Sixty feet under the sea, off the coast of Kendhoo Island in the Maldives, a green sea turtle glides through the water with blithe strokes. Its big, dark eyes and calm demeanor suggest an easygoing nature -- but all's not well with this species. Life is tough for the sea turtle, threatened on land by egg-hunting humans and at sea by predators. After years of struggle, it's now in danger of extinction.
Here, though, in this nation some 400 miles southwest of Sri Lanka, the equation is changing. The Berkeley, California-based Seacology Foundation, in partnership with the Four Seasons Resort, has launched a program to help save Kendhoo's turtles -- and reward the islanders for their participation. As one of 20 guests on Seacology's weeklong trip, I'll see the foundation's work up close, while I'm exploring the region and its underwater wonders aboard the Four Seasons's 128-foot Explorer catamaran.
Founded in 1991, Seacology has an enviable mission: to preserve the ecologies and cultures of islands around the globe. The foundation's efforts have proven extraordinarily successful: It has saved nearly 2 million acres of coral reefs and marine habitat worldwide. "The philosophy is based on 'win-win' projects," says Duane Silverstein, the nonprofit's executive director. "Indigenous people get something they've asked for, along with the environmental benefits of a preserved marine reserve." The residents of Kendhoo, for example, have agreed to protect their sea turtles and stop harvesting their eggs for 10 years. In return, Seacology funds a preschool for the island's 63 children.
Since 2005, the company has invited intrepid travelers on its expeditions to projects from Belize to the island nation of Vanuatu. This one falls somewhere between an educational expedition and a luxurious getaway. Our rooms aboard the catamaran are well-appointed, and the meals -- often featuring freshly caught local seafood -- beautifully prepared. Evenings find us gathered around the outdoor bar, drinking mojitos and sharing stories about the sharks and rays we've seen on our scuba adventures.
Though this particular trip appeals mainly to divers, other Seacology expeditions offer encounters with rare primates, visits to Balinese temples, and treks to remote tribal villages. "The great thing about these trips," says Silverstein, "is that they allow people to get behind the scenes. They experience real cultures in a nontourist setting and witness highly effective conservation programs in action."
Some 1,190 coral isles make up the Maldives, which are separated into 26 atolls, or ring-shaped island chains (the English word actually comes from the Maldivean atolu). On three of the islands, Seacology has built recycling centers and desalinization plants (to provide much-needed drinking water) in addition to its ongoing efforts to protect their marine treasures.
Visiting Kendhoo, we walk down tidy sand streets, passing shops painted pastel blue and green. At the new preschool, we're welcomed by five dozen children waving multicolored pom-poms. Fragrant bouquets, Indian-style samosas, and slices of pink pound cake are presented to all the visitors. The preschool itself is a handsome, single-story building close to the beach, where wooden boats bob at the dock. Nearby, a cadre of high-school girls wears T-shirts proclaiming the island's motto: "Save Turtles/Save the Earth." They beam with open smiles, and it's easy to see why visitors find Kendhoo so hospitable.
Like other Seacology efforts, the sea turtle project will depend on cooperation with the islanders. They'll also get a hand from the Four Seasons: The Explorer and its guests will continue to call at Kendhoo, providing an all-important sense of continuity and tourist dollars to the relationship.
Back on the ship, we weigh anchor and glide away toward the juncture of ocean and sky that will lead us back to the Four Seasons, and eventually our flights home. The low profiles of tiny isles appear in every direction. More beguiling than the islands, though, is our knowledge of what lies between them: a world filled with colorful reefs and magnificent creatures -- out of sight, but not out of mind.
Flights to the Maldives from the West Coast often transit through Singapore before arriving on Male. From there, a shuttle brings you to the Four Seasons Resort, where you'll board the Explorer. Visit seacology.org for more information.
Text by Jeff Greenwald