There it was, a shark. Swimming three metres in front of us, its eyes like spears. Piercing, locked, intent. There are experiences that one never forgets or grows weary of. Like snorkelling in the pristine Maldivian waters, among sharks, rays, and other bewildering marine life.
On a recent trip to the coral island nation of the Maldives, Hpaper followed Deborah Burn, one of two resident marine biologists at Gili Lankanfushi, on a snorkelling excursion that was at once unforgettable and extraordinary.
INTO THE DEEP BLUE
Our adventure into the deep blue began at the Diving Centre, where Deborah explained the basics of snorkelling, as well as what we might expect to see during our sea excursion. Sharks, turtles, and various ray species are popular sightings in the waters surrounding Gili Lankanfushi. And if we were in luck, even the megafauna of them all—the magnificent manta ray. We arrived at our first snorkel site on the Gili Goes Voyaging, a new 14-metre luxury yacht with its very own crew. Snorkel gear and fins in place, Deborah led us towards the shallower waters of the lagoon, where we would encounter what is known as a coral reef drop off.
Coral reefs are also called the rainforests of the sea, forming the basis of the tropical marine ecosystem. They are home to the highest density of animals on the planet (up to some 9 million species), and harbour up to 25% of all marine life. This is all the more astounding, considering the fact that coral reefs cover only less than 0.05% of our planet’s surface, just about the size of Ecuador.
In the Maldives alone, there are about 197 hard coral species, and they make up the seventh largest coral reef system in the world. In fact, the Maldives itself is formed by corals. As corals grow, they expand and put down a substance known as calcium carbonate. As a result of thousands of years of erosive wave action, the calcium carbonate is broken down, forming the sand that make up the Maldives. “No corals, no Maldives,” they say here.
TWO WORLDS IN ONE
As we approached the coral reef drop off, we witnessed a magnificent phenomenon that is not unlike a cliff, plunging nearly vertically from the shallow water surface to the seabed. There, a rich, diverse panorama unfolded before our very eyes. Coral formations of all shapes and sizes fan out like gigantic table tops. All around them, fishes in every imaginable colour and pattern dart and play, oblivious to our intrusion. Yet, back on the steep side of the drop off, it feels like a different world—darker, deeper, shrouded in mystery.
Deborah explained that this underwater world is really like a busy mega coral city. For the 1,100 types of fish and countless other marine species to thrive in the Maldives, every little detail needs to work in harmony. Sadly, global warming has caused considerable damage to corals. In fact, around the globe, 75% of the world’s coral reefs are under threat, and if no action is taken, 85% of our planet’s corals may disappear by 2050. To reduce its carbon footprint, Gili Lankanfushi is doing its part by harvesting renewable energy, by way of a floating solar panel. Measuring 15 metres by 15 metres, it is the largest floating solar structure in the Maldives, and on sunny days, can generate up to 160 kWh of energy, enough to power up all of the resort’s pathway and jetty lights, and even the front office.
LINES OF HOPE
In a further bid to save what remains of the coral reefs, Gili Lankanfushi has also become the first resort in the Maldives to work on low-tech and high-efficiency coral reef recovery techniques that involve rope. This innovative project, known as Coral Lines, helps to recover reefs by nursing corals on ropes. Every rope is fi rst planted with 50 small, broken coral fragments collected from nearby coral reefs. These corals are then nursed in the lagoon, just about 400 metres from the resort, for a year, before they are transplanted onto coral reefs. Over time, these reefs get bigger and healthier, helping to maintain the rich biodiversity of the ocean.
Other noteworthy conservation efforts undertaken by Gili Lankanfushi are the Olive Ridley Project and the Manta Ray ID Project. The largest of all ray species, mantas are charismatic leviathans of the ocean, spanning as long as almost seven metres in width. Unfortunately, they are listed as a vulnerable species, in part due to the demand for their skin, cartilage and gill rakers for international trade. The team at Gili Lankanfushi (guests included) have been working with the Manta Trust to collect data during sightings (especially when they visit the world famous Lankan Manta Point just 10 minutes by boat from the resort), to identify each and every individual manta ray. It is possible to identify every individual because each manta has its own unique pattern of black spots on its predominantly white belly. Every manta photographic ID forms an important piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle, providing critical information on the population size, migratory routes, reproductive output, and areas of habitat, thereby aiding in the conservation and protection of this truly magnificent species.
Yet another potential hazard facing one of the Indian Ocean’s most endearing sea creatures, the Olive Ridley turtle, is discarded fishing nets. These nets, known as ghost nets, endanger not just this beloved species, but other marine life as well. To combat this, the team at Gili Lankanfushi works with the Olive Ridley Project to remove ghost nets and rescue marine animals that are entangled in them.
PEOPLE AND REEFS
Ever since people have inhabited the Maldives and called it home, their lives have been inextricably linked to the water. Fishing today remains a major economic contributor, after tourism which accounts for more than 60% of the Maldives’ foreign exchange receipts. In the global context, ecosystem services including tourism, diving, and recreational fishing are estimated to be worth US$375 billion a year. Besides providing income for locals, the land within 100 kilometres of the reefs is also home to some 850 million people around the world. Reefs not only offer protection from storms (coral reefs help to break waves), but provide food for local communities. Of course, we as tourists and visitors also get to experience nature at her most splendid and marvellous.
SALT OF THE EARTH
As we journeyed back on board Gili Goes Voyaging, reeling with excitement and spellbound by what we had just experienced and discovered, there was an enlightened and renewed appreciation for all the wonders that lie beneath us. There we were, transfixed by the sea as the source of life and hope, our very own destinies one with it.
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