Posts Tagged ‘Maldives’

Underwater Photography

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

scorpionfish

scorpionfish


Issue 54 of Underwater Photography magazine dropped into my inbox recently. Underwater Photography magazine is a free electronic publication by Peter Rowlands (thanks Pete!). Don’t be fooled by the cost, it’s a highly polished publication, worthy of attention by anyone serious about getting into the water with a camera.

When it comes to taking photographs underwater, there’s lots of good advice out there about technique and equipment. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in underwater photography, but I’ve picked up a few simple tips that I haven’t found mentioned anywhere else, so I’d like to share them with you.

I’ve used two cameras underwater, a Nikon Coolpix 990 in an Ikelite housing with an attached strobe, and a Canon Ixus 400 in Canon’s own WP-DC800 housing.

The Ikelite housing is a work of art, but it’s big, and when you dive with it, you can’t ignore it. The controls are big and chunky, easy to manipulate even if you’re wearing thick gloves – which I wasn’t, since I only used it in the Maldives, where you’re not supposed to dive with gloves. It doesn’t wobble around in your hand, you can get a good grip on it thanks to its large handles.

The Canon housing is much smaller, and has correspondingly smaller controls. It could conceivably fit into the pocket of your BCD, though I wouldn’t recommend that as it can be uncomfortable when you inflate your BCD. I prefer the Canon housing for it’s compactness, though I found the Ikelite easier to use in some ways, precisely because of its size.

Clownfish at Giraavaru Thila

Clownfish at Giraavaru Thila

So what have I learned about using them? Firstly, one of the most important pieces of kit for underwater photography is your dive-buddy. A buddy who knows what you want to photograph, and helps you find it, is a great asset. It’s all too easy to get engrossed in taking photos and to forget to look out for your buddy as you do so, so it’s important to have your buddy in tune with what you’re doing and how you dive.

Your buddy can help in other ways too. For static subjects, having your buddy illuminate the scene with a diving-lamp is a great help. You shouldn’t rely on flash alone to light your subject for several reasons. For one, it’s not nice to the fish to just set off a flash in front of them, if there’s a constant source of illumination they can at least adapt to it, and the flash is then less of a glare. Using flash to supplement the light, instead of as the main source of light, is kinder to them.

Whitemouth moray (Gymnothorax meleagris) at Giraavaru Thila It’s also very hard to frame the photo well in the viewfinder if it’s poorly lit. With your mask and the camera-housing between you and the screen, your view is somewhat restricted. Having the scene well lit by a buddy helps enormously. Of course, many shy creatures won’t stay around for the light, but if anything, the noise of your bubbles will probably scare them more than the light.

If you’re relying on autofocus, again, a well-lit scene is important. But even then, modern cameras can easily get confused underwater. Floating particles in the water can distract the camera, and it may have a hard time identifying the subject. This is especially true if you are trying to photograph something at the back of a hole, or hidden away somewhere in a coral reef. If you know what you are looking for before you dive, you might want to lock the camera focus at an appropriate distance, and simply press the button when you are at the right distance from your subject. That still leaves some guesswork, but at least the camera isn’t hunting for focus, draining the battery all the time.

If you do leave autofocus enabled, you can help the camera by setting it to focus only on the centre of the scene, instead of letting it guess which part of the scene you are interested in. It’ll probably guess wrongly underwater, and you can always crop the finished photograph to re-frame the subject.

The reef at Kihaa Rock

The reef at Kihaa Rock

Perhaps the best tip I have come across, thanks to Antonio, formerly of Ocean-Pro Dive-Team in Coco Palm resort, is to dive without the camera in the housing!

No, seriously, if you haven’t used the camera housing for a while, since your last diving holiday for example, consider taking the housing down without the camera in it first. That way, if there are any aging defects that will cause leaks, you get to find out about them without ruining your camera. You should test the housing to the maximum depth that you intend to use it, just to be sure. Thanks for the advice, Antonio!

These suggestions may not help you take the greatest photos ever seen, but I find they increase my success-rate for casual shots considerably. I hope you find them useful!
Giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus) with cleaner shrimp

What do you see in my blog?

Saturday, November 28th, 2009
black cheeked moray

black cheeked moray

On Monday, my blog will be one year old. It seems to be traditional to celebrate your first ‘blogiversary’ by reflecting on the previous year, asking people what they think of your blog, analysing your statistics, stuff like that. I’m not going to do that, … much.

By far the most popular article on my blog this past year has been Charles Darwins’ first theory of evolution, with Songs about Pollution a distant second. Quite why people are so fascinated with singing about pollution is beyond me, I’m not sure I really want to know, so I’m not going to analyse my stats more than that.

