The Observer Who Loved Cousteau


13 April 2010

“My house is near the water. I’ve always heard the sound of waves crashing on the beach. But what really made me want to work around the sea was a documentary by Jacques-Yves Cousteau that I saw when I was 8 years old.”

Incredible. More than 9000 kilometres from France, and the famous man with red cap strikes again. Rilwan Yoosuf is aboard the Tara for 5 days as scientific observer for the Maldive government. A smiling, discrete presence, he takes photos, asks questions about the sampling operations, and shares our daily life.

In the Maldives, there are only 6 marine biologists, and Rilwan is their assistant. Coral is a national treasure in the archipelago. Thanks to tourism, the primary source of income. Visitors from all over the world come to dive among the colorful reef fish. Coral was used for a long time as a building material. “We had nothing else. It was crushed and made into a paste. Houses, mosques, everything was built with coral. To harvest this natural cement, people gradually destroyed the barrier reef protecting the islands from the onslaught of waves. In 1980, a dramatic flood washed over Malé, the capital city, alerting the authorities to the necessity of protecting the fragile reef. In 1998, the water temperature rose slightly, causing 90% of the coral to turn white and die. To study their very slow recuperation, we set up 15 observation sites throughout the archipelago.”

Rilwan began his work in the ocean as a diving instructor in 2000. “I’ve clearly observed a decrease in the reef fish population, overfished to supply the luxury hotels. Fish like the grouper, in the Serranidae family, are becoming rare, and lagoon sharks have been protected since last year, after having nearly disappeared. The government has given exporters of sharks fins 6 months to get rid of their stock.

Rilwan also works on migration of tuna and sharks. For this, floating buoys are anchored offshore of the atolls. An entire ecosystem develops around them: First seaweed attach themselves, followed by small reef fish, which eventually attract much larger fish. “We have the power to protect plankton and fight against overfishing. But we alone cannot stop global warming,” warns Rilwan. “That is a job for all the countries of the world, to stop the rising sea level which threatens the Maldives in the future.”

Aboard Tara, Rilwan is particularly interested in the state-of-the-art technologies used for our work. “We have already organized oceanographic expeditions in the Maldives, but never abroad. We would like to build a research boat in the coming years.”

Sacha Bollet