(CNN) – Think ‘Maldives’ and the first images that come to mind for many are rows of luxury overwater villas jutting out from long wooden docks, or gorgeous beaches surrounded by stunning white sand.
But despite the Maldives being one of the world’s most coveted vacation spots, not to mention a dream destination for divers, scientists say there is still much to learn about its underwater ecosystems.
Now, the Maldivian government and UK marine research institute Nekton have teamed up to unravel some of those mysteries by launching an ambitious expedition into the country’s uncharted waters.
The Nekton Maldives mission, which launches on September 4 and includes teams of scientists from the Maldives and abroad, plans to conduct extensive research below 30 meters using two high-tech submersibles — one of which can go as far as 1,000 meters depth.
The aim is to help the Maldives manage the impact of the global climate crisis.
“The Maldives is 99% ocean and only 1% land, sitting an average of 1.5 meters above sea level. As a result, the nation faces an increasing threat from rising seas,” said a statement from Nekton.
“But armed with more knowledge about what their waters contain, work can begin to protect what lives there and to protect the environment where those species inhabit, which makes the country better able to withstand climate change.”
The institute says 10 Maldivian marine scientists have been selected as the first “Maldivian Aquanauts” to make over 30 first dive descents to explore the country’s depths. The first descent will be led by an all-female team of aquanauts.
Submersible Omega Seamaster 2, seen here exploring Seychelles waters in 2019.
“We are determining the location, health and resilience of our coral reefs, particularly the deeper ecosystems about which we know very little, so that key habitats can be identified for protection and management,” said Maldivian team leader Shafiya Naeem, director general of the Maldives Institute of Marine Research, in a statement.
“The reefs surrounding our atolls help mitigate the impacts of sea-level rise and the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, and form the basis of our economies, livelihoods and food.”
A 35-day mission
The RV Odyssey, an expedition ship, will transport scientists from the Maldives, the UK, India and South Africa on the 35-day mission across the country’s vast waters.
The ship has two submersibles, each of which can carry a pilot and two scientists. These will be used alongside robotic and autonomous systems and over a dozen research technologies to collect data.
The newer of the two submersibles is the REV Ocean-owned Aurelia, which underwent extensive sea trials off the coast of Barcelona this summer and is now certified as the world’s most advanced vessel of its type, Nekton said in the statement.
The Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to explore up to 500 meters below the surface.
The second submarine, the Omega Seamaster 2, is the same brand used on a Nekton mission to the Seychelles in 2019, where marine explorers “found dozens of new species and mapped previously unexplored offshore waters below 30 meters”.
Aurelia will operate at depths of up to 1,000 meters, while Omega Seamaster 2 will be used to explore the first 500 meters below the surface.
As for what will happen on the 35-day mission, marine biologists, data scientists and filmmakers will collect species samples, conduct extensive mapping operations and video the condition of corals around the Maldives.
The University of Oxford, which is taking part in the mission, says scientists will also investigate how ocean life has adapted to historical sea-level rise caused by melting ice from the last ice age and explore “coral and the largely unknown and unprotected deep reefs of the Rariphotic Zone, which act as refuges for animals from shallower waters.”
They will also “investigate the relative abundance of 40 shark species and 18 ray species at the top of the food chain in the Maldivian ocean, which act as a critical indicator of ocean health,” it said in a statement.
Among the planned mapping operations is a survey of an underwater mountain in the Northern Indian Ocean.
According to Nekton, all samples and data collected will remain the property of the Maldives — “a departure from some Western-led scientific expeditions of the past.”
Supporting the sustainable development of tourism
So what does all this have to do with Maldives tourism?
Documenting the state of the country’s waters can support sustainable tourism development, says a Nekton briefing on the mission: “Reef health is essential to the two largest sectors of the Maldivian economy, tourism and fisheries. In addition to economic benefit, corals reefs offer, they are the first line of defense against waves and storms, which are becoming more frequent and intense.”
Protecting the animal species that live there is also vital, as it “results in a healthier ocean, supporting sustainable fisheries and an increase in tourism,” says the mission’s briefing, which notes that only ray tourism manta generates about 15 million dollars a year. Income.