Paradise: Kate Humble in the Maldives

Beautiful yet delicate, the reefs around the islands of the Maldives are under threat. Kate Humble gets an underwater glimpse of a dazzling marine world

Tropical Paradise – two words that crop up time and time again when describing the Maldives. I had never been, but I'd seen pictures. Tiny islands shaded by gently waving coconut palms, fringed with sand of the palest gold, speckled with thatched wooden villas perched on stilts above the limpid turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. That's the sort of thing I was expecting.

And that was exactly the sight that greeted me as the speedboat from the airport neared the jetty of Baros Resort.

I have a friend who works for a specialist tour operator. One of her benchmarks in deciding whether or not a hotel is suitably luxurious for her clients is the presence of cotton wool balls and cotton buds in the bathroom. On that basis, Baros would get a very large tick indeed. Not only do the bathrooms have dedicated jars filled with cotton wool balls and buds, but there are also acres of white fluffy towels, the tissues are folded into fans, there are complimentary flip-flops – and a pillow menu. Buckwheat or goosedown? Just dial "7" and it will be rushed to your door by a member of staff.

It seemed almost impossible that in the time it had taken to watch a film, eat a chicken curry, read a satisfyingly large chunk of Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child and have a bit of a kip, I could have got from a chilly Wales to this – a carefully designed and constructed slice of that promised paradise.

Tourism is by far the biggest industry on this thousand-island nation. The population is tiny – just 300,000 people – and a third live on the capital island of Malé, a traffic-jammed hotchpotch of high-rise buildings and narrow, rubbish-strewn streets. It's a far cry from the hibiscus-lined paths and sunloungers of the resort islands. There are about 130 resorts, each occupying its own island, employing thousands of people.

Baros Island is a case in point: just 300m by 100m, it employs 300 people – and that's not including all the suppliers and importers that keep the cotton buds flowing. Because that is the great conundrum that faces the Maldives and the people who visit it. The previous president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, who resigned following protests earlier this year, held an underwater cabinet meeting in 2009 to demand a global reduction in carbon emissions and declare that the Maldives would be carbon neutral by 2020. It was a fanciful idea, made even more ridiculous when tourism forms such a fundamental part of life here.

Mr Maniku, the Maldivian owner of Baros, could be credited for helping to initiate tourism on the Maldives when he invited some Italian friends to stay on an uninhabited island in the early 1980s, when there was just a simple shelter made from coconut palms. The friends fished from the beach and cooked their catch on a barbecue – simple, no-impact, carbon-neutral paradise. But the Maldives has gone way beyond that now – and so have the demands of the people who come here. They have to fly to visit this paradise, and they want their holiday air-conditioned, bug-free, with hot showers at any time of day and Wi-Fi on the sun deck.

So is there anything that modern-day travellers to the Maldives can do to give something back to this fragile environment they are putting under so much pressure? Sepp, the German man who runs the dive centre at Baros, came to the Maldives more than 30 years ago. He and his Dutch business partner Ronny think so.

The Maldives is high on any diver's wish list, and justifiably so. It is famed for almost guaranteed encounters with manta rays; the reefs are spectacular and it would be an unusual dive not to see a shark or a turtle. Baros Island is surrounded by a glorious bank of coral, a short snorkel across the lagoon from the steps that lead straight into the sea from our villa. There is a strict "no feed, no touch" policy here, and the result is a marine world totally unfazed by the presence of pale, human-shaped forms hovering in its midst.

On my first evening we went out just before sunset. Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse habitats on our planet, second only to rainforests – indeed they are often referred to as the rainforests of the sea. Snorkelling on the Baros home reef, it was easy to see why. Hard corals and soft corals of every shape and size sheltered skulking groupers, elaborate lion fish and malign-looking moray eels. Table corals and staghorns played host to thousands of tiny, brightly coloured fish darting among their branches like shy birds. Butterflyfish, as delicately patterned as their insect namesake, flitted about the reef. Three eagle rays soared past us, and a blacktip reef shark slunk by, lithe and silent as a cat.

It was astonishing to think that just over a decade ago all this coral was dead, and that the fish that depend on it had disappeared. Coral grows in sea water that is between 23C and 29C. In 1998, an El Niño year, the sea temperature in the Maldives rose to 35C in a matter of days and stayed around that temperature for six weeks. It only took that long for 90 per cent of the coral to die.

Coral is not a plant but a colony of animals, and it has a much more important function than just being beautiful to look at. Coral reefs act a bit like a protective seawall for small, low-lying islands such as the Maldives. They act as breeding grounds and feeding grounds for numerous species of fish, which in turn provide food, but crucially they give us vital information about the state and health of the sea. Rising sea temperatures, pollution, ocean acidification – all have a detrimental effect on coral which ultimately will have a devastating effect on we humans.

The challenge is monitoring it and making sure the early warning signs don't go unnoticed. This is where Reef Check comes in. This organisation has devised a way for amateur divers to contribute to the scientific data needed to effectively keep an eye on the state of our tropical seas. The dive centre at Baros was the first place in the Maldives to offer the Reef Watch course, and I'd eagerly signed up to help.

Learning about substrate and how to identify certain sorts of invertebrates and species of fish deemed important "indicator species" may not be everyone's idea of holiday reading, but as a diver I found it fascinating. In the morning I would be in the classroom with Ronny, testing my newly acquired powers of identification; in the afternoon I would put them into practice underwater.

A short wade from the beach brings you to the house reef. On the way in I stopped to admire a hawksbill turtle who, seemingly unconcerned by the arrival of various people with clipboards on her reef, carried on digging through the coral looking for something she wanted to eat.

Ronny laid out a transect of 100m. I was to count the species of fish deemed important either for food or the aquarium trade, to establish how their populations were faring, while Ronny checked the substrate. It took more than an hour to cover the 100m section of reef, but rarely have I found a dive so engrossing. The course gave me a much greater understanding and appreciation of the reef and the life it supports; it made my subsequent dives even more rewarding.

The data we collected was sent to the Marine Conservation Society in the UK, to be analysed and added to the Reef Check database. In a very small way my time in the Maldives had helped to contribute to the science that may help to ensure that the coral reefs and island nations such as the Maldives have a future.

If more resorts and more divers take it up, the contribution will be more significant. Nasheed's dream to be carbon neutral and provide more opportunities for high-end tourism at the same time might have been unrealistic, but his goal to preserve the Maldives shouldn't be. People have lived here for thousands of years. They caught fish, collected rain water, planted gardens, tended their coconut trees. Their boats were powered by wind; they navigated using the stars. Yet in a matter of decades this place has been transformed into the paradise of tourist brochures: one-dimensional and temporary as a theatre set. If we don't change our expectations it will take a lot more than cotton wool balls to make this seem like paradise.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk) offers a week's B&B at Baros Maldives from £1,984pp, with BA flights from Gatwick, transfers and access to the VIP lounge in Malé airport. Malé is served from Gatwick by BA; from Heathrow via Colombo by Sri Lankan Airways; from Manchester and Heathrow via Doha by Qatar Airways; and Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester via Dubai by Emirates.

Diving there

Baros Maldives (00 960 664 26 72; baros.com) offers three-day Eco Diver courses from £280pp, and the Discover Reef Check sessions from £63pp.

More information

visitmaldives.com

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