Jean-Michael Cousteau is the David Attenborough of the subaquatic world. A generation of sea lovers, like myself who watched it diligently as a child, were inspired by his prime time “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (a sample episode of sharks is featured below). He never shot an episode from the Maldives, though in 1997 the ubiquitously marine Maldives honoured him with a postage stamp (see bottom). But Ritz Carlton Maldives has brought his enduring legacy to the Maldives with their “Ocean Futures Society” collaboration with Jean-Michael Cousteau (Jacques’ son) which is carrying on the family mission to inspire people around the world with not just appreciate the aquatic world, but to take care of it.
The centre has sponsored six projects at the Ritz Maldives. One is exploring the concept of coral reefs as “underwater cities”. The notion described in Richard Murphy’s “Coral Reefs: Cities Under the Sea” postulates that all coral reefs have species who do different “jobs” (such as janitor, policeman, builder, farmer, etc. Curiously. which species do which roles varies from coral reef to coral reef.
Q: What are those things swimming around the reef?
Q: Buzzzz…there’s actually no such thing as a fish.
That’s the conclusion of eminent natural historian Steve J. Gould (small world coincidence – Lori sang in the same choir as him years ago). There are all sorts of creatures dubbed “fish” and yet they all exist on all different branches of the species taxonomy – jellyfish, cuttlefish, crayfish, shellfish starfish. There is no one Order or Genus that contains all or even the vast majority of species that people popularly refer to a “fish”. As a Telegraph piece describes: “Unlike mammals and birds, not all the creatures we call fish today descend from the same common ancestor. Or put another way, if we go back to most recent common ancestor of everything we now call fish (including the incredibly primitive lungfish and hagfish), we find that they also were the ancestor of all four-legged land vertebrates, which obviously aren’t fish at all.” (at least in the Maldives you can be pretty sure that the “fish” you are dining on is actually the fish they say you are eating which is not always the case elsewhere).
On a similar note, Bird and Moon flippantly points out another aquatic “Animal With a Misleading Name” – the Peacock Mantis Shrimp. They look like a walking lobster tail where the claws and long legs have been removed (but they’re not even Lobsters either). Mantis Shrimp are their own distinct order of “Stomatopods” (which falls under the Subphylum of Crustaceans). But their mendacious moniker isn’t the only curiosity of this colourful creature. In fact, the Oatmeal, illustrated a complete portrait of the bizarre life of the mantis shrimp (“my new favourite animal”) with such factoids as and they can move their limbs so quickly they can supercavitate the water (like boiling it), they can accelerate as fast as a bullet, their limbs are so resilient that the cell structure has been studied for the development of combat body armour, they can’t be kept in aquariums because they tend to break the aquarium’s glass.
Not just a “Best of the Maldives”, but possibly the Best of the Best from the 2019 Tour, or at least the most enduring, as both Lori and I are still wearing ours back in Blighty – Ghost Net Bracelets. Faarufushi’s Marin Biologist Giulia Pellizzato working on retrieving “Ghost Nets” – fishing nets that have gotten snarled or caught up and so the fishermen just abandon them in the water where they continue to trap and kill sea creatures.
The nets themselves are made of nylon and so Giulia wanted to come up with a way to upcycle them rather than have them add to the landfill of the Maldives. She decided to unravel the strands of plastic twine that they were made of, and use that material to make some woven bracelets. The process is a bit labour intensive so she has a small stock now. She gives them out as a reward to guests who help her with her reef survey work on the island.
The blue and green of the material, coloured that way by design to blend into the ocean when fishing and not scare away the fish, evoke the tapestry of colour which makes up the Maldivian seascape. I’m not a big accessory person, but there is something heart-warming about wearing something that was removed from the Laccadive Sea and is now on my wrist rather than snaring turtles, dolphins and other tragically unfortunate ocean friends.
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’.”
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).
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”.
“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.
“Coral reefs are farmers. They provide food, income and food security for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Coral reefs are security guards. The structures that they build protect our shorelines from storm surge and waves, and the biological systems that they house filter the water and make it safer for us to work and play. Coral reefs are chemists. The molecules that we’re discovering on coral reefs are increasingly important in the search for new antibiotics and new cancer drugs. And coral reefs are artists. The structures that they build are some of the most beautiful things on planet Earth. And this beauty is the foundation of the tourism industry in many countries with few or little other natural resources.”
Quite a few resorts now (17 by my count) invest in reef regeneration programmes on their island. Someday maybe Marhaver’s work will allow us to go beyond strapping coral pieces to frames and actually cultivate and propagate corals.
Before the big ‘Oscars’ red carpet ceremony tomorrow night, a number of the minor categories get awarded – ’Animated Short’, ‘Documentary Feature’…’Confocal Microscopy’.
Right up there with the cascades of flowers, shoals of fish and expanses of sun dappled ocean, the ubiquitous coral reefs are one of the most colourful parts of the Maldive experience. Any snorkeler will have had the chance to see red soft coral, green Table Coral, blue Staghorn Coral, and yellow Fan Coral. But this video of “Laser Scanning Confocal Microscopy” takes us deeper into the universe of colours these coral polyps inhabit.
For the first time ever, Lori and I did an excursion to a ‘local island’. Staple fare on the resort excursion buffet, but one we had shied away from like miso soup for breakfast. But LUX* Maldives included it as a refreshment stop on their whale watch trip so we went along. It was all very nice to get a glimpse of the more quotidian side of Maldives life. Nothing too dramatically interesting. A more rural version of the types of sites you see in Male – souvenir shops, mosques, concrete open-air dwellings.
As part of the trip we toured the local school. And there I learned something just a bit disturbing that I might be better off not knowing. Naturally, Maldivian children invest a fair amount of study in the subject of marine biology. One of the classrooms was festooned with posters crafted by the students to highlight various fun facts about marine life. Except one. Which was not so fun…
“PEARL FISH – lives in anus of sea cucumber and if it doesn’t get enough nutrients, it eats the sea cucumber’s gonads”
I am thankful for many things in life, but after my trip to Dhigurah, I am especially grateful that I am not a sea cucumber (pretty happy not to be a Pearl Fish either).
[Soundeffect]: Ding! Correct. You get no points because that was so easy (it is yellow and it looks like a box). Now, what is the fish below?…
Answer: A grey/green boxfish?
[Soundeffect]: Buzzzz! Wrong. This is also a ‘Yellow Boxfish’ or Ostracion cubicus. The Yellow Boxfish, which you can see quite prevalently in the Maldives, loses its bright yellow colour as it matures.
Thanks Chase (unofficial president of the Boxfish fan club).