Great Blue Wild: Maldives (2017) - Documentary
The Maldives. A remote island paradise in the sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean. But the ocean is rising and threatens to engulf this tiny island nation. The corals are suffering from climate change. It's of course impacting as well the erosion of the island.
But the people here won't let it go without a fight. We are transplanting as much as possible to help the marine life. Rebuilding the reef that may keep the Maldives from disappearing, and working to save this incredible home of rare creatures and soaring giants. In the heart of one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.
David Mesnard prepares his body and mind for a transformative underwater experience. It's being like in heaven. You really feel a special moment.
You feel the harmony of your tribe with you and being underwater all together gives you such a different dimension. It's hard to explain. He's in the Maldives, a chain of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean surrounded by extensive coral reefs and blue lagoons that explode with marine life making the Maldives a popular destination for divers. But David isn't an ordinary scuba diver, he's a free diver piercing the depths of the ocean for 6 minutes or more on a single breath. Without bubble-making oxygen tanks and scuba equipment David is inconspicuous underwater. We try to interact with big animals like the dolphins, the whale sharks, the manta rays.
So it's very natural. Moving silently through the seascape, as the fish do David has a special appreciation for this undersea paradise and a personal interest in its uncertain future. The Maldives has a lot to offer. It is a beautiful place. Far south you can discover the Maldives like 40 years ago. There's not much interaction with tourism.
There's still places where no one goes and if you want tranquility and peace you can find it here definitely. On this vibrant reef David is rarely disappointed. The Maldives is the result of an ancient geological collision between India and Africa.
It lies about 1,300 miles southwest of India. The thousand-plus islands stretch over an area roughly the size of Maine. The Maldives is surrounded by a range of marine ecosystems. From sandy shores and lagoons to coral reefs. Nearly 200 species of coral provide a habitat for more than 1,000 species of fish: Such as the oriental sweetlips... The schooling banner fish...
And the massive whale shark, the largest fish on the planet. The Maldives has a lot to offer. It is a beautiful place. When you look at all the beautiful dive sites we have from the whale shark to the manta rays to places where you can be on your own diving and no other people, I think it's really a paradise for diving.
Sadly, the Maldives is in danger of becoming paradise lost. These islands are constantly changing. Currents claw at the rock, eroding the land with every wave and changing the shape of the beaches with every season.
But the Maldives faces a threat far greater than erosion, the islands barely crest above sea level. The highest part of the Maldives is just 8 feet above the ocean. More than 80% of its land sits no higher than three feet above sea level, making the Maldives the lowest-lying country in the world. As the warming global climate causes the polar ice caps and sea ice to melt sea levels are rising, so much, in fact, that scientists estimate most of the Maldives will be under water by the year 2100. This tiny island nation is sinking. But the Maldives is not helpless.
It has a natural, built-in defense system, its coral reefs. The islands rest on a ring of coral, called an atoll. They're surrounded by the largest reef in the Indian ocean, a coral garden that covers more than 2,000 square miles. The reef system circles the nearly 1,200 islands of the Maldives and acts as a protective barrier to stop waves from eating away its shores.
The waves do break down the coral, producing the sand that fortifies old islands and creates new ones. Lives above and beneath the water, depend on the health of the coral reefs. Baa Atoll is home to the Maldives' Marine Discovery Centre.
Since 2005, the centre has developed conservation programs to safeguard the fragile ecosystems here, led by marine biologist Sebastien Stradal. The coral reef as an ecosystem is very important because it's hosting nearly 25% of biodiversity on the planet. It's as rich as the jungle in the Amazon for example. On the coral you have more than 500 species in the Maldives.
But all the different fish that are living on it, all the different organisms: the sea urchins, the sea cucumbers, the crabs, the shells, everything. So it's a very, very important ecosystem. The centre's top priority is to protect the coral. And if the coral dies, of course, you will already have 500 species that will die.
But not only that, because all this shelter will disappear. And if you just have an underwater desert, like the sand, like you can have under your feet here, you will not have a lot of shelter for these animals, and these animals will have to disappear. They will have to go somewhere else. And if they don't find another place, they will completely disappear as well.
This troubling scenario is a very real possibility. The coral that surrounds the Maldives is in trouble. In 1998, the weather phenomenon El Niño brought warmer water to the archipelago, raising the sea temperature here by as much as 5° Fahrenheit and killing two-thirds of its coral reefs in a massive 'bleaching' event. Reef bleaching occurs when abnormally warm water kills the algae that lives in the coral. It is the algae that gives coral its vibrant color and provides it with vital nutrients. When the algae goes, so does the coral's main food source.
The corals starve, break, and wash ashore, making the islands more vulnerable. Then in 2004, just as the reefs of the Maldives were beginning to recover from El Niño a powerful tsunami swept through the islands. The reefs absorbed most of the impact.
But where the coral was already weakened by bleaching, the land took a direct hit. 20 islands were wiped off the map altogether. Then in 2010, another bleaching event killed off even more coral. The corals are suffering from, of course, this global warming as well and climate change.
The fact that they're not doing really well and they're not growing that good is of course impacting as well the erosion of the island. But the people of the Maldives aren't letting their reef go without a fight. The Marine Discovery Centre is home to one of the world's largest reef projects. A coral propagation program called 'Reefscapers'. The Reefscaper program plants living coral in spots where reefs are most needed to provide a refuge for marine species and help spawn a new generation of corals. But first they have to build the new reefs.
Today, we're going to build a coral frame. Medium-size with 65 coral fragments. Sebastien and his team have carefully picked only the toughest species, corals that have proven to be more resistant to bleaching.
We take this one because they are very colorful, they grow fast, they're solid. They're very resistant to our program and they're easy to transplant. The coral fragments are carefully attached to an iron frame covered with several layers of sand. We just use a cable tie. We hold the coral firmly on top of it and we just zip it like this.
Now we have just finished to attach all the coral fragments to the frame. So Monty is cutting the cable ties, just what is leftover. So now you can see, it looks really nice. They install the frame in the water as quickly as possible to avoid stressing the coral. It is not a delicate process.
The Reefscapers program has already installed more than 3,000 coral frames on the ocean floor. Every 6 months, they replace fragments that might have died and take pictures of the new growth to monitor the progress of the coral. Slowly, but surely, new reefs are forming. The first year, the first year-and-a-half, the coral will grow really slow.
The corals will attach themselves to the bar, first of all. After that, it will be growing exponentially, because more tips will start to form. They will all grow at the same time. After three years, we estimate that your coral frame will be covered entirely.
As the corals take shape, fish begin to arrive. Coral reefs form nurseries for about one-quarter of the oceans' fish. The first year, you don't have a lot fish. But suddenly, when you have hundreds of frames, it attracts a lot of fish.
All sorts of animals that needed the shelter in this area, and they were happy to find this area, because in nature, the animals in the ocean they cannot survive if they don't have a shelter. If they are small or even if they're little bit big. Where coral thrives, so do other animals. During the day, soldier fish hide among the coral, where their bright coloring helps them blend in. The moray eel also uses the reef as a hiding spot waiting for the opportunity to dart out and catch a meal.
Strong Indian ocean currents act as superhighways, carrying animals and nutrient-rich water to the reef. They are what make the Maldives an underwater paradise. They also carry the world's garbage far away from its original source. Most of that garbage is plastic. It's estimated that 5.3 trillion pieces of plastic
float in our oceans. 275,000 tons of plastic. The weight of that much plastic equals the weight of 570 fully loaded Boeing 747s. It's believed that up to 10% of the plastic comes from free-floating 'ghost nets', nylon fishing nets discarded by fishing boats on the high seas.
