Friday, August 22, 2014

New Dolphin Watching Code of Conduct

Unknown to most, the Maldives is actually one of the best places in the world to come whale and dolphin watching, with 23 different species of Cetacean (the scientific Order containing dolphins, porpoises, and whales). That’s more than a quarter of the Worlds species! The deep channels between atolls are used as a ‘whale highway’ during migrations from breeding to feeding grounds for many oceanic whale species, and Maldives is even home to the largest animal on our planet, the Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus)! These deep channels are only really accessible to safari vessels, so here at the resort we focus in the smaller, but no less spectacular, shoreline associated species; the most common of which is our Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris).

A small species of dolphin at only 2.2m,
Spinners have a long nose and a light grey racing stripe
Characterized by a long beak or rostrum (their name in Latin literally means "long nose") with a light grey stripe down the side of their body, Spinners are famous for their incredible acrobatic behaviour. The Spinners leap from the water and rotate on a longitudinal axis. The record number of spins is 7 in 1 jump, and it is this behaviour that leaves our guests in awe of the dolphins' aerobatic beauty and strength. Through years of observation, the Maldivian people have recognized patterns in the dolphins' daily behaviour and can predict where the dolphins will be, depending on the time of day, which is what has made dolphin watching cruises throughout Maldives so successful. We can almost guarantee Spinner Dolphin sightings on a daily basis. As scientists, we have studied these bahavioural cycles closely and though our careful observations we know exactly what the dolphins are doing and why. So what have we found out?

Let's take a look at a day in the life of a Maldivian Spinner Dolphin:

As the sun begins to set and darkness falls, one of the World's most impressive migrations begins: plankton begins to rise from the abyssal depths of 2000m to around 200m. This diurnal vertical migration brings with it mesopelagic fish and squid from the depths which feast on the plankton. It's at this time, when these riches come within reach, that the dolphins split into small groups called sub-units and begin to hunt. Spinners can dive to depths of around 300m and hold their breath for approximately 10 minutes, whilst communicating with the rest of the pod using high frequency whistles. Using echolocation, the dolphins can scan the darkness and create a mental image of their surroundings using sound. Dawn is a time for play as the dolphin sub-units reunite in the channels between the islands and head inside the shallow atoll to rest in safety. Breathing becomes synchronized and more frequent as the dolphins drift into a state of sleep. As conscious breathers, dolphins cannot go to sleep completely as they would drown, so they exhibit something called uni-hemispherical sleep, which is where one side of the brain is shut down whilst the other half is awake, watching for predators such as sharks and regulating breathing. During the day they alternate the sleeping side of their brain and wake up refreshed in the evening, ready for the nights hunt.

The resorts have harnessed this in-depth knowledge of dolphin behavioural ecology to combine our dolphin cruise with the sunset, as the dolphins are most active at this time and we can predict their presence just outside the atoll. Many dolphin criuses will operate at the same time of day due to these reasons, and therefore create a disturbance to the dolphin populations. Boat disturbance is now thought to be the biggest threat to dolphin populations in Maldives. Too much boat interference can cause disruption of natural breathing and feeding cycles, whilst irresponsible and reckless boat movement can cause panic induced stress, separation of mothers and calves, and even death by collisions.

Code Of Conduct
Due to these threats and our intricate knowledge of their immense intelligence and complex ecology, a code of conduct was developed. This set of rules was developed by the resident marine biologist at Six Senses Laamu Resort, and we at Gili have also put it in place for our boat crews to follow so that we can minimize our disturbance to the local Spinner population. All of our boat captains and crew have under gone training so they not only know the code of conduct and how to effectively implement it, but they also have an in-depth knowledge of dolphin biology and behavioural ecology which helps in understanding why we implement these rules. The code includes not going too fast when in the dolphins vicinity, and not rapidly changing speed and direction so as to reduce chance of collision and reduce engine noise and vibration. Not approaching directly from in front or behind the pod and converging onto prevents the feeling of being chased, gives dolphins the choice of coming to  bow-ride, but instead converging onto their direction of travel, allowing the dolphins the choice of whether or not to come to us, avoiding chasing and splitting the pod. The more resorts who take this code of conduct on board, the more effective our efforts will be to safeguard the dolphin watching industry for future generations!

A juvenile Spinner Dolphin entertains guests whilst a pod of 50 surrounds the boat!
Alongside this eco-friendly initiative, one of our resident marine biologists is present on the cruise 4 times per week, offering a short presentation explaining a little about the life of the dolphins and why we input our code of conduct. So far, this has been received extremely well by the guests who relish the opportunity to ask the marine biologist questions about these beautiful animals whilst they sip champagne and observe incredible acrobatics on an eco-friendly cruise.

Monday, July 7, 2014

World Oceans Day 2014!

World Oceans Day on June 8th is an annual event to celebrate the World's oceans, and to show our appreciation for the goods and services the ocean provides such as seafood, medicines, trade routes, and economic revenue. It’s also a day for education; to spread awareness of conservation issues and protect these goods and services we often take for granted. At Gili Lankanfushi, I put together a program for the day, which all guests were invited to join in on. 

 All day, from 8am until 5pm guests were encouraged to come down and try out some of our exciting water sports! Kayaks, windsurfers, and paddle boards criss-crossed our lagoon throughout the day. 

The morning was filled by Marine Biologist guided snorkeling of our One Palm Island reef which included a short presentation about the fishes we were likely to see! On these reef tours, I am usually able to point out lots of cryptic reef critters our guests have never seen before, and today was no exception! We were even lucky enough to spot two green turtles during our snorkel!

