Best of the Maldives: Maldivian Marine Biologists Women – Cocoa / Siyam World

Women Marine Biologists Maldives

There are so many Maldivian women to celebrate during International Women’s Week, that we had to feature to in one post. Kaia Mohamed Ali at Cocoa Island and Mariyam Thuhufa at Siyam World are two friends breaking glassfloors into the depths of marine biology in the Maldives. I had the chance to meet Kaia during my recent visit to Soneva Jani where she had previously been working and we shared all lively and insightful conversation about Laccadive life. She introduced me to her friend and colleague in the field, Mariyam, who at the time was working just a (long) stone’s throw away at Siyam World. They both gave Maldives Complete exclusive interviews about their personal and professional journeys to the undersea world…

Kaia Mohamed Ali:

  • What atoll are you from?
    I am from Kaafu atoll, from the capital city of Male’.
  • What age did you learn to swim?
    I learnt to swim at the age of 4, but my parents would take me to dip in the sea when I was much younger. My parents felt it was important to teach me to be comfortable in the water since our country is surrounded by water.
  • What was your first snorkelling experience?
    The first time I went snorkelling, I was 15 years old. I spent ages 7 through 14 living in Sri Lanka. After I returned to the Maldives, I went for my first snorkel with a friend on the house reef of Villimale’. It was a surreal experience as it was my first time seeing the reef with my own eyes – something I had previously only seen during the many hours I spent watching NatGeo and Animal Planet. Before my first snorkel, I always had a slight fear of the animals that lived in the ocean. I had only ever seen them from the surface or in the shallows. I was afraid of sharks, stingrays and moray eels and always felt I would get attacked. I guess the false portrayal of these movies played a role in my fear. After I started snorkelling and spending much time on the reef, I understood the behaviour of marine life. Nothing would hurt me as long as I knew how to behave in the water – No touching wildlife, no chasing wildlife, and no feeding wildlife. As long as you respected the animals’, everything was fine. 
  • What was your first diving experience?
    My first diving experience was after I started doing my degree foundation in Marine Science. I was 16 years old. I signed up for my open water course and went on a dive to Male’s reef. It was fun and less scary than I thought it would be. I enjoyed my experience. I noticed the difference between the coral life at the surface versus a few meters below. I knew at that moment that I would never stop diving. I did not notice the sewage pipes sticking out the reef on that same dive until it blasted the diver in front of me with sewage. Very disgusting. I never went diving on Male’ reef again.
  • Where did you study marine biology?
    I studied Marine Biology at the Maldives National University. I am currently working in COMO Cocoa island as a resident marine biologist. I built up my resume through volunteer work and eventually worked for a non-profit in sea turtle conservation. Many years of work experience prepared me for the role of Marine Biologist. 
  • What did you do your final research paper on?
    Please refer to the previous answer. Although I did not do my final research paper, I have contributed to and conducted my independent studies during my time working, such as an internal scientific paper on the Sediment Dynamics on Olhuveli Island.
  • What is your favourite sighting diving?
    It’s hard to pick a favourite when you’re fascinated by everything underwater! But one that stands out/that I can think of at the top of my head is when I dove at a Manta point in Laamu Atoll. We saw a handful of mantas along with massive green turtles – two animals I love. There was so much going on I wasn’t sure where to look. I equally enjoy the dives where I find the small stuff – the cute tiny shrimp and nudibranchs – they’re harder to find, therefore more rewarding.
  • What is your favourite sighting snorkelling?
    I think it would have to be the first time I ever saw a Whale shark. I took a trip to South Ari atoll to spend time with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme for my birthday. After two weeks of no whale shark sightings in Ari Atoll, we saw three on my birthday. It was the first time I’d seen any marine life that massive. I can’t even describe the overwhelming feelings I felt. I definitely cried into my mask. A second favourite sighting was on a casual snorkel in Noonu atoll; I came across a  lone eagle ray cruising by. As I dove down to take a closer look, he came up towards me, made direct eye contact and circled me. We spent a few seconds just swimming around each other before he finally swam off. It’s just incredible to me that we can have such intimate interactions with wildlife.
  • How did you and Mariyam meet?
    Thuhufa and I initially met while she worked for a sea turtle conservation NGO called Naifaru Juveniles in Lhaviyani Atoll. I was working for a different sea turtle conservation non-profit called the Olive Ridley Project. I participated in a Turtle festival by the Naifaru Juvenile when we first met. I noticed Thuhufa as there weren’t many young locals working in conservation. It was nice to meet someone else with the same passions as me. We reconnected a few years later when we were enrolled for the same course in University. It was an instant connection – we became really close friends and we worked pretty closely during our time there.
  • What is the most prevalent misconception about the ocean and marine life that you find?
    That sharks are dangerous and want to eat you. Despite their reputation – sharks are not dangerous and they don’t want to eat you. They would much rather feed on fish and other mammals. Humans are not part of their natural diet and they rarely attack humans. You are more likely to die because of a cow than by sharks.

