10 Days in an At-Risk Paradise- 3D Mapping Coral Reefs in the Maldives

~written by Yasmeen Smalley-Norman

I wrapped up a busy year of traveling with a feather in my cap- scuba diving in the Maldives with The Hydrous organization. Sly Lee, The Hydrous founder, had been to the Maldives before in early 2015 to establish a baseline of coral reef health, and our return trip was the first time we would use 3D technology to assess coral growth over a period of time.

Sly and I were joined by Hassan, a local scuba diving instructor, Patchi, a young citizen scientist and our scholarship student, and seven participants from different backgrounds, all brought together by a love of the oceans. With expertise in marine biology, computer engineering, underwater archaeology and exponential technologies, our unique team set out to conduct fish surveys and create 3D models, and also to brainstorm solutions for environmental issues affecting the “Jewel of the Indian Ocean.”

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The Maldives is one of the most at risk countries for climate change. This low-lying island nation already experiences beach erosion, coral bleaching, rising sea levels and increased weather events, such as the 2004 tsunami that devastated the country.  All eyes are to the horizon as an El Nino is predicted to arrive in the Maldives in April of 2016, bringing with it the largest coral bleaching event since the 1977/’78 El Nino, which destroyed 90% of coral cover in the island nation.

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The Maldives is made up over 2,000 small islands, which makes waste management a logistical nightmare. The photo above was taken in Malé, the nation’s capital and home to almost half of the country’s population. With an area just over 2 square miles, Malé is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The Maldivian word for beach, Gon'du dho, is synonymous to “trash dump,” a mindset evident at each local beach not owned by a resort. Local organizations such as Save the Beach conduct beach cleanups, but the underlying attitude toward the environment will take longer to change.

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Like many island nations, the two main sources of industry in the Maldives are tourism and fishing. Seafood is a staple in the Maldivian diet, and yellowfin tuna are highly sought-after and fetch high prices on the export market. Although most fishermen use sustainable methods of troll and pole-and-line fishing to catch tuna, the real threat is to small baitfish populations, who are caught in bulk to supply bait for commercial tuna fishing. The removal of bait fish from coral reefs destabilizes marine ecosystems, making them more vulnerable to other stressors.

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The Hydrous uses 3D modeling to visualize the effects of climate change, overfishing and pollution on coral reefs. Sly and I taught our expedition members underwater photography and photogrammetry, which utilizes photography to create 3D models. Our participants were soon creating their own 3D models, including this model created by our scholarship student, Patchi. We’re working with Autodesk and other software developers to build an online 3D coral model repository, which will be used worldwide to create open-access oceans, viewable to anyone with a computer or smartphone.

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Our most important contribution while in the Maldives was the creation a youth program, Maalimi, designed to improve education, environmental awareness and marine conservation. The program was created from collaboration between our participants and local partners, and aims to support education and marine conservation in the Maldives by creating and empowering “island ambassadors.” These ambassadors will conduct beach cleanups, lead educational snorkel trips and teach fish and coral identification workshops, in addition to working on a long-term project to improve island resiliency in the face of climate change. Visit www.maalimi.org to learn more about Maalimi and how you can help.

10 days, 20 scientific transects, hundreds of 3D coral models, thousands of fish surveyed and the creation of a youth program- a successful expedition for The Hydrous. We look forward to returning in 2016 and mapping more of the Maldives’ beautiful coral reefs. Happy New Year!