Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Diving off the land's end

The tip of Cornwall is a pretty unique place. An enormous lump of lava congealed under the earth 300 million years ago to make the incredible granite cliffs, islands and underwater pinacles that bear the brunt of the North Atlantic storms. The waters around Land's End are truly oceanic, with the average fetch (distance a wave travels) of around 5000 miles in any direction to the West. Below the waves at least 5 currents meet as the English Channel and the Irish Sea mix with Atlantic waters. I know this area well after many summers spent here as a child, surfing the Atlantic swell at Sennen Beach and snorkelling around when the sea was behaving. However even after being down there many times since getting my diving certificate, I've never dived off the Land's End. Last week I went down to St. Just with the Oxford University Underwater Exploration Group (OUEEG), on their summer expedition to see what lay in those tumultuous waters.

RMS Mulheim wrecked in 2003
The first day we were expecting a strong South-Westerly of around 20 knots and Tom (the most experienced seaman in our crew) suggested we went to Longships Lighthouse, perched on a narrow underwater ridge 3 miles off the Land's End's final point. This ridge has regularly claimed victims that pass through this busy shipping route over the years, wrecking numerous vessels with its confusing currents and fierce exposure to the Atlantic swell. We slipped the boat in Sennen Cove in the morning calm heading out to sea at the slack of a neap (weakest) tide to give ourselves the best chance of doing the dive. We drove into the lee for the rocks that peak just above the water to assess the conditions, which had already started making a significant chop in the strengthening winds. In the end Farah and I decided we felt brave enough to try it and after a bit of bobbing on the surface, we found that the water on the landward side of the ridge was calm and crystal clear, by British standards (12m+ visibility). Luxuriant kelp forest grew down the steep walls with gorgeous jewel anemones carpeting the gullies and overhangs carved out of solid granite, shaped by thousand storms. On the drive back into Sennen Olivia and Tom did a dive on some similar habitats off the Cowloes and doing some of the practical sessions for Olivia's Sport's Diver qualification, which she completed during the course of the week (well done Olivia!).

The next two days the wind galed from the South preventing us from logging any successful dives. One day we did try to get out and find a spot north of St. Ives where a steam train had been wrecked. However, crazy wind and an unexpected thunderstorm, meant that the dive was just a metaphorical train wreck, instead of an actual one and we came home wet and sad. After that the wind swung to the north and we were able to get three great days out at sea along the southern coast of Penwith, offshore from the enchanted coves of Mousehole, Lamorna and Porthcurno. Our best achievement as well organised and highly skilled seamen and women was to land a shot-line on the runnelstone pinnacle in a 5knot current and getting amazing dives for everyone on board with a slack tide of just 1 hour! Thank you to Tom, Farah, Olivia, Simon, Ollie and Penny for an amazing week.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The price of luxury in paradise?

Wow 18 months have past since my last blog. The last entry celebrated the fact that I had finally managed to raise enough money to finish my PhD and I guess I’ve spent the past 18 months just getting that done! I’ve now handed in a draft, had my viva (final exam) and done the corrections, so now I’m finally free to go back to trying to protect the oceans from human destruction. The PhD was a crucial hurdle to focus my mind and spend the time working on one thing, but I’m so glad I can branch out and start thinking about other things now! My most recent research trip was to the Maldives to look at the impacts of the major coral reef bleaching which occurred there in April this year. The same conservation and research organisation that organised the expedition also work with resorts in the Maldives and their role in helping conservation, or hindering it. This post I want to look at the costs and benefits for tourists and people like me enjoying the incredible reefs and islands of the Maldives.

Its always really interesting getting questions from people back home when I’ve been away, especially to see what their impressions of what the place looks like. The Maldives, more than anywhere, tends have an evocative and paradisiacal image of untouched beauty, with hardly any people and simple beach huts. The reality is that annually over 1 million tourists from China, Japan and Europe arrive in the Maldives and are divided between over 100 all inclusive resort islands spread throughout the country. On each island the guests are treated to air-conditioned rooms, imported European cuisine, swimming pools, spas and water sports. The biggest island in the Maldives is a mere 6km2 and most are much smaller than this. Somehow each island has to have its own power station, desalination plant and sewage treatment facilities to maintain Western standards of living. Some resorts manage their resources quite well, but too many have inadequate environmental measures, causing pollution from sewage, sand from beach replenishment and other human pressures to impact the local marine environment.
Sewage outflow from some reefs is not adequately treated, and while it providing some food for these surgeonfish, it is polluting the water and threatening sensitive corals.

