Little and large: surveying and safeguarding coral reefs & whale sharks of the Maldives archipelago
This SCUBA diving voluntourism expedition will take you to the beautiful 26 coral atolls that make up the Republic of Maldives. Based on a very luxurious and modern liveaboard yacht, you will help marine biologists study and protect the Maldives' spectacular coral reefs and resident whale shark population. All this because the Maldives government identified a need for further research and monitoring work as far back as 1997. Biosphere Expeditions is addressing this need with your help and will train you as a Reef Check EcoDiver. With this qualification you will then gather important reef and whale shark data and you will also be eligible to apply for PADI or NAUI Reef Check Speciality Course certification after the expedition. Please note that you need to be a fully qualified diver to take part in this expedition (minimum PADI Open Water or equivalent).
“Loved the group! Everyne who joined the expedition was outstanding. The cameraderie on land and underwater was ace, the boat and crew were amazing. Very accommodating. The number of dives was right on and allowing some to be fun and optional.” >
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Expedition contribution: £1590 (ca. € 2190 | US$2330 | AU$3060) excluding flights per dates as shown below. Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in £ and the approximate € | US$ | AU$ equivalents. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and up to date exchange rates.
Dates & meeting point: 12 - 18 Sep 2015 (7 days). Other dates. Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is in Male', the capital of the Maldives, and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to Male' are in the .
Coral atolls of sea, sun and sand.
Weather expected during expedition
Tropical and maritime climate with average day air temperature 28°C, water temperature 23-28°C and 8-10 hours of sunshine.
You will live on and dive from a luxurious and modern four-deck, 115 feet live-aboard boat with air-conditioned cabins, all of them with en-suite toilet and shower facilities. There is also an air-conditioned lounge, a fully equipped kitchen, air compressor and other modern amenities. Two people will share a two-bed cabin or you can spread out and sleep on the deck.
Up to 15 team members + 1-2 local scientists/divemasters + 1 expedition leader/divemaster.
Skills & prerequisites required
You don't need to be a scientist, but you do need to be a qualified diver (minimum PADI Open Water or equivalent).
Fitness level required
As a qualified PADI Open Water Diver, you will already have a reasonable level of fitness.
Team assembly point
Aims & objectives
(1) To monitor the health of the Maldivian coral atolls, its fish and invertebrate communities so that informed management, education and conservation decisions can be made by the government and NGOs
(2) To opportunistically record whale sharks encountered during the expedition and, if possible, take pictures of its gill area
The islands of the Maldives are entirely made from the coral sand washed up onto the very shallowest coral platforms. More than 200 species of hard corals form the framework of the complex coral community, from the shallow branching coral dominated areas, to deeper systems of undercut caves and gullies dominated by soft corals and invertebrates. Most coral communities in the central reefs of the Maldives are still recovering from the massive bleaching event of 1998, but previous Biosphere Expeditions surveys have documented a strong recovery in most reefs, with extensive recruitment and growth of branching corals.
The fish populations of the Maldives are exceptionally rich in terms of diversity and biomass. Shark fishing within the atolls was banned by the Maldivian government in 2008, and their numbers appear to be increasing, and small reef sharks are still commonly observed in Maldivian waters. Many reefs lie in areas of strong current, and can be visited at times when jacks, snapper and shark forage for their prey. These reefs are ‘fed’ by the channels between the outer barrier reef that punctuate this vast archipelago, where the diving can be exciting. The unique location and geology of the Maldives also makes it a rich area for filter feeding whale shark and manta rays, with observations of these species a memorable event for those on board live-aboard dive trips, such as the expedition.
The Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture identified a need for further research and monitoring work as far back as 1997. Biosphere Expeditions is addressing this need and is also working with Reef Check (RC) and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) in order to provide vital data on reef health.
Data from the coral reef surveys will be used at international, regional and national levels to provide a ‘status report’ on the health of Maldivian reefs. At the national level, it will be used to help make informed management and conservation recommendations. Surveys will be carried out both inside and outside current Maldivian Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to continue the work of the Marine Conservation Society, which is investigating the impact of MPAs on fish and coral populations.
The expedition will spend most of its time conducting coral reef surveys, but half a day or one full day, depending on the location of the research vessel and whale shark presence, will be dedicated to whale shark surveys. When engaged with whale shark work, the expedition will endeavour to record presence / absence of whale sharks from the vessel. If there is the opportunity, the expedition will also enter the water with the sharks and attempt to take pictures of their gill area. Gill area photographs are being used by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme to record presence / absence of whale sharks in the archipelago. Photos of the markings in and around the gill / pectoral fin areas are unique (like a human fingerprint) for each individual. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme can then match one individual’s unique markings with the photographic record and add that image and the whale shark’s location to their database, and see if it has been recorded before, and from where. This will then allow conservationists at the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme to map where individual sharks go, how often they are recorded at individual locations, and whether further protection mechanisms are needed for individual hotspot locations.
