Swimming With Sharks in the Maldives

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I’m currently holed up in our place in Brooklyn and missing my former pre-Covid peripatetic life very much. Yet I’m far from unique in this regard.

A piece in Friday’s Guardian made me feel very wistful, These Maldives islanders once saw sharks as the threat. Now they fear the plasti. I learned to dive in the Maldives, earning my PADI certificates: open water, advanced open water, and then master scuba diver.

I’d been snorkelling one day with a young couple off of Flores, an Indonesian island east of Bali. And I found myself apologising as I’d done for most of my life, for behaving as a clumsy lummox in the water. Why? I’was never very good at swimming, perhaps because I’m afraid of the water. I decided that day to confront that fear by learning to dive.

Now, diving’s really not much like surface swimming. With diving, one breathes compressed air (or Nitrox) with the aid of a regulator. While I love diving, I still don’t enjoy swimming on the surface very much. Being safe while diving relies on employing safe diving equipment, whereas with swimming, it’s about being comfortable breathing on the surface, doing one of those strokes that require one to immerse one’s face in the water, something I just don’t enjoy. I don’t mind doing the backstroke, however.

Anyway, onto the Maldives and its sharks. Per The Guardian:

Diving with tiger sharks off Fuvahmulah brought a tourist boom that has led to a destructive tide of plastic waste. But now locals are pushing back

“People used to think I was crazy,” says Lonu Ahmed. “Even my mum thought I was insane. Fishermen used to beg me not to dive with sharks.”

Ahmed lives on the island of Fuvahmulah in the Maldives, an island surrounded by tiger sharks. The islanders have traditionally been terrified of the creatures: fishermen would regularly kill them. Ten years ago, however, believing the sharks were misunderstood, Ahmed jumped into the water, to the horror of onlookers. He says he saw something they didn’t.

“Everyday, fishermen in the market threw tuna scraps into the harbour,” he recalls. “I noticed the tiger sharks came to eat but never hunted the live fish, only the dead fish. I’ve never been afraid of sharks and knew the shark’s job was to clean the ocean. I wanted to be close to the sharks, to see them face to face.”

Seeing Ahmed swim with the sharks, always returning unscathed, changed perceptions on the island. “I told them not to worry, that sharks don’t attack humans,” he says. “I love sharks. I feel relaxed and calm with sharks.

“Now fishermen know sharks aren’t dangerous. Today, a 12-year-old boy asked me if we can go freediving with the tiger sharks. The young generation especially love sharks. I tell the fishermen not to attack sharks because they keep the fish and tuna populations healthy,” Ahmed says. “The fishermen are beginning to understand sharks aren’t dangerous.”

His initiative has led to a tourism boom on the island and, after previously doing laundry and housekeeping in resorts, he now takes tourists diving with sharks. Scuba diving has transformed the economy, creating one of the biggest sources of income for local people. In 2020, Unesco declared Fuvahmulah a biosphere reserve, though the island lacks an official conservation or protection organisation.
Diving has transformed the lives of the islanders, both commercially and in terms of their relationship to sharks. Until Ahmed took them out to dive with his company, Fuvamulah Tiger Shark Dive, many of them, such as Sand Saeed, were unable to swim.

“I’ve always had a huge fear,” Saeed says. “But after Lonu took me to see the sharks face to face and see how they move and their behaviour, I realised the Hollywood movies, like Jaws, were pretty much bullshit

The Guardian interviewed the only local female dive master on the island. (Other women work as divemasters there, but they’re foreigners:

“When we were kids, sharks were something that infested the water,” says Hamna Hussain, a divemaster on Fuvahmulah. “My friends have real phobias but since diving with sharks, I’m never scared around them. It changed my life.

“If shark diving wasn’t discovered here, life now would be so different. I feel like this is a new era for this island. My goddaughter is two and every time she sees me she tells me she wants to see sharks. That’s a huge difference to when I was a kid.

“I’m the only local female divemaster here, and other locals, particularly men, see me and say: ‘If she can dive with sharks, so can I,’ which, although it’s kind of insulting, I see as a positive.”

Alas, the boom in Maldivian tourism hasn’t just brought benefits. Along with tourists has come another modern scourge: plastics. A connection that made me recall my friend, Renee Sørensen, whom I first wrote about in 2018, when she caught dengue fever and died, despite being healthy, physically active, and only in her forties, Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines:

I’d met Renee– a proud Norwegian– in 2015, when she’d guided me on some diving excursions, and a couple of years after she’d upended the pattern of her life. She’d travelled to the Maldives in 2013 to learn to dive– and never left.

She qualified as a dive master and then an instructor, and initially, worked as a diving guide. Later, she set up two of her own businesses: the first, a tour company, to bring Norwegian clients to the island of Maafushi– a lower-cost alternative to the typical high-priced Maldivian resorts.

