Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Tourism can help threatened turtle populations in the Maldives - Richard Aspinall reports.

There’s nothing like spending time underwater with a reef full of turtles, it’s easy to forget yourself as your scuba cylinders get ever emptier and the turtles eye you cautiously, more interested in dozing and perhaps rubbing against a piece of coral to remove a troubling pest, than they are in one of the many divers that visit them, keen to see the Green Turtles of Kuredhu.

To my left the ancient rock that underpins the atoll descends deeper into the channel, the Kandu as the locals call it, and to the right, there are layers of reef.  Long shelves of rock and coral, fractured and riven by time.  In and amongst this scenery the turtles sleep.  Later, in the tropical night they will explore the shallow reefs to graze on sea grass, their primary food source, staying shallow and avoiding with luck, the free-floating discarded fishing gear that ensnares many of their relatives.

I’m in the Maldives, on the Lhaviyani Atoll, to the north of the capital Male.  It’s the first time I’ve been back in ten years and things have changed.  Male is expanding, an influx of foreign investment, mainly from China, has seen the island grow as a lagoon is filled in, to make way for a new airport.  An artist’s impression of the capital to come, is rich in glass and steel.  I’m reminded of Dubai or Doha and a flier I find in the airport makes it clear that the Maldives is open to investment and development.

It’s easy to be despondent about the Maldives’ embrace of mass market tourism and the impact it will have on fragile ecosystems already threatened by coral bleaching events and ocean acidification.  A bleaching event in summer 2016 has left many of the reefs of the northern atolls significantly degraded.  An increasing number of visitors from south east Asia and the Middle east can of course secure the future of what is still a developing country, but every new resort adds pressure to a country blessed with few natural resources other than islands created and maintained by the living coral.

Despondency is commonplace amongst the marine conservation community, yet every so often there are projects that show a better way forward.  Take energy for example, Every Maldivian resort I’ve visited has its own diesel-powered generator, tastefully hidden away from tourist view of course, but still present and demanding regular fuelling.  The resort I’m staying at, Hurawalhi, is I hope, indicative of a more sustainable future.  Solar panels generate roughly thirty five percent of the resort’s electricity consumption and a desalination plant limits the need for that great scourge of the ocean, the disposable plastic water bottle.  Discarded water bottles are often seen away from the well-kept tourist beaches and many will have the remains of hermit crabs within them.  A sad analogue of lobster pots.

But back to turtles.  The resort hosts a diving centre, as most do, but what is unique, at least in my experience is the presence of a marine biologist employed by the UK charity, the Manta Trust.  The post is funded by the resort and dive centre, and indirectly by the guests.  I met Lisa, a young and enthusiastic German by birth, for a trip to snorkel with the manta rays and as we stood on the bow, looking out across the atoll’s central lagoon she told me about how diving tourism was helping wildlife.  I had been concerned about the impact sport fishing might have on sharks, and it was Lisa that first told me of the ban on commercial shark fishing, enacted in 2010 and the catch and release policy, when sharks were caught in sport fishing. I still find sport fishing unpleasant but that’s my personal view, I’m not entirely sure the stress placed on sharks during their capture, however brief, won’t have severe impacts upon their health. We chatted about the juvenile blacktip reef sharks, common in the very shallow waters around the island and how you could tell new arrivals to the resort by their reaction to these skittish fish, sheltering from predators in the shallows and how when I first visited the Maldives, shark finning was still commonplace and many tourist shops would sell you a set of shark jaws for a few dollars.  Progress has been made and live sharks are worth more than dead ones.

Soon enough we spotted mantas, three of them, cruising deep below us.  Their two procephalic fins that descend from either side of the mouth to help channel plankton towards their open gapes, were ‘stowed’ and they were not feeding.  Getting close would not be possible, I was content to watch them pass us by.

We chatted about the turtles.  “you can name one if you want.” Lisa said.  I looked puzzled.  “the greens have unique markings on the side of their heads, so get a picture and if it’s new to us, you get to name it.”    In between   leading snorkelling trips and dives Lisa is monitoring the local turtle populations, building an idea of numbers.  So far, the list shows around 100 Green turtles on the atoll and when I finally send my photos over, GRNew24 is added to the list and becomes: ‘Turtley McTurtleface’, I suspect I should be embarrassed.  

