Marine consultant and avid diver Charles Frew speaks to T+L about re-gluing coral in the Maldives. Here, he talks to T+L about re-gluing coral, diving with sharks in Palau and his latest adventure: a year-long eco road trip. By LILI TAN
HOW DO YOU RECONSTRUCT A CORAL REEF?
"The Shangri-La Villingili Resort & Spa in the Maldives was designed so that some of the water villas were situated on the reef. By the time they asked me to go there to evaluate in July 2007, it was too late to try and move the villas back—they had already started digging. I set about re-gluing 200 coral columns, using aquarium-trade underwater epoxy. Where they hadn’t started building on the coral yet, I had to “translocate” it to an area with a similar depth, sunlight exposure, water clarity, current and marine life. Using excavators, I very carefully moved 150 tons of coral to a bay about a kilometer away. A year later, after they’d finished building, I moved the coral back in."
HOW DOES IT LOOK?
"Some of it looks a bit artificial still because it hasn’t really grown yet. For one of the villas, I’ve created an underwater coral garden—it’s called “sea-scaping. When you lie in the hammock there, you can see Nemos swimming in the reef right underneath you.”
ARE YOU WORRIED THE SHANGRI-LA REEF WILL GET DAMAGED NOW THAT YOU'RE NOT THERE?
"Unfortunately, it already has: the day after the resort opened—I’m don’t want to label anyone as bad tourists, but—some mainland Chinese were walking on the coral. It was regenerating, and considering coral grows only two millimeters per year, it was just a bit alarming to see."
BEST PART OF THE EXPERIENCE?
"When we finished all the coral restoration, the baby black-tip sharks came back and we knew our job was done. Sharks are at the top of the food chain, so they were happily feeding on fish in the reef and everything was in balance. Plus, the guests love seeing the little black tips coming."
HOW DID SHARK DIVING BECOME A HOBBY?
"My first ever dive with a shark was when I was working in Indonesia in 1988. I was working a dive center, and I got a phone call from these two Americans working on an oil rig saying they wanted to go shark diving. I didn’t know what I was doing, so I went to the local market and bought some chickens. We went out, cut up the chicken and threw it in the water. Nothing happened. We went for the dive anyway, and about 30 meters down a massive tiger shark came out of nowhere. I’ve never seen two guys swim so fast. Jaws struck fear into everyone, but the more you dive, the more you understand, play with them and see sharks in a friendlier way."
WHERE'S A GOOD PLACE TO GO SHARK DIVING?
"In 2009, Palau designated their waters shark-free fishing. It was the first place in the world to do this. The government realized the tourism revenue they could get for diving, and shark diving in particular is just immense. There’s nothing worse than going to a dive site and having the guides say, “Oh, we used to have sharks” or “We can’t guarantee you’ll see them” because it’s overfished. Sharks can live for 50 to 70 years, but a shark’s fin is just a one-off thing."
SO YOU DON'T EAT SHARK'S-FIN SOUP?
"Absolutely not. Besides the fact that it kills sharks, it doesn’t do anything for you. There’s more nutrition in eating your own toenails. I’ve got friends who are adamant about having shark’s fin at their wedding, and I don’t want to lose friendships. I’ve given them a lot of shark’s-fin wedding cards available from various organizations that explain to guests why they’re not having shark’s fin. They can also donate the money from not having the shark’s fin to a certain cause."
WHAT OTHER ECO-CONSCIOUS TENDENCIES DO YOU HAVE?
"I set off in May for a year, to drive in my diesel Hilux from Hong Kong to Portugal and stop along the way to talk to people about climate change… I won’t be staying in any hotels—just a roof tent and solar panels."
All photos courtesy of AsiaticMarine.com