Now, I’ve written about Renee not once but twice and when I mentioned to my husband what I was thinking of posting about today, he gently suggested perhaps I was overdoing it a bit on the Maldives plastic beat, Waste Watch: News from the U.S. and the Maldives.

Yet Renee was also on my mind, because I recently received one of those Facebook notifications, reminding me of her birthday. I suppose no one’s thought to take down her Facebook page. I know that I won’t so bother my friends from beyond the grave, as I have my privacy settings set so no one else can see my birthday. Although I do admit I was a bit disappointed when I celebrated a milestone birthday in June, and other than family, few people remembered – even close friends, who later admitted they no longer keep track of birthdays anymore, but just rely on Facebook. I find that statement rather sad.

So today it’s the Maldives, sharks, tourism, and plastics and tomorrow I’ve planned a meaty legal post, discussing COVID vaccine litigation.  Now for a bit more about Renee:

After making a success of her first business, in part due to her commitment to customer service for her clients– who “get the same level of service people get at luxury resorts, at a far lower cost”– Renee became convinced that local diving companies weren’t doing enough to protect the unique Maldivian ecosystem.

So she set up a second company, an eco-diving operation, which in addition to promoting more ecologically responsible diving, launched efforts to clean up and preserve beach and reef systems, and especially, to involve local children and teach them to understand and appreciate the environment in which they live.

I’ll spare including here yet again the short inspiring video – in Norwegian with English sub-titles – that I’ve posted before, but it’s there in either previous post for any reader who might be interested in learning in Renee’s own words:

how one woman, along with friends, the community,  colleagues, and visitors, has worked to institute better waste management practices to deal with the spike in garbage that has accompanied the spread of local tourism on Maafushi and surrounding islands. Much of this waste was either being burnt or dumped into the lagoon.

Unfortunately, as with so many initiatives, worldwide, to deal with plastic waste management problems, the pandemic has set back the local Maafushi efforts. About a third of Maldivian GDP comes from tourism, and according to the Undercurrent newsletter:

One of our contacts in the Maldives reports that the island of Maafushi, famous for local tourism, has been inundated with garbage during the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic. He says a lot of the islands are becoming like this, having no proper garbage disposal plan. So, they are simply dumping their rubbish, plastic and all, into the once-pristine sea. Tourists are charged a Green Tax, but little of that money appears to be directed to solving the problem. It’s a crisis that’s destroying the environment.

The Guardian article also supplied further details about the Maldivian plastics problem:

The Maldives, isolated in the Indian Ocean, has one of the world’s highest population densities and little capacity to process plastic waste. Plastic is now building up across beaches, streets, backroads, front yards and palm forests. “This is the big issue in the Maldives,” says Ahmed. “We have a big mountain of plastic on the island, and we don’t have recycling. Plastic bags, bottles, fishing lines … Everything is here and the mountain just keeps growing.”

Much of it is washing into the ocean, entangling marine life on the reef. “I’ve seen many animals caught in plastic – manta rays, tiger sharks, silvertip sharks,” he says. “The fish also eat the plastic and then local people eat this fish, so it’s very bad. The beach is [also] covered in plastic bottles and bags. People here just throw it on the ground.

In the face of this deluge, other Maldivians are carrying out work to clean up their local waters. A big part of the problem is created by masses of plastic water bottles, as locals and tourists alike must rely on disposable bottles for drinking water:

To mitigate the effects of the plastic waste, Ahmed and an underwater photographer, Jono Allen, with the support of the local council and mayor, set up a conservation organisation, Fuvahmulah Marine Foundation (FMF). Its first goal is to work with the council to set up household waste separation scheme, sorting plastic, metals, paper, food and green waste so it can be processed on the island by hand. FMF is also trying to sort the current mountain of plastic on the island and reduce its size before it is transported to Malé, capital of the Maldives, for processing. (There is now a recycling plant there set up by the environmental organisation Parley Maldives.)

For Ahmed, protecting sharks and reducing plastic are part of the same battle. “When I’m with the sharks, I feel like I’m in another world, like I’m in space or something.” The plastic is a threat to that. “I want to see the importing of plastic stop, especially plastic bags and plastic bottles,” he says. “I want to see a plastic-free future here in my lifetime.”

Figuring out how to supply safe drinking water without plastics is a necessary first step. I can’t think of any easy answers, as the atolls don’t extend very far above sea level and I believe suffer from a dearth of water supplies. Global warming will only worsen this problem as sea levels rise. Perhaps some relief might come from greater use of water coolers, which use bigger bottles, and thus don’t generate so much daily waste. Maybe the coolers could also be fitted with glass rather than plastic bottles. All issues to be considered in post-COVID days – if and when they ever arrive.



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