Despite these issues, several influences of the resorts and tourists visiting them are helping to maintain the Maldives incredible marine life. Fishing is prohibited around resort islands, making the resort islands de facto marine parks. This is helping maintain crucial ecological processes on the reef through ecological roles a healthy fish community has for maintaining corals and other reef organisms and also helps to protect top predators, such as sharks and grouper, which are highly overfished globally. Snorkelling and diving were rated as the most enjoyed element to people’s trip to the Maldives, based on a government survey.  Tourist enjoyment of marine life in the Maldives gives it a hard value, which resorts and the government have stake in protecting. It has been estimated that the value of whale shark and manta ray tourism in the Maldives is $18 million a year.
Most reef sharks are completely harmless and are truly spectacular animals to see. 
Manta tourism in the Maldives is helping protect this beautiful creature with active conservation efforts with strong public support.
So should you go on a holiday to the Maldives? Well, your visit may have some impact on the reef directly via the resort and will certainly have a climate impact through the flight, imported goods and energy needed to maintain tourists. However, your visit can help protect the reef and your enjoyment of it may even help reefs in the long term. I am a firm believer of the David Attenborough quote, “No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about they have never experienced”. If you want to find out more, here’s a short blog post about some of the most environmentally friendly resorts in the Maldives. The aquatic primate is back!
Guest houses on local islands are a minor section of the tourist industry and can offer a more authentic Maldivian experience.
And its not all about lying under palm trees on the beach either.

You may even end up as nuts about the reefs there as me and others I know :-). 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Future for Coral: Highlights and behind the scenes

            I’m back at the Atlantic. Its February and a moody sky watches over the dramatic churning of waters frustrated by winter winds. The air temperature is about 9 degrees and the water temperature is about 11. Yesterday I received over £7000, which has put an end to over 2 years of financial insecurity and means I can finally knuckle down and get my work published. I didn’t receive the money from a wealthy foundation or a scholarship for my academic excellence, but from a crowd of well-wishers and concerned ocean lovers.
            Crowdfunding is both an incredibly novel and an age-old invention. In essence it is no different from any sponsorship drive; you tell people what you want money for and if they like your idea, they give what they feel. The difference is the tool of social media, which has allowed this well-worn technique to bloom and reach new heights. ‘Future for Coral’ was my first ever attempt at crowdfunding and in many respects, my first time to really interact with social media in a serious manner. I thought I’d share some of experience from my point of view as the, now jubilant, owner of the campaign.
The Atlantic in February
            Since the financial crash in 2008 it has felt like convention funding, for almost everything, has dried up. My supervisor looked into figures for deep-sea marine biology and found that available funds have dropped to a third (70% reduction) of what was available 4 years ago. Two years ago, I found out my PhD funding had been pulled. My friend Andrew was visiting me in Kenya, where I was working at the time, and offered me some money to help. I felt terrible; the thought of taking money from a friend. He explained that he and his wife Emma thought that my work was worth it, so I should take the money. I cautiously agreed, and from there an idea was planted.
             When I returned to the UK in May last year, my funding was still a mess. I decided I needed to do the crowdfunding idea. I watched Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on the ‘art of asking’ a dozen times and set off to Cornwall in July to film the promo video with my mate Mike. The reason it took nearly 6 months before I ran the campaign was a combination of desperate hope that some money would come in soon and terror about putting my work and myself on a pedestal for all to see. Several grant rejections later I decided to go live with Future for Coral.
Filming in more clement weather
            The most important thing in any social media exercise is ‘reach’. This means how many people are seeing your ‘content’, be it the webpage, article or whatever. This much I knew before I started. What I had no idea about was how hard it is to extend one’s reach. You cannot simply put something up on the net and expect people to access it. I put up the campaign, told all my friends about it saw the readership start going up and the first donations go in and felt pretty good about myself, so I sat back a bit to watch. Rooky error. The excitement died down and nothing happened.
            At this point I realised with horror that I was in the position I had feared would happen all those months of thinking about doing this; all my friends and colleagues watching while I floundered. In panicked desperation I started to send messages and tweets to everyone I could think of. Every time I did it felt like I was inviting one more person to watch me fail, but I couldn’t stop. I had to make this work. Readership went up a few more donations went in, and then it stopped again. This pattern continued for the first 3 weeks of the campaign. Even at the two-week mark, when I received a fantastic donation from Somerville college of £2000, it still felt like I was treading water. Not until the final week did the social media reach a tipping point and the content started to generate its own reach. The graphs below show readership on the platform over time and donations. The graph about readership also tracks my emotions over the past few weeks pretty well too!

