Thursday, October 17, 2013

Why are these reefs so healthy?

Five lined snappers on Hadahaa house reef
So for four months now I have been living on this beautiful island paradise, and having lived and dived all over the world, and having experienced some truly magnificent things in the ocean, I was originally dubious as to whether this would live up to my high expectations. However when I reflect on my position as Resident Marine biologist and EarthCheck coordinator here, I really do not think it can get much better than this. I really do have the best job in the world!

I often think back to how sceptical I was sitting in a restaurant in London, talking through the job with my predecessor. I probably even gave a little eye role as she talked about how healthy the reef was and how high the species diversity was. However after living here and diving here for all this time I really can say my arrogance was unjust.

After recently watching Greg Stones' Mission Blue TED talk on The Phoenix Island and The republic of Kiribati, it got me thinking about our atoll and islands here in Southern Maldives.

Greg Stone: Saving the ocean one island at a time.

Some Background: Kiribati is an island nation in the central pacific, it like Maldives has many islands spread over a large area of ocean. The Phoenix islands are a group of sea mounts in the middle of this nation  with no inhabitants and 5 days by boat from the nearest airport. Until recently these islands were the largest marine reserve in the world. But in Greg Stones talk, he tells the tales of the flora and fauna before the marine reserve was set up.

Table corals at Hadahaa House reef.
 Photo credits:  ScubaZoo
Table coral Phoenix islands.
Photo credits: National Geographic
From his stories and imagery the only place in the world where I have visited that comes close to this is the coral reefs I have visited within this atoll (Huvadhoo). Having dived all over the world I am still amazed everyday when I jump in the water here to see such a healthy and diverse marine ecosystem. In fact research by the Marine Conservation Society UK and Reef Check found Hadahaa house reef to have the highest percentage coral cover out of all of the reefs surveyed during a nation wide exhibition in 2009. Surveys were carried out in six atolls stretching from Ha Dalluu in the north to Addu in the south.

The coral reefs in this atoll have flourished even though unlike the Phoenix islands these islands have been inhabited for almost 2,000 years. Not only have they been inhabited but commercial and subsidence fisheries have been on-going here for many years. These reefs also see the same threats that other coral reef ecosystems succumb to such as ocean acidification, rising sea temperatures, impact from tourism industry and population expansion.

So my question is: Why are these reefs so healthy?

Under the water villas at Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Journey to Paradise


So I have recently taken a position as Resident Marine Biologist and EarthCheck coordinator at Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa and I am keen to share my passion for the marine environment with everyone that I can. But firstly let me tell you a bit about myself. I was born in Cairo, Egypt, and it is fair to say I became a seasoned traveller at a young age moving between countries and continents with my parents and siblings until we settled in the UK.

Snorkelling in Fiji

After finishing school at 18 I decided to take a year out before university and travelled to Fiji to work on a volunteer based marine conservation project. I was already a keen diver after learning to dive with school friends in the Red Sea when I was 16. Living on a beautiful tropical island and diving in the crystal clear waters of the Pacific ignited a passion in me that would go on to mould my future. After spending 7 months in Fiji carrying out daily fish and invertebrate surveys, I went back to the UK to start university.

Researching Whale Sharks (Djibouti)
I began a three year degree in Psychology and Sociology and although I enjoyed my degree a lot I did not feel the same way about it as I did marine conservation. As  a result I spent all of my summer vacations volunteering on marine conservation projects. After my first year of university I travelled to South Africa to volunteer on a great white shark project, monitoring Great White Sharks off Dyer Island (famous for its cape fur seal population and thus Great Whites).

After my second year at university, I made my first trip to the Indian Ocean to undertake my PADI Dive Master training in Seychelles, which was followed by three months working for Global Vision International marine program. After my final year at university I returned to the Seychelles to work on The Marine Conservation Society Seychelles Whale Shark Monitoring program. I worked monitoring Whale Sharks in Seychelles and Djibouti, and combined this with travelling in South East Asia and Australia where I got in as much diving as possible. After spending three years combing working in Seychelles and travelling I returned to the UK to undertake my Masters degree. This further fuelled my desire to conserve and protect the marine environment and led me to the Maldives where I spend my days in the water continually being amazed by how incredibly diverse and healthy this marine ecosystem is.

