Become a citizen scientist and help save coral reefs in the Maldives

The coral reefs of the Maldives are dying from the effects of ocean warming and climate change. Can writer Sam Mittmerham successfully pass a series of tests to help scientists collect data in just a week?

Words by: Sam Mittmerham

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I’m on a beautiful liveaboard in the Indian Ocean. My head is spinning. I can’t get these blasted fish right. I think it’s a snapper and then it turns out to be an emperor. It looks like a butterflyfish, but it’s an angelfish instead. Trying to decipher between the grouper, parrotfish and wrasse, I am totally confused. Is it really that difficult to become a citizen scientist?

The Maldives is providing the set for the world’s most beautiful classroom. Ensconced on a luxurious 32m-long liveaboard made from all-lacquered wood, the ocean gently lapping at the yacht’s keel and the view of a palm-fringed coral island outside, it’s all too easy to just bask in the beauty. The blue sky, turquoise ocean and white beaches beckon – but I need to pass this fish test before I am allowed to dive down and collect fish data on the reef below. Sadly, I am the only one in a group of 12 citizen scientists not to have passed the Reef Check EcoDiver test so far.

Until a few weeks ago, I had no idea what it even meant to be a citizen scientist. But the concept is simple enough: Get ordinary people to contribute to scientific research by collecting data. And with the advent of modern technology, this is now happening everywhere. People are recording bird songs on their smartphones, collecting data on air pollution with tiny loggers and analysing aerial photos on their computer screens in search of lost cities in the jungle. “Help where you can, whenever you can,” our onboard reef scientist Dr Jean-Luc Solandt explains at the beginning. “The reefs here need all the help they can get.”

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However, I’m struggling to cram enough information into my head so that I (the citizen) can collect useful data (the science) on the reefs of the Maldives right beneath me. Data that professional scientists can use to formulate conservation strategies that could help save our oceans.

Non-profit citizen science NGO Biosphere Expeditions ( runs wildlife conservation projects all over the world; one- to two-week-long projects where ordinary people can help scientists gather conservation data. In the Maldives it has run annual, week-long diving research expeditions for almost a decade now. In that time the effects of climate change have become ever more apparent. Rising ocean temperatures kill corals, which can’t cope with the heat stress for long. Over the last few years Dr Solandt and Biosphere Expeditions have recorded a steady decline, from healthy reefs with good coral cover (over 80%) to dying reefs with dead or dying corals. And corals are the trees of the ocean. No corals, no fish. Without corals, the whole delicate balance of our marine ecosystem is disrupted, with serious consequences for everyone.

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The Maldives is made up of 26 natural atolls, all created by coral reefs. The country exists because of coral reefs. Everything depends on them. Tourism, fishing, culture, livelihoods. It is the fabric of the country and a haven for divers.

I can clearly remember standing on the edge of a dive boat on my first visit several years back and taking what divers call a “giant stride” into thin air. There was a stomach-lifting drop, a big splash and then a calmness as I descended beneath the surface where a multitude of colours and all shapes and sizes of creatures abound; a myriad of nature’s beautiful bounty.

Anything is possible in this underwater wonderland, which functions like a busy urban metropolis, where everyone is rushing around, just trying to make a living. I spotted predatory silvery barracuda, a prickly urchin lazily grazing on algae and a colourful sponge filter-feeding away while dripping off the side of a piece of coral like orange molasses. The marine life is big or small, predator or prey, plant or animal.

And what better way to combine my love of diving and interest in reefs and their conservation than to serve as a citizen scientist, a small cog in the wheel of making things better for the reefs, to conserve them for future generations.

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Days 1 & 2: Training sessions above and below the water

“We’ve recorded gradually worsening conditions over the years. Bleaching, overfishing, pollution. It’s not looking good.” These are the opening words of our expedition scientist, Dr Solandt, a tall Londoner with a wicked sense of humour. He’s not just a good sport, but a fount of marine knowledge. There is no question about reefs he can’t answer. Each dive debrief with him is an eye-opener. He explains how everything is interconnected and interdependent on the reef. He gently steers us away from our touristy obsession with the big animals (sharks, rays, turtles, etc.) and towards a more mature, scientific understanding of interconnections and the smaller marine creatures who make a big impact in the system: cleaner shrimp, coral-eating snails, the tiny growing tips of corals, some of them a beautiful purple hue. I lap it up.

