As I swam through the crystal clear waters of the Indian Ocean, passing a kaleidoscope of coral reefs brimming with marine life, a group of parrotfish zipped past me, their electric colors magnified by the GoPro I used to document my underwater adventure. I had never seen such a wide array of colors underwater before or come close to such an abundance of wildlife in one place.
I was on a snorkeling excursion in the Maldives, which saw 1.3 million visitor arrivals in 2021. The destination’s growing popularity among travelers brings with it an inevitable strain on the region’s ecosystem. As the lowest lying country in the world, the 1,200 islands and atolls that make up the Maldives are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. Thankfully, a number of new initiatives from marine biologists, the government, residents, and hotels are helping to combat this change so that there’s a better chance of preserving this unique region in the long run.
The roughly 2,500 diverse coral reefs across the archipelago are critical to protecting and nourishing marine life, as well as providing food for human inhabitants, making their conservation a crucial part of the preservation strategy for this delicate ecosystem. Environmental factors such as changing weather patterns, pollution, and rising water temperatures have led to coral bleaching. This natural phenomenon occurs when ocean temperatures are so unusually high that coral expels the algae living in its tissues, turns white, and eventually dies. Groups like Reefscapers have steered coral reef restoration projects in the Maldives since 2005, including coral propagation to boost reef habitats into thriving ecosystems. The government has also announced a plan to phase out single-use plastic items by 2023 by implementing bans and industry guidelines. In 2018, the first plastics recycling facility opened in the region, built by the nonprofit group Parley for the Oceans.
On my visit to the region last year, I got a firsthand look at some of the ways resorts are implementing sustainability into their daily operations. I checked into a beachside garden villa at St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, whose design incorporates natural materials found on the resort’s 22-acre private island. In my suite, the headboard was made of recycled glass beads and the chandelier hanging in my living room was fashioned out of found coral. When I dined in the outdoor restaurant, Alba, I learned that the hanging lights above me were made from repurposed Indian pots. Wherever I was on the property, I always felt intimately connected to nature, especially in the whale shark-shaped bar that juts out into the ocean and delivers an unobstructed view of sherbet-colored sunsets.
I also learned that St. Regis Vommuli has its own recycling plant that breaks down and repurposes cardboard, plastic, glass, metals, used cooking oil, vegetable waste, used batteries, and food leftovers. To aid in organic waste composting, coconut leaves, wood, and other elements from around the resort are cut by a branch chopper machine and used as fertilizer for future trees and plants. There’s a fully automated water bottling plant that refills one-liter bottles daily to prevent plastic bottle use.
At Iridium spa--which is designed in the shape of the lobsters in the ocean below it--more than 25 varieties of Ayurvedic herbs are sourced from the resort’s organic garden and used for treatments. The Maldivian Hafla massage includes natural Maldivian seashells (called kandu boli) and coconut oil from the island’s trees as part of the experience.
Book now: The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort
Another resort group embracing sustainability in the Maldives is Coco Collection, which has two properties in the region, Coco Bodu Hithi in North Malé Atoll and Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu in the southern waters of Baa Atoll. Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu Resort recently announced a contest for a volunteer Coral Reef Gardener to work alongside the in-house marine educator for an all-expenses-paid three weeks on the island. Applicants are required to submit a video and cover letter for consideration--and the winner will be presented with a number of opportunities, including planting coral reefs and the ability to work with residents on regeneration projects on neighboring islands. The resort also offers volunteer opportunities at the ORP Marine Turtle Rescue Centre, where participants can help rehabilitate rescued turtles and learn about the sea reptiles alongside a marine biologist.
“The unique setting and vibrant underwater life has helped to make it a sought-after travel location for decades,” says Siraj Ali Waseem, group general manager of Coco Collection. “It is our responsibility as tourism operators to ensure that our impact on highlighting what draws people to the region does not deplete the natural inhabitants.”