Choppy waters ahead: Can visitors help save corals in the Maldives?

Diver and yellow Crinoid and Redtooth Triggerfishes, Odonus niger, Maldives, Indian Ocean, Meemu Atoll
07 December, 2022

When you first see Maldives from above, you’ll notice one-too-many scattered islands – some shaped like perfect circles (others may remind you of your first failed attempt at khubus or chapati!) – all floating, effortlessly, in the midst of crystal-clear waters. 

You can spot the shadows cast by a floating dhoni (traditional wooden boats), onto the sugar-white sand beds, thanks to the pristine waters.

As you take in the bird’s eye view, the adjectives that come to mind are ‘serene’, and ‘tranquil’, and you can feel the island vibes, where time stands still. Everywhere you look lies a photo opportunity: swaying palms, pink sunsets, and endless ribbons of white sand.

"The traditional sailing boat of the Maldives, ‘dhoni’, is said to have been derived from the Tamil ‘doni’ meaning small boat, and its Malyalam equivalent. ‘tuoni’. It is similar in structure to the dhows seen in the Arab World, which are also said to have originated in India"

It’s impossible to believe that a destination as stunning as the Maldives was born of a violent natural act. Millions of years ago, intimidating volcanic mountains stood tall in the midst of what is now the Indian Ocean.

As water levels rose, the volcanoes began to sink. Eventually, a ring of hard corals surrounded the tops of the submerged volcano, and atolls are born. Given the back story, it comes as no surprise that Maldives enjoys some of the richest marine diversity in the World. The country’s coral reefs are the seventh largest on Earth.

Schooling Surgeonfishes, Powder Blue Tang, Acanthurus leucosternon, Maldives, Indian Ocean
Schooling Surgeonfishes, Maldives, Indian Ocean [Getty Images]

To the visitor, this means an opportunity to spot a variety of marine creatures. You can scuba dive in the warm enticing waters, marvelling at over 2000 varieties of marine animals (and a shipwreck or two).

Or if you’re a timid swimmer, you could set off in search of dolphins and whales. With marine biologist, Mark McMillan, of LUX* South Ari Atoll as my guide, I hop onto a boat in search of these cetaceans and learn some interesting facts along the way.  The Maldives has 23 species of cetaceans which are all protected under Maldivian law.

We spot the Spinner dolphins – the most common in the island nation – that puts on a show for us as it leaps into the air. Mark peppers the ride with interesting facts: Dolphins are capable of complex problem-solving and forming social groups. Scientists consider them the world’s most intelligent creatures after humans and have suggested they be grouped as ‘non-human persons’.

But it’s the whales that are the stuff of legends, thanks to ambergris. In centuries gone by, the Middle East revered this island for the ambergris or the waste of the sperm whale.

It is a prized possession dished out by one in every 100 sperm whales. Despite where it comes from, ambergris has a mythical status. Legends abound of its potent properties as an aphrodisiac, a cure-all for infertility.

Historians believe that Arabs first discovered it, and introduced it to the West. Today it remains a sought-after ingredient in the perfume industry (more recently replaced by synthetic versions, due to its steep price).

My local friend, Abdul, refers to the substance as ‘floating diamonds’ and mentions someone-who-knows-someone who got rich overnight after spotting a chunk of ambergris on a beach stroll. As I dig deeper, the tall tale unravels quickly but makes for an entertaining story nonetheless.

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Given her rich natural resources, the Maldivian government has strict environmental laws. In fact, Maldives was the first country in the World to hold an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to call international attention to the threat of global warming.

In more recent times, faith-based climate-change efforts have been initiated. Pope Francis released a papal encyclical letter in which he called upon the World’s Catholics to join the fight against climate change. Similarly, the Islamic Declaration of Global Climate Change, (2015), called upon the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, and governments of Islamic nations to play an active role in protecting the environment.

"Maldives was the first country in the world to hold an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to call international attention to the threat of global warming"

With the Maldivian government staying true to the cause, the tourism industry – which is the largest in the country, accounting for 28 percent of the GDP – follows suit with a variety of initiatives to protect nature. One such informative and interactive initiative that I participated in was the ‘coral frame adoption programme’ put together by the LUX* Marine Biology Centre to which Mark belongs.

He explains that the El Nino effect caused the strongest bleaching episodes in the Maldives, affecting over 60 percent of corals between 2015-2016.  “Divers could actually see the bleaching as it occurred. It was heartbreaking,” said Mark. That’s when the idea of coral adoption was born.

After countless dives, the team mapped out areas around the waters of South Ari Atoll where corals were at their most vulnerable. They carefully pick up fragments of broken corals; corals when broken don’t die immediately and can still be salvaged given the right conditions. The team brings back these pieces and places them in an optimal, artificial environment, only to release them back into nature, when stronger. That’s where we, the visitors, come in.

Climate change is an existential threat to the picturesque islands [photo credit: S.Noor]
Climate change is an existential threat to the picturesque islands [photo credit: S.Noor]

Mark brings out a bucket full of corals. While I’ve been lucky to see corals on dives in all their radiant hues – psychedelic pink, trippy yellow – I’ve never actually touched one. I don gloves so as not to harm the stressed coral.

It feels tough, spiky around the edges, yet slimy. Mark explains that there are two types of corals: soft corals, which are bendable, don’t have skeletons and are non-reef building. The ones we handle are hard corals. They are the reef builders that in turn create reef colonies.

Mark brings out a metal frame, shaped like a hexagram, and we get to work. We carefully attach the corals to the metal structure, using a plastic cord. He admits that plastic isn’t the best choice and that attempts are being made to source durable, eco-friendly material.

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With the corals firmly in place, I am asked to name the frame. I call it ‘Hope’. Now, all that’s left to do is to set them free. We walk to the edge of the pier that extends into the water, and together we let go of the frame. We watch as it pierces through the water and settles onto the bed. We can see the star-shaped frame shine through the clear waters. Mark notes the location. I ask him if this little effort on my part will help. Can a little really go a long way?

He explains that opinions remain divided on how much this attempt can help in the face of extensive climate change. But I believe it does; for one, I now know more about the marine ecosystem than I did before.

I understand that corals have been aptly dubbed ‘rainforests of the sea’ as they support as much as 25 percent of the ocean’s fish. I no longer think of corals as things. They’re living, breathing organisms. Some may believe that naming coral frames encourage anthropomorphism. But to me, Hope is a good thing; hope signifies the power to stay afloat, to stay alive.

Every few months, I receive gorgeous underwater pictures of Hope. The metal rusts, slowly; the corals hold on tight, growing ever so slowly. Will the star-shaped bracket support an entire coral colony? Will the bleached white morph into a vibrant neon? Only time will tell. There is hope after all.

The author is writing under a pseudonym for privacy reasons