The idyllic, picture-postcard images of the Maldives is one that I’m sure is on every traveller’s wish list of places to visit. For a scuba diver, the beauty beneath the ocean’s surface is one I was keen to explore.
As my plane began its descent over the Indian Ocean, the Maldivian atolls began to come into view. It was a long flight, yet the adventure was only just beginning as I was about to embark on a course in coral reef conservation with Biosphere Expedition.
Located in the Indian Ocean, southwest of Sri Lanka and India, the Maldives is considered a tropical paradise. Its stunning white beaches and crystal clear waters makes it a popular destination for star-struck lovers and honeymooners. I was neither, and only here for a glimpse of the vibrant marine life, with the opportunity to visit a handful of the Maldivian atolls.
The land area of the Maldives is relatively small, with a total land area of approximately 298 square kilometres (115 square miles). However, the Maldives is not a single large landmass but rather a collection of 26 atolls, each consisting of multiple islands and islets. The total overall area embraces a total area of 90,000 sq km but that includes the sea, which forms 99.6% of the Maldives. The land area of all the islands combined amounts to 298 square km.
The Maldives consists of 26 atolls, which are made up of over 1,000 individual coral islands. The islands stretch across a range of approximately 822 km from 7 degrees north of the Equator to just south of it, with 130km of this runs from west to east.
These atolls are spread out across the Indian Ocean and are known for their breathtaking natural beauty, including pristine beaches and vibrant underwater ecosystems. Each atoll is made up of a ring of coral islands surrounding a central lagoon. These atolls collectively form the geography of the Maldives and are a major feature of the country’s landscape.
An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef, island, or a series of islets that encircle a lagoon, often in the middle of an ocean. Atolls are formed from the growth of coral reefs around the rim of an underwater volcanic island. Over time, as the volcanic island erodes and subsides, the coral reefs continue to grow upward, creating a ring of land and islets that surrounds a central lagoon.
Atolls are typically found in warm, tropical waters, and they are known for their unique and beautiful ecosystems. The shallow lagoons within atolls provide habitat for various marine life, including fish, coral, and other organisms. The outer reef of the atoll acts as a barrier, protecting the inner lagoon and its inhabitants from the rougher conditions of the open ocean.
Why are coral reefs so important anyway?
Coral reefs are often referred to as “rainforests of the sea” due to the incredible diversity of marine life they are responsible for. Not only do they provide habitat and food for a wide range of species of marine life and organisms, but their very existence is essential for the overall health of ocean ecosystems.
Not only do many fish and invertebrate species rely on coral reefs as breeding and feeding grounds, but coral reefs are also vitally important natural barriers, serving to protect coastlines from the damage caused by storms, waves and erosion. They do this by dissipating wave energy which reduces the impact of large waves on shorelines, in turn preventing coastal erosion from occurring.
Principally, we need to recognise the significant role that coral reefs play in the carbon cycle. Coral reefs are the habitat for teeny-tiny organisms called zooxanthellae algae. Through the process of photosynthesis, the zooxanthellae absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. In removing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere, the zooxanthellae help to provide food to the coral in order for it to survive. The relationship between coral and zooxanthellae is symbiotic; they each need the other one in order to survive.
When coral reefs become too warm, they expel the zooxanthellae. Without the zooxanthellae, they coral reefs begin to die.
The loss of coral reefs would have a devastating impact in a multitude of ways. The fish and marine life that depend on them for breeding, shelter and feeding would decline alarmingly, undoubtedly creating the irreplaceable loss of many species over time. This would impact the behaviour and survival of other marine life in a chain of deteriorating and disastrous effects.
Coastlines would be left open and vulnerable to damage and erosion, leading to loss of land and damage to entire geographical and community infrastructures. And, of course, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere would rise, changing the overall climate.
Coral reefs all over the world are facing threats such as coral bleaching due to rising sea temperatures, ocean acidification, human damage, overfishing, and pollution. The Maldivian government has developed a number of programmes and undertaken agreements in order to safeguard its valuable coral reef ecosystems, and works with a number of organisations to monitor and conserve them through a series of coral reef conservation projects.
