A spot of underwater gardening

Sunday, 22 February 2009 10:41

Imagine planting an underwater garden: in Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru, they have just done that. Spotted all over their lagoon, are coral gardens of various ages, ranging from four months to five years. Each teems with rainbow-coloured fish.

As well as being aesthetically pleasing, the gardens give a much-needed boost to coral growth and aid the recovery of the house reef, essential since 1998, when El Nino killed 70-90 per cent of the coral in central Maldives. Banyan Tree was particularly hard hit with 98 per cent of its coral bleached.

The geographical nature of the Maldives means that reefs will forever play a crucial role both in its existence – reefs are responsible for island formation and act as a natural barrier against beach erosion – but also in two of its major industries, fishing and tourism.

Planting corals

The project is headed by director of conservation Abdul Azeez, who describes underwater gardening as his “passion”.

“There is an art to planting coral gardens,” says Azeez. “Planting corals of the same species in close proximity ensures they are more likely to benefit from successful fertilisation during coral spawning.” The shape and direction of each coral species has to be visualised when deciding which to plant next to the other, he adds.

The gardens are created by mimicking a natural process in which coral fragments, carried by ocean currents, eventually settle and reproduce. Here too, the employees at the resort’s marine laboratory collect broken pieces of coral and using cement, glue them onto concrete slabs and large plastic containers.

The result is breathtaking and according to marine biologist, Robert Tomafetti, once the coral envelops the plastic, it prevents toxins from leeching into the surrounding water.

Seeing each of the gardens at their different stages allows visitors to fully observe and appreciate the process. While young gardens are full of rubble, there is not even the slightest hint of concrete in the five-year-old garden.

More surprisingly, says Tomafetti, little coral gardens have begun to spring up in the area around the gardens.

A helping hand

The near-extinction of Tritons, a predatory marine gastropod, has led to two sea creatures – the crown-of-thorns starfish and the pincushion sea star – flourishing. These two, themselves predators, inhibit coral growth.

To compensate for the decline in the numbers of Tritons, the marine lab gives corals a helping hand. “Once a month,” says Azeez, “a team consisting of two staff from each department, dives down to remove these marine predators.”

In order to encourage coral growth, Banyan Tree has come up with the largest and indisputably, the most innovative flower in the Maldives. Located three metres beneath the sea on its house reef, is the Lotus project. From afar the construction looks like a shipwreck, but up close, you see a giant flower, swarming with coral and hundreds of fish.

The structure is huge, measuring 12m in width and weighing 2,000kg and was built and sunk with the help of 40 volunteers, under the supervision of Azeez and its inventors Dr Tom Goreau and Dr Wolf Hibbertz from the Global Coral Reef Alliance.

200 metres of cable provide the Lotus with a low voltage current. Broken corals have been wedged between its bars or attached to its frame with plastic cables. The concept behind the project is to test whether electricity encourages coral growth and helps to maintain healthy corals.

The birth of an electrical reef is ingenious. Although still at an experimental stage, the Lotus has so far proved successful.


The Banyan Tree is one of the few resorts in the Maldives that employs resident marine biologists for long-term conservation and research. A collective cry of alarm was raised after the coral bleaching of El Nino, but for some it was more out of concern for the decrease in tourist numbers than for the coral itself.

But Azeez believes it should be mandatory for each resort to have an environmental officer to ensure best practice. Beach erosion, he adds, is caused not just by global warming but the destruction of the reef. “Reef degradation after El Nino has increased beach erosion as the reefs act as a barrier to the sand being pulled out to sea.”

As a country both surrounded and formed by reef, Robert says it is imperative to find a balance between development and reef protection, “It’s only because of the coral reefs,” he says, “that the Maldives is here.”



Enter your email address:

Send us your news and get published