Underwater expedition aims to unlock the mysteries of the Maldives

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(CNN) — Think of the ‘Maldives’ and the first images that come to mind for many are rows of luxury overwater villas jutting out from long wooden piers, or gorgeous beaches fringed with impossibly white sand.

But although the Maldives is one of the world’s most desirable vacation spots, not to mention a dream destination for scuba divers, scientists say there’s still a lot to learn about its underwater ecosystems. .

Now the Maldivian government and UK marine research institute Nekton have teamed up to unravel some of those mysteries by launching an ambitious expedition into the country’s uncharted waters.

The Nekton Maldives mission, which will launch on September 4 and includes teams of scientists from the Maldives and abroad, plans to conduct extensive research below 30 meters using two high-tech submersibles, including the one can go up to 1,000 meters.

The aim is to help the Maldives manage the impact of the global climate crisis.

“The Maldives is 99% ocean and only 1% land, sitting an average of 1.5 meters above sea level. As a result, the nation faces a growing threat from rising seas. “, says a statement from Nekton.

“But, armed with a better knowledge of what their waters contain, work can begin to protect what lives there and safeguard the environment these species inhabit, making the country better able to withstand climate change. .”

The institute says 10 Maldivian marine scientists have been selected as the first “Maldivian aquanauts” to lead more than 30 first submersible descents to explore the depths of the country. The very first descent will be led by a 100% female team of aquanauts.

The Omega Seamaster 2 Submersible, seen here exploring Seychelles waters in 2019.

Nekton/AP

“We are determining the location, health and resilience of our coral reefs, especially the deeper ecosystems that we know very little about, so that key habitats can be identified for protection and management,” the chief executive said. Maldivian team Shafiya Naeem, Director General of the Maldives Marine Research Institute, in a statement.

“The reefs that surround our atolls help reduce the impacts of rising sea levels and the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, and form the basis of our economies, livelihoods and our subsistence.”

A 35 day mission

The RV Odyssey, an expedition vessel, will ferry scientists from the Maldives, UK, India and South Africa on a 35-day mission across the country’s vast waters.

The ship has two submersibles, each of which can carry a pilot and two scientists. These will be used alongside robotic and autonomous systems and more than a dozen research technologies to collect data.

The newer of the two submersibles is the REV Ocean-owned Aurelia, which underwent extensive sea trials off Barcelona this summer and is now certified as the world’s most advanced craft of its kind. , Nekton said in the statement.

The Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to explore up to 500 meters below the surface.

The Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to explore up to 500 meters below the surface.

Nekton/AP

The second submersible, the Omega Seamaster 2, is the same brand used on a Nekton mission to the Seychelles in 2019, where marine explorers “found dozens of new species and mapped waters off the coast that were previously unexplored below 30 meters”.

The Aurelia will operate down to 1,000 meters deep, while the Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to explore the first 500 meters below the surface.

As for what will happen during the 35-day mission, marine biologists, data scientists and film producers will collect species samples, carry out extensive mapping operations and film the state of corals around the Maldives.

The University of Oxford, which is taking part in the mission, said scientists will also study how ocean life has adapted to historic sea level rise caused by the melting ice of the last ice age and will explore the “largely unknown and unprotected deep corals and reefs of the Rariphotic Zone”. , which serve as a refuge for animals in shallower waters.”

They will also “investigate the relative abundance of the 40 shark species and 18 ray species at the top of the food chain in the ocean of the Maldives, which act as a critical indicator of ocean health,” it said. he said in a statement.

Among the mapping operations planned is a study of an underwater mountain in the northern Indian Ocean.

According to Nekton, all samples and data collected will remain the property of the Maldives – “a change from some Western-led scientific expeditions of the past”.

Support the development of sustainable tourism

So what does all this have to do with tourism in the Maldives?

The country is made up of 26 atolls filled with more than 1,000 islands occupied by dozens of resorts, all spread over 90,000 square kilometers. According to the World Bank, the Maldives welcomed more than 1.3 million tourists in 2021, around 80% of 2019 levels. Tourism accounts for around 28% of its GDP.

Documenting the state of the country’s waters can support the development of sustainable tourism, according to a briefing from Nekton on the mission: “Reef health is fundamental to the two largest sectors of the Maldivian economy, tourism and fisheries. Besides the economic benefits, its coral provides the reefs, they are the first line of defense against waves and storms, which are becoming more frequent and intense.”

Protecting the animal species that live there is also vital, as it “results in a healthier ocean, supporting sustainable fisheries and tourism growth,” says the mission briefing, which notes that manta ray tourism generates alone about US$15 million per year in revenue.

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