Conservation volunteering in the Maldives – part 4

The final part of my story of an amazing two weeks on a beautiful island in the Maldives, where I volunteered as a research assistant for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme.

Tue 24th February:
I got up early to see the sun rise and watch herons on the lagoon. The sea was slightly rougher again when we set off. Once again we saw a hawksbill turtle not far from Dhigurah. There were lots of vessels around Maamigilli all looking for whale sharks again, but there were none around. We took the ‘environmental variables’ again, at three regular sites, using the Secchi disk to measure the visibility and an apple to measure the strength and direction of the current.
 
Grey heron taking off
 
We recorded 26 vessels and two turtles (the one I spotted was actually a piece of cardboard, I was told). We returned to the island just past Maamigilli, to drag snorkel along the reef. I saw a white-tip reef shark, a large moray eel, two parrotfishes having a fight and lots of large shoals of other fish. I was getting cold when the boat stopped and once on board again I began to feel sea-sick for the first (and only) time on this trip. I lay on the bench seat as we returned to port.
 
Wed 25th:
Before setting off, the researchers calibrated the lasers on the camera used for whale shark measuring. We cruised a short way to a snorkelling site known as the Arches. The visibility was good and it was teeming with fish. There was a group of pipefish and several anemones with attendant clownfish, and shoals of vivid yellow snappers.
 
Laser camera set-up for measuring whale sharks

Blackfoot anemonefish on their anemone (photo: Katie Hindle, MWSRP)
  
We continued to Maamigilli and recorded all the vessels, cruising on for another hour or so. Only on the return did we see the first and only hawksbill turtle of the day. On the way back to Dhigurah we stopped again to snorkel at the Arches. There were dolphins around when we arrived. The researchers could hear their high pitched calls, but with my old ears I couldn’t. This time we saw a pair of morays, looking menacing. The winds were lighter today and the sea state calmer, so I had no problem with sea-sickness. In the evening, Katie and I wandered about looking for fruit bats. There were plenty around, but they are difficult to photograph.
 
Menacing moray eels
 
The endangered Maldivian fruit bat
Thu 26th:
We had a 10am start today, so I had some extra time to photograph lizards and try to record the calls of the Asian koel (a type of cuckoo).
 
The Oriental garden lizard has a very long tail
 
The males are more colourful
 
 Calls of the elusive Asian koel
 
When we set off in the dhoni it was a bit rough at first, but soon calmed down. The wind dropped and it became extremely hot on the roof of the boat. As usual, there was one hawksbill turtle on the way to Maamigilli and lots of vessels to record when we arrived. Shameel thought he’d seen a whale shark, so I hurriedly got ready to go in the water, but it was a false alarm – just a shoal of fish. We had a snorkel anyway, though the water was rather deep. There were large shoals of shiny blue fusiliers, a big grouper and two octopuses. We continued on for a while, then turned around, heading back to Maamigilli. Three spinner dolphins passed while I was having lunch.

Black-saddle coral grouper
 
We reached the harbour at Maamigilli and went to a café for a while before Katie took me to the terminal building to check in for my scenic flight in the ‘Flying whale shark seeplane’. The flight only lasted 20 minutes, but it was wonderful to see the reefs and islands from the air in such a small plane. It’s also a good way to spot whale sharks, though there were none around on this occasion.
 
Part of South Ari atoll from the air
 
Dhigurah island from the air
 
The flying whale shark
 
We returned to the boat and set off for the Arches snorkelling site. Just before we got there, we spotted some dolphins splashing around. One kept waving its tail in the air, then smashing it into the water. There seemed to be at least four groups of dolphins, of about 10 in each group. We continued to the Arches and snorkelled. The current was strong and I kept being swept off the reef into deep water. Katie towed me back each time, her huge freediving fins being much more effective than my short ‘travel’ fins. That was my last day on the dhoni, so I said goodbye to the captain and crew, who have been wonderful.
 
An aggregation of dolphins
 
Crew man Alam was always there to help me back on the boat
(photo: Katie Hindle, MWSRP)
Fri 27th:
Shameel has returned to Male on an early morning flight. I’d hoped to photograph the crabs digging out their holes this morning, but the tide had not covered the old holes, so there was very little activity.

Stalk-eyed ghost crab

I walked up the track through the forest, photographing a few lizards, then went onto the beach to continue the walk to the southern tip of the island. There is only a narrow channel through the sand bank separating Dhigurah from the next island.

The southern tip of Dhigurah

I walked half way back and stopped to have a swim. I didn’t expect much marine life in the lagoon, but there were sand gobies and reef-top pipefish. Wherever there was some coral, it was occupied by a selection of reef fish. I returned to TME for lunch, then went back to the beach in the afternoon, with the GoPro on a pole, to film the pipefish. The gobies retreated into their holes when they saw the camera and refused to come out while it was there.

Wobbly video of the Reef-top pipefish

Later I attended another beach clean organised by TME guest house. We were driven in the truck to the point where we finished last time. Once again there were about 30 people taking part and we cleaned about half a mile of beach. 95% of the rubbish here is plastic water bottles. There really must be a better way of supplying drinking water, like getting it out of a tap perhaps.
 
Plastic water bottles line the beach
Sat 28th:
I spent the day wandering around, taking the last photos of streets, lizards and beaches. Women were out with wheelbarrows, sweeping the streets and cleaning the town. Katie said goodbye at lunch-time, as she was going to a conference on the next island in the afternoon. She gave me a whale shark photograph with messages of thanks from Shameel and herself, which was very kind of them. At 6:30 the guest house manager took me by car to the harbour where I got a speedboat to Maamigilli airport. Katie was back from her conference, so I met her at the harbour (and got another hug!). It’s been an amazing two weeks. Thank you Katie and Shameel, Alam and the Captain, and all at TME guest house for giving me a wonderful holiday.
 
Maldivian sunset

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