            The second most important factor in crowdfunding is the content. Can you put up something that people will ‘like’, ‘share’ and of course most importantly donate to? As a scientist I am used to expressing my ideas carefully, noting my uncertainty, over several pages. All of a sudden I have 140 characters to convince you that what I’m doing is important and you should give money to it. Yikes! This, however, was much more fun than promotion. It was great getting to wax lyrical openly and freely to my growing band of fans. Initially I thought people would be interested in the human aspect of coral reef decline or the personal aspect of my work. Turns out people went crazy for underwater factoids and pretty pictures, so I adapted my content as I went along, and in the end it was the stuff that most excites me as well.
            Apart from just beating my drum on social media I went out and did a few stunts as well. The first was to paste my bedroom window with Future for Coral stuff. I got so sick of staring at Twitter that I needed some art and craft therapy and through this ended up getting an article in the Oxford Mail! I gave a talk at my graduate college, which I thoroughly enjoyed and then was bowled over when the college decided to give me £2000 and write an article about me for the alumnus network. I was starting to feel pretty cool. My final stunt was to set up a stall at the East Oxford Community Market and spent a lovely morning chatting to people about my work and various tangents on this, while giving out free baked goodies. To my complete surprise George Monbiot, the famous Guardian columnist walked past with his family. “George, will you please retweet something for me?” I blurted as he tried to buy some veggies. He agreed and that evening my final video update was tweeted to his 116,000 followers. After that, my social media grew on its own.    

         So in the end I achieved my goal despite spending most of the time not really believing I would. It is of course thanks to 80 or so wonderful individuals who gave me money over the 4 weeks. As a scientist I wanted to understand a bit more about who gave and why, so here’s a few factoids about the donors.
Proportion of donations from different groups
  • Proportion of page visitors who donated – 5% (apparently this is about the average)
  • I received 50 pledges from friends and acquaintances, 22 from random people who liked the campaign, 2 from academic sources, and 4 secret donors, including one secret donation of £850. I am dying to know who this was! (The amount raised by these different groups is in the pie chart.)
  • The average donation by friends was £61.40 and from randomers was £47.95. These amounts were closer together than I had expected.
So now that the campaign is done I will go back to a quieter life of analysing data and writing for conservation groups. I can’t wait! However, I cannot get over the amazing feeling of seeing thousands of people reading my facebook page or the incredible words of encouragement and excitement from people willing you to succeed. If you want to continue to follow my story, check this blog from time to time. I will also keep the facebook and twitter going, but at a much slower rate than the last few weeks. Thank you once again to everyone. Every encouraging word, facebook share, retweet and of course donation, has made this a reality.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Many places, one goal

The conservation of nature is complex endeavour. My research and work is centred around general issues, which can be theoretically applied anywhere in the world. The difficulty comes when one tries to use these principals on the ground, in the local context. For example, 'no-take' marine protected areas (MPAs) are great, but how does applying this principal on the ground in Mozambique look and how are the challenges there different to the challenges in Sumatra, or anywhere else for that matter? In this blog I'll introduce you to some of the amazing places where I gathered my data, and try to give you an idea of the huge variety in place and context, while all united in a common goal of ensuring a future for coral reefs.

