Maldives Reflections - A Call To Action
I have been home for just over a week now, which has given me time to process the expedition, the trip, and all the goings on.
Since being home, friends have asked “How was it!?” The most impossible question to answer in less than 10 paragraphs, mostly because they expect me to say it was rainbows and sunshine and sunbathing and dolphins and white sands and wonderful, and are somewhat begrudging when I try to explain why it was so. damn. hard!
Having craved sunshine since October, the Vitamin D was a huge bonus. Not having to wear socks, or very much at all for that matter, for an entire month, was bliss, and I do love the relief that going from UK winter to a warm country brings.
However, and I know I’m going to get a lot of head shakes by saying this, for someone as pale as me, and as used to swimming in a very cold ocean, I couldn't handle the heat! Between 11am and 4pm, I had to be either in the sea, recently dunked and still wet, or in an air conditioned room. And when in the sea, I was fully clothed. And I mean fully - including socks, and a really attractive bucket hat. I was that scared of getting fried alive.
It also meant that doing ANYTHING between these hours, other than sitting still and sweating, was painful. So paddleboarding, with no shade, and a great big glassy ocean for the sun to reflect off, was intense. I jumped into the sea on average every 10 minutes to cool down, only to find that the sea was only ever so slightly marginally colder than the air. The paddling was hard work too. Absolutely brilliant, but a real type two fun - enjoyable afterwards, when you’ve rehydrated and can laugh about how hard it was paddling into the wind for 3 hours in a ginormous sweatbox.
So for those of you who think I was sunbathing..!
“The second, and more pertinent reason, that it was a very challenging trip, was the exact reason we were there.”
The Maldives is surrounded by coral reefs, which are basically the life force of the ocean ecosystems. They were dead.
Not all of them, and some were absolutely blooming beautiful, but most of the reefs I saw were in varying stages between severely lacking in biodiversity, partially bleached, completely bleached and rubble. It was so incredibly lovely to snorkel on the reefs which were still teeming with life, and some of the drop offs where we saw sharks and turtles were just incredible, but for the most part the corals are suffering. It was so difficult to see what we are doing to these oceans.
Why are corals bleaching? Because of rising sea temperatures and other stressors such as pollution, oxybenzone in our sunscreen; all directly related to human activity.
I was also witnessing plastic everywhere. I’m used to seeing this on my beaches, in my rivers at home, and maybe I have actually become a bit numb to it. But seeing it in small particles where Manta Rays feed, finding a turtle entangled in fishing net, seeing other turtles with horrific injuries and amputated flippers as a result of plastic pollution, and finding evidence of our obsession with a throwaway culture on every reef, in every harbour, on every street, made it difficult to stay positive.
“Who was I to tell other people how to live.”
I do not live in the Maldives, I loved going there to see the animals and experience the paradise, but it’s not my livelihood at stake if fishing practices have to change, or if food is wasted because cheap packaging is no longer available.
The sad truth is, the government of the Maldives are all over this. We had a really eye opening and interesting conversation with the Environment Minister before embarking on our trip. He gave us a desperate call to action that he asked us to take home with us. The Maldives is on the verge of destruction. As the lowest lying country in the world, a mere 2.5 metres above sea level at its highest point, it’ll be the first underwater when sea levels rise as a result of global warming. And yet, the Maldives is striving to become the first carbon neutral country, it is attempting to ban single use plastic water bottles and other items, and fishing in the country is mostly conducted by line and pole rather than nets. So these enormous environmental crises threatening the Maldives’ waters, and thus the country itself, are global.
The Maldives isn’t shirking its own responsibility, but has made it clear that if we are to save the country, the reefs, the animals, it’s up to the rest of the world to step up and change the way they act too.
My hope returned when I visited some of the luxury resorts where, I’m embarrassed to say, I thought the plastic usage would be phenomenal. Quite the opposite. All of the resorts we visited had water desalination plants to make their own drinking water which they put into reusable glass bottles, eliminating the need for plastic water bottles. Most resorts had ditched single use shampoo and soaps in the bathrooms, and several of the resorts have specific eco-policies to reduce their carbon footprint. One resort even had an entire eco centre aimed at recycling all of its waste in some way or another. Why? Consumer demand! People are waking up to the plastic pollution crisis and voicing that they don’t want to see plastic water bottles or toiletries in the bathroom. This is how we can make our difference! We ask for, demand, change. There are alternatives, and business only runs because people like you and I spend their money, or cast their votes, in their direction. We can all add our voice to the ever growing movement of people demanding that those in power, and those with the business capability to make large-scale change, do something about it.
The positives of the trip were also very numerous. The sea really is that colour that it appears on the postcards! Rich shades of jewelled blues and white sands. Sea grass beds with turtles feeding in them. Dolphins swimming with us as we paddled!
And incredible engagement. People wanted to know what they could do to help this crisis; whether guests or managers at the resorts we visited, or school children on the local islands. Kids are starting to really understand the importance of picking up litter, and we discussed with them the importance of translating that to using less plastic in the first place. They are spending time in the oceans, understanding how awesome they are, and wanting to protect them as a result. I think the reason the plastic pollution crisis has had such uptake is that it’s tangible - you can see it, touch it, experience it. It’s now helping people link to climate change as well; the understanding that 1 in 10 barrels of oil is made to make virgin plastic, and the empowerment that if they can do something about plastic pollution, if they can shout loud enough that the business and government change-makers have to answer, then they can do something about climate change too.