Under The Sea – The Race To Save The Dying Coral

7 mins

As climate change causes damage to coral reefs in the Maldives, Carolyn Beasley investigates how educating tourists can help spread the conservation message

I’m snorkelling alone on a coral reef. Parrotfish munch on algae-covered coral skeletons, there’s so many I can’t count them. The fish come in every gaudy colour; purple, green, blue, and orange. Moving to the edge of the reef, I encounter two white tip reef sharks, and as I float, they circle me. A grey reef shark flicks past, agitated. My heart pounds, but it’s not the sharks that scare me. Despite the astounding fish action on this reef, there’s something missing. Healthy coral reefs.

I’m in the Maldives at Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort, a superb piece of paradise in remote Gaafu Dhaalu atoll almost 400 kilometres south of the capital city, Malé. This place is so isolated that it should be untouchable. And yet, like all coral reefs in the Maldives, and most reefs worldwide, high ocean temperatures have damaged them.

coral reefs dying

Many coral reefs the world over are dying. When sea temperatures rise, it causes coral to bleach. Image: iStock

Global warming and climate change lead to higher temperatures in the top few metres of the ocean. Prolonged exposure to warmer temperatures causes coral bleaching, where the corals become unhealthy, turn white and sometimes die. Disturbingly, researchers from the XL Catlin Seaview Survey say the ocean is absorbing 93 per cent of climate change heat, and in the future, sea temperatures could be so high that widespread coral bleaching may occur.

Damage to reefs is of global significance. Coral reefs support an estimated 25 per cent of all life in the oceans and provide food and livelihoods for around 500 million people.

El Niño and coral bleaching 

To understand the problem, we must first look at the causes. In addition to global warming, coral bleaching can be caused by an El Niño event, an interaction between ocean surface temperatures and the atmosphere. El Niño events typically occur once every two to seven years. In an El Niño event, the winds and ocean currents in the southern Pacific Ocean are reversed, pushing warmer water to the west. This can trigger worldwide effects, causing prolonged periods of warmer water to sit where it would not normally be, such as in the Maldives.

Damage to reefs is of global significance. Coral reefs support an estimated 25 per cent of all life in the oceans and provide food and livelihoods for around 500 million people.

Warmer waters cause a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. Simply put, corals are made up of tiny animals, called polyps, which live inside the hard coral skeleton. Corals feed on plankton and supplement their nutrition with a kind of algae. These plants, called zooxanthellae, live inside the coral tissues providing extra energy and giving the corals their typical brown colour. In high temperatures the zooxanthellae stop producing food for the corals and are ejected by their polyp hosts. The polyps themselves are translucent, and corals with no zooxanthellae appear white, the colour of their skeleton. Hence the process is called ‘bleaching.’ Scientists do not yet understand why the zooxanthellae are ejected, but without the added nutrition, and if temperatures stay high for too long, the corals die.

Outrigger Konotta, Maldives beach

Even eco resorts like the Outrigger Konotta, Maldives, are affected by El Nino, a phenomenon that pushes warmer waters where they don’t belong. Staff here are educating tourists on how to help save them. Image: supplied

Global coral bleaching first occurred in 1998 and a second event followed in 2010. During the intervening 12 years, some coral reefs partially recovered. However six years later, 2016 saw the third and most severe global bleaching event on record. Bleaching was recorded from every major reef area in the world including Australia, Hawaii, the Red Sea and the Caribbean.

The Maldives context

Reefs in the Maldives were not spared in the global bleaching of 2016. Researchers from the University of Exeter studied Maldives reefs in Gaafu Dhaalu atoll, finding that while many of the larger corals such as boulder corals survived, the more fragile staghorn and tabletop corals did not fare so well. In water less than five metres deep where the temperature rise was the greatest, 91 percent of these habitat-providing coral types were lost. Thankfully, these corals are some of the faster growing species, and the reefs may recover, if temperatures remain under control.

Bleached staghorn coral at the Maldives Outrigger Konotta resort

Bleached staghorn coral at the Maldives Outrigger Konotta resort. If temperatures stay down, they may recover. Image: Supplied

Clearly action is needed to save coral reefs and far from avoiding the Maldives, tourists should visit but choose their resort carefully. A resort with a meaningful conservation programme can improve awareness while giving something back to the reef. Outrigger Konotta Maldives Resort is one such eco-minded establishment, and the passionate Italian marine biologist, Caterina Fattori, heads up its conservation efforts. ‘I know I cannot restore all of the reef, it’s impossible.’ Caterina says. ‘But really, I’m hoping to educate people about the ecosystem.’

Educating guests and staff happens in a variety of ways, and first, Caterina shows me her coral rehabilitation project. Pulling on our dive gear, Caterina says: ‘It’s not just to look like a really nice coral garden. We need also to provide homes for the fish.’ We descend through seven metres of clear water to the first of the steel frames. Caterina points out fragments of naturally broken corals that she and resort guests have attached to frames, in the hope of giving these broken fragments a new life. Tiny new corals are also starting to naturally colonise to the frames.

Next, I watch fascinated as a large fish, an oriental sweetlips, hovers inside the safety of the frame. It’s visiting nature’s cleaning station, like a drive-through car wash, and the tiny cleaner fish removes all its itchy parasites. The ecosystem is embracing these coral frames, and it’s encouraging progress.

man-made coral reefs in the Maldives

Eco-friendly frames are being used to create new coral reefs in the Maldives. Image: Supplied

To understand the guest interaction, I join Caterina and enthusiastic visitors on the beach to construct a new coral frame. After attaching naturally broken coral fragments with an eco-friendly wire, the excited guests snorkel out to watch Caterina place the frame underwater.  By involving guests, Caterina ensures they take home an understanding of the dangers of a warmer ocean.  Caterina also holds regular education sessions for the international and Maldivian resort staff. ‘It’s special to work with my local colleagues.’ Caterina says. ‘Once they help with the coral project, wow!  They become very active conservationists.’ she enthuses.

The ultimate learning experience here is guided night snorkelling, where underwater torches illuminate the reef’s unexpected secrets. We learn that coral polyps feed at night, making the corals look furry; and watch cute, iridescent squid pounce on prey in our light beams. To our disbelief, Caterina says: ‘Now switch off your torch.’ Far from the island, with only the glinting stars of the Indian Ocean for lights, I feel small and vulnerable. But Caterina is right; it’s worth the uneasiness. Swishing the water around our bodies, we thrill to the sight of tiny sparks of underwater neon, flashing brightly before fading out. These bioluminescent plankton leave me feeling euphoric and with a renewed resolve to save coral reefs.

As my plane departs, and I consider the unique islands below, I’m wishing that everyone could experience the amazing reef creatures I’ve just met. Surely then, people would care enough to change. As Caterina explains: ‘Coral rehabilitation is helpful, but the only way to really fix coral reefs is to stop global warming, and this needs worldwide action. When people leave our resort, I hope they go home talking about coral reefs. I hope they take action, and pressure their governments. And it all starts with education.’

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