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Research In-Situ in the Maldives

Conducting research at holiday destinations: Max Weber Program scholarship holder Sebastian Steibl of the University of Bayreuth did just that to study the impact of human activities on small (island) ecosystems. For his Master’s thesis in Molecular Ecology, he conducted research at the Atoll Marine Centre on Naifaru, an island in the Maldives, for three months from January to March 2017. His work was supported by the Max Weber Research In-Situ program.

The Maldives’ parallel worlds

Palm-lined beaches with sand as white as snow, crystal-clear water and romantic wooden cabins – this is the first image to come the most people’s minds when they think of the Maldives. Yet, away from holiday brochures’ with pictures of the island of your dreams, each photo more extravagant and luxurious than the next, there is a small is­land nation that could not be further re­mo­ved from this world of opulence. During a three-month research stay in the Maldives, Sebastian Steibl had a unique opportunity to experience the “real” Maldives and, in doing so, discover a side of the islands that remains entirely hidden from most tourists.

Objective of the research stay

The aim of his research was to find out whether and to what extent various human activities impact on small (island) eco­sys­tems. The problem with investigating such issues, however, is that it can be difficult to differentiate between the various influencing factors; as a result, the extent to which the individual factors – such as tourism or fishing – actually effect an ecosystem often remains unclear. As the Maldives are made up of around 1200 small islands which are home to either locals (and are used for fishing) or international tourist resorts, this group of islands represent an ideal open-air la­bo­ra­to­ry for Sebastian Steibl’s research, in which he can investigate these two use types ef­fec­ti­ve­ly in geo­graphi­cal­ly distinct areas. There is also a large number of uninhabited islands which served as a reference for the island ecosystem’s untouched, natural state.

Of the roughly 1200 islands that make up the Maldives, only around 200 are inhabited by the local people, the Dhivehi; a further 100 islands are used as resorts by the inter­na­tio­nal tourism industry. As a result, as well as offering the ideal conditions for Steibl’s research, the island system also features an extremely strict divide that keeps the local people away from international visitors – a separation that the government of the Maldives consciously reinforces with cor­res­pon­ding legislation.

In the "real" Maldives, the government enforces a strict societal system based on Sunni Islam. While the resorts’ bikini-clad tourists enjoy this island paradise with cocktails in hand, the islands inhabited by the native population are subject to a strict alcohol ban and laws that force women to wear headscarves; Dhivehi women are also entirely forbidden from smoking or buying cigarettes, and there are often reports of women who are alleged to have engaged in pre-marital sex being flogged. Sebastian Steibl encountered these extreme contrasts time and again during his studies as he travelled between the islands occupied by the locals and those reserved for holidaymakers.

Challenges of fieldwork

In most cases, when a researcher decides to carry out fieldwork abroad, they aren’t able to adopt a ‘trial and error’ approach or carry out a series of preliminary tests. While la­bo­ra­to­ry work and smaller-scale fieldwork projects can involve more testing and the option to correct and repeat failed ex­pe­ri­ments where absolutely necessary, larger fieldwork studies only have one shot. With this in mind, Sebastian Steibl firstly under­took a year-long planning and pre­pa­ra­tion phase. In the following, he describes the process of his study.

“First of all, I had to collect and assimilate as much knowledge as I could about the po­ten­tial circumstances on the ground. In nu­me­rous meetings with my mentor and other professors, I then had to design the entire methodology for the study, as the very limited time window of just three months didn’t leave much scope for flexibility or spontaneous amendments. This meant that, during the study, I was carrying out trials and collecting samples, usually starting as soon as the sun came up. Of course, carrying out research at holiday destinations means sweating as you carry bulky, heavy e­quip­ment and apparatus along the beach and working while everyone around you basks in the sun and bathes in the sea. It all suddenly becomes worth it, though, when you can watch sharks, rays or a group of passing pod of dolphins while you do your work!”

Grab your passport and go!

“If you want to break out of the routine of university work for once, I can only en­cou­ra­ge you to take a research stay in a distant country, free from university struc­tu­res and disconnected from Western culture. To my mind, while having to organize and manage everything yourself is con­si­de­rab­ly more demanding, it also teaches you far more than just studying or researching at a foreign university. Even though such field projects in exotic countries require more planning than ‘normal’ re­search stays abroad, the reward is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Afterwards, you can look back on the completed project and say, with confidence and a clear conscience, that you completed the entire project yourself, from the initial concept through to com­ple­tion.”

Text: Sebastian Steibl, Max Weber Program scholarship holder, University of Bayreuth