As tourism continues to grow in the Maldives, Hannah Stephenson dives into the underwater world that conservationists are trying to preserve.
Breaking off the beautiful, fragile coral, his flippers creating a cloud of debris which muddies the water, Arnie doesn’t even look up at the divers observing his wanton destruction of the reef that everyone else is trying to save.
We have just been given a lesson in the dive school on the importance of not touching the coral which provides a vital framework to the eco-balance of this part of the Indian Ocean, yet Arnie gives us a perfect display 10ft down of how not to treat this stunning underwater environment.
But then Arnie is a hawksbill turtle, the largest of a group of around eight to make their home on the 300m-long house reef at Baros, a tiny, truly beautiful Robinson Crusoe-like island in the Maldives, with five-star facilities and diving to die for. Arnie was simply foraging for food.
It’s 40 years since Baros was created, firstly as a hang-out for divers, and later transformed into the high-end luxury paradise it is now, with authentically-styled Maldivian bungalows featuring all mod cons and 24-hour butler service. The resort also benefits from its own separate sandbank island, on which you can enjoy a sunrise breakfast, and its own dhoni (a traditional Maldivian boat), on which you can sip Champagne as you watch the sun set.
As the third oldest resort in the Maldives, Baros has seen much competition spring up in the last four decades. There are now a reported 102 resort islands in this heavenly hotspot south of India and west of Sri Lanka, and I’m told at least another 20 resorts are in the pipeline.
This might seem a drop in the ocean for a territory comprising around 1,190 coral islands forming 26 atolls, the regions of the country, but how much damage is tourism doing?
Before guilt sets in, we need to look at the bigger picture. Global warming produces the biggest threat to coral reefs and the Maldives in general, as rising sea levels threaten to engulf the islands, given that the Maldives’ highest natural point is just 2.4m.
Yet tourism has, in some ways, helped to preserve much of the marine life which once went unprotected.
Dutchman Ronny Van Dorp, owner of the Baros dive centre, says that in the 17 years he has been there, he has seen shark numbers dip - fisherman would hunt them for shark fin soup, an extravagant delicacy in China - and rise again, following a total ban on shark hunting a few years ago. Now, we see harmless blacktip reef sharks and nurse sharks in the shallows, as well as on the reef.
There’s also a ban on the catching of turtles and the sale or export of turtle-shell products, although strangely no ban on the lifting of turtle eggs, which apparently some of the locals like to eat.
He says that the increase in tourism hasn’t made the reefs busier, because as numbers have risen, so have the number of resort islands - and divers have simply spread out across a wider area.
Diving into those crystal clear waters I witness an aquarium on the house reef, as bi-coloured parrotfish mingle with emperor angelfish, stripy Oriental sweetlips share space with jutting-jawed spotted wrasse and bright orange clownfish, indigenous to the Maldives, dip in and out of the flowering corals.
Making tourists more eco-aware is all about education, says Ronny.
“Diving is stricter now. It’s not irresponsible. We give clear instructions so everyone knows what to do, not to try to touch the fish or coral. We dive in small groups, but some islands may have 10 divers in a group and they are likely to affect the reefs more. Some islands have good reefs, some have bad ones.”
Set up in 1979 as one of the first dive centres in the Maldives, Baros was also the first in the Maldives to practise the international Reef Check Programme, educating the public, monitoring reef health and working on solutions to protect healthy reefs and rehabilitate damaged ones. It is now a PADI 5 star Gold Palm Dive Centre.
Coral reefs act like a protective seawall for the Maldives, providing breeding and feeding grounds for fish and other marine creatures, but also give us a picture of the health of the sea in general.
Baros offers reef watch courses, in which tourists can help gather data through fish and coral identification, which will be collated and sent to the Reef Check database, as well as manta ray information which is sent to Male, the capital, to assess numbers (mantas are another protected species) and migration patterns.
Some 15 years ago, the El Nino effect - when the temperature of the waters in the Maldives rose above 32C for around two weeks - caused extensive coral bleaching, killing a lot of coral. In response, resorts set up their own coral planting initiatives for regeneration.
Baros is among those to offer guests the chance to regenerate the coral, with the help of its experts.
In a classroom, marine biologist Verena Wiesbauer-Ali teaches us about the importance of coral in the eco-cycle and how colonies of coral grow poorly on sand, so need moving to grow more successfully.
We go out snorkelling in a small group, are shown how to dive down to select the coral for regeneration, choosing bits of coral which have been broken off or are growing poorly but are not completely dead, which are suitable for planting.
Wide metal frames, which look like elaborate plant supports, are placed underwater in the shallows while each of us takes what looks like a plastic cable tie and attaches the piece of coral to the frame, repeating the process until it’s full. Each piece is given room to grow and within months you can see the difference.
Baros is now offering a donation system, whereby you can sponsor a coral planting frame and the resort will send you an update and picture of its progress as time goes on.
As tourism has increased, so have concerns about the rubbish problem, not helped by reports that Thilafushi, known as ‘Rubbish Island’ and purpose-built to be used as a garbage dump by many of the luxury hotels, is full to overflowing. There’s talk of building an underground incinerator to alleviate the problem, but time will tell.
Meanwhile, the marine biologists at Baros are doing everything in their power to get the conservation message across to tourists.
“Tourism is a hope for the Maldives, not a danger,” says Verena. “I can show you what is alive and what is dead. It gives people the chance to learn how fragile our coral is and how important it is. I’m thrilled to see a turtle every day. If the tourists weren’t here, these animals wouldn’t be protected.”
Hannah Stephenson travelled to Male courtesy of Sovereign Luxury Travel. A week at the five-star Baros Maldives costs from £1,599 per person - saving up to £662 - booked through Sovereign Luxury Travel (0843 770 4526, www.sovereign.com). The price includes a free night, return flights from London Gatwick with Emirates, airport lounge access, private transfers and seven nights B&B in a Deluxe Villa, based on two adults sharing a room. Prices based on departures May 2, 2014. For further information on Baros, please visit www.Baros.com