Dives range from thillas, walls, fore and back reefs, where gently sloping reefs are covered by hard corals, and the regionally abundant black tube coral, Tubastrea. All of the expedition’s survey dives are to a maximum 18 metre depth, which generally are the shallow water areas that provide the richest coral growth.
A coral reef is composed of a myriad of species and it is impossible to name them all here. However, during our Reef Check surveys (see below for more information on Reef Check methodologies) and the whale shark work, we will be concentrating on a number of indicator organisms such as:
Grunts (a group of fish, belonging to a taxonomic family called the Haemulidae) Groupers (Seranidae)
Humphead wrasse (Chelinus undulates)
Sea whips (Gorgonacea)
Hard and soft corals
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)
Other landmark species present: Spinner dolphins, manta ray, hawksbill and green sea turtles, grey, black tip and white tip reef sharks.
You will spend the first couple of days with training in and out of the water. The expedition leader and the local scientist will prepare you for your fieldwork tasks and explain the research methods and goals. Talks are organised to make you familiar with safety, the equipment, the research (and your part in it) and the area in which it will happen. Open water dives are organised so that everyone can get comfortable in the water again and put into action the fish, invertebrate and other ID skills, as well as photography procedures taught before the actual survey work begins.
Once you are trained up, your tasks will be predominantly Reef Check dive-based and consist of several distinct underwater activities with the team split into buddy pairs. Depending on what your assignment is on the day, you and your buddy will, for example, be recording fish or invertebrates along the transect, or recording what kind of substrate (hard or soft coral, sand, rock, etc.) covers the bottom along the transect. Covering a transect will take you about one hour and you will dive up to four transects per day. During the course of the expedition, you will be laying transects in different locations all over the reef. You may also be scrambling to record data concerning whale sharks, during the day or half day assigned to whale shark surveying, and racing to enter the water to take gill ID photographs.
The Maldives or Maldive Islands, officially Republic of Maldives, is an island country in the Indian Ocean formed by a double chain of twenty-six atolls stretching in a north-south direction off India's Lakshadweep islands. The atolls of the Maldives encompass a territory spread over roughly 90,000 square km. It features 1,192 coral island, of which only about two hundred are inhabited. The Republic of Maldives's capital and largest city is Male', with a population of around 100,000. Traditionally it was the King's Island, from where the ancient Maldive royal dynasties ruled and where the palace was located. The Maldives is the smallest Asian country in both population and area.
Over 2000 species of fish have so far been catalogued, including reef sharks, moray eels and a wide variety of rays such as manta rays, stingrays and eagle rays. The Maldivian waters are also home to the whale shark.
Sharks, turtles, anemones, schools of sweetlips and jacks, eels, octopus and rays are also found in Maldivian waters.
To date at least 209 hard coral species have been described from over 60 genera. 51 species of echinoderms, 5 species of sea grasses and 285 species of alga have also been identified.
The Maldives are considered one of the best places in the world for underwater photography. Sights such as vast schools of thousands of fish or groups of up to 30 manta rays or eagle rays are frequently seen in and around the Maldives.
On this project Biosphere Expeditions works with Reef Check, the Marine Conservation Society, the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, La Mer Maldives and the MV Carpe Diem. Data will also be used in collaboration with the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and the University of York, which has a department of conservation. Our long-term dataset is not only of interest to conservationists working on monitoring the global status on reefs, such as those from the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Coral Reef Action Network (ICRAN), but more locally too, especially as regards the effectiveness of current Maldivian Marine Protected Areas in their ability to protect and recover significant numbers and biomass of commercially important finfish. The Rufford Foundation kindly supports our local placement programme.
And finally (almost)
Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.
And finally (briefing)
For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.
Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone.
Sign up to this expedition now
Results & achievements
Since its inception in 2011, this expedition has thus far trained over 50 people in Reef Check surveying, including over 20 local Maldivians in techniques on how to monitor their reefs and set up community-based monitoring schemes. Some of these community surveyors are now able to teach Reef Check themselves, and are employed by government agencies to undertake management and surveillance. A colouring and educational booklet for local schools has also been produced and distributed around the country with the help of the local Ministry of Education. The expedition has also surveyed reefs that were heavily impacted by the coral bleaching event of 1998, and identified recovery in most reefs. Data on reefs and whale sharks are given to local NGOs, government and other decision-makers, who are planning on increasing the number and area of marine protected area (MPA) coverage by 2017. Our Reef Check data will form part of that picture when the government considers different management approaches to different MPA areas.
Scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.
Awards & accolades
|This expedition was honoured in Outside magazine's "Trips of the Year" list.|
This expedition was named an "Unforgettable Diving Holiday" by Divernet magazine.
|Biosphere Expeditions was named on the Travel with a Mate's "Best Volunteer Dive Organisations" list.|
|Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has won the "Best Volunteering Organisation" category of the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.|
|Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple National Geographic awards and accolades such as "Best New Trip" and "Tours of a Lifetime".|
|Biosphere Expeditions as an organisation has also won multiple Travel+Leisure awards and accolades such as the "Conservation Award" category of Travel+Leisure's "Global Vision Awards" or "Best Adventure Outfitter" and "Best Save-the-Earth Trip" accolades.|
> more awards & accolades
|Maldivians assess reef health
|Protecting the Maldives' coral reefs
|Maldives corals have recovered well from 1998 bleaching
|The Maldives -
a climate change indicator and the need to survey
View article 5.36 Mb
|First ever all-Maldivian Reef Check survey completed
|Remarkable coral reef recovery in the Maldives
|Successful EcoExpedition in the Maldives
View article 31.30 Kb
|Lend a hand to reef and whale shark conservation
View article 15.04 Mb
|Biosphere Expeditions coming to the Maldives
View article 991.54 Kb
Swimming with giants
View article 134.09 Kb
|Divers can help with new Maldives conservation project
View article 1.16 Mb
Neues Naturschutzprogramm auf den Malediven
View article 382.05 Kb
"The collaboration between Biosphere Expeditions and the work of Reef Check in the Maldives is invaluable. In the past the Marine Conservation Society has taken part in ad hoc surveys with liveaboards, but this collaboration with Biosphere Expeditions has very significantly widened our understanding about the health of Maldivian reefs. We look forward to further successful surveys next year with our Maldives partners."
Jean-Luc Solandt, Marine Conservation Society & Reef Check co-ordinator Maldives
“I had a wonderful trip and met so many great new diving friends. Am looking forward to another expedition and catching up with the team in future. Thanks so much!”
Sue Baldwin, 51, Australia.
“Loved the group! Everyne who joined the expedition was outstanding. The cameraderie on land and underwater was ace, the boat and crew were amazing. Very accommodating. The number of dives was right on and allowing some to be fun and optional.”
Melanie McCaffery, 30, USA
“I liked that the morning activities and the general daily setup was always clear. Whatever questions we had concerning nature or science were always given a professional answer, so I learnt a lot ! Keep up the good work. Thank you.”
Anne Noack, 30, UK.
“Brilliant trip that ended too soon!”
Nicola Bush, 31, UAE.
Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).
“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Biosphere Expeditions for giving me this valuable opportunity in developing my knowledge and teaching me how to do reef surveys. I really appreciated this chance to take the initiative and do something for the benefit of my country, the Maldives."
Sharif Hussein, 28, Maldives, local placement recipient.
“I thank Biosphere Expeditions for this opportunity; for giving me the chance to do something for my country. I am now able to contribute reef survey data from Baa atoll and I am very proud to be a part of it all.”
Majid Birahim, 25, Maldives, local placement recipient.
“I have got so much out of joining this expedition and would like to thank Biosphere Expeditions for enabling me to develop as a Reef Check trainer. The next step is to train others, develop a Maldives-based Reef Check team and start submitting data from Maldivian sites regularly.”
Kate Wilson, 32, UK, placement recipient.
"You have created something big with Biosphere Expeditions and I wanted to thank you for letting me be part of it. My experience with you was not only extraordinarily enriching and beautiful, but it has also put many wheels in motion in my life, amongst other things a new understanding of wildlife and nature, as well as a deep personal friendship. My expedition has been one of the most inspirational and formative experiences of my life. THANK YOU!”
“This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to and it felt like a real privilege to wake up here and go out diving with the scientists.”
“What a wonderful experience. One that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
“One of the most amazing trips of my life – wonderful people, wonderful experience.”
“Congratulations for the Biosphere Expeditions idea and the way the staff carries it through with their enthusiasm. I came across you on the internet by chance and your information materials and the way my questions were answered persuaded me to dare come on the expedition. Once in the field my expectations were more than fulfilled. The team was great, as was the food and I gained a real insight into how wildlife research and conservation works on the ground. I'll be back!”
Expedition diary / blog
See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.
Frequently asked questions
What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the . All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the . > more
Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more
Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more
How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.
Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more
Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.
How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.
What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.
Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more
> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page