So, I’ve decided to celebrate my blogiversary by asking “What do you see in my blog”, but with a twist. Here are some photos of fish and other creatures that live on coral reefs. Some, like the black-cheeked moray at the top, are always easy to spot. Others manage to hide themselves well, even when you’re looking straight at them. That’s what these photos are about, and I invite you to see if you can identify them. Thanks to Earth, Wind & Water for giving me the idea.

As always, if you click on the photo you will get a larger version, which will definitely help in some cases. I’ll add a comment in a few days identifying everything, in case you can’t make them out.

Looking at these pictures again makes me wonder how many times I’ve looked at a reef and missed something. I’m sure it’s happened a lot, there’s so much life down there that I must surely have missed more stuff than I can imagine. That’s part of the magic of diving, you can dive the same place time and time again and still find new things to enjoy.

These photos were all taken in the Maldives, the only place I’ve dived with a camera. It takes a lot of practise and luck to get good underwater pictures. Some of the subjects are hard to see because the shots capture the way in which it blends in well with its surroundings, others are hard to identify because the photos are not really all that good. Never mind, here goes!

This first one is easy enough. It takes some practise to be able to spot them when you first start diving, but when you get the measure of them it’s often easy to find them – some of them, at least. In the Maldives, if not elsewhere, they can get quite large, 12-18 inches (30-45 cm), and often hide right on top of the reef at 15-30 feet (5-10 metres) depth, where the light is good.

mystery fish 1

mystery fish 1

This one is rather harder. I dived several times at this location, in Ari Atoll, but never once found this fish for myself. Even when you know where to look for them they’re hard to find. Like many smaller fish, they have a habit of turning themselves to present a narrow profile to larger creatures (such as me) to better avoid being spotted.

mystery fish 2

mystery fish 2

This one is even harder to identify. If you don’t know this fish exists, you probably won’t see it. Like the fish in the photograph above, it insisted on turning itself narrow-side on to me, making it harder to get a good picture of it. I wonder how many of these I’ve overlooked, this is the only one I’ve ever seen.

mystery fish 3

mystery fish 3

This one is the hardest of the lot. Even I have trouble making it out. I can see a fin easily enough, but to figure out exactly where the head is, the body, and the tail, that takes some scrutiny. If I recall correctly, I only saw this one because it moved.

mystery fish 4

mystery fish 4

This one is fairly easy. This is the only one of these I’ve ever seen, and it was big, about the size of a watermelon. I like diving close to the reef, moving slowly along it looking for small things hidden away. Finding myself almost eyeball-to-eyeball with this guy came as quite a surprise. Incidentally, this is one good reason not to touch the reef while diving. These things are poisonous to the touch, and well camouflaged.

mystery fish 5

mystery fish 5

Lastly, this is one of my favourite photos, though not one of my best. I wanted to get a picture of the banded boxer shrimp, but the camera chose to focus on something else instead, and I’m glad it did. So the question is, how many shrimps can you see in this photo? I’ll give you a hint, there are more than two.

how many shrimps do you see?

how many shrimps do you see?

Why is Copenhagen important?

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is hosting a conference in Copenhagen in December (United Nations Climate Change Conference, Dec 7-18, 2009). It’s supposed to negotiate a successor for the Kyoto protocol, to map the road for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses worldwide. As such, it’s an extremely important event, but how important is it really? Well, in the words of President Nasheed of the Maldives:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Until now, politicians everywhere seem to be claiming to be leaders in cutting emissions, while refusing to do anything until someone else does more. Everyone manages to find someone else to point the finger at. With all that hot air from the politicians it’s no surprise the globe is getting hotter!

There are few now who doubt that the global climate is being changed by mankind. Those who do are regularly debunked in the media as having not read or understood the scientific information they refer to, or they simply make up their own ‘facts’ to suit themselves. Some will tell you the climate is not changing. Some will tell you it is getting cooler. Some will say it’s getting warmer, but that it’s not our fault, or that it is our fault but it’s good for us, and so on. Like a child who hasn’t done his homework, they keep hunting for credible reasons.

On the other hand, scientists are agreed that the climate is changing, and that it’s our fault. Organisations as diverse as the World Bank and leading medical organisations around the world are calling for action to tackle climate change. Even religous leaders agree that the climate-change must be addressed.

If you personally have any doubts about the reality of global warming, one easy way to get some good information is to watch the Climate Denial Crock of the Week videos, by Peter Sinclair. These are a series of short videos that address some of the major claims by climate-deniers, showing where they are wrong in a very clear and entertaining manner. The facts are laid out very clearly, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Take a look, for example, at Denial was a River in Africa, and ask yourself if professor Hugh Montgomery might be correct in his claim that India is building a fence to keep Bangladeshi climate refugees out.

Other good starting places for more information on global warming are RealClimate.org and the New Scientist Guide for the Perplexed.