Our Ocean Paradise Dive School held a Discover SCUBA Dive session in our pool for any guests interested, which was followed by a special presentation "Rainforests of the sea" delivered by myself at our Over Water Bar. The presentation covered biodiversity of reef systems, including a short snorkelers guide on the animals on our reef! We also discussed climate change and the impacts it could have on reef ecology, and how we might be able to mitigate these effects.

Our guests were given the opportunity to taste the goods of the ocean with our ocean inspired dinner menu developed by Executive Chef John Bakker at our By The Sea restaurant, which was comprised of sustainably caught seafood bought from local fishermen who use hand lining techniques which allows for very selective fishing and no by-catch! 

Finally, to round off our action packed day of ocean appreciation, underwater themed movie 'The Big Blue' was screened at Horizon Beach under the stars!

This World Oceans Day was a great success. But here at Gili, our many eco initiatives help us to conserve and protect the ocean all year round, improving our surrounding environment and allowing for incredible natural experiences! We try to make each and every day as exciting as the next when it comes to celebrating our Indian Ocean! 

Gili Identifies a New Manta Ray!

One of the main reasons guests come to the Maldives is to swim, snorkel & dive the azure blue Indian Ocean on one of the many farus, thilas, giris or channel reefs. Home to approximately 1100 species of fish and an even greater number of invertebrate species, coral reefs are the densest ecosystems on the planet in terms of biodiversity! Despite this huge range of creatures, Maldives has a few big ocean dwellers which, for snorkelers and divers, are a must-see, and are part of the reason Maldives offers world class diving and snorkeling experiences! Among these creatures is the reef manta ray (Manta alfredi). Maldives is home to the largest known population of Manta in the world, and their distribution is strongly linked to food availability (zooplankton), which is in turn dictated by the monsoonal currents. Manta season for Gili Lankanfushi runs from June through until November, due to the Hulhangu (wet season) monsoonal currents which flush huge abundances of plankton to the Eastern side of the atoll. During Iruvai (dry season), the Mantas will migrate to the Western side of the atoll, or possibly to another atoll altogether. This being the case, Gili Lankanfushi, our dive school Ocean Paradise, and several lucky guests have spotted some of these gentle giants during the season so far at our house reef; as well as a cleaning station outside Paradise Island we call Lankan Corner; Bogy faru by Himmafushi; Sunlight Thila dive site; and even in our own lagoon next to the arrival jetty!

Working closely with the Manta Trust, Vaidas and I work hard to photographically track the Manta rays we spot. We do this by taking photographs of the ventral side (belly), upon which is a black spot pattern unique to each individual, like a finger print. By comparing our image to the National Database of 3350 mantas, we can determine and track the migrations and health of each individual in the Maldives. We try to encourage guests to help us out, and this month we have had several guests kindly donate IDs from their dives!

 Occasionally we come across a Manta which has never been ID’d before, as was the case last week during one of our group boat snorkels. First spotted by the boat crew, snorkel guide Nappe quickly ushered our guests over to the area where the manta was feeding! It swooped around us for almost 20 minutes before it was time to move on. One swift duck dive, and I managed to capture the mantas underside, which I later sent to the Manta Trust for confirmation that it was in fact a new Manta, which we were able to name! We would like to welcome ‘Nappe’ the Manta to the North Male area! We hope to spot her again soon as we continue to unravel the mysteries of manta ecology!

Our thanks go to the team at the Manta Trust!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

No longer a one-man team: Marine Biology at Gili Lankanfushi has just got better and stronger!

Since early 2012, when Gili employed the first marine biologist, we have achieved a lot; from launching simple guest awareness programs (briefings, presentations, snorkels, posters, underwater world blog, the book ‘Living Life The Gili Way’, organising reef cleanups, and special events), to creating codes of conduct and carrying out staff training,  all the way to conservation efforts e.g. rescuing 9 turtles, working on a long term beach management solution, and making contributions to national and international projects such as Sharkwatch, Manta Trust, Olive Ridley Project, Project Aware.  

Finally, in 2014 we launched our non-profit making, grand-master-plan “Coral Lines”,  in order to grow large amounts of coral, and make a contribution to reef rehabilitation science. With the introduction of Coral Lines, we were in dire need of a helping hand, and we also felt that the project would provide an opportunity for a marine biologist who wanted to carry out research in the field of reef rehabilitation science.  Therefore, we advertised for a volunteer to join us…

It with pleasure that we introduce you to our new team member: Deborah Burn (Debs –as she prefers to be known), our Volunteer Marine Biologist. Debs holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Biology from Newcastle University in UK and she comes to us with recent experience working as a Science officer at Korallion Lab in Lhaviyani Atoll, Maldives, as well as having carried out coral disease research in Venezuela. Because Debs worked in the Maldives before, she knows a few words of the local language (Dhivehi) and gets along with the team extremely well. Debs is here primarily to work on the Coral Lines project, carry out research and help with our guest awareness programmes. 
Here’s a message from Debs:

 “I’ve really enjoyed my first month here getting to know the role and the resort, and I’m excited to work on a project like Coral Lines, which is showing real promise as both a research opportunity and a great guest experience!”

While I (Vaidas) was away for most of June, Debs temporarily took care of the Marine Biology operation here at Gili, and has done a great job – she even organized World Oceans Day 2014. She has also written up some cracking articles for June that we will be posting later, as we are currently setting Debs up with our blogger platform – no need to get confused.