I’ve long thought that Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa has one of the best house reefs in the Maldives. When Park Hyatt hired a great marine biologist in Arabella Willing, it was a perfect chance to learn more detailed information about Park Hyatt’s house reef, learn more about coral reefs and what makes them healthy, and get to know Arabella a bit better. Here is my conversation with Arabella Willing.
Lindsey: How did you become passionate about marine biology?
Arabella: I’m very fortunate to have been raised by an extremely adventurous family; we all love the sea and to travel (to give you just one example, my 90 year old grandfather is jumping onto a boat for two months that takes him from England to Australia in June). I’m so privileged to have always been surrounded by inspiring people and who indulged my love for nature. My childhood was spent roaming around the world, exploring different countries and cultures alongside my parents and two older brothers. Seeds of interest were nurtured early on by my inspirational scientist uncle; I was a snorkeler by the age of 6 and a diver at 16. The University of St Andrews ticked all the boxes, as one of the best places in Britain to study Marine Biology, its home to the Sea Mammal Research Unit, as well as being a beautiful town with three gorgeous beaches and a healthy number of lively Scottish pubs.
Lindsey: I understand that you previously were teaching in the very North of the Maldives…can you tell us a little about your teaching experience and what your experiences were like up there?
Arabella: The Maldives is a bit like the Holy Grail for divers and Marine Biologist. When I was offered the opportunity to volunteer as a biology teacher in 2010 there wasn’t much hanging around. I lived and worked amongst the local people and loved every minute of it. The first and most important lesson I learnt when living on a local island was to adopt the Maldivian outlook on life – lose most of your seriousness and all sense of urgency. My home, Ihavandhoo, up in the very north is typically tiny, but manages to support nearly three thousand people, mostly from fishing. Our house was owned by the island chief, who is very friendly and quite a character. Like most Maldivians he and his wife are incredibly kind and generous, embracing us into their family. Mama Chief (as she is affectionately known to us) was appalled by our apparent lack of culinary ability and taught me how to make all the Maldivian delicacies. Maldivian food consists of fish, coconut and chilies disguised in an impressive number of ways. A memorable lunch at ‘the chiefs’ included an enormous fish head. I was invited to eat the eyeballs, which when covered in curry sauce surprisingly tasted quite delicious.
Teaching started with a bang – the first day saw me teaching the human reproductive system. This resulted in 44 wide-eyed 15 year olds, although I’m not sure whether it was the topic or the shock of having a teacher with white skin and yellow hair. For the islanders, the initial shock of having two peculiar English girls share their island wore off after a couple of months. Open mouthed gawping and screams of fear from the little ones were exchanged for huge white grins and squeals of “Teacher ! How are you? I love you!” A typical conversation goes like this: “Are you married? Why not? How old are you? Their chat is a charming mixture of extreme honesty and complete nonsense. They were constantly fascinated that I am so big, at double the height (and girth) of the average Ihavandhoo resident. I was called off the street to reach things and I have been given the nickname “Waheedha” by the fishermen; apparently this is the traditional Dhivehi name for a woman who is ‘big and strong.’
During the year that I worked as a teacher I was in contact and got to know other marine biologists in the Maldives, and it was through them that I landed my current (dream) job. I sometimes worry that I’ve peaked too soon, where does one go from one of the best reefs in the world and a life living in a 5* resort?
Lindsey: What sorts of things does your position have you doing? Are there projects you are working on or going to start working on?
Arabella: My job has a lot of different facets, which means that I will rarely have two days the same. My primary role is to provide guests and the team with information about marine life and the environment; I’m here to protect the reef and answer any questions about the environment, offering advice such as where to go and what to look out for. I accompany guests for “guided snorkeling” which begins with an introductory presentation about the biology of our house reef, and helps our guests to understand more about what they see on a snorkel or dive. It’s important for me that the employees also have knowledge and awareness of the environment, not only so they can share that knowledge with the guests, but so that we are all working together to protect our greatest asset- the stunning house reef. I manage the Activity center, so I spend quite a bit of the day helping to organize dives and excursions. Not everyone is initially aware of the abundance and rarity of natural wonders in this area, so I like to encourage them to make the most of their time with us. Often I will take guests on trips to see dolphins or to snorkel in truly remote and incredible locations.
In terms of research, we are collecting data that contributes to a number of different research projects. “Coral Watch” is one that the guests too can get involved in- it’s a coral health survey designed by the University of Queensland, which analyses the health of the coral using a specially designed color chart. Through this research we have verified that our coral is some of the healthiest in the world.
The other main part of my job is “EarthCheck Coordinator”; I am responsible for our environmental impact. Collecting information from all the different areas of the resort, such as our electricity consumption, fresh water usage and recycling performance. I compile a report, which is assessed by EarthCheck- a global sustainable travel and tourism certification body. Along with the rest of the “Green Team” I try to think of ways in which we can reduce our consumption of natural resources and impact on both the local and global environment.
