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Caring for coral babies

January 18, 2024 - When the moon cycle is just right, the reef at Six Senses Laamu glows with an incredible natural phenomenon: coral spawning. Meet Coco, our coral daddy, and Afaaz, our grouper daddy, and find out how you can get involved across our resorts.

When the moon shines brightly over the house reef at Six Senses Laamu, you might spot Coco and Afaaz dipping below the surface and descending to the seafloor. Armed with little more than a dive tank, camera, and torch, the reef feels a little deeper at night.

Corals in sync

Corals may look like colorful rocks or take root like plants, but did you know that they are made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps? When the environmental conditions and moon cycle are just right, they release egg and sperm bundles into the ocean for fertilization. This natural event, called broadcast spawning, can coincide with many other marine creatures, such as sea cucumbers, who also use the lunar cycle as their cue. This forms an awe-inspiring “mating ballet” where the reef comes alive, and you have a surreal feeling of being in a snow globe. 

As we go about our busy lives above the water, it is easy to disconnect from nature, but witnessing coral spawning is a reminder that the natural world remains entirely and intelligently connected. The timing is precise, as each coral species may spawn within a 10- to 30-minute window on potentially one night a year. Still, it is important to understand its reproductive cycle given the primary threats it faces due to climate change, including warming and acidifying oceans.

It also turns out that coral larvae have very strong opinions about where they want to live, so they have amazing sensory abilities to help them make the right call. This is another area we actively research, as documented by conservationist Steve Backshall and Bristol University Professor Steve Simpson for the BBC series Our Changing Planet.

Back on dry land, Malé-born biologist and coral tank technician Coco explains why the research is so critical: “While 99 percent of the Maldives is under the water, little is known about coral spawning. We’ve been monitoring coral spawning since March 2019 as part of a project started by our coral mama Philippa Roe, trying to find a pattern. Coral eggs and sperm are vulnerable to climate change, which is why we’re investigating species diversity and reef replenishment.”

Counting corals

The results of the research ­­­will contribute towards a better understanding of coral reefs, feeding into more effective marine protection. By adopting a proactive strategy, they aim to future-proof these precious ecosystems, ensuring their survival for future generations.

The Maldives is home to the world’s seventh-largest coral reef system and the fifth most biodiverse. The health of its reefs is vital for tourism, fisheries, and the physical resilience of the atolls themselves. One of the biggest successes to date has been the protection of critical habitats on Laamu Atoll as nationally designated Marine Protected Areas and the whole atoll as a Mission Blue Hope Spot.

“In the oceans, during coral spawning, there is a high probability that the coral larvae will not survive,” says Coco, “Other marine animals snack on these floating coral babies. Even when they do attach, the ocean conditions may be too challenging. Boulder corals are easy to damage but slow to grow, at less than 1 centimeter per year, but these give our atolls their strength.”

That’s why the MUI team has successfully nurtured thousands of tiny “recruits” (larvae that have settled on travertine tiles), which he’ll keep for at least two years in his dedicated tanks provided by the Coral Spawning Lab UK. These baby incubators are awesome to see. From the first trial in March, conducted in collaboration with Prof. Peter Harrison, which led to 262 babies, a spawning in November led to 1,200 successful recruits, and another spawning in late November led to up to 800 recruits on a single tile. Coco is still counting these.

Coral bleaching

Coco’s tank conditions are optimal, resulting in strong and healthy corals. You can see from their orange-brown color. This is due to zooxanthellae, or photosynthetic cells, which live in their tissues. In addition to providing corals with essential nutrients, zooxanthellae are partly responsible for their unique and beautiful colors.

“When corals become physically stressed, the polyps expel their zooxanthellae,” Coco says. “They turn white, which is why we describe it as ‘coral bleaching’. If the polyps go for too long without zooxanthellae, they can die. Coral reefs have experienced severe, widespread coral bleaching both in 1998 and 2016. When bleaching happens, it affects the ecosystem itself. The fish decline, and the sharks don’t come up to the reefs. We have seen a big connection.”

