David Curnick starts shark tagging project in Chagos marine reserve

David Curnick

Last week I ran away from the gloomy London weather and escaped to the Maldives. As part of my PhD I was joining a research expedition to the Chagos Marine Reserve with colleagues from Stanford University and the University of Western Australia (UWA), kindly supported by the Bertarelli Foundation. 

The Chagos archipelago is a UK Overseas Territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean and houses some of the world’s best marine habitats. The reserve was established in 2010 and all fishing is banned within its 640,000km2 area. Research and monitoring of the coral reefs and islands is relatively established but this was not the aim of our expedition. We were after the big boys: the sharks and manta rays, to understand what role the Chagos reserve plays in their ecology and, more importantly, their conservation. We plan to attach tags to the animals to find out where they go and why. There is an existing array of monitoring sensors in the outer atolls which we will also need to service whilst we’re there.

I arrived in Malé a couple of days before we were due to head south to Chagos. Well, that was the plan anyway. Sadly, such plans often go awry when on expedition. Having been shuffled off the plane and onto the boat taxi, I was escorted to the research vessel. I hadn’t been there 5 minutes before Dave Tickler (UWA) informed me that half of our research equipment had been held up in customs. To make matters worse, some of it hadn’t even made it to Maldivian customs, it was still in Singapore. We were already on a tight schedule and the thought of losing days so early on was a painful pill to swallow.

On the upside, the delay meant we were able to enjoy the local reefs whilst completing our check dives. Six black-tip reef sharks, a numbfish (a type of electric ray) and two large groupers made for a great dive. At night, Glen the skipper would turn on the underwater lights at the back of the bow. This was great at attracting fish and squid to the boat. We even attracted a pod of dolphins and enjoyed a midnight snorkel within them observing their underwater shenanigans. We also spent that time prepping what gear we had ready for deployment in Chagos. Shark lines were spliced, hooks were sharpened, buoys were treated with anti-fouling paint, and tags were programmed and tethered ready for action. Oh, and we snuck in some St Patrick’s Day celebrations with the crew.

shark; hook; tagging; Chagos
Shark hook for tagging study

After two days our items from Maldivian customs were released and brought to the boat. Unfortunately the equipment required to service the array was still missing and was even in danger of being incinerated in Singapore. Desperate times call for desperate measures and, given the reluctance of Singapore customs to ship the goods to the Maldives, we decided that we would have to fly there and bring them back ourselves. That night Dave T and Robbie Schallert (Stanford) flew to Singapore to save our stuff.

They arrived back the following evening empty handed. Apparently there was no chance of flying the equipment to the Maldives. However, luckily they had managed to arrange for the equipment to be sent directly to the naval base in Chagos.

Yesterday, five days into the trip, we finally set sail for Chagos. Conditions were good enough for a spot of fishing off the back of the boat but despite early optimism, nothing was caught.

We are now chugging our way south across the Indian Ocean, and hope to arrive in Chagos on the morning of the 20th to get stuck into the work at hand.  Let’s hope our equipment is ready and waiting at the other end…

David Curnick

Get regular updates on the expedition through twitter - #BFChagos14

Follow David Curnick @david_curnick

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