Mantas in the Maldives and Belugas and Puffins in Iceland. Not to mention Diving between two Continents.
For the last week in the Maldives, I was invited to the Manta Expedition by Eco-Prodivers, who focus strongly on running eco-friendly dive trips by reducing single-use plastic, providing biodegradable shampoos, and educating their guests about the marine environment and importance to protect it.
For this reason, they also work together with local research organisations like the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme and Manta Trust, who give presentations onboard, and aim for their guests to actively contribute to research of these. This mainly involves teaching them about Photo Identification, and the behavioural ecology of these marine species.
Because I had been lucky enough to experience the work of both these organisations in-field prior to this week, it was particularly interesting for me to see yet another aspect of their work, the outreach and education of interested scuba divers, whose enthusiasm was really rewarding to see.
We were lucky enough to spend one entire dive with four mantas at a cleaning station, and they even turned out to be 12 individuals in total, which we could pro-actively find out through comparing the ID-shots we collected with the mantas in the Manta Trust´s catalogues. Another highlight was a night dive, which we entirely shared with the juvenile manta Sea Spirit, who was attracted by the plankton that collected up around our dive lights.
Next, my Scholarship journey took me from the tropical waters of the Maldives to the windiest place in Europe – the Westman Islands in Iceland. Here, I have spent two weeks at the Sea Life Trust´s Visitor Centre, which serves as the base for the world´s first beluga whale sanctuary and puffin rehabilitation centre.
I came here just in the right time for the puffling season, and helped out in the ‘Puffling Patrol’. Every year in late-August, about 5,000-10,000 juveniles of the world´s biggest colony of puffins fly out from their nests at night and mistake the town´s street lights for the reflection of the moon on the ocean, which is where they are supposed to head out to, and the town´s children patrol the streets to catch lost pufflings. The next day, they bring them to the centre in numbers of up to 500, where we weighed them, measured their wings, and ringed them.
All this data has been collected for several years and helps monitor the resident puffin population. We would also keep too skinny or downy individuals for a few days to feed them before their release at the shore. Some pufflings were brought in wet and oiled from the harbour, so that they had to be washed to ensure they would have a waterproof plumage.
The sanctuary´s two eluga whales have got an amazing 40-hour journey behind them. In June, they travelled from a marine park in Shanghai to Iceland, and will be released into their new natural forever home, Kletsvik Bay, next spring. They are currently still cared for in the visitor centre, where they acclimatise to colder waters and are worked with so that they will accept the stretcher, that will bring them out to their sanctuary, free of stress.
They are also trained medical behaviours, which prepare them for potentially necessary veterinary examinations like blood draws, gastric sampling or ultrasound scans. It was a great opportunity to, firstly, experience these highly interactive and intelligent animals from so close and personal, and secondly, to learn first-hand about cetacean´s ethology and training from Tricia Kamolnick, who has worked with cetaceans all her life.
Back on the Icelandic mainland, I then, thanks to Arctic Adventures and Magma Dive, ticked off a big point on my bucket list – a dive between the American and European continent in the world-famous Silfra crack. I can´t find the right words for the incredible and other-worldly beauty of this place, with the clearest water in the world with more than 100 metres of visibility after filtration through lava stone for 100 years.
All in all, the big contrast between the Maldives and Iceland in the last month has left me incredibly appreciative of the diverse landscapes and life found on our planet, and it really made me realise that every place has its very own beauty.
Photographs by Kim Hildebrand and Lena Kavender