Saturday, July 2, 2016

Week 3 of my Marine Biology Internship!

Hi again - Dylan here!

My third week was just as action packed as the last two, with plenty of in-water activities to keep us busy! We focused on underwater surveys this week, which included a few SharkWatch and TurtleWatch dives, of course plenty of those amazing Manta dives, as well as continuing our coral bleaching surveys, and implementing a new project looking at Crown of Thorns Starfish behaviour. We used a range of different techniques as each survey is assessing totally different aspects of the reef and the creatures that inhabit it. Ecological monitoring is an important tool in science. It allows us to take a snapshot and quantify what is currently in a system, to monitor any changes over time, and to compare different sites. 

SharkWatch is a Citizen Science project where dive operators from around the Maldives submit their species sightings to the central Marine Research Centre based in Male. For me, it meant I got to go on several dives to help the dive guides collect the data. For the guides it can be difficult to look after a guest and simultaneously remember how many of which species they saw, especially when we can see up to 30 white tips and 20 black tips on one dive! So it was my job to go along to quantify their sightings! This data helps inform policy regarding the protection of shark species, as we track if the shark populations are increasing or decreasing following the shark fishing ban in 2010. So far it has been noted that all shark species sightings are on the increase in Maldives - great news for a healthy system! 
The Manta Point is full of white tip reef sharks. We counted 12 on one dive!
Left ID shot of a friendly Hawksbill
The right side of the same turtle
TurtleWatch is a similar project, but with an added aspect of photographic identification!
The scales on the faces of each turtle are unique like finger prints, allowing us to tell the difference between individual turtles on the reef. We managed to spot some golden oldies who were ID'd years ago, like Pippin at the Manta Point (She zooms around the cleaning station pretending to be a Manta..), but we also managed to capture some new faces, which was pretty cool - I'm keen to name one Dylan! T
he aim of this project is to determine the demographics of the sea turtle population in Maldives. We collect data on the species, sex, carapace (shell) length, any injuries, and also take photo ID's of the facial scutes. This project also helps inform policy. Turtles in Maldives have been protected since 2005 by a 10 year moratorium. In 2016, this policy needed renewing and our data from TurtleWatch was used to ensure a new poaching ban was imposed for the next 10 years. The project also includes data collection on turtle nests, which enforced a new ban to protect turtle eggs in the Maldives too!  
This juvenile Green turtle would sit in the same spot every day!
I learned to take any opportunity for data collection as the beautiful Green turtle photographed above was ID'd during an entirely separate survey dive: BleachWatch. BleachWatch is a project that was implemented in March 2016 to assess the mass bleaching of corals caused by the El Nino weather event on the reefs surrounding Gili Lankanfushi. We surveyed permanent monitoring sites at two different depths using belt transect methodology. In March this allowed us to gain a snapshot of the original health of our reef, and over time it has helped us gain information on how coral colonies reacted to the temperature increase, allowing us to map bleaching and mortality of different species at each depth.
One of my jobs was to lay the 100m transect - that's a lot of swimming!
Using similar methods, I was excited to be involved with implementing a new project on our house reef regarding the behaviour of the Crown of Thorns Starfish (Acanthaster planci). This species occurs naturally in Maldives however, recently we have been seeing outbreak populations which can decimate reefs by eating the corals. Debs tells me that they have removed over 2000 individuals from the surrounding reefs in about 8 months! These starfish can be quite cryptic- hiding in crevices in the reef- making it difficult to remove them. It was our aim to discover how the starfish act during different times of the day at different depths, thus allowing us to determine the most efficient time and depth to begin our next set of removal efforts! During one of our survey dives, a friendly eagle ray came to inspect our transect tape! It was amazing to witness this bizarre behaviour as she flew in from the blue, right towards me!!
I had to stop my survey for a second because of this amazing encounter!
So all in all, I had a busy week of diving; surveying coral health and taking photos of amazing mega fauna for ID purposes! With just a few days left on Lankanfushi, I'll be sure to miss island life! Stay tuned for my final post summarizing the highlights of my final week here!

