May 13, 2021

cruciforme

travel, Always a step ahead

Inside the world’s first Coralarium, an underwater gallery in the Maldives

4 min read

Anika was having a late breakfast and ignoring me. I watched her for a while, willing her to come and introduce herself. Eventually, she did; gliding past, she rose to the surface to take a few sips of air. Then the hawksbill turtle glanced at me, unperturbed, and retired lazily to the bottom of the Indian Ocean.

Accompanied by marine biologist Sam Dixon, I was adjusting to the water – and my snorkelling gear – ahead of my tour of the Coralarium at Fairmont Maldives. Situated 100yd from the white sand beaches of Sirru Fen Fushi, the world’s first semi-submerged art installation is a museum not of the long dead, but of the living.

Many hotels lay claim to sustainability and environmental interest, but not many truly follow through. Things are different at Fairmont Maldives; here, the specially commissioned Coralarium serves as a beacon of literal, tangible action to save the environment.

Acting as an artificial reef, it facilitates and promotes the growth of new coral. Worldwide, natural coral reefs cover just 0.1 per cent of the ocean’s surface area yet support 25 per cent of all marine life. For Anika and her fellow turtles, as well as reef mantas and reef sharks, coral provides crucial hunting, grazing and feeding grounds.

Taking a breather

The Coralarium is a 20ft stainless steel cube encasing towering pillars of ceramic starfish, designed by British sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor. This is version two, following a rocky start to the project. Version one opened in 2018, but the 30 human form sculptures adorning the external framework and the seabed were cited as anti-Islamic by the government, and destroyed.

Sam, who joined the team back in 2017, saw it all. Today, alongside a litany of daily sustainability activities within the resort, and a new coral restoration project for the Coralarium, he leads daily snorkelling expeditions for guests. With Anika busying herself deep below my fins, it was now my turn to visit.

The structure was larger than I had imagined. We approached via a corridor of submerged trees, sculpted from a PH-neutral marine-grade cement specifically designed to facilitate coral growth. Arriving at the structure from a submerged position feels as close as I can imagine to discovering a shipwreck: surprising and enthralling, with the sense that you have found something that doesn’t belong which the sea has nevertheless claimed as its own.

The Coralarium is located at the Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi hotel

I found myself momentarily conflicted; while I didn’t want to knock thedelicate baby coral growing with a careless kick of a fin or graze of a wandering fingertip, I was desperate to get closer. I settled on a middle ground, repositioning my fins behind me as I scooped the water to turn myself gently. Still submerged, I was pulled by intrigue more than anything through an entrance sized for swimmers and snorkellers, my equipment long forgotten.

The inside was far less bare than I had imagined; reminiscent of a portion of a chessboard. The starfish pillars grounded in the seabed surrounded a frame that Sam and previous guests had adorned with baby coral. Once these proliferate, they will be moved to the house reef to promote growth, and replaced with new frames.

Eventually, my legs grew tired, so I pulled myself up on to the walkway inside the museum for a rest, looking down into the water. Sam told me he had spotted sharks inside recently, and expected to see turtles one day soon too.

Schools of fish come and go in rotation through the day; 89 species have been spotted inside the museum; a significant chunk of the 380 identified thus far around Sirru Fen Fushi.

While coral cover was minimal and the marine life still relatively shy, there was something tangibly thrilling about
seeing this structure in its early years. Sam’s efforts will inevitably see the Coralarium blossom.

During dinner the following evening, Sam called. He had found a turtle nest at risk of damage from the incoming tide. Would I like to join him to move the eggs down the beach, he asked? My meal was duly abandoned, and just minutes later I had joined a team tasked with gently lifting 90 eggs, resembling ping pong balls, into sand-lined boxes for transportation.

Minutes later, as we congregated around an identical sandy ditch, a respectful silence felt natural; the moment was reminiscent of a burial. But in fact, it was quite the opposite. Sixty days later, these eggs would hatch, and the next Anikas would make a break for the water. Maybe they will greet a British woman over by the house reef; maybe they will head for the Coralarium. Sam and the team at Fairmont are diligently sustaining what is here, and readying for what is to come. In a year that has felt defined by the threat of death, Sirru Fen Fushi and its Coralarium are defined by the promise of life.

Beach Villas at Fairmont Maldives cost from £660, B&B. Guests can explore the Coralarium independently, or book a tour with Sam Dixon. These run daily and are free of charge for guests (fairmont.com/maldives). Our writer travelled before the national lockdown beginning Jan 5; non-essential international travel has since been banned. Check current restrictions before booking and travelling.

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