Diving with a Purpose, volunteering with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program

by Bill Mashek

According to Wikipedia, the whale shark is the largest extant fish species and a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 18.8 m (61.7 ft)

Volunteering as a diver for any marine conservation project is a wonderful opportunity for passionate divers. My passion is working as a citizen scientist volunteer with sharks and other megafauna.

I spent ten days on the MV Felicity Dive boat with an exceptional group of ocean lovers. We studied, surveyed, took photos, observed, and identified whale sharks in South Ari Atoll Maldives with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program.

The Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP) is a research-based conservation charity dedicated to studying whale sharks and fostering community-focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives and the greater Indian Ocean. They offer a citizen science volunteer program which I signed up for.

To enter this program, volunteers must fill out an application and be accepted. MWSRP analyzes applications for interest in whale sharks, previous experience, and/or training. Many of the volunteers have marine science backgrounds, and everyone is passionate about whale sharks. Dive certifications are not necessary; freediving experience is helpful.

Whale sharks are filter feeders, scooping microscopic plankton into their meter-wide mouths. Due to this, they are often found near the surface or in shallow water. Most whale-shark interactions around the world are swimming or snorkeling rather than scuba diving. The MWSRP program is all free diving in the South Ari Atoll area. When diving with whale sharks, it is advisable to free dive. Bubbles from scuba tanks stress the shark and cause him to dive deep.

There are specific steps to approaching a whale shark, including avoiding physical contact with the shark. They are not tactile creatures, so touching whale sharks may cause them to dive. The protocol at MSWRP is to keep a distance of 3-4 meters while observing. Never block a whale shark’s path. This means avoiding swimming directly in front of a whale shark and on top of one, which may prevent its surfacing. For divers’ and whale sharks’ safety, stay away from the tail fin area. A sudden movement may cause serious injury if hit by a whale shark fin.

The program:
Working as a volunteer with MSWRP is an experience like no other. It is fun and interesting, but it is still working. As “citizen scientists,” volunteers are instructed in and involved with research, data collection, and increasing knowledge of marine conservation. Volunteers spend long days on a boat watching for whale sharks. When one is located, it is an all-out rush of adrenaline. Everyone puts their fins on and swims to the shark to begin their survey.

The typical research day starts with breakfast between 7:30 and 8:30, then getting on a dive dhoni (small boat) and looking for sharks. Surveys are done in the South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA). Volunteers record whale shark sightings and include megafauna such as sea turtles, mantas, other rays, and dolphins.

In the evening, we input our information into the MWSRP laptop computers. This data is compiled into a worldwide network studying the movement, behavior, and threats to the whale shark population.

We all work as a team. Everyone usually has a role, such as observation, data collection, and entry. Identification is done by photographing the left and right flanks at the pectoral fin. Whale sharks have a distinct spot pattern and can be identified by this pattern. In addition, photograph the tail fin as many whale sharks can be identified by fin damage. We record wind direction, current movement, visibility, and water temperature. We note whale shark behavior and people’s behavior.

MWSRP charters the MV Felicity. A traditional Turkish gulet, the Felicity is full of character. There are seven cabins with private en-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning for 10-14 guests. MWSRP has a maximum of 11 volunteers. The large open deck has ample relaxation space. There is a covered outdoor dining area where meals are served family-style and an outdoor lounge. The boat’s bow has loungers for sun lovers to soak up the rays. Indoors, there is an air-conditioned lounge and dining area. Our Chief, Roy, worked professionally as a chef in Siri Lanka before joining the Felicity.

MWSRP volunteer dive trips are not for everyone. This is not a scuba diving trip. There are not four dives per day, then relaxing with cocktails in the evening. Volunteering is work. It is fun and rewarding, but it is still work. Unlike more expensive charters, there is no internet service. However, most volunteers bought local SIM cards and used their phones as “hot spots” for their laptops. The Maldives is a Muslim country. Alcohol is only served on resort-owned islands and private liveaboards. Women should dress conservatively on populated islands.

The ten days I spent on the MV Felicity with the other volunteers were an extraordinary experience. Our prodigious leaders, Chloe and Clara, were patient and kind mentors. I made many new friends. Being part of this cause brought together people from around the world with diverse backgrounds and a similar bond; the love of sharks.

To become a volunteer, one does not need to be a scientist or a marine biologist! MWSRP welcomes people of all ages, talents, and nationalities. If you love whale sharks and are not afraid of challenging work, get in touch!

Bill Mashek

More information: mailto:volunteer@maldiveswhalesharkresearch.org

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