Mariyam Thuhufa (here is another fine profile on Mariyam)

  • What atoll are you from?
    I am from R. Atoll Rasmaadhoo. A beautiful local island just north of Male’. The island is known for its Surf Spot and for the local boat buildings. It’s a small island with a big sense of community still intact.
  • What age did you learn to swim?
    I can’t recall when exactly I learned how to swim. When I was living in my island I would have been around 6 or 7, I used to follow my cousins out to the water and we used to spend the day in the sea. I remember this one memory vividly. One day I followed my cousin brother to our islands famous surf spot. He went out on his board and I stayed near the beach. But at one point I wanted to get in to the water so I swam out. Next thing I know I was caught in the surf. I remember being under three consecutive waves and not being able to breath. I remember being terrified but I went back to the ocean the very next day. I guess, after that incident I unconsciously taught myself to swim, or at least how to not get caught in huge surfs.
  • What was your first snorkelling experience?
    My first snorkeling experience was in the house reef of Villimale’. Villimale’ is the closest island to Male’ and was considered a picnic island back when I was a kid. I used to go there with my family on the weekends and started learning to snorkel during these trips. At first, I would stay in the shallow lagoon area and get excited whenever I see a lone fish passing by. One day I wandered off to the reef edge and it was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. I saw lots of colorful corals and huge parrot fishes. This was way before the 2016 el Nino, so the reef was vibrant with healthy corals and lots of species of fish. It was an amazing experience.
  • What was your first diving experience?
    My first diving experience was way back in 2014, when I was working at the Maldives Whale Submarine. How the submarine operated was that when the sub goes down with the passengers, scuba divers would go down with it and fool around with the fishes and eels and entertain the guests. I had always wanted to go dive with the scuba team. One day after much talking, one of the instructors from the team decided to take me for a discover scuba session. It was the most amazing day. I loved everything about my first dive. How the sun’s rays looked under the surface to how the eels came and wrapped themselves around me so gently. I loved discovering the smallest invertebrates that day and playing around with an octopus while it changed colour frequently. It was a day I will never forget.
  • Where did you study marine biology?
    I did my bachelors in Environmental Management at Maldives National University. Most of my knowledge about the marine environment I have gained from working and volunteering at different NGOs. I am currently working at the newly opened 5-star resort SIYAM WORLD as their Resident Marine Biologist. But before I landed this job, I’ve worked with Maldives Whale shark Research Program, Turtle Rehabilitation center in Naifaru Juvenile, IUCN and I’ve done coral and fisheries research at Maldives Marine Research Institute.
  • What did you do your final research paper on?
    My Final Research Paper was on the ‘Perception of Maldivian Grouper Fishers on the sustainability of the Current Practices and the Management Plan’. In my paper I did an in-depth analysis of the current practices of the grouper fishery industry of the Maldives and how effect the current management plan is on combating the unsustainable practices that has been going on in the industry. I also conducted a survey questionnaire to understand how well the fishers know about the management plan and tried to understand how their livelihood was being affected by the sustainability practices enforced in the management plan.
  • What is your favourite sighting diving?
    It is so hard to pick one sight. But on the top of my head I think the best sight was when I was doing a fun dive at Vaavu Atoll a few years back and we came across a ball of trevallies. It was the most amazing thing. We went right inside the ball of fish so we were surrounded on all sides by them. This was something I’ve always wanted to experience and it was just so surreal. This was a dive I will never forget.
  • What is your favorite sighting snorkelling?
    I think my favorite sight snorkeling would be anytime we get to interact with Mantas or Whlaesharks. Whalesharks specially are such gentle giants that we get to spend atleast 30 minutes with one and it just becomes such a meaningful experience because you get to learn so much about them during this interaction.
  • What is the most prevalent misconception about the ocean and marine life that you find?
    There is a lot of them ranging from ‘corals are plants’ to ‘all sharks are dangerous’. Amongst fishers that I have talked to there is also the general idea floating about that since the ocean is so big, we will never run out of fish. I think this is the biggest misconception that I find, especially in the Maldives where our livelihood and food resource is so directly connected to the fisheries industry of the country. Fisherman thinking sustainability during fishing practices is unnecessary because they don’t believe in the declining fish stock populations while research clearly shows otherwise. This is why, currently there is a lot of effort put into conducting awareness sessions for the local fishers regarding issues like this.

