Environment Tourism

The far side of Paradise: a Maldives atoll facing up to climate disaster

If even paradise has its sweetest spots then our earthly equivalent must be Addu, the southernmost atoll of the Maldives, a bright ring of islets in the Indian Ocean on the fringe of the Laccadive Sea.

In Malé, the capital of the archipelago, a young local who is much involved in the political and environmental battles that beset his nation spoke to me of the atoll with a sigh: “In Addu, you almost forget you’re in the Maldives.” He told me Adduans pride themselves on their resourcefulness and enterprise.

Historically, many have longed and campaigned for independence for their bracelet of palms and beaches. There is a palpable sense, as you board the small plane for Gan, Addu’s airport island, of travelling to a nation within a nation.

I flew to the Maldives of the Maldives, as I now thought of Addu, over islets and reefs from a pirate’s picture book. Gan is a fleck 2 miles long by 1 mile wide, and it is mostly runway. You step out into blissfully clear oceanic air and the atmosphere of an equatorial Sunday sometime towards the end of empire.

“The RAF left in March 1976,” said Mohammed Waheed, who grew up with the base and now runs Equator Village, a hotel that occupies some of the former servicemen’s huts and where I am staying.

Aerial shot of Addu, the southernmost atoll of the Maldives © Alamy

“A disaster,” he said, with rueful solemnity. He was not hankering after colonialism so much as an alternative to tourism, torpor and fishing. Jobs, sports and activity departed with the last plane, Waheed explained, although the Astra Cinema, the layout of the base and the atmosphere of another era remain.

On a nostalgic bicycle tour of Gan, we pedalled under palms through the scent of frangipani, surveyed by white terns and fruit bats the size of cats that flapped over on creaky wings. Equator Village is a charmingly simple hotel based around the old sergeants’ mess. Maldivian-owned (and serving a local menu based on fish, rice and curry alongside the standard European offering), its plain rooms, large pool, beaches and full board for under £200 a night have been discovered by canny German holiday-makers.

Given that the tourists’ Maldives revolve around “book, bar and bathing suit”, this is a significant discount on the thousand-a-night rooms on offer elsewhere. Better yet, the four islets on this side of Addu are linked by causeways, so we were free to explore.

My guide to this budget version of the Maldives with its problems and challenges undisguised was the deceptively laconic Paul Roberts, a British environmental activist and publicist. An adviser to former president Mohamed Nasheed, Paul married a Maldivian, converted to Islam and entwined his life with the fate of the islands.

He was determined that my visit should be the antithesis of the rather mindless fly-and-flop on a sunlounger. His adopted home is on the front line of climate change.

Dolphins play in the atoll © Ahmed Shuau

The man he worked for, Nasheed, is still a resonant figure here. A dynamic idealist, his underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 (for which he and his ministers donned scuba gear) and a quest for low emissions and temperature targets at that year’s Copenhagen Climate Conference made headlines around the world. Nasheed was ousted in 2012 and later imprisoned by his successor Abdulla Yameen. Under Yameen the country took on huge debts, mainly from China, to fund development and, according to Mariyam Shiuna, executive director of Transparency Maldives, corruption became “normalised”. But last year Ibrahim Solih’s Maldivian Democratic Party won three-quarters of the seats in parliament and Nasheed is back, as Speaker.

Hope is palpable in the sweet airs of the Laccadive sea. “It was an incredible moment,” Paul said, “Democracy versus dictatorship and democracy won.” Yameen is currently on trial for money laundering.

“Chinese money was a massive deal in the election,” Paul added. The scale of indebtedness to China and where all the money went remain partial mysteries, he said, but if you visit the country your first sights on arrival at the international airport are a panorama of environmental and cultural turbulence. Smoke plumes from the island of permanently burning rubbish: there is no space for “out of sight, out of mind” here. Over the translucent water arches the Chinese-funded bridge to the capital, Malé, evidence of a scramble for influence, also visible where the bridge ends, near the brash new mosque gifted by Wahabbist Saudis. Concerned by its waning sway over a traditional partner, and the prospect of being encircled by China, in December India agreed to give $1.4bn in financial assistance.

From Gan geopolitics and indeed all politics seem very distant, thanks to the peace and the azure sea. Large blunt-nosed fish swished through the shallows. “Aren’t these sharks?” “Yes,” Paul said, “Baby black-tipped reef sharks.” “Where are their parents?” “Out on the reef. They’re harmless.”

We swam out. The surf unscrolled at the edge of the atoll like the slow wink of the ocean’s eye. Huge clouds alight with the sunset moved low over the sea. Water and air were limpid and clear, the peace vast and enfolding. Such beauty exists daily and nightly across countless thousands of miles of ocean, unseen by human eyes, you realise.

