In previous posts, I've touched on the SLOW LIFE Symposium, an annual environmental event hosted by Soneva. At the 2013 Symposium, following many conversations and debates between my good friend, ocean explorer and film maker Jon Bowermaster, Soneva Fushi's marine biologist Federica Siena, and a number of marine experts, it occurred to us that one of the greatest issues we face in our battle to protect the ocean is the way it is viewed and used by local communities around the world.
Teaching the local Maldivian children about protecting the ocean seemed the most effective first step in encouraging a new generation of environmental stewards. We recognise that we do not protect what we don't care about, and we do not care about things we do not know. As such, we realised that giving lectures and presentations wouldn't work; the children would have to be inspired to start loving the sea.
At Soneva Fushi, we are sensitive to the difference in living standards between visiting tourists and local islanders in the Maldives, and of the fragility of the ecosystms both locals and tourism businesses depend on. Soneva Fushi and Eydhafushi are separated by just 700 metres of water, but most of the young local children rarely enter the water and many are unable to swim. When Jon Bowermaster asked the children where they go to swim, the response was resounding, "We don't. It is dangerous. There are dangerous fish and it is dirty."
Without a doubt the shoreline at Eydhafushi is dirty. The parents refuse to let their children swim there and with good reason. The contrast between the litter-strewn beaches of local islands and the clean white sand of resort islands like Soneva Fushi is impossible to ignore. In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and huge stress on the limited available land, the sea has traditionally been a useful dumping ground. Over the years, this waste has changed from food and biodegradable matter to plastic bottles, plastic packaging and aluminium cans. It can take a generation or two for custom to catch up with a new reality.
And so, in order to change the young locals' perception of the sea, at the end of May, we launched our first 'Learn to Swim' programme, a joint initiative with Jon Bowermaster. The aim of the programme was to teach 48 school children and their parents from the neighbouring island, Eydhafushi, how to swim.
48 children and 16 mothers took part in the programme from 25th May to 5th June, and over the course of an intensive two weeks we saw their confidence grow, their technique improve, and their strength increase. We witnessed tears and hesitation as they stood at the waters' edge on the first day change to pure delight, enthusiasm, courage and determination as the days went on and they started to learn how to swim.
At the end of the two weeks, all participants in the programme received certificates of achievement, reusable cloth bags and swimming goggles, presented by Karen Merrick, resort manager at Soneva Fushi. The challenge that now faces us is to build on the fundamentals learnt over the two weeks and to continue the pupils' development into safe and confident swimmers. Karen has pledged that Soneva Fushi will continue the classes twice a month whilst also inviting two of the mothers who participated in the course to train as swim instructors. Further to this, Soneva is actively seeking partners to scale up the programme across Baa Atoll and potentially nationwide, while Jon Bowermaster, who was present throughout, is making a documentary film of the swim programme in order to promote swimming and environmental awareness worldwide.
The islanders have also made their own pledge; they will identify a safe swimming place on Eydhafushi and organise monthly beach clean ups to keep the area both usable and desirable.
We have all come away from this experience with a feeling of accomplishment in our aim to inspire a new generation of Maldivians to not just protect their endangered coral reefs, but to take control of its future. This is just the first step and our work doesn't stop here; there is still much more to be done. The next phase of our campaign is to appeal to other hotel groups to join us in our mission.