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food / travel

Coral And Iron, A Plan To Save The Sinking Maldives

Diving near coral in the Maldives
Diving near coral in the Maldives
Erwin Pelkofer

KAAFU ATOLL — The Maldives are slowly sinking, as coral reefs off the coasts of the islands have been destroyed and washed ashore because of warming water temperatures, all of which means sand isn't propagating as it should.

That's why Thomas Le Berre is dragging an iron frame along the beach of Kuda Huraa. With cable, he has tied pieces of coral tightly to the iron construction, which looks like a miniature pyramid. "You can't leave as much as a millimeter of space for them to move," Le Berre says of the coral. "Otherwise water pressure injures them, and they won't grow on the frame."

Le Berre got the idea for a forced marriage between coral and iron caging in 2003. That's when Armando Kraenzlin, who was charged with developing two new resorts for the Canadian hotel group Four Seasons, asked him for help. The beaches of the islands of Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru were eroding fast because there was no more coral to shore them up. It's a result of the major coral die-out in 1998 following weather phenomenon El Niño, a warm ocean current, and the resulting coral bleaching.

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Maldives seen from above — Photo: Timo Newton-Syms

Le Berre, a coastal engineer, affixes a good 40 of the two-centimeter-long coral branches to the pyramid, adding a white name plate with the donor's name on it. The day before, on Landaa Giraavaru, Chris and Thomas from London had "Zibu" inscribed on the plate of another frame after donning gloves and affixing sharp coral fragments to it. They paid $150 (120 euros) for the small iron pyramid with corals. The large ones cost $500. For their sponsorship, they'll get an e-mail from the reef twice a year, each containing four photographs of their coral colony seen from all sides. The hotel promises to keep this service up for at least five years, after which the cage is mostly totally overgrown and no longer visible beneath the coral.

The two guests don't overrate the importance of their action, saying "we're divers and wanted to give something back to nature for the wonderful experiences here. Of course it's only a drop in the ocean, but it's still a drop."

By now Le Berre has finished covering the frames with different coral species: long-armed ones because those attract the most fish and grow flat, breaking the waves. They're also blue coral because that's what snorkelers and divers like best.

Some human help

Until 1998 the eco-system here worked fine without human intervention. But then El Niño‘s warm ocean currents raised the water temperature in the Maldives to over 33 °C (91 °F), well above normal. The coral was able to withstand this exceptional situation for a month. But during that time, the algae that give them their color gradually disappeared. After that, the corals starved, broke and washed ashore. There was some coral bleaching in 2010 as well, but the coral survived because the water only warmed for a short time.

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Lankanfinolhu island — Photo: a_robustus/GFDL

Armando Kraenzlin, the 53-year-old Swiss man who hired Le Berre, doesn't fit the profile of the typical developer who wants to squeeze maximum gains from his destinations. His vocational training program for Maldives workers is renowned, and he was instrumental in getting the Baa Atoll area declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2011. The proceeds from the reef build-up action go the to the Four Seasons' Green Fund. The company has been using fund money for years to support environmental projects in the Maldives.

Le Berre has set up residence in Malé, the capital of the Maldives. His firm Seamarc develops strategies for the tropical islands to counter the consequences of coral bleaching and other natural phenomena. There are already two branches of his small company, one of them on the island of Fulhadhoo, where 25 Maldivian staffers build the frames for the Reefscapers program, as the coral propagation project is officially known. On the uninhabited island of Innafushi, Le Berre is experimenting with 65 different coral species that he places in varying water situations to find out which constellations could help the islands best.

Is what the hotel chain is doing greenwashing? Marine biologist Frederic Ducarme has conducted research on the islands, and has been involved with marine eco-tourism for years, most recently on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean and in Kenya. The Frenchman, who is in the process of earning his doctorate at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, has been weighing and measuring the iron frames to see how fast the coral is growing. The results point to the success of Reefscapers at both Four Seasons resorts. He says that 30,000 kilograms (66,000 pounds) of living coral has been planted, which "means 30 tons of sand down the road." The coral branches on both the islands of Kuda Huraa and Landaa Giraavaru are growing at a rate of six to 30 centimeters per year.

A counterintuitive strategy

That the concept caught on seems to surprise Ducarme. "They're throwing iron into water, the worst thing you can do, but it's helping," he says. He's not without further criticism of the project, saying that "for the environment here, what would certainly be best is if there was no tourism at all." But he adds, "The fact is, though, that the Maldives are going to sink if there are no reefs — before the much-feared rise in sea level. The coral reefs protect the islands and produce a billion tons of sand. In this respect Reefscapers makes sense."

Ducarme mentions American ecologist Michael Rosenzweig of the University of Arizona, whose book Win-Win Ecology presents the idea that humans and nature can live together without mutual destruction. Kraenzlin sees the irony in the charge that the project is nothing more than greenwashing on the part of the Four Seasons. "That would be an expensive coat of paint," he says. "We currently employ 15 marine biologists full-time in a total of four projects."

Meanwhile, some 3,600 coral-covered frames have been set up on the ocean floor near both islands, and new reefs are forming. Reefscapers is one of the largest reef projects in the world and Four Seasons has put up three times more coral frames than the other seven resorts in the Maldives that Le Berre convinced to participate in the project.

Next summer may well tell if the coral banks can withstand the next rise in water temperature. Warm currents have already formed off the coast of Chile in the Pacific, and by the time they reach the Maldives they could have taken on the dimensions of El Niño.

Le Berre is confident. "Since the 2010 bleaching, we’ve increased the number of various coral species in the interests of biodiversity." He hopes that that will make the coral reefs more resistant in the future.

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