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Why do I do, what I do? To celebrate life.

Photo: Woody and I, cruising along the reef together. Photo taken by Neal Collins, my fiance, on 29 Sept 2013.

Today has been a great day. After 5 days in the capital and 4 days in Dubai, my fiance Neal and I are back on our local island, happily next to the sea.

Part of my work involves taking guests on whale shark snorkeling excursions, educating them about whale sharks, our research, the importance of the South Ari Marine Protected Area (S. Ari MPA), and sharing the beauty and reverence of an amazing animal on this planet.

We encountered WS127 'Woody' this morning. Weather patterns have shifted. The winds have died down, the visibility in the water was crystal clear, and out of the azure waters Woody emerged. At a little over 6 meters, he's big, powerful, and vibrant. His spots resemble the galaxy in the black of night. We swam into the current free-diving down to observe his behaviors, swimming patterns, and any other special details.

At 42 sq km, the S. Ari MPA is Maldives largest protected area. It is special because whale sharks can be seen here 12 months out of the year unlike Australia, the Gulf of Mexico, and some other places that only see whale sharks a couple of months out of each year.

In the past 2-3 years, the MPA has seen an exponential rise in tourism. And why not? With beautiful reefs, clean waters, and abundant wildlife, this is a mecca for experiencing the brilliance of the world's oceans. Every type of person comes here from all over the world to indulge in the natural heritage Maldives has to offer. From honeymooners and business tycoons, to oligarchs and researchers, to marine enthusiasts and people simply on holiday, the S. Ari MPA has a plethora of visitors.

As the reef has been frequented and used more, a wake of bad, uninformed behaviors leaves their marks. Particularly vulnerable are the whale shark. Re-oxygenating and warming up, the world's largest shark uses the surface waters of S. Ari MPA to reach homeostasis again. Due to their physical state (cold and slow moving), whale sharks can't react quickly enough as boats of all sizes fly down the reef. Unbeknownst to the captains and drivers, their boat propellers hit them and chop up their bodies and fins.

I've seen terrible fresh wounds and remnants of scars - hard things to endure as an observer, but even harder for the shark. They need our protection and stewardship. Thankfully healing does take place. Woody has been hit by boats in the past, but today he looked brilliant. Strong, healed, and bigger than before, he is growing - a great sign.

After swimming with him for 45 minutes, a flood of emotions came over me. Thoughts of interconnectedness, love, and appreciation flooded in.

And so why do I do, what I do? To celebrate life.

Today's encounter was special. It was one of those experiences when it was just me, the shark, and the quiet serenity of the crystal clear water leaving me with a sense of peace. Despite the challenges that the sharks and other marine life face, my colleagues, fiance, the concerned citizens of Maldives, myself, and countless others are working towards creating a better place on this earth.

Thanks for reading.


JaniceW's picture

Connections with nature

Alissa, what an amazing photo. One cannot help but feel a wave of emotion as one thinks about witnessing first-hand the beauty of the shark weighed up against the impact of increased tourism in the area. I applaud your efforts to identify, conserve and protect the natural marine heritage of the Maldives for future generations.

Australia has been confronting the impact of increased tourism to the Great Barrier Reef area and implemented a long-term management plan that balances protection of the reefs and site monitoring systems with visitor satisfaction. I am thankful that you are contributing to the conservation conversation in the Maldives and helping to ensure these marine areas are protected in a sustainable way.

alissanagel's picture

re: Connections with nature

Thank you so much JaniceW. I really appreciate your comments and look forward to what the future looks like with more marine protected areas in Maldives. We have a great connection to Australia actually - lots of people have volunteered with us from all over the country and our Marine Biologist from Maldives studied at James Cook University. Lots of good lessons to be learned (and improved upon) from your neck of the woods! Stay in touch ~ Alissa

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