Best of the Maldives: Turtle Rescue – Coco Bodu Hithi / Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu

Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu - turtle vet

World Sea Turtle Day today. And there are few better friends to the sea turtles’ in the Maldives than the Coco resorts Coco Bodu Hithi and Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu. They have been long-time supporters of the Oliver Ridley Project with fund raising and public outreach, but this past year brought a pioneering, first ever in the Maldives “marine veterinarian”. Marine Biologist Dr. Claire Petros (from the Oliver Ridley Project) was appointed to operate turtle rescue centres at the resorts. Coco resort described their work in the blog

  • Guests of Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu and Coco Bodu Hithi have been incredibly generous in their efforts to support the project by donating funds directly and by purchasing signature Olive Ridley turtle toys at the resorts. In May 2016, we received the target of the funds required to start construction of the first rescue centre at Coco Palm….As planned, [the centre includes] a dedicated veterinary surgeon has joined our team to look after the rescue centre!

She provides treatment and ever surgery to ill and injured turtles at the resort turtle rescue centres. Hotellier Maldives also did a profile on her work focusing on her clinic…

  • “’My main role is to care for the injured turtles that we find around the country with the intention of being able to release them when recovered as quickly as possible.’ Injured sea turtles are not a rare sight in the Maldives waters. Though turtles are a protected species in the Maldives, their foes range from abandoned fishing nets, and people, who are hungry for their meat, eggs, and shells. Ghost nets are nets that have been discarded, abandoned or lost in the ocean. They can continue to entangle endangered and vulnerable animals such as marine turtles, birds, sharks, rays, dolphins and whales, long after they have been discarded, abandoned or lost. ‘Turtles are very attracted to ghost gear as it often contains an easy meal, but unfortunately during the process of trying to eat the fish entrapped in the nets, the turtles themselves become entangled,’ she explained. ‘Sadly, the effort to escape is so great by the animal that it exerts enough force to break its own bones and the extent of the injuries suggests that turtles may suffer for weeks before dying, or hopefully be rescued’.”

Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu - turtle clinic

Best of the Maldives: Underwater Close Ups – Caterina Fattori

Caterina Fattori

Few places on Earth are more sensitive to and investing proportionately more into preserving the oceans than the country that is comprised of 99.87% ocean. The resort contribute their bit with a number of eco-sustainability projects and the luxury properties now almost all have on staff marine biologists who support their preservation initiatives as well as provide advice to the management and education to the guests.

