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Banyan Tree’s Marine Research Facility in Maldives Celebrates Fifth Anniversary

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Banyan Tree’s in-house marine research facility in the Maldives celebrated its fifth anniversary last month. The Marine Lab at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru provides an umbrella for coordinating extensive conservation work conducted by associates, guests and scientists while also providing a centre for raising environmental awareness within the communities in the Maldives.

The aims of the Marine Lab are:

• To preserve local flora and fauna, and where possible to enhance its vitality by further understanding the local ecology and facilitating conservation requirements

• To contribute to the scientific body of knowledge by providing research facilities in the Maldives for international researchers and conservation experts

• To raise awareness of Maldivian issues by providing environmental education to Maldivian communities and International guests

• To drive communal prosperity by promoting marine conservation and sustainable livelihoods for local communities and by establishing multi-stakeholder conservation projects

Banyan Tree Maldives Marine Lab Initiatives

Reef Projects – Vabbinfaru Lotus: The Lotus, a steel frame measuring 12 metres across and weighing 2000 kilograms, was placed on the house reef to provide corals and fishes with a nursery habitat. The Lotus also presents divers and snorkellers the opportunity to witness the birth and growth of a coral reef. Experimental electric reefs, such as the Lotus, are testing whether a low voltage electrical current encourages coral growth and sustained coral health. Through the electrolysis of sea water, a process known as ‘mineral accretion’, calcium carbonate is deposited on the frame, providing ideal conditions for the broken coral, which are manually attached to the steel frame. Results thus far have been promising.

Reef Projects – Ihuru Barnacle: The Barnacle is a volcano-shaped steel structure, measuring nearly four metres high and six metres across the base. Originally powered by solar panels using the same ‘mineral accretion’ techniques in the Lotus, the Barnacle was ‘switched off’ in recent years allowing the Marine Lab team to monitor the long term effects and sustainability of electric reef structures. Two years after the Barnacle’s installment, a large amount of corals around the Maldives died due to a dramatic rise in the local sea temperature in I996. Studies conducted in-house have revealed that unlike the reef, 60-80% of the corals on experimental reef structures survived. Over the past 10 years, the Barnacle has become a huge success. Corals are flourishing and the Barnacle is home for various different species of corals and reef fishes.

Reef Projects – Ihuru Necklace: The Necklace is an ongoing project monitoring the prevention of beach erosion, a big problem in the Maldives. Using the same ‘mineral accretion’ principle as the Barnacle and Lotus, a series of cubic steel frames were sunk inside the lagoon with a low voltage electrical current. It is hoped that the calcium carbonate covered frame will provide a subtle, underwater method of beach defence, while adding to the ecological value of the habitat by providing a suitable habitat for coral recruitment and growth and a nursery area for fish.

Coral Gardens: Fragmentation is a natural reproductive strategy of most corals. The Marine Lab aims to facilitate this process by planting underwater coral gardens. Broken coral fragments are collected and attached strategically with marine cement that provides a secure base for the corals. The planted corals are constantly monitored and enjoy a high survival rate with some growing quickly given favourable conditions. Coral gardens provide an important habitat for young reef fishes in addition to benefitting reef health and biodiversity. They also provide guests with an opportunity to enjoy the colour and activity of a reef while also learning about marine biology from the safety of a shallow lagoon.

Reef Surveys: The Marine Lab team is involved in surveying and maintaining the house reef. They monitor the reef for signs of damage, bleaching and invasive predators. The reef’s inhabitants are also carefully watched as the population, behaviour and movement of reef animals can provide a wealth of information on the health of the reef.

On a monthly basis, house reef and lagoon cleanups take place on both Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana Ihuru. This island-wide event involves staff from all departments, who join in removing debris and unwanted pests (such as invasive coral predators like the crown of thorn starfish) from the reef. Resort guests are also encouraged to join in the reef cleaning sessions as it provides a unique opportunity to experience the reefs.

Turtle Head Start Project: Green Sea Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles are found regularly on Maldivian reefs and are known to nest on Maldivian beaches. As adults they have few natural predators with the main threats to their survival coming from human activities such as hunting, egg poaching, marine litter and some fishing methods. However, as hatchlings, only one out of 600 reach adulthood, placing them on the endangered list.

The Marine Lab runs a Turtle Head Start programme for Green Sea Turtles by taking a small number of hatchlings when they emerge from nests on Vabbinfaru and Ihuru islands, and raise them is specially designed lagoon pens. These turtles are then released when they are big enough to survive, which is usually 30 to 45 centimetres and about12-18 months of age.

All turtles in the programme are marked with titanium flipper tags so that they can be readily identified in the future. In addition to this, a small number of turtles were fitted with a satellite tracking transmitter, allowing the Marine Lab to collect data on the movements of the turtles for up to eight months, providing invaluable information on the migratory movement and behaviour once the turtles are released.

During the nesting season, resort staff closely monitor the shores of Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana Ihuru for turtle nesting activity. Any nest laid are immediately marked and protected so nobody can accidentally disturb the nest and the Marine Lab team can monitor it until the turtles hatch. This provides important information on the nesting turtle population in the Maldives and ensures the future of the nesting populations on the islands.

Shark Research: At Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru and Angsana Ihuru, the house reefs are home to the blacktip reef sharks. Most shark species are endangered and global shark populations are falling dramatically due mainly to overfishing. The blacktip reef shark is currently listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) redlist as ‘near threatened’.

Banyan Tree Maldives Marine Lab also works with shark specialists to learn more about the biology and behaviour of these magnificent animals. Working with a captive population of juvenile sharks in the lagoon pen as well as with the wild populations, it is hoped that this will lead to further understanding the role of these vital parts of the marine ecosystem. Using techniques such as blood sampling, gastric lavage, ultrasound, tagging and sighting report schemes, we hope to gain a better understanding of the physiology, development and social structure of sharks.

Stingray Research: There are eight different species of rays found in the lagoons of Vabbinfaru and Ihuru, most noticeable being the pink whiptail rays that arrive by the jetty for feeding everyday at 5pm. The stingray feeding is carried out by experienced and trained Marine Lab staff for the protection of the stingrays and guests. Despite being wonderfully charismatic and highly intelligent, little is known about any species of ray. Banyan Tree Maldives Marine Lab conducts several research projects looking into the ecology, behaviours and intelligence of these creatures. 

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