Historic underwater mission sets sail with 10 Maldivian aquanauts

The much-awaited Nekton Maldives Mission departs Wednesday, September 7, for its historic mission to understand life in the country’s twilight zone.

Ten Maldivian marine conservationists join the team of scientific experts in the “The Maldives Knowledge Exchange Expedition”, which will gather vital data to better inform governments and the scientific community worldwide as they combat climate change.

The Maldives teams includes six members from the Maldives Marine Research Institute: Director General Shafiya Naeem, Senior Scientific Officer Riyaz Jauharee, Senior Research Officer Mohamed Ahusan, marine biologists Mohamed Shimal and Hana Amir, and assistant Marine Research Officer Hussain Moosa. Additionally, Small Island Research Group’s President Hussain Zahir, Blue Marine Foundation’s Maldives Programme Manager Shaha Hashim, and Water Solutions’s marine biologist Afeef Abdulla Naeem will be participating in the mission.

Six international marine scientists will also be partaking in the knowledge exchange.

Rolling in the deep: the scientific mission to understand life below water

The expedition will be the first systematic look at life below 30 meters,  which is the legal diving limit of the country. The mission will be exploring down to 1000 meters to accomplish the following scientific goals:

  1. Health Check: Ocean Life to support human life: establishing the first ‘baseline health check’ on the status of Maldives ocean to inform the protection of critical nurseries, spawning habitats and related ecosystems.
  2. Protecting the ocean to protect the planet: applied research to meet national priorities to establish vast new marine protected areas (20% of Maldives territorial waters, equivalent in size to half of Germany) and policies for sustainable ocean management to underpin the Maldivian economy anchored on tourism and fishing.
  3. The Frontline of the Rising Ocean: With 99% ocean, and land on average 1.5metres (4ft 7 inches) above sea level, the Maldives is severely threatened by the rising ocean. At depths around 120metres, the team are locating the old beach line, from 20,000 years ago when sea levels rose following ice melt from the Last Glacial Maximum and investigating how ocean life has adapted to rising sea levels.
  4. Maldives – Coral Country: the canary in the climate mine: With the nation built on coral atolls, coral reefs are one of the earliest and most significant ecological casualties of global warming. The mission is determining the location, health and resilience of coral reefs leading to their protection.
  5. Deep Reefs: refuge of hope: the first discovery, survey and sampling of Maldives’ deep reefs (below 30metres) to strengthen the nation’s resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
  6. Seamounts: The first scientific exploration of a seamount in the Northern Indian Ocean, a hotspot for biodiversity and critical for local fisheries.
  7. ‘The Shark Spa’: With at least 40 shark and 18 ray species at the apex of the food chain in the Maldives ocean, the team are investigating their relative abundance at depth, as a critical indicator to determine ocean health.

Collaboration for conservation: UK & Indian Ocean collaboration

The mission is a collaboration with the Maldives government and 40 collaborators. The event will mark a new era of collaboration with scientists from the Indian Ocean and their UK colleagues.

“We’re coming together to establish new marine science leadership, to share knowledge and ultimately forge the foundations for greater scientific collaboration across the Indian Ocean.” Mohamed Ahusan, one of the mission’s aquanauts, explained. Ahusan will be focusing on the studying the distribution of fish larvae which forms part of the plankton community.

British High Commissioner to The Maldives, Caron Röhser believes this collaboration is sign of hope for the fight against climate change.

“We still have time to avert the climate and biodiversity crisis but only if we can find innovative ways to work together. Developing and strengthening regional collaboration is essential. The Maldives commitment to sustainable management and conservation of the ocean is a beacon for all of us in the Indian Ocean.” she said.

The expedition will deploy human-occupied submersibles, robots, autonomous systems and over a dozen advanced subsea research technologies. The team of collaborators also include submarine pilots, underwater video experts, and technical staff to oversee the most advanced submersible equipment.

“We hope this expedition will help reset the expectations for mutually beneficial ocean science, which together some of the brightest minds and cutting-edge technologies to tackle urgent national and regional priorities.” Nekton Mission’s Principal Scientist, from the University of Oxford, said.

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