Travelling by motorbike on a rural road on Hithaddu © Alamy

To swim in it is to feel a long sigh, deep within you, of amazement and gratitude. This earth is paradise, of course, it is, you think, and emerge from the water rested and resolved.

The Maldives will be one of the first places to go if we cannot change course. Some of the islands are already uninhabitable, their freshwater displaced by rising salt. What can be done?

“Coral is key,” said Aminath Afau, assistant director of the Addu Nature Park, a short drive or a leisurely cycle-ride along the causeways on Hithadhoo island. “It grows at 2cm a year,” she explained, the reefs forming a barrier that takes the impact of storm surges. “It is our national sea defence. We lost a third of it during El Niño two years ago but I am not without hope. The concept of conservation is very new to the people of the Maldives but even in a year people can change.”

Aminath is a vividly committed woman, proud of the park’s 500 hectares of protected land encompassing all the Maldivian ecosystems — lagoon, mangroves, bays and reefs.

President Mohamed Nasheed signs the decree of the underwater cabinet meeting off Girifushi Island in 2009 © Polaris/Eyevine

“During the school holidays, we had 1,200 local people per week. We are focusing on educational tours. Students educate their parents, so the next generation will be better stewards of our nature,” she said.

The park’s tracks and boardwalks wriggle alongside surf-rolled shores and sheltered bays. “Some of the corals survive high temperatures — super corals. Let’s see,” said Paul, as we snorkelled out at the northernmost tip of Addu. Galaxies of fish swirled in bright profusion over the reef. We swam through patches of water like warm syrup, surfacing to exchange notes.

“That hot water is what kills corals, if it lingers,” Paul explained, “But there’s a table coral which has made it — and there are lots coming back.”

The reef was a jumble of wreckage and regeneration, gold and blue and purple buds of growth amid the skeletons of stag-horns and sea fans.

Green turtles rowed along the edge of the drop-off as we hung suspended among luminous wrasse and angelfish dappled in turquoise and tangerine. Clownfish and lemon-bright shoals ignored us, the water crinkling with the sounds of their feeding.

An artificial reef made by 3D printing was installed last year at Summer Island in the north of the Maldives. Work at Stanford University has shown that nurseries of heat-resistant corals can be created and transplanted, offering the hope of reefs that are proof against bleaching. The reef we explored looked like a garden springing out of ashes.

“There is very much hope,” said Aminath. “But we need more tourists.” Tourist dollars will subsidise the cheap rates locals pay and help fund the Nature Park, she said. Paul is busy raising funds to bring a branch of the Hay Festival of literature to Addu in 2020.

Maldivians are accustomed to doing much with little, having navigated life between the ocean and the sun for centuries. The islands were settled long before 500BC when the written record begins. A thousand years of Buddhism gave way to Islam in the 12th century; the Portuguese, Dutch and British all came and went.

Mohammed and Paul recalled the story of a senior official in the British administration during the 1950s whom the locals detested. They paddled to the island where he lived and surreptitiously felled its trees one at a time. “With no shade, he went crazy and left!” they laughed.

Maldivians will need all their cunning to defeat sea level rise. Richard Branson’s foundation, Ocean Unite, and Nasheed are planning the Maldives Coral Institute, hoping to better understand coral resilience, identify what works and propagate it. The project is due to be launched within 18 months.

“It will use the latest science to help corals survive a warming planet. We must save our coral reefs, otherwise, we will lose the Maldives to sea level rise,” Nasheed said when I asked him what gives him most hope.

Paradoxically he also implored FT readers to visit the islands. Although carbon from our flights will raise the seas — particularly if not offset — the Maldives needs our money to remain economically viable and to fund coral research and sea-level defence. “They should lobby their politicians to cut carbon emissions by stopping burning coal and other fossil fuels,” said Nasheed. “And they should vote accordingly.”

On our last morning, we took a boat out into the calm blue bowl of the atoll to visit spinner dolphins. A pod of a hundred came arching up to play around us, leaping, twisting in the air, squeaking to each other, visible at great depth through the clear water.

They are thrillingly fast and joyful animals, the babies shadowing their mothers exactly. Sea level rise will not harm them: in the Maldives, we are the threatened species.

Between the fresh early mornings, the palm-shade heat of the middays and the eternal sunsets, visitors are guaranteed to take luminous memories home with them. Mine was leavened by something else. Snorkelling over the reef, among glittering shoals and all the colours of creation, you feel like a large, significant being until you come to the drop-off. Keep going that way and you become suddenly tiny and vulnerable, a fleck in the darkening, deepening blue.

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