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Kim Hildebrandt's August Photo Journal: An Our World Underwater Rolex Scholar Journey

For the first half of August, I had been in the Maldives, working in three different locations. First, I flew to Laamu Atoll to assist the Manta Trust researchers at Six Senses Resort in their photo-identification of the resident manta rays. Here I learned about the underwater ultrasound scans that they record to study manta reproduction. Second, I assisted the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme to collect data on whale sharks in the South Ari Marine Protected Area. Third, I was invited to a manta expedition run by Ecoprodivers, who cooperate with the Manta Trust to provide educational opportunities about manta rays onboard and enable the guests to contribute to manta research by cataloging the animals through photo-ID shots. For the second half of August, I made my way to the Westman Islands in beautiful, cold Iceland to work at the SEA LIFE Trust´s Beluga Whale Sanctuary and Puffin Centre.

Through the photo equipment given to me by Reef Photo and Video, Nauticam and Light and Motion, I could contribute meaningfully to the work of the Manta Trust and the Maldives Whaleshark Research Programme by collecting vital photographic data, which feeds into the catalogs of Maldivian manta rays and whale sharks.

I have found science and underwater imaging to work together, as taking photos of the mantas´ undersides and the whale sharks´ sides were a main component of the research efforts. These areas of the animal´s body show unique patterns in every individual of this species, just like a fingerprint in humans. Therefore, we can monitor the pure presence, health, and behavior of each individual in the particular survey area, which can tell us about their abundance, migration routes, social interactions, and, in case of present injuries, also threats like boat strikes, entanglement in fishing gear or predatory attacks through sharks

While onboard the manta expedition of Ecoprodivers, I had the incredible chance to go on a night dive with the manta rays, and because I had the Light and Motion video lights mounted on top of the Nauticam housing, it attracted a very big amount of planktonic creatures just above my camera. For this reason, I was lucky enough that a manta even decided to show its barrel roll feeding behavior just on top of my light (and me)! To experience such an interesting behaviour of such a big and charismatic animal from so close was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I am so glad I get to take home all these amazing memories and new skills in the research work surrounding the fascinating megafauna in the tropical Maldivian waters. I am now excited for the following weeks working with animals that inhabit the colder waters in Iceland, Canada, and Alaska.