Looking for the sharks of the Maldives

Posted on July 1, 2008
Written by: Shark Savers

Look over there, just to the right of that little island, between the two white foaming reef crests. That is Hanifaru, where more than 15 whale sharks and uncounted Mantas were feeding last year.” 

I looked out into the sun to identify the place Karen pointed out to me. We were in the middle of the Indian Ocean in the Republic of the Maldives, on a rustic boat called a Dhoni. The sea was quite rough, but nothing that a Dhoni couldn’t handle. They are the main form of transportation in the this small country comprised of 1190 tiny corral islands clustered in atolls and peppered over the equator just south east of Sri Lanka.

I was in the Maldives this past May on a working vacation to check out the health of the local shark population. Over ten years ago, I came often to the Maldives and found it was practically impossible to go in the water without seeing many white tips or the more graceful and dominant grey reef sharks. Now, ten years later, I came with my Shark Savers’ hat on to see what has changed and also to talk to people about the sharks’ situation wherever 

As I stood on the small but sturdy palm wood Dhoni, I watched the captain control it with only the engine throttle and a large wooden rudder that he moved casually with his foot. It says something about the pride and skills of Maledivian captains: they don’t have any use for modern marine electronic, but they all seem to have iPhones.

The boat was taking us to a meeting of Baa Atoll Project. Representatives of local resorts and dive schools had joined this Project to raise awareness about the disappearing sharks of the local atoll. Before coming to the Maldives this time, I had prepared myself to spread the news about what was happening to sharks. I was delighted to discover that not only were there many people already knowledgeable and concerned about the destruction of shark populations, but that they had already formed a coalition, the Baa Atoll Project, to do something about it.

With me on the boat were Karen, who is the manager of Sea-Explorer, the dive operation for the Rheeti Beach Resort, and Peter, the General Manager of the resort. Both are advocates for sharks. Earlier, I had been talking to Karen and her husband Matt about Shark Savers and the Rob Stewart’s movie Sharkwater when we realized that we shared a passion for saving the sharks. It was then that they offered to introduce me to the other members of the Baa Atoll Project, which include representatives of diving, the resorts, conservationists, marine biologists, and government officials.

I had vivid memories from my early visits of a then-secret dive spot called Aquarium. It was a finger that protruded from a reef wall at about 30 to 40 feet deep, forming a natural underwater bay. The Aquarium was home to 20 to 30 grey reef sharks, eagle rays and a school of barracudas. I would position myself at the top of Aquarium, hang onto a piece of old corral, and watch the young sharks circle endlessly in this nursery.

Every so often one of the youngsters would practice his hunting skills. Inevitably, one of the countless reef fish that had been minding its own little business would carelessly venture too far from the protective corrals, and swoosh. With grace and elegance, one of the young greys would effortlessly change course with a flick of a fin and hone in on the target. Meanwhile, one or two adult grey reef sharks would be swimming in the background, observing the youth as if to ensure the lesson was being properly followed.

I asked Karen if this place was still around. She said with a sad look in her eyes that there are no sharks at Aquarium anymore, and almost no sharks in the Baa Atoll, anywhere. I angrily replied “probably finned into oblivion just as everywhere else on the planet”. Her answer was not what I had expected: “We have a problem with shark fishing. But, would be too easy to blame fining as the sole cause for the situation in the Aquarium. Divers, too, may have had a role.

“We had a particular dive operator from one of the islands whose boats would rush in at full throttle right into the middle of the bay every day. Then, a full load of divers with way to much weight would jump in right over the heads of those young sharks. It was like a squadron of paratroopers raining in from the sky with full gear, ready to fight a war.” Karen wrote a letter to all the operators in the area asking for more mindful procedures at this site, but it was too late. The sharks where gone.

She continued, “ Now we have a similar situation at the Whale Shark mating area. Last year, word had spread that the Whale Sharks were arriving and we soon had boats of snorkelers and divers all over. Every captain eagerly positioned HIS boat closest to the action to get HIS guests the best spot to see or even touch the Whale Sharks to increase the likelihood of a little higher tip. Propellers where revved up and down, boats criss-crossed the small bay at high speeds, trying to stay close to either the animals or the humans in the water. It was a wonder that no accidents happened and no fins or arms where cut off. I hope that we will see the sharks again this season, but I’d understand them if they decided to stay away from us. I don’t want to see another Aquarium happen. This is one of the topics of the Baa Atoll project.”

I asked, “And how is the general shark situation here in the Atoll?”. Karen explained, “We have Dive Masters at our Center that have not seen a single shark in 100 dives. But they still are around in North Male and Ari Atoll and you see them if you go really deep right into the channels where the current is very strong.” I inquired why there would be such an apparent difference between the atolls. The answer was easy: Ari and North Male are close to the capital Male and have coast guard operations.

Shark finning is banned in the eight Maldive atolls that have tourist resorts, but shark finning and fishing incidence comes down to enforcement. Baa Atoll is beautiful because it is so remote, about 100 miles away from Male. But there is no coast guard enforcement there. Tuna, Marlin, Sailfish, Shark, everything gets taken out in large numbers. 

