Mantas in the Maldives

Latest update September 22, 2018 Started on August 31, 2018

Despite being nearly 99% ocean and relying enormously on the ocean for tourism and fisheries, marine education in schools is largely lacking in the Maldives. Many of the students have little opportunity to snorkel and engage with the marine environment surrounding their islands.

Can we use technology and underwater ROVs to excite and inspire young Maldivians to put on a mask and snorkel, learn to swim, and one day protect the precious marine ecosystem they call home?

August 31, 2018
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Flossy Barruad - MMRP Education and Outreach Officer

As a child, I used to love rock-pooling in the UK, sorting through seaweed to find tiny fish and anemones. Through my teenage years I spent hours snorkeling in Greece, diving to collect abalone shells scattered across the seafloor like treasure and becoming fascinated by octopus, ink-ejecting squid and what I now know to be needlefish. I learnt to scuba dive when I was 13 in a cold, muddy lake in the UK, and for a few years was put off diving for good! I discovered another passion – working with children. I have always loved children, and went from babysitting throughout my school years to working as a personal carer during my undergraduate degree at Northumbria in Childhood and Disability Studies. I loved my degree and learnt a lot about childcare, teaching, and social equality, but during my second year realised I had overlooked my love for the underwater world. In summer of 2015 I travelled to Honduras and rediscovered diving (the right way!), and truly fell in love with the ocean and all the weird and wonderful creatures it hides. Whilst in Honduras I completed a Marine Conservation internship with the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Centre, meeting inspirational marine biologists and advocates from all over the world and instilling in me a desire to protect the oceans in any way I can.

I was lucky enough to get accepted onto an MSc in Marine Environmental management at the University of York in September 2016. This course changed the course of my life. During a placement with the Manta Trust in the Maldives, I split my time between manta ray research and developing a marine education program with local school students. I conducted research on the effectiveness of this marine education program for improving students marine environmental knowledge, awareness or pro-environmental attitudes. The program had a heavy snorkeling focus, and I was shocked to discover that many of the female Maldivian teenagers we were teaching could not swim and had never seen the beautiful world under the waves. They literally had coral reefs, fish, dolphins and turtles on their doorstep and had never witnessed them. In fact, many of them were scared of the sea.

The placement cemented the career path that had been just an inkling of an idea beforehand – combining my two passions and working in the education and outreach side of marine conservation. Finally, in June 2018, I started the job of my dreams – Education and Outreach Officer for Manta Trust, based in the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve – one of the best places to see manta rays in the world.

My role mainly involves developing and conducting Marine Education Programs with local schools in Baa Atoll. I am currently completing a 4-month marine education program with 28 secondary school students from Baa. Dharavandhoo School. This year, we are also starting 1-day outreach programs with all the local schools in Baa Atoll (13 schools) in partnership with the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve Office. We will work with the biosphere reserve rangers to deliver marine education presentations and take all the secondary school students snorkeling, with an aim to get all the kids snorkeling with mantas in the world-famous Hanifaru Bay first-hand!

There is a lot still to do to improve marine education and conservation in the Maldives, and get every young female in the area confident at swimming and snorkeling, but I am passionate and ready for the challenge. As Baba Dioum famously said: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

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Simon Hilbourne - MMRP Research and Administration Officer

The marine world has always fascinated me. I first experience the tropical oceans in Sri Lanka where my family lived for a few years. I would watch my parents scuba diving below from the safety of floating on a bodyboard on the surface. It wasn’t until I was a bit older and my family moved to Thailand that I learn to scuba dive. I quickly fell in love with the ocean and marine live and carried on up to getting my dive instructor qualification before a MSci in Marine Biology from the University of Southampton.

My final year thesis was on whale shark distributions in La Paz, Mexico. I carried on working with whale sharks for a little while before moving over to the Manta Trust to study manta rays. I have been with the Maldivian Manta Ray Project for 2 years now as the research and administration officer. My role involves co-ordinating many of the scientific research activities at our base in Baa Atoll.

Technology can definitely play an important role in scientific research and conservation. We have already shown that with the use of aerial drones, underwater timelapse rigs, and stereo-video measurement systems. Technology is also a great way to engage people in the marine environment. The Manta Trust has already used virtual reality headsets effectively to engage and connect CITES conference delegates to manta rays, a species they had no previous connection with. I would love to be able to do a similar thing with local children in the Maldives through the use of an underwater drone.

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Expedition Background

The Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), the founding project of the Manta Trust has been building and developing a marine education programme to run with local schools and communities around the country. Despite being nearly 99% ocean and relying enormously on the ocean for tourism and fisheries, marine education in schools is largely lacking in the Maldives.

The MMRP first started its marine education programme back in 2015. Every year the programme has grown larger. Based primarily in Baa Atoll in the Maldives, we move the education programme to a different island and thus different local school each year. We have run the full education programme with Kamadhoo and Kendhoo schools here in Baa atoll as well as two schools in Laamu atoll. In addition we have run one off marine education sessions with numerous other schools around the country. This year, our focus island is Dharavandhoo in Baa atoll with grades 7 to 9. This island is the closest local island to Hanifaru Bay – the most famous place in the world to snorkel with reef mantas. Through conducting the programme over the last few years at local schools across the country we have noticed an alarmingly high number of students who have never snorkelled or at least swum in the ocean. This is partly due to cultural difference and a lack of opportunities especially among young girls.

As in previous years, the modules which will be covered include marine ecosystems of the Maldives, coral reefs and megafauna, pollution and waste management, and marine management. Each module also has an associated practical activity and field trip excursion. Some of the practical activities we ran with the students in the past include making and decorating their own cloth reusable bag from old bed sheets, tour of resort waste and recycling facilities, in-water fish and coral ID, turtle survival game, painting a climate change wall mural, and a manta ray snorkel in Hanifaru Bay.

The Trident OpenROV would be very useful in both the ecosystems and coral reefs modules as the classroom practical activity. As a team of marine biologists, we would be able to engage with the children and explain what we are seeing on the drone in real time. Local islands in the Maldives have very easy access to the sloping reef and reef drop off and with a 100m tether we could easily explore the rich biodiversity but also highlight the severe effects global warming and coral bleaching has had on the Maldives reefs. The students will have to identify what is alive, bleached and dead coral from the drone live feed and discuss how that could affect the reef as a whole. With an OpenROV Trident drone we would be able to show the children the beauty of the reefs that surround their island and hopefully inspire a desire to learn to snorkel and one day protect the oceans around them better.


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