Coral bleaching Maldives 2016

Andy Bruckner, Coral Reef CPR Director

Globally, 2016 is the warmest year on record, exceeding 2015- the second warmest. These steamy temperatures can be attributed in part to climate change and to the longest El Niño in history. The Maldives were no exception. During April/May 2016 the sea water temperatures heated up to 31-33 C; simultaneously the sea was unusually calm, currents were absent and there was no cloud cover. Together these conditions created intolerable conditions for the corals, which turned stark white through a process known as bleaching. In many locations, the faster growing branching and table corals subsequently died, and shallow reefs are now a graveyard of skeletons carpeted in turf algae.

However, the Maldives was lucky and not all their corals died, and some reefs escaped the perilous conditions. Unlike the Great Barrier Reef in Australia where the high temperatures caused the most devastating bleaching and coral death ever documented, the Maldives fared much better. The massive boulder corals bleached, but most recovered. On the reef slopes where there was less penetration of harmful ultraviolet radiation, the branching, table, plating and foliaceous corals survived much better. You will find some dead corals, but you also find many that are still living, and the corals have started to regain their coloration. What was most unexpected was the high survival of small corals- the babies that settled last year and juveniles that are about the size of a baseball all survived. Further, some corals appear to be adapting to the warmer waters – they didn’t bleach at all, and these are likely to spawn during the annual reproductive period next March/April, providing lots of babies that can reseed damaged areas. We also found reefs where there was virtually no coral death – locations on Ari Atoll, and Baa Atoll in particular still have thriving coral communities.

All of these signs point towards coral reefs that are highly resilient and already quickly rebounding. Fortunately, the corals that did die are those that grow the fastest, produce lots of larvae, and exhibit very high settlement. Unlike the devastating coral bleaching event in 1998, research done by Coral Reef CPR suggests that most Maldivian reefs will rebound and look much like they did prior to the bleaching event within five years.
The Coral Reef CPR team were all ocean lovers before becoming coral reef scientists. As a result, we always appreciate our surroundings whilst conducting scientific surveys. Partnering with Carpe Diem Fleet Maldives has provided us with a unique opportunity to assess the health, state and recovery of coral reefs throughout the Maldives- often for the first time! Visiting nine atolls and diving over 40 different reefs gave us a great chance to understand these reefs, and the impact of the global coral bleaching event this year.
Despite this bleaching event, the Maldives still promises some of the most incredible and diverse diving on offer! The country still supports huge populations of endangered and rare animals, including whale sharks and manta rays, incredibly healthy turtle populations with up to a dozen on certain dives and a rebounding shark population which includes grey reef, tiger, black tip and white tip reef sharks. Our dives were always different. Reef fish populations are incredibly healthy throughout the atolls, with shoals of 1000+ being a common feature of many reefs.
We recommend diving in the Maldives if you want unique animals, diverse reefs and beautiful scenery.