Thomas Le Berre and Marie Saleem, a Maldivian-French couple are helping marine life by ensuring corals are getting a new lease of life and turtles are being conserved through the efforts of their organisation Reefscapers, an independent marine consultation company working in the Maldives and worldwide. By Bindu Gopal Rao
Of late, the Maldives has been the go-to holiday destination of celebrities and others alike. While water sports are a great hit in the island nation, it is really the corals here that divers and ecology lovers like to see. But climate change has a negative impact on corals and marine life. Conscious travellers such as Thomas and Marie, co-founders of Reefscapers, have been working relentlessly for years to help restore and protect the vivid coral life. Reefscapers works in collaboration with various hospitality partners as well as plant-based brands such as Only Earth to run these projects. The founder of Only Earth, Kunal Mutha, shared, “We are working on 30 coral frames. By starting their new, wide-spread coral propagation project during July-2021, we are giving coral fragments the best chance to encrust onto their frames and to start growing, well before the seasonally elevated ocean temperatures in 2022”. In an exclusive interview with Travel + Leisure India & SA, Thomas and Marie shed light on how they do what they do. (Images courtesy: Reefscapers)
T+L India: Tell us a little bit about yourself and Reefscapers.
Thomas and Marie: We met while studying in Australia. Marie was studying marine biology and I was studying coastal and environmental engineering. We settled in the Maldives at the end of our studies in 1999 and started a consultancy in the environmental sector. In the beginning, our company handled mostly environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for several public and private developments and eventually specialized in coral propagation to proactively conserve the reef and carry out applied research in the field to try and prepare for the forecast climate change, which led to the creation of Reefscapers. We started small in 2001 and have expanded to work on projects up and down the Maldives and internationally.
T+L India: What kind of work is being done in marine conservation?
Thomas: Marie’s experience in the government ensured she played a pivotal role in the declaration for the ban in the shark fisheries in the Maldives. Over 10 years later, the shark population is again healthy, and encounters are very frequent to the delight of the diving community. She has since specialised in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES convention) and focused on the legal aspects regarding the trade of endangered species.
T+L India: Tell us about the coral frame technique you use.
Thomas and Marie: The coral frame technique used is very versatile. A metal frame is welded together and covered with several coats of resin to prevent rust. The design can be adapted to different purposes and different areas. It is easy to deploy due to its lightweight. It does not prevent water flow and thereby provide a good environment for the coral fragments which are attached to it. Coral fragments are bits of a broken colony, and if provided suitable conditions (essentially a stable substrate and good water quality) will grow into a colony which will be a clone of the parent colony. I think the potential for application of coral and reef farming for aquaculture purposes has not yet been fully understood, and we hope to showcase this in the future. In the meantime, Reefscapers has implemented a small-scale pilot fish breeding program focusing on the clownfish using the traditional aquaculture techniques feeding larvae with rotifers.
T+L India: What impact do your projects have?
Thomas and Marie: It is hard to quantify the tangible effects over such a period. Corals live and die, and recent high temperature events causing coral bleaching and mortality raise a bleak picture. Eventually, the only thing which will be lasting is the sand which will be created when the coral skeletons break down. Whether they harboured countless fish when they were flourishing or whether the planulae of those corals managed to recruit on another reef cannot be known. The scale of our efforts is, of course, several magnitudes smaller than what is happening on the natural reef, but by developing those activities we acquire knowledge and know-how which may come handy in the future. Our results have been witnessed by many methods adopted by many marine biologists in Maldives and in other coral reef areas.
T+L India: How can one volunteer for these projects?
Thomas and Marie: Raising awareness about coral reefs with guests and locals has been one of our core activities. As we try to work at the local scale, we have employed islanders at the frame manufacturing unit, offering alternative livelihoods to fishermen and hopefully preventing some fish from being exported. At present the best way to participate in our activities is to come to the resorts where we operate, such as the Four Seasons or the Sheraton, and contact the marine biologist on site in charge of the program.
T+L India: Tell us about your turtle conservation programme.
Thomas and Marie: At Reefscapers, other than the focus on corals, the team has also developed a turtle rehabilitation programme. This was prompted by the numerous encounters with turtles caught in ghost nets. Some of them were still alive, although usually severely injured due to the nets cutting through their flesh and bones as they tried to get away. Mostly, these were Olive Ridley turtles, which are well known for nesting on the coast of Orissa. Olivia was the first turtle we tried to help at the Four Seasons. On witnessing this, some in-house guests decided to donate to improve our facilities and methods, which the resort fully embraced. While trying to help those individuals we did our best to attract the attention towards the ghost net issue, which is fatal to a wide array of marine life. In addition we also reach out and try to develop awareness through the resort activities, school visits and use social media platforms (reefscapersmaldives and marinesavers on Instagram.)
T+L India: How can one ‘adopt a coral’?
Thomas and Marie: We encourage guests sponsoring frames online or participating in a community frame. The sponsors can view the progress on their frames in our online database. We upload pictures regularly every six months. At this moment we do not offer packages primarily focused on conservation activities, but that’s something we are looking at, especially through the development of our Reef House, which is a floating house located in Goidhoo Atoll.
T+L India: What kind of challenges do you face?
Thomas and Marie: Environmental concerns are rarely an actual priority in the public debate, and although this can be depressing, we need to hold strong and take any opportunity to make progress. The evolution towards more sustainable ways is painfully slow compared to what it could or should be, but it seems that it is accelerating and that an increasing number of people can see the dead end the mass consumption society is proposing and the hardships to come if we cannot curb or compensate the negative effects. While we are cooperating and exchanging with different groups working in the field in other countries, there is much to do in the Maldives alone.