Most fishermen around the Maldives don't even use nets, yet the nets still find their way to these shores carried by the strong monsoon winds that blow from every direction with each season. Ghost nets present a terrible threat to the wild life of the Maldives. Each year in the Baa Atoll, dozens of sea turtles are found entangled in these nets. Each time the monsoon will turn, it's also synonymous that a lot of wind is coming and a lot of current is coming as well. Suddenly, there is a big movement in the ocean, and these turtles will arrive here along the coast of the Maldives.
So this is how we find them. Unfortunately for these turtles, when they arrive there, they will get trapped because they get their flipper inside these nets and they will not be able to escape anymore. So they will try to escape desperately for a certain time, weeks, but they are not able to do it.
Only if they cut off their flipper, which happens, actually quite often. If they are not able to cut off their flipper, they start to drift with the current, and they will arrive here in the Maldives. Fortunately, locals tip the marine discovery centre whenever a turtle is found.
Today, the rescue team is heading out to a nearby dock to pick up a stranded turtle. Good morning, how is it going? You can see the left front flipper has been cut, but it's already healing. Barnacles. Nearly healed already. Lots of barnacles.
Animal is calm, so that's good. It's not very dirty, as well. Looks in good state. So we're just going to carry it and put it in our boat. It's an olive ridley turtle, named for its distinctive olive-colored shell.
You can see the main injury is the missing left front flipper. Kinda look like this. We can imagine it was a bite. It doesn't really look like a previous entanglement.
You can see some wounds between the neck and the carapace. Not so bad. Olive ridley turtles are not meant to be in the Maldives. They're solitary animals, that live out in the open ocean, often more than 2,000 miles from shore. The olive ridley is the smallest species of sea turtle, they weigh an average of 100 pounds, and reach just 2 feet in shell length. But they are strong swimmers, an olive ridley turtle can migrate thousands of miles in a year, by following the currents through the ocean.
Five species of sea turtles live in the Indian ocean around the Maldives, but it's the olive ridley turtle that rescuers see most often, likely because they're being swept here in ghost fishing nets. That's exactly what the team thinks happened to this turtle. They'll bring it back to the Marine Discovery Centre where marine biologist Sarah Davies will perform a thorough checkup to determine the extent of its injuries. Anyone in the Maldives, if they find any injured or sick turtles, they call us and we bring them here to our centre, where we provide care, TLC, bit of loving for the turtles, to try and get them back to health and back to the ocean as soon as possible.
So we're going to flip the animal to have a look what's going on the other side of its body because now obviously this side looks good, but we don't know what's on the other side, if it's injured as well. So, just gonna flip it. This part looks kind of damaged. Like the animal had a shock. It's a little bit broken actually.
You can see there's a lot of blood beneath this plastron. It's clear to Sebastien that the turtle is bleeding internally. The team can only hope the injuries are not too extensive. Since the turtle arrived at the centre, it has barely moved. The medical team puts it into a tank.
It manages to float and attempts to swim, a good sign. At the moment it's fine. So we're also gonna try probably to give him something to eat.
To have a look if it's still hungry. It doesn't seem to be very interested in this fish. This turtle, now named Rafaela, will stay here until she's healed enough to handle the rigors of sea life. Later in the day, the Marine Discovery Centre receives another call. It's a second olive ridley turtle. This one is in serious condition.
It looks like it spent months entangled in a ghost net, drifting and unable to feed itself. We received a phone call from the police. they have found a turtle that was injured, beached. So we're gonna go there.
It's an island about 20 minutes from here. We're gonna pick up the turtle. Hopefully, it's still in good shape and still alive. Yeah, this is Sebastien from the Marine Discovery Centre. We're in Landa Vaandu right now. Where are you exactly? Apparently we have very bad news, they just informed us that the turtle died.
We're still gonna go pick up the turtle. To have a look at it, why it died. To see the species, to take several records: the measurements, the weight, etc. And put it on our database. The centre keeps a record of each turtle they encounter.
