Marine biologist Robin Aieilo at Halaveli

Marine biologist Robin Aieilo reports on her latest diving adventures at Constance Halaveli.

Octopus at Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Octopus at Halaveli

I can’t believe that my month on Halaveli is already over. How sad! The last week, like all the others, was full of adventure and fun. The diving seemed particularly good with wonderful sightings of sharks, manta rays and, with the full moon, lots of spawning fish.

Octopus sighting
One of the most memorable sightings for me was a very large octopus that gave us quite a show. We found it when it was hiding in a small crevice in the reef. After a few minutes of waiting, it seemed like it wasn’t going to come out and play, so we headed off to continue our dive. But as we started to leave I looked back and saw it start to emerge. So we waited…and out it came.

Parachute feeding
It was a stunning creature, nearly a metre long. We watched as it swam over to a nearby cave, settled down and started to feed. It would position itself over a particular spot on the cave wall and then extend out its long arms, one at a time, and reach into a small nearby hole to grab prey. Sometimes it would launch itself and suddenly ‘pounce’ to one side. As it landed the skin between its arms would balloon out, trapping all small animals beneath it – this is called ‘parachute feeding’.

We must have stayed with the octopus for at least 10 minutes, fascinated by the way it would instantaneously change colour and texture to blend in with whatever background it was sitting on for the moment. It really was a spectacular sighting.

Hawskbill Turtle

Hawskbill Turtle

Communication and interpretation training course
As the time for my departure from the island approached closer and closer, it seemed like I got busier and busier. I was deeply honoured to be asked by the dive team to run a course on communication and interpretation – this is a course that I have been running for the Great Barrier Reef tourism industry staff in Australia for the past 15 years.

We actually had a lot of fun – gathering on the Dive Center jetty after work, and discussing such topics as what is the difference between education and interpretation, what makes a good nature interpreter, and what are the best body language techniques to use to get your messages across.

The Halaveli Dive Team
For me, as an educator, it was especially wonderful to watch the staff use some of these new techniques into action during the following days. The staff of Halaveli Dive Team are the most wonderful group of instructors that I have ever worked with – they are professional, friendly and nothing, I mean nothing, is too much of a hassle for them to do.

And they have incredible eyes for spotting marine life underwater.

Especially turtles. One of the most popular snorkeling activities on offer through the Dive Centre is the ‘Snorkel with Turtles’ excursion. There is a reef nearby that has 7 resident Hawksbill Turtles, so the chance of seeing these gorgeous sea creatures is very good.

Here’s some insight into these amazing creatures.

Creature Feature – the Hawksbill Turtle

Hawksbill Turtle, Halaveli

Hawksbill Turtle, Halaveli

There are two common species of turtles in the Maldives – Hawksbills and Greens. Around Halaveli, we see only Hawksbills.

Why don’t we see Green turtles? Because Green turtles feed almost exclusively on sea grass, and there are no seagrass beds nearby – thus, no Green turtles. However, Green turtles are seen on other reefs that have lagoons full of sea grass.

Endangered
All sea turtles are endangered and in most countries they are fully protected. Sea turtles have been harvested for centuries, mainly for their meat, but in the case of Hawksbills they were also harvested for their beautiful brown mottled shell (carapace) – known as tortoise-shell.

The shell, when cleaned and polished, is made into decorative objects like jewellry, combs and other personal ornaments. Objects made out of Hawksbill turtle shell have been found in tombs and burial sites of many Egyptian pharaohs.

Watching Turtles
Hawksbill sea turtles are beautiful rare, animals. We are lucky that the ones at the reefs near Halaveli Island are very calm and undisturbed around people.

When you see one, the best thing to do is to stop swimming and just float above it and wait. Eventually, they must come to the surface for a breath – remember, these are not fish, they are reptiles, and cannot breathe underwater. In fact, their ancestors evolved on land but returned to the sea about 150 million years ago. They are one of the few species of animals alive today that are so ancient that they were also around before, during and after the time of dinosaurs.

Normally, when feeding, turtles come up for air every few minutes, but if they are sleeping or resting, their heart rate and overall metabolism slows, and they can stay down for many hours. But they always have to come to the surface!

So it is very important that you never to try to touch or grab a turtle – if startled or scared they might drown.

Hawksbill vs Green Turltes
Telling Hawksbill and Green turtles apart is easy – there are a couple key features that distinguish them form one another.