You do not have to look far to see evidence of climate change. The small island nation of Tuvala is already feeling the effects of rising sea-levels, while on the other hand, California is running out of water. Even the British government knows it must plan for a changing climate. Changing the climate in Britain might sound like a good idea, but it’s not. Decreases in rainfall will harm agriculture, while increased flooding will also occur. Even so, Britain will have it easy compared to other countries. August in Australia has been exceptionally warm this year, and the predictions are that it will only get worse there. These are only a few examples, there are many others, from all over the world. Just keep your eyes on the news, you’ll see more.

Back in July, a meeting of the G8 countries accepted that global warming should be limited to no more than 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees farenheit). The Alliance of Small Islands States has called for a limit of 1.5 degrees celsius, arguing that 2 degrees is too much. They’re right, even 2 degrees will be enough to drastically alter the climate of the earth. Our grandchildren will grow up in a world unlike the one we see today. 2 degrees is enough to ensure that, for example every summer in Europe is as hot as the summer of 2003, and that one killed tens of thousands of people.

So how do we limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees? To translate that number into action, you have to consider the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we can allow in the atmosphere. 2 degrees corresponds to about 400 ppm of CO2 (according to the IPCC). So far, so good, we’re below that according to the little counter on the left of this page. However, that’s not the whole story. Barry Brook points out that lower emissions-targets are even better, in order to slow down the damage from the warming that has already begun. It’s like turning down the heat before the milk boils, so it won’t boil over. 350 ppm is now the widely accepted target, enshrined in the campaign by Bill McKibben at 350.org. As you can see, we’re way above that target already!

Whichever number you pick, the important point is that we are already in a dangerous situation. The world’s climate is changing fast, and in ways that are not good. There will continue to be big changes in climate whatever we do, but it is not too late to do something about it, not too late at all. The faster we reduce emissions, the sooner we reduce the damage to the environment, and the less sufferring there will be for man and beast alike. That is why Copenhagen is so very important.

Reducing emissions fast is possible, we know enough to be able to do it. Cleaner energy, higher efficiency cars and electrical appliances, recycling, reducing waste, and all the other things we keep hearing so much about, these all add up. Sometimes it costs money, for large-scale infrastructure like replacing coal-fired power stations, sometimes it saves money instead. Many big companies are going green, despite the economic recession, so cost can’t really be a big issue.

For individuals, too, reducing your carbon footprint can be as easy as small changes in lifestyle, neither expensive nor difficult. It’s quite possible to reduce your electricity use by half, for example. Solving global warming is more a political problem than a technical one, persuading people at all levels (families through to governments) that it must really be done.

Individual action is very important, of course, but the Copenhagen meeting must succeed if we are to reduce emissions globally and really begin to tackle climate change. That is why we have to make sure that our leaders do the right thing, instead of getting wrapped up in petty arguments and worrying that they will lose the next election. People power is crucial to making Copenhagen a success, and one way in which you can express your personal-power is to get involved in some of the demonstrations that are being coordinated around the world in advance of the meeting. 350.org is organising an International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to? You might be glad you did, one day!

Diving in the Maldives

Sunday, September 13th, 2009
whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus)

whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus)

The Maldives claims to be the place where “even the sharks are friendly”. I’m not too sure I’d want to meet a ‘friendly’ shark, I’d settle for ‘indifferent’. In my experience, the sharks in the Maldives are definitely that, I’ve seen several dozen and they’ve never shown the slightest interest in me. That’s not the only reason why the Maldives is a fantastic place to dive, though it certainly helps. If you’re thinking of going there for a diving holiday, I can recommend it.

I’ve visited four islands on diving holidays, some of them two or three times. I learned to dive with Sea Explorer, at Reethi Beach (Baa atoll), back in 2000. I’ve dived at Machafushi (Ari atoll), where they have an impressive wreck, deliberately sunk on the house reef. I’ve also dived with Ocean-pro dive-team, at Coco Palm (Baa atoll) and Mirihi (Ari atoll).

It has to be said, none of the websites for the islands or their dive-schools do them justice. They are very pretty to look at, but don’t really give any idea of what it’s like to dive in those places. Hopefully, I can go some small way to filling that gap, with this and future articles.

clownfish

clownfish

The Maldives is a great place to learn. Shallow lagoons make for easy first lessons, and warm waters mean no messing around with thick wetsuits. The resorts all have a large variety of dive-sites to choose from, normally with a good range for all levels of ability and all interests, from beginner to expert diver. Many (if not all) of the resorts are PADI dive-centres, though I believe they also accept most other internationally recognised certificates. Your tour-operator can probably check for you if you are in any doubt.

