I have always been interested in science and not many people know that I was a science journalist before becoming a travel blogger. Despite my current focus on documenting travel and adventure, my love for science has never waned.
I always wanted to actively participate in scientific research, but I didn’t have a clue where to start. It wasn’t until a friend of mine told me about Biosphere Expeditions and their coral reef and whale shark expedition in the Maldives, that I found the perfect opportunity to merge my love for exploration with a meaningful scientific journey. As a scuba diver, I realised that I could use my skills to contribute to vital environmental research.
However, it's crucial to recognise that volunteering for a scuba diving expedition is not your typical leisurely dive holiday. It demands some preparation and a willingness to engage in research activities during the trip. In this post, I will share all you need to know about the volunteer diving expedition in the Maldives.
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What is Biosphere Expeditions?
Biosphere Expeditions was founded in 1999. It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to citizen science-based wildlife conservation. Basically, they empower ordinary individuals, like me and you, to contribute to global wildlife conservation and research. They run various expeditions throughout the year in different parts of the world.
Why are coral reefs important?
Coral reefs are often referred to as the "rainforests of the sea" because they are critical for biodiversity and for providing shelter and sustenance to countless marine species. But their significance extends far beyond that.
Coral reefs protect coastlines from storms by acting as a natural barrier, they provide jobs for local communities, and offer opportunities for recreation. They are also a source of food and new medicines. Basically, over half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, income, and protection.
Despite all of this, coral reefs are under threat. Some of these threats are natural such as diseases, predators, and storms, but some are caused by us, humans. These are pollution, overfishing and climate change. Rising (or even falling) water temperatures can stress coral polyps, leading to coral bleaching and possible death. But the good news is that corals are able to recover if the conditions improve. This is why monitoring and studying corals is important.
More than 60% of coral reefs in the Maldives were hit by bleaching in 2016 and many of them haven't recovered since. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident, nor has it been the last. This is why studying and monitoring corals in the Maldives is crucial.
What do you need to join a diving expedition?
Participating in the coral reef expedition doesn't demand a Ph.D. in marine biology or an extensive knowledge of coral ecosystems. In fact, you don't need to be a scientist at all to join this experience. While it certainly benefits to have some knowledge about the underwater world beforehand, the essence of these expeditions lies in the journey of discovery and learning.
You must be a qualified scuba diver, which means that you should have at least the PADI Open Water or equivalent qualification. However, it's important to note that this is the minimum requirement. Ideally, participants should also have some prior diving experience. It helps you to build a strong foundation in diving skills and have good buoyancy control.
Where do you stay during the diving expedition?
During the expedition, you will be living, eating, and sleeping on a modern four-deck live-aboard boat. You will be picked up from the Male Airport, taken to the liveaboard and then stay at sea for the whole week.
Living on a boat, a first for me, turned out to be nothing short of extraordinary. It's not just about studying corals, it's about forging connections with fellow participants and making friends.
All the cabins are comfortable and equipped with a private bathroom and air-conditioning. If you're a solo traveller, like I was, may share a room with another volunteer, a fantastic opportunity to bond over the shared experience. And of course, if you are a couple, you will stay in a private cabin.
Get ready for the Reef Check
The main goal of the coral reef expedition is to comprehend trends of how the reefs are changing over time in the Maldives. To be able to do that, we had to undertake extensive training in survey methods to identify and record robust reef health data. The training starts with theory sessions about reef ecology, scientific methods and identification. Basically, we couldn’t join the survey unless we all passed the tests, some were paper-based but later we also had to demonstrate our skills underwater.
When you sign up for the expedition, you will be given access to the learning material. Take the opportunity and go through these resources and consider studying in advance before your trip. Reflecting on my own experience, I wish I had taken this advice. The amount of information to absorb in just a few days during the training sessions can be quite intense. Preparing beforehand not only eases the learning curve but also allows for a more relaxed experience, ensuring you get the most out of your expedition.
What to expect during the Maldives diving expedition
The expedition starts as soon as you get to the liveaboard boat. We had a short briefing while moving to the Baros House Reef, one of the well-known spots for diving and snorkelling in the Maldives. The first dive was to check the diving skills of the team.
The training also starts from the first day and the following dives in the next couple of days will be part of the training until you all pass the theory and practical tests. Then the survey begins.
To be able to carry out the survey, we were divided into 6 teams of two every dive. Each team had different responsibilities. The dives were usually in shallow water and can take 50 to 60 minutes. Each day, depending on the location and weather conditions, you can dive up to three times. During the expedition, we also did some fun dives which we really enjoyed and saw sharks, turtles and other marine creatures. Let’s not forget the fact that the Maldives is one of the best places for scuba diving.
During our surveys, we found some reasons to be hopeful. We noticed coral recovery at sites that were badly affected by the last mass bleaching event in 2016. Of course, the recovery is very slow, but it gives us a bit of hope. There is still a lot of room for improvement, not only in the Maldives but around the world.
When should you book the flight?
Everything, including food and accommodation, is covered during your expedition. You only need to pay for your own flight. It is good to book your flights at least three weeks in advance to be able to get a better deal.
I flew to the Maldives on the same day that the expedition started. It was quite risky and if my flight had been delayed, I would have been in trouble. Plus, I was already tired and jet lagged, so I couldn’t enjoy the first couple of days as I could have. Learn from my experience and plan to touch down a day or two before you hop onto the liveaboard. You can stay in an affordable luxury hotel in Male or one of the nearby islands, it's a game-changer.
Quick heads up: if you want to dive on the last day (and trust me, you do), don't shoot yourself in the foot by booking a return flight on the same day. I was very happy about my decision to book a hotel in Thulusdhoo for a couple of nights post-expedition. This move gave me the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful Maldives' beaches, recharge, and savour the vibes before heading back home.
What to bring on the diving expedition
You booked your diving expedition and your flight, and now it is time to pack and get ready for your exciting adventure. It should come as no surprise that diving gear will take up the majority of your packing space. The good news is that you won’t need many clothes, but you'll need swimsuits, a few T-shirts and shorts. The Maldives is always warm, even when it is raining, that is why you only need to pack light clothes.
When it comes to scuba gear, you have the option to rent, but let me drop a truth bomb, bringing your own mask and fins is a game-changer. Why? Well, for starters, it's all about that perfect fit and top-notch quality that rentals sometimes can't match. I have been using a Cressi Scuba Mask for years and it is very comfortable and comes in different colours. And let's not forget my latest obsession, the SCUBAPRO Seawing Supernova Diving Fins. I used to get blisters with rental fins but now with my new fins, every dive just got a whole lot more comfy.
So, for this expedition, make sure you've got a dive computer in tow. Sure, you can rent one, but I'm all about having my own. Why? Because it is all about my safety and it lets me track every dive and sync up with my digital log book. It's like keeping a personal underwater diary.
Now, let's talk sun protection. Besides your scuba gear, SPF 50 sun cream is your best buddy. Seriously, the risk of getting a sunburn on diving trips is higher than shark attacks.
Just a word of warning, a diving expedition is not a cushy diving holiday, it can have a heavy schedule and it is a lot of work, but it is a fun and rewarding experience. In a world where our environment is taking hits, and we should all be aware of our environmental impact, lending a hand as a volunteer is a small, but impactful way to give back to our planet.