The way to a perfect holiday in the Maldives starts underwater

Baros, Maldives. Picture: PA Photo/Hannah Stephenson.
Baros, Maldives. Picture: PA Photo/Hannah Stephenson.

Breaking off the beautiful, fragile coral, his flippers creating a cloud of debris which muddies the water, Arnie doesn’t even look up at the divers observing his wanton destruction of the reef that everyone else is trying to save.

We have just been given a lesson in the dive school on the importance of not touching the coral which provides a vital framework to the eco-balance of this part of the Indian Ocean, yet Arnie gives us a perfect display 10ft down of how not to treat this stunning underwater environment.

The Concord Falls, Grenada. Picture: PA Photo/Abi Jackson.

The Concord Falls, Grenada. Picture: PA Photo/Abi Jackson.

But then Arnie is a hawksbill turtle, the largest of a group of around eight to make their home on the 300m-long house reef at Baros, a tiny, truly beautiful Robinson Crusoe-like island in the Maldives, with five-star facilities and diving to die for. Arnie was simply foraging for food.

It’s 40 years since Baros was created, firstly as a hang-out for divers, and later transformed into the high-end luxury paradise it is now, with authentically-styled Maldivian bungalows featuring all mod cons and 24-hour butler service. The resort also benefits from its own separate sandbank island, on which you can enjoy a sunrise breakfast, and its own dhoni (a traditional Maldivian boat), on which you can sip Champagne as you watch the sun set.

As the third oldest resort in the Maldives, Baros has seen much competition spring up in the last four decades.

There are now a reported 102 resort islands in this heavenly hotspot south of India and west of Sri Lanka, and I’m told at least another 20 resorts are in the pipeline.

This might seem a drop in the ocean for a territory comprising around 1,190 coral islands forming 26 atolls, the regions of the country, but how much damage is tourism doing?

Before guilt sets in, we need to look at the bigger picture. Global warming produces the biggest threat to coral reefs and the Maldives in general, as rising sea levels threaten to engulf the islands, given that the Maldives’ highest natural point is just 2.4m.

Yet tourism has, in some ways, helped to preserve much of the marine life which once went unprotected.

Dutchman Ronny Van Dorp, owner of the Baros dive centre, says that in the 17 years he has been there, he has seen shark numbers dip - fisherman would hunt them for shark fin soup, an extravagant delicacy in China - and rise again, following a total ban on shark hunting a few years ago. Now, we see harmless blacktip reef sharks and nurse sharks in the shallows, as well as on the reef.

There’s also a ban on the catching of turtles and the sale or export of turtle-shell products, although strangely no ban on the lifting of turtle eggs, which apparently some of the locals like to eat.

He says that the increase in tourism hasn’t made the reefs busier, because as numbers have risen, so have the number of resort islands - and divers have simply spread out across a wider area.

Meanwhile, the marine biologists at Baros are doing everything in their power to get the conservation message across to tourists.