7 ways to get the most from diving and snorkelling

Marine biologist Robin Aiello gives her top tips for getting the most out of your dive and snorkel experience. Robin is visiting Constance Halaveli, Maldives and leading dive and snorkel excursions for guests as well as island nature walks and talks.

Baracudas

Baracudas

1. Scan the area – Look down, look out, look up

Let your eyes relax and scan the whole area – don’t look at anything in particular, just take in the whole reef. Do this at regular intervals. Take a wide panoramic view. You might spot a large manta ray is cruising past in the deep water, or a tuna is speeding by just above your head.

Large schools of snapper or fusiliers attract larger predators, such as barracudas and tuna. Take the time to hang back and observe for a while – sometimes, out of the blue one of these large hunters will dash through the fish trying to grab one.

2.  Use your peripheral vision

Pay attention to your peripheral vision – a quick motion or an unusual colour – and turn to have a look. It might be an octopus feeding in the coral, or a turtle grazing or a titan triggerfish tearing apart the reef trying to get to some morsel of food.

3.  Weird behaviours

Pay attention to ‘weird behaviours’:

  • a fish floating vertically on its head (tail up), or the other way around (head up, tail down). Fish don’t usually act this way so stop and look.
  • is the fish flexing its gills, is it opening its mouth wide, like a yawn (fish don’t yawn!), does it look like it is dazed and tilting sideways? Look even closer – there are most likely some very small, blue and white fish darting around the fish. These are cleaner wrasses that play a very important role for fish by cleaning off harmful parasites. As they are cleaning, they also ‘massage’ the fish to help it relax. As they relax, the fish change colour, which in turn allows the cleaner fish to see the parasites easier.
  • a fish wiggling its body sideways, flat against the reef or the sand? Look closer – you could be watching a female laying its eggs, or a male fertilising freshly laid eggs.
  • two fish, head to tail, spinning in tight circles around one another – like two dogs in a dog fight? You are probably witnessing fish spawning.
  • a small tightly packed school of fish suddenly dash to the surface, then burst apart and swim back to the reef? This is another style of fish spawning.
Diving in the Maldives

Diving in the Maldives

4. Don’t forget to look behind you

Animals, even marine wildlife, avoid approaching other animals from the front – they would rather creep up from behind where they are less easily seen. This is even true of fish.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen turtles, rays, reef sharks and trevallies (jacks) following divers, staying only a few feet from their fins, and the divers were completely oblivious.

In fact, just last week while diving at Halaveli in some very strong current, we were hanging on the reef flat doing our safety stop when one of my guests started gesturing to me to look behind – and sure enough there, nearly touching my fins, was a beautiful white tip reef shark!

5. Focus in close

Every so often shift your focus and concentrate on a small area of the reef – whether on the reef flat, or on a steep wall face, or under an overhang. Stay in one place, hovering close to the reef, and select an area about one metre square. You will be amazed by how much you can see in this small patch.

Slowly scan side-to-side, taking in all the small animals and plants. Be sure to look in the nooks and crannies – that is where many of the small shrimps and crabs hide out.

Do you see something moving, like thin white strings sticking out of the hole and waving around? Look closer – it is probably the antennae of the red-banded cleaner shrimp. They use their antennae like a neon billboard to advertise that they are open for business – for fish or other animals to come bay and get cleaned. The shrimp use their long claws to pick off parasites and dead skin.

Butterflyfish, Maldives

Butterflyfish, Maldives

6. Pick one thing to look at

Find one thing – a soft coral, a sea fan, a sea anemone – and focus exclusively on it. Don’t be distracted – let your eyes adjust so you are looking at all the small details. Look for tiny animals that live there.

Small shrimp, sometimes transparent or the colour of the object it is sitting on, or small parasitic snails, or teeny fish looking for even smaller prey. Look all around – some crabs like to hide on the undersides for better protection. In bushy soft corals you can sometimes find delicate ghost pipefish or long-nosed hawkfish that stay so still, and are so well camouflaged, that you can barely see them, even when they are right in front of your nose. But they are there to be found.

7. Stop and listen

Sound travels much faster underwater than in the air, and marine animals use sound for all sorts of communication. Stop and listen. You can hear it too.

