Mike MacEacheran | Underwater gardening in the Maldives, BBC Travel
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Underwater gardening in the Maldives, BBC Travel

Eyes fixed ahead, the gardener delicately held the spiky-sharp thorn in her gloved hands. It was capable of giving her a deep cut, so she had to be careful.

Occasionally, she paused to take a deep breath, but otherwise she didn’t talk and was focussed on tending to the Eden-like garden in front of her. Bowed on her knees, she zip-tied the thorn to another plant, before showing her two companions how to tie and transplant another fractured branch. If it wasn’t for the tropical fish swimming around them and the cumbersome scuba gear, you’d swear they were tending a shrubbery.

This is how they do the gardening, Maldives-style. While most travellers visit the string of coral-fringed islands and coconut palm-topped atolls in the Indian Ocean for their pearl-white sandbanks, cyan waters and promise of never-ending romance, it is the iridescent, rainbow-coloured reefs below the surface that are the real spoiler. In the Baa Atoll, a 35-minute seaplane flight from Male, there is a greater diversity of fish than in an award-winning aquarium.

Kihavah Huravalhi, home to the luxurious Anantara Kihavah resort, is one of the few inhabited islands that make up the 75-strong island cluster and here coral adoption and reforestation is flourishing. On a morning dive or snorkel, it’s possible to see a number of upside-down nursery frames, made from up-cycled flower baskets and metal rods, within which are housed fractured pieces of coral.

Even if diving isn’t your thing, the initiative has great ecological value as it involves replanting reef fragments to accelerate the regeneration of coral growth in the Maldives’ reef-fringed atolls. Within a year, faster growing acropora corals, such as stag horn and table corals completely cover the structures, while slower growing species are introduced once the colonies are well established. At this point, fragments are then either painstakingly transplanted onto new structures – similar to piecing together a gigantic organic jigsaw – or are relocated back onto the natural reef where they can thrive.

Considering the footprint of the Maldives reef system, it may seem like an impossible task, but the endeavour is now greater than ever. Firstly, back in 1998, the Maldives’ corals were hit by El Niño, a periodic weather phenomenon, which marine biologists believe killed 90 per cent of the country’s reefs. With just a 1°C rise in temperature, corals turn white, exposing their inner skeletons and making them increasingly vulnerable – but Maldivian waters increased by a catastrophic 4°C. Recovery was then hampered by the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which smashed into the chain of coral reefs, leaving hundreds almost beyond repair.

So how effective can underwater gardening be? “It’s definitely progress, and that’s all we can ask for,” said Evelyn Chavent, one of only six marine biologists permanently based in the Baa Atoll and Anantara’s resident underwater expert. “You’d be surprised by how fast some of the corals grow – up to 2.5cm per year – so it’s a fast learner.”

There are some 450 different species of coral, and not every species has a fighting chance, but the coral reforestation and adoption programmes help educate tourists – who can sign up to adopt their own coral frames, then monitor the coral’s growth online – local fishermen and school children. To underline the country’s green credentials, the country is also on track to become the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2019 – something sceptics believe is overly ambitious. But scientists say rising sea levels could engulf the country and that action is essential.

Kihavah may be one of the most popular places in the Maldives in which to go underwater gardening, but it’s far from the only option. Located in the same atoll, Dusit Thani offers fish I.D. lessons with a marine biologist and guests can adopt a Spotted Eagle Ray, while at the Four Seasons Resort Maldvies at Landaa Giraavaru the coral propagation project has to date transplanted more than 120,000 fragments of coral – one of the most successful reforestation projects of its kind in the world. Also run by the Anantara hotel group, the islands of Dhigu, Veli and Naladhu in South Male Atoll are home to a number of coral adoption projects. Naladhu, in particular, sits on a crisp clear azure lagoon sheltered by a house reef that attracts black-tipped reef sharks and a huge variety of smaller species, including parrot and clown fish.

So what does it feel like to go gardening underwater? According to Evelyn Chavent, it’s something that will stay with you for life. “In years to come, some guests will come back to find that the small piece of coral that they planted has flourished and created a whole miniature eco-system around it,” she said. “That kind of sustainable tourism is priceless.”