Monday, March 15, 1999 Published at 14:22 GMT
Beneath the beauty of the reef most of the coral is dead
By Roger Harrabin of BBC Radio 4's Today programme
It is far cry from Westminster, but Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's visit to the idyllic Maldives islands carries a serious purpose.
Mr Prescott, on his way back from an official visit to India, stopped off in the Maldives to see the damage to the coral in the Indian Ocean for himself.
El Nino effect
Like most of the tourists who come to the islands, Mr Prescott has been snorkelling in the clear waters.
The ocean current known as El Nino is thought to be mainly responsible. The US State Department says that climate change, probably fuelled by pollution, is also almost certainly implicated.
In some areas more than 95% of shallow water hard corals have died. The coral has been killed by warm bodies of water being pushed through the oceans by the El Nino current.
"This coral bleaching event has been the worst ever recorded," says Jason Rubens of the Global Reef Monitoring Network.
"The damage to coral particularly in the Indian Ocean has been spectacular and that damage has spread to the Great Barrier Reef, most parts of South-East Asia, some parts of the Pacific and recently parts of the Caribbean."
Obligation to help
In the Indian Ocean, El Nino coincidentally struck at the hottest time of the year, and in a year when background temperatures of air and water globally were the highest recorded.
As Mr Prescott descended on his fact-finding dive, he immediately found himself surrounded by shoals of multi-coloured fish.
The coral reef looked wonderful. But in fact the scientists estimate coral death at around 80%. Mr Prescott gave his reaction to what he had seen.
"It is tragic that something as beautiful as a coral reef can be lost in such a manner. But we can prevent it if we do more and I feel we have an obligation to do something about it," he said.
The results of the mass coral death are also potentially devastating economically.
It is impossible to tell yet how the fisheries will react in the medium term to the huge death of coral.
But it is likely that the reef building capacity of the coral will be desperately needed for protection from the waves by coastal communities under threat from sea level rise caused by a global rise in temperature.
Mr Prescott said his visit would provide ammunition for future discussions on the need to protect the oceans and to cut the gases pollution which may fuel global warming.