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Laamu Atoll, Maldives named Hope Spot

Maldives DTA Team

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Marked by a continuous 130km reef, the Laamu Atoll is found in southern-central Maldives in the Indian Ocean. Laamu’s striking marine habitats have been a focal point for conservation and research within the atoll’s biologically unique and valuable seagrass meadows, isolated inner reef formations and mangroves since the opening Six Senses Laamu resort in 2011.

Laamu Atoll has been declared a Hope Spot by international marine conservation nonprofit Mission Blue in recognition of Six Senses Laamu’s work in demonstrating sustainable ecotourism practices and creating the framework for scalable marine conservation methods to help shape a healthy future for generations to come in the Maldives.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, says: “To look back to 2011 when Six Senses began collecting information, to now as we’re celebrating the designation of the atoll as a Hope Spot – it’s truly a reason for hope. It’s so important that we protect the ecosystems there, especially the seagrass meadows that we now understand are so important to generating oxygen, capturing carbon and providing a home and security for so many creatures not only within the atoll but throughout the depths beyond. By promoting understanding of the value of the ocean to the people of the Maldives and the rest of the world, one Hope Spot at a time, we’re creating a true network of hope.”

The Hope Spot Champions, Marteyne van Well and Adam Thalhath are hopeful that Laamu will become an atoll composed of locally managed marine protected areas (MPAs), and to continue developing educational programs that will influence the next generation of environmental stewards with pride for their atoll.

Adam Thalhath, Sustainability and Community Outreach Manager of Six Senses Laamu says: “In the Maldives, it is very rare for an atoll not to have multiple resorts and developments. Six Senses is the only operating resort in Laamu Atoll and just 20% of the islands here are inhabited. It’s important that we continue to have a sustainable relationship with the ocean and have protections put in place to support those efforts.”

(c) Jennifer Penner

Laamu Atoll has been the location of consistent scientific monitoring from Six Senses Laamu since 2011. Through collaboration with its three partners- The Manta TrustBlue Marine Foundation and the Olive Ridley Project– Six Senses Laamu created the Maldives Underwater Initiative, a team working towards protecting Laamu’s marine habitats through establishing MPAs and a management plan. This has involved gathering ecological data, fostering support within the community and working with the local government in addition to establishing sustainable and profitable livelihoods for the surrounding islands. The Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project have been working to understand the population and habitat use of manta rays and sea turtles. Both Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project are Mission Blue Alliance partners.

(c) Leanna Crowley

“It is through our partnerships with these three experienced and specialized organizations that we have been able to collect such detailed information on Laamu’s species and habitats,” explains Philippa Roe, the Maldives Underwater Initiative’s Head Marine Biologist. “Our work through collaboration has also led to other successful projects, from nation-wide seagrass conservation to community knowledge sharing, none of which would be possible without the expertise and qualities each partner brings.”

(c) Alex Mustard

“The community is also involved in every project and initiative,” explains Marteyne van Well, General Manager of Six Senses Laamu. She continues, “It is truly a grassroots effort. In order for marine protected areas to be established, maintained and enforced, it has to come from the bottom-up, and it has to be sustainable in an economic way as well.”

The Maldives’ government is expected to announce new protected areas in Laamu, in accordance with the new Government’s Strategic Action Plan, in late-2021. The Laamu Atoll Council and Blue Marine Foundation have communicated the evidence of the need to protect this area. Blue Marine Foundation is working with Laamu Atoll Council to undertake resource use surveys, participatory planning sessions and community education and awareness programs, and is a Mission Blue Alliance partner as well.

Laamu Atoll’s three richly diverse ecosystems possess an enormous amount of healthy life. Researchers have counted 47 coral genera to date, with some inner reef coral cover recorded up to 50% – very rare in the Maldives since a mass coral bleaching event in 2016. These areas likely supply other damaged reefs with coral larval supply, vital for reef recovery. More than 400 species of fish have been recorded in Laamu, including endemic, endangered, and critically endangered species. The mangroves within the atoll consist of both open and closed systems, containing four mangrove species, providing a haven for migratory birds and juvenile fish.

