Melissa’s work in the Maldives is helping the island nation clean up its act


The Executive Club Member saving the Indian Ocean

Melissa Schiele
Melissa Schiele


Loughborough University PhD researcher and fellow Executive Club Member Melissa Schiele is on a mission to change the way the world expands its understanding of ocean waste. She talks us through the exciting new tech used by a project she’s heading up at the Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands resort

I've always been fascinated by the natural world, especially aquatic species. My aunt was flabbergasted when, at a very young age, I memorised all the fish names in a book about aquatic life. My earliest and fondest memories of the sea are fishing for crabs in Hove Lagoon, putting them into a bucket with water and staring at them for what felt like ages.


Melissa Schiele. Credit: Apartphotography/Visiontranquilo

I’ve been working in the Maldives intermittently since 2010. More than a decade on, and the beauty of the country still takes my breath away. However, the Maldives is in a difficult position since there’s so little land. The population grows, and currents bring in pollution from other countries. Much needs to change to avoid increased accidental polluting. Waste can arrive from other sources, including the countries around the rim of the Indian Ocean. Our research is part of larger efforts to understand how the Maldives can become better at managing its waste.

I started working with drones in 2018 when I was doing my second MSc. For my research project, I worked with the Zoological Society of London, trialling a prototype water-landing fixed wing drone. It was used for illegal fishing surveillance and wildlife monitoring in the Chagos Archipelago. Those first two months in the field were a baptism of fire. I had to fix the drone every night, with no internet access and limited tools, out at sea.

The perspective you get from drones is fascinating. We sample non-invasively and fly in a way that doesn’t disturb any wildlife. We can cover vast areas, and this data complements more traditional surveying methods such as boat and dive surveys. I love that I can carry a powerful data gathering tool in a small box, and just set up anywhere and fly. I also love that drones are becoming easier to use.

“I was delighted to detect manatees in my images from Belize”

We’ve come across all sorts during the drone flights. The weirdest would have to be an enormous ship’s fender in the Chagos Archipelago and a small plastic arm from a toy in the Maldives. No body – just the arm. On one occasion, we saw a pod of Risso’s dolphins. Then there was the feeding manta ray in the Chagos Archipelago, in an area where we never expected to see one. And I was delighted to detect manatees in my images from Belize. 

I’m hopeful that the next generation has more compassion and foresight about the impacts of pollution than is being currently displayed by politicians and large corporations. Everyone has the right to live in places that have effective waste disposal facilities, but there’s a lot of work to do globally before everyone gets that opportunity.

As for what’s next, although I’ve been doing projects in the Indian Ocean since 2010 and love its diversity and history, the Pacific Ocean is the one I’d like to explore next. I’m fascinated by the Pacific Islanders and their history. The scale of that ocean is staggering, but that’s what’s exciting.


Quickfire questions

Which Executive Club Tier are you?

What do you do during your time off?
I don’t get much time off these days but, when I do, I enjoy painting, cooking, horse riding and watching Star Trek.

Favourite marine creature?
The oarfish (Regalecus glesne) because it looks like something straight out of science fiction. 

Favourite fact about a sea creature?
That regional dialects exist within some cetacean species. I love the idea of an orca with a Scottish accent. 

Two ways in which visitors to the Maldives can help protect marine life?
When in the water, think about where you are standing or putting your hands, as you may be squashing corals accidently. Try to minimise the amount of disposable plastics you bring on holiday.

Top tip for drone flyers?
Make sure you are following local rules relating to drone flying. Always carry spare batteries and spare SD cards and don’t harass any wildlife. And, lastly, enjoy yourself!

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