Although PADI certify divers to 40 metres (120 feet) (with the Deep Diver certification), the Maldives imposes its own limit of 30 metres (90 feet). Diving below that is not permitted in order to limit disturbance to the environment. That’s not really a handicap, there’s plenty to see in that 30 metres. That said, it’s true that the scenery does change with the depth, and if you are limited to shallower depths by your certification, you might want to consider taking an extra course while you’re there, to get the full value from your dives.

lionfish (Pterois Volitans) at Kihaa Rock

lionfish (Pterois Volitans) at Kihaa Rock

You can dive on the house-reef of your resort, but most of the diving happens from boats. Depending on your resort, there may be one or two boats in the morning, and one or two in the afternoon. Reethi Beach, for example, run two boats in the morning, one which leaves early and does two dives (with an hour’s rest between them) and one which leaves later, doing only one dive. That lets you choose the pace you want for your holiday.

You have to sign up for the boat you want the day before, so they know how many people to expect. Places are limited on each boat, and some popular dive-sites get fully subscribed quickly, so depending on how fanatical your fellow holiday-makers are, you may have to be quick! If you miss out on a site you wanted to visit, just ask the dive-centre. They’ll be willing to re-schedule it soon enough, after giving a day or two to avoid over-diving at the same site, and you’ll get your chance.

scorpionfish

scorpionfish

Some resorts, Coco Palm is one of them, also organise all-day trips. The boat leaves Coco Palm early in the morning and takes in three dive-sites. You eat lunch on board, and because it’s a longer trip, you get to go to some of the farther sites, places that you might otherwise not get to. It can be quite tiring, but it’s great fun!

House reefs can also be a lot of fun. If you want a rest from the boats, a house-reef is a more leisurely dive. In fact, the house reef at Machafushi is the place I’ve dived at most in the Maldives. The ship sunk there attracts a great deal of life, and it was always a pleasure to dive there.

For first-time divers, there are a couple of specific tips I can think of. These apply anywhere, not just to the Maldives. First, if you’re hiring equipment from the dive-centre, check the pockets of your BCD when you collect it, in case there are extra weights in them. It’s quite possible that the previous user had bouyancy problems, in which case his or her instructor may well have put an extra kilo of weight in the pockets to help them. If they forgot to remove that weight, it could upset your own diving.

black cheeked moray eel (Gymnothorax Breedeni)

black cheeked moray eel (Gymnothorax Breedeni)

Second, if you’re assigned an instructor or divemaster to follow, make sure you know what they look like. That sounds trivial, but if you’re on your first open water dive, it’s quite possible to forget that, for example, your instructor is bald, and discover that the person you are following is not. Yes, I did that! Some instructors make a point of having mis-matched fins, one blue and one yellow, for example. This makes them easy to identify underwater.

banded boxer shrimp (Stenopus Hispidus)

banded boxer shrimp (Stenopus Hispidus)

Such mistakes are probably very rare, and you should not be put off from diving because I mention them. For divers of all levels, the Maldives has a lot to offer. There’s the big stuff, sharks, mantas, morays, fish and corals, which are always fun to see. But there’s also a lot of small stuff hidden away, and it’s a great incentive to improve your diving. Many of the smaller creatures live in small holes or under ledges, and you need good bouyancy control to be able to approach them without disturbing them or damaging the reef. I personally prefer looking for the smaller creatures, and find that diving slowly and close to the reef is more relaxing than swimming hard to cover a lot of ground.

The Maldives is a place where strong currents can occur, and some of the best diving is to be had where the current runs fast. Small fish come out from the reef to feed, big fish come to feed on the small fish, and corals will sometimes open, even during the day. Fighting against a current is hard work, so unless you know how to stay close to the reef and minimise your exertions you may soon find you are using up your air too quickly, or that you have reached the end of the reef early.

strong current at Anga Faru, Baa atoll (note the bubbles streaming away to the right!)

strong current at Anga Faru, Baa atoll (note the bubbles streaming away to the right!)

Either way, your dive will be over, and you will be back on the boat while other people are still enjoying their dives. Of course, if you’re going to stay close to the reef, you need to be very careful not to damage it, so you need to know what you are doing. The dive-centre staff will be happy to give you tips (thank you Robert Schneider!), and you should take every opportunity to talk to them and learn from them.

Even if you are certified to dive on your own, you may want to follow the divemaster or instructor, at least for a few dives. They will know the best places to look for small creatures and interesting things, which can help you learn how to find things for yourself. If you are more confident, heading out on your own away from other divers (but always with your buddy!) means there will be less people near you disturbing the animals you are looking for, which may make them easier to find.