The reef is alive with sound – the crunching of the parrotfish as they graze algae off the reef, the clicking of shrimps as they snap their claws together, the woosh of tuna as they attack a school of fish, and the drumming noise of fish defending their territory.

They do this by using their air bladder (swim bladder) – an internal sac structure that is filled with air, that they inflate and deflate to maintain buoyancy. Surrounding the sac they have muscles, which if quickly flexed will strike against the air bladder and make a noise – like a drum. Many fish use this during spawning to attract females, or as a warning alarm.

So remember – Stop, take your time, do not rush through the dive. Stop, look closer and see the incredible underwater world unfold in front of your eyes.

See you soon

Robin

Island nature walks at Constance Halaveli

Renowned marine biologist Robin Aiello writes from Halaveli.

Island nature walks at Constance Halaveli

Island nature walks at Constance Halaveli

It is so wonderful to be back here at the beautiful Halaveli for the next month or so. Arriving back on the island was like returning home – no wonder so many guests return time after time to this island paradise. The weather has been perfect since I arrived, with light sea breezes, clear blue skies and spectacular sunsets.

Guided Island Nature Walks

This time, the General Manager, Renato Chizzola, and I have another new project to develop – a Guided Island Nature Walk of the coastal plants and animals. It is a fun-filled 45-minute stroll along the beach edge. It starts with a bit of beachcombing – looking for those elusive ghost crabs that dart to and fro, the charismatic hermit crabs that scurry along carrying snail shells on their back, and of course all those pretty little shells that come in so many shapes and colours.

Snails and shells

It is amazing what you can tell about a shell by its shape. The long tapered, pointy snail shell, like cone shells, olive shell and Turritellidae have a shape perfect for burrowing just under the surface of the sand as they hunt their food. As they move through the sand, the constant abrasion serves to keep the shell polished, which is why the shells are always so smooth.

But snails with larger bulky rounder shells with spikes, like the whelks and conchs, do not live under the sand. Instead they live on top of the reef, so need the spikes and thick shells for protection from snail-eating fish. They also have larger, rounder openings (called ‘apertures’) than the pointy shells – this is to make room for their big muscular ‘foot’, that snails use for crawling. These snails need an extra strong one for holding onto the reef so they do not get picked off by fish, or washed away by waves or currents.

Predatory snails

Sometimes you will find shells with perfectly round little holes drilled into them. Ever wonder who did that? Believe it or not, a snail makes these holes! Some predatory snails, particularly moon snails (naticids), use a specially modified ‘tooth’ (called a radula’) to drill through the hard shells of snails and clams. To soften the shell as they drill, they secrete sulphuric acid into the hole. Wow – such high-technology in such small animals! Once the hole is drilled, the snails stick their proboscis through the hole and start eating.

We have a lot of fun on this walk picking up different shells and being able to tell where they live, what they feed on, who might have eaten them.

The Guided Nature Walk continues along the shore-side looking at the coastal plants. These too, have special adaptations for living in such a sandy, sunny, dry environment. Some have wax-covered leaves to trap in moisture, while others have thin leaves that hang down to avoid the direct sunlight.

And, nearly every tree here can also be used for survival if you were stranded on a remote island in the tropics.This will be the topic of my next blog – so stay tuned.

Marine Biologist, Robin Aiello

Marine Biologist, Robin Aiello

About Robin

An honours graduate from Harvard University with a degree in Evolutionary Biology and Geographical Sciences, Robin Aiello has made her 30 year career travelling to the farthest corners of the globe as a marine biologist, expedition leader, lecturer and dive master.

With expertise ranging from the Indian Ocean to West Africa to Antarctica, including animals as diverse as polar bears, sea turtles and sea birds her depth of knowledge is simply incredible but she has a concentration on tropical coral reefs and shark conservation, perfect for an introduction to Halaveli.

She has over 25 publications, has won both the EcoWarrior and Earth Ambassador Awards.

Robin Aiello at Halaveli

Robin is with us at Halaveli for you to ask any question you may have.

Join us Monday, Thursday, or Saturday nights for one of her riveting lectures – please see your Daily Sun for exact times and topics.

Renowned marine biologist returns to Halaveli

We are delighted to be welcoming back renowned marine biologist Robin Aiello to the warm waters around Constance Halaveli in September.