Two days earlier, I talked with Raid, a Maldivian dive master at Sea Explorer that had spent many years in Great Britain. “You know, Sascha” he said, “it is great what Shark Savers wants to do and I hope you all the best. But the problem is the fishermen. They have done shark fishing for generations and will never stop. If you pay them not to kill sharks they will smile, take the money graciously, and prepare their boats to hunt even more sharks. They are dangerous. If we dive guides even approach them when we see them in their boat we could find ourselves with a fishing knife between the ribs.”

I can imagine a fisherman, who has a family to feed, being very determined to fish for whatever fish is going to bring in the most money. And, sharks, with their valuable fins, will be that prize. In this part of the world, where tourism and fishing are the primary industries, it’s not a surprise that they will sometimes be in conflict. It also reminded me that no simple ban on shark fishing or shark finning will work without both proper enforcement, and also some kind of program that takes the fishermen’s livelihood into account.

And so, my first visit to the Maldives was exhibiting many of the pressures we see elsewhere in the world. The last sharks are disappearing to the shark fin trade. Enforcement of current laws is spotty at best. Shark diving is an important and positive part of the shark conservation equation, but in need of standards so that insensitivity and ignorance does not chase away or harm the sharks.

There is plenty of room for optimism, I thought. I considered the younger generations for whom sharks are not seen as scary and evil. Whenever we visit schools in the US, kids eat up information on sharks. Some of the new resorts are important stewards of the environment. The Four Seasons and Banyan Tree resorts even sponsor a marine biology station. And the President of the Maldives speaks as a conservationist when he lectures the UN about climate change.

But I become most optimistic when I think about the local grass roots efforts of organizations like the Baa Atoll Project. Upon arriving at Royal Island for the Baa Atoll Project meeting, we met with other dive operators and resort managers from tourist islands in the Baa atoll. Soon after, I was introduced to Abdullah, a representative from the Maldivian Ministry of the Environment. 

Abdullah is a very engaging conservationist. He reported to the group about his progress bringing attention to the fate of sharks in the Maldives. The Baa Atoll team had already drafted a letter to the Minister encouraging him to not only enforce the ban on shark fishing in the tourist Atolls but also to extend the ban to all of the Maldives.
 
Next, Guy Stevens from the local Four Seasons reported on the impressive work by the resort’s own marine biology station. The station is completely funded by the resort and their guests. Guy heads this station, consisting of 4 biologists and interns. Projects focus on Manta Rays, Whale Sharks and the repopulation of the coral reefs. They have created artificial reefs, including one that looks like a Yin-Yang symbol.
 
As a sad highlight underlining the urgency of our mission, Guy showed us an underwater photo of a still living Whale Shark that had its dorsal fin half cut of by a knife as it kept moving. The picture was taken only a few days earlier in a nearby lagoon.
 
The meeting ended with me presenting Shark Savers and its mission. We then discussed how Shark Savers can support the Maldives as it seeks to protect its sharks. This discussion gave rise to the new Maldives campaign we are announcing.
 
At the end of this meeting, and my Maldives vacation, I was disappointed that I did not see any sharks. But, I was also greatly inspired by the Four Seasons, the Soneva Fushi Resort and the crew at the Sea Explorer Dive Base and the Reethi Beach Resort, and the representatives of government and NGO’s that I met there. My hope is that the Baa Atoll Project will serve as an example to other local coalitions of commercial, governmental, and conservation interests to save sharks.

Correction: in an earlier version, I mentioned that I had been told that whale sharks mate at Hanifaru. Here's a note from marine biologist Tim Davies to set the record straight:

I work with Guy Stevens here at the Four Seasons in Baa Atoll, Maldives. An environmental blog in the Maldives led me to your article on the Baa Atoll project, and sharks in the Maldives, on the Shark Savers website. Guy and I are researching whale sharks here, and a quote in your blog caught our attention; "It’s one of the very few places in the world where Whale Sharks congregate to mate".
     
As much as I wish it were true, it isn't! It would be a scientific first to find a whale shark mating area - we just do not know where it happens!
     
However, we have learnt a lot about whale sharks in the Maldives already. Our data suggests we have a resident population, unique in the Indian Ocean, with an extremely high resighting rate. The population is made up of immature animals, of which virtually all are male - so there is certainly no mating going on!
     
There is seasonal movement within the Maldives, and here in Baa we begin to see whale sharks from May until about October. They are here to feed, along with mantas, and Hanifaru is a particually good place to see them do this. But these mass feeding events only happen a few times each month, relative to plankton concentrations (which is dictated by the tide and the moon). Last week hosted one of these events, and we sometimes had up to 4 whale sharks feeding at a time with over 100 mantas. Now the tides have changed, and the whale sharks have dispersed, but I'm sure they'll be back again before the season is out.
     
I will be emailing all of the resorts in Baa updating them on our research, so we can all give our guests consistent, up-to-date information.
     
Kind regards,

Tim Davies
Resident Marine Biologist
Four Seasons Resorts Landaa Giraavaru
Republic of Maldives