Maldives Promotion House – Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa is situated on a pristine island 400 kilometres south of Malé in the North Huvadhoo (Gaafu Alifu) Atoll, one of the largest and deepest atolls in the world. With one of the healthiest reefs – the abundance, diversity and topography of the coral is therefore second-to none. Here we interview with Araballe Willing, Resident Marine Biologist of Hadahaa.
Arabella was born in Britain but grew up all over the world thanks to the nature of her father’s work. When she was six years old they lived in Cyprus, and every day after school she would run down to the beach and go snorkelling with her brothers. ArabeIla have always enjoyed nature and science, so when it was time to choose what to study at university she followed her love of the ocean, and studied Marine Biology at St Andrews University (of course where Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge studied), which is an ancient place of learning, soon to be celebrating its 600 year anniversary, and particularly famed for its marine research centre. After graduating from University she initially went into teaching, which brought her to the Maldives.
In 2010 she was offered the opportunity to work as a volunteer teacher in a local school on the island of Ihavandhoo up in Haa Alifu atoll. The Maldives is well known in the UK as a luxury holiday destination, but it is becoming more widely recognized as a country threatened by climate change; a topic which particularly interests her. As a country made almost entirely of coral it’s a dream destination for anyone with an interest in the underwater world.
What was your imagination of Maldives before coming and how do you feel now?
I knew that it would be beautiful but nothing can really prepare you for the intensity of the colours in the Maldives. The sand is blindingly white and the sea such a vibrant shade of blue. I’m also addicted to Maldivian sunsets – I’ve seen around 900 now, and no two have ever been the same. When I arrived at Hadahaa I was shocked by the health of the coral; it was so much better than I thought was possible for a resort house reef. The table corals in particular are extraordinarily large. I had the impression that large international companies didn’t really care about the environment, but that’s not the case with Hyatt.
What are your responsibilities as a marine biologist? What is a typical day for you?
My main responsibility is to educate and protect. I provide guests and colleagues with information about what they see when they go underwater, and hopefully install a love for the ocean and a desire to protect it. Our environmental impact is of the upmost importance, I am also the EarthCheck Coordinator so I advise the management on sustainable practices and initiate programs to improve our performance involving the local islands as well. EarthCheck is a global certification for sustainable tourism and travel; we were the first property in the world to build using EarthCheck design and planning standards and currently hold their prestigious Sliver benchmarking certificate. I spend some of the day with the guests, answering their questions, giving short lectures or guiding trips, and the rest of the time managing the activity centre or coordinating with other departments to ensure we are following EarthCheck best practice guidelines and reducing our impact on the environment.
What made you interested to become a marine biologist?
I met some Marine Biologists working in the Middle East when I was a teenager, and they inspired me and showed me that it was possible to choose my interest as a career. Quite simply, it’s my passion.
What are some of the things that you like best about your work?
I love introducing people to the beauty of the ocean, most people have seen photos or videos, but it’s not even close to the experience of being in the water surrounded my hundreds of wild animals. Every day I have the opportunity to convince people to protect our reefs and value them as a resource. However small of a contribution, I feel like I’m helping an important cause, and that is the best thing about my work.
What are your favourite activities in Maldives?
Unsurprisingly, in the water is my favourite place to be, either diving or snorkelling. On land my favourite activity is simply visiting friends, playing with the kids, having coffee and laughing.
What is your favourite marine animal and why? Which is friendliest and smartest?
There’s no way I can choose just one favourite because there is such an incredible diversity, but the smartest is definitely dolphins. I’m fascinated by marine mammals; it’s a specialism of my university. Many times when we have been snorkelling or diving and a pod of dolphins have approached us, we can hear them communicating with each other using high pitched squeaks and whistles. We offer dolphin watching trips at Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa, and can often encounter a pod of 200 or more Spinner dolphins playing and jumping into the sunset sky. I must have done hundreds and every time I think “Wow, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this!”
Tell us about the marine environment of Hadahaa?
Hadahaa is a very special island; it has a stunning house-reef 360 degrees around the island. There’s no natural channel, so during construction they had to be very careful not to damage the reef, and thankfully they were successful. It’s this care for the reef from the beginning, coupled with the location within the deepest atoll that has allowed the coral to grow to exceptional sizes and avoid bleaching; it’s certainly the best house reef I have seen in the Maldives. We are surrounded by a multitude of fabulous dive sites; we frequently see a variety of Sharks, Eagle rays, Turtles and Napoleon wrasse. The diversity of species and health of the hard coral are the two most impressive things about the marine environment around here.
Can you tell us few things about Maldives that many people don’t know?
A lot of the visitors to the Maldives fall in love with the beautifully soft sand, but they may not be aware that the sand that flows between their fingers and toes is so delicate because it has journeyed through the digestive systems of Parrotfish. Each Parrotfish can produce as much as 90Kg of sand each year.
What are your best experiences in Maldives?
Diving with the astonishing number of Sharks and Eagle rays we see down in Huvadhoo atoll is absolutely amazing. I particularly enjoy spending time on the local islands, especially with the children. Eid celebrations are so colourful and entertaining, and of course the traditional food is delicious (but very spicy!).
Can you give some tips and advice for those who want enjoy marine environment of Maldives?
For pristine reefs it better to visit the more remote and underdeveloped regions, but it’s vital to remember that the reefs are beautiful because they are untouched, and we should all try to keep them that way. My top tips are to take lots of photos but not to touch anything or remove anything from the water except for trash; even dead shells can become homes for other animals.