Is the “Sinking Maldives” the Maldives “Undertoad”?

undertoad Maldives

The Maldives has been a poster child for the devastating impact of climate change. The image of an entire nation sinking into the depths of ocean captures the imagination like the tales of Atlantis. Newsweek recently published an article titled “We Are all Maldivians” which asserted:

  • If the Maldives sinks, it will also be time up for hundreds of millions of people who live in low-lying areas across the world.”

Article co-author former President Mohamed Nasheed is responsible for bringing the “sinking” meme to the world’s attention. It all started with a brilliant publicity stunt of holding a cabinet meeting underwater, and spread with Nasheed’s evangelical global advocacy for climate action.

First of all, let’s dispense with the semantic nicety that the Maldives are not “sinking” in the notion of their altitude getting close to the Earth’s centre. The land level is not dropping to any tectonic subduction, but rather the sea level is rising making the relative elevation above sea-level lower.

Nasheed’s piece cites a paper suggesting a sea-level rise of nearly 19mm per year, but recent data estimates that sea-levels are rising at a rate of 3.6mm per year [Royal Society]. This rise is the result of two main impacts of global warming: (a) melting Arctic land ice (eg. Greenland, Antarctica), and (b) expanding size of water at higher temperatures. The average elevation of the Maldives is 1600mm. So at the current rate of sea level rise, the Maldives won’t be mostly “sunk” for another 400 years. By which time, other problems like global famine and extreme weather events are much more likely to have decimated welfare more than the available land above water.

The ”sinking” calculations also assume that the Maldivians stand around passively and do nothing. They might not be able to unboil the ocean, but they can change the elevation of their country. In fact, despite rising sea levels of recent years, net Maldivian elevation has actually risen. Like the low lying ‘lands of nether” centuries before, Maldives has aggressively pursued efforts of terraforming which basically make islands out of ocean (as opposed to ocean out of islands when they sink) by dredging up landfill from the bottom of the ocean. In recent years, the country added over 432 hectares with the development of Huhumale island, and the president just recently announced the Ras Male project to add another 1,150 hectares (see photo below) with another major project in the Addu atoll aming to add 252 hectares. In the battle between rising seas and rising land, the land is winning.

Let me be clear…I am not denying climate change. The evidence that I have examined extensively does clearly show that (a) climate is changing, (b) this change’s speed is unprecedented in human history (limiting society’s ability to adapt in time), and (c) human activity (especially burning hydrocarbons) is the major contributor. Nor am I denying sea level rise. The oceans are rising and will continue to do so with climate change.

Why such pedantic distinctions? First of all, exacting accuracy matters in issues of science. By glossing over details, the climate activists expose themselves to the climate deniers who point out their minor errors and equate them to undermining all of science’s claims (the rhetorical term is “false equivalence”). Furthermore, people might end up fearing (and fighting) the wrong outcome. With limited political will (and hence public sector budget) to counter climate change, picking the right battles is important.

I am reminded of a passage from the book, “The World According to Garp” that an aquatic destination like the Maldives will appreciate:

  • “He stood ankle-deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water’s edge to have a word with him. ‘What are you doing, Walt?’ Helen asked…’I’m trying to see the Under Toad,’ Walt said. ‘The what? said Garp.’ ‘The Under Toad,’ Walt said, ‘I’m trying to see it. How big is it?’ And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.”

What are the real “undertows” in the treacherous waters of climate change (as opposed to the “under toad” distractions)?

  1. Severe weather events – Even flooding in the Maldives is not from daily sea levels encroaching, but instead the result of surges from severe storms (eg. “Study highlights complex causes of Maldives flooding”. Warmer air and water temperatures intensify the concentration of humidity and energy in the atmosphere which create bigger and stronger storms.
  2. Death of the oceans – The death of ocean is the death of the Maldives since that country is 99.97% ocean. Its two main industries are tourism and fishing. And both depend on the ocean. Tourism first started entirely predicated on the allure of its ocean as a diver’s paradise. Over time, the appeal grew to more of an over water experience with water villas, over-water spas, over-water restaurants, etc. The ecological change in the marine life of the oceans will have a more dramatic effect on the lives of Maldivians more intensely and more immediately than its average elevation.

The aboriginal Maldives was mill-pond calm lagoons with crystal clear waters and teeming with colourful tropical fish darting amongst colourful corals. With warmer waters comes the bleaching and demise of the corals, and the knock-on drop in fish populations. And it’s not just underwater, but over water the increased temperatures bring increased winds frothing up the water and disturbing the sought after tranquility. Land reclamation might counter millimetre level rises in sea level, but not powerful and large ocean surges from increasingly powerful tropical storms.  Like Walt’s ocean fear, people are fearing the “under toad” of “sinking” instead of the very real “undertow” of severe weather and dying coral reefs.

