In the Maldives, a resort offers endangered sea turtles a new life

As cries to save our polluted oceans reach a global crescendo, a young sea turtle in the Maldives named Eevee could v...

Posted: Jun 8, 2018 9:47 AM
Updated: Jun 8, 2018 9:47 AM

As cries to save our polluted oceans reach a global crescendo, a young sea turtle in the Maldives named Eevee could very well be considered the ultimate symbol of the challenges that lie ahead.

Eevee, a juvenile olive ridley, only has two and a half flippers.

In 2017, she was found entangled in a "ghost" net -- fishing lines that have been cut off and discarded by careless fisherman.

She was rushed to the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru resort's sea turtle rehabilitation center in the Baa Atoll, where vets worked to repair her damaged carapace and flippers, which had to be amputated.

Three months of recovery followed. Eevee learned to swim and dive again, regaining control over her speed and direction. (A sea turtle needs to dive to eat and escape prey.)

Then, on a sunny October morning, resort guests were invited to join the biologists and witness a scene that will likely remain in their memories for years to come.

Eevee was being set free. As guests looked on from a nearby dock, she struggled against the waves as two marine biologists swam beside her, coaxing her to dive down below the surface.

After about 30 minutes, unable to demonstrate that she could dive on her own, she was brought back to her small pool in the marine center.

Three days later, the team tried again.

This time, Eevee found her groove and paddled away, for good. According to the satellite tracking tag glued to the top of her carapace, she traveled 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) in one day.

Getting guests involved

Eevee is just one of about 170 turtles that have passed through the turtle rehabilitation center inside the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru's impressive Marine Discovery Centre, founded in partnership with local conservation group Reefscrapers (formerly Seamarc). Others, like Eevee, lost flippers to ghost nets.

But this number also includes hatchlings, which get sent to the resort by locals, as part of its "Head Start" program. Suppliers receive a small payment when the healthy turtles hatch.

Marine Centre staff will raise the hatchlings until they're a year old and around four or five kilograms. Once the turtle is strong enough to survive in the wild, it's released.

And then there's the "Flying Turtles" program, in which the resort tries to find zoos that will care for the turtles that cannot be set free in the wild.

The entire operation is overseen by Reefscrapers founder Thomas Le Berre, who has been living in the Maldives for nearly 20 years.

Le Berre is a straight talker. He doesn't mince words and is openly grim when assessing the prospects for our oceans, saying their work is just a drop in the bucket.

"I'm disappointed that it's not enough compared to the task at hand," he says. "I think every resort in the Maldives could have such a center. Eventually, rather than have one center, we would have 100 centers. And that would make a whole difference."

The problem is securing commitment, he says, noting that the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru's center is successful because management ensures the project gets the resources it needs.

There's also the matter of providing an experience that will create lasting memories for the guests and inspire change.

"One of the challenges that we face when we try to educate the public is how to reach those people that are here on holidays," says Le Berre. "How to send the most essential message that we would like people to remember from their stay in the Maldives."

Reef building and mantas on call

The Marine Discovery Centre works on a variety of environmental projects including coral reef restoration, fish culture, shark and manta ray protection and sea turtle rescue and conservation.

Resort guests are invited to participate in all of the projects -- both on land and at sea -- as part of the center's aim to increase public awareness and knowledge.

The center itself is filled with exhibits highlighting the challenges the Maldives is up against in the face of climate change and rising sea levels. There's also a "Fish Lab," which is staffed by two full-time fish breeders and filled with tanks of clownfish, gobies, humbug damsels and pipefish.

Though the center is suitable for all ages, children are naturally drawn to it, say staff. And they pay attention to what they're seeing.

"You have kids coming three times a day just to visit the turtles," says marine biologist Alejandra Carvallo.

"They have their favorite. They name them. So it's really good, it leaves a little impact in the kid. They actually understand what a turtle's going through outside in the ocean and what is happening in here. So they get a better understanding, and their interest raises. They will go back to their parents and tell them, 'we should stop doing this, we should do this...'"

On a recent visit, we found a chatty group of children working with one marine biologist to add young coral to a reef frame, which they then threw off the nearby dock into the crystal blue waters below. Afterwards, they were able to track the progress of their coral growth online.

There's also a "Manta Watch" program. Guests who sign up are given a mobile phone. When manta rays are spotted near the resort, they get a call telling them to hurry to a waiting boat, which will rush them out to snorkel with the big, beautiful creatures.

Other offshore excursions include dolphin cruises, visits to whale shark-feeding sites and rides in a three-person submarine.

All of them are overseen by one of the resort's seven marine biologists, which adds to the experience.

Inside the resort

Let's not forget all this is happening in a five-star, 44-acre luxury resort on its own island.

One of two Four Season properties in the Maldives -- sister resort Kuda Huraa has its own marine center as well, also overseen by Le Berre -- Landaa Giraavaru is a 30-minute float plane ride from the capital, Male.

It's made up of 103 gorgeous thatch-roofed villas, both overwater and beachfront, many of which come with private pools. There are four restaurants and four lounges, with cuisines ranging from Italian to Middle Eastern. Private beach dining experiences are also available.

Guests are each given their own bike to use while at the resort, though a buggy is on call for those who'd rather get chauffeured.

Like all Four Seasons properties, the attention to detail is a definite highlight. On one afternoon, staff had places a tray of coconuts in various forms inside the villa, all labeled and all edible, meant to highlight the "journey of a coconut."

Want to take off for a few nights? There's a luxury catamaran guests can charter for cruises -- or just an overnight journey to the other Four Seasons resort.

For true privacy, there's the Four Seasons Private Island Maldives at Voavah, a quick boat ride away. It's made up of several villas with seven bedrooms in total and has its own spa, gym, library, pool and water sports center. Guests also get exclusive use of a 19-meter private luxury yacht.

Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, Baa Atoll, Maldives; +(960) 66 00 888

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