Seagrass meadows act as a carbon sink by absorbing and storing carbon in their roots and the surrounding sediments. In Laamu, the Six Senses Laamu team is measuring the extent to which carbon is stored in Laamu’s seagrass meadows.These meadows also provide a key food source for green sea turtles, of which  Laamu contains the most significant nesting beach in the Maldives, on one of Laamu’s uninhabited islands, L. Gaadhoo. Despite this, scientists have determined that 38% of nests on this island were poached in the 2019-2020 nesting season, indicating the need for further enforcement of regulations protecting this species in the atoll.

The Olive Ridley Project is working with Maldives Environmental Protection Agency to implement community-led monitoring and patrolling of nesting beaches. Community led projects also extend to monitoring of Laamu’s marine habitats. Blue Marine Foundations’ Laamaseelu Farundun (Exemplary Citizen) program, trains volunteer local residents to monitor and survey seagrass, mangroves and coral reefs, contributing to further understanding of the present situation of the atoll’s ecosystem and any future changes.

“We hope that the Laamu Atoll Hope Spot can be a flagship for functional MPAs in the Maldives with the support of the local community, who will benefit both economically and ecologically,” says van Well. “We are capable of preventing unsustainable development without holding the community back economically. It’s important to show that it’s achievable – it’s been possible for Laamu, and it’s possible anywhere.”

Thalhath adds: “The Maldives relies on tourism, but now is the time to protect the marine ecosystems. If we put protections in place now, we’ll create a healthier future for all life here, humans and fish alike.”

The Maldivian government has pledged to protect at least one reef, one mangrove and one uninhabited island from each atoll by 2022. In 2018, the local government, the Laamu Atoll council, pledged to protect five ecologically significant areas in the atoll. Recently, significant progress has been made on these goals and the designation of nationally Protected Areas within the Hope Spot is expected in the coming months.

“Through these ongoing projects, it will be demonstrated how networks of marine protected areas provide a haven to replenish other areas impacted by either human or natural damage, increasing ecosystem resilience on an atoll-wide scale,” says van Well.

For more information about Mission Blue visit the website by clicking here.

Blogs

Dive that Funky Thila

Maldives DTA Team

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A Guest Blog by Jaidev Karunakaran with images by Tunjay Sadikoglu.

I knew I was going to have a special trip when I saw the dolphins. Not just one or two, but a whole pod of them: racing ahead of the boat, slicing in and out and exploding out of the water, spinning and twirling and crashing back in. It was like they’d spent years performing in a water park show, had escaped, and were now putting on a performance just for fun, exulting in their freedom.

I knew I was going to have a special trip when I went snorkelling and saw four hawksbill turtles. One was close enough to touch, lying in a sandy clearing surrounded by coral.

But all these good omens did little to prepare me for what I saw when I went diving.

I was in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, to see for myself the good things I’d heard about diving in this southern part of the country. The area around Male atoll, in the central part of the country, is the most developed resort wise, and as a result what most people see when they dive. Though it provides rewarding experiences and one sees a lot of fish, it has suffered due to development, pollution and coral bleaching. One gets the feeling of decay and forlornness in many dive sites, as though one is looking at a once-great civilisation, now in terminal decline.

This is not the case in Gaafu Dhaalu, as I was soon to discover.

My dive buddy is Tuncay Sadikoglu, a grizzled Turkish Cypriot former paratrooper who’s swapped jumping out of helicopters to jumping out of boats and now runs a dive school called Dive Kingdom at Ayada Maldives, the best resort in Gaafu Dhaalu. The first dive site he took me to, called ‘Coral Garden 2’ was just that: a vast, undulating garden of corals in colours and shapes and sizes I’d never seen before, even on TV. This was no city in decline, this was a thriving metropolis teeming with the most colourful residents in every size from giant pelagics a few metres off the reef to tiny beautiful luminescent, incandescent fish darting in and out of ridges in the corals. We spent forty- five minutes floating over this beauty, like drones over some strange city, forgetting we were underwater. Finally, I could feel myself rising, the dive ending, the surface nearing, the surface being breached.

