Six Senses Laamu General Manager: Marteyne van Well
Sustainability is one of Six Sense’s key pillars, so a huge amount of our operations revolve around protecting the local environments and supporting the local community. Here in the Maldives, 99% of the country is ocean and this is reflected through our focus on marine conservation. The Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) is a multiple award-winning marine conservation initiative established by the resort and consists of staff employed by ourselves, as well as three partner NGOs: The Manta Trust, Blue Marine Foundation and The Olive Ridley Project. The MUI team works together to lead the tourism industry in the Maldives through meaningful marine conservation efforts based on research, education and community outreach. Some examples of their projects include studying sea turtle nesting, manta ray population, seagrass and coral spawning, in addition to education programs in local schools and working with local fishers to ensure fish sold to the resort is sustainably caught. We have also donated almost 100 water filtration systems to the local community of Laamu Atoll, meaning the entire local population has access to safe, clean, drinking water and eliminating the need for millions of plastic water bottles every year. You can find out more about the MUI team’s initiatives on their website here.
Your team works with the Manta Trust, a charity with the mission to conserve rays and their habitats. Can you share any insights you've discovered since studying the local manta ray population and how they fit into the broader ecosystem?
Since 2014, the Manta Trust have been working in Laamu to study the local manta ray population and to educate guests and the local community about the importance and vulnerability of manta rays in the Maldives. In this time, the team have identified 135 individual manta rays (by photographing the unique spot pattern on their bellies), and has found this population to be somewhat residential. In other parts of the Maldives, manta rays migrate and can only be encountered in certain areas on a seasonal basis; however, here in Laamu, the majority of the manta ray sightings are possible all year round. To further these studies, the Manta Trust team has invested in Remote Underwater Video devices which enable researchers to continue monitoring the sites after they get out of the water, providing more information about their behavioral traits when divers aren’t around. The Manta Trust team in Laamu have also conducted studies on manta ray pregnancy using the world’s first underwater contactless ultrasound scanner, in addition to measuring individual manta rays growth over time using a stereo video system. Manta rays are large charismatic creatures that guests travel from far and wide to encounter, by protecting and understanding this species, we help to promote the health of the entire ecosystem in which they live.
Having lived in the Maldives for many years, how have you seen the nature surrounding the islands evolve?
I am very grateful to have spent almost ten years here in Laamu Atoll, which is one of the southern atolls in the Maldives. Here, development is minimal and the marine ecosystems are relatively untouched. I am an avid diver, and not a day-off goes by where you won’t find me on the morning dive boat with my camera. Whilst we are very blessed to be the only resort in the area, unfortunately this does not mean the local ecosystems are immune to the global issues facing our oceans. In 2016, a mass coral bleaching event hit oceans all around the world, and Laamu was no exception. I witnessed this first hand and was shocked by the impact global actions can have on such an incredible and important marine ecosystem. Here in the Maldives, approximately 75% of the coral died due to elevated sea temperatures which lasted just three weeks. Our reefs are in a state of recovery right now, and the MUI team are studying the natural replenishment and reproduction of corals to an extent which has never been done in the Maldives before. My wish, of course, is that bleaching events such as these would never happen again, but until the climate crisis improves we will be focusing on studying how these reefs naturally recover, and thus if there is any way in which we can help protect them to be more resilient for future events.
What are the biggest risks to the health of our oceans?
There are many issues our oceans face, from rising sea temperatures, to plastic pollution, overfishing to loss of biodiversity, as I believe we all know the list can be somewhat endless. However, to answer the question from the point of view of someone based in the Maldives, I believe the biggest threat our oceans face locally is unsustainable development. The Maldives is a growing economy and to accommodate for this, infrastructure is being developed at a rate never seen before. Whilst, of course, I am very proud to see this country I call home progress, I can’t help but worry for the state of our marine resources with the added pressures. I believe there is a way to harness growth which simultaneously safeguards the natural habitats, the biodiversity of the country and also local livelihoods. I hope, here at Six Senses Laamu, our operations which are based around marine conservation, zero-waste and the local economy, can inspire other businesses around the nation to prioritize the same aspects and thus leave a legacy in this beautiful country for generations to come.
What are the biggest steps that general consumers can take to help protect oceans?
As someone who works in the tourism industry, my biggest advice is to make conscious decisions when traveling. Travel can be sustainable, in fact in needs to be, and there are incredible companies in the industry who are providing consumers with opportunities to contribute, be it through finances or time, to initiatives which are helping to conserve local marine ecosystems. Here at Six Senses Laamu, a proportion of our resorts revenue, water sales and soft toy sales are dedicated to our Sustainability Fund which can only be used on projects which directly benefit the local community and environment. Beyond this, there are conscious decisions every travel can make themselves, such as not bringing plastic to areas where they may not have the resources to correctly dispose of it, purchasing reef-safe sun cream to help safeguard corals, ensuring interactions with wild animals are non-disruptive and much more. We provide all this information to guests through packing tips and guidance when at the resort, however there is also extensive information available online for conscious travellers looking to book holidays elsewhere.
In addition to your career relating to ocean conservation, you're also an avid diver! Can you share what you love about diving and a couple of your favorite spots to go diving?
To see, and be part of, the magical underwater world is inspirational. It is such a beautiful world and diving gives one some of the most transcendent moments in your life. 71% of the planet we live on is covered with water, making it hardly surprising that some of the most spectacular spots on earth lie under the ocean’s surface. I have been diving for many years and yet I still catch myself in complete wonder during every dive.
Diving is so much more than a sport; it is a passion, it is true love, it is a life-style! Once you learn to dive, enter into that whole new world, and join the community made up by scuba divers, you will never want to turn back!
Some of my favorite diving is right here in the Laamu Atoll. It is very rare for guests not to see mantas, rays, sharks, turtles, large schools of fish but also the wonderful unusual little macro critters that make the reef their home. In addition to diving in the Laamu Atoll, there are other beautiful spots in the Maldives. Beyond the Maldives, some of my favourite spots to dive are the beautiful Solomon Islands and Cuba.
What's one way you recommend to get the next generation to care deeply for our oceans?
I believe exposing children to the wonders of the ocean is the greatest way to develop future marine stewards. Children these days are very aware of the mammoth issues our oceans face, it is everywhere from mass media to their school curriculum, but this can be somewhat overwhelming and intimidating. However, by bringing children to marine habitats and allowing them to discover the wonders of life that live in them, we can inspire a greater sense of curiosity and ownership amongst kids. Here in Laamu, the MUI team engage with children every day, both with the little VIPs visiting the resort who partake in the Junior Marine Biology program, and with the children of the local community who the team reach out to though educational programs. In both of these experiences, the priority of the MUI team is engaged outdoor learning, where kids get the chance to see first hand what they have learnt about in a classroom.
If you could have people adopt one habit that would help the planet, what would it be?
Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, is credited with a quote that very much speaks to me "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught. ” I think if everyone could adopt the habit of asking more questions, becoming more aware of what marine ecosystems surround them, and communicating these messages to their circle of influence, we would be in a far better place to address the issues our planet faces. The state of the planet is an intimidating battle to tackle, but with curiosity comes understanding, and with understanding comes a greater sense of ownership. When we act together, we can make a huge difference.