Hadahaa resident Hawksbill turtle coming up for air on the house reef.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A love letter to a beautiful island

Dear Hadahaa,
What an amazing time we’ve had together, the best of times. I hope someday to find colleagues and corals that I love as much as you. Hadahaa, you have been so much more than a job, you’ve transformed me, powering my passion for nature, laughter, children and food. I’m incredibly proud to be a piece of your puzzle. There will not be one day that I don’t think of the 12% of my life I belonged in the Maldives. Does this makes me 12% Maldivian, seems like more dho?
These are just a few of the things that will make me smile when I’m daydreaming about you:
-          Chef Sunil’s gooey chocolate fondant
-          Swimming with wild dolphins
-          Laughing with beautiful children on local islands
-          Stargazing and lazing on the roof of the dhoni
-          Dancing like a mad to boduberu drumming
I’m going away for a while, to be a little closer, to a bigger island on the other side of the world. But our relationship is not over and I’m already looking forward to hearing the words “Welcome back”.
 I know that you know, but I’m going to say it again anyway– I’m really going to miss you.
With love,

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Subsurface Superpowers

Imagine how much more you could get out of a holiday at Hadahaa if you didn’t have to sleep. Honeymoons would be 30% longer; you’d be able to catch a glimpse of every shooting star and gaze at every sunrise or, if you are as obsessed as me, snorkel throughout the night. Sound unbelievable? Not so for a dolphin; amazingly all cetaceans have evolved the ability to stay awake throughout the day and night by sleeping with only half of their brain at a time. Unlike most of us, they must consciously take each breath which essentially means they can never completely fall asleep. It’s a useful skill, and got me thinking about other enviable abilities there are in the underwater world:

Fancy blending into to the background in an instant? Then consider life as one of our Hadahaa locals - the Octopus cyanea.

 There are some pretty impressive disguises out there, but Cephalopods really take the biscuit because they are not stuck with just one look; they miraculously transform the colour, pattern and texture of their skin to perfectly match with their surroundings. Layers of different pigment cells expand or contract upon demand to alter the balance of colours. On top of that, they have tiny muscles which tighten to form perky little peaks. And if all else fails, they use their jet propulsion and disappear with a puff of ink.

Octopus Images from Roger Hanlon (
Feeling a bit senile? If you were coral you could simply copy yourself and start again, and why stop there? Multiply into a colony and continue on for hundreds of years. 

Once a year, coral polyps have a brief sexual outburst, but for the rest of the time they make do with the realms of asexuality. Genetic clones bud from a parent polyp once it has reached adult size. A degree of connectivity remains between individuals allowing the sharing of nutrients and combined structural support.

Glow in the dark
Why waste money on lighting schemes when you could emit light from within?  Glittering microscopic plankton glow with a blue-green light when disturbed at night.

These little protists and copepods in the waters around Hadahaa contain a special substance called Luciferin which produces light in a chemical reaction with oxygen.  Although this enchanting habit makes them more obvious to us, it’s actually a defence mechanism. The sudden flash of light can confuse predators or cause them to feel vulnerable; like a call to reinforcements, it alerts even bigger hunters that there’s a potential meal nearby.

Decisions are hard, wouldn’t it be nice to instinctively know what everyone else is doing, and automatically do it too? Then think about trading places with the bait fish who love schooling around the island at this time of year.

A combination of sight and acoustic vibrations keep the discipline within schools, allowing all the fishy students to move, turn and swim with perfect cohesion. Fish prefer to stick with others about the same size with all of them keeping on average a distance of 0.7 body lengths apart.  There are no leaders of the group; the ones at the front frequently switch places when they change direction or scatter then re-group. There are many advantages of schooling; an obvious example being that hundreds of eyes are on the lookout for danger, or predators becoming easily confused during a chase, not knowing who to single out for supper. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Dive if you dare - the reef at night

As the little sister of two mischievous brothers, I’ve been subject to my fair share of practical jokes. So when many years ago, one of them suggested that we go night snorkelling, I thought “Ha! I’m not falling for it this time, what a ridiculous idea, we won’t see anything”. Then I was given an underwater torch and proved completely wrong.  The reef never sleeps; the familiar faces of the day are swapped for weird and wonderful creatures of the night. Jump in about half an hour before sunset and you’ll see the changeover, the fish take on a new lease of life, rushing around like maniacs, chasing each other and catching their dinner before bedtime.

Twilight feeders have an advantage; their light-loving prey cannot see properly in the fading sunshine, and their own nocturnal predators have not yet woken from their slumber. There is a word for this - Crepuscular- it sounds like some sort of disfiguring disease, but no, it’s used to describe an animal active mostly at twilight.  (Predictably it’s derived from Latin, which was absolutely my worst subject at school. Latin is annoyingly used extensively in Biology so my advice to mini Marine Biologists is to stay awake during Latin classes - they’re not lying, it’s useful!)