They'll use that data to find out how and why this happened. And hopefully, stop it one day. Good evening, how are you? Good? Hello. It's obviously dead.
Olive ridley. That's pretty bad shape. Yeah, that's really bad. And you saw it's quite a big turtle and the guy was just carrying it like this, so it must be completely underweight. Just have the carapace left, and the bone.
Sebastien moves the turtle onto a Marine Centre boat where he makes a shocking discovery. Did it move? It's still alive. It just moved. It was still breathing, I mean...
In the fresh water it will be better. Sebastien thinks the turtle has been trapped for at least two weeks. Its attempts to escape have caused the net to cut into its front-left flipper, almost completely severing it. Here you can see it's extremely weak. It's very raw.
It's in extremely bad shape. You can imagine, the animal was suffering for a couple of weeks. Maybe months. Let's see what's possible to do now. The team has never encountered a turtle in such critical condition before. Without a minute to spare, they head back to the Marine Discovery Centre.
He's gonna be fine. So I'm basically just gonna have a quick look at the wounds and try to clean as much as I can. Just try to disinfect the wounds a little bit.
So, just putting some iodine just to try and clean out the wounds. Let's see, now it's cool, it's in fresh water. It can hydrate a little bit, relax, as well. So, let's see tomorrow.
Of course the animal is still suffering, a lot. And let's see tomorrow how this one is going, if there's some life still. Olive ridley turtles were once considered the most abundant sea turtle in the world with more than 800,000 breeding females. But in the last 100 years, the population has dropped more than 80%.
The new dawn brings bad news. The turtle did not survive the night. It's a heartbreaking morning for the team, but the fight for survival continues for the rest of the residents in their rehab facility.
The Marine Discovery Centre is a permanent home to those turtles that never heal enough to survive in the wild. The marine centre gives them a new home. We have Aussie, so Aussie is one that's very active. She's always very enthusiastic, always kinda swimming around in the tank. But unfortunately, her main problem is that she can't dive. She has a buoyancy problem.
She was found tangled in a net, so she did had to have unfortunately one of her flippers amputated. When a turtle suffers from trauma, its system releases gas into its body cavities inflating them like a balloon and preventing the turtle from submerging in the water. Feeding time is a great opportunity for these floating turtles to exercise. Sarah encourages them to swim after pieces of frozen fish to keep the turtles active. This strength training is necessary to help the turtles recover the propelling power lost with their amputated flippers. We have Elsa.
Elsa is usually everyone's favorite. She's missing both her front flippers, unfortunately. We really thought it was, you know, gonna be the end for Elsa really. We didn't think she would really be able to survive and recover after that. But she's really amazing. In two years, she's managed to be able to dive.
But unfortunately, she's still very slow. She doesn't have the reaction speed to overcome any predators or to potentially get food for herself. Ghost nets have destined Aussie and Elsa to a life in captivity. But the Marine Discovery Centre and its world-wide partners can at least offer them a second chance.
So recently, we had some contact with an aquarium in Spain. And they're really keen to take Aussie. They have an interest in putting a prosthetic flipper on her.
I think with another flipper, she'd really be able to get herself down under the water. I think it would be a really good opportunity. When we rescue a turtle, of course, it's always very painful to see the state of the animal. But at the same time, we are happy that we have managed to rescue it and take it here under observation.
The positive thing is that more and more people are aware about our rehabilitation centre, especially the locals also the marine biologists. So everybody now is calling us whenever they find a turtle. Olive ridleys aren't native to the Maldives. But five different species of sea turtle do call these islands home including the hawksbill. They are typically solitary creatures, and, unlike the olive ridley turtle tend to avoid the open ocean preferring to lounge in coral reefs near the shore.
The hawksbill is able to push its massive shell which can grow up to 3 feet long into tight spots in the reef to search for food. This hawksbill is on the lookout for a meal. And it has the perfect tool for the job. A pointed bill, shaped like a hawk's beak that helps them get at prey hidden among the coral crevasses.
