There’s more than postcard views and luxury accommodation at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, which is located in the South Ari Atoll—a place that feels miles and miles away, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. While plenty of attention has been centered on the resort opening the world’s first-ever underwater residence, The Muraka, the property’s eco efforts are just as impressive. From their plan to be entirely plastic-free by 2020 to their hydroponic garden and desalination plant, to investing in community initiatives and education, Conrad Rangali quietly but continually works on its sustainability efforts for those living above and under the clear blue water.
One of the most significant of those projects is their coral rejuvenation initiative. Three years ago, most of the coral in Maldivian reefs were bleached when El Niño created warmer water temperatures. While it didn’t last long, it led to the death of 60-90% of living coral reefs throughout the island nation. In order to restore those reefs, and foster the lives of animals that depend on them, Conrad teamed up with Ocean Group Maldives on various programs—and are sharing them with plenty of other resorts in Maldives.
Guests at Conrad can join members of the Dive Center (also run by Ocean Group) and replant coral fragments on metal frames which are then placed on the sea floor—literally creating the framework for new life. While we delicately zip-tie pieces of coral onto the frame (which can be adopted and named by guests), we speak with Corey Akers—marine biologist with Ocean Group—about the project, the state of Maldivian reefs, and if he remains hopeful.
How did the coral replanting initiative begin at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island?
Conrad understood the importance of having healthy coral reefs and wanted to get involved to help give back to the ocean. They teamed with their Dive Center, managed by Ocean Group, which also has marine biologists for several coral restoration programs at different resorts throughout the Maldives. We chose planting coral frame structures as a special way for guests to get physically and emotionally involved. With this, guests can choose a name for their coral frame, help attach the corals to it, and then they receive picture updates of their reef so they can watch how their corals grow larger and mature throughout the years, attracting many fish and invertebrates. We have had the program at Conrad for just over a year, and we now have over 60 coral frames. Ocean Group has planted over 500 corals frames total throughout our operations in the Maldives.
There are other processes for encouraging coral growth. Can you explain to us why this is the approach you collectively chose? Why is it most effective, or perhaps best-suited to this region?
Coral frames create an excellent environment for coral fragments to grow on. It is a frame made of rebar for strength that is coated with cement and sand for protection and to give a clean and hard surface to encourage growth. Having the corals on the frames makes them portable and easier to move to create reefs in new places, and easier to relocate them to deeper waters for safety if the temperatures rise. Also, having the corals elevated off the bottom prevents them from being buried by shifting sands, or eaten by benthic corallivorous predators.
Another reason that the frames are best suited for this region is due to the tourism. Coral reefs are very important to Maldivian culture, because the Maldives were created by coral reefs. Without corals, the Maldives would not exist. The coral reefs bring people from all around the world, but there is not much opportunity for tourists to give back to the ocean. With our coral frame program, guests get connected with our passionate marine biologists who help explain more detail and awareness about what we can do to help the environment. Adopting a personal coral frame is an easy and direct way to help our guests do something that promotes conservation, and they get picture evidence over the years of how their sponsorship has helped create a new environment.
Are there certain types of coral that are thriving more than others? Is all regrowth good? Or is there cause for concern when some species are doing better than others?
During the bleaching, lots of diversity in coral species was lost. There are many coral species that have not been seen locally since the bleaching event. There are also certain colors of coral that have not been observed again. It is a bit of a cause for concern because there are particular fish and invertebrate species that rely specifically on certain species of coral as their habitat. We have lost so much coral on our reefs that almost any coral growth can be considered as positive coral growth. Coral reefs help protect islands from erosion by slowing down the wave energy. Without this protection, the sandy shores absorb lots of this energy which leads to erosion of islands. On our frames, we do have most of our chosen species thriving because they are cared after by our marine biologist, and the design of the frames helps prevent predation.
We have turned lifeless “graveyards” into thriving nurseries
Have you seen much wildlife returning since the initiative has begun?
We have had the program at Conrad for just over a year, and our frames are already becoming a shelter and feeding area for many fish. With our similar projects in the Maldives, we have turned lifeless “graveyards” into thriving nurseries. Tens of thousands of fish are using our planted corals as shelter as the natural reefs are taking longer to recover and provide a similar habitat.
What is the hope for this project—a year from now, five years and then a decade in the future?
At Conrad, a year from now, we hope to double the number of coral frames we have added to our reefs. Our older frames will start to have larger corals which can provide more shelter. In five years, we hope to increase the size and pace and awareness of our program, and the growth will be very obvious to our guests who will see the difference this program has made. Hopefully, our corals will start to become mature and close to reproductive age. A decade from now, we hope to have so many coral frames planted and so much successful growth that it is hard to distinguish the frames from the natural reef. Also, by this time, our corals frames should have naturally reproduced so much coral larvae that it will help restore the natural reef around our island.