Groupers are often crepuscular feeders; if you stand on the jetty near our Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa sign you will often see the big daddies terrorising schools of innocent baitfish peacefully resting in the shallow waters.  Sharks have excellent night vision too and are particularly fun to encounter in the dark; like thieves in the night their eyes glow with menace. They have a reflective layer behind the retina called the “tapetum lucidum”, consisting of lots of tiny little plates covered in the splendidly shiny substance “guanine”. This multitasking molecule is not only found in sharks’ eyes, but it’s responsible for shiny things the world over, from the sheen of the shiniest fish to cosmetics. Even more incredible, it’s a vital component of DNA; does this mean that DNA is sparkly? Sadly I think not.

Nocturnal fish are usually carnivores, particularly if they feed on zooplankton. After dark, the bigger more delicious plankton rises from the deep, you can see it twitching and wriggling around in the beam of the torch. Herbivores such as parrot and surgeon fish are almost always diurnal, probably because finding food is easy but they need to be able to see what is edible and what is not. At night parrotfish really do bed down for the evening; they hide by wriggling into cracks in the coral and thanks to their lack of eyelids they fall into what looks like a “zombified” trance.  Some species of parrotfish sit inside a gooey bubble of mucus which is thought to prevent their scent from traveling through the water and also wards off the attack of blood sucking isopod parasites.  

Ugly squelchy things seem to prefer the cover of darkness too. Yesterday we saw the Maldivian sponge snail, and last week we came across a pair of mating sea-hares – giant slugs which can reach up to 30cm in length.  Many armed monsters such as imperial urchins and delicate feather stars emerge from hiding and little shrimps chirp away, their eyes glistening from the crevices. Part of the fun of night diving or snorkelling is that it allows you to focus your attention to only the small patch of reef illuminated by your light; so invariably you notice the detail of things.  Bioluminescent plankton produce the most magnificent magic trick of all; if you were to turn off your torch and flap your arms around in the dark silky water, little flashes of light no larger than pin pricks start appearing all around you - a truly beautiful reminder of the wonder of nature and how much life and excitement there is to find in the ocean.  
Twilight diving on the Hadahaa house reef

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Money can’t buy you love

It’s easy when you live in a 5* resort to become addicted to luxury. We’ve all been trained to demand high standards, to shudder at the thought of a towel being used more than once. But it’s also the Hyatt mission to provide authentic hospitality. By its very definition, you cannot teach authenticity so it’s lucky for us that generosity is at the very heart of Maldivian culture. As much as I love fish, it’s the people that have kept me in the Maldives; the local villages have humbleness and warmth that never fails to make my heart swell.
We recruit as much of the team as possible from the nearby islands. So when a guest comes to visit Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, they are not simply staying at a resort; they are welcomed into a community. This connection gives Hadahaa a sense of home. Tourists and locals are usually kept quite separate in the Maldives, it’s possible to visit a resort and have the feeling that you could be anywhere. But we want our guests to absorb the culture of the Maldives, to have memories of somewhere extraordinary.
Ahmed “Speedy” Nabeel is a waiter in The Dining Room and for eight months represented his island of Gemanafushi as a “Hyatt Thrive Ambassador”. He particularly looks forward to showing guests around his home island, I asked him to explain why

I feel very proud to show them my island. When we bring the guests we don’t tell the island to expect visitors; they are not seeing anything different to normal life. Sometimes we will arrange a special lunch for the guests. We don’t do it for money; it’s for them to experience. We just make normal local dishes. If they are vegetarian we have to think a little bit because we don’t eat a lot of vegetables, for us tuna and coconut is enough. I think the guests like it because they are getting to see the real Maldives, a different experience. The guests know me already from the resort, and when they come to the island they can meet my family and visit my house, they feel happy because they see the proper Maldives.  Only four years ago there were no resorts in the area, we never met foreigners, we were only fishing.

The guests feel that they are entering a different world. Of course, they get to understand traditional things like houses and food, but I think they also enjoy seeing a simple, relaxing life. No worries. No headaches. No traffic. When I step off the boat onto my island I feel all the tension leave my body, I don’t need to think about much.

We could never ignore someone who comes from somewhere else, if anyone new comes to the island, everyone knows; we think “that’s a visitor” and we will try to help them. If they need anything, we will try to provide them with those things. If somebody gets stuck, we will help them. When I left the Maldives I was surprised that people weren’t as friendly, only the people working in the shops really talked to me. That’s why I always want to live on my island because everyone knows each other. That’s the important thing, we are all friends, everybody will help everyone else, and there will always be someone to help you if you need it. 

Speedy conducting a careers workshop for some local kids