Marine Biologist, Robin Aiello

Marine Biologist, Robin Aiello

The world-famous marine expert and reef conservationist first visited Halaveli in March 2013 when she ran weekly events sharing her knowledge and experience with guests in a series of dives and talks.

During her visit Robin will write a regular feature for our blog exploring the vibrant marine life around Halaveli and introducing readers to the glorious creatures that live off our shores.

A Harvard graduate and environmental management consultant, Robin spends most of her year on the ocean undertaking research which has most recently seen her swimming in the frozen waters of the Arctic.

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The Moray Eel – love them or loathe them?

Marine biologist and guest blogger Robin Aiello takes a look at the much maligned Moray Eel in this month’s creature feature.

The Moray Eel

The Moray Eel

Robin will be returning to Constance Halaveli in September 2013, to run further dive courses and talks following her hugely popular visit earlier in the year.

You either love moray eels, or fear them.

Over the years moray eels have gained an unearned reputation as an aggressive, ferocious animal. In truth, however, they are reclusive and shy, preferring to flee or hide from divers by pulling into reef crevices.

How the moray breathes

Despite their long, snake-like appearance, moray eels are fish – not snakes. And like all fish, they need to have fresh seawater pass over their gills to breath. But, since morays are relatively sedentary fish, hiding in ambush to catch prey like crabs, octopus and fish, they have developed another way to ‘breathe’ – they gulp water by opening and closing their mouths. Many people misinterpret this behaviour as ferocious and a sign of aggression – but it is merely the eel’s way of breathing.

Their elongated, serpentine shape allows these fish to swim through the complex reef framework of nooks and crannies. To avoid getting cut and scraped by sharp coral, they produce huge amounts of mucus to coat their smooth, scaleless skin.

Marine biologist, Robin Aiello

Marine biologist, Robin Aiello

How moray eels catch their prey

When you look at the head of a moray eel their ‘beady’ little eyes seem disproportionately small. In fact, morays have very poor eyesight, and are nearly blind. So how do they find their food? By following their nose. They have a highly developed sense of smell and large tubular nostrils for smelling prey. They also have very good hearing, which helps them to hunt.

But what I personally think is the most amazing thing about morays eels is how they catch and eat their prey. In addition to several rows of razor sharp teeth, these fish have a unique weapon that, so far, scientists have not found in any other animal – a second set of jaws!

These jaws, called pharyngeal jaws, lie inside the fish’s throat, and when the mouth is opened to attack, they are propelled forward into the mouth to grasp the prey. As the mouth closes again, they pull back into the throat, taking the prey with them! How weird and amazing is that?

Find out more

 

Marine biologist journeys to the Arctic North

Marine biologist Robin Aiello visited Constance Halaveli earlier this year, where she ran a number of dive courses and talks. Currently in the Arctic North, Robin writes about her latest expedition.

Walrus' relaxing in the Arctic

Walrus’ relaxing in the Arctic

Greetings from the far north – the land of polar bears and walrus

I can assure you that right now, having just spent the past 8 hours driving a small rubber boat though thick sea ice in -1°C temperatures, I am dreaming of the warm tropical waters of Halaveli in the Maldives.

Expedition in Svalbard

I am up here in Svalbard, in the far North, above 79º latitude, working as the marine biologist on-board an expedition ship that is spending three months exploring the Arctic. So far, the season has been wonderful.

Polar bears and ice caps

The other day we started the morning with a male polar bear walking leisurely past our ship as we drifted in thick sea ice that spreads out as far as the eye can see. Polar bears are amazing animals with their huge paws, shaggy white coat of fur and piercing black eyes. They are just so regal and elegant – kings of the ice.

A Polar Bear

A Polar Bear

Later in the day we visited a beach with a dozen or so walrus hauled out. They are so funny – they lie for long periods of time doing absolutely nothing, then suddenly one will wiggle around, which starts a whole flurry of activity as they raise their heads, knock into one another with their tusks, until they slowly find a more comfortable position and settle back down to sleep some more.

As beautiful and dramatic as the scenery here is, I cannot wait to return to Halaveli in September to dive and snorkel the amazing reefs.

