A few weeks ago following the election of Maldives’ new leader whose anti-India, pro-China foreign policy stance triggered a bit of a hue and cry in India about boycotting Maldives for tourism and instead promoting our very own Lakshwadeep which is endowed with similar pristine beauty. This fascinating article in The Mint shares how the two archipelagos are similar owing to their common natural geological history. The author, Pranay Lal is a biochemist, a public health specialist, a natural history writer, and the author of Indica: A Deep Natural History Of The Indian Subcontinent and Invisible Empire: The Natural History Of Viruses. He is passionate about ecological restoration and reversing climate change.

“Most beach sand of continents is quartz and feldspar rich, formed by the degradation of ancient rocks like granite and quartzite. The beach sand here in the Maldives is white, powdery and vastly different from what’s found on continents. So how did this island beach come to be?

Until 88 million years ago, the eastern margin of Madagascar was melded to India’s west coast. An abrupt volcanic event tore Madagascar from India and broke off a small triangular piece from its north to create what we now know as Seychelles.

About 20 million years ago, when India drifted 900km away from Madagascar, another volcanic event was triggered under the sea. This created Reunion Island, which is now roughly 3,300km south-south-west from the Maldives as the albatross flies. This event marked the first of three episodes of what geologists label the “Deccan volcanic event”, which created Mumbai and Pune with its dramatic layered-cake plateaus.

The volcanoes under the sea pushed the Indian plate further east. When India reached the spot where Chagos Islands (a corrupted version of the Portuguese word for chaos) are today, it tripped on another weak spot in the crust under the ocean, causing more lava to flow into the ocean. The roiling lava cooled in the presence of water and formed funnel-shaped structures that emerged from the sea. Each of these dark grey basalt cone-like structures spewed smoke and gas, and often lava. As India migrated northwards, volcanoes popped up and created a near-straight underwater ridge. This ridge, the 73 East Ridge, about 1,200km south of the Maldives, starts with Chagos Islands and ends with the Lakshadweep Islands (about 900km north of the Maldives).

…So, the Maldives and Lakshadweep, geologically, are cousins once removed. They were birthed and berthed at the same time—and both these islands are so similar because of their shared natural history.

Between 60-48 million years ago, the volcanic activity subsided. Islands like the Maldives and Lakshadweep were a chain of small volcanic vents, a few of which rose above sea level. Small spurts of volcanic activity leached out nutrients and gases from the young porous basalt. This helped marine life to colonise the rocky rim. In a short time, giant coral reefs emerged along the rocky rims and slopes of the volcano. As the level of magma receded, the chamber which supported the top of the volcano (or the dome) sagged and caved in. Seawater invaded this hollow space and copious colonies of corals filled this void. We can see the hollow domes in these islands as deep blue lagoons, as one flies over these islands. It took about 12 million years or so for marine creatures to produce enough shelly calcium carbonate that it filled up these hollows. The white sands you see are the crushed, pulverised and powdered coral and shelly creatures.”

But that isn’t the only reason for these lovely white sandy beaches:
“One fish, in particular, the parrotfish, eats mature coral and excretes calcium carbonate. This excretion appears like snowflakes in water. Parrotfish graze and munch on polyps of mature coral, and excrete so much sediment that they have created several Hawaiian beaches.

Off the tiny island of Vakkaru in the Maldives, geologists estimate that these fish excrete about 685 tonnes of sand each year. There are also some sponges and algae which bore into the coral, causing them to break and become beach sand. Not all coral-laced volcanic islands produce the same type of sand. In Kiribati island in the Pacific, the beach sand is made up of 37% coral fragments, 30% mollusc shells, 12% foraminifera, and 20% calcareous algae. In the Maldives, there is more coral (70%), calcareous algae (roughly 8% from the genus Halimeda), and a few shelly molluscs on its beach sand. Thus, each carbonate island has its own characteristic white sand, created by its own set of corals and creatures that feed on them.”

Pranay Lal concludes by warning us of exploiting this natural beauty:
“Human colonisation, especially lavish resorts, will stop nature’s process of colonisation and evolution. These pristine islands are young and are still evolving and need to be left alone. As sea levels rise and threaten these islands the world over, there are creatures like the parrotfish whose significance transcends all life on sea and land. Preserving the parrotfish and corals are crucial not only for future island building. They are the embodiment of how little we know about how nature works and what lies beneath its immense beauty.”

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