First – look at the head and beak. Hawksbill turtles have long, curved strong beaks for tearing the reef apart to get to sponges, soft coral and corallimorphs. Green turtles, on the other hand, have a very stubby, short beak that it used like a lawnmower to cut the seagrass. Remember, turtles do not have teeth – instead they cut the food with thier sharp boney beaks and swallow the chunks without chewing.

Second – look at the back end of the shell. Hawksbill shells are jagged and serrated whereas Greens have a smooth shell edge.

Male vs Female
It is easy to tell male from female turtle apart just by looking at their tails. Males have longer tails that extend out past the edge of their shell, while females have shorter tails that do not stick out past their shell.

A Final Note
So, the next time you see a turtle diving or snorkeling, take your time and wait. The ones around Halaveli are so used to divers and snorkellers that they do not swim away. In fact, they will usually come up to the surface right next to you. It is an amazing experience to have one of these special creatures so close and so curious. Sometimes they will even approach you and look right into your mask.

Enjoy!

Robin.

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Marine biologist reveals what’s underwater at Halaveli

This week’s instalment from marine biologist Robin Aiello sees her come face to face with the awe-inspiring whalesharks in the waters off Halaveli.

Whiptail Ray, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Whiptail Ray

It has been another amazing week full of beautiful dives, snorkels, lagoon cruises and island walks. The weather has been clear and warm, and the seas so calm that you can do an entire marine biology session from the surface without even getting wet.
I have, in fact, been spending hours on the jetty with guests looking down into the sea and spotting some fantastic animals. We have many harmless blacktip reef sharks that slowly cruise back and forth under the jetty, whiptail rays that look almost like eagles flying through the water, unicorn fish with their long horns sticking out from their foreheads, long slender coronet fish with their huge extended mouths, and bluefin trevallies (also called jacks) chasing schools of small silver fish.

Bluefin Trevallies

The trevallies (jacks) always put on an exciting show for us as they stalk and hunt the small silver fish that form massive schools in the very shallow water at the beach.

Small groups of 3 – 6 bluefin trevallies swim up and down the beach, getting closer and closer to the shore and forcing the small fish to form tighter and tighter schools – it is like cowboys rounding up the cattle on a range.

Bluefin trevallies, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Bluefin trevallies

They do this for some time, then, without any warning, there is a huge commotion. The trevallies have decided it is time to strike, and change direction at full speed (which is really really fast) and dash through the school, grabbing fish as they go. The small silver fish, in response, take off in all directions like a firework display. They will even jump out of the water and land on the beach in their sheer panic to get away.

But, there is no where for the small fish to hide. Suddenly other predatory fish join the feeding frenzy, and if that is not bad enough, the seabirds and herons fly in from all directions to join the mayhem and pounce on any fish they can. The whole frenzied activity lasts only a few seconds, but what excitement! Sometimes I feel sorry for the poor little fish!

An unplanned evening snorkel

Probably the most unusual thing that I have seen in a long time was spotted one evening from the jetty. I was heading to dinner, all dressed up, and one of the guests asked me what it was – I had no idea – didn’t even know if it was manmade or natural.

Diamondback squid egg case, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Diamondback squid egg case

So I ran back to my villa and grabbed my snorkeling gear and jumped into the water.

This thing was weird! At first, I had no idea what it was. It was in constant motion, rolling around and undulating, but I soon discovered it was the water movement that caused it to move – it was not actually alive. It was slimy and felt like thick mucous, and to add to the bafflement, there were thousands of little pink/purple balls embedded in it.

Finally it dawned on me that it had to be some sort of egg case – most likely molluscan from either a snail or a squid. After a couple of hours of research I discovered that it was, in fact, the egg case of a very large squid that reaches a size of over 1 metre called the Diamondback Squid. This squid would have laid the egg case out in the lagoon and the tides, currents and waves washed it into the shallows. Very interesting.

Diving with whalesharks

Yesterday, though, was the real highlight of my whole visit – every Sunday the Dive Center offers a day trip to find and snorkel with whalesharks. And what a day we had!

Thanks to our amazing boat crew, and of course the legendary snorkel guide Santana, we had the wonderful experience of swimming with 3 large whalesharks. Amazing! It is no easy feat to find a whaleshark – since they are fish, they do not come to the surface to breath like whales, so the only way to find them is to patrol an area – up and down along the coast. The crew stand lookouts on the roof of the boat looking for a large dark shadow in the water.

