By Eloise Basuki
Photographed by Leigh Griffiths
Nov 28, 2019
AS WE SKIM ACROSS THE WATER away from the InterContinental Maamunagau’s pier in a plush little speedboat bound for nearby Ladies Island, there’s no other sign of life in sight. The 81-villa resort, which opened in September, took over Maamunagau, an uninhabited natural island in the very south of Raa Atoll. Positioned in the north of the Maldives, Raa has seen far less development than the atolls closer to Malé, with just a handful of resorts and locals occupying this narrow chain of unadulterated white sand. Add to that its direct proximity to the protected Baa Atoll, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and this is prime real estate.
The boat’s hum drowns out much of what Maria Anderson, the InterContinental’s marine biologist, is trying to tell me, but I catch her main drift: the waters are warming and rising, and as the country with the world’s lowest elevation, the Maldives’ future depends on the actions of us all. Before moving here, Maria spent four years researching the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef. Surprisingly, she says, much of Raa’s and Baa’s coral survived the mass bleaching of 2016 that destroyed roughly 70 percent of the reefs in the Maldives. A pretty mysterious feat for such an at-risk region.
Here at the InterContinental, Maria can use her Australian research to help find out what makes these Maldives reefs so resilient. It’s a hard task to develop an island without disrupting its pristine natural environment, but with both short-term and long-term goals in mind, InterContinental Maamunagau sees sustainability as non-negotiable.
Our boat glides over Maamunagau’s vast natural lagoon (the largest in the country), but the tranquility is misleading. Underneath the water, life is thriving. I tumble into the blue in my snorkeling gear, following Maria into a busy, colorful world. The reef that fringes Ladies Island stretches out like it might never end, but falls off to the side in a deep, dark shelf. The current is strong today, and I barely have to kick my fins to glide past Pop Art–like coral edifices and interrupt colorful schools of fish on their common path to nowhere.
Maria waves me over and points out a branch of white coral. “This one has unfortunately died,” she tells me. But it’s definitely the outlier; most that I can see are not only living and flourishing, but are playing host to a vibrant community of sea life—Nemo and his family of clown fish duck in and out of a swaying anemone; a school of sleek black angel fish struts around a table coral; and we even spot the shy Indian Ocean–native oriental sweetlips, a yellow-and-black striped sh with lips as plump as a Real Housewife’s.
Back on Maamunagau, Maria shows me her coral nurseries, still in their infancy, that she has stationed around the overwater lobby and the resort’s lagoon-facing afternoon-tea lounge, The Retreat. During my visit, the resort was still awaiting the proper permits from the government to prove the project will eventually help the greater environment.
“One thing I hope to do here is take resilient corals in our lagoon that were able to survive the mass bleaching and high temperatures, then introduce them into areas that have had a higher mortality rate,” Maria says. It’s essentially coral rehab: finding patches of decimated reef and introducing resilient coral to promote resistance and increase biodiversity.
Superman-strength corals are not the only enigma here in Raa. Little is known about the behavior of its most adorable inhabitants: reef manta rays. The Maldives has 4,700 known mantas, the largest recorded population in the world. Partnering with global charity project Manta Trust, InterContinental’s latest outpost is a chance for the project to really study the local mantas in this untouched region—and they’ve already identified 141 different individual mantas in this very lagoon.
Citizen science is one way to achieve this learning. “If one of our guests goes out and has an underwater camera, they can make a huge difference if they just share that photo with us,” says Emma Hedley, a Manta Trust marine biologist stationed at the InterContinental’s Marine Discovery Centre. Like human fingerprints, each manta has a unique pattern of spots on their belly. So with just one photo, Emma can see who the manta was, who it was with, what size it was, if it has any injuries or if it’s pregnant. “This is how we are really starting to understand them,” she says. “We think they have these social groups, but then when they leave, they’ll swim off by themselves. We don’t know how they communicate yet… there are still a lot of mysteries.”
Maamunagau’s lagoon offers a large, sweeping reef, which acts as a gateway to Baa Atoll for the migrating mantas as they follow the plankton down to Hanifaru Bay, a small cove that just so happens to host the perfect conditions for trapping masses of plankton. While we aren’t able to make it to Hanifaru Bay during our last-minute stay—UNESCO requires all visitors be accompanied by a certified divemaster, and buy tokens well in advance—we were lucky enough to catch a group of 15 rays feeding in the south of the country a few days earlier. They barrel-rolled and danced together as they vacuumed up the floating plankton. Their wings were so close I felt them tickle my cheek. Emma thinks this type of sighting will be common in Maamunagau’s lagoon when the season changes in December. “Around the edge of the lagoon it gets quite shallow, so it traps the plankton and we get these types of feeding events.”
Environmental consciousness here runs deep; it’s woven into the very foundations of the resort. The past year has seen every hospitality brand grasping for paper straws in order to rebrand as “sustainable,” but this InterContinental goes a few steps further with solar panels, metal- and glass-crushing capabilities, sewage plants and organic composting. During my stay, the tangible eco-choices are endless: among the six dining outlets is the interactive sea-to-table Fish Market where you can catch your own live, local seafood; the naturally lit overwater spa hosts a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner with a stock of organic herbal medicine; like all rooms, our spacious beach villa offers glass bottles filled with drinking water treated from the resort’s desalination plant; in our semi-outdoor rainfall shower, soap and other amenities come in reusable bottles, and the toothbrushes made of woodchips and grains can actually be replanted and will decompose easily. Any plastics used in-house are donated to Parley Maldives, an environmental program that intercepts and recycles any plastic waste into new materials, like biodegradable thread and upcycled shoes.
“We have a huge responsibility to set a new gold standard for the brand and celebrate its legacy,” says general manager Stefan Huemer. “This means protecting an incredible part of the world so that our guests and future generations can enjoy it in the same way—with complete peace of mind.”
As I do a final snorkel around the back reef that sits underneath the spa huts, I spot only a few damaged corals from the resort’s recent development. Maria tells me that the reef here has recovered quickly, and that thanks to proactive protective measures used during construction, its impact was minimized from the outset. Emma agrees that success can only come from working together: “Everything in the ocean is connected. You can’t have healthy manta populations without a healthy reef. Everything is dependent on each other. We have to play our part.”
maldives.intercontinental.com; doubles from US$1,250.