By Dr Benjamin Neal
The Catlin Seaview Survey has just arrived in the island city of Male in the Maldive Archipelago to begin our second Indian Ocean expedition. The Maldives is truly an ocean nation, a fact that was unmistakable as we dropped onto the runway at Male International, with seawater close at hand on three sides. Coral built this nation, with the actions of untold trillions of tiny polyps working away to provide the calcium carbonate that ground into the sand now forming virtually all of the 1190 islands. Long, long ago there were high islands here, composed of sharp volcanic rock forged from ancient lava flows, but these formations are long gone, eroded by the rains of eons, the rock outlasted by living coral. Now only the halos of coral atolls remain, circles of shallow water specked around their edges with shallow sandy islands, like necklaces of pearls cast on the azure velvet of the sea.
The Maldives has built itself on the efforts of coral in another way as well, creating a $2B economy based largely on extensive destination tourism and diving industries. Healthy coral reefs and a clean ocean environment are the key commodities luring tourists from around the world, whose visits provide some 60% of the total foreign exchange of the country. The other major industry of the country is fishing, obviously also directly dependent upon a healthy ocean. If there is one country in the world reliant on the ocean, it surely must be the Maldives.
However, if there is one country in the world most threatened by the ocean, it would also be the Maldives. With an average land elevation of only 1.5 meters, the Maldives is one of the lowest lying countries on earth. A 50 centimetre increase in sea level over the next century, as predicted in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), would have profound effects. Many of the republic’s 200 inhabited islands would likely have to be abandoned and saltwater infiltration into the groundwater aquifers would decrease existing freshwater supplies. Although larger nations are responsible for the majority of global greenhouse gas emissions, small island nations such as the Maldives are the ones that have already begun to feel the disproportional impacts of climate change.
Monitoring the health of the coral reefs in the Maldives as we will be doing on this mission is essential for two reasons. First, the immediate health of the economy is tied to tourism on the reefs, and second, as global change brings warmer seas, the potential for fatal coral bleaching events increases, with these bleached corals serving as a harbinger for rising seas, which will affect all coastal nations. It is high time to start paying attention to these signs from the coral.
Two groups that are paying attention, and are working in the Maldives on coral reef health issues already are the Marine Research Centre (MRC) of the Ministry for Fisheries, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We are glad to be collaborating closely with these groups on this mission, and will be hosting personnel from both groups for much of the trip. We will have students and young professionals from both groups on board, learning research techniques, and adding their local knowledge to the trip. This is an aspect of our mission that I am most looking forward to, for as we take on the vast tasks task of ocean conservation, we can only make a difference by all working together.