: protection from predation, storage of their food, protection from drying out and other extreme weather conditions as well as a place to mate (although not all ghost crabs mate in burrows).

Young crabs and female crabs create burrows with sand scattered everywhere, with young crabs preferring to create burrows nearer to the water, whilst male crabs have burrows with a neat mound of sand outside – the larger the crab the larger the mound. Males produce mating sounds, squeaking noises, in a variety of ways; by rubbing their right claw on their leg, by rubbing their legs together, or by using their gill chambers, which they keep moist with saltwater.

After mating the females store thousands of eggs inside an abdominal flap. She will then venture into the sea when the eggs are ready to hatch. Since ghost crabs cannot swim the female will float upside down in the water allowing the eggs in her abdomen to breathe. Upon contact with saltwater the larvae are released and after two months return to land.

Swift-Footed Rock Crab. Picture by Laura Pola

The exoskeleton of a ghost crab is water tight, which prevents the crab from drying out in the arid and salty conditions on the beach. All ghost crabs have eye stalks with the males additionally having horns. These eyestalks enable the crab to see in any direction and can be stored in groves on their shells. The ghost crab’s eye sight is so good that they are able to catch insects’ mid-flight. They also have a well-developed sense of smell. They are very agile, capable of moving at 10mph, which makes them the fastest of all crustaceans.

Due to the erratic nature of their food supply ghost crabs are very protective of their food and will use their claws in combat displays. Male ghost crabs have one claw that is slightly larger than the other and combat is normally non-contact and ritualistic. Ghost crabs spend the majority of their day looking for food and particularly like to eat fish, seaweed, microbes in the sand, jellyfish, other crabs, snails, turtle hatchings and really anything they can get their claws on.

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 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.

 

 

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.

 

Colonies of Hope

Blog written by guest blogger and marine biologist Clare Baranowski

Preserving coral reefs is a growing concern in the Maldives

At Gili Lankanfushi, we are recovering our coral reefs through the Coral lines Project. By growing small fragments of coral on hanging ropes (lines) and then transplanting them to our house reef near One Palm Island, we hope to see regeneration and aim to kick start the health of our house reef.

Our Coral Lines Project started three years ago and currently holds around 7484 coral colonies. We are consistently adding small fragments of coral to the already growing population on 153 lines.

Josie monitoring our 153 coral lines

The vulnerable nature of coral populations mean that they undergo cycles of disturbance and recovery. Our house reef was affected by warmer waters created by the El Nino event in 2016 which bleached much of the corals. Yet against all odds, most fragments in our coral lines nursery survived.  They have also been faced with a Crown of Thorns (coral predators) outbreak this year and have still remained intact.

In some cases, the corals in our lines are no longer present on shallow reefs in the area.

Now, is the perfect time to begin stage two of our coral restoration project by moving coral from our nursery to our house reef.  Transplanting coral is a delicate procedure with a lot of trial and error. We began slowly by creating a test site with a small number of coral colonies to ensure we would not lose healthy coral unnecessarily.

Josie beginning the process

We found a site with conditions not too dissimilar to the nursery. The area had to be flat and solid, with no loose material and space for growth.  It also had to be an area that is easily accessible for monitoring, but nowhere in danger of tampering or accidental damage.  We chose a depth of 8 metres in the middle of house reef drop off where we regularly snorkel. Another major concern was the Crown of Thorns Starfish, so we placed the coral in an area visited regularly by Harvey Edwards, Ocean Paradise Dive Centre manager, who has been removing these starfish from the reef for months.

Clare cutting the coral from the line

The next step was to cut the colonies from the lines in the nursery, and transport them in mesh bags in the water. We decided to use three different Acropora species to begin with as they are fast growing and like a lot of light and a moderate current. Once at the site, we cleaned the area of algae and attached the coral to ensure protection from extreme water movement. We placed them an equal distance apart to allow quick growth and attached the coral using epoxy, which is a clay like cement. We were aware from previous studies that Miliput (epoxy clay) has been seen to kill the part of the coral it is attaching, so we placed small amounts of putty at the base of the coral.

Once a week, for a total of six weeks, we will measure growth and survivorship of the coral.  We hope to replicate the test at different depths and locations to find a suitable site to start a larger restoration project. However, we will hold off on most of the major transplantation until after the monsoon season.

Attaching the colonies using epoxy

Due to the fragility of coral species, our rehabilitation plans are very flexible, and subject to a long monitoring period.  We expect to adapt our approach and long term management to ensure we keep up with the changing environment of the reef. Previous restoration plans have been hindered by external threats, so we are so excited to finally begin this project. We will be producing scientific data along the way which we hope will contribute to current coral reef rehabilitation knowledge.

Although our transplants are working well so far, we will still have many question to answer in the future such as: are the corals on the house reef still reproducing? As these corals survived the last bleaching, will they be more genetically suited to future hostile conditions? The answers to these questions are all just a work in progress and we will have to keep on watching and learning as we replant and monitor these corals over the next few years. As our house reef sustained a lot of mortality and the coral cover is low, we hope that this new project will help to rejuvenate the reef and raise awareness.

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.