Global warming is a matter of life and death for the world's coral reefs. Even a small rise in ocean temperature can kill the tiny animals whose skeletons form the reefs.
That is a grim prospect for The Maldives — a nation of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean. Coral supports the country's two main industries: tourism and fishing. A Maldivian scientist, Abdul Azeez Abdul Hakeem, is on a mission to help corals survive climate change.
Azeez is the director of conservation for an eco-friendly resort called the Banyan Tree Maldives. The resort is located on the tiny island of Vabbinfaru. It's a five-star destination, popular with newlyweds and divers. There's an elegant spa, intimate cabanas nestled among the palm trees, and white sand beaches. But there's also a world-class marine laboratory, overseen by Azeez.
Azeez and his staff spend much of their time studying and maintaining coral. That is partly because the reefs themselves are beautiful — and an important attraction for the resort. But more importantly, the reefs provide a home for the sort of exotic fish that divers travel halfway around world to see.
"These are coral gardens," Azeez says, pointing to a burst of color beneath the water. "We have about ten of them around the island, in the lagoon."
Azeez spent 20 years running the Maldives' agricultural programs before coming to Banyan Tree. Now he takes every opportunity to pull a diving mask over his silver hair and glide through his underwater gardens.
Standing on the jetty, Azeez watches several large tuna hunt smaller prey. He does not care much for luminous parrot fish.
"They munch on corals," Azeez says. "I hate them."
Azeez protects his corals the way a parent protects a child.
"They are the children, you know," Azaaz says. "If they die, we die. It is simple as that. If the reef dies then we are gone. It is because the reef is here that we are alive. So we have to do everything we can to protect the reef."
The Vulnerability of Coral
"It rose to about 33 degrees Celsius," Azeez says. "Normally it's about 27, 28 degrees Celsius, so 33 was boiling hell, and about 80 to 90 percent of the corals in The Maldives died. I never believed that an entire region could be wiped out. No one believed that this could happen until it hit us. Then only I also realized yes we are in danger because of global warming and this can happen again and again."
So Azeez started looking for ways to protect the coral. He and his staff began doing experiments to see which varieties could tolerate or adapt to extreme heat.
And Azeez took a more radical step.
He knew that corals on an artificial reef nearby had survived the 1998 El Nino. The reef was an experimental design that used electricity. No one knew how it had protected the coral from extreme heat. But Azeez knew he wanted a similar reef for Vabbinfaru.
Electric Reef Proves Hardy
The Banyan Tree staff built the electric reef from steel bars and wired it to a power source on the beach. The small current causes minerals from ocean water to build up on the steel, forming a thick limestone crust that is perfect for coral.
The electric reef is on the far side of the island in about 15 feet of water.
Rob Tomasetti, who manages the marine lab, says the reef is one of the best places to go snorkeling.
From a distance the reef looks like underwater topiary — corals of every color growing in the unmistakable shape of a lotus flower 35 feet across. Swim down to one of the lotus petals and one can see the delicate structure and color of individual corals.
Back on shore, Azeez lists some of the varieties living on the Lotus reef.
"Finger corals, Hard corals, Massive corals," Azeez says. "We have tried to plant as many species as we can."
The reef also has plenty of sharks, grouper, butterfly fish, and clownfish. They're all there because coral reefs attract both predators and prey.
Azeez sees the electric reef as a kind of greenhouse for corals. He's counting on it to keep a critical mass alive when the next El Nino strikes.
"You can take pieces from the corals on this structure to that one and make your own garden again," Azeez says.
Azeez used a similar technique to help his gardens recover from the devastating El Nino in 1998. Divers transplanted tiny bits of coral that were still alive to reefs that had died.
Reviving the Coral Forests
Guests gather to take part in the monthly reef cleaning. Led by staff divers, they swim around the island, picking up garbage and removing predators.
"This is a crown-of-thorns starfish," Tomasetti says.
He holds up a spiny purple creature. It's very poisonous and devours coral.
The cleaning team heads into the water and before long a guest finds a crown-of-thorns. Azeez swims over and lifts it from the water with a steel hook.
"That's our enemy," Azeez says.
Then he adds that it's only the most immediate enemy. The real threat, he says, is global warming.NPR