Best fishes,
Dylan

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Week 2/4 as the Marine biology intern.

Hi there! So after my action packed first week that included learning about  El Nino's effects, relocating slow growing coral, removing crown of thorns star fish and the arrival of the manta rays I didn't think things could get much better; how wrong I was! Since then I have been lucky enough to have more incredible manta encounters, rescue a female Hawksbill turtle, partake in our world oceans day activities and conduct growth surveys of the coral lines.


If you look closely there are 7 Mantas in this shot!
Debs and I accompanied some guests on a dive to Lankan Beyru with the intention of seeing some Mantas at the cleaning station, giving me the opportunity to hone my ID photography skills. Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come on the dive! As soon as we descended onto the cleaning station there were a couple of Mantas making use of the station, a good start! Then came another group of 5 mantas, meaning there were approximately 7 mantas all around us on the station. They hung around for a while, allowing me to witness some interesting behavior as well as get some of those all important ID shots! Then as this group moved on, another group of 3 or 4 moved on to the station, and we managed to ID these individuals too! Once back at the desk we were able to sort the Manta photos, which revealed 11 individual Manta rays! 4 of these were on our database, the remaining 7 were ID'd by the manta trust. Interestingly the vast majority of the mantas we saw were females, with only 1 male manta being spotted. What an amazing experience!


Helping the turtle onto the pontoon.
One sunny afternoon a female Hawksbill turtle was spotted in our lagoon that was noted to be behaving unusually, and did not seem to be able to dive beneath the surface. We realised she was in trouble and jumped into the water to try and assist her. She still had some fight left in her and on our approach made an effort to dive away but unfortunately her condition was such that she was unable to move very far at all. She swam in my direction and I was able to take hold of her at the top and bottom of her carapace (shell). We lifted her out of the ocean onto the pontoon where we made the decision to take her to the Four Seasons turtle center immediately. Once she arrived she was giving a dextrose solution to bring her blood sugar levels back up and initially appeared to perk up, however after a day or so it became apparent that there was an underlying problem, and unfortunately she died. During her postmortem examination, several pieces of plastic were found in her digestive tract as well as growths on her liver. This explained her buoyancy issues as well as her low blood sugar levels. This turtles story was by no means unique and really highlighted to me the impacts that plastics have in our oceans.


Fragmenting a colony for a coral line.
World Oceans Day fell on the 8th of June which luckily coincided with my internship here on Gili Lankanfushi. In preparation for the day Josie and I retrieved two metal frames using a lift bag from the one palm island reef that were no longer needed due to the fact that the coral on them had died during the El Nino. These frames were then taken to our
World Oceans Day stall where guests were able to attach new healthy colonies to the frames using a range of species of coral that we had collected from Himmafushi the previous week. In addition to this we also made a pair of coral lines with the help of some eager guests. We chose to use the Stylophora pistillata species of coral due to its fast growing nature as well as the fact that its structure is well suited to the lines. All in all it was a great experience and I'm enjoying having the chance to share what little knowledge I have on corals and our oceans!



Me and Debs measuring coral.
Finally, in the last couple of weeks I have been lucky enough to go on a number of Coral Lines dives in which we have measured the growth rates of the coral colonies on the lines as well as cleaned algae from the lines them selves. In order to measure the colonies we use calipers aligning them with the widest points of the coral and taking down the reading. It was interesting to see just how large some of the colonies had grown as well as seeing how different species grow at different rates. It was also a good chance for me to practice my buoyancy whilst diving, a skill that could always do with working on!

Best fishes,

Dylan.



       

Sunday, June 5, 2016

My first week as the Marine Biologist Intern!