EarthCheck has a holistic approach to sustainability, which means it also includes our social and cultural impact. We have a community development project by the name of “Hyatt Thrive”; this is a committee of elected ambassadors, of which I am the co-chair. We organize educational projects on the nearby islands which help to strengthen the link between the resort and the neighboring communities. One of the best things about this project is that it allows the local employees to spend their free time contributing to the prosperity of their islands despite living away from home. It’s is a project I’m particularly fond of and love taking part in. My experience of living in a local village has given me a great insight into how we as a resort can support the locals, and there’s not much I’ve done so rewarding and satisfying as working with such grateful and humbling communities.
Lindsey: I think Park Hyatt Hadahaa has one of the best house reefs in the Maldives. It seems like the coral in the area/atoll in general is really healthy. Is it true that the atoll is a bit deeper than some of the others and so the water doesn’t get as hot as other atolls, thus coral bleaching doesn’t affect the reefs as much?
Arabella: Absolutely right, this atoll is quite famous for having probably the best hard coral in the country. It’s certainly much better than the coral that I saw in the north. This atoll is the deepest in the world, around 85 meters at its maximum, which as you mentioned gives the water temperature greater stability. The atoll is also very large; waves have a chance to build up on the inside of the atoll which means the water column mixes up a bit more than in calmer places preventing the temperature from rising too much. The mass-bleaching event that occurred as a result of the El Niño in 1998 was devastating to some of the Maldives, but thankfully spared a lot of the coral in this atoll. As our island and reef are positioned inside of the atoll, we are sheltered from the potentially destructive forces of the open ocean by the reefs and islands that line the edge. If you look at the satellite image of Huvadhoo atoll, you can see how complete the barrier of the atoll rim is.
This protection has enabled the corals to grow to extraordinary sizes, particularly delicate table corals, which have the design of a drawing pin, and can be knocked over and damaged with very little effort. The owners of the island chose to build a resort here because of the House Reef, and thankfully as a result, were incredibly careful not to damage the coral during construction.
Lindsey: What is coral? There are coral islands and coral reefs. What are the differences? Can you give us more detail about coral reefs and how they live and survive?
Arabella: Reefs are Calcium carbonate structures that are found in warm shallow waters all over the world. There are many organisms that contribute to the construction of the reef, such as coralline algae and molluscs, however it’s Coral that forms the initial structure and most of the limestone and therefore hogs the limelight, hence the term ‘Coral reef’. Without coral, there would be no reef; like the trees in the rainforest they provide a habitat for thousands of other organisms. The health of the coral is essential to the survival of the other reef species, and ultimately the future of the Maldives.
While there are plenty of organisms on the reef that are building it up, there are processes and organisms that are simultaneously breaking it down. It’s these broken down bits of reef which forms sand and waves and currents accumulate the sediments in particular areas to form sand banks. Seeds float in on the tide and grow into plants that colonize and in doing so their roots and leaf litter solidify and transform the sand into soil. Before long, there’s a habitable island.
There are lots of different types of coral, but simply put, coral is an animal; it belongs to the phylum “Cnidaria” which contains around 9000 species, all of which have the ability to sting. Corals are relatives of animals like Jellyfish and Sea Anemones. “Hard Corals” are the most significant because they form a Calcium carbonate skeleton and are therefore the reef builders. A bit like a snail, coral has a soft body and a hard outer shell, however coral is sedentary and colonial; each individual will attach its shell to the shells of its neighbors, creating huge and awesome structures.
The individual animals are called “Polyps” and their structure is very simple, like a little cup with tentacles around the rim. The tentacles are used to catch tasty morsels of food that float past, although not much of their nutritional needs are met in this way. Inside the body of the polyp the coral is hosting a friend; a particular type of algae called zooxanthellae. The algae receives protection from the stinging cells of the polyps, and in return, will feed the coral with food that it makes with energy from sunlight, through the process of photosynthesis. Coral needs the algae to survive, but the algae can live without the coral, so it’s the algae that are calling the shots, and they’re demanding guests with a strict set of requirements. Most importantly they need light; in clear waters corals have been found quite deep, but in turbid water the coral may not grow beyond 8 meters. Around here, the coral begins to thin out around 50 meters.
Temperature is also important, the optimum temperature is 26-27oC (78.8 to 80.6 Fahrenheit), the absolute range they can tolerate is 18-36oC (64.4 to 96.8 F), however they can only survive the extremes for a very short time. If the average temperature is more than 32 oC (about 89.5 F), the zooxanthellae get too hot and begin to deteriorate, so they will reject the coral and live in the water column where it’s cooler but not so safe. Without its symbiotic algae the coral can die within a few days. The chemistry of the water, its salinity, pH and nutrient levels also have a strong influence on the health of the coral.