Whaleshark, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Whaleshark

Then, if one is spotted, there is a flurry of activity as we get on our gear and jump overboard. At this point, the race begins. Although these huge animals are barely moving a fin at all, they maintain such a fast speed that we as mere human snorkellers must kick and kick and kick as fast as possible to keep up with them. They do not seem to be bothered by us at all – in fact, on several occasions they appeared to be curious and changed direction to come right up close underneath – within only a few metres of us.
When they are this close, they take your breath away. They really are special creatures!

They are so spectacular, that this creature will be the topic of my Creature Feature for this week.

Creature Feature – Whalesharks

Whalesharks are well known to frequent a spot on the southern part of the Ari Atoll – no one really knows why they ‘hangout’ in this area. But they seem to be mainly young-adult males that are about 6–8 metres in length.

Although this is considered relatively small for a whaleshark (they can reach sizes of over 12m) they are still incredibly impressive. In fact, whalesharks are the largest fish in the world.

Whaleshark, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Whaleshark

Whalesharks are a type of shark – not a whale. They, like all sharks, have a cartilaginous skeleton rather than bone, have what are called denticles covering their skin instead of scales, do not have an air bladder, but use a liver full of oil for buoyancy, and of course they have ‘replaceable’ teeth rather than only one set like most reef fish. Sharks have hundreds of teeth and can go through as many as 30,000 teeth during their lifetime.

What happens is that teeth that form the ‘front-row’ periodically fall out, and within only a few days another tooth that behind in the ‘second-row’ will rotate into position. It is kind of like a conveyor belt of teeth. In this manner the shark always has fresh, sharp teeth! Whalesharks, although they do not use them, actually have about 300 very small teeth.

How whalesharks feed

So how does a whaleshark feed if it does not use teeth? Well, these giants of the sea, feed on some of the smallest animals in the ocean, plankton, by a method called filtering feeding.

Inside their mouths they have an unique system of filter-pads that trap all the small plankton – a lot like a sieve.

Whalesharks feed in two ways – ‘gulping’ and ‘ram feeding’. If there is plenty of concentrated plankton in the water, these sharks will stay in one place and take in huge gulps of water full of plankton.
If, however, the plankton is spread out in the water, then the sharks will swim at an average of 4km per hour with their mouths open – when they have enough food, they will swallow, then resume feeding – this is ‘ram-feeding’.

To watch them feed is incredible. They have huge mouths – up to 1.5 metres wide and they can filter over 300,000 litres of seawater per hour.

Identifying whalesharks by their spots

Other than the sheer immense size of these fish, the other really noticeable feature is the patterning. They are fully covered with spots and dots, and some lines – really beautiful.

They almost look like a bright starry night sky. In fact, a few years ago a couple of scientists came up with the interesting idea to use a computer program designed for tracking stars to document the spots on individual whalesharks.

Since the patterning on each whaleshark is unique for that individual (much like our human fingerprints are unique to each person), scientists have been able to compile a global database of whalesharks from photographs of their spots.

So, when you visit Halaveli Resort, be sure to take the trip out looking for whalesharks – it is fantastic!

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Discover what happened when Robin Aiello went diving with baby whitetip sharks at Halaveli

Visit our website to find out more about this deluxe resort – Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Diving and underwater adventures at Halaveli

Here’s the second installment from marine biologist Robin Aiello, with tales of her escapades and adventures underwater at Halaveli.

Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Some of my best moments this week…

It has been another wonderful week at Halaveli Resort. I’m getting into the routine of diving most mornings, then maybe a snorkel, and every Monday and Thursday night I give a talk on the weird and wonderful marine creatures found here in the Maldives.

The weather has been absolutely perfect with bright sunny days and a slight breeze. As wonderful as the days are, it is the evenings that I really look forward to because of the sunsets. Since I have been here, every sunset has been different. Seriously, no two sunsets have been the same so far – one evening the sky will be lit a vivid orange, then another night the sky will be glimmering yellow, and yet another night the sky will be glowing a soft pink. Incredible!

I cannot describe the beauty of sitting on the beach at sunset with the shifting colours of the skies as a backdrop to the nightly frenzy of dive-bombing seabirds (terns) as they finish their evening feeding session – just perfect.

Diving conditions this week

Diving at Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Diving at Halaveli

The TGI Dive Center has been very busy. This week has been full of great dives, snorkels and cruising excursions. The tides have been perfect, so in the mornings the visibility has been fantastic – we had about 30 metres this morning. And, the currents have also been good.