Maldives land reclamation

Best of the Maldives: Cousteau Tradition – Ritz-Carlton Maldives

Ritz-Carlton Maldives - Jean-Michael Cousteau

Jean-Michael Cousteau is the David Attenborough of the subaquatic world. A generation of sea lovers, like myself who watched it diligently as a child, were inspired by his prime time “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (a sample episode of sharks is featured below). He never shot an episode from the Maldives, though in 1997 the ubiquitously marine Maldives honoured him with a postage stamp (see bottom). But Ritz Carlton Maldives has brought his enduring legacy to the Maldives with their “Ocean Futures Society” collaboration with Jean-Michael Cousteau (Jacques’ son) which is carrying on the family mission to inspire people around the world with not just appreciate the aquatic world, but to take care of it.

The centre has sponsored six projects at the Ritz Maldives. One is exploring the concept of coral reefs as “underwater cities”. The notion described in Richard Murphy’s “Coral Reefs: Cities Under the Sea” postulates that all coral reefs have species who do different “jobs” (such as janitor, policeman, builder, farmer, etc. Curiously. which species do which roles varies from coral reef to coral reef.


Jacques Cousteau stamp

Best of the Maldives: Ornate Eagle Ray – OZEN Maadhoo

The best of the “Best of the Maldives” posts are about discoveries that a rare, exciting and “wow”. And you don’t come any more so than the Ornate Eagle Ray we watched swimming in the water villa lagoon of OZEN Maadhoo. It was a fitting crescendo to a superb 2022 Tour. As Lori went out to the deck of our water villa she spotted this fellow cruising by. She grabbed her phone and followed him to the end of the jetty until she could get a good angle to shoot this footage. This was the first time we had ever seen this spectacularly mottled ray in over two decades of snorkeling, diving and jetty strolling in the Maldives. The Maadhoo Dive Manager Udo Goergen said in his many years there, he had only seen them a few times.


Putting Ocean Warming into Perspective

Ocean temp 1

Few places provide the perspective the Earth’s vastness as effectively as standing on the seashore and gazing out on the vast expanse of the ocean. The level horizon provides an uninterrupted vista of the planet allowing the view to extend miles and miles (well, 3 miles about). A dip into this immensity adds the dimension of depth as you realise that this body of water plummets to fathoms below. In fact, the lowest point down in the ocean (Challenger Deep 36,200 feet) is deeper than the highest point up on land (Mount Everest 29,029 feet).

This immensity cloaks the blue planet in not just an aquatic wonderland, the birthplace of life and countless resources, but it regulates the world’s climate significantly. It absorbs and releases heat and water constantly. And with the inexorable release of Anthropocene carbon into the atmosphere and the consequential inching up of average temperatures, the oceans are doing their bit to absorb both.

The problem is that when the oceans absorbs carbon it makes the seawater more acidic which makes it less hospitable for a lot of its creatures. Also, when it absorbs the heat, it raises the water temperature which makes it less hospitable for the one of the pillars of the marine food chain – the coral reefs. The result is the widely reported bleaching and dying of the reefs. Over the two decades we have been visiting the Maldives, we have applauded the destination growing in many exciting ways, but each year (especially recently) we despair at the painful shrinking of the living coral primarily due to the warming sea temperatures.

In the Maldives, the reefs are not just foundation to the ecosystem, but the entirety of the county’s very being. As such, the country has been on the vanguard of campaigning for eco-sustainability and cutting carbon emissions. With the global prominence of Time’s Person of the Year Greta Thunberg and the impassioned television series by famed naturalist David Attenborough “Life on Our Planet”, the scale of carbon impact is getting a higher profile than ever.

But just how big is the impact right now? Forget all of the controversial models and forecasts. Forget the graphs showing tonnes of carbon emitted (as few of us are chemistry experts to know what all that carbon really means). Let’s just look at the actual, observed real world impact today of that carbon and climate change with a easily obtained and verified measurement – the temperature of the ocean.

I’ve happened upon a couple of illustrations of ocean temperature increase recently which prompted this post. The first from the Futurism website noted that

  • After analyzing data from the 1950s through 2019, an international team of scientists determined that the average temperature of the world’s oceans in 2019 was 0.075 degrees Celsius (.135 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the 1981–2010 average…The amount of heat we have put in the world’s oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions. That averages out to four Hiroshima bombs’ worth of energy entering the oceans every second for the past 25 years. But even more troubling, the rate isn’t holding steady at that alarming figure — it’s increasing.”

But a possibly even more dramatic number and comparison is the simple quantification of the energy that the ocean has absorbed – an accelerating at average of 10 zetta-joules per year(and last year was over 200 zetta-joules added). ZETTA joules. You don’t know what that is? Not surprising since it is such a big number there really aren’t many things in the universe to apply it to. A “zetta” is “10^21” (1 with 21 zeros after it).

Best of the Maldives: Leaf Fish – Ayada

When you first start diving, the big bold animals are the most alluring – sleek sharks, hovering turtles, soaring mantas. Over time, you start to get more enchanted by the more elusive creatures – tiny nudibranchs, camouflaged stone fish, hidden octopi. The dive becomes more of a treasure hunt than a safari.

One of the classic, masters of disguise is the leaf fish. If your bucket list includes one of these elusive creatures, then one treasure map is provide by Alexander Von Mende who points us to Mafzoo Giri in the Gaafu Alifu atoll:  “You will find a large coral block at around 15m that hosts no less than six residing leaf fish behind a dizzying wall of glass fish.” And if you want the most convenient access, the closest resort is Ayada.

Cute Li’l Fish Day

Octopus brain

The octopus’ Cephalopod cousin, the cuttlefish, is no less intriguing. Itself a clever chappie, they have one of the highest proportions of brain size to body size of all invertebrates. But all the more crazy is that the brain itself is shaped like a donut (a bit of a messed up donut) and the esophagus passes straight through the hole.  They must really get serious brain freeze when they eat ice cream too fast!

Best of the Maldives: Equatorial Cruise – Outrigger Konotta

Outrigger Konotta - equatorial cruise

For a deeper ocean experience, you can visit one of the most famous lines in the world – the Equator. Visitors to Gan get a certificate for flying over it, but visitors to Outrigger Konotta can take an excursion to swim right in it (and get a certificate)…

  • “Equator Cruise is a specialty cruise unique to Outrigger Konotta Maldives and lies its roots deep within the folklore history of Maldivian culture and traditions. It is a long cruise that begins with a wonderful on-cruise breakfast while the guests are on the way to the equator line. The hosts will be giving a brief history and briefing about the equator and historical stories related to Maldives. Upon arrival to the location, guests are required to change costumes to Local sarong, with Traditional fisherman Hat or Handmade Coconut palm leaves hat and Necklaces of tree root with corals or shells. The captain or main host will then make the announcement and will have a stick referred to as “King Neptune Pole stick.” The yacht will then put a balloon on the equator line. All guest will be instructed to go to the back of the yacht and say King of sea, Neptune..please let me cross your world and then jump. The guests will then need to swim 5 meters to cross the line. Lunch will be served on the way back to the resort where our GM and senior management will be waiting at the jetty to receive the guests and present them with certificates of participation. A group photo will be taken and framed to give to the participating guests upon departure.”

That really crosses the line!

Outrigger Konotta - equatorial cruise 2

Outrigger Konotta - equatorial cruise 3

Best of the Maldives: Eels – Maafushivaru

Zebra eel - Kurumba

Probably second to the sharks for looking fearsome and scary are the ubiquitous Maldive morays. The snake-like giant morays are everywhere, but like the sharks are pretty apprehensive creatures and prefer to stay tucked safely in some rock crevice with just their ominous mouth protruding. Often the teeth filled mouth is moving looking like it is practicing biting you (but it’s really just breathing). Occasionally, you will come across the more colourful Honeycomb variety. One snorkel, Lori even came across this baby (about 8 inches long) Zebra moray (see photo above) on the Kurumba house reef.

But we learned about the more extensive diversity of the Moray (or Muraenidae) family of eels during our visit to Maafushivaru. The Marine Biologist Nev held regular night snorkelings so you can see them when they are most active. You go out as sunset when there is still light and then watch the reef get darker as you bring out your torch to spotlight the nocturnal goings on. They have spotted the following morays on the house reef…

  • Giant moray
  • Yellow Margin moray (mostly at night)
  • Zebra moray (mostly at night)
  • Undulate moray
  • Honeycomb moray
  • Clouded moray
  • Peppered moray
  • White mouth moray

The house reef also features other eels as well including snake eels and cloudy eels.

We also learned that “Honeycomb Moray”, “Leopard Moray” and “Tessellate Moray” and “Laced Moray” are all monikers for the same species, Gymnothorax favagineus.

When you’re at the Maldives with lots of eels in the sea, that’s a moray.  When you’re at Maafushivaru and the eels are in view, that’s a moray…” ♫♪

Best of the Maldives: Longest Reef – Alimatha

Alimatha - Fottheyo longest reef

While the Maldives might have limited links land above sealevel, it’s undersea world is an expansive wonderland. And the most expansive of them all is the Fottheyo reef in the Vaavu atoll

We all know that Australia has the Greatest Barrier Reef in the World, but how many of you know, which one is the Greatest One in Maldives in terms of square kilometres?! The biggest one is Fottheyo Reef in Vaavu, with its 68 SQ KM.”

Great QI challenge by Paola.

Best of the Maldives: Albino Moray – JA Manafaru

JA Manafaru - albino moray

Today’s creature feature was brought to our attention during our visit to JA Manafaru and stopping by the Sun Diving centre there. They were exceptionally helpful orienting me to the dive sites in the surrounding Haa Alifu atoll and helping to fill out the dive site database with info and material.

The dive centre manage alerted us to many wonderful sites (as well as the scourge of Crown of Thorn Starfish hitting many Haa Alifu reefs), but none so colourful as the colourless Albino Moray at Kurolhi Thila. You will have to be a bit of a mini-Ahab to spot this white wonder as it moves around a bit, but it is regularly spotted (that is, seen not complexion). But it never moves from the thila and has been seen there for years.

Today’s feature was inspired by the second consecutive “Bad Pun Monday” (and, in fact, prompting me to add a new Category tag “Bad Puns”).

Wait for it…


Bad Pun - Moray