Maldives in Peril: SCUBA surveying with Fabien Cousteau

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 atolls. 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 — 400 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 bathtub warm, 86, 87 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, Mother Nature and fast-warming temperatures.

The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly hammered in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees for more than two weeks. The result 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.

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 a long way from any kind of comeback. Blanched the color of cement, the coral tips were mostly broken off leaving behind bare rock.

Maldives-based marine biologist Kate Wilson dove with us and had explained that any comeback had been slowed when, last April, a second mass-bleaching event occurred, with high sea temperatures again sweeping the area spurred by a changing climate worldwide.

Mark would later describe the scene as “eerie,” a “coral graveyard, with rubble and bare rock coated in slimy green algae.” Fabien’s photographs showed a murky, fish-less seafloor.
Kate assures there are reefs less impacted by local fishing and closer to colder currents, which are making strong comebacks. We head for one by boat.

It is not all bleak in the Maldives, there are some very good things going on 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 don’t eat shark, they were only being hunted for shark fin soup. It’s estimated the value of a single shark to diving tourists versus fishermen was $3,300 to $32.

Tuna fishing is limited to being caught by pole, one of the most sustainable forms of fishing. And the naming of Baa Atoll as an eco-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 educate fishermen that the area is off-limits, find them optional employment and fund enforcement.

Our boat stops off a reef known as Hanifaru, which Kate assures is the healthiest in the atoll.
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, each over one hundred pounds. 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, local communities and half-dozen resorts that operate within the atoll. Starting in January 2012 tourists are going to pay too, buying permits for sport fishing, swimming with the manta rays and diving, which will all go into the management of the biosphere.”

Are some zones completely off-limits to fishing? “Seven core areas are strict no-take zones.”
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 they are targeted by international fishing fleets. So even though the Maldives fisheries is one of the most protected, the 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. What you’re seeing could become the new norm.”

[Image credit: Fabien Cousteau]