Contrary to what my Instagram might suggest, I’m not just here in the Maldives on an extended holiday. Rather, I am working as the Coral Biologist in Baa Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Maldives hosts 3% of the world’s coral reefs, the best known manta aggregation area in the world & the biggest parrot fish I’ve ever seen- being a marine biologist here is truly a dream job.
The bad news however, is that unfortunately, our coral reefs are dying. In fact, in 2016 over 60% of the Maldivian Reefs were bleached.
But let me back up for a moment to explain some crucial stuff. One of my favorite questions to ask guests is – What is a coral? Is it a plant, an animal, or a rock? The trick is that it’s all three. Coral is made up of small animals called polyps. Inside of the polyps skin are tiny plants called zooxanthellae. These plants provide over 90% of the polyps food through photosynthesis ( it also gives coral it’s bright colors). Corals grow at an extremely slow rate, in fact the ones we work with grow approximately 6-10cm a year. The reason these slow growing animals are able to prosper however is due to the fact that the shallow shoreline is supposed to be a desert in regards to nutrients, with zooxanthellae being able to make food via photosynthesis for the polyps gives them a massive advantage over other species that would need nutrients.
So why are our reefs dying? Rising ocean temperatures. I’ll let the cartoon below explain, as I think it does it quite well.
With global climate change (yes, it’s real) the standard surface temperature in many places has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius, then when it’s hit by an El Nino the corals get pushed past their temperature limit and start to expel their algae. Without the algae to make food, the coral starves and dies. A recent study said these coral killing temperatures could be the norm by 2030, so y’all better book your tickets to come see me now before it’s dead.
But who cares if the corals die?
Well not only are these little dudes spectacular to look at, but they form some pretty awe-inspiring homes for the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They also protect coastlines, are the starting point for many food webs (including humans) , fix carbon and nitrogen, recycle nutrients, purify water and air, create soil, provide us with sources for new medicines… etc. So yeah, they’re kind of a pretty big deal.
Which get’s me to the reason I’m here. Reef restoration projects have been popping up across the globe but to be honest, the majority of the research is fairly new. Traditional management focusing on minimizing or eliminating stress is not possible when it’s the whole ocean warming up. We cannot cure bleaching at this point, rather the goal is to find ways for reefs to survive and recover.
The project I am currently working on began in 2001 and is now one of the most successful of it’s kind. What we do is fragment healthy corals, taking pieces from the sides, and deploy them over dead reefs or sandy bottoms on frames made of metal and sand. These frames are then tracked, with photos taken every six month to record growth and survival rate. The hope is that these fragments will continue to grow and propagate. Some studies have recorded a 1.4-1.8 increase in growth rate when fragmented vs naturally growing.
When not deploying coral frames or recording data I suppose my main duty is education and outreach which is more important then ever in our changing political climate (see what I did there?). Whether conducting snorkels, helping with turtle feeding or dolphin cruises, a day in the office over here is always a surprise.