The Island Resort of Landaa Giraavaru
The island resort of Landaa Giraavaru (Baa Atoll, Maldives) is so named because of the currents that move sand from the southern to the northern side of the island. Part of the name ‘Landaa Giraavaru’ translates literally to ‘moving sand’ in Dhivehi – the local language of the Maldives. As an intern at Marine Savers I spent my three months on this beautiful island of moving sand.
During my internship, I had the opportunity to work on Marine Savers’ two main programmes, sea turtle conservation and coral propagation. Additionally, a large part of my job was interacting with guests at the Marine Discovery Centre (MDC), giving presentations and leading guest excursions to increase the understanding of the marine world and the threats it is facing. Over my three months here, I have come into contact with a lot of interesting animals, both on the land and in the water, that have all combined to make a truly great learning experience in an amazing place. Allow me to introduce you to some of the fascinating creatures in and around Landaa Giraavaru …
The Sea Turtles
With an abundance of sea turtles around, it is hard to choose a favourite. During my internship, occupancy at the turtle rehabilitation centre fluctuated between 5 and 7 rescue animals. While Hawksbills and Green turtles are a common sight around the reefs, most of our patients were Olive Ridley turtles as this species lives further out in the open ocean, and so is at higher risk of entanglement in ghost nets (discarded and drifting fishing nets). Sea turtles often mistake ghost nets for floating beds of seaweed, and actively try to swim into the floating mass (a behaviour seen whilst vacuuming the pools, as the resident turtles snuggle up to the vacuum hose, thereby making my job very tricky!)
Hands down the best days of my internship were when we were able to release a rehabilitated and healthy sea turtle back into the ocean. I was lucky enough to witness and document the releases of TG and Sawan (aka Lambert) as well as an unnamed turtle that was spotted mid-ocean and cut free from a ghost net. However, I have a soft spot for Tora, the wild female Hawksbill who frequents one of our snorkel sites at Dhonfanu reef.
Seamarc maintains an extensive database of sea turtles sighted and photographed around the Maldives, to increase our knowledge about population sizes, distribution and growth of these endangered species. Each turtle is identified by the pattern of scutes (scales) on the sides of the face, and then given a unique code and name. Code making is done by eye, but is not an exact science as two people could easily generate different codes for the same turtle. I used some of my free time to try and find a software application that could help with this code generation and reduce the likelihood of error. A software package known as ‘i3S’ is used for whale sharks, where the spot patterns of an animal help to identify individuals. It was not previously used for turtles as the pattern of scutes in turtles is less obvious than spots on a whale shark. A recently updated version (‘i3S Pattern’) can be used for animals like turtles with markings that are hard to annotate. After spending some time tinkering with the software, I was able to correctly identify Tora (‘HK47’) followed by many others in the database.
Towards the end of my internship, the main database at Kuda Huraa was being reconfigured so I was only able to test the software on the subset of turtles seen around Landaa. Hence, I’m not sure how the software would cope if applied to the whole database, and whether the large number of images would affect the speed/error rate of the software. There will be some kinks to resolve, but I’m hopeful that Seamarc will be able to adopt this software for its turtle monitoring database.
The Sea Hares
Usually, my day would start with feeding our turtles and cleaning the pools. The pools are home to a lot more than just the turtles! Seawater is pumped from the ocean into the pools, and sea hares and other hitchhikers are frequent guests at our turtle rehabilitation centre. One of the sea hares even took up residence on the flipper of one of our largest and slowest turtles (Kerry).
I had never paid much attention to sea hares as they are small and innocuous-looking, unlike some of their more colourful nudibranch cousins. However, close contact with them on a daily basis led me to learn something new and exciting about this innocuous-looking animal. Sea hares can release ink as a defence mechanism! Being marine molluscs, they are closely related to squid and octopus, but their inking abilities are not as well known – probably because a squid inking is a much more impressive phenomenon, compared to an inch long sea hare doing the same. I managed to capture video footage of a sea hare inking after being disturbed by the cleaning of the turtle tank, as it was conveniently climbing on the glass of the tank at the time. You can see one of our most energetic turtles, Ossy, flapping around in the background.
All sea hares have ink glands, with most of them releasing a purple secretion like the sea hare in this video (although some species are also known to release a white opaline secretion). The purple ink gets its colour from pigments obtained by ingesting red-algal foods, and functions as a visual and chemical deterrent to predators.
Marine Savers’ coral propagation programme works by transplanting coral fragments from healthy colonies to synthetic frames to boost the growth of the coral reef. The programme has been very successful, with close to 3000 frames having been transplanted around Landaa. It was great to see the contrast between the frames I was helping prepare, and ones from five years ago that are completely overgrown with coral. Working with the coral biologist transplanting and monitoring coral frames, I was also able to work on my free-diving skills and learn a lot about coral identification.
During my coral collection adventures, I developed a fondness for the species Acropora digitifera with its characteristic blue tips. Colour is usually not a good way of identifying corals, as the colour of a colony is produced by the symbiotic algae living within the coral polyp. Hence, different colonies of the same coral species can have different colours due to different species of symbiotic algae. The production of pigments by the algae is to aid in light absorption for photosynthesis, which is why the pigmentation in coral is often concentrated on the tips, which receive the most light – as is the case with A. digitifera.
Curiously, all colonies of this species found around Baa Atoll (and possibly the whole Maldives) exhibit the same blue colouration, although other colour morphs are known from other parts of the world. In contrast, many coral species have different colourations even in a small area, like A. humilis, which can have three different colour morphs on one reef. It is unclear why A. digitifera has a consistent blue colouration around Baa Atoll, but it makes it one of the easiest species to recognize!
The aquarium trade puts a lot of pressure on the natural reefs worldwide, and because of this there are legal restrictions on reef fishing to control the industry. However, illegal practices such as chemical and dynamite fishing still occur in different parts of the world, and are hugely destructive to the reefs.
The fish lab has resident breeding pairs of two species of clown fish, and our technicians are trying to perfect the fish breeding process to provide a sustainable source of stock populations for the aquarium trade. This has the double advantage of protecting the reef from all ornamental fishing activities, and providing another industry and source of employment in the Maldives.
The survival of offspring in the wild is 1 in 150,000 (less than 1%) where as in the fish lab we are able to attain a much higher survival rate. For now, the offspring produced in the lab are kept till they reach maturity, and then released with an anemone ‘home’ onto the reefs around the island.
The Guitar Shark
One of the many perks of working with Marine Savers is the chance to go diving in your free time. I was able to complete my Advanced Open Water course whilst in the Maldives, and explore some of the dive sites around Baa Atoll. During my dives I encountered a lot of interesting creatures like sting rays, nurse sharks, eagle rays, and octopus; but the coolest by far was the guitar shark at the dive site ‘Finolas’ (best known for its underwater sink hole).
The guitar shark (or guitar ray) is one of the most bizarre creatures I’ve seen in my life! The front half of the body is flattened like a ray and adapted for a bottom-feeding lifestyle. The back half of the body closely resembles a shark with two dorsal fins and a large caudal fin. They are technically a member of the ray family, but look similar to sharks because they retain their lower caudal fin lobe … a really bizarre but really cool fish!
The Spinner Dolphin
At least twice a week I would set out with guests to spot some dolphins on the ‘Dolphin Cruise.’ I never got bored of it, because the spinner dolphins rarely disappointed. They are a very charismatic and playful species, often coming up to bow ride and play in the waves behind the boat.
There is an abundance of spinner dolphins around Landaa, and we sometimes saw very large pods up to 200 individuals. Spinner dolphins are named because of their ability to jump in the air and spin along their longitudinal axis, and they are the only species that exhibit this behaviour. There are a number of reasons and theories behind the spinning behaviour including territorial displays, removal of parasites, and pure enjoyment. From what I saw on the dolphin cruises, I’m voting for the last one as the spinning really seemed to be for fun – like an emotional exclamation point, to show excitement and joy.
At Landaa, I met and made friends with people from all over the globe, and a lunchtime discussion was often an exciting mix of four different languages! I was even able to learn some basic Dhivehi phrases from my Maldivian friends during my short stay (many thanks to Monty, the assistant coral biologist, for putting up with my constant questions!)
The Marine Savers team is great fun to work with, and I couldn’t have asked for a better location to gain some experience in environmental conservation. It was wonderful to be around so many people who share my passion for the underwater world, and I hope it’s not too long before I’m back beneath the waves in the Maldives!
The Seamarc team were excellent teachers (thank you!) and everyone was very patient so I learnt very quickly.
I will always be eternally grateful for this opportunity ... A very sincere thank you from the bottom of my heart for everyone’s encouragement, hard work and dedication. My short time here has allowed me to learn so many things that otherwise might not have been possible.
The memories I have forged here will always have a special place in my heart ♡ … what a wonderful country!
Janice (Singapore) 2017
From literally stepping out of the airport and onto the resort speedboat, I was completely blown away by how amazing the Maldives is; hot sun, blue skies, and crystal-clear waters … paradise!
In my first week, I spent a lot of time learning about and working with the resident sea turtles ... Caring for these turtles has been great fun and each one has its own personality.
... we were lucky to encounter a large pod of false killer whales, which was an incredible experience!
The teams at both resorts are a fantastic group of people and I enjoyed every moment working with them all.
Mark (UK) 2016
The first week was a busy one as three new rehab turtles turned up in three consecutive days. I have also been busy with guest snorkel trips, dolphin cruises, scientific projects, coral reef monitoring and surfing world class waves at the local breaks!