Watamu Marine National Park (WMNP), Kenya
Watamu was once a sleepy Swahili fishing village, halfway along Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline. Since the 1960s the town has grown with the arrival of tourism, to visit its pristine white beaches and wildlife treasures both on land and under the waves. Early on in this process, Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), the government body concerned with conservation and national parks, recognised the importance of the reefs around Watamu and the potential for marine tourism. An area of 10km squared was gazetted as a completely protected, no extraction MPA in 1968, making it one of the oldest national parks in the world. Since its inception nearly 50 years ago, the park has provided refuge to hundreds of species, including endangered species, such as the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Giant Grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus). It has also been source of income for the local population through tourism revenue and the numerous opportunities this creates. The balance between conserving nature and creating revenue is never an easy, but in Watamu there are numerous charities, community groups, and businesses, such as A Rocha Kenya who I worked with for 3 years, all committed to promoting and using WMNP sustainably and for the benefit of the local people. 
Cliffs and lagoons near Watamu village harbour

Vamizi Island, Quirimbas Archipelago, Mozambique
The Quirimbas archipelgo in the far north of Mozambique, is made up of 32 islands, surrounded by some of the healthiest and most biodiverse coral reefs in Africa. Northern Mozambique has had turbulent recent history suffering 15 years of civil war and continuing low level violence to this day. Under such conditions, conservation efforts take low priority as people's focus is shifted to the humanitarian crises and day to day survival. Since 2005 Vamizi Island has been managed as an eco-resort focussing on high-end, low-impact tourism and since 2010 the World Wildlife Fund for nature (WWF) has been carrying out research and conservation in the area based from Vamizi. These conservation efforts are crucial considering the various pressures the reefs of Vamizi are likely to face in the 21st century, and in particular the huge oil extraction potential that is just starting to be realised in this area. Good data are now available for this area thanks to the efforts of Vamizi Lodge and WWF, and this is being used to advocate and create dialogue with the oil companies working in the area.
Incredibly diverse coral community at Vamizi Island

Kuramathi Island, Rasdhoo Atoll, Maldives
The Maldives evoke visions of paradise in many people's minds, and as a result these tiny coral islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean receive over 1 million visitors a year, dwarfing the resident population of just 300,000 people. These islands are all small, low lying and remote, formed at the edges of atoll structures, which are built entirely by coral reefs. Catering for all those Western tourists, with their fresh water consumption, food preferences and waste production, on such fragile islands is a major challenge. Hence in the Maldives, the benefits and risks of tourism to the environment need to be carefully balanced. Kuramathi Island, in Rasdhoo atoll, is relatively large island for the Maldives being nearly 2km long and is entirely developed as a resort for approximately 800 guests at any one time. The resort understands the importance of their coral reefs, not only for their guests to enjoy spectacular marine life that the Maldives are so famous for, but also for building the island, which would erode into the sea if it were not for coral growth. The island has an environmental centre, encourages responsible water sports and diving behaviour and works with researchers (including me!) to monitor the health of their reefs.
Typical Maldivian islands, small, low-lying and remote

Pulau Enggano, Sumatra, Indonesia
Located 100km offshore from the mainland of Sumatra, Pulau Enggano is a remote, but relatively large island swathed in rainforest, with a tiny population of just 1500 people. Unlike the other places I have mentioned, it is not a location which receives any tourists, except the odd determined surfer, driven there to surf the perfect barrel waves which crash on the islands continuous fringing reef. People live simply, growing vegetables and fishing what ever they need from the reef. The coral is in good condition, and fish stocks are not being overtly depleted. However, change is coming fast to this region, which will not leave Enggano untouched. Already buyers on the mainland send people out to Enggano to collect rare natural resources, such as saltwater crocodile skins for making bags and boots and sea cucumbers for the Chinese market. Very little is known about the island or its coral reefs, and based on discussions with various people in the area, suggests that I was the first Western researcher to collect data about its reefs. A social enterprise called Innovare have taken interest in this area, exploring the possibility of beginning aquaculture of exportable products, to bring development to this island in a sustainable manner.
My host grandma in Enggano cooking rabbitfish on an open stove
All of these places will use the data I collected during my visits for different purposes, whether that is sustainable tourism in Kuramathi or protecting the national park in Watamu. I have mentioned only 4 locations, all with very different contexts, which I hope gives you an idea of the diversity of situations and solutions in coral reef conservation.