Alongside coral fragmentation and replanting onto frames, coral spawning is a more natural way to research how to restore reefs in the Laamu Atoll and the Maldives in general. “Spawning increases the genetic diversity because we’re collecting the bundles of eggs and sperm, which means that some of those corals are more likely to be resilient to challenges. Because of this, they have a higher chance of surviving bleaching in the future because they have a higher diversity. We’re also testing stress levels. We might be sending a coral colony into space …”

Coral babies in space? We’ll be checking back in.

Awards for sustainability and community engagement

In the past two months, Six Senses Laamu has received multiple prestigious awards for its contribution to sustainability, environmental conservation, and community engagement. The Aspire Sustainability Initiative of the Year, for instance, showcases the resort’s responsible approach to marine conservation with its newly established marine science research and education center, the SHELL (Sea Hub of Environmental Learning in Laamu). The SHELL is also home to the Maldives Underwater Initiative’s 10 marine biologists from three NGOs in addition to our own in-house marine biologists, fostering an environment of collaboration, innovation, and education. 

Sustainable fisheries

Along with the Manta Trust and the Olive Ridley Project, we also partner with Blue Marine Foundation and Maldives Resilient Reefs. Afaaz is based at Six Senses Laamu as the Resort Research and Fisheries Officer, joining Coco in his passion for the reefs and ocean around us. Afaaz comes from a fishing family, but noticing changes in fishing patterns and troubled by the lack of fisheries research led him to pursue a career in marine science, starting with an internship with Maldives Underwater Initiative.

If Coco is our coral daddy, you can call Afaaz our grouper daddy, due to his efforts to protect grouper populations and research on grouper spawning. He is also working to support our sustainable resort reef fishing program, Laamaseelu Masveriyaa, which means “exemplary fishers” in Dhivehi.

“This is our code of conduct. It ensures the entire process from reef fishing to catch volumes and purchasing is sustainable. We also work with the government to promote a better documented and more sustainable fishing industry in the Maldives by protecting threatened species or species for export that are below their size limits,” Afaaz explains. “Some fish mature very late, so we have to protect them until they reproduce.”

“In return, we work to protect our local fishers’ livelihoods. I come from Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, so I feel a great responsibility, and I hope the Laamaseelu Masveriyaa program will eventually become a nationwide model.”

After all, people don’t live in the ocean, but we all depend on the ocean to live.

Get involved in coral conservation

Alongside the work in the Maldives, Six Senses Zil Pasyon, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, and Six Senses Fiji are committed to coral projects to preserve and restore this highly sensitive ecosystem.

In Vietnam, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay collaborates with the Oceanography Institute to research and survey the coral and plan for the restoration. You can help re-attach broken shards of living coral to artificial structures adjacent to the natural reef; a similar concept to planting a personal tree. By saving these naturally broken fragments, they will grow to be able to reproduce and hopefully develop more resilient coral offspring that can withstand higher ocean temperatures and global warming. In 2022, we successfully transplanted 245 coral fragments into 23 coral frames in the sea, which helped to increase the total number of frames to 43.

As the home and Official Premium Partner of Coral Gardeners, Six Senses Fiji offers guests the opportunity to learn about coral conservation and participate in positive impact projects and conservation. With the third-largest barrier reef in the world, Fiji is surrounded by beautiful but also fragile corals. The restoration strategy is to increase coral cover and biodiversity in degraded areas of the Malolo Barrier Reef, focusing on heat-resilient corals. The new team of five local coral gardeners is already on its way to planting 10,000 corals this year as part of the organization’s objective to plant a million corals around the world by 2025. In addition to their restoration efforts, the Fijian team will conduct youth and local outreach and welcome a network of stakeholders committed to prioritizing reef restoration.

You are also welcome to come and experience this global coral restoration movement by joining the team in the water and planting coral fragments for “a day in the life of a coral gardener” and visiting a nursery with the marine restoration team. You’ll also learn the rationale behind the selected coral varieties and why they are so important to the underwater ecosystem. Why not adopt a coral baby?

“We are natural partners with Coral Gardeners because our values are closely aligned, with sustainability at the heart of everything we do at Six Senses Fiji. The opportunity for our guests to experience coral gardening firsthand should create lifelong memories for them,” says Mark Kitchen, General Manager of Six Senses Fiji.

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