An update from the team behind Four Seasons pioneering marine conservation projects
Our wildlife conservation projects are run from two Marine Discovery Centres by a team of ten full-time marine biologists, ably assisted by interns, apprentices and eco-volunteers.
We took a moment to catch up with Thomas, along with Alejandra Carvallo Carrera, Assistant Manager of Kuda Huraa’s Marine Discovery Centre, and Carla Di Santo – who runs Landaa Giraavaru’s Fish Lab – to get the latest news from two of the Indian Ocean’s leading research and conservation institutions.
Thomas, how did it all begin?
Kuda Huraa first reached out to me in the early 2000s about beach protection; at the time, the reef was in bad shape after the 1997-1998 El Niño related bleaching event. Kuda Huraa was already experimenting with a reef ball project (to grow coral on cement balls) but we got involved to help obtain the necessary government approvals and take the project to the next level.
What were your expectations at the time?
At the time, coral propagation and artificial reefs were not popular among marine conservationists. I had read a lot of scientific literature that suggested it was not possible, and despite initial struggles with the reef balls, coral gradually began to grow. I became convinced that this could work and experimented further, refining lighter iron structures, which evolved into our present coral frames.
How has the Reefscapers project evolved?
The project is now one of the most successful of its kind in the world and includes the Indian Ocean’s largest mass of artificial reef structures. A major focus continues to be the impact of climate change on our reefs, which is often overlooked. The bleaching caused by El Niño events in 2016 and 1998 are an important reminder of how quickly corals can be destroyed and we’re constantly working on new ways to strengthen the artificial reefs so they are able to withstand a future bleaching event, including techniques like shading.
What new projects and experiments is your team currently working on?
Thanks to generous donations from guests and friends of Four Seasons we’ve recently been able to start work on a new sea-based pool for our resident sea turtles at Kuda Huraa, allowing them to experience a more challenging environment prior to release.
These pools will become the perfect ‘halfway house’ for our long-term residents, giving them the opportunity to explore a larger area and to dip, dive and build strength before they’re released. Some of our turtles have been severely injured and will remain with us permanently, so the new pools will provide a more open environment for them too.
Alejandra, you’re the Assistant Manager at Kuda Huraa’s Marine Discovery Centre. What other new projects can you update us on?
One of the new projects we are working on is the Dolphin ID project. We go out with guests four times a week and take pictures of dolphins to get an idea of the population in North Male Atoll, as well as an estimate of the abundance and variety of marine mammals, including spinner and bottlenose dolphins, short fin pilot whales and false killer whales. This project started in May in Kuda Huraa but it was first introduced in Landaa. The aim is to combine the information of Baa Atoll with North Male Atoll to start building a marine mammal population map.
We have also introduced the ‘Project Morpho’ to our ‘Head start’ Turtle program to determine whether we can record the facial pattern of turtles throughout their life, from hatchlings to adults. If we can start ID-ing hatchlings, we would be able to store data on each individual turtle that passes by the MDC. If turtles that we have released come back for rehabilitation purposes or touch our shores again, we could potentially be able to tap into an invaluable database of information on that same turtle.
In addition to developing our turtle pool facilities, we are also looking into prosthetics options for resident turtles to ease their rehabilitation and their admission into overseas aquariums (our Flying Turtles initiative), if they are not viable for release back into the wild.
Looking a little further ahead, we’d like to expand our knowledge of the mega fauna beyond Baa Atoll and North Male Atoll, and expand our network of Maldives-based marine biologists to be able to access data from atolls we cannot reach.
Carla, you’re currently running Landaa’s Fish Lab. What’s the future of this project?
One of the main priorities is to teach aquaculture to local Maldivians. All our apprentices learn essential fish breeding techniques and this equips them with the knowledge to replicate this in the future and establish new projects to avert the reduction of fish stocks.
Why is breeding clownfish important?
The Maldivian clownfish is unique to this destination so more vulnerable to extinction; if its habitat disappears due to coral and anemone bleaching, its survival is at risk. We have started mapping the Baa Atoll anemone population and plan to release more around the island in underwater gardens. Once the anemone has attached, we will release Maldivian clownfish from our Lab to increase the wild population.
What else are you focusing on in the Fish Lab?
We also have a Clark’s anemone fish breeding program, designed to support eco-label aquarium trade by selling fish to selected buyers adopting strict sustainability standards. The aim is to stop traders taking fish out of the ocean irresponsibly to sell to aquariums.
All donations made to Four Seasons Marine Savers team go directly towards supporting some of the Indian Ocean’s most pioneering conservation projects. For more information, please visit www.marinesavers.com.
The Marine Discovery Centre at Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru is also the main base for the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, the founding project of the Manta Trust, which has grown to become the world’s leading manta ray charity. In our next newsletter, we’ll reveal how it all began at Landaa Giraavaru. Watch this space!
More posts from August 2018