The Hawksbill is actually a species that is constantly foraging. So, you will see them, they will be very active, they will be on the bottom, not that deep, between 2-3 meters, until like maybe 6-7 meters. Hawksbills are always on the lookout for food. They will eat almost anything. Crabs, shellfish, spawning corals, even the soft corals themselves. It's a good thing hawksbills have such a voracious appetite.
They help to keep reefs healthy by eating sponges that compete for space with reef-building corals. They are the lawnmowers of the sea, grazing on sea grass, and preventing underwater meadows from becoming overgrown and unhealthy. The sea turtle is vital to maintaining a stable marine ecosystem in the Maldives. But it's not the only creature with an important job. These grey reef sharks have company.
Remora, or suckerfish, swim with the sharks and act as a spa attendant. Cleaning their skin, eating tiny parasites and snacking on leftover food fragments the shark may spill in the water. Of course, remoras gets plenty in return for the work they do.
Besides being well fed with very little effort, they get a speedy form of transportation, and a bodyguard, to protect them from other hunters that roam the sea. Remoras are powerful swimmers. Even when not latched on they can keep up, swimming alongside the shark with ease. This kind of relationship isn't reserved just for powerful predators. A sleek unicorn fish visits a cleaning station where the attendants are far more stationary. Cleaner wrasses will invite fish into their station by swishing their tails up and down.
These tiny fish fill a crucial role here: Helping bigger fish clean their nooks and crannies eating any parasites that might have taken hold. This kind of inter-species cooperation is called "a symbiotic relationship". It's common throughout the world's oceans. Clownfish, for example, have a special relationship with their homes. These colorful creatures live among sea anemones.
Though they look like flowers anemones are relatives of the jellyfish and pack a powerful sting. Special stinging cells on their tentacles hold an incredibly powerful paralyzing neurotoxin deadly to most creatures. But not to the clownfish, thanks to a layer of mucus that surrounds its body, protecting it from the sting. By living among sea anemones, the clownfish gets a powerful defense system. And in turn, the anemone gets to snack on the clownfish's leftovers.
Cooperation occurs within a species as well, especially when there are thousands on a journey and no time for traffic jams. Silver sprats, at just 3-inches long are a favorite meal of many creatures in these waters. But what they lack in size, they make up for in coordination.
These massive schools swirl through the sea in perfectly choreographed swarms dipping and dodging to confuse potential predators. It's as though the school has a mind of its own. Traveling in a massive group like this also helps in the search for food. Thousands of eyes are better than two. The fish share information by watching each other closely.
When one makes a move toward something interesting, the rest immediately follow suit cascading through the water towards their intended target. Manta rays, on the other hand, aren't known for traveling in a group. But here in the Maldives, they do, soaring through the water like eagles in flight. These charismatic creatures have exceptionally large brains. Some researchers believe that mantas, like primates can recognize themselves in a mirror.
Though this self-awareness has yet to be proved. The strong currents that carry plankton to the islands make the Maldives an ideal feeding site for these gentle giants. With an estimated population of 5,000 mantas the Maldives is the world epicenter of manta ray research. So guys, we're gonna be diving at Manta Point today. Beth Taylor is a marine biologist with the Maldivian Manta Ray Project.
A network of researchers stationed across the country with one common goal: To learn more about the life cycle and behavior of one of the world's most fascinating manta populations. Might be a little bit more shy. Here on Laamu Atoll, Beth and her team are headed down to one of the busiest cleaning stations in the Maldives, Manta Point. Perfect, it's right here. What makes Laamu in general very, very special is the health and the diversity of the reefs. They host so many fish.
And obviously, the most important being the cleaner wrasse. So, without these guys, the sharks, the grouper, the snapper and the manta ray would have nowhere to come and clean. The team hopes to get close enough to identify as many local mantas as possible. But dive conditions are far from ideal.
