Volunteering Whale Shark Conservation - Elisabeth
This time it should be a maritime project and to escape the boring November, it should be "something with an island and summer". What could be more obvious than the Maldives? When I read about the project with whale sharks, I was immediately excited.
Two weeks on the boat? I'm in! As always, the preparation by Daniel and his team was top-notch. There were no questions left unanswered, I knew what to expect and yet I had no concrete expectations. Because that's how I always approach a new project, so that I can be open to everything - to another country, other people and their culture and everything else that is still unknown. That's the only way to broaden your horizons and take everything as it comes.
Preparation before departure to the Dhigurah Island of the Maldives
To get in the mood for the topic whale sharks and Maldives, I subscribed to Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme on Instagram and could already see the first pictures and reports. In addition, we were all contacted in advance and were able to set up a WhatsApp group, get to know each other a bit and thus increase our anticipation. This way we also helped each other with the "packing" ;-) When we arrived in Malé, we already knew each other and we were picked up by the Operating Team MWSRP Chloe and Kamey and taken by Dhoni, our future "working boat", to the MV Felicity, the mothership, as I always lovingly called it. A wonderful, impressive two-masted sailboat that was going to be our home for the next two weeks.
Accommodation: two weeks on the boat
As the daughter of a former seafarer, I immediately felt right at home. The entire crew, from the captain to the chef, took excellent care of us during our stay, we all felt completely at ease. I would never have expected such delicious food, we didn't have to worry about anything, our cabin was made ready twice a day, and the banana tree not only looked beautiful, it also satisfied every little hunger in between.
A typical start to the volunteer day
A typical working day started at 7am with breakfast, then we got on the Dhoni at 8am and spent the day there. We sailed up and down the MPA (marine protected area) of South Ari Atoll, always looking for the "gentle giants" - the whale sharks. We logged a lot of things: other boats and their coordinates, number of people, type of boat, etc., as well as "megafauna" (turtles, dolphins, rays) and, of course, every encounter with the whale sharks. We often stood on the roof of the Dhoni for hours, no matter if it was raining or the sun was beating down, because from there you can see the best. And you get better at spotting from day to day, your senses become sharper, you spot the shadow in the water, a fin, perceive movements.
As soon as we spotted a whale shark, the excitement increased, now everything has to happen very quickly so that we don't lose the whale shark. One jumper jumps into the water before everyone else, led by those who still have a good view of the whale shark from the boat. If the whale shark continues to stay on the surface, a signal is given for everyone else to follow. Then it's a matter of swimming fast, because the Code of Conduct says that the Dhoni keeps at least 10, better 20 metres distance and is also not in the way of the whale shark. Watching these giants underwater is a very peaceful feeling and I am grateful that we were able to see so many whale sharks.
We took photos to identify the whale shark using the database, observed its behaviour, documented its injuries ... and unfortunately we saw quite a few of them. Sometimes we even saw the same whale shark within a very short time: the first time still unwounded and the second time with cuts in the back or the fin, caused by motor boats travelling much too fast in the actually protected area; to fulfil the tourists' expectations so that they can swim with the whale shark. At any cost, apparently. I was deeply shocked by this. We found a turtle injured to death and buried it on the beach, and witnessed scenes like something out of a Hollywood action film. Word gets around quickly when a whale shark is spotted, the guides are in contact with each other, and if there are lots of boats somewhere, it is quite obvious that a whale shark has been spotted there. Then other boats race up, not always taking into account divers or snorkellers who are already in the water; not to mention the endangered whale shark in the reef.
A typical afternoon at the Whale Shark Project
Back on the Dhoni, the encounter protocol was filled out and all the facts were noted down. We measured the water current, temperature, wind speed and visibility in the water. All this data is important to research more about whale sharks and their behaviour. When we were in a lull, a snorkelling trip provided some variety. The reefs and corals and all the colourful creatures always enchanted me.
In the afternoon we returned to MV Felicity. After a small snack and rest, we entered all the logs we had kept during the day into the databases. The most exciting thing was to find out which whale shark we had seen. Is it already in the database? Is it a new individual? Each whale shark has an individual pattern of dots and lines that can be used to identify an animal. Just like a human fingerprint.
At the end of the day you were just tired and happy, because such a day on the Dhoni in wind and weather, sun and in the water is definitely challenging and exhausting. But I got used to it very quickly, simply because it gave me so much pleasure and I enjoyed every second outside. In addition to our daily survey, we also paid a visit to some of the islands, went for walks on the beach, strolled in the little shops and let our souls wander.
Elisabeth's opinion on volunteering in species conservation
A volunteer project in species conservation is not only exciting and great, but also honest and raw. It is not all paradise. Species conservation is always accompanied by downsides and is hard physical and emotional work. All the more reason to be grateful for every single person out there who is committed to our animal wonders every day. And every volunteer contributes to making the world a little bit better.
Surrounded by swimming miracles!
Every single whale shark was a swimming miracle underwater, as if it was out of this world. Elegant, chilled, powerful and majestic at the same time. We saw countless turtles, whales, rays, dolphins dancing around us and having fun swimming along with the boat. Every morning we woke up in the middle of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by amazement and new opportunities to experience something unique. Being in the middle of the Maldives was a gift and am immensely grateful for this time that I will treasure forever. Best fishes!
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