Sink or Swim

More than 1 million tourists visit the Maldives each year, travelling thousands of miles to enjoy pristine beaches and world class diving. Yet despite living in an island nation, many Maldivian children have never witnessed the wonder of their own coral reefs.

Soneva Fushi, a pioneering eco-resort, and Jon Bowermaster, an award-winning filmmaker and a six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, organised a swimming programme for local women and children. Their hope was to inspire environmental stewardship and simultaneously reduce the risk of drowning. Sink or Swim is the story of how those women and children conquered their fear and learnt to love the ocean.

Jon Bowermaster, director of Sink or Swim, wanted stills photography to use in the promotion of the film. Soneva Fushi wanted a suite of communications materials that they could use in exhibitions, sustainability reports, press releases and as content for their website.

Cat provided stills photography that was used extensively by both Jon and Soneva.  Maria provided written content that could be applied for any number of promotional uses and wrote blogs and articles ready for publication. She was associate producer to Sink or Swim.

Top left: Children’s class; Top middle: Twin sisters Irene and Ida; Top right: Instructor Federica Siena with Iraahath; Bottom: Mothers’ class

UNICEF reports that 75% of child drownings occur between 8am to 4pm when fathers are typically at work. It is therefore vital that mothers can also be the rescuers. The inaugural swimming programme taught 17 mothers alongside 43 Grade 3 children.

Dirty local beaches and a fear of the ocean prevent swimming from being adopted as a pastime. A land reclamation on local island Eydhafushi significantly reduced visibility so classes were held at Soneva Fushi resort where the clear waters helped the children to feel safe.

Instructor Patti Kilgore with the mothers’ class

The Maldives is a Muslim country and women swim fully clothed which creates resistance in the water. Instructors had to take account of the extra weight and drag of the clothing on swimming techniques.

Instructors Jamie and Patti Kilgore were keen to understand the swimming experience students were having and borrowed clothing and headscarves from their students. They were surprised to find that wearing goggles over the headscarf breaks their seal. Their ears were blocked with water and their leg movements restricted.

Top left: On the way to class; Top middle: Haish; Top right: Warm up exercises; Bottom: Snorkelling on the reef

"The goal with our programme is to teach kids and parents to swim, to gain a confidence that will keep them safe in the ocean, but also encourage them to be better protectors of the ocean. Once they’ve swum here, seen the sandy bottom and the fish, they’ll take care of it."

Jon Bowermaster, Director, Sink or Swim.

Top: Leela; Bottom left: Aliyah; Bottom middle: Preparing for class; Bottom right: Mothers’ class

27 year old Leela, who is mother to two young boys and a naturally strong swimmer, has since become a certified swimming instructor. “I want to continue swimming and I want to get better. I want my younger sons to learn how to swim too. It is important that they learn for safety and so that they can enjoy the sea.”

Isha Afeef

Isha Afeef was Social and Environmental Responsibility Manager at Soneva Fushi at the time of the first swimming programme. Isha worked closely with the local community to organise the swimming programme and assisted as an instructor, despite growing up afraid of the water.


“The past week has been the most that I’ve ever spent in the water, coming out at the end of the day a shade or two darker than I went in, but feeling so much lighter on the inside. When I came to this island I decided that first I would learn to ride a bike and then I would learn how to swim. I ride my bike so fast now that I am always crashing into things. If I can learn to swim, then I can conquer the world!”

Isha Afeef


Eight year old Saanee participated in the swimming programme alongside her mother Aliyah. Her favourite school subject is environmental science. She says, “The icebergs are melting. The seas are rising. And it is because of fossil fuels.” Where will she live if the seas rise? “We will have to live in the sea!”

Left: Haish; Right: Minhaal

Land-based exercises help the children to know what to expect when they enter the water. Instructors started each class with safety tips, going right back to basics such as ‘don’t swim alone or without telling your parents where you are’.

Top: Mothers returning to Eydhafushi following a swimming class; Bottom: Saanee and her mother Aliyah

Saanee and her mother Aliyah have lived all their lives on small islands. Eydhafushi is less than 1km long by half a kilometre wide and just one metre above sea level, yet most of the women and children on the island are unable to swim.

Left: Clear white sand on Soneva Fushi; Right: Litter-strewn beach on Eydhafushi

The contrast between  the clean white sand of resort islands and the litter-strewn beaches of local islands is impossible to ignore. In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and huge stress on the limited available land, the sea has traditionally been a useful dumping ground. Just one or two generations ago that waste would have been food waste and biodegradable matter but today it is plastic bottles, plastic packaging and aluminium cans.

Eydhafushi beach clean

The swimming team including instructors and mothers organised a beach clean up day on Eydhafushi. Over 100 locals participated including Saanee. Why is she here? “Because we want to swim!”

Alumni from the first swimming programme

Since the initial swimming programme in 2014, 170 children have learnt to swim and 30 instructors have been certified. Newly qualified instructors include two mothers from the first swimming programme, four local police officers and two school teachers, providing a strong foundation for future programmes.


Materials from Sink or Swim have been used in the following ways.