As we waited to clamber onto the boat, I began to wax effusive and rain superlatives on what I’d just seen. Tuncay just looked smug and said, “Wait until you see Fanka Thila. It’s like fireworks exploding everywhere.”

‘Thila’ means ‘underwater island’ in Dhivehi, the local language. It being low tide, Fanka Thila was just 12-13 metres below sea level and I knew Tuncay was right with my first glimpses of the place.

A white-tip reef shark was the first to greet us, then quickly scamper away. But it was the fish and coral that caught my attention. If Coral Garden 2 was a kind of semi-orderly informal garden, Fanka Thila was a tropical rainforest of outrageous exuberance, a multicoloured canopy mobbed by fish, with broad branches of red fan coral jutting out everywhere.

We saw many large clumps of sea anemones, waving wildly, and weaving in and out- beautiful yellow- and- white anemone fish, forever curious, forever timid. The largest lobster I’ve ever seen got out of a hole to shake its antennae at us, then backed off as we got closer. And everywhere the fish, in a profusion I didn’t think possible, in colours so bright and fluorescent, a literal explosion of fireworks in our eyes.

We were soon surrounded by a ball of glassfish so large that they blotted out the water around us and for a few moments we felt like we were in a shimmering, pulsing, darting black cloud. Then we were out and drifting over a slope of coral different from anything else I’d seen before- short, knobby, shiny brown ridges stretching out to the edge of the reef, reminiscent of grassland.

Tuncay uses this place as a marker to end his dives in Fanka Thila, so we started our slow descent to the top, me looking back to try and catch my last glimpses of the place.

All I could do the rest of the day was sing paens of Fanka Thila, and urge everyone I met to dive there at once.

Fanka Thila is not a place to see big fish like mantas or whale sharks. The biggest animals you see here are white tip reef sharks and turtles. But Fanka Thila is a place where the little guys, the corals and anemones and pretty fish, take the big stage and put on a great show. And, as audience, all we have to do is applaud and look back in wonder.


Fact File

Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll is easily accessible from Kaadedhdhoo Airport, which is about an hour’s flight by Maldivian from Male Domestic Airport.

Kaadedhdhoo airport is one hour by speedboat from Ayada. Flights also land thrice a week at Maavarulu airport, which is twenty minutes from Ayada by speedboat.

While Ayada is the best place to stay, there are other more affordable resorts in the vicinity. One can also stay in a guest house at Thinadoo, a short ferry ride from Kaadhedhoo.


Jaidev Karunakaran worked in Male’ for four years, where he learnt to dive. He has dived in Male, Baa, Raa, Ari, Gaafu Dhaalu and Addu atolls and seen mantas, reef sharks and whale sharks. He has also dived the British Loyalty, the biggest wreck in the Maldives.

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Save £500 on Maldives liveaboard – but hurry, there’s only 2 spots left!

Maldives DTA Team

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Join The Scuba Place on board the award-winning (Best Liveaboard, Maldives Tourism Awards for 2 consecutive years) Sachika for a week in the sun!

Taking in the very best dive sites of the ‘Best of Central Atolls’ itinerary, including manta cleaning stations, Whaleshark Alley, the Fish Factory and the legendary night dive with hundreds of nurse sharks, this is one trip not to be missed.

To make it even better, they have taken a big chunk of cash off the price to fill the last TWO SPACES (twin or double cabin) on each of the following sailings:

  • Outbound 5 November, return 13 November
  • Outbound 12 November, return 20 November

The Scuba Place team can arrange flights from any major UK airport, and the whole package will be ATOL Protected. Price includes flights, taxes, full board in a twin/double cabin based on 2 sharing, 17 dives with Nitrox included, all soft drinks and meals and snacks. Bar bill is extra and extra dives are available too!

The prices are based on flying with Emirates and include 30kgs of baggage per person.

Don’t miss out – get in touch today! Call 020 3515 9955 to find out more!

Brochure link: https://bit.ly/TSP_Maldives_Nov2021

www.thescubaplace.co.uk


Boat images by Top Class Cruising

Underwater images by Nigel Wade for The Scuba Place

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