Gardening- a pastime, job or hobby- is therapeutic for the mind, body and soul. A garden may provide an oasis of calm- somewhere peaceful to escape to, helping restore a sense of balance and well-being. Seeing something small and fragile that may cultivate, protect and grow to magnificent fruition is priceless.
What if this garden was under the ocean?
The idyllic Indian Ocean islands of the Maldives are host to such a surreal and unique activity. Located south of Sri Lanka, the Maldives are renowned for their climate, landscape and marine life. They are also known for their exclusive, luxury resorts, often built on stilts extending out over the coral reefs which surround the island.
Coral reefs in general are biologically diverse ecosystems and as such are one of the most precious resources on earth. They are a source of food for millions, protect coastlines from erosion, provide habitat, provide jobs and income to local economics from fishing, recreation and tourism and act as natural barriers, protecting locals from tropical storms, floods and tsunamis.
The coral reefs that surround the Maldives are a collection of gardens. Although underwater, they represent the same oasis of calm and peace that conventional gardens do. Maldivian waters are home to several ecosystems. The most renowned is their colourful coral reefs which are home to at least 1100 species of fish, 5 species of sea turtles, 21 species of whales and dolphins and 187 species of corals.
However these coral reefs are becoming increasingly important to protect from current trends in global warming. With only a one degree Celsius rise in sea temperature, corals turn white and are bleached, exposing their vulnerable inner skeletons. With this in mind, gardening and replanting in the Maldivian waters is becoming more vital than ever.
On the island of South Nilandhe Atoll, a selection of resorts are making concerted efforts to conserve their precious habitat. This is where the voluntary underwater gardening comes in. Travellers are able to spend the morning rolling out cement balls under the guidance and help of researchers and staff. After that, they swim out into the bright blue sea where, a few metres below the surface, they place these concrete balls within custom-made frames, within which they plant shards of coral. This is the framework which provides the basis for new corals to flourish.
Other resorts in the Maldives have also shown similar interest and passion in protecting their beautiful underwater gardens. In 2001, the Four Seasons Resort teamed up with an environmental consultancy to establish the coral propagation project called Reefscapers. Alongside regularly monitoring and photographing the coral growth, the team use a technique of cloning which is today used in global development of artificial reef generation.
By reproducing the most successful clones, scientists aim to develop more resilient coral offspring that can withstand high ocean temperatures and global warming. The dedication to this technique and project is outstanding as more than a decade later and the work from Reefscapers can be seen. All in all, the team’s efforts have led to a 20% increase in coral cover surrounding the resorts.
For underwater gardening to make a difference long into the future, there needs to be continuous research and monitoring. This is why many marine biologists travel to the Maldives to work. Their job involves data collection, monitoring the coral garden and the surrounding environment. They also set up environmental awareness programmes for local schools and the community. The children are taught that helping to protect marine life in turn helps to preserve the delicate balance of the country’s marine ecosystem.
So what does it feel like to go gardening underwater? Time and effort spent in the crystal clear waters under the hot bright sun will last forever, and more than just in your memory. In years to come, the small pieces of coral that you plant will flourish and encourage a whole mini eco-system to thrive around it.
How satisfying would it be to see your underwater garden flourish and grow?