Find out more

 

 

Polar Bear

Up close and personal

 

Admiring the reflection

Admiring the reflection

 

A stroll on the ice

A stroll on the ice

Sea creatures of the Maldives: the Pyramid Butterflyfish

Marine biologist Robin Aieilo shares her insight about the sea creatures of the Maldives and the beautiful Pyramid Butterflyfish found in the calm water around Constance Halaveli.

Butterflyfish in the Indian Ocean

The varied fish in the reefs around Halaveli

I can’t believe it has been over a month since I left Halaveli Resort – I had such a fantastic time and cannot wait until I return in the near future.

Arctic Adventure

But before I come back to the resort I have another exciting adventure – 3 months sailing above the Arctic Circle. I will be onboard a small Expedition Cruiseship working as a marine biologist lecturer and zodiac driver (you know those small black rubber boats). We are exploring around Svalbard, Norway for over amonth then making our way across the Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and then into Hudson Bay.

This will be my fifth season up there – for me, it is a little like coming home for a visit every year. So stay tuned – I will be writing monthly blogs from the Arctic and sharing my experiences with polar bears, whales, walrus and the northern lights.

Ongoing Marine Life Blogs

But my heart remains in the Maldives… There are just so many fascinating animals to tell you about. This month, it’s the turn of the Pyramid Butterflyfish.

Pyramid Butterflyfish (Hemitaurichthys polylepis)

When you get into the waters on any of the reefs around Halaveli Island, the first thing that catches your eye is colour – splashes of blue, yellow, white, orange, black. Fish of every shape and size darting around you – sometimes so quickly that you only see a flash of colour, then the tail as it disappears into the reef.

Sometimes it is almost overwhelming – where should you look first?

Butterflyfish in the reefs around Halaveli

A Butterflyfish in the Indian Ocean

Beautiful Butterflyfish

One of my favourite fish of all is the butterflyfish. They are aptly named because they are small, colourful and ‘flit’ around the reef. There are 32 species in the Maldives and as a group, they are relatively easy to identify.

They are hand-sized, laterally compressed (discus-shaped), swim in pairs (they mate for life, which can be about 25 to 30 years), and generally cruise along close to the reef as they feed by nipping off coral polyps and grabbing tiny invertebrates.

Their shape is perfect for quick maneuvering – they can turn and dash off in milliseconds – and for tucking into little nooks and crannies in search of food.

Almost all butterflyfish (there are, of course, exceptions) are white and yellow with black stripes. They are certainly striking, and hard to miss. Most of them have two key deceptive features – black eye-stripes that hide their real eyes, and what we call ‘false eyespots’ near their tails. The theory behind these eyespots is that they confuse predators into thinking the fish is moving in the opposite direction, making it harder to attack.

The Black Sheep of the Family

But, as with all families, there is one that is the ‘black sheep’ – the one that behaves and looks a little bit different. In this case, it is the Pyramid Butterflyfish.

Instead of cruising near the reef in pairs, these colourful fish form massive groups, or schools, just off the edge of the reef. They can form groups of many hundreds of fish, forming a beautiful shifting curtain of black, yellow and white.

Butterflyfish

A school of Butterflyfish

Planktivores

This species does not feed on reef invertebrates like the other butterflyfish, but is a planktivore – eating zooplankton (small animals that float in the water). So, for them, it is better to hang out in the open water where there is more current and more plankton.

The other difference is that this species does not have the typical black stripes of other butterfly species. Instead, they have a large triangular shaped white patch on either side. Young fish have lighter coloured heads, and they darken as they mature.

At dusk, this large school of fish disperses – each individual fish wanders off over the reef looking for a small hole to use as a hiding place for the night while they sleep. Just before entering the hole they change colour – the bright white patch fades away and turns dark, making them less visible to nocturnal hunters such as sharks and moray eels.

How Pyramid Butterfly fish communicate

Scientists have only recently discovered that just before they head off to find their nighttime refuge, and only at this time, they communicate with one another. How? By sound! Yes…many fish are able to make sounds by using their air bladders and the muscles that surround it like a drum. So the next time you do a dusk dive or snorkel, listen carefully to these beautiful little Pyramid Butterflyfish.

Find out more

Learn more about other sea creatures you’ll see when diving at Halaveli: