An encounter with the gentle giant An encounter with the gentle giant

An encounter with the gentle giant

Dhigurah is one of the inhabited islands of Ari Atoll where whale sharks are year-round residents. Mathematical Ecologist Natasha Ellison shares details of her encounter with the slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark as she collects data on their distinctive spot pattern.

Life on the island of Dhigurah in the Maldives is about embracing the local culture, the beautiful environment and living simply. I’ve travelled to the Maldives to search for and film whale sharks on the beautiful reefs surrounding the island. I am spending my days on a traditional Dhoni Boat, exploring the reefs in the hot sun for sharks. My evenings are spent on Dhigurah, taking in the charm of the island and observing the beach wildlife, whilst always trying to avoid the mosquitoes!

It’s only in the past ten years that it has been possible to stay on the local islands here rather than in the ostentatious resort islands. This means that visitors must respect the rules which the Maldivians live by, and this is essential. The first rule is there is no alcohol allowed on the island. Alcohol is something which is often a significant part of a relaxing holiday from British culture, but on Dhigurah its lack drives the magic and calmness of the place. The local people are perhaps the kindest and most helpful I have ever met whilst travelling.

The second rule is the island has a strict dress code. Women visiting here are expected to cover their bodies from the shoulders down to the knees and everything in between, something which could potentially be quite uncomfortable given the tropical climate. Fortunately for me, Rohan has created a whole range of clothing which is technically made for hot climates and culturally appropriate for the Maldives.

After a day of snorkelling along the reef, I wear one of the Malay dresses. I have the capped sleeve Malay Dress as well as the Malay Shirt Dress - they are both light and dry very quickly, and as I often walked back along the beach, being splashed with the odd wave isn’t a problem. When exploring the island in the day time, I wear the Malay Cropped Trousers and a short sleeved Stria Polo to get a bit of vitamin E. The trousers in particular are really light and never seem to crease at all.

Evening dining could potentially be quite uncomfortable with the prowling mosquitos. I cover up with my Serenity Long Skirt and an insect repellent Sanctuary Shirt, which works a treat, and for when it gets cooler I wear the insect repellent Trail Hooded Top for extra protection.

I’ve travelled to the Maldives in the wet season, meaning we are often hit with a bout of heavy rain or worse, a big storm! The hot tropical weather could soon turn cold when you’re wearing a wet rash vest. I solved this problem with my Vapour Trail Long Jacket. It’s 100% waterproof and is also excellent for protecting my camera and the other equipment used for research.

I’m a mathematician and the main reason I’ve travelled here is to see beautiful patterns in nature as I’m really interested in how we can create them with mathematics. One complex pattern nature has given us is the pigment pattern on the skin of the whale shark, something I’ve always wanted to see.

To maximise the chances of seeing and filming whale sharks I’ve teamed up with the  Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, a charity which spends its days searching for the sharks and collecting data to help protect them and the rest of the fauna utilising the reef. Once a whale shark is spotted, the team swims over and takes pictures of the amazing patterns on each side of the shark, then back on the island, we use a mathematical algorithm to identify each individual whale shark using their spot pattern.

After each encounter we also record environmental variables such as the temperature of the water and direction of the current, this helps researchers using the data to understand why the whale sharks live around Dhigurah and also assess the health of the reef.

I’m about to come home to England, where I hear it’s been raining for two weeks! I’ll be keeping my Trail waterproof jacket handy for the trip back up to North. If you ever get the chance to visit the local islands of the Maldives, I couldn’t recommend it more. The sense of purity and tranquillity is something I haven’t experienced elsewhere in the world and the ocean fauna and picturesque surroundings are beyond comparison.

Natasha Ellison

PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology, University of Sheffield

Photo credits: Kriss Ceuca, Nick Holton, Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP)