It is monsoon season in the Maldives and the postcard-perfect seascapes that this part of the Indian Ocean is famed for is nowhere in sight. Instead of bellowing clouds, Monet sunsets, and azure waters, I stand before dark waters whipped high by the wind, ominously framed by low-hanging grey clouds. It's easy to yearn for clear skies and more forgiving weather, but from the safe harbour of my double storey over-water villa at Angsana Velavaru, I have all the creature comforts I need to tide over the storm.
Over the past few decades, the Maldives has fast become a byword for luxury. No five-star resort worth its salt has passed on a chance to claim their own atoll. With the abundance of top-shelf champagne and spirits flowing freely in each resort, it's easy to forget that the nation's state religion is still very much tethered to its Islamic roots. Then there are other issues that remain invisible to the passing tourist bent on seeking out a weekend of pure hedonism: Island erosion, barely discernible to the naked eye; waste management, which sees islands such as Thilafushi piled high with rubbish; and coral bleaching, where rising temperatures in the sea water trigger corals to expel algae living in their tissues, thereby causing corals to emerge as white skeletons of its former self.
These environmental issues are not necessarily concerns that the casual tourist might want to reckon with. But for Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, a luxury hospitality group that operates three properties in the Maldives, these issues are clearly not meant to be swept under the carpet. Instead, the group takes an active role in educating guests about the surroundings they find themselves in. From reef clean-up activities to in-room welcome letters inviting guests to marine conservation talks, no guest passing through its Thai Chamanard-scented resorts would leave without the environment weighing on their minds.
The marine conservation efforts of the group is no mere Corporate Social Responsibility badge destined to embellish glossy annual reports. Beyond guest education and engagement on a property level, the group has funded and upheld its very own marine conservation facility — dubbed the Banyan Tree Marine Labs — for 13 years running, one that currently engages with the research community at large and contributes to conservation eforts in the Maldives on a national level. Spearheading the efforts of the lab is Dr. Steve Newman, who takes on the dual role of Director of Banyan Tree Marine Labs Maldives and Group Director of Conservation for Banyan Tree properties the world over. Prior to joining the Banyan Tree Group, the marine biologist with over two decades of experience under his belt has run numerous marine labs in the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Jamaica. Below, he talks us through the environmental issues in the Maldives and the projects undertaken by the Banyan Tree Marine Labs.
The Banyan Tree Marine Lab was established in 2003. How have the priorities of the lab changed over these 13 years?
The philosophy of the marine lab is built on a four-pronged approach to conservation, restoration, education and research. The research component is pretty vital, because without it, how do you know what to conserve or restore? How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your restoration efforts? Research, conservation, and restoration efforts all feed into our education programme that we integrate with the guest experience.
At the moment, we're working on integrating our research efforts, meaning the research we do here doesn't have to be purely academic. While we have an academic component, we're also working with other partners such as the Marine Research Centre in the Maldives, students from Newcastle University, and also the locals here in Maldives. The research can be integrated on all levels, beginning with academic research at the top, and further down the line, I train my local staff and even people living on the island to assist with the process. If we move one level down from there, we have Citizen Science — a programme that anyone can get involved in.
Do you screen these 'Citizen Scientists' before they are allowed to participate in the programme?
With Citizen Science, you have to validate the data to ensure that it's reliable. But it's designed in a way that doesn't require too much training. What they're doing is they're going into the water with identification sheets that help them to look out for species such as sharks, stingrays, turtles. They are also told to look out for unusual occurrences — such as areas with lots of coral bleaching — and report on them. That way, they can act as an early warning signal. Those that go diving fill out a log while those snorkelling can take the identification sheets with them. It's all very simple date, so you might question if there's value in that. For us, the value comes in having data over a large spatial area over a long period of time. We rolled out Citizen Science last year, so it's in its infancy at the moment. But already, the amount of information that we're getting allows us to start building a picture that we're now validating with the rest of our research.
The Banyan Tree Marine Labs has upheld the longest turtle conservation programme in the Maldives. Tell us more about what you're currently doing with the programme.
Our Turtle Head-Start programme has released over 400 turtles since it started 10 years ago. We're focused on the Green Sea Turtle as it's an endangered species. They nest primarily within the Maldives. They come here to nest and disappear for the rest of the year. The hatchlings emerge 60 days later and disappear as well. During these first few years, mortality is really high. The idea then is to protect them so that they grow bigger, strengthen their ability to avoid predators, and increase their chances of survival.
Over at our labs, we take in 10% of the hatchlings (we have a research permit with the government that allows us to do so) and allow the rest to go through nature's lottery. For the hatchlings we keep, we care for them for 18 to 24 months until they're large enough to be released. For the first few months, we keep them in a tank on land and we have a pump that changes the water throughout the day. As they get larger, we move them out into a metal enclosure over in the lagoon. It's a large enclosure fitted with a mesh to stop fish from coming in and turtles from escaping. This is a semi-natural enclosure that still allows us to feed them. We normally keep them out there for at least a year.
Before we release the turtles, we tag them all with titanium flicker tags. We also put satellite tags on some of them. Some of the turtles we've tracked have gone over to Sumatra, and Western Indonesia. Some of them ventured up to the Arabian Gulf, Seychelles, and East Africa. And this is important because it shows that we're not just increasing the numbers here, but that they're going on and living their normal lives. Now that it's possible to purchase smaller tags, we're planning on putting some on much younger turtles. So for the first time, we can have a look into the early life history of younger turtles, which at the moment is completely unknown to science.
What are some of the environmental threats faced by the Maldives at the moment?
The three greatest threats to tourists and potentially the future of the Maldives are coral bleaching, island erosion, and waste management. We try to address all of these — the bleaching through our restoration efforts; waste management through not only minimising our own, but also educating the locals on the islands; and with island erosion, we've been mapping our islands with a Global Positioning System (GPS). But now we're expanding it to other islands as well as neighbouring reefs within the operations where we work. At the moment, I'm using a drone to map the islands in 3D. Most long-term studies of how islands change show that they shift in the lagoon, or might even change shape altogether. But this tracking is normally done from aerial or satellite images, which doesn't allow you to determine the height height of the islands — an important aspects, because if the height goes down, you can no longer inhabit the island. So by mapping islands in 3D, we can actually use software that allows us to determine the volume of sand on the island, and that will allow us to start making predictions on the longevity of these islands vis-à-vis climate change, which is particularly important after the coral bleaching this year.
Of the three environmental issues you've mentioned, which is the most pressing at this point in time?
The one that's garnered the most attention at the moment is the coral bleaching. It has been catastrophic this year. Normally, the bleaching lasts for about a year, and the last episode has been going since 2014. This is the longest bleaching the planet's ever seen. The northern half of the Great Barrier Reef half has reportedly lost up to 50% of their corals. And here, I'm estimating in some parts, we've lost 90% of our coral, which is similar to what we saw in 1998. In 1998 the Maldives lost 90% of its coral and it took up to ten years for that to recover. But our coral restoration programme previously showed that we managed to bring back fully functioning, healthy coral reefs in just five years.
Tell us more about the process of coral restoration and how you implement it across your house reefs.
Corals can recover naturally to a certain degree. Around April, they start to spawn, and we'll be monitoring how many of them settle and survive. But the actual restoration of reefs can become really expensive on a large scale. On our end, we're working on a considerably small scale, where we assist with the natural recovery of the corals. Every week, we involve hotel guests in transplanting fragments of coral. Many species of corals can naturally fragment, reattach to a hard substrate, and grow from there. So we go out and collect these pieces and transplant them directly onto the reef.
At the end of the day, corals are a big draw for tourism in the Maldives. If the corals die out, no one's going to come.
After the widespread coral bleaching episode in 1998, tourism did take a hit worldwide. However, coral reefs go through a natural cycle of regeneration and decline before regenerating again. In some places, their regeneration and recovery would be really slow. But if past experience is anything to go by, the recovery within the Maldives is quite remarkable.
So there's no point in time where a particular reef would be irrevocably destroyed? It's just a matter of time before a coral reef regenerates?
Yes, the reef regenerates as long as you've got your source of new coral. When corals spawn, they release their eggs, drift, and settle somewhere else. So in a place like the Maldives, they probably self-seed quite a lot, but each coral produces thousands, millions of eggs. In 1999, a year after the last bleaching, we were already seeing lots of baby coral settling on the reef. So I would imagine within three years, we'll be seeing some areas which are really starting to recover.
If we're not just looking at the corals, but also the entire ecosystem surrounding it, are there any marine species that have gone off the map?
We are closely monitoring that. We did a lot of surveys before the bleaching. There are some species that are dependent only on certain species of coral to live on, and some would only feed on coral. And of course if you lose that coral, then you lose those species. And there are a few species of coral that we've been monitoring to see what's going to happen, because we knew their homes were going to disappear, and we educated and advised all of our associates and guests as early as October last year, that this early 2016 bleaching was coming. It's unfortunate that it's been this severe. At the moment we don't even know the full impact of this bleaching, and we won't know until everything settles down. Hopefully, by the time of the conference in October, I'll be presenting our findings to show everybody what the actual impact's been.
That being said, we expect to see shifts and lots of changes in the fish communities. When a coral dies, it gets covered in algae, but the structure's still there, and that structure's good because that's what all the fish hide in. And as long as you've got that structure, and those reefs with lots of structure tend to recover because they support lots of fish that control the algae. So those fish then keep the algae under control, and once that's under control, baby corals can settle. If you don't have those fish, then it's impossible for those reefs to recover, because the coral won't settle on algae and grow. So this is the challenge that some places in the Caribbean have, because they're so heavily fished. Whereas in the Maldives, fishing is generally low because fishermen target fish like tuna or open ocean species, so reef fishing isn't that intensive.
At the moment, what I'm seeing is that many fish have shifted a little deeper into the reef when the waters grew too hot. It's only the really small fish that are unable to move large distances that are potentially going to be impacted.
Have you seen a growth in natural predatory threats to corals?
We had a major outbreak of Pin-Cushion Sea Star and Crown of Thorns Starfish last year. So we encountered a double whammy — the outbreak and the bleaching. It's the first outbreak we've seen since the early nineties. Every month, we used to go out and remove these creatures if the abundances were high. Typically, if you see more than a dozen in a 15-minute swim, then you could have a problem because it means that a good number of them are feeding directly on the coral.
Before last year, we used to remove about a dozen of them each month. But starting in 2014, their numbers started to grow. Last year, we hit a full outbreak scenario where we removed 700 Crown of Thorns and Pin-Cushion Sea Stars from a nearby reef in an hour. Unfortunately, it was too late for that reef. From our data, that reef's gone from over 90% live coral to less than 1%. To the north of where we are, we've seen dozens of reefs eaten down to zero coral within the space of a few months. And these starfish will then crawl from one reef to another to start the process all over again.
It follows that the reef clean-up activities held at the resorts are a means of responding to these threats?
Yep, so we conduct sessions every single week on each of our islands, as well as on nearby reefs. Associates and guests come along to remove these creatures. We also practice injecting biosalts directly into the starfish. It has been shown to be non-toxic to fish and corals, and a single injection kills the starfish within four hours without physically harming the reef.
How often do you host visiting experts and scientists in the marine labs?
We've had quite a lot of them this year. We support people who come to do research and this has been going on for quite some time. We also have an agreement with Newcastle University. Often there's only so much we can do, and I am definitely not an expert in everything, just a very small thing. Having been on that academic side of things, one of the biggest challenges I've encountered, especially when in comes to conducting research in places that really need it — like here — is the cost associated with having infrastructure and access to these sites where the research is needed. To that end, we have 40 resorts globally in beautiful locations and often these locations are chosen because of their cultural or environmental significance, and we're glad we're able to facilitate that.
What do you hope to achieve by organising the upcoming Maldives Marine Science Symposium? I believe this is the first symposium of its kind in the Maldives?
We work very closely with the Marine Research Centre, the research arm of the Ministry of Fishes and Agriculture in the Maldives, to help them deliver conservation needs to the Maldives and share information across the Maldives to develop capacity. With this symposium in October, we've worked with the Marine Research Centre, International Union of Conservation, and the Maldives National University, to bring together all of the marine biologists in the Maldives. We're also looking to reach out to anyone that's interested. The idea is to break down some of these barriers and get people to start talking to each other. There's a lot of competition within the tourism industry, but at the end of the day, we're all united in our aim to do good for the environment. So the idea is to bring groups of people in, show them that there's mentorship should they need it, give them guidance, and also show them what's possible. We're a service industry, but there's so much more that marine biologists could and should deliver within the Maldives.
Follow Dr. Newman and his team on Instagram (@marine_conservation_maldives) for an insider look at their ongoing conservation and research efforts. Keen to learn more about marine conservation in the Maldives and get involved with conservation efforts while you're there? Book yourself in for a stay at Angsana Velavaru or Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru. Singapore Airlines flies daily to the Maldives.