Resident Naturalist at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands
Piloting ocean drones, monitoring ghost nets, night snorkeling with some incredible marine life – this isn’t a typical day in someone’s life, unless of course, you happen to be Dr. Sol Milne.
Dr. Sol is an environmental scientist studying animal systems and the impact humans have on natural habitats. He’s previously worked in the rainforests of Borneo, studying how deforestation has been affecting the orangutan population of Indonesia. Now he’s here in the Maldives, working with the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ambassadors of the Environment Program at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives, Fari Islands.
As the resort’s resident naturalist, he educates interested guests about the delicate ecosystem surrounding the archipelago, while mapping out the region’s coral reefs and understanding their growth and development over time. Our team sat down with Dr. Sol to dive deep into all things ecology, including the existential threat that looms over our vulnerable island nation.
Hotel Insider: How would you describe your role here at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives?
Dr. Sol: My role here is two-fold. Firstly, I’m an Ambassador of the Environment with the Jean-Michel Cousteau Programme. That involves engaging with guests about the environment and sustainability, including water sustainability. The water we use here is recycled and desalinated, so we teach guests about the importance of water conservation, even though we’re on a tiny island absolutely surrounded by it. I also do a lot of marine biology talks about the diversity of species that we have, and the adaptation of all the fish and wildlife that we see.
Hotel Insider: For our readers who may be unfamiliar, who exactly is Jean-Michel Cousteau?
Dr. Sol: So, Jean-Michel Cousteau is an ocean explorer and photographer. He’s the son of Jacques Cousteau, a French explorer who was actually the first person to invent scuba diving in the 1950s, by using a new kind of valve. Since then, scuba diving has obviously become much more widespread, and it’s changed the way we perceive the ocean environment. Jean-Michel Cousteau started diving with his father when he was about 12. Now, he’s 83 and still going strong.
Hotel Insider: Wow, over 70 years. That’s very impressive.
Dr. Sol: Yeah, he’s actually been diving longer than any other living human on the planet. His organization, the Ocean Futures Society, is partnered with The Ritz-Carlton Maldives along with other Ritz-Carlton properties around the world, engaging with guests about environmental education, and working on local projects to protect the ocean as a whole.
Hotel Insider: What sort of activities can guests expect as part of the program?
Dr. Sol: We’ve got plenty of activities for guests across all ages that give them the opportunity to interact with the environment around them. At the Ritz Kids, for example, all the activities we offer are centered around being outside. Not being behind a screen, but rather doing things that are tactile and hands-on, that involve everyone getting together and working as a team.
We also offer a lot of snorkeling and diving excursions. Night snorkeling is one of the more popular activities, because it allows guests to see the reef in a way that they wouldn’t normally. With our torches in hand, we go out quite far out to sea after dusk – some fish are going to sleep while others are waking up, so it’s interesting to explore and see what we can find.
Hotel Insider: Sounds like a lot of fun. What about the other side of your two-fold role?
Dr. Sol: Apart from engaging with guests, I also undertake research. I’m working with another researcher, Melissa Shiele, who is based at Loughborough University and the Zoological Society of London, and Kat Mason, a Shark Scientist who has recently joined our team. There are many layers to our research project, which we’re carrying out with the use of ocean drones. Almost every morning, we do aerial surveys of the lagoon in search of marine megafauna and ghost nets.
Ghost nets are fishing nets that are lost at sea, either accidentally or discarded after use. They float along the surface, and oftentimes wildlife gets entangled. The Maldives is sort of in the center of a huge body of water, the Indian Ocean. In general, these ghost nets are probably discarded near Sri Lanka or India, and so when they drift across, they get intercepted by islands throughout all the atolls. For studying ghost nets, the Maldives is the perfect place to be, because we can monitor where this is occurring, find the nets and go remove them. We also utilise a lot of the plastic and upcycle it into other products.
Hotel Insider: How has the reception been to your morning aerial adventure sessions?
Dr. Sol: It’s been fantastic actually. Seeing the lagoon from up above gives guests a really unique perspective. When we’re in the water, the range of our vision is fairly limited, about 20 or 30 meters on a good day. But from a drone, you can literally see kilometers. You can view the actual structure of the reef as a whole, as well as the animals moving around it.
Hotel Insider: Bet you’re able to spot some pretty stunning wildlife.