Current diving

I love current diving for one main reason – the fish life is extraordinary. The waters above the reef become packed full of all sorts of fish. A majority of the fish are the plankton feeders including small neon blue fusiliers, black surgeon fish, red-toothed trigger fish and unicorn fish, which, by the way, love to hover over your head playing in the bubbles.

They seem to get a real ‘kick’ out of the jacuzzi-like blasts of bubbles as we exhale. But there are also the less abundant, but eye-catching predatory fish, such as the giant trevallies (jacks), blue trevallies (jacks), dogtooth tuna, black snappers and, of course, the whitetip and grey reef sharks.

One memorable dive the other day was at a reef where the current was a good ‘medium – plus’ (according to our dive guide). We made our way along the reef to a spectacular look out point, where we hooked in with our reef hooks and looked out into the blue water ahead of us.

Baby whitetip reef sharks

White tip reef shark, Constance Halaveli, Maldives

White tip reef shark, photo copyright Marco Care

There we were – the six divers flying like kites a few feet above the reef. Suddenly, to my left, a motion caught my eye – there was a very young (not more than a few months old) whitetip reef shark hovering right next to me, looking right at me. Just beyond was another one. They were so cute and perfect without a scratch or scar on them – perfect little sharks.

But the funny thing was that they obviously had not quite mastered the skill of swimming in such strong currents. For several minutes at a time they would be hovering just fine, barely moving their tail, but maintaining perfect position beside me. But then, the baby shark would start drifting closer and closer to me, until it was a mere few inches from my face.

Then, suddenly it seemed to realize that it was too close and would try to quickly maneuver away, but it didn’t quite have the skill to do it gracefully. Instead, it would tumble and get tossed by the current and become totally out-of-control -discombobulated – before regaining control, position and composure. It would then take up position next to me again and the whole sequence would start all over again. Hilarious!

Napoleon Wrasse

One of the dive’s highlights appeared without notice, slowly appearing out of the murky distance. The large shadow came closer and it was revealed to be a huge male Napoleon (or Humphead) Wrasse. He was magnificent – about 1.5m long and 1m deep. This dark green giant swam so easily against the current making it seem like there was no current at all. He simply drifted past in front of us and then off again into the distance.

Robin.

Find out more

Read Robin’s first instalment from Halaveli including Creature Feature #1: Redtooth Triggerfish

Read more about check booking availability on our website: Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Coming soon: Creature Feature #2: Starfish of the Maldives

Underwater tales from marine biologist at Halaveli

Robin Aiello, renowned marine biologist, is at Constance Halaveli this month. Enjoy tales of her underwater adventures and find out more about your dive buddies with the special creature features she’s writing for us during her stay.

Robin Aiello

Robin Aiello

Arriving at Halaveli

It is hard to believe that I have been on this wonderful island for a week already. Time is passing too quickly and tere is so much to do, and see, and explore.

I arrived last Sunday to the resort by seaplane – which in itself is a fabulous experience with wonderful views of the reefs and lagoons while enroute.

I’m staying in a Water Villa. It’s spectacular, and for me, living somewhere I can step out onto my deck and down a few stairs directly into the ocean for a snorkel is a dream come true.

Within the first few minutes of snorkelling from my deck I encountered a school of silver mullet fish hungrily feeding at the surface of the water, saw several baby blacktip reef sharks (only about 40cm long, so they were only a few days old), and spotted a manta ray passing by. Wow! What a start to my month on the island.

While I’m at Halaveli, I’ll be working with the TGI Dive Center guiding dives and snorkels and sharing all my expertise on coral reefs and the animals living there.

One of the things that has really impressed me is the diversity of the marine life on the reefs that we visit. There is just so much to see. During my stay, I’lll be writing a series of Creature Features in which I want to highlight some of the lesser well-known creatures that you can easily see while diving and snorkeling. I hope you enjoy the fun facts.

Creature Feature 1

Redtooth Triggerfish at Constance Halaveli, Maldives

Redtooth Triggerfish at Halaveli

The Redtooth Triggerfish (Odonus niger)
Also known as Black Triggerfish or Niger Triggerfish

As soon as you put your head into the waters on any of the reefs here, you can see why people come back for diving over and over again to the Maldives. The ocean is full of marine life – in every imaginable shape and colour. It is like being inside a large aquarium.

All around you fish dart to and fro – some are very curious and even change direction to pass close to your mask and look you right in the eye.