I have met and correspond with many of the Marine Biologists in the Maldives, but I only recently encountered Caterina Fattori by stumbling across her Instagram feed. Based at Outrigger Konotta, she has captured a striking collection of close up coral shots with that “patterned tapestry” feel that I posted on a few times (see Bubble Anemone picture at bottom). I’m going to feature a special online exhibition of her finest piece in tomorrow’s post, but today, in honor of tomorrow’s World Oceans Day, I thought I’d introduce this expert on the front lines of sustaining the sumptuous ocean all us Maldives aficionados adore…

  • Where did you grow up?
    I come from Italy and I grow up in a small village in the North East, 50 km from Verona. During my academic studies, I moved a bit around Italy. In fact, I had the wonderful opportunity to live for a while in Padua, Ancona and Venice. Actually many people asked me, how a girl from the “countryside” loves the sea so much? Since I was kid with my parents I spent my summer holidays in some towns at the seaside, but I was scared of the water. After some swimming courses and a better confidence with the water, my parents bought mask and snorkel and was the best thing ever. Having the possibility to spend time admiring the underwater world was (and is still) something indescribable!
  • Where did you study marine biology?
    My bachelor degree in Biology curriculum Marine I completed in Padua and Chioggia (Venice). Then, I moved in Ancona, central area of Italy, for my Masters, where I stayed for 1 year and half, before to move again for my final research, to Venice.
  • What you do your final research project on?
    My final research project was about Microbes associated with tropical stony corals, focusing on biodiversity and potential pathogens. For me was the second time to analyze an aspect regarding coral reefs, although until that time I hadn’t visited any of those ecosystems. In fact, for my Bachelor degree I analyzed the coral bleaching, only on “literature level”. For the Master Degree, I analyzed some coral frags from Sulawesi, Indonesia and the potential role of virus and bacteria associated to white syndrome. For me, was really challenging because was a new field for the marine microbiology and to be honest was not so easy find out the potential pathogens. The best part of this was the possibility to spend time at the microscope. The microbiology is my obsession, because you have to focus to what you cannot see at naked eye.
  • How did you find yourself in the Maldives
  • I’ve been here in Konotta since September 2015, first experience as Marine Biologist. At the beginning, when one of my friend that was working in Ari Atoll told me about the opportunity to come and work in Maldives, I couldn’t believe it! Because many times I tried to reach this paradise, but without any success. After sending my CV to Best Dives Maldives, I received an email asking me to have an interview. I was so excited and in the same time scared about their proposal: leading a coral restoration project. In less than one month, I packed my bag to reach the South of Maldives, where I’m still working. In Konotta, working in a diving center and look after the coral project is the best option I could have, join to of my passion: Corals and diving, and sometimes have also the opportunity to guide some excursions. Sometimes live and work in a small reality is hard, but I can always find something to do not get bored. Many friends said to me that I cannot complain about my condition and it’s true, I live in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in a small tropical island, where I can work without considering this a job, because I really love what I’m doing despite any difficulties!
  • What camera and light rig did you use to take these pictures?
    I describe myself a beginner (neophyte) for the underwater photography, because for me is like a game, I’m not using any sophisticated gear and I have been using an underwater camera for only one year. I used to use a Canon D30, I floated a month ago and I’m now looking to buy something else. For me that camera was enough, is really simple and easy to use, without any flash or light system. It is pure fun, grab my camera and just snap some pics here and there, especially when I’m going diving for coral monitoring in the House reef, here in Konotta or during some boat dives.
  • Where were they taken (which dive sites, if you remember)?
    Almost all of these pictures I took in Konotta House Reef, while two from the selection were taken in Bali (Nusa Penida and Ahmed).
  • What inspired you to take such close up shots?
    I think is something link to my personality, actually I’m little bit stubborn, a “perfection fanatic” and details obsess. So normally, when I’m going diving or snorkeling with my camera, I’m trying to concentrate in the things that are different or that catch more my attention also on ordinary subjects. I mean every time I’m in the water, for me is something magic, although can be 1000 times I’m doing the same snorkeling path, I will always find something different or new. The nature is so amazing and especially while snorkeling, you have the time to appreciate more the details, the colors, behaviors, etc, features that can be captured also in a shoot. My favorite subjects for the close up are the corals, is such astonish the way they deposit the skeleton, the patterns that can create Lobophyllia, Symphillia, Platygyra, Leptoseries etc., is simply WOW! Probably all this started, for the coral restoration project I’m looking after here in Konotta. Every month, I have to take pics and measurements of the coral frags on the different frames. Another fact that probably made me more focusing/obsessing on the close up was the bleaching event. During those months I was continuously looking for recovery’ signs or during the day time I was looking at the stressed polyps while feeding. Taking close up, I’m not doing only for me, but with my diving center where we are offering to our guests underwater photo shooting. In these dives, normally you need to pay particular attention to the guests, because they want to have as many memories of their underwater experience, but for me it is sometimes a kind of treasure hunt. I’ll leave the group for a while just to find something different or particulars that guests cannot see while too concentrate in other things.
  • What were some of the difficult parts of taking such shots?
    For the static/sessile organisms is not so hard job, just concentration, adjust white balance, buoyancy and be sure that the light is good for the shoot. For the pics of animal that are moving, there yes, you have to be really patient (I’m not so patient and sometimes I give up). For example with the clownfish, that normally are shy, you have to give them the time to recognize you and approach you. Sometimes is not possible to spend so much time on one subject.. In many cases, it happened that once in my room I recognized or discovered some details, color, features that during the shooting I hadn’t noticed. In every shoot I try to find out something good, maybe is not perfect but the nature is too amazing that sometimes also in the imperfections you can find out something awesome!
  • What has been your favourite sighting underwater in the Maldives?
    Despite the most common sightings of Maldives, I haven’t yet seen any whale sharks and manta rays in one year and half I’m working in Gaafu atoll. Anyway, I’m not upset about this, although I would love to see them. For me, underwater is all gorgeous. I don’t have only one. I still remember the emotion when I discover some sexy shrimps (Thor amboinensis) in the House reef, or the thrill when I jumped with my colleagues in a dive site close by Konotta and we spend our dive time with 14 grey reef sharks. Probably the most unique and touching moment is always when I can spot my favorite fish, the harlequin filefish, once I could spotted a baby one and it’s was absolutely cute! (they are also the most challenging subject for me to take a picture).