One thing you really must try, even if you are a beginner, is a night-dive. The boat will leave around sunset, and you enter the water as twilight descends. You can still see where you are going and get your bearings, so there’s no difficulty in orienting yourself. Soon, the light disappears, and you and your buddy are left with your torches to explore a reef that looks very different to its daytime appearance. I once dived on the reef at Thiladhoo, in Baa atoll, in the afternoon and night of the same day. They could have been two completely distinct reefs, things were so different. Oh yes, I thoroughly recommend night-dives!

anthias and reef, Ari atoll

anthias and reef, Ari atoll

If you are planning to visit the Maldives in winter, you should consider getting flu vaccinations well before you fly. The last thing you want is to be paying 5-star rates to stay in bed with a cold, and you certainly can’t dive with a congested nose.

For a diving holiday, you will need at least two weeks, one week is just too short. You need a day to get over the jet-lag of getting there, and you can’t dive for 24 hours before your return flight, so a week just wouldn’t give enough time to dive.

More importantly, once you’ve dived in the Maldives, you’ll want to do it again. Even as you board the plane to come home, you’ll be trying to figure out when you can come back again. Take my word for it. Or better yet, don’t take my word, go there and find out for yourself!

Zemanta, and the Marine Conservation Society of the UK

Sunday, May 24th, 2009
Zemanta Firefox plugin
Image by Tom Raftery via Flickr

Zemanta recently won second prize in the Change the Web Challenge for web-innovation, and they are giving away the prize money to whichever charities most people vote for. Zemanta, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a tool for suggesting content (photos and links to related articles) to add to your blog, based on whatever you’ve already typed in. It works for WordPress, Blogger, TypePad, and a wole bunch of other blogging platforms. If you’re using FireFox, you can run it as a plugin in your browser, so you don’t need to install it on your blogging host.

You can try the interactive demo on their website. Just cut and paste the text from one of your old blog posts to replace the sample text they put there, hit the ‘run demo’ button, and see what pops out. I’m willing to bet you’ll be impressed. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

So, Zemanta, congratulations on winning that prize, and thank you for a great tool. Now on to my vote. I would like you to donate to the Marine Conservation Society UK, to help them with the work they do. The Marine Conservation Society UK is involved in a large number of activities around the British coast, and beyond. Coastline is something that Britain has lots of, so it’s an important charity!

They actively campaign to persuade the UK government to establish Marine Protected Areas, and encourage people to get involved at several levels, such as reporting sightings of basking shark, turtles, pink sea fan and many other creatures that can be seen in the seas around Britain. They encourage divers to become better observers by learning about their marine environment so they can in turn provide more accurate and useful observations to help drive conservation efforts.

Coral reefs in Papua New Guinea
Image via Wikipedia

They have a lot of educational resources for schools and project-suggestions for college students. They even organise coral reef surveys in the Maldives for recreational divers.

For the less well-heeled visitor to the British seaside, they monitor the state of beaches and publish an annual guide to the best beaches in the UK. This is not just cosmetic, many beaches pose health risks for swimmers, so knowing where to go is important. To help you get there, they even provide downloadable maps for your in-car GPS. How’s that for service!

Zemanta have had over 50 charities proposed to them so far, and will donate to the five that get the most votes. If you think that the Marine Conservation Society UK deserves a donation from them, all you need do is blog about it yourself, to add your vote.

Image representing Zemanta as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

This blog post is part of Zemanta’s “Blogging For a Cause” campaign to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes that bloggers care about.

The Coral Reefs of the Maldives

Friday, May 1st, 2009
Anthias on the reef

Anthias on the reef

Verena Wiesbauer is a marine biologist, with particular knowledge of coral propagation and restoration techniques. In March 2009, she gave a lecture to the Maldives Science Society. Someone in the audience filmed it, and was kind enough post it on google-video, so now you can all enjoy watching “The Coral Reefs of the Maldives” as I have.

I learned a lot from this presentation, it’s very educational and entertaining. There’s a ‘pop-quiz’ early on, in which you are asked to identify what type of plant or animal is being shown. I pride myself on having correctly recognised Coriocella (though I did have to look up how to spell it), having seen them in Baa Atoll a few years ago.

Verena tells us that the Maldives sits on a volcanic chain which forms the basement of the islands. These volcanoes were active around 67 million years ago, so around the time the dinosaurs were dodging asteroids. Coral first started growing on these volcanoes some 55-57 million years ago. Since then, sea-level has changed several times, most recently after the last ice-age when it rose dramatically as the ice melted and retreated. The Maldivian atolls were flooded at that time, and the upward growth of coral only succeeded in creating islands around 3000-4000 years ago. The actual coral growth in the Maldives now forms a layer about 2000 metres thick. That’s a lot of coral!

soft coral

soft coral

Having shown us some of the animals that live in and around the Maldivian reefs, Verena goes on to tell us about some of the problems that are affecting the reefs today. Beach erosion is a serious problem. With two monsoons each year, coming from different directions, it is natural for the sand to shift from one side of an island to the other during the year. In 2000, half of the islands were sufferring from beach erosion. There are simple measures that the Maldivians can take to protect themselves from the worst effects of such erosian, such as not building too close to the shoreline and using sand and aggregates imported from India for construction (instead of dredged from their own reefs).

