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An Interview With : Emeline Bouchet

Making a difference and supporting unique environments and wildlife are at the forefront for many travellers. Travel Dine Relax caught up with Emeline Bouchet, Resident Marine Biologist at Velaa Private Island to hear more about how this unique destination is playing an active part in supporting its local environment and educating visitors on the importance of conservation and ecosystems.

Images courtesy of Velaa Private Island

Tell us more about your role and what a typical day entails?

The most important part of my role is leading the Coral Restoration Project at Velaa, where we use the coral nursery technique, a two-stage process for coral propagation. This method had been chosen due to the shallowness of the lagoon and the structure of the natural reef. Firstly, corals are grown in a mid-water floating nursery, where they can increase in size substantially due to lack of predators and sedimentation, increased water flow, a good light source and removal of competitions, including algae. Once the corals have reached a healthy size, we then ‘transplant’ them back to the reef in the second stage whereby we glue them on the natural substrate using marine cement.

Throughout this process, my team and I regularly monitor the coral health and growth rates to track the progress of the programme and to quantify how much they grow throughout the nursery phase. We do this by looking at the percentage of healthy tissue and whether corals are bleaching or not. We also record if they are any disease and if corals are facing any predation or competition. With the help of this programme, the corals have then proven to more than triple in size within six to nine months.

Images courtesy of Velaa Private Island

Another part of my role as a marine biologist involves Sea Turtle and Manta ray conservation on the island. Velaa means Green Sea Turtle in Dhivehi, the native language, as several females nest on the island between March and August each year.

Coming on land to lay eggs drains the female of energy, we try to make the process less stressful by keeping our distance, avoiding pictures with flash and using red light in order to increase the nesting success rate at Velaa. 

With so many travel destinations reliant on beautiful natural surroundings, such as the oceans and sea, how important is it that they play an active role in supporting the local ecosystem?

In the Maldives in particular, it’s very important that hotel developments and operations are respectful of the environment and even more important that they play an active role in supporting the local ecosystem through eco-friendly practices. At Velaa Private Island, we believe the support and protection of the natural environment all starts with education and allowing our guests to get involved in these activities first-hand. This is why we believe hosting regular workshops, covering issues such as plastic pollution and ocean conservation and allowing guests to shadow in-house coral biologists for the day, has been so successful in helping guests understand the root of the problem, before taking action themselves. 

At Velaa, we also work in cooperation with the Oliver Ridley Project and Manta Trust, whereby anytime we have an encounter with manta rays or turtles on the house reef or a nearby island, we send information and images to the relevant organisations for identification. 

The Maldives’ coral reefs experienced severe bleaching in recent years. What caused this, and how can conservation help repair the enormous loss to this precious ecosystem?

Global warming is the biggest threat to coral population in the Maldives – coral is highly sensitive to any environmental change and in particular temperature variations. Corals were recovering from the biggest bleaching event ever recorded in 1998 and were still fragile when a second natural phenomenon occurred in 2016 – El-Niño. The El-Niño effect caused sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean to rise above normal levels for an extended period of time, and this was made more extreme by global warming. The average coral cover lost during this bleaching event was 60% which, in turn, led to a decrease in terms of fish abundance and diversity. Coral is also threatened by anthropogenic activities, most notably pollution and overfishing.

Conservation can help repair this loss by nursing coral reefs back to full health and our Coral Regeneration Project at Velaa has been effective with an 80% success rate. Since 2016, we have planted over 7,000 nursery grown corals which now cover over 1000m² more of the house reef. We have also increased the diversity of corals on the reef by implementing mini rope nurseries which allow sensitive species to grow and increase their survival rate, such as Acropora branch corals.

Images courtesy of Velaa Private Island

The Maldives reefs contain a diverse range of marine life. How do they rely on the coral?

The Maldives is home to approximately 1,200 islands, each surrounded by coral reef – the predominant ecosystem found in the Maldives. Indeed, an estimated 25% of all marine life is reliant
on healthy coral reefs in some part of their life cycle for food, shelter and breeding. These are some of the most complex and diverse reef systems in the world. Coral reefs provide habitat for a large variety of marine life with biodiversity ranging from planktonic organisms to sharks (black and white tip reef sharks, nurse sharks, seasonal manta rays, black spotted eagle rays and stingrays).

What are the future plans for the coral regeneration project at Velaa?

The aim of the project is not only to help regenerate the reef but to spread awareness in terms of the impact we have on the ocean. This has inspired our decision to start working with the local community to help educate them on the coral reef ecosystem and explain the importance of protecting it in the future within the local community. In 2019, Velaa welcomed an NGO, Manadhoo Zuvaanunge Gulhun, from a nearby island to learn about the project at Velaa, with the intention to inspire them to follow our method and protect their own house reefs. This year, we plan to work on sustainable methods to decrease plastic pollution with the aim of reducing the damages on marine life. Indeed, we would like to work with local schools and government to make changes durable in time and which could significantly improve marine life protection.

Images courtesy of Velaa Private Island

What three things can tourists do to help preserve the local ecosystem in the Maldives?

Guests of Velaa Private Island can help preserve the local ecosystem by taking part in the following:

Adopting coral – Our guests can attend an educational presentation about marine life and preserving the reef ecosystem, highlighting the importance of protection. After the presentation, guests can help the marine team attach and monitor corals on the rope themselves. Guided by the team, guests can put their own corals on the nursery by scuba diving or snorkelling. We then give to our guests a certificate of adoption and update them on the health of their adopted coral every semester, so that they can always remember the unique part they had to play in regenerating the reef ecosystem.

Become a marine biologist for the day – Guests are invited to shadow the coral biologists who live on the island, as they snorkel and/or scuba dive to collect valuable research.

Attend an education workshop – Guests can learn more about preserving the local ecosystem in the Maldives in our series of awareness-raising workshops which focus on topics such as shark population, sea turtle nesting and the effects of plastic pollution on local marine life. This is to inspire more people to get involved in ocean protection and conservation, with a view to spreading awareness and finding solutions to preserve the biodiversity which is drastically decreasing every year.

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