Many people ask me which is my favourite fish, and to be honest, I cannot choose – they are each so beautiful and interesting in their own way. But there is one fish that I have developed a great fondness for since being here in Halaveli – the Redtooth Triggerfish. To me, these are incredibly endearing.

Their behaviour

These fish are schooling fish that feed on zooplankton floating in the water, so they form massive groups of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. They hang off the edge of the reef, forming a ‘halo’ around it.

All triggerfish are easily recognised by the way they swim – they undulate their ventral (top) fin and dorsal (bottom) fin from side to side, so it almost looks like flags flapping in the breeze. When there are hundreds of fish doing this all at once, the motion is mesmerising – like a fish ballet.

Although on first glance they do not look like this would be an effective way to swim, these fish are actually highly maneuverable. They flit around in the water column catching small zooplankton (small animals that float in the ocean). In fact, when you take a close look at these fish, you can see that their tiny little mouths are upturned, pointing upwards, which makes it easier for them to grab zooplankton floating by.

Recognising the Redtooth Triggerfish

Redtooth Triggerfish

Redtooth Triggerfish

The Redtooth Triggerfish is known by many names, including Niger or Black Triggerfish. Although they can reach up to 30cm long, they are generally much smaller – about the size of you hand.

Their colours vary greatly depending on the light conditions. When schooling in deep, blue waters they appear black, but in good sunlight you can see their true bright blue or teal green colouration. And, yes, when you get a close up look at the teeth, they are in fact a dark red colour (no one seems to know why they are red). Around the head they have delicate lines that create a beautiful facial tattoo. However, for me, the most beautiful part of these fish are their long lyre-shaped tails that wave in the currents.

The triggerfish spine

All triggerfish have a shared characteristic – a spine (the ‘trigger’) on their forehead. This is a special spine that they can erect and lock into place with a second spine – much like a trigger on a gun, hence the name ‘triggerfish’.

They use this unique feature in two ways. One is for defense against being eaten by predatory fish. Imagine a fish’s surprise if it tries to swallow a triggerfish and suddenly it gets spiked in their throat by the ‘trigger’ spine.

But the most important use of the ‘trigger’ spine is for tightly wedging themselves into coral crevices or small holes in the reef while they sleep (yes…reef fish DO sleep). To stay safe, these fish find their own personal hole or crevice in the reef to hide out in. The spaces are usually so narrow that the fish need to wiggle into them by turning sideways.

Once inside the hole (usually all you can see are thee tips of the tail sticking out) the triggerfish erect their ‘trigger’ spine to lock themselves in place. In this way, any predatory fish, like a reef shark who hunts sleeping fish, cannot grab and tug them out from their holes.

When the triggerfish are ready to leave the holes, they release the ‘trigger’, lower the spine and wiggle their way out – backwards! (Yes…these are one of the few fish that I have seen that can swim tail-first!

So the next time you are diving on one of the reefs around Halaveli, take a moment to observe these little triggerfish.

Catch up later in the week…

…with more of Robin’s Creature Feature specials or find out more about Robin’s work and her visit to Halaveli.

Renowned marine biologist visits Halaveli

Next month, guests at Halaveli will have the opportunity to dive or snorkel with world famous marine biologist and reef conservationist Robin Aiello.

Robin Aiello

Robin Aiello

Robin will be visiting Halaveli from 3-31 March. Well known for her studies into marine animal adaptations and ecology, Harvard graduate and environmental management consultant Robin spends at least 8-10 months of the year on or in the ocean, between working on expedition ships in the arctic and Antarctic, and leading dive trips in the tropics.

Her previous expeditions have included diving with a wide variety of sharks – including Great Whites – to document their behaviour, living underwater for two weeks in a saturation chamber to study coral biology and observing jellyfish under an ice-shelf in Antarctica.

As part of her visit to Halaveli, Robin will run weekly events in order to share her expertise with our guests.

Events will include:

  • accompanied dive
  • accompanied snorkel
  • kids snorkel trip
  • presentation with slides
  • private dive or snorkel trips on request.
Coral reefscaping at Constance Halaveli

Robin’s visit coincides with our own reefscaping programme at Halaveli in which we are stimulating regrowth in the coral around the lagoon damaged by the tsunami of 2004.

During Robin’s trip to Halaveli, we’ll be posting regular updates, photos from under the ocean and more.

Find out more

Discover more about coral reef protection from the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program.

Visit our website to read more about Constance Halaveli and check booking availability.