You can tell when someone is passionate about their work when they arrive early for their cleaning duty, with excitement to spare. I’m with Paige, tagging along for the afternoon window-wiping shift at what is her second office – the world’s largest all-glass underwater restaurant. Off we go because 1. friends help friends clean fish poo, and 2. I’m eager to visit the coral garden on the other side of the 13-centimeter (just over 5 inches) thick glass where I had previously eaten – the coral garden that Paige planted and now gardens.
After learning to dive in 2011 Paige Bennett worked in the Red Sea, Belize, Mexico, US and Thailand before joining the instructor team at Kuredu Island Resort in the Maldives in 2015. She moved to its sister property Hurawalhi in 2016, where she undertook the 5.8 Undersea Restaurant reef project, given her previous experience with coral planting. Now the dive center manager, she absolutely loves nudibranchs, and enjoys taking underwater macro photographs and her interesting role as a coral gardener!
‘Brace yourself for a fish frenzy! There’s clown fish, fusiliers, moray eels… About 100 fish species can be found on the reef at the moment, even rays and sharks make regular appearances nowadays!’, Paige explains as we are preparing for our giant stride entry. ‘It’s gonna be fun!’, she adds and gives me a smile, a sponge and a used toothbrush.
We descend to 5.8 metres, where the aptly named 5.8 Undersea Restaurant is stationed, and begin swiping off debris that accumulated on the glass since the morning, admiring the blooming reef below us as we go. Paige started the coral gardening project in May 2016, a week after the 400-ton structure had been put in place. ‘We wanted to create an extension of the existing reef that would represent, on a small scale, the beauty of the Maldives’ underwater while at the same time reviving marine life that had been weakened by the El Niño.’
Coral bleaching had devastating consequences on anemones in Lhaviyani Atoll. High water temperatures induced stress on anemones, causing them to release photosynthetic algae into the water. The Prodivers coral gardener team dislodged some blocks of coral that showed few signs of life and placed them onto the shelves surrounding the restaurant. ‘Just one day after the first coral planting was complete, the area was covered with damselfish, wrasse were feeding in the sand, and pairs of butterflyfish were hovering over the reef. We noticed the transplanted anemones, previously white and shriveled, were turning brown again, and within two weeks they were full of clownfish laying eggs around them.’
Hurawalhi is located inside a reef channel through which nutrient-rich water gets funneled into the atoll, and the restaurant in particular lies in a bay that experiences a constant backwash current, creating a potential for the reef to thrive. ‘The new location of the replanted coral helped them regain the algae quickly enough to prevent them from dying.’
The reef around the restaurant has grown year by year, not only expanding in the areas that were planted but marine life is blooming all over the beams, sides and stairways, which are now almost completely covered in juvenile corals around 10-15 centimeters in diameter. About a year ago the coral gardeners also started to notice a large increase in big fish action, like hunting jacks and groupers. There is a small wreck on the reef too that is slowly getting covered in coralline algae, and different types of corals have started to grow on it as well as tubastrea coral in its interior.
We brought the entire reef back to life and I couldn’t be prouder!Paige Bennett, Coral Gardener
Barbara Tori is a copywriter and marketer who has carved out a niche for herself as a Maldives’ specialist with almost 10 years of experience working at and with luxury resorts. A quiet and curious soul, she knows how to cut though the noise with writing about what she loves. Barbara’s based in Slovenia and can be emailed here.