He’s a hard taskmaster too. In two days, our group of 12 citizen scientists, one expedition leader and Dr Solandt must be able to identify fish groups such as groupers, snappers, butterflyfish and parrotfish. We must be able to tell sand from silt, rock from hard coral and soft coral from rubble. And we have to be able to recognise coral-eating Drupella snails, as well as the tell-tale signs of coral bleaching and coral disease. It’s a wealth of information to absorb and over two days we are put through the grinder of both classroom and underwater teaching sessions. We listen and look. We have study periods, when we pore over books, pictures and videos. We go on dives where what we have learnt in the classroom is pointed out to us underwater. We cram it in.

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At the end of the second day, the tests begin. In small groups underwater, we must correctly identify flora and fauna and point them out to Dr Solandt and his assistants. In the classroom, we have to pass three tests: one on fish, one on substrate (coral and other life forms on the ground) and one on invertebrates. Pictures are flashed up on a large screen and we have to quickly write our answers down. As the sun sets on day two, I wrack my brain, I sweat, I try to remember, try to get it right. But I fail. I fail my fish test. Without it, I cannot collect data on fish tomorrow. That’s how seriously they take their science here.

“Collect invertebrate data tomorrow,” says Dr Solandt sympathetically. “You can try the fish test again later.” I slump into my cabin. I do not appreciate its calm wood-panelled interior and simple, Zen-like luxury, or the sound of the water gently lapping against the hull.

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Day 3: Elation, then crisis

Today we start collecting data for real. Excitement wins over my frustration in the morning. I am on the invertebrate team today. My dive buddy is Tessa from Scotland, who works in IT and genuinely wants to make the world a better place. She passed her tests yesterday with flying colours, but is relatively new to diving and a bit nervous. “I’ll tell you what,” I suggest. “I’ll help you with your diving and you look out for me with the data collection.” A nod, a smile and a thumbs-up seal the deal.

Soon we’re below the surface, in our aquatic metropolis, swimming very slowly, seeing the reef with completely different eyes. I notice details I’d never seen before. Delighting in the little things as I float past, recognising the indicators of reef health, making connections in my head. The previous two days of lessons come back to me with practical implications. No lobsters means overfishing; too many Drupella means grazing pressure for corals; too many nutrients in the water results in more algae growth; coral bleaching (obviously) means trouble ahead. It’s simple, really. But as is often the case, it’s only simple if someone explains it to you. So I make tick lists on my slate as I swim along a 100m tape: coral-banded shrimp, Diadema urchins and lobsters. Up on deck, my tick list is discussed with my team and then entered into the expedition laptop. Over time and through the efforts of our citizen scientists, a picture of the reef’s health emerges.

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After a day of diving, I am elated, over the moon and exhausted. I want to be enjoying a drink with the others at the sunset bar set up on the sky deck, but the fish test awaits. So I sit down with the books, pictures and videos. Soon my head starts spinning. The more I look, the more confused I get. It’s dark now, after dinner. I am alone in the classroom on the middle deck and close to tears. I will never get this. Tessa walks in and gives me a sympathetic smile. “Trouble?” she asks. I nod.

“The way I got it,” she says, “was to assign characters to the fish. Grumpy grouper, because they look like they’re always frowning with their backward-slanting mouths. Or fishy snapper, because they have this perfect fish shape.” As Tessa explains, things start falling into place. She picks apart the mess in my head, sorting it (and me) out in the process. “Thank you!” I say. I’m ready now.

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Days 4—7: A glimmer of hope

I pass my test in the early morning. Tessa and I stay dive buddies for the rest of the week. Together, we gather reef data like there is no tomorrow, revelling in our newfound understanding, delighting in the fact that we are now more than just tourists underwater.

At the end of the expedition, as we sit in our classroom for the last time, Dr Solandt shows us some graphs and talks us through all of the data we have collected. There’s a spontaneous round of applause. My fish crisis is forgotten. There is hope for me and the world’s reefs yet, it seems.

Fly to Maldives with Hong Kong Airlines for an underwater mission. Book here.

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