Story: Kate Malmgren | Photos: Rick Miskiv + Kate Malmgren |
Drone video: Laszlo Varga  

Before It’s Gone

Warm water laps over my chest as I wipe the sea from my eyes and turn to my dive buddy, Erika, hoping for some good news about the site we have just surveyed. Erika surfaces. She shakes her head. “Most of the corals at this site are dead.”

Her words haunt me. The reef seemed so alive just moments ago, lit up by angel fish, butterfly fish, a black tip reef shark, trevally, fusilier, and sea turtles. Erika explains that these residents of the reef belie the wreckage of bleached and dead coral. Indeed, it’s likely that there were even more fish on this reef before the catastrophic bleaching. Last year’s El Niño, and the unusually high ocean temperatures it brought, decimated Maldivian coral populations. I was floating above rubble.


In 2015, when I ventured to a collection of 1,200 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean for the first time, I was chasing a desire to explore our planet's biologically diverse ‘hot spots’ before they disappeared. Partly, I was determined to find signs of resilience, a naive quest, especially because--at the time--I couldn’t tell the difference between healthy coral and a soon-to-be graveyard. With eager ambition, I did my homework.

I got a crash course in coral identification and research protocols while working with The Hydrous on a follow-up expedition last December. In the waking hours we dove, ran quadrats using the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Protocol to Assess Coral Bleaching, took underwater photos and 360 footage, conducted fish surveys, and ran marine conservation and tech workshops. As the sun set and the inverse crescent moon rose, we would share beers and stories on the roof of Theia, our beloved liveaboard.

The more I dove, the more I realized the scene under the surf was a paradisiacal mirage. Almost all of our surveyed sites were dead and not coming back anytime soon. Coral colonies take a minimum of ten  years to regenerate and only do so under the best of circumstances. Our current geopolitical climate makes such circumstances seem all but unattainable.

When I was born, my relatives said that I was born with salt water in my blood. My father was a scuba instructor, abalone diver, surfer, and avid sailor. The quiet beauty of the sea and the boundlessness underneath the surface took hold of me. Through diving I came to witness the divine. I found freedom underwater and took comfort in Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s affirmation: “From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man only has to sink beneath the surface and he is free.” Scuba provided me a haven of mental repose, but the Maldives changed all of that.

The Maldives, known to be the Jewel of the Indian Ocean, is a nation of atolls famous for its coral white beaches and stilted seaside bungalows. For many, it is a top destination for the ultimate tropical vacation. It is also a canary in the coal mine. Sea level rise, erosion, pollution, El Niño-related bleaching, coral die-off, and political corruption plague the Maldives. The country's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights and environmental activist, has tried to bring light to these calamities. He hosted the first underwater cabinet meeting. Negotiations with other Asian nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) did little to cut carbon and cool the planet. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord was fruitless. Waters continue to warm and rise.

Such unusually high water temperatures trigger dramatic flight reactions in corals. Coral polyps expel their algal symbionts, leaving behind the bright, white skeleton of dying coral. As global temperatures rise, naturally occurring El Niño cycles cause more frequent bleaching events and the chances of coral ever recovering have plummeted. Rasdhoo house reef once glimmered. Table corals stood strong. Twelve months later, they were tombstones.

Plastic, too, afflicts the ocean. Plastic water bottles imported from Malé, the teeming capital city, is the primary source of potable water for the other islands. Households collect rainwater for washing in makeshift basins during the biannual monsoon, while water for drinking and cooking is ferried over from the capital. Consequently, plastic is everywhere. It is casually tossed over the side of fishing boats and eventually finds a temporary home on the shores of once pristine sandy beaches. As plastic cooks in the equatorial sun, it stiffens, becomes brittle and breaks down into millions of micro particles. These participles make their way back into the ocean and work their way into the food chain of coral, turtles and mantas who mistake them for tasty algae. Plastics carry and absorb toxins easily which eventually bioaccumulate higher up the foodchain. Some researchers believe that microfibers, washed into the oceans from synthetic materials such as comfy stretch jeans and leisure wear, could also have potentially negative effects, although the precise impact on corals is still indeterminate.  

After four days at sea, my dear friend and dive instructor Hasanu hatched a plan to visit Trash Island. Hasanu is a sage naturalist. With over twenty years of experience in the dive industry, and native to the overcrowded capital city of Malé, he faces economic, political, and climatic woes first hand. Curiosity and hope drove us to detour to Maalhos, whose inhabitants built a waste management facility in 2013. We agreed to this new mission on the off chance that we would meet a few locals who could validate the success of the facility.

After a ten minute dinghy ride, we tie in at the Maalhos harbor. Hasanu approaches a group of men drenched in sweat, hammering away on a construction site in the midday sun. Words are exchanged in Devahi, the nation's official language. Full face smiles appear shortly after.

“It is going very well,” Abdul says with pride. Abdul, one of five council members responsible for managing island affairs, walks us down sand streets, past modest homes with doors ajar and children riding bikes down the sun soaked byroad, en route to the well-curated dump, a lot on the northeast side of the island dedicated to rubbish, metal, glass and compost processing. Turning the corner, we cross the weekly trash pick-up brigade, run by a rotation of council volunteers. Today, Mohamed is on duty to collect separated recyclables, compostables and burnables from the 705 residents of Trash Island. A first sign of community resilience! Service costs a mere 100 Rufiyaa per household per month, which is roughly six USD per month.

Before waste sorting was established, compostables and “household waste” were thrown into the backyard lagoon. All other waste was burned. Foul odors and murky waters made the lagoon’s beach unapproachable. With the waste management facility up and running the beach is now clean.

Coffee and betel nut are served at Abdul's guest house as we seek refuge from the sun. The waste and resilience discussion rolls on. Sweat pearls on Abdul’s forehead as he explains how the council hopes to secure United Nations Development Programme or World Bank funds to finish a glass bottle manufacturing facility--the first step toward plastic independence. With a reverse osmosis desalination plant complete, Maalhos is primed to treat and bottle its own potable water. The council hopes to sunset plastic bottle shipments from Malé by bottling potable water on site and aim to turn a profit by distributing it to local resorts.

Our final stop on Abdul’s sinuous tour is the 700 square foot recycling facility. Crushed aluminum cans are stacked up to the corrugated metal ceiling. Four stalls are filled to the brim. A small open air room next to the aluminum towers house a worn hand press. Abdul’s six year old son, who followed on bike explains how metal processing works “You smash it, and you're finished.” Glass is sorted separately. Household waste is added to steaming piles of compost which would later be used as fertilizer in resident gardens. Large pieces of steel scrap metal pile up across the street. A few yards away, tucked behind another corner is a small trash pile maintaining a slow burn.

Water splashes up the side of our dinghy on the return ride. Hasanu and I sit silently, both lost in thought. Would this model of council and community independence take hold on other inhabited islands? Could others reduce their burnables down to a small pile? How can these lessons be shared? We left Maalhos instilled with hope, yearning to do more.

In the few bittersweet days leading to the end of our expedition, I was inspirited. Hasanu, Abdul, The Hydrous team and our crew helped me reawaken to the call of our oceans. We traveled night and day through shallow reefs and open ocean to study what might soon be lost. What was gained were heartening signs of resilience.