When TFUI knew we wanted to feature the sharks and scientists in the Maldives, we were excited to reach out to The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) to highlight not only the beautiful animals but the important science happening in that area of the world.
Thankfully for us, they said yes! And Clara Canovas Perez, the Lead In-Field Coordinator, is one of the people we were lucky enough to interview!
She came Dhigurah, South Ari Atoll in November 2016 to participate in the volunteer programme and three months later a position opened... her dream job!
Dive on in to learn a little bit about this organization, this beautiful area, and the wonderful research done by both scientists and the community alike...
The Fins United Initiative: Thanks for your time, Clara. We have to know- did you always want a career in science or conservation?
Clara Canovas Perez: From childhood I have had a passion for the ocean. I grew up in an island called Mallorca in Spain so I have always been surrounded by the sea and spent most of my lifetime immersed in it.
TFUI: I think many ocean-lovers started out that way-- surrounded by a fascination of the sea. So, how did you get involved with MWSRP?
CCP: I first visited Dhigurah, South Ari Atoll in November 2016 to participate in the volunteer programme. Three months later a position opened and I was fortunate enough to get the job of my dreams.
TFUI: So do locals get involved with the organization?
CCP: Locals get involved in several of the activities we do. Together with Dhiguran Council and the guesthouses of the island we organise beach clean ups periodically.
TFUI: We love that!
CCP: On the other hand we started last year an educational school programme called “Moodhu Kudhin”. The project, meaning 'Children of the Sea' in English, is designed to take place over a series of consecutive days and nights where participants from local schools will have the chance to get to learn about whale sharks and ocean conservation. Every year the infield team and volunteers aim to visit each of the 7 local islands within South Ari Atoll, where a maximum of 20 students from each school are given the opportunity to join us on our research dhoni and learn first hand what it takes to collect scientific data.
TFUI: That sounds like an amazing opportunity to really show these young minds how science can look like-- outside of the lab and lab coast!
CCP: On-water activities and learning are also supported by a series of lessons around the theme of marine litter and megafauna. I'm writing this now with paint on my hands as we are painting a whale shark mural on the nursery wall here in Dhigurah we are having some of the local kids helping us throughout throughout the process!
TFUI: Wow, what great outreach! What has been your favourite event that has gotten locals to join the work MWSRP carries out?
CCP: My favourite event is Moodhu Kudhin as mentioned before it is a perfect way to introduce marine conservation to the young generation. Through this initiative the MWSRP hopes to develop the growing awareness for the beauty and fragility of the unique environment here in the Maldives, and perhaps the next generation of scientists.
TFUI: I really hope the next generation that goes through your organization learns an appreciation for the ocean. Now MWSRP has an app (as we quickly talked with Alex). Do you think the app has been a "hit" with the locals?
CCP: The Whale Shark Network App has become more popular with the tourism stakeholders than with the locals at this point, but with the ability for anyone to submit and encounter being planned for the next version of the app we hope that appeals more to fisherman and other local casual users.
TFUI: And do you think having a healthy relationship between MWSRP and the locals will lead to a better understanding of the local whale sharks?
CCP: It is essential and beneficial to have a healthy relationship with the local community as most of the population are working in tourism in South Ari Atoll. This means most of the activities are focused on whale shark tours, diving and snorkeling.
TFUI: What have you found most rewarding about your job?
CCP: Seeing the effect a first encounter with megafauna such as whale sharks, dolphins or manta rays can give to locals and foreigners. Observing the local kids in the water and gaining an understanding of what lies beneath is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.
TFUI: In your experience, do you think people in the Maldives respect the ocean wildlife?
CCP: Yes, through education the younger generation are starting to be passionate and more aware of the natural values of the Maldives. Most of the population obtain their income through the tourist industry, therefore understand the importance of protecting what they have.
TFUI: And do you find the Maldives a welcoming place for women scientists?
CCP: The Maldives are opening more and more opportunities for female’s in the science sector which shows very positive progress. Several of our female Maldivian staff and interns have gone on to work and study in marine conservation.
TFUI: What has been your favourite field outing?
CCP: Having an encounter underwater with a whale shark and dolphins at the same time.
TFUI: That sounds amazing! So can you give us an idea of what 2018 have in store for MWSRP?
CCP: Research wise we'll continue to collect baseline data throughout the year to contribute to a draft management plan for our home South Ari MPA, the largest MPA in the Maldives. We will also be pursuing specific whale shark research projects with global relevance: Something to look forward to later in 2018 is that we have two scientific papers being published.
TFUI: Ah!! How exciting! We'll definitely keep an eye out for that and make sure to share it with TFUI readers.
CCP: One is based on our work measuring the length of whale sharks and will shine a light on growth rates of free swimming whale sharks, a first in our field. The second looks into what bathymetric (the shape of the ocean floor) characteristics are most common to whale shark sites. So in other words, what makes a place attractive to whale sharks! As infield coordinator one of my main roles is to over see our community outreach work. 2018 promises to be our busiest year yet with our Moodhu Kudhin roadshow visiting local schools whilst also trialling a new initiative to get outdoor marine science education as part of the curriculum in the Maldives. We'll also be looking to host another whale shark intern as part of our paid internship initiative for Maldivian nationals.
TFUI: Another great way to show how MWSRP is making waves in the Maldivian nationals!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK clara FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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