The incoming current is not stirring enough plankton to attract large numbers of mantas. Even if a few do show up, they may not want to come close. In low light, with limited visibility mantas must be wary of any possible predator.
Beth signals the team. She has spotted a male manta named Harris. This may be a successful dive after all. Harris himself, he's a wonderful manta but he is one of the more shy individuals.
And this is mainly due, we believe anyway, to the slight damage he has on his cephalic fin. Cephalic fins extend from the head like devil's horns. They are essential to a manta's ability to feed. They funnel water and plankton into its mouth. An injured fin affects the manta's capacity, not only to feed, but to mate and clean itself. The team believes this injury may be the reason Harris is keeping his distance.
A second manta has been spotted. This one has no qualms about approaching the divers. It is Michelle, Laamu's most famous Manta.
And then we saw Michelle, and we were, like, "Yeah, we gonna get a good shot today." Every time when we dive with Michelle it's-- it's amazing, every time. Michelle is different from all the other mantas.
He always comes over you, he will always check you, he will take a good look at you. Mantas are identified by the pattern of spots on their bellies. Each is unique, like a human fingerprint. The research team hopes to photograph these patterns so they can catalogue and monitor the resident mantas of the Laamu Atoll.
Back on land, Beth and her colleagues will enter the photos and data collected on this dive into a shared database cataloging the biology, behavior and migration patterns of the Maldivian manta rays. Today was a lot more rough than I was expecting. The team's observations may help explain the low number of mantas at the cleaning station today. Yeah. Did you notice how many very, very large groupers there were?
Really-- Especially, on the second dive. Yeah, exactly. Really, really dominating.
It is because on the lunar calendar, from the 26th to 30th, they're breeding on the channel. I see. So we've been seeing them like last couple of days. Manta rays are incredibly intelligent. So, they're very, very aware of their surroundings. For a long time we've believed that this area could potentially be a spawning ground for grouper.
And what I've noticed with my colleagues is that when the very, very large of the species are present, the mantas won't be there. When it's the spawning time and you're seeing all these adults and these really, really mature grouper, you won't find any mantas. And if you do, they cruise by and they don't stay.
Dive after dive, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project uncovers the complex behaviors of these majestic creatures. 125 five miles north of Laamu Marine biologist Nicola Bassett prepares for a dive in one of the archipelago's largest isles. The Ari Atoll.
The reef here has both feeding and cleaning stations, making it a prime research spot for marine biologists and another key stop for mantas migrating through the Maldives. It is an amazing day. As you can see the sea is really calm, blue skies, few clouds and sun shining. So, hopefully, luck will be on our side under the water as well as above it.
Parrotfish are the first to greet Nicola on the reef. Not far from them she spots three juvenile male mantas. Like humans, female and male mantas can be distinguished by their sex organs.
Females have two pelvic fins that resemble paddles at the base of their tails. Males also have a pair of pelvic fins, but in addition, they develop a set of claspers that are only visible as the male reaches sexual maturity. When they do, these male mantas will return to this station to reproduce. Cleaning stations in general we know are an important area for manta courtship and manta mating behavior. Mantas are solitary but then at these cleaning stations they come together. So it's a good area for males to meet females.
And after 7 years, and more than 25,000 sightings the Maldivian Manta Ray Project has recorded 3,000 different mantas in these waters. It's the largest number of identified manta rays anywhere in the world. Yet there is still much to be learned about their behavior. The charismatic fish with the largest brain in the ocean remains one of the most captivating wonders of this underwater realm. From white-sand beaches and emerald seas... To vibrant seascapes...
And majestic giants... The Maldives is a stunning natural wonder. But this fragile paradise so vulnerable to the powers of nature needs protection. In this untamed environment where coral reefs barricade islands from destruction and fish develop alliances to guarantee their survival every small effort counts to preserve this tiny island treasure perilously scattered in the planet's rising oceans.