“Take a deep breath in…and a big deep breath out. Try one more deep breath in … The oxygen in that second breath was all produced by our oceans."
The Stand Up For Our Seas team returned to Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu, where it all began, on Thursday afternoon. Tired, elated faces were greeted by their friends at Coco Collection, the official sponsor for the event.
Minister of Environment Dr. Hussain Rasheed Hassan was also in attendance at their welcome-back ceremony, presenting the team with a wooden plaque for their courageous and inspiring efforts.
“Breathe with me. Take a deep breath in…and a big deep breath out. Try one more deep breath in, the biggest breath you’ve taken all day … and a big breath out again. That second breath you took, the oxygen in that breath was all produced by our oceans. It produced over half the oxygen we breathe on Earth.”
“There are ecosystems [under the sea] that we know nothing about, ecosystems we know loads about - we want to protect them and that’s why we embarked on this journey, to talk to people about how to protect them.”
In a nutshell, as explained by Dr Cal Major, the main purpose driving the ambitious expedition undertaken by herself along with Dhafeena Hassan, Shaziya Saeed and led by Dr Claire Petros was about more than fun and adventure, although it was certainly jam-packed with both.
Over eight days, the four female ocean advocates travelled across Baa Atoll on Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUPs) from island to island, delivering awareness talks to locals and tourists, conducting cleanups, testing their limits of physical endurance and spending quality time on the big blue open.
“We also want to create a global call to action, to say that it’s not just the responsibility of the Maldives to protect these oceans. These oceans spread around the whole world and we all need to make changes and step to do what we can to protect the ocean”, said Dr Cal, a veterinarian by profession.
Conquering this part of the atlas, it turns out, was more than a quest for awareness, strewn with trials of endurance, resilience and strength of mind and body.
Dhafeena Hassan, one of the four participants whose day job happens to be that of a personal trainer, described their time on the sea as “challenging”, emphasizing that the repetitive motion for hours on end pushed them to explore new levels of physical and mental capacity.
“On the day that we set out for our longest paddle, 18 kilometers, we were trying to get into the right headspace. We were partnering up and that day I was with Dr Cal. We were talking about deep, zen-like subjects and managed to cover an entire 14 kilometers, without even realizing. That was a highlight for me”, said Dhafeena Hassan, one of the four participants.
“Still,” she added laughingly, alluding to the physicality involved throughout the expedition, “I’ve never felt that kind of pain in my muscles!”.
Throughout their journey the team faced many challenges, having to brave sudden changes of wind and current, which proved frequently stronger than typically experienced in Maldives this time of the year.
In the words of another participant Shaziya Saeed, dive instructor and co-founder of Raalhu Edhuru Raajje and regular volunteer for the Ministry of Education’s ‘Farukoe’ program, “In the Maldives, where no one knows winds and currents better than the [Maldivian] boat crew, the importance of heeding their advice on where to go and when to go was especially important.”
“It is always crucial to do so, but became particularly evident during this trip!”, she said chuckling. “The time we had at sea was incredible, but definitely harder than imagined”.
Over the 8 days, the team completed an impressive total of 100 kilometers, calculated to be the approximate length across the geographic atoll.
“I think what was done in the past week is phenomenal, setting a standard for ocean advocates around the Maldives. We need a huge push in that, because the world is changing and we need to really, really step up our game as a country”, said Shameel, a local marine conservationist who participated in Stand Up For Our Seas as part of the support team, representing the interests of Olive Ridley Project.
Thanking the women for letting him be a part of their incredible journey, Shameel added that it was “quite inspiring to see how everyone pushed through the mental and physically challenges”.
Mostly, the team declared the trip as being a learning experience."For instance, on islands like Baa Atoll’s Maalhos, a lot of positive things are currently being done”, said Dhafeena, referring to the awareness activities that were conducted throughout the trip.
“It showed that it if people on other islands, and throughout Maldives, joined forces and worked together, a lot can be accomplished, in terms of establishing a lifestyle that is environment-friendly”, she said.
“I am also learning. I learn something new every day, and I learnt a lot on this journey.”
The team delivered educational talks at six stops, delivering vital information on the status of turtles in Maldives and around the world, as well as engaging discussions on better waste management in resorts, as well as ways in which individuals could reduce the use of harmful plastics in their daily lives.
“Just the kids running around [during the workshops] asking us if this was plastic, that was plastic – it was wonderful to see so many people engaged, and downright inspiring”, said Dr Claire.
The Minister of Education Dr Aishath Ali, Minister of Tourism Ali Waheed, and Minister of Environment Dr Hussain Rasheed had all offered their endorsements to 'Stand Up For Our Seas' before the event commenced.
Speaking at the closing event, Minister Dr Hussain Rasheed expressed his hopes that more people, whether local and foreign parties, would engage and initiate similar awareness-related efforts.
“We are very happy to note that two Maldivian and two foreign ocean advocates have worked together to accomplish this feat, targeted at raising awareness about various problems faced by the environment, such as plastic pollution and turtle conservation, on a local and international level” said the Environment Minister.
“As a result [of these events] many issues currently plaguing the Maldives, are brought to light. Hence, we do, and in the future we will continue to, support such work that is done to foster peoples’ awareness.”
Mid-day, when the women finally came ashore their final destination, heavy boards tucked under their arms, the air was heavy with emotion. Pride, happiness and a sense of achievement colored their faces, deepening as they gathered by the sea to watch a final, glorious sunset together.
Explaining how the idea first formed, Dr. Claire said, “I came to Coco Palm three years ago and opened the Olive Ridley Marine Turtle Rescue Centre. I brought out an inflatable paddleboat with me because I thought well, what am I going to do on an 800 by 200 meter island, living here for an year?”
“I honestly used it almost every day and I loved it. I thought how awesome would it be to get from one island to the next – then I thought well how much more awesome would it be if I had friends to do it with. So, I can’t tell you how chuffed I am that it actually happened!”, said Dr Claire.
“When I need to take a little break, I like to spend my time out on the ocean and I think I’m mostly attracted to the colors… of the sky and of the ocean. That was one reason why I was so excited about this expedition… and it has been incredible,” offered Dhafeena, eyes lighting up as she spoke of how the week had inspired her in different ways.
Reiterating one of many amazing moments out on the water, Shaziya said, “[While paddling] I saw a sailfish jumping out of the water, and shouted out to Rob, only to then be joined by a pod of dolphins. The dolphins then proceeded to swim past the other three members!”
“I’ve done lots of paddle boarding expeditions before, but never in a team, always solo. So being there with these girls on the water, supporting each other, learning about each other and also learning as a team – we all had these amazing complimentary skills that worked really well together – they were my highlight”, said Dr Cal as an already almost-nostalgic smile spread across her face.
“Hopefully we have spoken to enough people, schools, resorts to get the message out there which is that we can all make a difference to protect our oceans”.