Coral Trays and Stonefish – Expanding my Marine Biological “Feet-on“ Experiences

A strenuous month of work at Soneva Fushi lay behind me when I went to Soneva Gili a few days ago to continue the maintenance work on its artificial reef structures. These so-called coral trays were designed by a contracted local company, and as Soneva’s Area Marine Biologist, I was put in charge of the trays last year – and of fulfilling a lot of expectations. What the management wishes to achieve is the beautification of Soneva Gili’s shallow, sandy lagoon through localised coral- and fish-rich patches for guests to enjoy, especially under the spa’s treatment rooms and over-water guest villas. Due to the lack of light in those particular locations and the controversy about artificial reef growth in general, I have always been very reluctant to engage in a coral transplantation project, but after some discussions with different people was willing to at least experiment a bit and try.

For more than one-and-a-half years now, colleagues and I have been collecting broken coral fragments from different colonies in the nearby reef and lagoon, hammered them into smaller pieces, attached them to the rebar metal structure with a cable tie, scrubbed the trays if overgrown with algae and started the whole process again and again, if the corals didn’t grow as anticipated. Unfortunately, even in coral nursery areas set aside in sheltered locations out in the bright sun, the fragments often didn’t prosper, as they were negatively affected by the resort’s sand pumping, bad water circulation or other unfavourable conditions. It has been quite disheartening to see dark-green algae smothering the corals and many of our efforts in vain. On the other hand, I have also discovered lots of new-to-me species hiding amongst the algae and coral branches, as if the coral trays are an oasis for many planktonic organisms in a desert full of sand and currents. And some of the coral colonies have developed into extensive branches over many months! It was these well-developed coral trays that I moved under the spa’s treatment rooms on different occasions to see whether they would survive there. Sadly, it didn’t take long for the tiny polyps to feel stressed and bleach due to the lack of sunlight needed for their symbiotic algae. A few times I could save the remaining colonies, but most often I was too late, and the transplantation process had to start all over again. I am still unsure whether we will ever be able to keep viable coral trays in those shaded locations, even with a stringent rotation system in place, but will try once more just to have made the effort and be sure.

So how does the stonefish enter the story? Well, here it comes. My time at Soneva Gili was nearly finished, I had only the rotation of some coral trays under the spa left to do before leaving the country for a new adventure, when during the wading in the sandy lagoon at extremely low tide yesterday and the moving of one tray, I felt a fierce sting in my foot. At first I thought of a sharp coral piece but then saw blood emerging from two tiny pricks in my sole. The pain was unusually intense, too, so that I had a foreboding and checked the ground for a scorpionfish. At first: nothing; only algae and some dead coral rubble; but then a little lump that looked like a rock but felt soft, with eyes at the top and a grumpy mouth pointing up – a juvenile stonefish, the most venomous fish in the world! The pain grew more and more intense, and when I reached the spa and asked for my foot to be put in hot water as a first aid measure, I felt my body become quite weak and tense. Within the next hour, the spa team, the resort doctor and the management were up and running, gave me injections and organised a speedboat transfer to Male’ for better medical treatment, while I was in agony. Luckily, the painkillers started to work when I was at the hospital two hours after the incident, so that I didn’t suffer too long. A tetanus refresher, painkillers, antibiotics, antihistamines and some other antis have saved me from further infections, inflammations and worse problems ever since, but I must admit that I was lucky only to have stepped on a juvenile stonefish and not a fully-grown monster, as that could have turned out to be highly unpleasant. And even though I didn’t ask for the experience, it is in a way good to have a real-life story to pass on to my resort guests from now on!

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