fixed ahead, the gardener delicately held the spiky-sharp thorn in her gloved
hands. It was capable of giving her a deep cut, so she had to be careful.
Occasionally, she paused to take a deep breath, but otherwise she didn’t talk
and was focussed on tending to the Eden-like garden in front of her. Bowed on
her knees, she zip-tied the thorn to another plant, before showing her two
companions how to tie and transplant another fractured branch. If it weren’t
for the tropical fish darting around their cumbersome scuba gear, you’d swear
they were tending a shrubbery.
is how they do the gardening, Maldives-style. While most travellers visit the Indian
Ocean’s string of coral-fringed islands and coconut palm-topped atolls for
their pearl-white sandbanks, cyan waters and promise of never-ending romance,
it is the iridescent, rainbow-coloured coral reefs below the surface that are
the real stunner.
in 1998, the Maldives’ corals were hit by El Niño, a periodic weather
phenomenon that marine biologists believe killed 90% of the country’s reefs. With
just a 1C rise in temperature, corals turn white, exposing their inner
skeletons and making them increasingly vulnerable – but Maldivian waters
increased by a catastrophic 4C. Recovery was then hampered by the devastating
2004 Boxing Day tsunami that smashed into the chain of coral reefs, leaving
hundreds almost beyond repair.
the 75-strong island cluster of the Baa Atoll, a 35-minute seaplane flight from
the capital Malé, you will find a greater diversity of fish than in most marine
parks. Kihavah Huravalhi, home to the luxurious Anantara Kihavah resort, is
one of the atoll’s few inhabited islands, and coral adoption and reforestation
is flourishing here. On a morning dive or snorkel, it is possible to see a
number of upside-down nursery frames, made from up-cycled flower baskets and
metal rods, which house fractured pieces of coral.
coral adoption and reforestation initiative has great ecological value as it
involves replanting reef fragments to accelerate the regeneration of coral
growth in the Maldives’ reef-fringed atolls. Within a year of planting, faster
growing acropora corals, such as stag horn and table corals, completely cover
the structures, while slower growing species such as sun corals are introduced
once the colonies are well established. At this point, fragments are then
either painstakingly transplanted onto new structures – similar to piecing
together a gigantic organic jigsaw – or relocated back onto the natural reef where
they can thrive.
how effective can underwater gardening be? “It’s definitely progress, and
that’s all we can ask for,” said Evelyn Chavent, Anantara’s resident underwater
expert and one of only six marine biologists permanently based in the Baa Atoll.
“You’d be surprised by how quickly some of the corals grow – up to 2.5cm per
year – so it’s a fast learner.”
are some 450 different species of coral here, and not every species has a
fighting chance, but coral reforestation and adoption programmes help educate
local fishermen, school children and tourists, who can adopt their own coral
frames and monitor the coral’s growth
online. To underline the country’s eco credentials, the Maldives is also on
track to become the world’s first
carbon neutral country by 2019 – something sceptics believe is overly
ambitious. But scientists say action is essential because rising sea levels could
engulf the country.
may be one of the Maldives most popular places for underwater gardening, but
it’s far from the only option for lessons in the marine world. Located in the
same atoll, Dusit
Thani resortoffers underwater education with a marine biologist, and guests
can adopt a spotted eagle ray to help long-term conservation of the vulnerable
species. At the Four Seasons
Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, the coral propagation project has to
date transplanted more than 120,000 fragments of coral – one of the most
successful reforestation projects in the world. The islands of Dhigu, Veli and
Naladhu in the South Male Atoll, also run by the Anantara hotel group, are home
to a number of coral adoption projects. Naladhu,
in particular, sits on a crisp clear azure lagoon sheltered by a house reef
that attracts black-tipped reef sharks and a huge variety of smaller species,
including parrot and clown fish.
what does it feel like to go gardening underwater? According to Chavent, it is something
that will stay with you for life. “In years to come, some guests will come back
to find that the small piece of coral that they planted has flourished and
created a whole miniature eco-system around it,” she said. “That kind of
sustainable tourism is priceless.”