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Exploring the Maldives

By: Gary R. Johnston

I had first heard about the Maldives five years ago in a bookshop in
California, while reading a copy of “Surfing” magazine. In that
particular issue, there was a spread on one of surfings many pioneers,
Tony Hinde, an Australian who was shipwrecked there back in early
70’s and explored its surf breaks all by his lonesome. Every surfer
dreams of finding a new break to call their own, and Tony was one of
those few that literally found his own wet dream off the southwest
coast of India. Reading in that small bookshop, I sat captivated as I did
when I first read adventures like Huckleberry Finn and Robinson
Crusoe. Such explorations have been made manifest in the 20th
century by people like Margaret Mead, Thor Heyerdal and Richard
Branson who remind us to meet new people, sail new oceans, and fly
new skies in whatever our field, in order to push the envelope of
conventional thinking. Their stories inspire us, and with new airline
flight paths and tourist infrastructure opening up unknown regions of
the planet, anyone these days can be their own bohemian traveler.

Which is why two weeks ago, I found myself in Hinde’s old stomping
grounds of the Maldives, trying my hand at exploring not its surf
breaks, but underwater wonders on a live aboard diving trip aboard the
MV Savruga, a Turkish-built, 75 foot, two-masted sailboat. Our plan
was a week-long safari around the central islands, visiting their best
dive sites and looking for new ones as well. The trip put my wife and
me in the poor house, but we’d heard the underwater sights of the
Maldives were the stuff of legend, and the idyllic islands could sooth
the soul of any savage beast, (I’m referring to myself of course, not my
wife).

The 1,192 islands that make up the Maldives combine to make a paltry
298 square kilometers, which amounts to less than four tenths of a
percent of the country being above water. The islands are stretched
754 km across the equator in a north south orientation which looks
more like a splattering from a Jackson Pollack painting than an
archipelago extending from the Indian mainland. Its islands are
remains of subsiding volcanoes that rose up, bore surrounding coral
reefs, and slipped back into the ocean, leaving their ring of coral
behind. Most of these atolls come very close to the surface, and in
some cases, still manage to keep a small sandy island afloat, complete
with palm trees and scrub brush. Cruising around the interior of these
atolls, one sees these distant islands of varying sizes peppered on the
horizon, with curls of white around them indicating the end of their
reefs, and start of their surf. The distance between some of the atolls is
so far, that cruising from a boat’s perspective, islands completely slip
from view, making a horizon so desolate and blue one would think they
were in the open ocean.

Despite its remoteness, the Maldives has an eclectic culture. One night
aboard our boat, the deckhands, Rahamman, Ashoka, Aziz, and Imadu,
brought out a boda beru or large drum and orchestrated a fantastic
cacophony of sound with songs that started with a mild chant which
slowly heated up to a fever pitch with clapping, stomping and sweat
dripping from Aziz, who drummed himself into a trance. Listening to
the rhythm and tones of traditional Maldivian music, one hears equal
shares of Indian and African influences.

However, music and culture does not the main reason for coming to
the Maldives. Scuba diving is done by roughly 60% of its 500,000
annual visitors, and 40% of them are return customers. One would
think that being in the middle of the Indian Ocean the coral reefs would
be unscathed, but it’s really not the case. Strong currents and surges
sweep divers into reef and walls constantly, and there’s evidence of it
on many dive sights. Still, on any dive there, one can almost always
see cruising schools of trevally, fusiliers, jacks, and languid moray eels
hanging out of their nooks. We had numerous encounters with playful
manta rays, and if you haven’t seen a shark and are feeling
courageous, the Maldives won’t disappoint. White tips, silver tips and
grey reef were seen regularly, and the odd zebra, blue, hammerhead,
and tiger shark do cruise in from time to time as well.

One sunny afternoon, we’d gotten a call that another boat spotted a
whale shark so we and other boats quickly converged on the scene.
We hopped in our small transport boat called a dhoni with snorkeling
and dive gear, and jettisoned from the Savruga hoping to catch a
glimpse of the leviathan before it made itself scarce. I learned putting
divers on a whale shark is most certainly a group effort, which involves
a networking, keen eyesight, and a lot of yelling and screaming. As our
dhonis combed the area, one of boats would call out a audible yell with
frenzied arm waving and pointing, resulting in the closest boats
dropping their ready divers in the water and instructing them to swim
in that direction. I also learned that afternoon that whale sharks are
shy creatures, and generally swim away from a swarm of scuba divers
wielding two thousand dollar underwater cameras with enough light
strobes to illuminate a Hollywood film set. After some unfruitful
attempts to see the beast with a mask and snorkel, we motored a
couple hundred yards past the direction it was swimming, took a giant
stride into the water, and submerged down to twenty meters.

Suddenly out of the blue it came, and straight towards us! With its
wide mouth housing a mouth evolved to filter the smallest organisms
from the water, and grey spots covering its 9 meter length, an
encounter with a whale shark is one of those rare moments that gives
any human a rush of humility and a reminder that even after the age
of dinosaurs there are many living things in this world larger than us,
and we may be lucky enough to see them if we’re willing to visit their
own native shores. As it slowly passed at merely an arm’s length away,
all I could do was float and stare as it swam past, with others chasing it
down into the abyss.

Later that evening, we found ourselves on Rashdoo island, northern Ari


atoll, to visit one of the few local villages that haven’t been pushed
aside to make space for more Club Med’s. Our guide, Ali, took us on a
meander of the towns’ checkered road network to tour the towns 800
people, two mosques, soccer field, and island culture. “How you tell
the old buildings from the new ones” he said, “is that the old buildings
here are made of coral”. Sure enough, buildings in the center of the
town are raised with layers of concrete and a crushed coral grout.
Women covered in headscarves, boys carrying cricket bats, and
children both smiling and blushing were a common sight at every
corner we passed.

With the fungus of resorts and threat of rising ocean levels due to
global warming, the Maldives is a fragile country whose future is being
assailed on more than one front. Needless to say, safari cruise around
the Maldives won’t disappoint as it’s hands down the best way to see a
considerable portion of the country with out being confined to the
swank island bungalow. It took me five years to get the Maldives, and
if you make it, it may be quite different from any impression made
here. By then, perhaps places like Papua New Guinea and Mozambique
will be opening up their unknown regions, and if you’re lucky, you may
be one of those fortunate few that help chart new frontiers. You’ll only
find out if you go exploring.