Biosphere Expeditions and Reef Check
Biosphere Expeditions was created in 1999 and has been running a variety of conservation projects all over the world since. Partnering with Reef Check and the Marine Conservation Society, this expedition provides the opportunity to monitor the health of the coral reefs and participate in coral reef conservation research.
If whale sharks are encountered during the expedition, there will also be the change to leap into the water and attempt to photograph gill areas for identification purposes. However, nature and wildlife, being what it is, does not guarantee that the whale sharks will be present when you are, so go along with the notion that seeing them will be a bonus, not a given.
Reef Check is a non-profit organisation who states its primary objectives as follows:
We train and organize teams of local volunteer citizen scientist divers. They collect data on reef health and assess climate change impacts on their reefs. Their work produces reliable information used by marine resource managers, scientists, and policymakers to make science-based ocean management and conservation decisions.
We promote public education about reefs and the ocean. Our goal is to develop a team of ocean ambassadors with the skills and knowledge to make a tangible and meaningful difference for marine conservation in their local communities.
We develop ecologically sound and economically sustainable solutions for reef conservation and restoration.
This expedition provides divers with the training, knowledge and skills to make a contribution to Reef Check’s work, and to become qualified Reef Check divers.
We were met at our pre-determined meeting point at Male airport on the morning of our first day, where we were led to the dhoni, the small boat which would take us to our home for the duration of our trip.
The liveaboard itself was a wonderfully comfortable base from where we would learn, eat and sleep. The crew was incredible, hard-working and polite, with Shah, our dive guide, always on hand to offer a friendly smile and his years of diving expertise to the trip.
The cabins aboard the boat were spacious and clean, each with an ensuite for total privacy and comfort. Air conditioning was available in the room, as was a fan in addition.
I always find myself sleeping well on boats, the rocking motion providing a welcome comfort, I find. However, I was soon to find this was going to be no ordinary diving liveaboard.
With diving liveaboards, you dive, you eat, you sleep.
This was not one of those trips.
Little was I prepared for just how intense the learning would be! For the next two days we would be up at 6am, studying by 7am and still studying, revising and sitting test after test 12 hours later.
We were taken through our studies by scientist Jean-Luc Solandt, marine biologist and a principal specialist in marine protected areas. Jean-Luc has been surveying and monitoring changes to the coral reef systems in the Maldives for many years. We would be revisiting previously surveyed sites during this trip, tracking any changes, good or bad, which may have occurred during this time.
We learnt how to lay transect lines to map out our survey site, and we learnt how to identify and record fish, invertebrates and different types of corals. I believe I wasn’t the only one to have despaired at the amount of information that was being thrown at us.
How on earth would I remember all of this, I wondered? There was no way I could contain so much information in such a short space of time. Will I ever understand what I’m looking at?
The short answer was, yes. It may have seemed overwhelming – indeed it was! There is a lot to learn, a huge amount of studying and my brain wasn’t the only one aching. I hadn’t realised just how much I did actually learn until it hit me later on that week that yes, I did actually recognise the things I was looking at. Despite many, many dives, I was no longer looking around thinking, ‘oooh it’s so pretty down here!’, I could see what was meant to be there, what wasn’t, what was good and what was bad.
At the end of the week we were all gathered around for a summary of the findings. After carrying out six surveys we had covered a total of 4800 metres squared. Calculating it against the area of the Maldives, it transpired we had covered a whopping 0.0000002% of it.
It might sound insignificant but even this minute figure gives us some insight into the devastation, and also the hopeful likelihood of recovery, of the coral reefs here.
Participating in this expedition certainly did open my eyes to the full impact of what was going on beneath the sea’s surface. The impact of our day-to-day living might be out of sight and out of mind below the water, but believe, me it’s there.
For more information on Biosphere Expeditions and their future conservation trips, visit their website at www.biosphere-expeditions.org/.
Disclaimer: I was invited along to a press trip with Biosphere Expeditions for the purpose of this article. All opinions are firmly my own and I encourage you to do your own research.