They can also protect the islands by protecting the living reef. A living reef will protect against beach erosion by reducing the force of the waves as they come inshore, a dead reef will soon be destroyed by the waves and offer little or no protection. A reef needs at least 50% live coral-cover to provide adequate protection, few of the Maldivian reefs have that at this time.

There are other threats to the reefs too. The Maldivians themselves generate a lot of waste, and they have nowhere to put it. The island of Thilafushi is a municipal landfill, and there is concern that all sorts of toxic waste from it may leak into the ocean and harm the environment.

gorgonian sea fan

gorgonian sea fan

Discarded fishing-lines cause a lot of damage too. One horrible slide in the presentation shows a turtle that became entangled in a fishing-line while it was young. It survived, and grew up with the fishing-line constricting its growth. I’ve never seen a turtle with an hour-glass figure before, and I hope I never do again.

Another major cause of damage to coral reefs is the tourist industry. Divers, even experienced ones, can cause a lot of damage. Verena gives a personal account of diving with tourists who lay down on the reef to watch sharks, and who were upset with her for not doing the same because she might scare the sharks away! I’ve seen divers who allowed their diving lamps to trail along the bottom of a reef like a wrecking-ball while they were concentrating on getting closer to a few manta-rays nearby.

Not surprisingly, divers with cameras cause more damage than those without, they’re focussed (literally!) on what they’re looking at, not what they’re bumping into. Diving from shore causes more damage than diving from boats, and night-diving causes more damage than diving during the day. Even without direct physical contact, reefs can be damaged by divers who kick up sediment with their fins, smothering the corals they have paid so much to see.

It’s not only divers, but also snorkellers, that damage reefs. Snorkellers will often stand on the reef to adjust their equipment, and can do a great deal of damage by careless contact. Verena cites a paper by W.R.Allison in 1996 which showed that snorkellers can can do an immense amount of damage in a short period of time.

Verena says that the dive-schools could give better briefings, for both divers and snorkellers. Her own experience is that people appreciate being reminded of the simple things they can do to reduce their personal impact. I know some dive-schools don’t like to impose on their divers, so will not mention such things in their briefings. You can always invite them to say something when they ask if there are any questions. Put your hand up and say “I have a question, do we have to be careful about what we touch on this dive?”. It’s worth a try!

Dive-schools should also respect the ‘carrying-capacity’ of dive-sites, and not visit them too frequently, so they have time to recover from each invasion. This is a particular problem in the Red Sea, where many reefs are seriously degraded by divers. Of course, that’s not easy when there are many dive-schools competing to take people to the most popular sites.

Individually, divers can take steps to reduce their impact even more. Those of you that dive with PADI can take the Peak Performance Buoyancy course (other organisations probably have something similar). You’ll find you dive better (i.e. use less air, are more relaxed) and do less harm to the reef because you have more control. You’ll see more on each dive, too, because you will spend less time fighting with your equipment and frightening fish with your thrashing, and more time looking around.

Coco-palm encourages tourists to preserve the environment

Coco-palm encourages tourists to preserve the environment

Tourism can also be a positive force. wildaid.org invented the slogan “When the buying stops, the killing can too“, and used it in their campaign against shark-finning. You can kill a shark for its fins only once, but if you leave it alive, tourists will pay again and again to come and see it when they dive.

Verenas’ presentation has an optimistic tone, she clearly loves her work. There are things that can be done to help the reefs, and she mentions some of the many restoration and conservation projects in the Maldives. She herself has assisted in the creation of an artificial reef at Huvafenfushi. I’ll end this post with a quotation she gave at the beginning of per presentation. It’s from Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist or poet (depending on who you ask):

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

It would be good if people were taught more about the world we live in today.

“Don’t be Stupid” about climate change

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldives, has recently given the best political speech I have ever heard. Released with the premier of “Age of Stupid“, his message to the world about climate change was very clear. If you’ve never heard a politician talking straight and making sense before, you may find it refreshing.

 

Come to think of it, that makes two politicians I know of who know how to make sense, Presidents Nasheed and Obama. Hopefully it’s catching.


Pete Poslethwaite as the Archivist

“Age of Stupid” was released on March 15th in the UK. Set in 2055, it’s a film about the consequences of global warming, made using a lot of real news footage from recent times. For example, one clip features French mountain guide Fernand Pareau reflecting on the way the glaciers and Alps have changed in his 82 years. The film stars Pete Poslethwaite as a man looking back at 2008 and asking “why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?”. Pete is a lovely actor, highly charismatic and gloriously ugly (no offense intended, Pete). I just loved him in “Jurassic Park – The Lost World”, a role rather at the opposite end of the ecological spectrum. Pete clearly believes in the message of “Age of Stupid”, he has a wind turbine in his garden in Shropshire.

