Author Archives: Richard Rees

A volunteers perspective by Sameer Swarup

I remember chancing upon an advertisement for the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme on Facebook and having my interest piqued by the words “Whale Shark”. It was those two words that compelled me to commit to a research programme I had never heard of and to make a 2 week long trip to a country I had never been to. I wanted to swim with the biggest fish in the sea. I wanted to dive down into the ocean and be next to these gentle giants. I wanted to watch them swim out into the big blue, watching their gigantic tail slowly recede into the abyss.

Thus, I joined this programme with the hopes of making some whale shark friends who would make my stay in the Maldives an enjoyable and memorable one.  I got my wish of swimming and diving with whale sharks, being able to fully appreciate their calm and gentle nature underwater. I got to connect with each shark as an individual, identifying them by their spot patterns and learning about the stories behind their scars.

Diving down to meet Coco, the first whale shark we encountered

With that being said, my experience would not have been as memorable if I didn’t get to connect with each staff and volunteer member as an individual as well. You meet some incredible people on this programme; people who are passionate about environmental conservation and who want to go out and make a difference. You get to spend time diving and observing corals and other megafauna such as turtles and rays, learning about the threats each life form faces due to climate change and discussing potential solutions.

But perhaps most importantly, you get to bond and create amazing relationships with the people on this programme. You can tell right off the bat the people who run this programme are dedicated to ensuring each and every volunteer feels at home in Dhigurah. From having ‘family dinners’ at the guest house to playing music from Blue Planet II whilst on the dhoni looking for whale sharks to having night swims in the bioluminescent water, it is impossible for you not to fall in love with the people you meet and the experiences you have out on the ocean and to come away with a volunteer experience of a lifetime.

Sameer volunteered with us in July 2019. For more information on how you can get involved as a volunteer with MWSRP please click here

It is with great excitement that MWSRP introduces the latest research tool to our toolkit – ‘Valla’ is a Yuneec Typhoon H hexacopter. Valla is the dhivehi word for the beautiful terns that nest in South Ari MPA.

Our new hexacopter!

Our new hexacopter!

Made possible through your generous support for the t-shirt fund raiser held by MWSRP in August, the hexacopter will soon be flying high above the waves of the South Ari atoll MPA. It promises to add a superb extra dimension to MWSRP’s whale shark survey work.

The MWSRP has earmarked three pilot projects for the first 6 months of usage. They are;

  1. To carry out exactly repeatable survey transects of the reef for whale shark counts. The hexacopter is fully programmable to fly between GPS waypoints, allowing it to consistently follow an exactly defined survey path. From a scientific perspective this is very important in controlling experimental variables. It allows testing of whale shark numbers against other changeable environmental variables of research interest, such as lunar stage, tidal state and sea surface temperatures, as well as opportunistic comparisons of control surveys versus periods of coral spawning etc. The MWSRP does this to some extent by vessel already, but the current method has frailties in terms of consistency. Not to mention, the team get in the water whenever they see a whale shark, while the hexacopter will just record and move on! The footage obtained will not be ‘real time’, so the hexacopter will not be able to be used for finding and counting whale sharks directly. The high definition 4K camera on board will record the 25 minute survey, with the team reviewing footage and counting whale sharks at a later date.
  2. To assess the feasibility of measuring whale sharks from the air using exact elevation to triangulate the total length (TL) of the shark. A research idea borrowed from cetacean researchers, this method offers another method for establishing whale shark size to complement the in water methods of laser photogrammetry, tape measure and estimation. Accurate and precise measurements of a whale sharks’ overall length are key to growth rate and population demographic studies, as sexual maturity is linked to size in whale sharks. By adding another measurement method to compare against the current systems, the team hope to refine the precision of all methods and so boost the quality of the research outputs.
  3. To gather undisturbed whale shark behavioural imagery data. No matter how closely you follow the whale shark encounter best practice guidelines to reduce the impact your presence in the water has on the whale shark, the fact that you are there and that the vessel you are using is in the proximity means you cannot, from a scientific perspective, completely remove your presence as a potential cause of any behavioural activities being observed. Whale sharks are evolutionarily highly evolved to detect and react to stimuli in their underwater environment. Humans splashing around with fins and masks and boat engines are definitely something that would be noticed! But a hexacopter hovering well above the shark, in the air and away from its carefully crafted senses will likely to go completely undetected by the shark. This means that true behaviour can be observed and compared to environmental and other variables, as well as compared to the behaviour of the shark when the team is in the water to see actual responses to human presence. It really is a game changer in terms of no-impact scientific observations for whale sharks.

We’re hoping one by-product of this research is to capture breath-taking imagery of the sharks undisturbed in their wonderful natural environment to be shared with and appreciated by all who have an interest in this species, and to bring the majesty of this species into the eyes of those who are yet to come under its spell!

The MWSRP will be operating the hexacopter to guidelines which minimise or remove any disturbance or privacy concerns other water users or nearby resorts may have. The top concern is to capture innovative research data in a way that does not disturb others.

The MWSRP welcome any communications from people interested in the hexacopter, its capabilities, the research it will conduct and the research outputs it creates. Please email info@maldiveswhalesharkresearch with any questions, comments or concerns you may have about this exciting new tool.