Dr. Sol: Oh, absolutely. This morning, we came across about 30 spinner dolphins interacting with one another, from the air. We watched calves and mothers swimming together; we even saw them knocking a jellyfish out of the way! [laughs]
It’s amazing, because we’re able to observe these creatures without disturbing them. We make sure of this, because we can tell from behavioral science if the animal is disturbed, and we keep our distance. I think it’s a really special thing that we’re doing here; seeing the awe on the faces of our guests when they see a dolphin for the first time, a manta ray, or a school of sharks… It really breaks a lot of boundaries.
Hotel Insider: And how would you sum up The Ritz-Carlton’s commitment to environmentally sound practices?
Dr. Sol: Well, I believe that even while indulging in a bit of luxury, there are ways to champion sustainability too. There’s a Danish architect by the name of Bjarke Ingels, who put forward the idea of ‘hedonistic sustainability’. This is the notion that something can be sustainable, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t got to be fun or engaging. You can be aware of your impact on the environment, but still make that a beautiful experience. And I think that’s what we try to push forward at The Ritz-Carlton Maldives.
The reef is the main center of attention here. It surrounds the entire lagoon, and it sort of holds us all together. By studying the reef, and studying the animals around it, we can tell if there are any signs of disturbance, internally or externally. The Ritz-Carlton is very receptive to any issues that need addressing, and so we collectively work together to try and maintain the health of our environment.
Hotel Insider: Over the course of your time here, what have you observed about the health of the reefs? Are we seeing signs of recovery from the last heating event?
Dr. Sol: That’s an interesting question. The last heating event was a pretty expansive one; the bleaching covered most of the lagoon along with the neighbouring atolls as well. When a coral bleaching occurs, the algae that lives inside the coral leave the body of the coral. Sometimes they can come back, and that’s known as reinfection. When that happens, it usually means that the conditions have reached a point where it’s actually conducive to the growth of the reef. It’s a healthy system, whereby it’s not too hot, and the algae can survive. And somehow, this has happened here. We’re seeing recovery, we’re seeing a lot of resilience in this reef, but we’re not sure exactly why, because temperatures have remained fairly constant.
Hotel Insider: That’s a bit strange, isn’t it?
Dr. Sol: Yes, we’re still trying to understand this phenomenon. For this reason, the drones are extremely useful to fly over and observe any bleaching that has occurred. It helps us answer a sort of existential question for reefs across the world, because they are on the brink, really. Corals are, after all, colonies of animals living together. When we get too warm, we can move out of the sun. But unlike us, corals are unable to move themselves. So, if the conditions change for the worse, they’ll be the first ones to go. That’s why it’s so important to take care of this ecosystem and monitor it as regularly as we can.
Hotel Insider: Yet, scientists predict that the world will warm by a greater degree than what leaders have tried to prevent. What are your thoughts on this? How vulnerable are we to the consequences of such increases in temperature?
Dr. Sol: Understanding climate change is based on models; it’s a representation of reality. We base our understanding on data that we collect and create a model to see how things will change, which we can compare with reality. But what we can observe in nature is that this change is indeed happening faster than predicted. As a result, it makes it more difficult to foresee what the impact of that may be.
The Maldives is one of the lowest lying countries in the world. So, when it comes to rising sea levels, the Maldives is extremely vulnerable. It would be the first to be affected, and I think we’re already seeing some of the signs. When I talk to Maldivians, I’m aware of how rapidly this degradation has been observed across generations. The amount of wildlife we see between now and about thirty years ago, there’s a stark difference. It’s very worrying, really.
Hotel Insider: That brings us to our last question. What can a small island nation like the Maldives do to safeguard its future?
Dr. Sol: Being in such a beautiful part of the world, being a steward of this environment and trying to protect it every day, is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job here. As a scientist, I would say that the Maldives should express to the world the impact that it is already witnessing. It should express how important it is for larger countries, who are also the larger emitters of greenhouse gases, to change their practices and to put pressure on corporations to reduce their emissions. Only 100 companies, particularly fossil fuel companies, are responsible for 71% of global emissions- so energy needs to be directed at limiting the amount that these corporations can pollute.
Of course, there’s a lot of heady talk about global solutions, but they also only work if they’re enacted locally. And that starts with the individual. It starts with changing the way we treat the environment directly. You know, looking at actions like disposal of waste, or the treatment of our marine ecosystem – these changes need to be implemented at the level of the individual, of the resort, of the island. Because that’s where the actual change happens tangibly on the ground.
Hotel Insider: We couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much for your time, Dr. Sol.