Maldives Nurses its Coral Reefs
Back to Life
2 May 2004
By Alan Wheatley (Reuters)
VABBINFARU, Maldives (Reuters) - Scientists
in the Maldives watched spellbound under the
full moon as reproducing corals ejected pink-orange
eggs and bundles of sperm -- proof the islands'
endangered reefs are on the road to regeneration.
"That was the first time in the history
of the Maldives that we had discovered coral
spawning," said marine biologist Azeez
Hakeem, who was among the watchers one special
evening last year.
"It went into our hearts."
Six years after a spike in water temperatures
bleached and killed two-thirds of the Maldives'
precious coral reefs, nature is staging a comeback
-- with a helping hand from man.
Researchers battling to save the reefs are
using cone-shaped steel frames as nurseries
for the corals, passing a small electric current
through the metal to form a layer of limestone
on which the brightly colored creatures can
Nurturing the recovery of the corals is more
than an economic imperative for the Maldives,
which relies heavily on tourists lured by its
reefs, white-sand beaches and azure-blue waters:
without the protective barrier of the reefs,
coastal erosion would ravage the 1,200 islands
lying low in the Indian Ocean.
"If the reef is gone, we are gone. It's
as simple as that," said Azeez.
That's why a spike in water temperatures in
1998 came as such a shock.
Until then, Maldivians never had to give much
thought to their thriving reefs. For 300 years
they even built their homes out of coral. Then
global warming and the El Nino ocean current
rammed home the fragility of the islands' existence.
The El Nino is caused by a change in the ocean-atmosphere
system in the eastern Pacific that can trigger
major weather shifts around the world. The 1998
El Nino abruptly raised temperatures in the
seas around the Maldives' atolls by as much
as five degrees Celsius.
years after a spike in water temperature
bleached and killed
two-thirds of the
Maldives' precious coral reefs, nature
staging a comeback
Stressed by the heat, the corals expelled the
algae that provide as much as 60 percent of
their food and give them such vivid colors.
About 70 percent of the corals died, leaving
them with a bleached look.
"Before 1998 we never thought that this
reef could die. We had always taken for granted
that these animals would be there, that this
reef would be there forever," Azeez said.
"El Nino gave us a wake-up call that
these things are not going to be there forever."
CORAL NURSERIES The electrified steel cones
that Azeez's team is using to help regenerate
the reefs are submerged in about 20 feet of
water at Vabbinfaru in the northern Maldives.
Some baby corals latch naturally onto the
structures, which are about 20 ft long by 12
ft high (6.5 m by 4 m). Others are attached
by scientists and, once they have grown, are
transplanted to colonize other areas of the
"We can bring corals in and use it as
a gene bank," said Dave Campion, a young
British marine biologist working on the project.
"Coral regeneration could prove vital in
the preservation of the species that we have
Coral growth on the artificial reefs is up
to five times faster than normal. But scientists
are also surprised by how quickly the natural
regeneration of the reefs is occurring.
Azeez says he was amazed on a trip last October
to the southern Maldives to discover that perhaps
80 percent of the coral cover had already been
Azeez was particularly encouraged by the fact
that the corals that spawned had settled in
the shallow waters of Vabbinfaru after 1998
and seemed to be more resistant to heat. "It
gives us hope that the reef is coming back to
life," he said.
MORE THAN A GIMMICK
The artificial reefs use a building technique
developed by a German architect, Wolf Hilbertz,
who teamed up in 1989 with Tom Goreau of the
Global Coral Reef Alliance, a group based in
the U.S. and devoted to protecting and sustaining
Goreau says the technique has proved its worth
in almost 100 different projects in more than
a dozen countries and is frustrated the technology
is not used more widely.
"Hotels and governments basically regard
them as merely cute gimmicks to entertain tourists
with lots of bright fish and corals in places
where there were hardly any, and they have failed
to see them as essential tools for restoring
damaged coral reefs and fisheries habitats,"
Goreau said by e-mail.
Banyan Tree Resorts, which funds a four-member
marine science lab at its Vabbinfaru resort,
says its research is not just meant to salve
the green conscience of well-heeled guests.
"We must satisfy our customers, inspire
our colleagues and improve the human and physical
environment which we do business in. This is
not just bleeding-heart liberalism; it's simple,
enlightened self-interest," said group
chairman Ho Kwon Ping.
Besides restoring coral, Banyan Tree's scientists
are using satellite-tracking technology to keep
tabs on the Maldives' sea-roving turtles and
are trying to explain why there are plenty of
baby black-tipped sharks around the resort but
For its part, the Maldives government rejects
charges that it is not doing enough to protect
itself from the consequences of global warming.
"The Maldives has been at the forefront
of the global movement to act against man's
actions that degrade the environment,"
said spokesman Ibrahim Waheed in the capital,
Azeez acknowledges the constraints of money
and trained staff but says more practical work
is urgently needed to build on what he says
are the encouraging results of coral research.
"My dream has been to see a few more labs
established in different parts of the Maldives
so we can study these creatures and understand