Underwater travel aims to uncover the mysteries of the Maldives

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(CNN) — Think “Maldives” and the first images that come to mind for the public are rows of beautiful over-water villas rising from tall trees, or beautiful beaches lined with white sand.

But while the Maldives is one of the world’s most popular vacation spots, not to mention a hot spot for scuba divers, scientists say they still have a lot to learn about it. in its underwater ecosystem.

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

The Nekton Maldives Mission, starting on September 4 and scientific teams from the Maldives and other countries, plans to carry out extensive research below 30 meters using two advanced submersibles – able to go to a depth of up to 1,000 meters.

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

“The Maldives is 99% ocean and only 1% land, sitting on average 1.5 meters above sea level. As a result, the nation is facing a growing threat from the sea ​​level rise,” Nekton said.

“But with more information about their water bodies, work can begin to protect the species that live there and protect the environment in which those species live, and that’s what the country can protect against climate change.”

According to the institute, 10 Maldivian marine scientists have been selected as the first “Maldivian Aquanauts” to lead over 30 first dives in submersibles to explore the depths of the country. The first descent will be led by a group of female aquanauts.

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

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

Nekton/AP

“We are determining the location, health and stability of our corals, especially deep-sea ecosystems of which we know little, so that important habitats are identified for protection and management. Maldivian team leader Shafiya Naeem, director general of the Maldives Marine Research Institute, said in a statement.

“The reefs that surround our atolls help mitigate the effects of sea level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of storms, and are the cause of our economy, life and food.”

A 35 day mission

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

The ship has two submersibles, each capable of carrying a pilot and two scientists. These will be used with robotic and autonomous systems and over a dozen research technologies to collect data.

The newest of the two submersibles is REV Ocean’s Aurelia, which went through extensive sea trials off the coast of Barcelona this summer and proved to be the world’s most advanced submersible, said Nekton in the message.

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

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

Nekton/AP

The second submersible, the Omega Seamaster 2, is the same name used in a Nekton mission in the Seychelles in 2019, where marine explorers found “many new species and records in waters off the coast that are less than 30 meters deep.”

The Aurelia will operate at depths of up to 1,000 meters, while the Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to monitor the first 500 meters below the surface.

During the 35-day mission, marine biologists, data scientists and filmmakers will collect a variety of samples, carry out extensive mapping and video operations in the state of coral reefs around the Maldives.

Oxford University, which is participating in the mission, said scientists will also investigate how marine life is affected by sea level rise caused by melting ice sheets. Age last and explore the “undiscovered and unprotected deep corals of the Rariphotic Zone. , which protects animals from shallow waters.”

“They will also investigate the abundance of 40 shark and 18 ray species at the top of the food chain in the Maldives ocean, which is a major indicator of marine health,” said in a statement.

Among the planned mapping activities was the survey of an underwater mountain in Northern India.

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

Supporting the development of sustainable tourism

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

The country consists of 26 atolls filled with 1,000 islands inhabited by many hotels, spread over 90,000 square kilometers. According to the World Bank, the Maldives will receive over 1.3 million tourists in 2021 – about 80% of 2019 levels. Tourism accounts for about 28% of its GDP.

Mapping the state of the country’s water can support the development of sustainable tourism, says a statement from Nekton about the mission: “The health of the reefs is important in the regions two major Maldivian economies, tourism and fisheries. It is the first line of defense against waves and storms, which are becoming more frequent and stronger.”

Protecting the species that live there is important, because “it results in a better sea, supporting sustainable fisheries and the growth of tourism,” said the mission’s spokesman, noting that the manta ray expedition alone generates about US $15 million annually. income.

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