Caterina Fattori - coral frame

Caterina Fattori - bubble anenome

Best of the Maldives: Most Marine Biologists – Athuruga

Athuruga - Marine Biologists

The ultimate “fishonistas” are the increasing schools of marine biologists at the Maldives resorts. A few years back, having a resident MB was limited to a few luxury properties, but now many resorts feature them. They provide an insightful snorkel/dive guide, offer educational talks, and conduct their own research in the surrounding ocean.

I’ve seen a few resorts with two marine biologists on staff (eg. Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Velaa), but Athuruga had FOUR there when we visited.

One was Enrico (far right photo above) from the University of Milan. He was conducting research on COTS. He told me he was finishing his secondment and he appears to have replaced by fellow Italanian who spoke about the Athuruga COTS research recently…

“Our resident marine biologist Luca Saponari during a speech regarding his scientific research on the outbreak of ‘Acanthaster planci’ (crown-of-thorns sea star) in the Maldives, a study that he is currently conducting at Diamonds Athuruga and Diamonds Thudufushi Beach and Water Villas. Luca spent 4 days at the #Bicocca University in Milan, participating in the first National Congress named “Biodiversity: Concepts, New Tools and Future Challenges”.

Another one works with the Manta Trust project hosted at the resort…

“On the Islands of Athuruga and Thudufushi, the Manta Trust biologists accompany our guests on private excursions, mainly dedicated to manta rays, explaining their activities and giving tips and scientific information on their behaviour. Diamonds Athuruga and Diamonds Thudufushi, both run a “Biology night” and a “Marine Biology Laboratory” which allows our guests the possibility to enjoy a brief description of overall Marine life in the Maldives, from plankton and up to bigger species.”

One of their ongoing projects is the Athuruga YouTube series “Maldives Marine Lab Diary” which features a number of informative shorts on various aquatic subjects like turtles and feeding habits.

Best of the Maldives: Marine Biologist – Verena Wiesbauer

Verena Weisbauer

When I first started coming to the Maldives, a few marine biologists kicked around the atolls usually on their own initiative maybe working on some research project. Now, every self-respecting top-fight resort has its own staff “MB” to provide presentations to guests, offer expert tours of the marine life on outings and also to support the resort’s eco-friendly initiatives to keep the reef and island healthy and vibrant.

