I fancy myself as a tree-hugger – I recycle all my plastic bags and switch off the lights when I leave rooms. But there comes a time when even the most ardent ecologically aware soul wants a holiday.
Finding myself on Velavaru Island, in the South Nilandhe atoll of the Maldives, I realise I haven’t sacrificed my green conscience at all for the sake of a break.
I squeal with delight at the sight of the island’s spa and lick my lips looking at the resort’s cocktail menu, but it’s the Marine Lab on Velavaru that really gets my blood pumping with excitement.
An early start in The Maldives
As much as I think I want to sleep in while on holiday, I’m up at 7am every morning.
But it’s much easier to rise at this early hour when there’s the promise of a snorkel safari, which means sailing out to the deeper side of the coral reef surrounding the island.
The Marine Lab offers snorkel safaris on a complimentary basis every second morning, and local guides who grew up on nearby islands take guests out to sea.
It’s on my first snorkel safari that I hear about the alien plant, and I want to show it who’s boss.
Before we jump into the water, Ikraam, one of the local guides, reminds us how important coral is: “The coral reefs around Velavaru Island support a quarter of all the marine life [of the area] and protect the coasts from wave erosion.”
This fact is brought vividly to life as soon as I put my head under water.
Milk fish, tiger fish, small yellow fish with faces shaped like trumpets; there are so many fish I don’t know where to look first.
“It’s like looking into a very full giant fish tank!” exclaims a fellow swimmer.
It’s fascinating to just float and stare at all the goings-on under the sea, but we’re here to do a spot of coral gardening, just one of the eco-friendly activities that the Marine Lab offers guests on the island.
The coral gardening on our safari takes the form of ‘weeding’ the reefs of this nasty alien plant, and we are itching to find it.
We’re instructed to pull the plant off of the coral without causing too much harm to it, and then to swim out away from the reef and drop it. Lying on the seabed away from the coral, it
can’t cause any damage.
The snorkel safari takes about two hours and by the time we all clamber back on to the boat, a fair size of the reef has been weeded by our green fingers.
I realise how effective this is as an eco-tourism activity.
The Marine Lab is maintaining the environment and teaching guests all about ecological issues through the snorkel safaris.
Coral planting is another activity the Marine Lab occasionally gets guests involved in.
During the 1990s, the El Niño weather phenomenon brought such warm tides past the island that a lot of the coral died and the rest was bleached white.
After being tested in Indonesia, coral was transplanted in Velavaru, which proved to be so successful that four coral gardens have now been planted in the lagoon.
Spotting baby sharks on Velavaru Island, The Maldives
The reef not only teems with fish – turtles and sharks regularly hang out here too.
The lagoon around Velavaru Island acts as a shark nursery as it’s a calmer and more protected environment than the deep sea.
Pregnant black-tipped reef sharks come into the lagoon to give birth, and then return to the ocean.
The babies, however, stay in the lagoon, exploring the coral and melting the hearts of all who see them.
I spot one in very shallow water and immediately want to adopt it.
Velavaru Island means ‘turtle island’, and the Marine Lab is involved in turtle conservation too.
Out on the snorkel safari, my partner sees a turtle about a metre in circumference and gestures wildly to Ikraam.
“That’s a teenager turtle, the adults can get much bigger,” is Ikraam’s nonchalant reply.
The Marine Lab gives me a much clearer and more intimate idea of the Maldives than just lazing about a five-star resort ever will.
I feel a close connection to the aquatic inhabitants of the Maldives and any enemy of coral is now an enemy of mine. Brown cauliflower-like plants, you have been warned!
Other activities in the Maldives
Alongside the snorkel safaris, the Marine Lab also offers other options for visitors.
Turtle Conservation Projects
Velavaru is a key turtle-nesting site and the resident marine biologist at the Marine Lab can tell you about the ongoing turtle conservation projects.
You can get involved in monitoring nesting sites and collecting data on the habits of these sea creatures.
It might sound a bit like school, but once you’ve been on a snorkel safari, it’s anything but.
Twice a week, Velavaru’s resident marine biologist gives a short presentation on the reef fish and the origins of coral in the Maldives.
The Marine Lab takes guests out scuba-diving and offers PADI qualifications.
For guests who want to scuba-dive, but don’t want to lug all their gear with them on long-haul flights, the Marine Lab can provide wetsuits and air tanks.
Where else to go green in The Maldives
Soberanía National Park, Panama
Panama offers rainforests, coral reefs and beaches fringed by the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea.
There are lots of hotels, but the Canopy Tower captures the imagination. It’s built right in the rainforest and is a paradise for bird lovers. It runs purely on ecological principles and the owner, Raul, has made sure the lodge causes no harm to the environment. Photographers rate it highly.
Vorovoro Island, Fiji
For eco-travellers with a yearning for something different and a bit of spare time, the Tribewanted project could be your cup of tea.
Tribe wanted started with humble beginnings and big dreams in 2006.
The dream was to build a community on the island, using local customs and incorporating international ideas on sustainability.
The project is now in its third year and has a massive online following.
For guests wanting to experience the real thing, living on the island for one to 12 weeks is possible, and in that time you’ll be exposed to community building, sustainable living practices and adventurous experiences.
Casita Verde, Ibiza
Closer to the UK and much easier to travel to than the more remote islands, Casita Verde is situated in a lush valley close to the village of San José in Ibiza.
Casita Verde has buildings made out of recycled bottles, cans and wood, and uses alternative energy, such as solar and wind power. With such a gorgeous location, guests can participate in the eco-projects offered here and educate themselves on sustainable living while enjoying a beach holiday.
This is another island in the Maldives archipelago where the Marine Lab focuses more on shark and dolphin conservation. Guests can work with the resident marine biologist tracking movements and habits of dolphins.
Research gathered from the shark monitoring has been used by the Maldives environmental ministry to implement shark conservation projects.