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Living on the vanguard of climate change

COP21 comes into sharp focus in the Maldives for one Whistler family



In the light blue waters at Hanifaru Bay, where the manta rays are in the throes of their underwater lunch, it's hard to imagine the global threats looming large to their peacefully protected marine world.

The plankton they feast on is plentiful this year and so the mantas get to work, flapping their giant black and white bodies, blissfully unaware of things like rising ocean temperatures and sea levels.

Quick as lightning, they swim directly towards the Mason family, linked together on top of the warm waters, breathing through their snorkels. The mantas' giant maws open wide to swallow the water whole, and then, just as fast, they swoop into barrel rolls, disappearing beneath the family.

It's an elaborate and elegant underwater ballet, a feasting dance that dates back to the beginning of time.

And yet, the world around the mantas and above them is on the verge of great change and what that means to these "gentle giants" remains to be seen.

Hanifaru Bay is in a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in the Republic of the Maldives, a manta haven.

"It's a bucket list experience," said Jodie Mason, who operates the largest tour company specializing in the Maldives, while based in Whistler.

This is the world's lowest-lying country, where more than 80 per cent of the land is less than 1.6 metres above sea level. Rising sea levels, brought on by rising world temperatures, could have devastating and final impacts on this island nation and the marine life that surrounds it — a hostage of sorts to the climate crimes of others.

"We have to do our part," said Mason, "and we have to fight for this."

Paris Agreement — COP21

The Maldives is on the vanguard in the fight against climate change, putting this month's Paris Agreement — or the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) — into stark reality.

COP21 saw 195 countries commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 C.

Will that be enough for the Maldives and its 1,190 coral islands in the Indian Ocean?

It remains to be seen if Paris is a triumph or failure. It is the world's first universal climate agreement.

For Mason, who moved with her family to Whistler from Australia two years ago, the Paris Agreement is a huge step in the right direction for this country her family has grown to love as their home away from home.

"For so long there were two schools of thought, and such a division on climate change and whether there even was such a thing," said Mason, who founded Extraordinary Escapes 13 years ago after visiting the Maldives. "The fact that people are now banding together and we're acknowledging that climate change is happening, I think is a massive step forward for all of us, in particular for the Maldives and for us here in Whistler as well."

The Maldives

The Masons returned to the Maldives in November.

It's a trip that never gets old, visiting this equatorial nation where the air temperature is 30 C year-round and the water temperature is 28 C.

A place where the Islam call to prayer rings out five times a day, juxtaposed against of one of the world's top luxury destinations.

"There's nothing like it," she said. "I've been there over 30 times and it just blows my mind every time I go there. It's still as amazing as the first time I went there."

It is home to 400,000 islanders, whose contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is negligible, and a growing list of luxury resorts.

The effects of climate change aren't as obvious there, not like the glaciers melting in Whistler.

The white coral beaches ebb and flow as beaches do and progress marches on with new high-end resorts springing up by the day in this perfect paradise.

Millions of dollars are flowing into the country by the day in new investment from world-recognized brands.

"Nobody's halting investment and nobody's panicking about it," said Mason. "They hold the same kind of optimism that I hold, in that it's an amazing place and hopefully we can somehow claw back the damage that we're doing and maybe even stop what we've done."

Just this year the government imposed a green tax of $8 per tourist per night.

But the bellwethers are there.

This year there is widespread concern in the Maldives about a global coral bleaching event, which is set to hit the reefs in 2016.

Bleaching, when the multi-coloured coral turns white, occurs when the coral is stressed by changes in the environment. The change this time around is in response to the rising temperature of the water. The coral then expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn white.

Without the algae, the coral loses its major source of food and starves to death. That, in turn, could impact tourism and fishing, the mainstays of the Maldivian economy.

Mason said local marine biologists are trying to prepare as best they can, taking coral and moving it to more protected areas in deeper and colder waters, among other things.

And yet...

The future is uncertain for the world's coral, just as the strength of the Paris Agreement remains tenuous, with some experts saying that the idea of limiting warming to 2 C is largely impossible.

AWARE will be hosting a report on COP21 with guest speaker Elizabeth May in Whistler on Jan. 21.

Though she is leader of the Green Party of Canada, this is not a political meeting, rather a report on how the global commitments made in Paris may translate to community-scale action. May was in Paris for COP21.

Meanwhile, the mantas are acting as biological indicators of climate change. The plankton they feed on is at the base of the food chain. With rising sea temperatures the life cycle of the phytoplankton may be disturbed and that could impact the mantas.

The Manta Trust is following it closely, in the Maldives and around the world.

"All of this negativity (around climate change) turns in positive energy (in the Maldives)," said Mason. "Everyone there is so proud and so positive and so proactive. It's extremely motivating. It's a different energy."

And the alternative is difficult to contemplate. "It (would be) losing paradise," she said. "You can't describe it. It's indescribable. Everyone has to go there once. It's heaven on earth."

Check out Extraordinary Escapes at: www.extraordinarymaldives.com

Check out the efforts from the Manta Trust at: http://www.mantatrust.org

AWARE'S report on COP21: Whistler Conference Centre, Thursday Jan. 21, 7 p.m. with guest speak Elizabeth May.

Tickets available at: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/report-from-cop21-paris-with-elizabeth-may-tickets-20090146168?aff=ebrowse

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