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Reef Revelations

by Liz Vaccariello

Anantara wanted to study, celebrate, and support the biodiversity of its world-renowned house reef in the Maldives. So it hired ocean researchers and did it right.

The team at Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas knew the coral and marine life around their island was special. It had received accolades (“best house reef in the Maldives”), and they’d all had extra time to explore and enjoy this fragile environment of vibrant tropical fish, Hawksbill sea turtles, Blacktip reef sharks, and all manner of crustaceans, mollusks and rays during the pandemic lockdown. But it wasn’t until August of 2021 that the idea to scientifically document and share its splendor was hatched.

That morning, executives Ibrahim Mausoof and Paul Counihan were snorkeling several meters offshore. They’d just watched a nonchalant octopus hang outside its hole for a full 60 minutes and were grateful, euphoric even, for the marine life they encountered daily. “I’ve never seen a reef so beautiful,” Mau, who’d been photographing atolls in the Indian Ocean since he was six years old, remarked to Paul. “I’ve seen six atolls and this is the most lively, the most beautiful, the most dramatic.”

Two years later, the writers, editors, photographers and marine biologists gathered to celebrate the publication of Wonders of Kihavah, a science-based coffee-table-book-meets- research-study chronicling the rich biodiversity found at this island positioned in the heart of the Baa Atoll archipelago, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

During COVID, the 180-person team stuck on the island was able to spend time inspecting and appreciating the life underwater. That led to the moment between Paul and Mau, which led to Anantara— helped by its philanthropic Dollars for Deeds program—hiring Australian Marine Conservation Society Director Dr. Selina Ward to study the exact scale of its biodiversity. Ward and her colleagues, fish and coral experts Dr. Storm Martin and Dr. Hannah Markham, had all conducted extensive research work on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and they say they were heartened to see how healthy, lively and diverse the Anantara Kihavah reef turned out to be.

An astounding 300 fish species (and 132 species of corals) were recorded, with Ward emphasizing that this delicate equilibrium only underscores the urgent need for marine conservation efforts, especially in the age of global warming.

Renowned ocean scientist, conservationist and author Dr. Gregory Stone, who served as a guiding ambassador and book editor, described the ecosystem at the celebration. “It’s the kind of place where there’s a little something for everybody,” he said. “You can find these very colorful, beautiful nudibranchs, which are these tiny snails without shells. Then you turn and you’ve got a four-foot nurse shark swimming by you, or a manta ray above you, or a school of fusiliers behind you. You go a little bit deeper, you get into the soft corals and you see the waving fronds of gorgonians. Then up on the reef flat you see a lot of very good hard corals. I like seeing that. It’s a good system.”

And the team at Anantara works mightily to keep it that way.

The book is available digitally at anantara.com/en/kihavah-maldives/the-reef

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