Paradise in the Ocean

Written by Amber Anwar  •  Features  •  May 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The atolls of the Maldives are a geologist’s delight and a tourism paradise as their natural formation and beauty still remains a mystery.

Arranged in almost a circle of 26 atolls, the Republic of Maldives is covered with 99 per cent water, leaving only 1 per cent land for the 1192 coral islands. The live coral reefs, white sandy beaches, coconut palms and crystal clear water is what makes the Maldives beautiful, attracting thousands of tourists to this paradise on Earth.

The Maldives’ twenty-one administrative divisions include 20 atolls and the city of Male. Settlers have given unique names to each of these atolls. For example, Ihavandhippolhu Atoll gets its name from the island of Ihavandhoo in the southeast of the atoll; Miladummadulu derives its name from Milandhoo on the eastern fringes of the atoll, and Male Atolls are named after the island of Male. A few of the atolls also get their names from commanders and officers of the British Empire.

Live corals and coral debris mostly comprise the Maldivian islands. Coral reefs separate the islands from the sea and offer protection from high tides and storms rising in the Indian Ocean. Besides other flora, coconut palms, the national tree of the Maldives, are found in almost every part of the island. However, only a few flowering plants, shrubs and small hedges can grow in the islands as salt content is higher near the sea. Other vegetation includes mangroves, screw pine and banyan.

Beneath the deep blue ocean lies a fascinating world of sea creatures. The Maldives’ serves as a home to a unique and diverse  marine ecosystem. The sea is highly visible throughout the year and clear enough to make a passing fish visible from as far as fifty metres. Every year, monsoon tides from the Indian Ocean accumulate small marine creatures, including microscopic plant cells, on the sea surface. The waters consist of colorful coral reefs, some 1,100 fish species, 400 species of molluscs, 187 coral species, 21 species of whales, and 5 species of sea turtles. Smaller sealife such as sponges, crabs, shrimps and large underwater creatures including whale sharks also dwell in this region. A variety of small organisms lure big fish and sharks to inhabit the area for a rich variety of food. These rare aquatic species found near and around the Maldives are of great biological and commercial value.

Only oceanic birds are found in the Maldives as the islands are located well inside the Indian Ocean.  Also found are birds belonging to the family of frigate birds. Moreover, Grey Heron and Moorhen dwell in marshes and bushes of the islands while commonly seen in the sea are whales and dolphins. Other native mammals include the flying fox and species of shrew.

The Maldives is a country located at the lowest level in the world, at merely 1.5 metres above sea level. More than 80 percent of the land is composed of coral islands that rise less than one metre above sea level. The islands in the Maldives have undergone frequent erosion and a natural formation process over time. The tides of the Indian Ocean deposit sand on the banks resulting in gradual expansion of the islands, which makes the Maldives a dynamic country in terms of geology and geography.

The formation of the Maldives atolls remains an unsolved mystery. According to Charles Darwin’s theory, a coral reef grew on the edge of the volcanoes that rise from the sea. Coral reefs encircling the lagoon remained after the volcanoes submerged into the water.  Consequently, tides and currents brought dead coral onto sandbars that formed the islands on the reefs.

A theory put forward by Hans Hass gives another explanation. According to Hass, layers of coral reefs grew on top of submerged mountains until they rose to the surface of the water where  only the hardest of these reefs  remained. The corals which grew on the outer edges of the mountain formed rings, which today, are the outer rims of the atolls. This process resulted in the formation of islands, as debris and sand accumulated on the remaining reefs.

Hatcher tells yet another story about the formation of atolls in the Maldives. He explains that a change in sea level resulted in the formation of these atolls. When the volcanic mountains submerged into the sea, the coral reefs grew upward to keep with the sea level, since coral cannot grow at depths of more than 150 feet. Simultaneously, the coral on the surface expanded laterally to stay abreast with the coastline, resulting in its upward and outward push even after the volcanic islands sank under the ocean.

Dana, another researcher, argues that the current shape of an atoll has more to do with patterns of wind and wave activity. Other researchers, who observed a similar pattern for atoll formation, validate this theory. Geologists and researchers accept the basic truth about atoll formation, structure and shape. However, the discussion is still up for debate. 

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