There are few places on the planet as remote as the Maldives. Landfall is a thousand miles away from much of the long string of 1,200 islands, most of which are little more than thin, uninhabited strips of sand. Diving into the heart of a Maldivian lagoon it is easy to imagine you are alone in one of Planet Ocean’s most distant paradises.
Yet when I did just that a few days ago, in the heart of the Baa Atoll — 463 square miles of aquamarine Indian Ocean recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — something didn’t feel, or look, quite like paradise.
The ocean, though jaw-droppingly beautiful, was a bathtub warm 86 degrees F. Diving to its shallow floor it was quickly clear that the realm below sea level here has been badly impacted in recent years by a combination of man and Mother Nature and resulting fast-warming temperatures.
The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly damaged in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees. The result then was that 70 to 90 percent of the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls were badly “bleached,” the warm temperatures killing off the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color. While since then many of the reefs have been recovering, according to a report by the Maldives-based Marine Research Center, another warming last year (2010) estimated that “10-15 percent of shallow reef coral is now completely white, while 50-70 percent has begun to pale.”
On this day I was diving with Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and executive director of Plant A Fish, and Mark Lynas, author and climate change adviser to Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed. During our first dive along a shallow reef in the middle of Baa Atoll we repeatedly signaled “thumbs down” to each other, as it became clear that this reef was troubled. Blanched the color of cement, the coral tips were mostly broken off leaving just behind bare rock.
Maldives-based marine biologist Kate Wilson dove with us and explained recovery was slowed this past April when another bleaching event occurred, with high sea temperatures again sweeping the area.
Mark would later describe the scene as “eerie;” Fabien’s photographs illustrated a murky, fish-less seafloor.
Kate assures us there are nearby reefs less impacted by local fishing and closer to colder currents, which may help them recover faster.
I hesitate to paint an overly bleak picture of the Maldives because there are some very good things going on here too. Last year the island nation (home to 320,00) became just one of two countries to completely ban shark fishing in its 35,000 square mile exclusive economic zone (Palau is the other). Maldivians no longer eat shark, they were only being hunted here for shark fin soup for export to China. It’s estimated the value of a single shark to diving tourists versus fishermen was $3,300 to $32.
Tuna in the Maldives is limited to being caught by pole, one of the most sustainable forms of fishing. And the naming last year of Baa Atoll as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is significant, placing it along such sites as the Galapagos, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil and Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The challenge now is to help educate the local populace about the reserve-status, help impacted fishermen find alternative employment and fund enforcement.
And the next day we would visit a reef in the center of the Baa atoll which showed signs of a strong recovery.
It is dramatically different.
Just below the brightly sunlit surface hundreds of shiny reef fish dart and feed. In the deep, dark blue swim the Maldivian big guys: Jackfish, tuna and red snapper. An occasional spotted eagle ray elegantly flaps past, as do a pair of green turtles.
During a mile-long swim we spy an incredibly beautiful and vast variety of wrasses, clown, surgeon and parrotfish. A dusky moray eel peeks out of its coral hideaway. And a square-headed porcupine fish attempts to hide itself deep inside a rock crevice. The shallow, sandy floor running to a sandbar is heavy with gray-beige coral, colorful clams and even a few handsome sea cucumbers.
On the way back to shore, we quiz Kate about the future of the reefs and the Biosphere.
Where will the funding come to protect the new park? “The government and a half-dozen resorts that operate within the atoll. Starting in January 2012 tourists are going to pay too, buying permits for things like sport fishing and swimming with the manta rays, which will all go into the management of the biosphere.”
Are some zones in the atoll already off-limits to fishing? “Nine core areas are strict no-take zones,” she says.
What about pelagic, open-ocean fishes like bluefin tuna, are they protected? “Since they are migratory species it is quite hard to manage them. Once they are out of Maldivian waters and into open ocean international fishing fleets target them. So even though the Maldives fisheries is one of the most protected, by sustainable fishing, stocks are still declining.”
Can the coral truly recover if water temperatures keep rising as they have been? “It’s a good test here to see just how fast corals can adapt. It’s not just about the temperature but also about acidification as well, so all of the corals are really at a critical point. No on really knows how quickly they’ll adapt, if at all. If we are not careful globally what you’re seeing could become the new norm.”