Project Manaia

Discovering new dimensions in diving

As a teacher of modern languages who usually spends a lot of time at her desk correcting exams or planning lessons, I like to use my summer vacations for outdoor activities and sports, be it hiking, cycling or water sports. And whenever I can I use the chance to go diving, which has been one of my passions since I learned it. 

I don’t know if it is because of the Fridays for Future movement or because of the droughts and wildfires of the last summers, but environmental issues have been increasingly on my mind, and so I often feel like getting involved a lot more in the preservation of our natural environment than I normally do in my life as a language teacher. Of course, I can make more informed consumer choices when eating, shopping or choosing my means of transportation in my everyday life. But this year I felt like using my summer vacations to do a bit more than that.

So I signed up as a volunteer for several environmental projects, and I was glad to hear that I could go on board the SY Independence, Project Manaia’s base for marine research, even though I have no studies in marine biology. I also liked the idea that their research work would entail snorkeling, free-diving, paddling and sailing on a daily basis, and that they had been collaborating with local scuba diving centers in the past, be it to collect marine litter or work on the documentation of invasive species.

My experience onboard SV Independence

I joined the crew for a period of two weeks, in which we sailed from Rome to Elba and around the island sampling areas of increased plastic contamination, watching out for marine mammals and working on the documentation of sea grass meadows and the abundance and variety of underwater species. Working with an international crew of marine biologists not only gave me an interesting insight into their work, it also was a lot of fun, since we worked in a team of 5 nationalities and of various ages and we all learned a lot about organizing our everyday life on board a boat. 

What I could also witness in these two weeks – and what really impressed me and broadened my perspective as a scuba diver – is the grassroots movement in seagrass conservation and replantation that Manuel and Pinar of Project Manaia have been pushing forward in recent years.

In our two weeks on the Italian coast I’ve seen them reach out to local dive centers and offer workshops on how to replant vanished seagrass meadows with the help of collected seeds or accidentally ripped out seagrass shoots. Dive centers were also advised on the possibilities of broadening their service range by including workshops on the topic of seagrass, offering scientific dives or even allowing divers to replant sea grass themselves. 

Seagrass (posidonia oceanica) Project with Dive Centers in Italy

Photos of Posidonia oceanica, seagrass project of Project Manaia

Some divers might at first be surprised at the offer of a specialist dive on the subject of seagrass. I myself must admit that I have more than once passed over seagrass meadows rather rapidly on my way to the next sand patch or coral reef, where spotting marine life in its variety is so much easier.

What I ignored in these moments – and what we often forget – is that we owe the  biodiversity of our seas to a significant extent to these seemingly boring meadows that shelter the offspring of a third of all species of fish, crustaceans, sessile animals, algae and hydrozoans. That means that, for the diving business, engaging in the protection and replantation of seagrass actually is an investment in their own future. More and more dive centers are recognizing that marine ecosystems are under a lot of pressure and are motivated to join the movement.

What can we do the preserve the nature?

Preservation efforts on a national or European level often take years. In the meantime endangered habitats can already be lost. I found it the more inspiring to see how individuals driven by the will to change things like Manuel Marinelli of Project Manaia can actually inspire others to follow, and how small changes initiated in multiple places add up to a significant effort.

Inviting divers on board this movement is not only an intelligent idea of which all sides profit. It may also contribute to an awareness in the world of diving that I have lately often been missing. More than half of the dive centers I have done dives with in recent years seemed to have more interest in satisfying their costumers’ needs than in ensuring that these wouldn’t end up damaging the very dive spots they were taken to. It also seems to me that the growing popularity of underwater photography has lead to a tendency in some divers to sacrifice marine life for the sake of the perfect picture or video, by holding on to corals as handles, scaring animals out of their shelters or chasing them around. 

I remember while learning to dive in the Caribbean many years ago, our diving instructors followed a very respectful and conservationist approach. They taught us a lot about marine flora and fauna and always made it clear that we were there to observe and admire, not to destroy or disturb. Interestingly, raising awareness in us did not make us feel inhibited or limited. On the contrary, it made us appreciate and enjoy the marine life around us even more.  

My work onboard SV Independence

At the beginning of my two weeks with Project Manaia I had asked myself if I could really make a  serious contribution to their work since I did not bring any skills in marine biology. Was what I was doing not just another form of ecotourism designed above all to make myself feel better? Would the tasks I do be accurate enough to deliver any reliable data? And what purpose would these data serve after all?

But once involved in their work I noticed that I quickly caught up on procedures and methodology since everyone around me was very friendly and always ready to introduce me to new tasks. I learned a lot more about marine species than I had known from my previous snorkeling and diving experience, and with every day that passed I was able to identify more species and to carry out the tasks assigned to me with much more routine. 

Sabine Bickmann snorkelling and seranus scriba photo

I also learned that to my surprise there were actually no mentionable efforts on the part of national governments or other NGOs to continuously collect data about the variety and abundance of species and seagrass in the Mediterranean costal waters that we sailed, and that the data taken by Project Manaia in continuous years would eventually give an interesting account of the development of marine life in these areas. Once gathered, Project Manaia shares these data with any organization or research center interested in them and practices full transparency not only of their work but also their finances. 

There are opportunities for young scientists

But apart from Project Manaia’s own field work, there is much more happening on board of the SY Independence. Along with me, three young marine biologists had joined the crew who were working on their own field work projects. Also, we regularly took seawater samples to check microplastic for a marine biologist studying in Lisbon who had asked Project Manaia to take these samples on her behalf. When I asked Manuel and Pinar why they had originally founded Project Manaia they told me that one of their motivations had been to provide an affordable opportunity to young marine biologists looking for a platform for their own field work.

Group picture of Project Manaia crew and Sabine
Group picture of Project Manaia crew and Sabine replanting seagrass
My personal project onboard was replanting seagrass shoots

One of the highlights of my time with Project Manaia was a tiny project I initiated myself. When snorkeling for the collection of data I encountered multiple seagrass shoots that had been ripped out by nearby yacht anchors and that were floating around along the shore. So I collected them and, in a joined effort with one of the marine biologists on board, Tawani Naudé, planted a new little underwater meadow with them in a spot we carefully sought out in the bay.

As soon as we had replanted the shoots, juvenile fish came and quickly adopted them as part of their habitat, feeding on the algae on their leaves, swimming in circles around them and hiding beneath them. We will hopefully find out if our spot was in fact well-chosen when next year’s research crew comes back to this spot and reports on the growth of our little underwater garden.

And in the end back to my question

So coming back to the question if my stay aboard served myself more than anything else I guess that there is no clear answer. Of course, in many ways my time on board involved activities that I also enjoy in a normal holiday. And being able to make a contribution to a positive project like this of course made me feel good. But what I enjoyed above all was to witness the work of people who follow their dreams and who take their concerns about our planet’s future seriously enough to dedicate their whole life to being part of the solution. It gives me hope to see that this is happening, and I think taking this hope back into my everyday life as a teacher might actually have a positive effect that I had not even thought of in the first place. 

P.S. If you’re looking for a dive center involved in sea grass replantation check out Project Manaia’s list of partners.

Sabine Bickmann, Germany

Sabine Bickmann's photo
Sabine Bickmann’s photo
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