Still Swimming with Turtles: Tourist-Turtle Interactions in the Maldives Pre- and Post-COVID-19

By Stephanie Köhnk, Olive Ridley Project
and Martin Stelfox, Olive Ridley Project

The Republic of Maldives is a small island nation in the Northern Indian Ocean, famous for its marine biodiversity. Tourisms the largest industry in the country and the main driver for economic growth in foreign exchange earnings (World Bank 2022). Over one million visitors came to the Maldives in 2018, many of which joined in-water activities such as snorkeling and diving to see marine megafauna such as whale sharks, manta rays and sea turtles (e.g., MUI 2022).

Here we evaluate the impact of tourism on sea turtle behavior pre- and post-COVID19 related reduction in tourism activity.

Sea turtle behaviour and human-turtle interactions were recorded at 15  locations in northern Lhaviyani atoll (5.5088 N 73.4685 E) from January - November 2018, and again from November 2020 - October 2021. Sea Turtle behaviour was evaluated  based on estimated distance to the closest observer and the reaction of the turtle towards the observer. Interactions were classified as i) no change in behaviour, ii) alert, iii) avoidance and  iiii) flight.  Approximately 1300 sea turtle encounters (1165 greens, 98 hawksbills) were recorded in 2018 and 1400 (1285 green, 134 hawksbill) in 2020-2021.

Results from 2018 suggest behavior and human-turtle interaction may vary between species and locations.  Hawksbill turtles typically show no change in behavior and are less likely to show avoidance or flight even at short distances of 1-3m and at all locations. Comparatively, green turtles were more likely to show a negative reaction towards the presence of humans in the form of avoidance and flight.

Based on photo identification data (Carpentier et al. 2016), Lhaviyani atoll is the green turtle hotspot of the country, with over 370 identified individuals (Olive Ridley Project 2022). Green turtles utilize all different habitats on the northern side of the atoll, from seagrass beds as foraging habitats, to outreefs and channel openings as resting areas. The different habitats overlap with tourist activities, as many are dive and/or snorkel sites, frequented by tour operators to various degrees. A comparison of sea turtle behaviour data and frequency of tourism activities showed a clear habituation effect in green turtles in areas with more frequent contact between turtles and humans, resulting in turtles being less likely to show avoidance or flight reactions (Köhnk, unpublished data). Data collected during the first phase of this study led to the preparation of a Sea Turtle Code of Conduct (Olive Ridley Project 2018).

Since COVID-19 related travel restrictions implemented in March 2020 led to an operational closure of many tourist facilities for a period of roughly seven month (Mausoom 2020), human-turtle interactions drastically dropped in the first year of the pandemic. Continued observations reinstated in November 2020 showed a significantly changed pattern in green turtle behaviour. Markedly more negative reactions were documented since then and even one year after the pandemic-related closure, the turtle behaviour has not recovered to the old levels of relaxation and familiarity.

While the prolonged decrease in interactions might contribute to a loss of the habituation effect, it is unlikely to be the only factor, since the tourism industry was very constant and growing in the area for about 30 years before the pandemic (Prodivers Kuredu, personal communication).

We might be witnessing the effect of a population turnover, as indicated by the identification of new turtles and the lack of resighting of previous residents identified through photo ID (Köhnk, unpublished). The new residents might not have had the same level of interactions with humans when settling in at their respective habitats, which could be a vital phase to become accustomed to human presence.

Lastly, the concern remains that the travel restrictions  in the Maldives led to an increase in negative interactions between humans and sea turtles. Anecdotal reports from Lhaviyani atoll suggest active spearfishing during the involuntary break and closure of resorts. Furthermore, poaching of green turtles is still an issue in the Maldives. Since many of the no longer sighted turtles are adult or larger subadults, loss to poaching is a concern. A potential surge in poaching and a setback for conservation following the pandemic related closures and travel restrictions has been discussed for other regions (Meredith et al. 2020, Lindsey et al. 2020) and will be at the center of further studies in the Maldives.



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Last updated on 15 June 2022

Indian Ocean
Human Disturbance
Recreational activities
Chelonia mydas
Eretmochelys imbricata
Species group: