The “Big 5” is a fairly known term for those who have travelled to Africa, particularly Southern Africa. For those less familiar, the Big 5 refers to the most iconic and charismatic animals of the country. It is these animals that we have a particular interest in seeing and also those that we applaud in terms of conservation. Maybe you have different reasons for visiting the Maldives, but at some point, the blue waters are calling to each of us to explore the natural beauty within. Flying over multiple atoll islands with the seaplane towards your destination you can clearly see the outlines of the coral reefs around and often times, depending on your location and height you can even spot some mantas, dolphins or whale sharks. This brings me to the topic of this month’s blog: the Big 5 of Maldives. An estimated 2000 species of marine life can be found in the Maldives and many of which can be found living amongst the coral reefs. Not all these species have a direct association with the reefs, but many of them rely on these areas for shelter, food or cleaning at some point. The four other species discussed here is marine turtles, dolphins, mantas and sharks.
You may not be aware, but corals are actually tiny invertebrate animals called Cnidaria. These animals (includes jelly fish and sea anemones) all share the same distinguishing characteristics, a simple stomach and a mouth opening covered with stinging tentacles. Each individual animal is called a polyp and they live in large colonies which creates coral reefs. These animals have been around for nearly 500 million years and even outlasted the dinosaurs. Today they cover a mere 1% of all our oceans and 3% of the world’s corals can be found right here in the Maldives, 9% in the Philippines and another 15% in the Great Barrier Reef. In 2016, a worldwide El Nino event (heating of the ocean waters) killed more than 60% of the corals in the Maldives and around the world more losses were reported with some reefs completely disappearing. Luckily the reefs are slowly starting to recover and their colors are returning once more.
Marine turtles have been around for almost 100 million years and they are of the only reptiles that inhabit marine environments except for marine iguanas and sea snakes. Worldwide there are around 7 species of turtles and 5 of them can be found here in the Maldives. You can read more about these amazing animals in our previous blog.
Dolphins are part of the group called Cetaceans which also includes whales and porpoises. There are over 81 species of cetaceans in the world and can be found in varying parts of our oceans. Furthermore there are those such as the killer whale, pygmy killer whale, pilot whale and melon-headed whale which is referred to as “whales”, but are in fact dolphins. They are highly intellectual and social animals and can often times be spotted in big pods hunting, feeding and even playing together. In the Maldives there are roughly 20 species of dolphins and the most common one is the spinner dolphin. You can read more about this species and dolphins in general in our newest blog post.
The last two species of the “Big 5” is manta rays and sharks. These species, unlike the bony fish are classified as cartilaginous, meaning their skeleton is made of cartilage, a bone similar to what humans have in their ears and nose. This makes them lighter and more flexible in their swimming capabilities. Similar to stingrays, they are classified as elasmobranchs, meaning plated gills. Compared to other fish species with their gills covered inside the operculum, mantas, stingrays and sharks have “open” gill slits below the body (i.e. mantas or stingrays) or on the side of the body (i.e. sharks) which they use for extracting oxygen from the water. Manta rays can be found in most tropical waters around the globe and two species can be distinguished, the giant oceanic manta (Manta birostris and the reef manta (Manta alfredi), the former being the most commonly sighted in the Maldives. These animals have a unique spot pattern on their ventral side which is similar to a human fingerprint and can be used by scientists to tract their movement and population with the use of photography.
Lastly, sharks. The first shark fossil ever discovered dates back to around 370 million years and looking at their shape, they haven’t changed much over the course of evolution, which means they doing something right. Today there are over 500 species of sharks, although with developing technology this number constantly changes as they discover new parts of the ocean. In the Maldives there are over 26 species of sharks in various parts of the atolls and the biggest one of all is the whale shark. Not only is this the largest shark, it is also the largest fish in our oceans, measuring up to 18 meters and weighing up to 20 tons. Like the manta rays, they are also filter feeders, meaning they feed only on the tiny particles living suspended in the water, more commonly known as plankton. They will spend hours of traveling searching for sufficient “blooms” where they will gorge themselves up to 30,000 calories worth of food. These really are the gentle giants of the ocean and are magnificent to behold.
If you want to read more about these animals, you can follow these following links
Turtles: https://coralframe.planhotel.com/2019/03/22/get-know-marine-reptiles/ & http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/marine_turtles/
Dolphins and porpoises: https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/dolphins-and-porpoises#
Manta Rays: https://www.mantaray-world.com/ & https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/giant-manta-ray
Sharks: https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/shark & https://defenders.org/sharks/basic-facts