MALLIN BEG TO MALDIVES IN FIVE MONTHS
There I was in amazement looking at the computer, I had been underwater on this dive for one hour and fifteen minutes. Admittedly my mouth was almost sore with dryness and mouthpiece gripped for so long. We were only six meters deep so this would explain a bit, and warm – the water temperature was 29°c, some days 30°c. So blue! A light blue, azure or ultramarine would be the right shade, even when you glared into the abyss. Every morsel of advice from fellow Alpha Dive members would ring through me now, all my training in the water, in a classroom or on a boat over this year, all so valuable, and gratefully has got me to this moment. Only five months ago were my first dives in Mallin Beg, and I am sorry that they were not with me now to share this tropical treat.
Shoals of brightly colored fish swimming around, and parrotfish eating the coral with their beak-like mouths giving this amplified sound like a slower, crunchy sound of the cicada insect. This was the fifth of twelve dives I did in the Maldives as part of the Biosphere Expeditions Reef Check in September, and generally I was between 40-60 mins diving at a variety of depths, but I didn’t go deeper than 23 meters. It was a thrill to see such exotic biodiversity around the coral reefs – black tip sharks, turtles, rays, moray eels, giant clams, triton shells, the villain crown-of-thorns starfish, needlefish, Moorish idol, and so many more. As the boat travelled between islands of the atolls over the week and between dives, we saw dolphins swim by the boat, flying fish, a wonderful snorkel with a manta ray, but did not personally see the famous whale shark this trip, though others did.
On a quick solo swim one afternoon off the boat, I encountered a large nurse shark swimming towards me, which startled me considerably, of course I dashed back on board the moment it turned. This would be the start of quite a lot of interaction with this nocturnal animal, as they would congregate by the boat at night because of the lights, and one evening the 18 of us did a night dive together clustered in three groups and we became surrounded by a gathering of this large animal (someone counted over 15 of them) swimming around us, it felt like a dance before dinner. Thankfully without mishap, we took away a rare, thrilling and privileged experience together.
While the week was filled with daily new exotic sightings, it was however a week with a purpose too. We trained hard in the first three days over lectures and ‘pointy-dives’, with exams and re-tests. We learnt identification of types of fish, substrates, invertebrates, and spotting coral damage, and had to collectively reach a level of competency that would meet international Reef Check standards. The following three days were spent conducting the surveys, paired up with tasks. Despite cramming your head with new names of types of fish, etc, you had to learn to communicate them to your partner underwater, so it was like learning a new form of sign language. You also needed to write things down and sometimes carry apparatus, meanwhile keeping good buoyancy and working with the currents, as well as carefully aware not to bash into the corals. It was certainly a challenge, but we did well, and it was fun to have a job to do. The team was international and included Maldivian, German, British, Swiss, Australian, Italian, French, and I brought the Irish flag.
As a result of our work, we were able to compare with past annual expeditions, and identify how the state of the coral reefs of the Maldives were. Two catastrophic global warming events in the last twenty years has seriously damaged the coral reefs in the Indian ocean. El Nino in 1998 destroyed about 90% of the coral reef cover, and in 2016 again. When the temperature warms by only a centigrade or two, there is serious consequences. Sea level risings have also been recorded at this low-lying nation of islands. However, the results of our 2019 surveys show signs of resilience and some growth which was encouraging. This citizen-science data recording is reported to authorities to encourage more marine protected areas around the country and hopefully a reduction of over-resort-construction and more awareness of the threats of global warming and sea-level rising. On our last day of the expedition we were given a tour of one of the islands were a local group are making good efforts to grow coral in nurseries in a man-made effort to restore some of the valuable reefs that protect the country from seismic events like tsunamis and home to a colossal diversity of habitats.
It was an adventure of a lifetime for me, one that even a few weeks on now, I am re-visiting frequently in my head. I look forward to joining Alpha Dive on a future fair-weather diving holiday, but for now I am happy to return to the cool Irish waters which are alive with their own biodiversity, both colorful and healthy, mixed with a rich variety of heritage wrecks and sights to see.