Trip Leaders: Mr Paul Bentham
Please note that parents are responsible for the arrangement of visas if required.
Please ensure that your child’s passport is valid for a minimum period of 6 months from the date of departure from their destination.
About Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP)
The MWSRP is a charity that carries out whale shark research and fosters community focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives. The experience we’re able to provide high school students is one of a real-world whale shark research programme. We’re based within a small local island community led by a team of experienced field practitioners.
Working alongside our team of experienced marine biologists, conservation practitioners and outdoor educators our goal is to expose young people to all aspects of our programme. While studying the world’s largest fish and encountering some of the most spectacular marine life on the planet, participants will also learn the importance of detailed data collection, analysis and interpretation and the role science plays in the management of our species and ecosystems.
One thing that won’t be encountered is a classroom. In our experience there’s no better place to discuss the impact of climate change than when sat on a sandbank with the tide lapping at your toes. Whether its rising sea levels, ocean acidification or plastic pollution, the Maldives lends itself as a case study because it’s on the front line of so many of the worlds biggest environmental challenges.
Culturally the real Maldives offers something quite different too. Small island communities are incredibly hospitable and relish the opportunity to welcome and share their culture with groups from around the world. That said, these communities mean the world to us, we’ve worked closely with the local school for 11 years. We facilitate opportunities for young people to meet their local counterparts, bond over shared activities while also encouraging a genuine and mutually enriching exchange of experience.
MWSRP is based in Dhigurah, a long, narrow, atoll rim island that follows a rough SW to NE orientation (Dhigu (long) Rah (island)). A huge lagoon can be found protecting the west side of the island, which is one of the more reliable places to see manta rays in this area, particularly in the south west monsoon. Only about one third of the island is inhabited, at the northern end, which is also where the harbour can be found. The rest of the island is covered in mature foliage and numerous vegetable plantations.
Generations ago, Dhigurah made its name and wealth from hunting whale sharks. The deep waters on the islands eastern shore are part of a reef complex which is home to one of the only known populations of whale sharks which inhabit one region all year round – the same feature that nowadays attracts tourists and research teams from around the world! The sharks were hunted purely for utilitarian reasons, as their liver oil was used to protect the wooden hulls of the local fishing boats from fouling and parasites which would damage the wood. As soon as synthetic versions of this coating became physically and financially available, the hunting was stopped. This was formally enforced by the Maldivian government from 1995.
Arrive Male International Airport followed by a domestic flight to the home of WWSRP.
After a hearty breakfast, you will have a short walking tour of Dhigurah Island. You’ll be shown all the sights and given a potted history of the island, including an explanation by a village elder about how this very island was once the capital of whale shark hunting in the Maldives.
By now you’ll be itching to get in the sea! To get you ready for work, the Research Team will lead a swimming check to confirm your ability to manoeuvre with a snorkel, mask, and fins in the safety of the shallow lagoon. You will learn the safety protocols such as hand signals and buddy systems that you’ll adopt when you head out in search of the largest fish in the ocean.
After lunch it’s time for you to get acquainted with Dolphin Dhoni, your research vessel. After a thorough briefing you’ll head out of the harbour and follow the 40km long coral reef system that protects Dhigurah and its neighbouring islands. They’ll be an open water swim test to refresh protocols and get used to swimming from the vessel. Next up will be a simulated whale shark encounter. This drill will ensure that the next time you hear ‘SHARK’ you’ll be ready!
Until about 4pm you’ll carry out your first whale shark survey. You’ll be assigned data collection tasks and given tips on how to spot the sharks from the sun deck. If you’re lucky you’ll meet your first whale shark!
Each evening you will process the data you have collected and the research team will present a series of evening workshops on topics starting with Whale Shark Biology & Conservation, Climate change and ocean acidification.
After breakfast is your second whale shark survey with the research team. In addition to searching for whale sharks, you’ll also be recording all mega-fauna (dolphins, manta rays, whales, turtles) as part of an effort to collect baseline data for the marine protected area. What are your observations? Questions? Insights? We’ll discuss these over a packed lunch on the dhoni before continuing our survey into the afternoon session.
We encourage students to keep a journal and compile a photo/video essay to reflect on their exploration.
Upon your return to Dhigurah, the Research Team will explain the special application they have developed to monitor whale sharks in the Maldives. You’ll learn the relevance of the data you have been collecting and most exciting of all you’ll learn how to identify the whale sharks using a special pattern recognition software.
This evening you’ll be given a workshop covering current whale shark research practices. You’ll learn the relevance of what you’ve been collecting on the boat and discuss its importance in the bigger picture of whale shark conservation and marine protected area management
Today is all about getting to know the Dhigurah community and working with them to tackle one of their biggest challenges; waste management. The morning session will be held at the local school. You and your Maldivian peers will be led by a local community member who will talk and walk you through the challenges his community faces and some of the solutions they have implemented.
After lunch you will split up in to two teams. Alongside the local students one group will take part in the collection of plastic waste from the beaches and the other will collect organic waste and leaf litter in the ‘jungle’, before adding to and creating compost piles. The other group will survey the plastic waste they have collected, learning about how long it takes for plastic to break down and the hazard of micro plastics to the ecosystem… and us!
Before heading back for dinner you’ll join your new friends at their homes for tea, as Maldivians are famed for their hospitality. It might be nice to bring with you a small gift from your country for their families.
Staying in your teams, one group will continue the remaining waste management project.
The other will head out on the boat to continue your whale shark research. Your species identification should be improved by now as should your confidence in the water. Lectures by the MWSRP will have deepened your understanding so today you’ll add another level of data collection.
You’ll be recording all of the vessels you pass on the reef. This will frame a discussion on the potential for tourism to be a positive factor but also if left unregulated, to be a negative pressure on the whale sharks and their habitat. After lunch the teams will switch, ensuring that we complete what we set out to achieve on our community projects, whilst also maximising the whale shark survey data we collect.
This evenings sunset workshop will be concerned with a different challenge facing this community and ours: climate change and ocean acidification. What better place to have this discussion than at sunset on a sand bank in the Maldives; a country on the ‘front line’ of climate change.
This morning you will be doing beach based survey work on the Sea Grass and Coral.
Today’s workshop will see one team compile and summarise the data you have all collected and present this for discussion. What are the most effective ways to communicate what you have found? The other team will be tasked with putting together a slideshow which will document the trip. Ready for the big screen tonight!
In the evening enjoy a traditional Maldivian BBQ and a game of Volleyball!
Today is all about spending some time on the water, seeking out another whale shark encounter in your final full-day survey. By now the data collection, like the movement of the boat will all have become second nature. This will give you space to take in your surroundings and ponder bigger questions based on all you have learned.
The research team will challenge you with discussions over a packed lunch. What are your reflections on the status of the whale sharks in the Maldives? What are your thoughts on whale shark tourism? If you were in charge what would be your suggestions for a route forward that takes into account the needs of the tourist industry, the local community and the whale sharks?
Enjoy this evenings celebration dinner followed by ‘Bodu Beru’ night – traditional Maldivian drumming and dancing alongside your projected slideshow. Bring some of your best dance moves to share!
On your final morning you will take part in a mindful debrief and say our goodbyes. Then we head to Male’ on the speedboat after lunch, getting to Male about 4pm. You will then have a tour of the main sites in the city before heading to the airport ready for your evening flight home.
Time to say Shukriyyaa and good bye to the Maldives… until we meet again.