The blog 'Aquatic Primate' is run by marine biologist, Benjamin Cowburn and is currently moonlighting as a platform for stories and media relating to the crowd funding campaign, 'Future for Coral'. Please consider supporting and following this campaign through the following media:
Twitter: @Futureforcoral

Saturday, December 27, 2014

My year of reefs

As New Year approaches we often think about the things that are to come. The things we want to do, the resolutions we want to try and keep (and know we will break!), and, if you are like me, all the work you need to do when you get back from the break! However, I realise I don't often look back and think about what the last year brought. On Christmas day I thought about where I had been on Christmas 2013 and realised that it felt like a decade ago. This year I have packed in more stuff than any other year I think, and in particular I have trekked the globe visiting coral reefs everywhere. 
From September 2013 until November 2014 I dived in Indonesia, Kenya, Mozambique, Thailand, Cornwall, Djibouti, Maldives and Oman. Whether for my own research, working or fun, these places have left a big impression and series of firsts for me that I wanted to share. Hope you enjoy and dream big dreams for your year ahead.

September 2013: Sumatra, Indonesia
Going over to Sumatra for 3 weeks of fieldwork, was not only my first time to Asia, but also my first time to see a coral reef outside of Kenya. Hence, the first 2 years of my marine biology career starting in September 2011, I had only seen Kenyan reefs. I was overwhelmed with the new underwater scenery and dozens of new species. This trip was my first step at building up a mental list of reef condition and character, which I rely on for guiding my research now.   

October 2013: Kuruwitu and Kisite, Kenya
Running up to Christmas 2013 we had an amazing marine team at A Rocha Kenya, with Peter, Doro, Cassie and Hannah. One weekend we decided to drive to the South Coast, and, being the marine nerds we are, went to visit a couple of reefs. On our second day in Kisite, we arrived at the reef early, with no other boats around, got in the water and were quickly surrounded by a pod of friendly dolphins, who swam and played around us for at least 20 minutes. I will never forget making eye contact with a baby dolphin and seeing the recognition in his/her eye as she/he gazed back at me with equal interest. There's a reason that swimming with dolphins is on people's bucket list! We had an incredible weekend of stunning reefs, beautiful scenery and just communing with nature, that made me realise again that I want to spend my whole life discovering the wild places on this planet. 

January: Mount Kenya
My best mate and confident from my time in Kenya, Andrew, was leaving for new pastures in America, so to mark it we decided to climb Mount Kenya, along with Jaap, who was to become my friend over the coming months as he joined the research team in A Rocha. Mountains for me are as alien and frightening as some people find the sea, so to climb this mountain was a massive personal achievement. It was my first (and will be my last!) time to climb above 3000m altitude, feel altitude sickness and see the sun rise at the top of the world.

April: Vamizi, Mozambique
The reefs of Northern Mozambique are supposed to be the best and most diverse in East Africa, and with my imminent migration back to the UK approaching I was desperate to see another African nation, so I arranged some fieldwork on Vamizi Island, where one can find sharks, humphead parrotfish and other rarities. Unfortunately my research schedule was quite crazy and although I did get to see the amazing reefs, I had no time to enjoy them properly or find any of the rare wildlife that inhabits the area. In addition, I saw more extreme poverty, inequality and insecurity when travelling around that area than anywhere else I've been in the world. It is an area ravaged by years of civil war, and now the centre of a messy and incredibly rapid oil extraction development. Mozambique will stay with me as one the most depressing and frightening places I have ever seen and an example of how low people can stoop when there is no justice, sharing of resources or hope.

