For those looking to take home more than just a tan from their holiday, Vakkaru Maldives, found in the Maldives’ protected Baa Atoll, is offering a trip with a difference.
From 27 August – 2 September, A Deep Sea Odyssey sees Oliver Steeds OBE take up a week-long residency at the resort – which was recently voted Indian Ocean’s Leading Resort in the World Travel Awards – to challenge guests to take a deeper dive into ocean conservation, so they’ll return with a deeper understanding about conservation.
During the week-long residency, guests of all ages can participate in a variety of activities to learn more about ocean life and its conservation in the Maldives, with workshops, cinema screenings and two expeditions, as well as sustainably sourced dinners and cocktail evenings. Vakkaru is in the heart of the Baa Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and home to a rich diversity of marine life, including manta rays, sharks and a wide variety of fish species.
Steeds is a former investigative journalist and the founder and mission director of Nekton, a science-based organisation that works with ocean nations to protect the seas and increase humanity’s knowledge of marine life. The residency is a precursor ahead of Steeds’ upcoming expedition in the region, called the Maldives Mission. He will be working alongside Maldivians and international scientists to explore the ocean depths of the Maldives. While the tiny Maldivian atolls, built on coral, are no more than a metre above sea level, the vast majority of the country is under water and unexplored. The destination is on the frontline of the climate crisis with marine conservation a subject at the forefront of the climate-biodiversity crises.
Here, exclusively for Forbes, Oliver Steeds discusses the collaboration with Vakkaru and the marine conservation work he is pioneering.
You have been described as a ‘Renaissance Explorer’ – what does this mean to you?
We could certainly do with another Renaissance – in terms of revolutions in science, finance, politics and culture – to catalyse a change in society. We urgently need to find a new way to live with the planet rather than against it, and we need modern-day explorers to be pushing back the frontiers of our knowledge… we all need to play our part if we can.
How in danger are the Maldives from rising sea levels? Can the islands be saved or is it inevitable that most will be covered by the ocean in the coming year?
Maldives is 99% ocean and the average ground level is 1.5 metres above sea level, with the highest natural point being just 2.5 metres. The Maldives is projected to experience half a metre sea level rise and lose 77% of its land area by around the year 2100. If sea levels were actually to rise faster, and by just one meter, as some scientists project, the Maldives could be almost completely inundated by about 2085.
Tell us about Nekton and its overall aim?
We help to accelerate the scientific exploration of the ocean and its protection. Our client is the ocean and we are innovators – trying to do things differently to make a difference.
What are you hoping to achieve with the week-long Deep Sea Odyssey?
I hope guests come away with a new love of the ocean. Vakkaru is in the heart of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, one of the most spectacular parts of the ocean. It’s a place that gives us a great hope, is full of life and wonder and shows us what a healthy ocean should look like. If we love the ocean we are likely to protect it for future generations.
What can guests expect to experience during the week?
For the younger kids, I’m leading camps to learn more about coral and reefs. Older children, meanwhile, can learn about being a ‘mission director’ and what it takes to explore and protect the ocean.
One of the amazing things about the Maldives is that it’s built on coral. Coral provides the foundational structure for over 1,000 atolls, that have been built on the summits of ancient underwater volcanoes. One of the problems the Maldives faces is that coral reefs are one of the earliest and most significant ecological casualties of global warming.
For families, we’re leading some very special dive and snorkelling adventures to some of the most unique parts of the UNESCO Biosphere. Couple all this with unique dinners, talks and films about the ocean and special beach events, we’ve got a lot planned for all different ages.
Do you miss aspects of your career from when you were an investigative journalist?
Not really, as I’m now focused on one story, one of the most under-reported and most important issues of our time. Fortunately it’s pretty simple. The ocean makes life possible on the planet, producing oxygen, cycling carbon, absorbing heat, and regulating the planet’s climate and chemistry. Despite being the most important part of the planet, the ocean is the least known part of our planet and the least protected. That’s not good. But the ocean should give us great hope. If we can scientifically explore the last great frontier on Earth, it will drive our progress. We need to better understand how it functions; discover what lives there and harness four billion years of our planet’s evolutionary heritage.
What excites you the most about the Maldives?
The decision to act. We still have time. The Maldives is 99% ocean and yet there’s hardly anything known about what’s below 20 metres. Maldivians want to discover what’s there before the ocean’s demise triggers their own. The government, scientists, media, society and businesses, like Vakarru, are all stepping up to act. It’s going to take a coordinated effort.
Are you optimistic about the state of our oceans or pessimistic?
I’m a pragmatist. There is still time, so we should have hope. But the science is clear. We face an existential crisis for humankind on Earth. We need to act at speed and scale. Go big or go home.
What are your aims for the future, when it comes to marine conservation?
All our focus is on the Maldives Mission. Working with the Government of the Maldives, and a dozen Maldivian partners, we are carrying out the first systematic survey and sampling of the Maldives from the surface of the ocean to 1,000m deep. Maldivians will undertake at least 25 First Descents in two deep-diving submersibles with transparent 360° domes. What they will discover will be incredible. We go to sea from 4th September and I’m the mission director. You can follow the progress of this by following @nektonmission or visiting: nektonmission.org
What has been the most amazing experience you have encountered in the ocean?
Piloting a submersible to descend onto the peak of an ancient undersea volcano off Bermuda. We were the first to ever lay eyes on it. The peak was covered in a forest of life which was feeding the flanks of the mountain. Majestic whip corals stood metres high like the oak trees of the deep. It was one of the sights surveyed that resulted in the discovery of the Rariphotic Zone or rare light zone – from 120 to 300m – found around the world’s tropical and sub-tropical depths so far, and one of the largest new ecosystems found in decades. That was a very good day at the office.