There and Back Again: a journey with the Hydrous to the Maldives

An Unexpected Journey

I first went scuba diving last year in Monterey, California. The experience of strapping on a tank of air and sinking below the blue water to enter and explore a strange new world was instantly mesmerizing and addictive. I pursued scuba diving further and worked myself up to the Rescue Diver certification. I was happy accumulating more skills, but I wanted to explore somewhere other than Monterey. I kept looking for opportunities until early November when I ran into a colleague who told me about The Hydrous.

The Hydrous is a non-profit organization with the goal of creating open access oceans. They bring together people from diverse backgrounds such as Marine Biology, Technology and Art, all with a shared passion for ocean conservation and protection to collaborate on projects to share the world’s oceans with everyone. The Hydrous was about to go on an expedition to the Maldives and there was still a spot open!

The goals of the expedition were to collect data on the current conditions of the coral reefs in the Maldives using a new protocol from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), use photogrammetry techniques to recreate corals in 3D and document the experience using immersive new technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR). I would get to assist in all the projects combining my skills as a scuba diver with my expertise as a technologist.

I nervously emailed the group's organizer and waited. A few hours later, I was delighted to receive the email confirming that the spot was still available and I was about to go to the Maldives!

The Maldives

The Maldives is a string of islands in the Indian ocean, southwest of India and very close to my home state Kerala. In my mother tongue, Malayalam, we call these islands ‘Mala-dweepu’ which translates to ‘The necklace of islands’. The Maldives is indeed laid out like a necklace on the ocean. It is a ring of islands consisting of the peaks of a vast submarine mountain range called the ‘Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge’. It’s the country with the world’s lowest ground level elevation and the average elevation is only 1.5 metres above sea level. The Maldives faces very real and serious threats from the effects of global warming and rising sea levels.

I remember thinking when I looked at the islands through the window of my plane as it made its descent, “I have never been able to appreciate what the color turquoise really looks like”. The bright light blue contrasted with the white sandy beaches and lush green tropical tree cover is breathtaking. The Maldives is known as the jewel of the Indian ocean, and it truly is.

 

The Maldives consists of close to 2000 small islands such as this one. Many are uninhabited.

The Maldives consists of close to 2000 small islands such as this one. Many are uninhabited.

 

Diving & Learning

I arrived in the Maldives bright eyed and ready for adventure. I met my fellow diver Kathryn at the airport and we waited for our escort. We were shortly picked up by Hassan, our chief dive safety officer and guide. A short boat ride later we joined the rest of the expedition on board the Theia. The Theia would be our home for the next 10 days taking us from island to island for our various dives.

 The Theia

 The Theia

The expedition consisted of 18 members. There were 3 marine biologists, 1 geologist, 3 techies from Google and 5 techies from Autodesk, 2 creative artists, 1 architect and designer, 1 software engineer from Pacific Biosciences and 1 local diver and youth leader from the Maldives. In addition to the diverse backgrounds the group also came from the following countries - USA, Maldives, Australia, China, Singapore, India, France, Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary, Taiwan, Ireland, Italy and Canada.

We spent the next 9 days averaging two dives a day. Between dives the group met for seminars and workshops on a variety of topics including -

  • Coral ID and the simple rapid protocol to assess coral bleaching.
  • Underwater photography.
  • Photogrammetry using Autodesk’s Remake technology.
  • Effects of pollution on coral reefs.
  • Global Fishing Watch, a collaboration between Skytruth, Oceana and Google to track fishing activity.
  • Conducting underwater reef surveys using a transect method.
  • Maalimi.org - How the youth of the Maldives are organizing and fighting pollution.
Nora and Erika doing the simple rapid protocol to assess coral mortality following a massive bleaching event earlier this year.

Nora and Erika doing the simple rapid protocol to assess coral mortality following a massive bleaching event earlier this year.

In addition to these fascinating seminars and workshops we also spent time sharing diving stories. Several members of the group were certified diving instructors, dive masters and had experience in commercial diving, tech diving and diving for research.

The world under the blue. A lot of coral in the Maldives is dying due to rising water temperatures.

The world under the blue. A lot of coral in the Maldives is dying due to rising water temperatures.

One of the most experienced divers in our group, Cecilia from Autodesk.

One of the most experienced divers in our group, Cecilia from Autodesk.

Fishes of the Maldives

Although our time was limited we were able to observe a host of different fishes of the Maldives. Below are some of the ones I was able to capture on camera and identify.

Megafauna

During the expedition we got the opportunity to visit a reef ‘cleaning station’. At these locations we get to observe symbiosis between large pelagic organisms (megafauna) and smaller animals such as shrimps, wrasses and gobies.

The smaller animals remove parasites from the large creatures skin, gills and even mouth, swimming in and out unafraid of being eaten. It is a place where we get to observe an unusual truce between species and there is no hunting allowed on the cleaning station.

A congregation of Mantas (photo: Dominique P).

A congregation of Mantas (photo: Dominique P).

We observed Manta Rays congregating in large numbers at the cleaning station and being serviced by the small wrasses. To be in the presence of such majestic creatures was breathtaking and humbling. Most of us had no words to describe what we felt when we came out of the water.

Swimming with these gentle giants was almost meditative.

Swimming with these gentle giants was almost meditative.

Many Partings

In the blink of an eye ten days had gone by and it was time for us to part ways. We spent our final day together on board the Theia collecting our scattered equipment, packing and organizing and drying our wetsuits and BCDs.

Although the trip was ending, I felt like this was a new beginning. The Hydrous will go on to publish and share what we learnt on this expedition. The 3D models we created and the footage we collected  will find their way to classrooms and help educate young children studying the oceans for the first time through virtual reality!

The data collected on this expedition will shed further light on the condition of the coral reefs in the Maldives and help convince the world about the true dangers the ocean faces from pollution and global warming.

I will carry forward what I learnt by sharing my experience with others and taking newly learnt skills with me into my future dives, conducting surveys and sending data to the WCS.

Large clown fish colony

Large clown fish colony

The story continues.