Turtley McTurtleface
Around 500 Green turtles have been identified across the Maldives, making the local population regionally significant.  The Greens are rarer than their Hawksbill cousins, around 2800 of them have been identified so far.  Some resorts have removed their sea grass ‘meadows’ to keep their beaches white with turquoise seas as websites promise, yet these habitats are fascinating and surprisingly useful in trapping sand to protect from storms and to maintain the islands’ structure.
On my last day, I hopped aboard a small boat to the nearby Island of Naifaru, a place for locals and not tourists.  I wanted to visit the Atoll Marine Centre to understand their work and see their turtle rescue centre. 

Local islands are, entirely different to tourist islands as you might imagine.  Single storey houses and shops and a new school were bustling with activity despite the tropical sun.  you can still find older buildings with walls built from coral on occasion and outside houses old plastic containers are filed with plants for colour and vegetables.  The conservation centre, staffed by European volunteers and part of a wider community project (Naifaru Juvenile), centres around a series of low, shallow tanks, each holding young turtles.  It’s feeding time, so many have been placed in old washing up bowls to feed messily on tuna, before they’re returned to the cleaner water of the main tanks.

 The team tell the visiting tourists how turtles are kept as pets by some people on the islands, and of course, there are several animals missing flippers from accident or injury.  Some turtles are in home-made cradles to keep them buoyant, entanglement with discarded fishing gear and other jetsam has left them unable to dive due to a build-up of gas between their shells and other tissue.  Over time every rehabilitated animal will be returned to the ocean.  I spend all the money I have on me in the small gift shop and ask them to keep the change.  
So many of the turtles at the centre are the Olive Ridley species.  Olive Ridley turtles spend far more of their time in the open water and are consequently much more likely to become entangled in discarded fishing gear.  Several days after my return to the UK, Lisa sent me some images of a massive ghost net ‘conglomerate’ with four Olive Ridley turtles entrapped within it.  A sickening sight.

The mass of old net, rope and plastic was brought to shore by the dive centre and disposed of properly, removing a threat that would wander the Indian Ocean for years if not dealt with and the turtles freed and released, but many more similar floating traps remain.


All photos provided/credited to Richard Aspinall. To find out more about Richard Aspinall please visit:

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Lesley Foden's Round Britain Row 2017

On June the 3rd, Lesley Foden set off on a round Britain Row. Lesley is from  Newbury in Berkshire, and is 60 years old. She is undertaking the row of 1800 miles to inspire older people to exercise, raise awareness of plastic pollution in the seas and to raise funds for Lifeboats. A keen supporter of Sea-Changers and the work we do to support UK marine conservation, Lesley made time just before she set off to tell us about her row. 

Lesley, tell us about your rowing adventure?

The row is the circum-navigation of Britain starting on 3 June. It's organised by Rannoch Adventure. They build ocean rowing boats and renovate them. The person who is organising this row is Angus Collins. Angus has been in the winning crew of the last two Talisker Whisky Cross Atlantic Challenges. He has lots of experience which is why I am happy to put myself in his hands.

The row goes around Britain and takes eight weeks weather permitting. We come ashore once a week to change crew because most people involved are only doing a week or maybe two. Hence you need to come aboard once a week to swap over. I however I'm going all the way around.

During the week we are rowing it is around the clock rowing, 24 hours a day. We don't stop. The shift pattern is two hours on, two hours off. That may change, depending on conditions. During your time off you are not just sat there doing nothing. You have to take care of your needs, take care of feeding yourself, maybe preparing food for others, making sure everyone else is okay, navigating, steering, chart plotting, making sure we are on course and just generally keeping a lookout. I haven't worked out how it's going to happen yet but I'm sure system will fall into place.

Why are you taking on such a massive challenge?

It started out as a bit of an idea for attention but like all these things you soon think well actually, if I'm going to all this effort I'll make it count for something. Rannoch are raising money for RNLI, which of course I support. To me the environment is very important and I thought marine plastic pollution was a massive issue which is why I am concentrating on that, to raise awareness.

There are a lot of personal reasons why I wanted to do the row. Some of them I thought about beforehand such as showing my daughter, who is 19, that it's possible to make something happen, no matter how crazy, just keep going and if you fail it won't be because you've given up, it will be because somethings stopped you and that's fine. Some reasons have become apparent as I've gone along, learning about me, what makes me tick, what I find hard.