I have been here for the last five wonderful weeks ... such great fun and every day is so varied ... to learn all I can about the amazing marine life in the Maldives.
Adam (UK) 2016
Each morning I caught the local 8:15 ferry boat … much better than the bus in Germany!
One day we went to a nearby uninhabited agricultural island, to collect some turtle hatchlings and release them out in the open water. Another great experience was the manta boat-trip ... for one whole day we searched for mantas in different sites around Baa Atoll.
All in all I can say that my 6 weeks’ volunteering ... was a great experience, I met a lot of nice and very friendly people and I learned a lot about turtles, fish species and corals in the beautiful tropical waters around the Maldives.
Nicole (Germany) 2016
The Marine Savers team is great fun to work with, and I couldn’t have asked for a better location to gain some experience in environmental conservation.
It was wonderful to be around so many people who share my passion for the underwater world, and I hope it’s not too long before I’m back beneath the waves in the Maldives!
Dhiya (Sri Lanka) 2016
Every day was a different adventure, with turtles to treat, corals to transplant, talks to give and dolphins to spot. It is always a thrill to (see) the juvenile Spinner dolphins, who stick very close to their mothers but are often the most acrobatic jumpers, putting the ‘spin’ in Spinner. Sometimes we were lucky to spot manta rays too.
I am very grateful to the Marine Savers team ... It has strengthened my desire to work in marine conservation and I hope to be back in the Maldives one day!
Roz (UK) 2016
You can see some breathtaking marine life here in the Maldives, and every time I’m in the water I feel constantly in awe of my surroundings ... 2 mantas at a cleaning station swam through our dive group, getting extremely close!
These activities, along with the people I have met along the way have ... made the experience so enjoyable and memorable.
Emily (UK) 2016
I had never seen a turtle this large before, which was a whole new experience for me in itself ... It took 6 people to get this amazing turtle out of the water and into the boat.
I have even started leading some of the snorkel safaris around nearby reefs, an incredibly rewarding experience to be sharing information and experiences with people. My favourite moments have often been on our dolphin cruises, the incredible spinner dolphins never cease to amaze me as they throw their bodies high above the water surface. That is certainly a sight I will never get tired of!
Sophie (UK) 2015
Taking time off work to travel all the way to the Maldives to care for sea turtles might seem a crazy idea to some; for me, however, it was the chance of a lifetime. This was the perfect opportunity to leave my office desk in the concrete jungle of Hong Kong and take part in something meaningful in a unique part of the world.
I have had a tremendous time, and have made friends with a lot of lovely people from around the world. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would definitely like to come back some day to visit everyone… and the sea turtles too, of course!
Keith (Hong Kong) 2015
Winy and Hazel had a very busy and enjoyable time, working with our turtle care patients and the Reefscapers coral propagation programme.
They also helped with an important reef clean-up, and had a memorable day releasing baby turtle hatchlings into the ocean.
Winy & Hazel (Hong Kong) 2015
Every day since I have arrived has been an adventure!
I am witnessing new and amazing things every day, from sunsets to 'Spanish Dancers' ! It’s a wonderful experience as we share underwater marine life encounters, and I have actually lost count of how many sharks, dolphins and turtles I’ve encountered since I arrived ... and it’s magical every time.
Cath (UK) 2015
The care and rehabilitation of the turtles here is very satisfying work.
In just a short few weeks, I have seen Spinner Dolphins, Hawksbill Turtles, Black Tip Reef Sharks and of course lots of colourful and varied marine life ... a wonderful moment each time!
Mailis (Belgium) 2015
A very enjoyable part of my job is spreading awareness to the public, to promote better understanding and appreciation for the marine ecosystem. We recently organised a school excursion ... seeing these enthusiastic children learning about the environment brings me joy and hope.
My time here has been an amazing experience ... more than just swimming with the fishes and being surrounded by beautiful reefs!
Adrelia (Singapore) 2014
Frédéric was a PhD student and lecturer at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, specialising in ecology and tropical marine biology.
During his time with us, Frédéric researched indigenous Echinoderms, and possibly discovered a previously undocumented new species of sea cucumber.
Frédéric (France) 2014
Glen worked with us in 2014, developing a shark population survey to study local populations of Blacktip Reef sharks using a variety of survey methods including underwater camera traps, and snorkel surveys.
Glen (UK) 2014
One of our first interns, Dylan (from Singapore's Temasek Polytechnic) had an amazingly unique experience with us.
Firstly, he helped with the rescue of a stranded false killer whale 'Haita' (although she sadly did not survive rehabilitation).
And then he was invited to the “Marine Mammal Stranding Symposium” (February 2013), to present our work and findings to fellow marine biologists.
Dylan (Singapore) 2012