Hi, I'm Dylan, the new Marine Biology intern! 
I'm 19 years old from Wales and will be starting a BSc in Marine Biology at Exeter University this September. I've taken a year out of study to learn more about marine ecosystems around the world, and so far I have been lucky enough to dive in the Mediterranean and visit Indonesia where I dived around Bali! I'm going to be based here at Gili Lankanfushi for 1 month before heading off to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia! I will be writing a weekly blog during my stay at Gili, so stay tuned to find out what I'm getting up to! 


Credit: Hannah Govan
Coral Bleaching is evident on most reefs
During my first week I've had the opportunity to work on a range of interesting and meaningful projects, as I have arrived during an interesting period for the reefs around Gili Lankanfushi! The Resident Biologists have been busy with the ongoing El Nino induced coral bleaching event; the land reclamation that is happening on Himmafushi (a nearby local island), Crown of Thorns Starfish (CoTS) removal, and the arrival of the Manta rays!

The El Nino event is now coming to an end with temperatures beginning to come down after an extended period of warming. However, the effects of the warming is clear to see on both the reefs and the Coral Lines Project, which are showing wide scale bleaching and some mortality. One of my jobs is to log temperature data in the Divestat database, which can give us clues to temperature's effect on mega fauna sightings. It is good to see a recent decrease during dives at different sites from around 30°C to 29°C. We are waiting for temperatures to return to a more normal level before moving some of the Coral Lines out onto the reef, which I hope to be a part of!


We chose the valuable slow growing species to relocate
Meanwhile, on a nearby local island, an area of 22 hectares is being reclaimed to build houses for the locals. The region in which the land reclamation is happening is home to an established coral reef system which will unfortunately be lost in the reclamation process. In an attempt to preserve some of the older coral that is not showing signs of bleaching we have been transporting bleach resistant colonies by hand to the Coral Lines Project site with the aim of relocating them onto our house reef. Hard work but definitely worth while! It seems I have become a pro with a chisel!


I saw Mantas in Bali, but this is something else!!
Finally, there has been the arrival of the Manta rays! While returning from a snorkeling trip to Bandos reef we stopped at Sunlight Thila, which is a known Manta ray cleaning station. There were 6 Mantas all making use of the cleaning station! Unfortunately we were unable to take any ID photographs of Manta bellies as we were only in snorkeling gear and the Mantas were down at 15 meters! My first Manta survey dive had us circled by 6 different individual rays, and today I hope for the same as I head on my second Manta survey dive! The Manta season on the East of the atoll  has definitely kicked off strongly, with the Gili Lankanfushi Manta ray count being 50 at the time of writing - 12 were my sightings ;) 

In summary, I have had a great first week, working on a variety of interesting and exciting things from research based activities such as logging data in the Divestat database and survey diving, conservation based activities with the transport of coral from Himmafushi to Gili as well as the removal of CoTS, and finally just enjoyable things like seeing Mantas. It has been great and I am excited to find out what the coming weeks have in store! 

Best fishes,
Dylan

Friday, June 3, 2016

Here Manta, Manta, Manta!

One of our old favourites - 'Atlanta' comes to clean!
It is with great pleasure that I announce the Manta Season has officially begun at Gili Lankanfushi! Despite being quite early this year, we have already had some fantastic sightings. In less than 2 weeks alone we have had over 50 sightings of these majestic creatures (and it’s showing no sign of slowing down)!

At Gili Lankanfushi we always strive to keep the lowest possible diver to guide ratio; it is very uncommon that we have more than 2 divers per guide. The major benefit of this is that our small groups will have little to no effect of the Manta Rays’ natural behaviour, thus creating some truly sensational encounters. Nothing quite beats the feeling of having to duck out of the way of these gentle ocean giants! In collaboration with the Manta Trust, we have been sending our precious identification belly photographs and have already started to welcome back some old favourites from last season!
When snorkeling or diving with Mantas we encourage environmental awareness and remind our guests never to touch or chase these vulnerable animals, and to always stay 3m from the cleaning station to enable the Mantas to get their daily clean without disturbance.

Pickle's shark bite is healing well- good to see her again this year!
See you soon!
Jon