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]

Stories From a Blue Planet, w/ Alexandra Cousteau

In 2009, Alexandra Coustau’s Blue Legacy Expedition took her and a small team of documenters to five continents in one hundred days, in search of clean drinking water. Though occasionally far from the ocean, she found herself constantly seeing the link between the sea and mankind’s sustainability, as well as to her grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, who would have been one hundred years old this year. Below, as excerpted from OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide she reflects on her career.

The ancients told of water. Carved deeply in stone and crafted carefully in story and song, their superstitions and histories and wisdoms cascade across centuries and flow through our lives today: “From the heights of a mountain…” “By the banks of a river…” “Upon the shores of a homeland…” and so the stories go. And so we tell them still. For history has always been written in water.

And yet, for all the wonder and worship, throughout most of human history, the mysteries of this water planet were out of sight and beyond understanding. The oceans were vast unknowable surfaces across which ships sailed bravely in search of wealth or distant lands and adventure. Beneath this plane lay a mysterious void filled by the wild creatures of myth, an inexhaustible supply of fish, or some combination of both. Rivers cradled civilizations, nurturing the evolution of societies while carrying away the waste and transgressions of communities. And the rains came as they would for reasons most everyone could explain but seldom in the same way or for the same purpose. So man spoke of water as one who sees without knowing- hoping somehow to explain the wonders beyond and beneath the water planet he called home.But as time passed, the siren call of exploration tempted the hearts of both pilgrims and wanderers to pierce the dark night of ignorance and see the planets spinning-to step beyond the binding traditions of mortality and think the thoughts of gods. And they too told of water. Some throwing sheets into the wind would rush to the edge of the world to drown echoes of scorn beneath a bending horizon. Some would chart water’s course through our veins and some would harness its steam to build a bigger and better life. So story follows story as man wielded reason and exploration to unravel the mysteries of his world.

But in spite of centuries of charting the expanses of her boundaries, no one had yet searched out the depths of her oceans and this frustrated my grandfather Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Tethered to shallow, short dives by the aching in his lungs he longed to see more, to know more and so, as centuries of explorers before him had done, he sat down with a friend to rewrite the boundaries. The invention they would call the “Aqua Lung” in 1943, allowed humans to explore the underwater world for the first time, opening new fields of study and changing how we understand much of our natural surroundings.

The thrill of what he saw-of what he discovered-was more than he could contain and soon, he was back at the drawing board to design gear for my grandmother Simone and eventually even for my father Philippe.

Just four years old when his father taught him to dive, my father was so exuberant about all he saw beneath the calm surface of the water – a darting school of fish here, a brightly colored coral there, a waving forest of life just beyond – that he repeatedly tried to call out to my grandfather. He was blissfully unaware that each exclamation caused the regulator to fall out of his mouth, which my grandfather deftly and repeatedly replaced to keep his small, excited son from drowning.

When they finally got back aboard the ship, my grandfather scolded my father for his reckless enthusiasm saying, “You must be quiet underwater because it is a silent world.” My grandfather’s description of the new world to which he had introduced my father that day later became the title of his best selling book and Oscar-winning documentary The Silent World. And so we Cousteau have joined the generations of those who tell the stories of water.

Twenty-six years, a host of inventions, discoveries and awards would pass from that day. President John F. Kennedy would bestow the National Geographic’s Gold Medal on my grandfather at a White House ceremony honoring his work. The award-winning series he developed with my father, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, would be welcomed into living rooms around the world. His storytelling would launch a new generation of environmentalists and forever change how we see the oceans. And then Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

I remember my grandfather telling me that the day he saw the headlines “Two Men Walk on the Moon” (knowing my grandfather, probably not without some healthy envy) was the day he knew our perception of the world would forever change. For the first time, we saw ourselves from outer space and realized unmistakably that our planet is in fact blue. Finally, people would see what he saw everyday from the deck of the Calypso: We live on a water planet.

Gadling Podcasts

As I was writing the last post, I started to
think to myself that a lot of folks probably don’t know we’ve done a fair number of podcasts here. I’ve got some ideas
for new ones we’ll likely be producing here shortly, but I figured I’d remind folks that there are several good ones
already available that you might be interested in. The list of folks we’ve talked to is rather eclectic, from the
well-known diver and star of Undersea Detectives, John
, to undersea explorer Fabien Cousteau and,
most recently Josh Davis, author of
The Underdog.

And we are also on
, so feel free to subscribe for your

And if you’re interested in any of our other previous podcasts besides those mentioned above, here
is a quick list:

     — James O’Reilly, Executive Editor of Traveler’s Tales
     — Lonely Planet’s Don

     — Eric
, kayaker and the author of Keep Australia on Your Left
     — Jim Benning, co-editor of the online travel site
     — Dean
and Kristine Enea, travel authors
     — Cafe Reggio