MAREIKE HUHN studied Biology and holds a doctoral degree in Marine Science. For her PhD, she conducted research at the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), Indonesia, and the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR), Germany. She now lives on the Banda Islands, where she coordinates Luminocean research and conservation programmes.
The intact underwater world of Banda fascinated me from the beginning…
Q. What drew you to live and work in the Banda Islands?
A. I did laboratory work at Bogor Agricultural University while completing my Diplom thesis. After that, I travelled to Banda and found shells of the mussel species I was working with, Asian green mussels, on a picture frame in a rumah makan in Banda. I knew that they should not be native to Banda and I started searching for them – I found them later attached to a Pelni hull. This began the connection of my research in Bogor with Banda and Ambon.
The intact underwater world of Banda and the special vibe of the islands fascinated me from the beginning, so I wanted to continue to do research there. I got this chance when we received a grant from Australia to start a bioinvasion monitoring programme. This project is still running and it is led by a researcher from Bogor, Dr. Hawis Madduppa. As we have a very small grant for this, Luminocean is a great way to allow the continuation of the project in combination with training local students.
We hope that training local students will develop their capacity and Banda’s capacity in self-determining their future.
Q. Could you briefly explain the work of Luminocean and what its goals are?
A. Luminocean’s goal is to educate local people and tourists in marine conservation and marine research. We do this by networking. Luminocean is the link between scientists (both Indonesian and non-Indonesian), motivated young local people (students and non-students) and travellers (both Indonesian and foreign). Researchers provide the basis of the research projects, make sure that it is scientifically valid and relevant, make sure that all required permits are obtained, and publish results.
Travellers contribute with the money they pay for joining, which makes it possible sometimes to overcome short periods when no external funding is available, and of course they contribute with the help they provide during field surveys. In turn, they receive training in marine research methods and get to do a lot of dives. They normally experience a huge improvement in their diving skills.
Local people benefit from obtaining free training in diving and marine research techniques. If they are students, they also get the chance to be supervised for their own small research projects. We hope that training local students will develop their capacity and Banda’s capacity in self-determining their future…which is hopefully a future that goes hand in hand with marine conservation.
It is an unforgettable experience to see flashlight fish while diving or snorkelling at night.
Q. One of your current projects focuses on the Bandanese flashlight fish, so memorably described by Lawrence Blair in Ring of Fire. Why is there an interest in these fish and why is Banda a good place to study them?
A. These fish are firstly interesting because they are rare and because it is an unforgettable experience to see them while diving or snorkelling at night. Banda is also special for flashlight fish because two species co-occur here. One schooling species, Anomalops katoptron, and one solitary species, Photoblepharon sp.
After starting to dive without lights at night and at different sites, we could see that these fish are much more abundant than previously thought. We could find them almost everywhere and often both species together at one site. If you see the schooling species, it looks like hundreds of small light balls moving around in formations. The solitary species looks like Zorro’s eyes through his mask when the eyes are dancing back and forth in front of you. As the fish are so shy of light, not much is known yet and it is a fascinating challenge to study their behaviour.
Flashlight fish in motion
Through only taking pictures and videos we have already had interesting results. Anomalops katoptron, for example, gives the opportunity to visualize schooling behaviour, for example which signals are given before a school turns around and so on. There are probably only a few places in the world that have as little light pollution as most of the outer reefs of Banda. And only if there is no light can you actually see these fish. Even the slightest moonlight is too bright.
The beta-diversity in Banda is really high…high diversity is always a good indicator for resilience.
Q. Other researchers have found Banda interesting due to the resilience of the coral reefs – could you tell us a little about that?
A. Banda’s reefs seem very resilient because the islands are so remote and are surrounded by such a deep sea. The depth makes it unlikely, for example, that events like El Niño kill off the corals with extreme temperatures. The last three years were a good example. Especially in 2016, many coral reefs worldwide were affected by coral bleaching (a phenomenon caused by too-warm temperatures). Our bleaching surveys in Banda showed that a maximum of 5-20% of coral in the reefs was bleached and that almost all recovered quickly as the temperatures were not too extreme (not exceeding 31°C) and didn’t persist too long. Just when the critical time started, cold upwelling provided the change in temperature necessary to save the corals from further bleaching or death.
In addition, the beta-diversity in Banda is really high. This means that you don’t just find a high number of species across all reefs, but that each reef hosts a similarly high number of species. High diversity is always a good indicator for resilience.
Seasonal schools of hammerhead sharks should motivate more conservation efforts.
Q. What other features of the Banda Islands and the Banda Sea have attracted attention?
A. In the sea, encounters with whales (Blue whales, sperm whales, even Orcas) and dolphins (there is a resident group of about 200 melonheaded whales which belong to the dolphins) make the Bandas fascinating. Seasonal schools of hammerhead sharks are also a phenomenon that should motivate more conservation efforts.
It is very important that children learn early about why proper waste disposal is important, what are health risks associated with pollution…and that they develop a fascination for nature.
Q. SEA Ventures Trust is a non-profit organisation associated with Luminocean – can you explain the importance of the foundation’s work?
A. SEA Ventures Trust mainly focuses on the educational part that contributes to conservation. It is very important that children learn early about why proper waste disposal is important, what are health risks associated with pollution, what lives in the sea and on land on their home islands, and that they develop a fascination for nature. Examples of our work are the creation of an education center on Hatta Island, in which kids learn about all environmental issues and how to circumvent them, and the computer lab on Banda Naira in which kids learn how to think critically, solve problems, and work with standard computer software.
The biggest challenges are the growth of fisheries and the growth of tourism…
Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing the islands right now?
A. The biggest challenges are the growth of fisheries and the growth of tourism. We have seen more and more fishermen moving away from traditional techniques and towards fishing with big nets of very small mesh width. It is a big challenge for the government to bring this back to sustainable fishing. Otherwise, I’m afraid, in five years Banda’s reefs will no longer be what they are now.
Tourism has developed faster in the last two to three years, which is good on one hand but can also be a challenge if the development is too fast. The main challenge will be to achieve a less seasonal tourism on Banda. In the last few years, every guest bed on the island was full in October and November and sometimes in March, but guesthouse and hotel owners were struggling to have guests in the rest of the year. More regular and especially more reliable transport outside these months would greatly benefit Banda. A bigger airport would only contribute to the problems. There is an airport already but no one is able to operate a reliable flight. Small planes that service Banda once per day would be more than enough.
© 2017 The Banda Islands: Hidden Histories and Miracles of Nature
Images © Angelo Germidis