Diving expert Philipp Albiro on the Maldives' innovative coral nurseries

In 2016, a severe worldwide coral-bleaching struck in the Maldives. One resort is hard at work helping to rebuild its house reef. Here, one of its diving experts reveals more about the project, plus other underwater wonders around the island.

Located in the middle of the South Ari Atoll, Maldives Mirihi Island Resort is surrounded by around four miles of coral reef.

Photograph by Mirihi Island Resort
By Mirhi Island Resort
Published 11 Nov 2021, 11:00 GMT, Updated 23 Nov 2021, 12:46 GMT
Philipp Albiro, manager of Mirihi's Ocean-Pro Dive Centre.

Philipp Albiro, manager of Mirihi's Ocean-Pro Dive Centre.

Photograph by Philipp Albiro

Mirihi Island Resort is located in the middle of South Ari, one of the biggest atolls in the Maldives. Just 300 metres long and 50 metres wide, this compact, luxurious corner of the Indian Ocean is fashionably unplugged, with no motorised watersports or TVs in guest rooms. It’s the ideal location to sit back and relax, but head underwater and you’ll find a world in action; surrounded by around four miles of house reef and 40 diving sites, Mirhi is a heaven for divers. Among the wonders to discover are its coral nurseries, designed to support the house reef. Philipp Albiro, manager of the resort’s Ocean-Pro Dive Centre, reveals more about its Project Hope, dive sites and what visitors can expect.

Why is the South Ari Atoll a great diving spot?
When it comes to diving, there are plenty of destinations around the globe that are good for one specific thing, but South Ari gives you a little bit of everything. We have the whale shark area in the south of the atoll, where you can see these fish — some over 20ft in length — swim past you all year round. There’s another site, about 20 minutes from the resort, where in the winter months manta rays — again, massive animals — come to clean themselves. When that happens, they don't just pass by you — some female manta rays look to be around divers, they’ll hover around, swim above you and stay there. 

Apart from that, this area is incredibly beautiful when it comes to coral life. I know there's this picture out there that all coral is dying, and on a global scale that might be true, but there are still places where you have coral life that will blow a diver away. There are a couple of small sites on the east side of the atoll that sit in a very big channel — a gap between the atoll borders. We go there in the morning, you have the sunlight coming in, and when the sun hits the corals, it just lights up the entire area. 

The South Ari Atoll is the only place where divers can see whale sharks all year round.

Photograph by Mirihi Island Resort

Speaking of corals, Mirihi runs Project Hope, a series of coral nurseries designed to help the house reef regrow. How did the project start?
In 2016, we had a serious El Nino phenomenon, which was basically a warm-water pool that shifted through the Maldives. It hit South Ari quite hard, and especially our house reef — we're so well protected that we don't get a lot of currents, which means it's easy to snorkel, but on the other hand, if it gets warm, it stays warm for quite some time. Corals need a very specific temperature to thrive, so a lot of them died. And for passionate divers, watching corals die is heartbreaking. They’re animals, and they go from very colourful to just a white skeleton. You go from looking at a beautiful landscape to staring at a desert.

How do the nurseries work?
When a fragment of coral breaks off, it can grow back into another coral, but if it sinks to the bottom, it’s eventually going to die. So, we started taking little fragments we’d find on our dives and putting them in the perfect growing conditions, which is elevated from the ground, so sand and sedimentation aren’t a problem, but not in a fixed position, so they can sway if there are surges or waves. We wanted to use materials that can be recycled or that we already had on site, so we used water bottles as floats, attached some fishing lines and tied the coral fragments with a little knot.

And what’s the situation now?
After maybe a year or so, we were surprised to see how well the nursery was working. Generally, coral grows by a few inches every year, and we achieved that growth in half a year. The project became bigger and bigger, to the point where we decided we needed to talk to a specialist — we're all passionate divers in the team, but at that point, none of us had a marine biology background (now we have a resident marine biologist on the island). We had a marine biologist come over for a week and help us set up a proper nursery, the way it’s done scientifically. We went from a couple of nurseries scattered around the reef, with maybe a couple of hundred fragments, to a properly designed nursery, which now has over 1,000 corals. It's not a one-person job – it works because we have a passionate team, and that's invaluable. 

What is something you wish more people knew when it comes to coral health?
I wish more people knew how important they are. It's beyond something we just look at; the tropical coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems on this planet, comparable to the Amazon rainforests; there's nothing quite like them. They support a massive population of marine species, they’re a nursery for almost all small tropical fish; and then, obviously, a lot of people depend on fish as a food source.

I'd like more people to understand how frightened we should be about living in a world without coral reefs, but at the same time how easy it is to actually do something about it. It’s time consuming in the beginning, but once you have a nursery fully set up, it basically runs on its own. You reach a point where you have to transplant the corals back onto the reef, but other than that, it's fairly simple.

Mirihi runs Project Hope, a series of coral nurseries designed to support the house reef. 

Photograph by Mirihi Island Resort

Can a beginner learn to dive at Mirihi?
We have a programme called Discover Scuba Diving that’s designed for people who just want to see if it’s something they’d enjoy. It’s basically a try-dive on the house reef. And on the house reef, there's lots to see — we have turtles swimming around, lots of schooling fish and our corals nurseries, which are usually a bonus for everyone who sees them. If guests decide they like what they've done, they can properly learn diving, which usually takes three to four days. If you're here for a week, within a couple of days we can usually take you out on the boat and show you everything else.

What are some underwater experiences non-divers can try?
I know getting a diving certification can sound a bit daunting for some people, but you don't necessarily have to be a diver to see the underwater world. There are snorkelling excursions that are very successful at finding whale sharks – they generally stay very shallow, you can actually see them from the boat. The same goes for manta rays.

We also do night snorkelling, which is exciting because your focus shifts to only taking in what your torch illuminates, and you experience things in a different way. Different fishes come out at night, too – predators like barracudas and jack fish come up for hunting, which is very cool to see.

What do you love most about working as a diving instructor at Mirihi?
What makes the job so special is having somebody that sees something for the first time. It doesn't matter what it is, but their eyes start lighting up, they come back onto the boat with a smile that’s basically a circle. Sharing that is pretty cool.

With no swimming pools, motorised watersports or TVs in guest rooms, Mirihi is the ideal location to sit back and relax.

Photograph by Mirihi Island Resort

Essentials

Mirihi is located around 50 miles from Valena International Airport in the Maldivian capital of Malé. A 30-minute flight over several reefs and shallow lagoons takes visitors to the resort.

The resort offers six Beach Villas and 30 Water Villas, plus a Water Suite and Beach Suite. Facilities include two restaurants, a bar, a wine lounge and a spa.

For more information, visit mirihi.com

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