For a lot of Maldivian people and tourists, more time is spent in the ocean around the islands than on land. I spoke to Ellie Butler, the Marine Biologist on Soneva Jani about the watery worlds that make up so much of the heart and soul of these islands.
What is your role and what is your general day to day like?
I am the Marine Biologist at Soneva Jani which means my world revolves around anything
and everything ocean related! The best part about my job is that every day is different and you never know how the day will pan out. On a ‘normal’ day I start my day by cycling to the office, scanning the waters around the jetty for marine life such as our resident guitar fish. The rest of the day usually involves a variety of activities such as; snorkelling with the guests, joining on the dolphin cruise excursions, educating the guests, patrolling the beach for lost mother turtles, conducting beach cleanups and actively restoring coral in our nearby coral garden! Some of my more unusual days have involved rescuing turtles from fishing nets, and one particularly memorable incident involved a young injured heron which we found and took under our wing. We looked after him for about 2 months before he flew away.
How did you become interested in Marine Biology?
I have always had a love for animals and the natural world, and growing up by the sea I spent many hours scouring the beaches in England for interesting things that may have washed up like mermaids purses or interesting fish bones. It is this fascination with the marine world which got me interested from an early age in pursuing a career in marine biology, but as I grew older it became more clear with every day the impacts that humans are having on our underwater world, whether it is from plastic pollution, unsustainable fishing or from climate change, and I wanted to be a part of standing up for it and protecting the world which we still know so little about.
How did your studies get you here?
I began my career in Marine Biology in 2011, when I studied Marine Biology for my
bachelor’s degree at the University of Portsmouth. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I applied to study a Masters course in Tropical Biodiversity and Ecosystems through the Erasmus Mundus program. I was thrilled to be accepted onto the course, and this allowed me to study in four countries, including Italy, Australia, Malaysia and Belgium, learning about tropical ecology both underwater and on land. During my studies, I also participated in a number of work experience placements to improve my knowledge of the management of marine ecosystems.
After finishing my masters, I was keen to continue my career in Tropical Biology. The Maldives is made up of 1190 coral islands, and is therefore the perfect place for a Marine Biologist! I began with an internship in another resort to gain vital knowledge of the Indian Ocean species and in-field activities that I would need to run, and I was then lucky enough to be selected for the job at Soneva Jani.
Are there any specific aspects that you’re particularly passionate about?
Although most people believe I am most passionate about turtles (well…who doesn’t love turtles!?), I am actually the most passionate about coral! I like to look at the bigger picture when it comes to marine conservation, and in the Maldives the coral reef is definitely the key to a healthy ecosystem. Even the islands are built from the skeleton of coral which forms the beautiful white sandy beaches. Another really important aspect in marine conservation that I am interested in is the formation of marine protected areas, and zonation of marine activities. For example, protecting one reef from fishing can even create a ‘spillover’ effect where fish numbers increase and ‘spills over’ into neighbouring reefs which are free to fish! It is exciting to see the importance of marine protected areas becoming more and more recognized across the globe and the government of the Maldives want to declare the whole country as a Biosphere Reserve which is fantastic.
What kind of things do you teach the guests?
Some of the hot topics that I discuss the most with the guests range from the basic behavior,
biology and identification of marine life around the resort, to the impacts that we as humans are having on marine life, particularly with the effects of climate change and ocean warming. I also focus on some lesser known topics, such as the overfishing of sharks and other species of fish. I find that it is really important to talk about what we can do as individuals to create a positive impact, and it doesn’t have to be difficult! Some of the best things you can do are to switch to only eating sustainably caught seafood (pole and line caught), reducing your carbon footprint (e.g. by living closer to work), and being mindful of the waste we produce.
Favourite marine animal?
It is hard to choose just one, but my favourite fish would have to be the Coral Scorpionfish. It is a small, pink fish with bright yellow spots and hides between the branches of coral.
Your favourite books on marine biology?
My all-time favourite book on Marine Biology is called What a Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe which tells the story of the complex emotions, relationships and intelligence of fish through anecdotes and scientific studies, explaining away common misconceptions that fish are stupid or don’t feel pain. Another great read is Voices in the Ocean by Susan Casey and The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery which will also open your eyes to the vast intelligence of marine creatures.
How do you find living in the Maldives?
As I am sure you are already aware, the Maldives is a beautiful place to live and I love being able to dive into the crystal blue waters every day! But aside from the beauty of the country, I love the community feel that you get on the island which you just can’t find in a big city. It is most noticeable when you come back to the island after a long break away and everyone is so welcoming and happy to see you back!
A huge thank you to Ellie Butler for this wonderful interview, for constantly teaching me intriguing things about the waters we’re surrounded by and being a fabulous office neighbour, you can follow her marine life journey on Instagram @mermellie