Goodbye Maldives, Hello Chagos!

David Curnick

The trip down from Malé to Chagos took us over the equator. Cruising along at ~13 knots, we reached it just before lunchtime on the 19th. To celebrate the occasion, we all jumped in just short of line to swim from the Northern Hemisphere down into Southern Hemisphere. The flat calm sea was perfect for a quick swim and also for spotting some the Indian Ocean’s largest residents. We were lucky enough to encounter several large pods of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and also witness a couple of whale breaches on the horizon. The best sighting though was the Omura’s whale we spotted in the southern Maldives. Very little is known about the species so it was amazing to be in such close proximity.

We crossed into the MPA around 11am on the 20th. The morning was spent hurriedly rushing around the boat doing last minute equipment preparation. In the midst of all the commotion, a shout over the ship’s radio had us all rushing to the starboard side. It was an illegal FAD, a fish aggregation device. Simply a collection of debris or old fishing nets, this island in the middle of the open ocean is a magnet for small fish and crustaceans, and where they go, the bigger fish soon follow. Fishermen use these devices to attract fish as they pass through the MPA and then wrap a giant net around them when they pass out the other side. These are a very efficient method of fishing and one that is destructive to the pelagic environment.

We jumped in to inspect the FAD. The water was teaming with small fish but, unfortunately, the only shark present was one that had been caught in the nets and had subsequently drowned. As we approached closer, a swarm of crabs jumped off the FAD and attached themselves to the nearest snorkeler. On the lookout for an accommodation upgrade, the pesky little decapods clung on whilst we frantically tried to knock them off.

Bycatch; FAD; Illegal; Chagos; MPA
Bycatch in an illegal FAD

We arrived at Benares Shoals shortly after lunch and fully de-crabbed. Four of us grabbed our dive gear, jumped in the tender and set off to find two receivers that had been deployed last year. They had spent the last year logging data whenever an acoustically tagged shark had swum past them and set out a “ping”. Our aim was to retrieve the old receivers, download the data, and replace them with shiny new ones. These give us information on how the sharks move between the reefs in the region. There is currently an array of 30 receivers across the MPA and we hope to service them all and deploy up to 19 new ones. That’s a lot of dives over the coming 3 weeks.

To complicate matters, the only way to find the receivers is to follow the recorded GPS location, jump in, and hope that the strong currents haven’t dislodged them. To our surprise, we found our first two without too much trouble. As we took the old ones out, a couple of reef sharks cruised around us, hopefully pinging a last minute data point. One 6ft nurse shark either took a particular liking to me, or just didn’t even notice me there, as she just swam straight into my leg.

After a busy morning, we managed to sneak in some shark wrangling later in the day. As a result, two silvertips and one grey reef shark now sport some acoustic tag bling. Hopefully they swim past our brand new receivers.

We are now moored up inside Peros Banhos and surrounded by beautiful coconut covered islands.  After 6 days of frustration, it seemed only right to celebrate a successful day with a beer on the aft deck. 

Over the coming days we will be servicing more of the arrays but also going on the hunt for dolphins and manta rays, ideal candidates for Dr Taylor Chapple’s new breed of camera tags.

Get regular updates on the expedition through twitter - #BFChagos14

Follow David Curnick @david_curnick

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