May: Phuket, Thailand
I was invited to Thailand for a meeting called by the UN Environmental Programme to discuss climate change and coral reefs. This is the topic of my PhD, so I know a thing or two about it, but this was the first time I had been invited to an event of this kind. I was both super excited and super nervous! After the meeting, which was a really stimulating experience, I went diving around the famous limestone islands of Phuket. Most memorable was free diving off Ko Racha Yai, with other delegates Nico and Angie. I saw my first sea snake that day!

June: Yns Mon, Wales
After years of busy summers and living abroad I finally went to my first festival in Angelsey, Wales at the age of 25. It was an absolute blast, with great people, incredible artwork, a lovely beach to chill out on during the day, all under the hot summer solstice sunshine from 4am until 10pm at night! What a great welcome back to the UK. 

July: Land's End, Cornwall
I missed the sea terribly in the first few months back in the UK, so I tried to get to the coast as much as possible. A new friend from Oxford, Mike, had never been down to the South-West, so we drove all the way down to Land's End one weekend, to hike, snorkel and do some filming for my crowd funding campaign (to be launched in Jan 2015!). We managed to find seals and swim with them, which for Mike was not only his first time to see seals in the wild, but also his first time to snorkel! For me it was a great time of reconnecting with the place which inspired me many years ago to do what I do today.

September: Gulf of Tadjoura, Djibouti
Getting back from my summer holidays I was sifting though my email inbox and noticed a message, which was 10 days old, asking if I wanted to go on a field trip to Djibouti, with some other scientists to do a mapping project for the area. I messaged back immediately, but thinking I was far too late at replying. A week later I was on my way to the horn of Africa to survey in this stunning and unusual place. Here in Djibouti I saw reefs that seem largely un-impacted by coral bleaching and the impacts of climate change. The shelves of beautiful table coral descending down the reef will stay in my memory for how stunning healthy reefs can look like.

October: Kuramathi, Maldives
As soon as I got home from one unexpected trip to Djibouti I was invited on another to the Maldives! A contact from Nairobi, Gabe, was now working out there on a marine programme and asked me to come and do some surveys around a resort island. My confidence was massively boosted by these two trips, because for the first time people actually think I'm good at something and want to pay me to do it! Not only this but the Maldives had been a place I was desperate to see for a long time. The reefs were in great condition. On this trip I saw my first grey reef shark, leopard shark, eagle ray, manta ray and dozens of new fish. 

November: Muscat, Oman
To finish off this epic year of travel and amazing experiences I spent a few days in Oman, where my dad was working, on the way back from the Maldives. It was my first time to the Middle East and I was pleasantly surprised how beautiful it was and how friendly the people were. The reefs were quite unique and on land there was a lot of interesting cultural things to explore. It really flew in the face of my expectations of what a newly developed oil nation in that part of the world would look like and just goes to show you can't always judge a book by its cover. 

2015 ...
I don't know exactly what this year will bring. Quite soon I am hoping to launch a crowd funding campaign, to raise money for my research, so stay tuned for this. I am also hoping to finish my PhD and close that chapter on all the work I've been doing for the past few years. Otherwise, if its going to be anything as fun and unexpected as the past year, bring it on!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Microcosm Maldives

Microcosm: A community, place or situation regarded as encapsulating in miniature the characteristic qualities or features of something much larger.

