After recently diving in the Maldives, there are a few major things I wanted to share about our experience. Emily and I went to the Maldives with the intention of diving with whale sharks and we did just that. It may seem unorthodox for a couple Canadians to fly halfway around the world to dive with a specific fish, but we did this because the Maldives is one of the few places on Earth where whale sharks can be found all year round as they are a migratory species. Traveling to the Maldives gave us the best chance to swim with these gentle giants. Although we only saw one juvenile whale shark, measuring approximately eight to ten feet, (meagre compared to their massive adult counterparts, which can grow up to an astonishing thierty feet!) it was still one of the most humbling events of my life. Additionally, we were fortunate enough to see five white-tip reef sharks of various sizes, which was the icing on the cake – for me at least! But our trip was not all sunshine and rainbows, literally. On the surface, we faced monsoon season, and below we witnessed a great deal of destruction and pollution, in an environment we believe to be untouched and pristine.
Don’t get me wrong, diving in the Maldives was phenomenal and I loved being underwater. I constantly consider myself lucky and blessed to be able to experience the world beneath the surface. However, on this trip, I found myself feeling disappointed. Not with the visibility or the water temperature, nor the fact that there weren’t swarms of whale sharks around us at all times, but it was the lack of life that created a knot in my stomach. For many of our dives, I was swimming right alongside a wall of coral that should have been brightly colored and teeming with life, but that was not the case. In many areas it seemed as though a mini underwater ‘landslide’ had washed away entire patches of coral, leaving only a small pile of rubble on the ocean floor. In other areas, it felt as though color was forbidden as vast stretches of the reef were entirely bleached, leaving behind a dull gray and white landscape. It felt unnatural. At times it felt as though I was swimming through one of those ghost towns that your family drives through on a family vacation. It was as if you could almost feel the presence of past residents. You’d expect that life should be present, but all you’re left with are the empty coral structures, void of any life and slowly decaying. I would occasionally see a parrotfish or Moorish idol swim by; a glimmer of hope to serve as a reminder that life, and color, were not gone.
I don’t mean to come across as pessimistic because diving in the Maldives was life-changing. But let’s call a spade a spade, the Maldivian Islands are not the only place on Earth experiencing coral bleaching. It’s happening everywhere, and I will never get used to seeing a remote and seemingly picture-perfect landscape being affected so dramatically by human-impacted climate change. Among the destruction, we were still incredibly fortunate to see some of the beautiful species that the ocean has to offer. Whether it was a spotted eagle-ray gliding by, a barracuda lurking on the edge of visibility, or even the many clownfish darting in and out of their anemone homes watching, we witnessed the resiliency of nature and how still so many species are able to thrive in environments where the ocean is seemingly turning against them. In addition to the unique fish species we saw, we were lucky enough to see nudibranchs, sea cucumbers and sea fans in several colors that all helped reinforce our love for the oceans. It’s not a black and white world under water. There is life and death, but not one to the exclusion of the other, and I believe that is the biggest thing we need to understand. Our world is going through a very difficult time, environmentally speaking, and we must do what we can to both reverse the dying process (bleaching) of the coral reefs while also protecting the life that is surviving in these harsh and often times inhospitable conditions.
In conclusion, while we were able to swim alongside the oceans biggest fish, and spot a handful of other unique marine species, we witnessed death on a scale that was completely unexpected. While there were patches of color and species diversity, there seemed to be greater areas of bleached, uninhabited reefs, never more than a few fin kicks away. You might be wondering why such negativity and darkness when we have just returned from one of the most iconic travel destinations in the world. The answer is simple: it’s the truth. I’d be lying if I said that there was nothing but turquoise water filled with endless coral and too many fish to count. There is no point in covering up the truth. Everywhere is being affected, and I think we were both naïve to think that the Maldives would be an exception.
Being from Southern Ontario, Canada, we aren’t located anywhere near an ocean; it’s easy to forget about marine problems and it’s easy to imagine such a faraway place remaining so pristine in the face of a global climate crisis. As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”. So it certainly came as a shock to see the wide-scale impact of climate change on a place that took nearly 40 hours to get to. Maybe this is the wakeup call we needed. Maybe this is what we needed to see to understand that no place on Earth is immune to human impact and that our oceans are facing a global disaster at an unimaginable rate.