The Dark Side of Paradise


The Maldives, an archipelago of more than 1,000 islands in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka, is known as one of the most picturesque tropical destinations in the world. Scuba divers flock here for the high numbers of large pelagic life, such as manta rays, sharks and whale sharks.

The islands are host to a number of large, luxurious resorts, and whether you check out tourist selfies on Instagram, magazine stories or travel-agency marketing materials, the general impression is the same: deserted sandy beaches and perfect azure waters.

The Maldives are also often lauded as one of the more sustainable destinations in the high-end beach-vacation segment, with many resorts offering behind-the-scenes tours where visitors can see how far the resorts go to limit waste and protect the environment.

But while the resorts may pay considerable attention to collecting and reducing trash, the country faces massive challenges when it comes to handling that trash after it’s collected. Just a few miles away from the capital city of Malé is an artificial island known as Thilafushi, unofficially called “Trash Island.” The area’s main landfill, it receives 300 to 400 tons of trash a day. The material receives minimal processing after arrival, save for burning some of it, which is hardly optimal considering that much of it is plastic.

Alison Teal, from Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid,” visited the Maldives in 2014, and focused on Trash Island as part of her new TV program, which will hopefully engage a wider audience on the problem.

Much Maldivian trash is thought to end up the ocean, blown there by the wind and thusly washing ashore on other islands in the archipelago. Large quantities of this trash remain at sea, however, adding to the estimated 270,000 tons of plastic garbage that is currently polluting our oceans.

Particularly problematic in the Maldives is that neither resident nor visitor trash is sorted, leaving potentially toxic waste in landfills, from whence it can bleed into both seawater and drinking water, an already limited resource in the Maldives. The drinking-water challenge of the islands was highlighted recently when a fire broke out in the main water treatment plant on the main island of Mále, leaving the island’s population gasping for drinking water. There are only a few sources of freshwater in the Maldives; a number of islands have no access at all. Should the sources that are there be contaminated, the only option is to depend even more on desalination, and as the recent fire proved, these plants can be vulnerable to any number of issues.

As traveling scuba divers, we must understand the impact of our activities, not necessarily to stop doing them, but at the very least to be informed of the consequences of our actions, and to help offset their negative effects. As for the Maldives, it is worth remembering that we’re adding to this water shortage and trash problem. Bring your own reusable water bottle when you travel, and say “no thank you” to straws and other disposable plastic items. If you do have single-use plastic items such as travel-size shampoo bottles or disposable razors, take them home with you, where they can be processed more effectively. Better yet, reuse the bottles or buy sturdier, lasting products. The less plastic you use (and throw away), the less you’ll be swimming through on your next dive. In the larger picture, support environmental organizations that help the Maldives and other nations around the world struggling with similar problems. As divers and lovers of the marine environment, we must all pitch in to solve these problems.

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