Flying towards Male, the northern atolls of the Maldives came into view out of the window. Brilliant rings of turquoise, painted in elegant brush strokes across the deep smooth blue of the open ocean. The different shades of blue, the lines subtly etched across the reef flats and lagoons, the various shapes formed by wind and tide, each atoll was different and each looked like a piece of artwork or delicate jewellery from the sky. I tried to imagine how the coral that forms these atolls had pushed to the surface spread outward, formed a lagoon and then would eventually break apart under erosion to form a new atoll from some patch remaining in the sunlit zone. Over the millenia I imagined the surface bubbling with these amazing structures ever moving and incredibly alive. Every single atoll below was a teeming hub of life, consisting of millions of individuals of sea creatures adorned in colourful tropical glory.
I had been wanting to visit the Maldives for a long time and see the largest coral reef system in the Indian Ocean. My excitement was pretty peaked as we got closer to landing. As the plane got lower I started to notice land for the first time. Tiny, infinitesimal specks of coral rubble, that had just about grown a bit of vegetation. Could this really be what an entire country lived on? Landing on Hulamale, the airport island next to Male, it was immediately obvious how this 'land' was a mere metre or so above the waves that crashed onto the manmade seawalls and, to me, felt very ephemeral.
After a brief turn around in Male, I headed out to Kuramathi, the resort island where I was going to do the research. The purpose of the trip was to assess the health of the coral reefs around the island and investigate how the hotel might be affecting the reefs, but also how they could help manage the reefs. Its an idea that is well placed in the Maldives, where resorts cover entire islands and therefore have a high level of control and a high level of direct benefit from their reefs. With nothing much else for their customers to do other than snorkel and dive, the health of their reef directly feeds back into their visitor satisfaction and their income.
As soon as I'd put my bags down I went straight out of my room and swam out from the beach to the reef crest, just 100m offshore. The reef slope dropped steeply, to depths that I couldn't tell, and with the sparkling clear waters of the central Indian Ocean below me, it really gave a sense of vertigo and again how this 'land' is perched precariously in the middle of the deep blue ocean. I did a few free dives down the wall checking out this new reef system I would be surveying over the next few days, and on one of my ascents a Blacktip Reef Shark swam straight in front of my face. It was a magnificent encounter. Over the coming weeks I saw four species of shark, tuna, huge grouper, eagle rays and one manta ray, all marine mega-fauna which are missing from almost everywhere else these days. The reefs were in really good condition, mostly due to the fact that these reef systems are too huge and the population too tiny to really trash them. In addition the Maldives recognise that the majority of their income comes from their healthy reefs and amazing marine life, so there is quite a lot of support for marine conservation. Of course this doesn't mean the Maldives are completely safe from the ravages of humanity, but of everywhere I've seen they seem one of the most hopeful situations.
However, back on the island the nature of resort made me feel less hopeful for the future. 800 guests are waited on by approximately 600 staff on a one mile sand spit, which has had every corner of it converted into a massive pleasure garden for people to come and enjoy every modern luxury and convenience. Every guest, and to a lesser extent every staff member, on the island is showering, eating, using the toilet, charging appliances etc etc etc. all in the middle of the ocean. All of this food, water, energy and waste must be imported, produced or processed at great expense, both monetarily and in terms of resources.
The use of islands as microcosms for wider society is nothing new of course. And I should say at this point that the resort is genuinely trying its best to do things as sustainably as possible. I just think that the nature of the resort exemplifies for me for some of the worst indulgences of modern society. Too many people using too many resources in place not naturally equipped to sustain it, and for what purpose? So people can lie in the sun, drink and read books. Is it really worth it? And on a another level, one group of people living with every luxury, which is only possible because they are supported by another group who toil in the background to sustain it. I don't want to induce a massive guilt trip or condemn anyone with these comments, and I completely understand why people want this kind of thing. But being on such a small island its hard to ignore the reality of how this situation is maintained. At least it was for me.
On the way back to Male we passed Thirifushi, the landfill island. Most of the waste from Male and other nearby islands is shipped here and simply dumped onto this artificial island. The rubbish mountain is permanently smouldering and sending a devilish black cloud into the sky. As we passed it on the boat, some dolphins were spotted on the other side, which gave the tourists heading back home that day a last taste of Maldivian paradise.
Leopard Shark - Maldivian megafauna

