Swimming along the coral edge of what transplanted marine biologist Anke Hofmeister calls her “home reef” the line dividing the shallows and deep blue is exact. To our left in the brightly sunlit coral, hundreds of shiny reef fish dart and feed; in the dark blue, just to our right, which descends straight down a dramatic hundred foot wall, swim the Maldivian big guys – jackfish, tuna and red snapper, each over one hundred pounds. An occasional spotted eagle ray elegantly flaps its way past in the dark blue below the surface of a calm Indian Ocean.
During a mile-long swim paralleling the beach we spy an incredibly beautiful and vast variety of wrasses, clown, surgeon and parrot fish. A dusky moray eel peeks out of its coral hideaway. A solitary hawksbill turtle flippers past. And a square-headed porcupine fish attempts to hide itself deep inside a rock crevice. As Anke dives to tickle an anemone hugged tight to the coral, a nasty titan triggerfish nips at her; they can be aggressive little buggers and when they bite literally take a chunk of flesh. The shallow, sandy floor running to the beach is heavy with gray-beige coral, colorful clams and even a few handsome sea cucumbers (black with red dots).
The relative health of the coral is somewhat remarkable because recent history here hasn’t been particularly kind to it. In 1998, thanks to shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño, sea temperatures rose above 32 degrees C for more than two weeks badly “bleaching” the coral (the killing of the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color). Between seventy and ninety percent of all the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls are estimated to have died as a result. Slowly they are trying to come back.
While that temperature rise was considered a fluke, today after our swim I ask Anke to guess at the water temps now. “Around 31 degrees C (88 degrees F),” she says, though she not guessing since she’s worked and swum here nearly daily for the past four years. “For this time of year, that seems to be normal now. In two more months it will be colder, down to 27, 28 degrees.”
In 1998 scientists were astonished that the water temperatures could rise so high, so fast. Now they are worried it may one day become the norm. With approximately 80 per cent of the 1,192 coral islets that make up the island nation just three feet or less above sea level, making it the world’s lowest country, the temperature of the ocean is very important. If the temperatures stay high and the coral continues to suffer and die, there goes another barrier protecting these already fragile, at-risk islands.
While warming and rising seas and coral die-offs are everyday concerns throughout the Maldives, as Anke and I walk back down the beach another environmental worry is evident: Many of the beautiful white sand beaches are narrowing, on some islands quite dramatically. It’s estimated that fifty percent of the inhabited islands and forty five percent of those with resorts only are suffering from some degree of coastal erosion.
Some of the beach loss is due to man. Continued development demands more sand for cement (though much of the sand used for building in the Maldives today comes from Sri Lanka or India). Increased wave action due to more boat traffic takes a toll. But a major blame is placed on the tsunami of 2004, which sucked massive amounts of sand off the beaches, and it never returned.
When you fly above the Maldives it’s easy to see there is no one shape characterizing the outline of the exterior of the atolls or the hundreds of islands sheltered inside them. Strong tides and powerful currents shape each, there is no one pattern thus no single way to reduce or limit the erosion. On different islands different attempts have been made to save the beaches, including building of seawalls or jetties, dredging and pumping. In some cases it is working, in others not.
On one hand it’s easy to think of these coral atolls and the islands they protect as tough and impervious, imagining that they’ve been here a long time and will be here for a longer time to come. But a short swim and a simple walk on a beautiful, hot, hot day quickly reminds just how fragile, how vulnerable they can be.