Somewhere along the line we have all heard of the Maldives, renowned for their turquoise waters and year-round idyllic weather. With over 1,000 islets and 26 atolls, the Republic of Maldives is located in the Indian Ocean about 700km southwest of Sri Lanka.
Beauty through purity is one of the things that make the Maldives a premium romantic location targeted by honeymooners. However, unlike the typical visitor, why not jump at the occasion to see the country from a completely different perspective: supporting protection of its underwater world. Enhance your understanding of the atolls and reef islands that offer some of the world’s most exquisite diving by getting involved in a whale shark protection programme.
Putting Protections in Place
Whale shark encounters happen throughout the year around the atolls of the Maldives, chiefly on the outer reef of the South Ari atoll, a whale shark hot spot very popular with snorkellers, who converge there on a daily basis. What most are not aware of though is that in recent years the sharks of the Maldives have been deliberately killed to fuel the high demand for fins and meat in the Asian market. This has been happening illegally around the atoll and legally outside it. Fortunately, to stop this from occurring in Maldivian water, the Maldives has made its first contribution to the marine ecosystem by developing a protected area for whale sharks. This initiative is backed by the government, diving professionals, representatives of the local community and biologists.
Visitors to the marine protected area will be governed by guidelines that regulate traffic, especially limits on maximum boat speeds and the number of boats and humans per shark. The government of Maldives endorsed these guidelines in June 2008 and the local community has been brought to understand how important it is to preserve the whale shark. Beyond respect for the survival of the species, everyone realises that without them, locals and dive centres will lose a major source of income.
Known as the top predators of the marine ecosystem, sharks have been around for 400 million years and play a very important role in marine life. Predators though they may be, they are still just another animal, challenged by the normal life cycle, which for sharks includes limited reproductive opportunities, slow growth and late maturation. All these factors, in addition to the huge pressure fishing exerts on them, contribute to their fast-declining population.
The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) was established in 2006 to protect the whale sharks. One of the main tasks of this programme is to look into the population and behaviour of whale sharks in the Maldives. This is managed through an international genetic analysis and tagging project as well as through photo-identification and prey surveys.
What Can You Do?
How can you get involved in protecting whale sharks? First of all, get close to where the project is being run: the Conrad Resort and Spa on Rangali Island in South Ari. The hotel organises two one-day trips per week for guests eager to participate in the photo-identification process of all sharks encountered. In addition, the MWSRP is about to start a round of research trips (April through June, as well as one in December) and on the lookout for research volunteers. One of the perks of this task is free diving with these endangered giants of the sea.
If you can’t join an expedition, the best way to help is by asking your tour operator for a briefing on the whale shark encounter guidelines, not buying any shark products and making a donation in cash or equipment to the MWSRP. Moreover, while you are in the Maldives, make a visit to Digurah Island, a typical Maldivian island where you can purchase genuine local crafts, and Dangethi Island’s cultural centre.
Finally, spread the word about the Maldives’ efforts: its marine protected area, the research being undertaken by the MWSRP and a ban on shark fishing including the export, import and sale of shark products.
For more information about the Maldives, including accommodations, tours, activities, all your travel needs and lots of insider tips, contact your local whl.travel connection: Afrah, Shanoon and the team from Canopus Maldives at www.maldiveshotels.mv.