I’ve meet dozens at this point, but one really stands out – Verena Wiesbauer. We first met her when he gave one of the best presentations on Maldives marine life at Kurumba a number of years ago. . She works as part of the “Eco-Islanders Maldives” organisation that helps resorts with a number of environmentally friendly initiatives especially around reef preservation. She’s the only Maldives MB I know of who is a published author on the Maldives. I’ve already featured her book, “Trees and Flowers of a Tropical Paradise” in one of the “QI – Maldives edition” series posts. In fact, she is a veritable “Maldives QI Elf” being by far the most prominent contributor to the quirky facts of that Maldives Complete series of posts.

In fact, in general, she is the most active MB contributor to Maldives Complete. She is always promptly responsive to questions I have and regularly offers up fun and useful information. Of course, she came into her own when I launched the “Dive Site Complete” feature. I have received material and information from many MBs across the country, but Verena has provided more support and material than everyone else combined (including the comprehensive list of the MPAs).

Best of the Maldives: Snorkel Guide – Vakarufalhi

Vakarufalhi snorkel guide Tania

No matter how good you are at something, a local expert and guide is always a sound move.

My wife and I do most of our skiing (I snow board) with our best friends who happened to meet as ski instructors. We tag along to which ever of their favourite European slopes catches their fancy this season. Having such experts along transforms the experience. The stress is halved and the excitement is doubled. The stress is cut because you don’t have to worry about getting lost, or going somewhere over your capability. The excitement is doubled because they introduce you to places literally of the beaten path and point out things that you probably would have missed focusing on where you were going.

Those same slope benefits are the reason to grab a snorkel guide at a resort whenever you have the opportunity. My wife and I are advanced divers and have snorkelled over 100 times, but we still benefit from having a local expert show us around. In and among all those guided outings, the guides have all been superb. But we have never come across a guide quite so enthusiastic and proactive as Tania Gae Militello, the marine biologist at Vakaufalhi.

The fact that she holds daily routine guided excursions on the house reef is a key and relatively uncommon at resorts. Other resorts either have the marine biologist on demand or else they have periodic guided excursions. Her regular excursions mean that you can simply work it into your daily routine. You don’t have to feel self-conscious about asking for a guide as she is going anyway. She will also do special excursions to suit you for free as well (schedule permitting).

We took advantage of this ad hoc offer to do a sunrise snorkel (on the wise advice of TripAdvisor Destination Expert ActiveGirl) where we saw tons of sights. Lots of stuff we would have missed if it wasn’t for her trained eye as well as knowledge of the local seascape and knowing where the interesting critters tend to congregate.

One of the best examples is a loggerhead sea turtle named Camilla. She has a favourite resting space on the house reef drop-off ledge about 3 metres deep. Tania showed her to us. More importantly, without any provocation or disturbing her, Camilla popped out and came for a swim with our group when she saw that Tania had arrived. Camilla seemed to recognize Tania and seemed very comfortable around her (no, Camilla does not do any feeding of marine life whatsoever). As close to a guaranteed turtle sighting as you wil get.

As I mentioned at the top, a guide also allows you to push yourself further than you might. When we did our morning snorkel, Tania took us around the further house reef side…and a storm squall came in about 30 minutes into our venture. Normally, I would have been quite spooked being a good distance from shore with a dark, windy sky. But, Tania knew that we were strong swimmers and we were going with the current towards the jetty and reassured us that everything would be fine. When the squall (aka mini-monsoon) hit us, aside from some swells in the ocean and the tickle of rain on our back, the snorkel was as delightful as any. As a result, we were rewarded with some memorable sights we would have missed without her support.

She also took a number of videos and pictures on both of outings with us and loaded them onto a USB stick for us so we could have them.

Tania is passionate not just about the undersea world, but also about the snorkelling itself and makes it even more accessible and thrilling at Vakarufalhi.