Marine Life In The Maldives

The Maldives is an island nation of twenty-six atolls containing 1192 islands. It sits in the Laccadive Sea of the Indian Ocean 400 kilometres (250 miles) southwest of India, between the Chagos Archipelago and Minicoy Island, directly in the major seafaring lanes of the Indian Ocean. Up until 1968, king/sultans called the Radun and queens/sultanas called the Ranin ruled the Maldives. The major export used to be the cowrie shell, the remnant of a prolific mollusk that was used as currency in ancient Asia and Africa; the major export now is fish harvested by commercial fishing. However, the current economy of the Maldives is based more on tourism than on fishing.

Geology of the Maldives

The Maldives, with average ground level of 1.5 metres (~5 feet) above sea level, is the lowest country on Earth. In fact, about 80% of the country's land are actually coral islands that are only 1 metre (39 inches) above sea level. So, the Maldives can rightly be called a nation of the sea. Most of the country is surrounded by reefs of both living and dead coral that form a natural barrier to the strong high waves of the open ocean, leaving peaceful lagoons within the circumference of the reef and among the atolls. These geophysical structures create ecological niches for well over 2000 different marine species.

The Reefs of the Maldives

Two types of coral thrive in the seas around the Maldives. The hard corals, which grow in huge colonies and leave behind a limestone skeleton upon which more coral can grow, can be seen in shapes from flat sheets to rounded brain coral to the branching staghorn. The soft corals, such as fan or whip corals, do not leave behind limestone skeletons and live as solitary growths on the ocean floor. The hard-to-see living part of a coral is the tiny retracted polyp that reaches out for prey at night with stinging tentacles.

Some reef-building coral is photo-synthetic like plants, absorbing energy from the sun via the colourful Zooxanthellae algae that co-exists in the living tissues of the coral creatures. This algae dies when a piece of coral is broken off, this being the reason that bright coral souvenirs soon lose their color when removed from the reef. This process has occurred naturally on a large scale around the Maldives when, in 1998, a change in the El Nino oceanic current caused an increase in the temperature of the waters of the Indian Ocean, killing the algae and bleaching many of the Maldivian hard corals. The effects are still evident years later.

Fish

Fish of all kinds, sizes and colors can be found in the clear waters, some examples being the colorful kinds that are often found in home aquariums: butterfly fish, angelfish, clownfish, the Moorish Idol, the Napoleon Wrasse, the Oriental Sweetlip, the triggerfish and the parrotfish.

Then there are the larger fish, such as the long-nose hawkfish seen among the black coral and the blue-lined snapper, bright yellow with blue stripes. Larger still is the toothy fearsome barracuda, a well-known solitary predator of other fish. Huge groupers and hawksbill and green sea turtles float as though weightless in the clear water. Swimming above the reefs and on out into the ocean are schools of dolphins cavorting and enjoying human company.

Rays

The rays are another class of marine life around the Maldives that fascinate everyone. Graceful and unlike any other earthly creature, rays fly and glide through the undersea depths with seemingly little effort. In the waters around the Maldives, you can find the eagle ray, which tends to like the open ocean more than the sea bottom or the reefs, the enormous manta ray, also called the devilfish, which can measure between 20 and 25 feet across, and the sting ray, much smaller, but still respected by divers because of the painful barb in its tail.

Sharks

Then there are the sharks. Small ones stay around the reefs, while the larger ones tend to live in the open ocean. The zebra shark is nocturnal, resting on the sea bottom motionless during the day. But, at night, this shark is quick and agile, moving its long body much like an eel. The huge hammerhead shark looks like an alien creature adrift in the ocean. If you see a gray reef shark, you'll see few of any other type because this shark tends to chase away all competitors for the local food supply. Finally, the whale shark is the largest fish in the world. Remember, the whale doesn't count as a fish because it's a mammal. Feeding only on the plankton it filters from the sea, a whale shark can reach 47,000 pounds and its dark body peppered with white spots can stretch to 40 feet.

Dwellers of the Reefs

There are also the denizens of the coral reefs. Along with the numerous small fish darting in and out of the reef, you might spot a moray eel waiting in ambush to pop out and take its prey, octopus, starfish and over 200 species of crustaceans, including shrimp, hermit crabs and lobsters. Attached to sea bottom and the reef itself are the filter-feeders: clams, sea-squirts, feather stars and sponges.

Turtles

Five species of sea turtles live in the waters around the Maldives. The loggerhead turtle, the hawksbill turtle, the green turtle and the Olive Ridley all come ashore June through November to lay their eggs; only the leatherbacks, seen only in deep water, never seem to come ashore in the Maldives, perhaps going ashore on other islands in the Indian Ocean to lay their eggs.

Varied Habitats

Not all of these marine denizens occupy the same habitat. Locales that are favorable for the growth of one type of creature might not be favorable for another. Competition for food or sunlight or shadow may preclude some marine creatures from becoming neighbors. So, the waters around Maldives might be said to contain innumerable neighborhoods, each with its own set of marine residents.

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