The Maldives: a nation of 1,190 islands sprawled over 90,000 sq. kms in the Indian Ocean; none of the atolls is more than a metre above sea level. When you live in a country that is more below water than above water, you know you have a fragile environment to protect.
The Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 caused major damage to the Maldives - 30% of the population of 290,000 were directly affected by the tsunami and over 30,000 people were left homeless. The economic damage was estimated at over 60% of their annual £300 million GDP.
It is difficult for us to imagine what it means to the 1200 or so islands of the Maldives spread far and wide over the Indian Ocean not being more than one metre above sea level in a time of global warming and rising sea levels. The Maldives totally depends on its environment for its living and income in a far more intense way than any of us in the rest of the world do. The government has realised this in that it needs to fully protect the environment to protect itself; to bring tourists to it for its income, to protect the marine ecology and creatures of the sea that we travel to the Maldives to marvel at - and to make the Maldives the thriving community you see today. But it's not all plain sailing.
For centuries, the Maldivians worked hard for their own independent space on the planet. Today, they are doing more than ever to maintain the delicate 'sink or swim' balance of nature as well as protecting their beloved islands from global warming, over population, overbuilding, pollution and, above all, damage to their sea and lagoons, marine life and fauna. For centuries, fishing by pole and line has been the lifeblood of the Maldives. No trawlers or factory ships. No huge nets or killing of rare and endangered fish and mammals.
Hard work and commitment pays off. The ecosystem is working. The natural balance is being maintained. The Maldives are thriving. And visitors love the space, freedom and lack of commercialism.
To protect from overbuilding, global warming, over population and overfishing takes a great deal of thought, vision and hard work. In the Maldives they are used to doing things the slow thoughtful way instead of using machines as we do in the Western world. But anything can upset this balance quite easily, and that's how fragile an environment it is.
The results are gratifying and staggering: world renowned dive sights, the most stunning and diversified underwater scenery imaginable, incredible and thriving wildlife. Here, you can swim in quiet peace with majestic manta rays, timid giant whale sharks, harmless reef sharks and turtles very much older than you! Take a dolphin spotting tour. Snorkel over living coral reefs. Photograph the spectacular, rainbow-coloured habitat of giant turtles and tortoises, grouper, angelfish, butterflyfish, bannerfish and hundreds more. In fact, there are thousands of reefs giving sanctuary to over a thousand types of fish. It is staggering to learn that some 300 fish were first recorded in the Maldives. Today, there are 18 protected bird species, nine protected marine species and 25 protected marine areas.
In the 21st century, the strict guidelines set out for protecting fish and marine life have been extended to tourism. Compare this to many crowded Mediterranean resorts. In the Maldives, buildings on even the smallest resort islands can occupy no more than 20 percent of the land area. Beach vegetation is kept intact to defend against erosion. Water disposal is monitored. Construction of jetties and other structures in lagoons are strictly controlled to ensure natural and free flow of water and sand around the islands.
People come to the Maldives because of the environment, the marine life, the world-renowned diving sites and the beautiful underwater creatures and unspoilt coral reefs. To swim here amidst clouds of rainbow coloured fish - to see (and photograph) the shimmering kaleidoscopic reefs in crystal clear water - exploding with all colours of the spectrum - is right at the top of most peoples life achievement experiences list. (aka 'bucket list'!)
Tourists are encouraged to dive and snorkel over the coral reefs but are asked not to touch the coral. In fact, it is illegal to remove any living coral. It also is an offence to buy, sell or export solid coral and other coral products. The same is true with all turtle and tortoise shell goods. It is a small price to pay to continue to enjoy the world's most romantic, private and beautiful tropical paradise. This is the Maldives: ecotourism at its most successful.
Compared to other tourism hotspots in the world, the Maldives is one of the last unspoilt paradises on earth that the people and government of the Maldives are working hard to keep it that way. It is a difficult job and one that needs never-ending vigilance and help from its visitors. The Maldivians know - along with their visitors - that they need their fragile environment to remain intact to continue to enjoy their simple and peaceful way of life, thus they are totally supportive and not exploitative in any way of their environment. As tourists you also have an important part to play. In fact, how you behave is crucial here, mass tourism would literally sink the Maldives.
El Nino and Coral
The coral reefs of the Maldives are one of the richest and oldest ecosystems in the world. Before the advent of the El Nino weather phenomenon over the last 10 years , the Maldivians had taken their coral for granted along with the creatures it housed and fed, and believed it would be there forever. The coral was an everlasting resource as far as they were concerned and for centuries previously had even made their homes out of it.
El Nino caused a warming of the waters, which bleached and killed two-thirds of this precious resource. The vulnerability and sustainability of this island nation state was abruptly brought home to them. This change in the ocean-atmosphere system in the eastern Pacific in 1998 with a warming of around 5 degrees Celsius caused the coral to expel algae which is most of the coral's food and gives the coral the beautiful vivid colours. About 70% of the coral died, leaving them pale and ghostly in appearance.
With help from Man, nature is making a comeback. Coral reefs are being encouraged back to health. They are using cone-shaped frames through which an electrical current is passed to encourage a limestone layer to grow on which the coral can then reform. Hopefully this will bring back full coral reefs within 5-10 years. This is taking place at Vabbinfaru in the northern Maldives. Some coral polyps latch naturally onto the cone structures, and others coral polyps need to be physically attached, but once established are then later transplanted to other parts of coral in need of resurgence.
This coral is growing about 5 times as fast as normal which is making the healing process work well, and researchers are surprised how well the natural coral is re-emerging. In the southern Maldives about 80% of the coral has returned to life. One of the resorts, Banyan Tree, is co-funding this project. They say they are doing this because:
"We must satisfy our customers, inspire our colleagues and improve the human and physical environment which we do business in. This is not just bleeding-heart liberalism; it's simple, enlightened self-interest," said group chairman Ho Kwon Ping.
As well as restoring coral the scientists sponsored by Banyan Tree are using satellites to track turtles and to discover why there are only baby black-tipped sharks around the resorts but no adults.
There can always be more done than is actually happening but it is striking how much the Maldives and the Maldivian people and government care for their environment. Crucially they know they have to. They cannot put it off like so many European and American countries.
What you can do to protect the Maldives and its fragile ecosystem
Pay attention to guidelines and regulations concerning diving
Do not interfere with any marine creatures
Do not pick or damage the coral
While you are diving do not interfere with anything living around you. This way you will not allow avoid being punished economically but also lessen risk of infections or painful cuts.
Do not hang onto the coral or lean or let your fins knock into coral
Do not feed fish or attempt to touch them
Do not put your hands into crevices or caves as these can house venomous fish
Do not waste water – water here has to be specially treated and is in short supply
Do not let showers or water in taps run unnecessarily
Take home your empty bottles of shampoo etc as the Maldives cannot eliminate all the rubbish produced by all the tourists. Do the same with exhausted batteries.
Above all respect your environment. And your footprint within it. This will enable this beautiful and unique paradise to exist to thrill and awe future generations to come.
The 35 protected areas
In June 1995 in order to preserve the environment the Maldivian government declared 15 protected areas in the atolls with a high tourist density. In 1999 a further 9 areas were declared protected. Fishing is strictly prohibited in these areas. Since 2001 a further 11 designated areas have been added.
Dhigali Haa/Horubadhoo Thila
Dhekunu Thilafalhuge Miyaruvani
Emboodhoo Kandu Olhi
Giraavaru Kuda Haa
Guraidhoo Kandu Olhi
Makunudhoo Kandu Olhi
Kureddhoo Kandu Olhi