AT CHRISTMAS AND IN THE WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED, we were in shock at the ferocity of the Asian tsunami and the devastation it caused. I dont have to go into specifics because the media has covered almost every angle. Almost, but not quite. I wanted to know what had happened to the coral reefs and marine life in the path of the pressure wave.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ So in mid-January I travelled to the Maldives, one of the areas hit, to dive and assess the damage caused to the marine ecosystem, and see how the local diving community was coping with the problems delivered so unexpectedly on Boxing Day.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The Maldives population escaped far more lighter than Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, with 82 people confirmed as killed and 29 listed as missing. However, that figure does not reflect the destructive power of the waves on the local community, living on islands that are only a couple of metres above sea level at most.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Poorly constructed coral rubble and breeze-block buildings stood little chance against a wave that washed over the islands. That so comparatively few died is miraculous, but the make-up of the islands did much to prevent the nation suffering far worse.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Now, however, the Maldives has many homeless people and its economy still relies on tourism. Without visitors, the nation will be without money to rebuild, but visitors, particularly divers, will not return unless the underwater experiences continue to live up to the high Maldives standards.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Barefoot Traveller organised my trip. I have dived the Maldives since the mid-1990s and know how the reefs have fared over the past decade. They suffered greatly in 1998 after a bad coral bleaching incident following a massive El NiÃƒo in the Pacific, but there had been good signs of recovery.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I arrived at Male airport full of trepidation. I boarded the dive safari boat my Fatima which, like many of the boats and resort islands, was suffering a huge downturn in guests since Christmas as holidaymakers cancelled their trips.
I first dived in a channel on the eastern side of North Male atoll, one of the first areas hit by the waves in the Maldives.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I had seen pictures of the capital just after the tsunami, with the area around the port awash up to peoples thighs. Boats were up on the port wall and the whole place was in chaos. So I was not particularly hopeful about the state of the marine environment in the vicinity.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Embudu Express was the first real site I dived and it was, as usual, a high-energy drift. The current was washing into the atoll and I descended quickly to the mouth of the pass. Whitetip and grey reef sharks patrolled the lip into the ocean; a large shoal of bigeye jacks hung in the current and reef fish were everywhere. I even ran into a female hawksbill turtle foraging for sponges within the intact coral heads.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ It was, in fact, a standard, highly enjoyable and pretty spectacular Maldives dive. And that is basically what all the other sites are like. Every reef I dived in both North Male and Ari Atolls was visibly unaffected by the waves.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ In North Male Atoll, I found that the site most affected was the popular Banana Reef close to the capital, where sand had been blown onto coral near the surface of the reef. However, the site is subject to stiff currents and it will not be long before the light dusting of coral sand, like snow in England, disappears.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ In Ari Atoll, I found no visible signs of the waves. All the reefs were unaffected by the tsunami and the fish life was prolific, with good shark, manta and turtle sightings.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The 1998 coral bleaching event did far more damage, and the good news on that front is that new coral is beginning to flourish. The new formations of branching and table corals (some of the fastest growing corals) were unaffected and will improve - as long as divers can keep their hands, bodies and fins off them.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The only thing I did find was that the visibility was slightly down on what I expected (it averaged around 15m), and this could be a result of the tsunami aftermath. Then again, it could be a natural seasonal effect. Whatever, the visibility will clear, the new coral will continue to improve and the Maldives will remain a stunning place to dive.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ I also visited a resort island and did find some evidence of damage, but not much. The island, Eriyadu in North Male Atoll, had barren areas where low-lying foliage once grew and some minor damage such as flaking exterior paint to a couple of the accommodation bungalows. The main resort complex was untouched.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Like many islands, the main facilities were knocked out as the wave washed over the land. However, working quickly, the staff had electricity, air-conditioning, water and sanitation working the same day the waves hit.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The resorts manager was proud of his staffs achievements, but was using the opportunity of a lack of visitors after the tsunami to refurbish bungalows.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Many of the resort islands are doing the same. When you read in news reports that some resorts will be shut for many months, in general this refers to the higher-end establishments that have chosen to refurbish their facilities, and does not mean that the island was so devastated it cannot function.
What saved the Maldives was in fact its topography. Places such as Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have gently sloping shorelines that allowed the wave to build and eventually break with such power that much in its path was destroyed. In the Maldives, most of the islands have steep-sided or sheer coral walls that rise from great depth.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ The wave, therefore, never had time to build, and so what much of the Maldives experienced was a sudden rise in sea level that washed over the islands, but didnt crush them.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Im sure that, for the residents and visitors to the Maldives, the tsunami was a terrifying event, but it is a nation that is getting back on its feet quickly.
Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚Ã‚ Male is a fully functioning town, with no sign that anything untoward ever occurred. Under water, the reefs and fish life are as good as at any time in the past five years, so there is no reason to cancel a holiday there - or to avoid planning one for the future.
Barefoot Traveller, 020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com