Reef Check Maldives – why the concern from 'outsiders'?

Jean-Luc Solandt By: Jean-Luc Solandt
Date posted: 6 October 2017

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, expedition scientist for Biosphere Expeditions Maldives, Reef Check Co-ordionator for the Maldives and MCS Marine Protected Areas Specialist explains why Reef Check Maldives is so important for the country.

There is one area that marine biologists around the world do worry about: The state of the oceans and the changes they have experienced over the past 100 years. This change is driven by and large by human impact and can be managed - and in parts – repaired by humans. The three main problems are the quality of the water and what we put into it (dissolved matter, heavy metals, pollutants, nutrients), taking too many fish (overfishing) and habitat destruction (either directly or indirectly). Global warming is an indirect impact resulting in habitat destruction through bleaching of corals (basically coral sickness or death from waters that are too hot for them).

A photo of a reef devastated by bleaching that used to be healthy (Credit: Jean-Luc Solandt)

Divers have long visited the Maldives and recently I enjoyed re-watching the first Cousteau documentaries on diving all round the world, including memorable footage from the Maldives from the 1950s and 1960s before the advent of tourism. But the Maldives has inevitably changed in the face of increased tourism, increased pressure on tuna and reef fisheries, and climate change.

The problem is that conservation and protectionism rarely pays governments and businesses with a (direct) dollar. The FREE ecosystem services provided by the environment (things such as protection from waves, water cleaning, provision of oxygen and food, or – for the Maldives especially – provision of a country to live on) are either totally undervalued or not valued at all. But the protection and enhancement of environment is often a secondary consideration and not factored into economic cost-benefit analysis.

Many reef scientists believe that tourist development must not touch certain parts of atolls in order to have some areas where water quality and reef conditions remain unaffected by development, pollution and local overfishing. Climate change damage in the form of coral bleaching will happen again. If other pressures such as overfishing are present also, many reefs will simply not be able to recover from such multilayered and repeated impact. And this is not simply a gloomy prediction for the future of an overzealous conservationist, this is happening right now. In ten years of diving the Maldives I have seen too many dead reefs since 2005, where corals will simply not return again for form a healthy, product reef. And with the reef gone, so are the fish. Will more reefs go the same way?

Panorama of coral bleaching in the Maldives (credit: Catlin Seaview)

Biosphere Expeditions has been working with the Marine Conservation Society and the Marine Research Centre of the Maldives to try and reverse the trend of ever more impact and damage, whilst at the same time training Maldivians in undertaking simple, community-led reef surveys. Our expeditions (see run every year and there is a free placement programme for Maldivians (see and a chance to win a place via a competition (see

Our week-long surveys cannot provide the necessary depth and range of survey sites to understand much of Maldives reef health, so we hope to fill the gaps through training Maldivians to survey other parts of the country we cannot reach. Indeed, the long-term strategy is to train enough Maldivians to be able to teach Reef Check themselves to local communities and have those communities undertake their own surveys.

The truth is that much of the world lies underwater and this is no less true of the Maldives. In fact the Maldives is the sea, is made from the sea, and lives by the conditions that the sea offers us. The people are of course of the sea – they are one and the same – the poet Aminath Neena wrote ‘let us stick together as shoals of fish’. So this ‘connection’ is known more by Maldivians than this writer.