Lindsey: Can you talk about some of the dangers of climate change?
Arabella: Climate change is a huge concern for the future of coral. There is of course the increase in temperature to worry about, but in addition to this, all that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may dissolve in the ocean forming carbonic acid, and acidify the seas, ultimately hindering coral growth. Ocean acidification is perhaps more concerning than a rise in temperature, which would hopefully be overcome by a shift in distribution.
Lindsey: Are there interesting things you have learned about the coral on the house reef? For instance are the corals growing, changing? Do you have favorite coral formations?
Arabella: The Hadahaa house reef has a fantastic diversity of coral, having the chance to observe the same reef time and time again helps me to spot subtle changes, I love to see new colonies cropping up, and watching two different colonies fighting for space, I have learned that they can be quite aggressive towards one another. I am immensely proud of our reef, and have such affection for all of it; I couldn’t dare offend by showing favoritism. I find all coral to be beautiful, particularly if you look really closely. The colony is formed of a single recurring shape, which results in intricate texture and patterned design like an elaborate wallpaper.
Lindsey: I bet you’ve seen some amazing marine life at Park Hyatt Hadahaa. What are some of the marine life species snorkelers and divers are likely to see?
Arabella: The marine life I witness on a daily basis never ceases to amaze me. The thickness and density of the coral is staggering. Applying a further kaleidoscope of color there are sponges, clams and reef fish. There are the larger things I see up close regularly, that in the past I’ve spent months hoping to catch a glimpse of. Sharks are extremely abundant in our area, although thankfully none of the potentially aggressive species. We have a healthy population of both Black and White Tip Reef sharks around Hadahaa, and recently we’ve had a lot of sightings of a beautiful Leopard shark. For the divers, the largest numbers of sharks are seen with the incoming currents, which occur from around December to June. Turtles are always a joy to see, especially the Hawksbill, which is a smaller, extremely rare and particularly beautiful species. The turtles nest on nearby uninhabited islands from about May to October. All year round divers have a good chance of seeing flocks of spotted eagle rays, majestically gliding over the reef, but snorkelers have a better chance of seeing them around Easter time, from March to May.
Lindsey: What are some of your favorite diving and snorkeling experiences?
Arabella: There are so many wonderful experiences to choose from; I love night diving and to momentarily switch off the torches, flap my arms around and see the phosphorescing algae magically glow and sparkle. I love swimming with dolphins, witnessing their easy elegance and hearing the symphony of clicks and whistles as they communicate with one another, enjoying that they are checking me out with their sonar and probably talking about me with one another.
Lindsey: One day I jumped off the end of one of Park Hyatt’s jetty’s and snorkeled out past all the over water villas, around to the arrival Jetty. It was awesome! Do you have any tips for snorkeling around the house reef? Any favorite spots?
Arabella: We are really lucky to have a reef that forms a complete ring around the island. We have never cut a channel like so many resorts, and as a result you can snorkel around all sides of the island. The prevailing wind in the monsoon season comes from the southwest, so the coral between the water villas and the arrival jetty is the best protected, and my favorite place for a snorkel. I would usually do as you say, jump from one jetty, swim past the water villas and arrive at the other jetty. It’s my advice to always snorkel from the end of either jetty and follow the drop off, because the water is deeper, it’s safer as you can be sure that there is enough distance between you and the coral. Trying to snorkel from the beach can cause people to inadvertently crash into the coral, not only damaging the reef but also usually cutting themselves. It’s also important to us that we protect the reef and keep it in its natural state. Snorkeling in shallow water can encourage standing on or touching the coral, which will almost certainly harm it.
Tall-fin Batfish – Commonly seen on the house reef
Things to look out for are a Nurse shark that sometimes lives under a rock at the end of the water villas, and just by the main jetty a huge anemone where you can find Nemo’s Maldivian cousins.
Lindsey: Any tips you’d like to give to guests to help preserve the coral and marine life while snorkeling/diving?
Arabella: My golden rule is to not touch anything unless it’s man-made. If you come across any trash, particularly plastics, it’s a good idea to take it back with you to be disposed of on the island. Turtles often ingest trash by mistake which causes them terrible digestive problems, and often results in them dying of starvation.
I love coming across a beautiful shell or piece of coral, but it’s important that guests don’t take them home with them as it is prohibited to take them out of the country. I fully support this law as the shell trade can encourage people to take the shells from the water while they are still alive; this disrupts the natural balance of the reef. The shell from a Triton’s trumpet (Charonia tritonis) for example is highly prized, but they are terribly important for the ecosystem, as they are one of the few animals that feed on the crown of thorns starfish, which has a nasty habit of breeding uncontrollably and killing the coral.
Lindsey: I want to thank you Arabella for taking so much time out of your day to share with us. We really appreciate it!