Back to President Nasheed, what did he say in his speech? Well, for one thing, he announced that the Maldives is going to be carbon-neutral within a decade. In his own words:

The cost of this probably will be high, but please understand, failure to act will cost us the world. If the Maldives, a small, relatively poor country, can achieve a big reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions, there can be no excuse from richer nations who claim that going green is to complex, too expensive or too much bother.

That’s a bold statement, but is it really such a big deal for such a small nation to achieve that? I think so, it’s not like they have a great deal of flexibility in going carbon-neutral, their choices are very limited. They import all their wheat, so it’s unlikely they can grow biofuel crops. They can’t relocate to higher ground to escape rising sea levels, because they don’t have any high ground to go to. They have no mineral resources and very little in the way of agriculture. As far as natural resources go, they have sand, sea, coral, fish, and tourists. That’s not a lot to work with.

The credit-crunch is already affecting the Maldivian tourist trade, tourism is down 14% on last year. They are calling it the ‘financial tsunami’, referring to the drop in tourism after the tsunami of December 2004.

Global warming will damage the reefs in many ways, such as bleaching through heat-stress, acidification from the extra CO2 dissolved in the ocean, and erosion from rising sea levels and extreme weather events. When the reefs suffer, the fish suffer too, so they get hit from all sides. No, small as they are, I reckon that going carbon-neutral has to be a lot harder for them than it would be for many other nations with more resources at their disposal.

President Nasheed is taking other measures to protect his nation. I’ve written before about some of the things the Maldivian government is doing to address climate change, but that’s not all of it. He’s reduced the cost of the presidency from $150 million per year to $4 million, and is selling the $7.5 million presidential yacht. He chose not to occupy the presidential palace, it may become a museum or a university. Instead, he shares an office with his secretary. Clearly he doesn’t want to squander the resources at his disposal.

The Maldivian government also recently introduced a total ban on shark fishing within their waters, extending a previous ban which only covered the tourist atolls. Sharks are top predators in the marine environment, and as such they are essential to maintaining the health of a coral reef ecosystem. The Maldivian Ministry of Fisheries is working to find alternate livelihoods for the shark-fishermen, so they will have no reason to defy the ban. This is important when you realise that these are not rich people killing sharks for fun, but just poor people trying to feed their families, and one shark-fin can be worth $100. There’s a very good discussion on shark-finning on the Southern Fried Scientist blog, but be warned, the video linked there is not for the faint of heart.

President Nasheed says “for untold fossil fuel consumption in our lifetime, we are trading our children’s place in an earthly paradise”. It would be understandable to think that the Maldives has more at stake than the rest of us, since they are such a small, island nation, but that would be totally and terribly wrong. If the world can’t save countries such as the Maldives today, we won’t be able to save places such as London, New York, or Hong Kong tomorrow. Much of Manhattan could be under water by the end of this century, and the longer it takes for us to act, the worse it will be.

The last part of President Nasheeds’ speech is directed towards the climate conference in Copenhagen in December of this year:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Well said, President Nasheed, it seems to me the world could do with more leaders like you. Perhaps if we all send a clear message to our own leaders, we might get the message through in time.

A Christmas gift suggestion

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008
Carved watermelon in the Maldives
Carved watermelon in the Maldives

It’s Christmas again, and already where I live there’s been enough snow to build an army of snowmen. I like snow, but I’ve also spent a few Christmases in the Maldives, where snow is only to be found in the encyclopaedia.

The Maldives is an Islamic state, so the usual religious connotations of Christmas do not feature in the festivities. The resort islands don’t have particularly big shops, so the traditional Christmas shopping isn’t an option either. That doesn’t stop them from getting into the spirit of things and throwing a really good party, people certainly manage to have a good time. You can see how much effort they put into things by the photo at the top of this post, that’s an exquisitely-carved water-melon.

A 'Christmas Tree' in Coco-Palm resort
A ‘Christmas Tree’ in Coco-Palm resort

Regular readers of this blog (both of them) will know that I’ve written about the Maldives before, and the uncertain fate that awaits them at the hands of global warming and rising sea-levels. It’s easy to forget such things at this time of year, but that would be a shame. The wrapping and packaging that accompanies much of what we buy these days is a great contributor to the damage we do to our environment, and Christmas gifts are no exception. It would be great to be able to give gifts that didn’t have all that wrapping but still expressed the sentiment of caring and giving that Christmas is supposed to be about.

Gift-vouchers are one way of doing that, but some people prefer to choose the actual gift they give, and a voucher doesn’t fulfill that need. Here’s a suggestion then, how about visiting www.magnatunes.com and buying some music for someone?