Health fish populations - Large shoal of humpback snapper

View of Kuramathi from the reef

Section of reef flat in great condition

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

New experiences in Djibouti

My name is Benjo. I am English, 25 years old and a marine biologist. This is a blog about my wandering and wonderings about the world and particularly the wetter parts. I am lucky enough to have travelled to a number of places, diving on a variety of coral reefs and hanging out with a variety of different people in the process. Since the last chapter in my life came to a close recently in Kenya (see, I have begun to spread my wings even more and it seems like I am on the cusp of lots of exciting things to come. During this blog I will try and bring you stories from interesting places, a flavour of the people and landscapes and discuss some of the forces at work influencing our oceans and the life around them.  
            This first journey, I’ll take you to Djibouti, a tiny desert nation on the East Coast of Africa. I found out about going there just two weeks before setting off. There was a project, working with IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) for which they needed a dive buddy and research assistant. My supervisor Alex suggested me to Rebecca, the lady organising part of the expedition, I sent my CV to her and half an hour later I got a phone call to say I was going! As she described the expedition to me I discovered that two other people on the project were colleagues from Kenya, including David, who is on my PhD advisory committee. Turns out it is a small world, when you’re an Indian Ocean coral reef biologist.
            Djibouti is located in one of the most politically unstable areas in the world, with Somalia to the south, Yemen to the East and the waters off from it are prime spots for piracy. My primary concern was about my safety at sea, as the project was going to be based on a live-aboard boat. Most people I told were more concerned about ebola, but no, in fact the UK is technically closer to the ebola outbreak as the crow flies than Djibouti. David and Rebecca ensured me it was perfectly safe and on arrival in Djibouti I was amazed by the enormous international military presence in the country, with Americans, French, German, Japanese and several other nations all being represented in this little known, but strategically placed country.
            The project in Djibouti is centred around identifying and mapping the wildlife of the country with a focus on wildlife-based enterprise for Djiboutians to make sustainable income from their marine resources. Our expedition was to spend two weeks in the Gulf of Tadjoura mapping and recording the biodiversity of the reefs on this section of the Great Rift Valley where this chasm cutting across Africa meets the Indian Ocean. Aboard the good ship Deli we set off following the coastline, mapping the reefs, making species lists and collecting key data about the ecology of the area.
            For me this trip was the first high-level research expedition I had ever been invited on, and I was so really enthused to be invited to work at that level. It was also especially nice to get back in the water and be hanging around East Africans again. However, after the first couple of days the heat began to sap me. Afternoon temperatures could be well over body temperature and into the 40s, and living on a boat without air conditioning all you could do to cool down was jump in the sea. Data entry would often take all evening and periodically people would stand up from their computers when the heat got too much and without warning leap off the boat. A mid-expedition stop over in an air-conditioned hotel was heaven and necessary to keep out brains from boiling!
            Much of the coastline we surveyed was completely uninhabited, with dramatic cliffs and lava flows, especially toward the end of the gulf, where the forces pulling the African and Somali plates are ripping the land apart. There is a small inland sea, called the Ghoubet, connected to the main gulf by only 500m or so of water, which had the most dramatic scenery both above and below water. Dramatic cliffs plunged into the sea, and continued as vertical walls into the abyss, along with unusual ‘reefs’ which were little more than corals growing on the black lava rock underneath. The best day diving we did was at the tip of the Ghoubet where one can actually dive the crack between the two plates. We descended down between the two vertical walls, with only 2-3m between them, swimming through tunnels and seeing the sunshine streaming down through gaps above. Absolutely amazing.
            In general I was very impressed by how healthy the marine life was. Most reefs were teeming with inquisitive grouper and large numbers of parrotfish and surgeonfish, all types of fish that are sensitive to overfishing. In addition the coral cover was extremely high and I had never seen such large or dominant table corals, some up to 4m across. David told me how when he began his research in the late 1980s, these sensitive corals were seen in many parts of the Indian Ocean, but the combination of climate change and other local human impacts had wiped out most of these giants. It was really great to get a feel for how reefs should look and see them with so little human impact.
I had also never been in an area of sea with quite so many jumping things! We would regularly see shoals of flying fish all break for the surface simultaneously, bait ball boiling the surface, a few sportfish, such as sailfish leaping into the air and once, a flying squid (I kid you not! Genuinely happened). So prolific were flying sea creatures that after a dive my dive buddy, Candace, was hit in the face by a needlefish!

The trip to Djibouti was filled with so many unexpected experiences, the extreme heat, Martian desert landscape, and just crazy marine life. It just goes to show how much there is to see in this world. I definitely rediscovered my travel bug! Next stop, the Maldives…

The Crew
Morning in the Ghoubet
Me on Mars

The Crack!

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