Hopefully seeing all the wildlife, seeing plastic. I'll be taking along a bird ID book and a marine life book. When we arrived two or three weeks ago we saw what we thought was a piece of paper floating up near the surface but it was a flounder to come up to eat. We saw lots of seals. I'm also looking forward to such a different perspective. I'm going to feel so privileged to be able to look at our island from the outside all the way around, to know I am out there looking in. Hopefully it won't be scary.

One of the things I'm going to find hardest is the psychological side of being on a small boat with four other people. No chance of escape for a week at a time. I think I'll be really ready to get off the boat at the end of that week even if it’s only for half an hour.

Will you get a chance to speak to your family as you go along?

We will have mobile phones on board. My husband is going to try to join me at at least four stops which will be great. We also have friends who have a boat and they are going to sail around with my husband and daughter to try and find us in Scotland.

I think I will probably get quite homesick for a few days just been thrown into a totally alien environment so I'm stealing myself for feeling absolutely at sea. I think once the first week is over I'll be able to start to breathe again but I'm looking forward to that moment when I'm sitting there rowing, navigating, when I'm not panicking about this. I'm doing it and I'm understanding it and I'm surviving.

Tell me more about Marine Plastics?

Plastics really are a major thing and the stats are really terrifying. I feel very passionate that I'm going to carry on with this course for ever, it's become a major thing for me, not just sea plastics but plastic in general because, of course, a lot of plastic in the ocean starts on the land.

One of the images that sticks in my mind is an albatross chick that was found half decayed with plastic sticking out of it. Someone created and arranged all the pieces of plastic on a large black background and there were 276 pieces and that's nothing. That’s happening to so much marine life and that's what we see. I think it's the tip of the iceberg. There's got to be so much more under the surface and it's got to be effecting us. It has to be effecting our health. It's certainly effecting the quality and quantity of fishing stocks. What are we eating now? We are eating what we thrown. Plastics got to stop. A lot of people are talking about it now, it's gaining traction and there is a ground swell. A lot more impetus now it's coming from companies rather than just individuals, global companies are now looking at it and once they have made the move we all will. It's so encouraging. From my first reading about plastic pollution I've become hooked.

You can read more about Lesley’s Row and track her progress here.

All at Sea-Changers wish Lesley lots of luck in her adventures and we look forward to hearing all about it on her return. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

'Adventure Underwater' Supporting our Oceans

Sea-Changers supporters, Paul and Laura Manfield started diving in 2009 and it has been a life changing experience for them. Paul tells their dive story and how it has led them to want to given back to the oceans they love. 


'My wife Laura and I completed our Open Water course in the Maldives in December 2009 on a small atoll called Biyadhoo, during that week’s diving I fell in love with being under water. As we travelled back to the airport on a speed boat I suggested too Laura we should set up a business involving diving and underwater photography and videography, and spread our new found enthusiasm to as wide an audience, as we could. It was a dream I thought would probably never happen, and when we arrived home we went back to our normal lives.It took another four years before I literally took the plunge and booked to do all my courses and exams with a dive centre in Peurto Del Carmen.

Laura Manfield

I moved to Lanzarote in April 2013 to become a PADI dive instructor, I wanted to change my life big time and this idea came top of my list, to help me achieve that goal. Before that I was an advanced diver with only 30 dives under my belt, so I had plenty to learn.After three months of solid work I qualified and become an instructor and began my dream of having a life in diving.  After working for a dive centre in Costa Teguise for a year and gaining experience, I left to start my own business and Adventure Underwater came to life.

My passion in life is to introduce new people to the beautiful underwater world that I see every day. I start the process with a tour of the local aquarium here in Costa Teguise so my clients can see the fish up close and personal, and to educate them a little about the importance of looking after our oceans.After the tour we take them either snorkeling or diving which ever they prefer, and while they are in the water Laura videos them and then edits a short film about 5 minutes long that capture the experience for them. During the time we spend with our clients we discuss marine and conservation projects and try to get them engaged in some way. We take a wide cross section of ages ranging from 10 to 80 years old, in all shapes and sizes, and I love seeing their amazement at how beautiful being in the ocean can be.Our customer base has a 55 – 45% split in favour of the men, we have huge interest from the women which surprised me at the start as I believe the norm in diving would be 80 – 20 % split, men V women.

Paul Manfield
I am going to do my best to get more people involved in our oceans care. I want others to see and feel like I do about the importance the oceans play in our lives.As we develop our business I want to really work on getting more people involved with marine conservation projects in the UK, after they go home from their holiday here, I don’t just want them to forget their experience with us, I want it to be the start of something for them.'