You can buy music at many places on the web, of course, but magnatunes.com adds a new dimension to the game. You can listen to all the music they offer, in high quality, for free, and decide what you like before you buy. You can then download the album of your choice in full CD-quality, or in a variety of formats. You decide exactly how much you pay for it, from $5 upwards per album, and the musician gets 50% of whatever you pay. They even encourage you to make copies to give to friends so their music gets more exposure!

This is all legal, they work directly with musicians in a business model that’s very different from the way the big record labels work. They seem to be successful with it too.

So why not take the time to listen to some music for free and choose an album or two to download for someone as a gift? If you present it to them on a re-writeable CD or a USB stick you can give them music you have chosen for them with zero waste, much kinder to the environment. Seismic Anamoly is one of my personal favourites (and yes, that is how he spells it), and I also like Ambient Teknology (yes, that is how he spells it).

A parting shot, why not also put out a little Christmas gift for the birds? I cleared the snow from a section of our garden wall and put out some bird-food a few days ago. This robin has been a regular visitor ever since.

Merry Christmas!

A robin on my garden wall
A robin on my garden wall

The Maldives

Thursday, December 4th, 2008
Mirihi island, Ari atoll, the Maldives
Mirihi island, Ari atoll, the Maldives

This is Mirihi Island, in the Maldives. It’s a small island in Ari atoll. The Maldives are a chain of coral islands in the Indian Ocean, near the southern tip of India.

I’ve been to the Maldives a few times, and I learned to dive there. Having watched Jacques Cousteau bubbling his way across the screen as a kid, I actually got to do some of it myself.

Sharks at Anga Faru
Sharks at Anga Faru

I went from beginner to PADI divemaster in one year, got myself an underwater housing for my digital camera, and went for it. You can see some of the results here, the sharks at Anga Faru in Baa Atoll, a Giant Moray with a cleaner shrimp, and a nudibranch (Tambja Olivaria).

The Maldives are well-known for many reasons. The word atoll comes from Divehi, the native language. Its use in English was popularised by none other than Charles Darwin, whose theories of reef-formation are one of the lesser-known results of his travels.

Another claim to fame for the Maldives, until recently, was that they had the longest-serving leader in Asia. Maumoon Abdul Gayoom held power for 30 years. He was succeeded recently in democratic elections by Mohamed Nasheed.

Giant Moray with cleaner shrimp
Moray with shrimp

Perhaps they are most famous as a holiday destination, but they also hit the headlines as one of the many nations to fall victim of the tsunami of December 26th 2004.

A more worrying claim to fame is that they are one of the island nations that is almost certainly doomed to disappear in the coming century as a result of global warming. The sea-level in the Maldives is projected to rise 50cm or more, by the end of the 21st century. Given that the Maldives is little more than one or two metres above sea-level at best, this is already a lot. But the Maldives will run into trouble long before the sea actually covers it completely.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change discusses island nations explicitly in its fourth assessment report. It has a few predictions common to all such small island nations in the report of Working Group II (“Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability“).

Tambja Olivaria, a nudibranch
Tambja Olivaria

Flooding, from storms, will intensify. Coastal erosion will accelerate. Coral reefs and fisheries will be affected, and fresh water will become scarce. Agriculture and infrastructure will suffer as a result. Even the tourist industry, a major part of the Maldivian economy, is expected to suffer significantly as the Maldives become less attractive to tourists. These are all predictions of which the IPCC is “highly confident”.

The Maldivian government is not ignorant of these threats, and the IPCC note that their Ministry of Home Affairs has considered ways to help them address the matter. Chapter 16 of Working Group II has a list.

  • Population consolidation i.e., reduction in number of inhabited islands
  • Ban on coral mining
  • Protection of international airport, upgrading existing airports
  • Increase elevation in the future
  • Reduction of human impacts on coral reefs
  • Assigning protection status for more reefs
  • Coastal protection of resort islands
  • Reduce dependency on diving as a primary resort focus
  • Economy diversification
  • Explore alternate methods of growing fruits, vegetables and other foods
  • Crop production using hydroponic systems
  • Protection of groundwater
  • Increasing rainwater harvesting and storage capacity
  • Use of solar distillation
  • Management of storm water
  • Allocation of groundwater recharge areas in the islands
  • Human resource development
  • Institutional strengthening
  • Research and systematic observation
  • Public awareness and education

That’s not enough for the new Maldivian President, who is under no illusions about the future of his country. He clearly realises that all the Maldivians can do where they are will only buy them a little time. So, as the BBC reported recently, he is actually planning to buy a new homeland for the Maldivian people.

The photo at the top of this article was taken 4 days after the tsunami of 2004. Mirihi escaped practically unscathed on that occasion, but its future does not look good. Within my lifetime, this island, and much of the Maldives, could well be gone.