When people ask me what I do for a living, my standard reply is: “I’m a marine biologist employed as a lecturer and snorkel/dive guide on luxury expedition ships that take adventure-seeking passengers around the world in search of travel experiences of the highest quality. Over the past five years I’ve scouted extensive areas of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which sees me being dragged for miles, face down, over potential snorkel and dive sites.”
Why am I telling you this? Because I want to hammer home one point: I know a good reef when I see one. And the Maldives has coral reefs to rival anything on Earth. Good reefs are increasingly hard to find, as overfishing and coral bleaching wear down the once pristine underwater worlds of a hundred years ago. But, for now, if you want to experience marine nature at its very best, the Maldives is still a red-hot destination.
This vast archipelago, stretching roughly 750km from north to south, lies in the warm, tropical waters of the northern Indian Ocean, south-west of India. It comprises approximately 1200 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls. Some 200 of the islands are inhabited, while around 90 boast some of the most luxurious holiday resorts on the planet.
When looking at a map of the area, the islands resemble a necklace – a ‘string of pearls’, as they are often called. The Maldives is also the lowest country in the world, with its highest point just 2.4m above sea level. Sea levels have risen about 20cm over the last century, and it’s feared that further rises could threaten the very existence of the country. This has led to the greatly-publicised contingency plan of Mohamed Nasheed, the President of the Maldives, who is considering the mass evacuation of his nation to Sri Lanka, India or perhaps even Australia, if rising sea levels continue unabated.
Interestingly, what we can see of these low-lying, dreamy tropical islands from the surface are merely the exposed, coral-encrusted tips of a vast, 50-million-year-old underwater mountain range, which runs from the Indian Lakshadweep Islands in the north, some 2000km down to the Chagos Islands, south of the equator. These mountains draw tourists from around the world, who, instead of skiing, dive and snorkel on their bountiful slopes.
After navigating Malé, the Maldives’ bustling capital where over 100,000 people share an island of less than 2km² in size, the impossibly turquoise ocean lures the traveller off the crammed island metropolis and onto one of the many luxury cruising vessels or outlying island resorts.
I was lucky enough to spend three weeks guiding a group of underwater enthusiasts around a selection of coral atolls aboard a comfortable live-aboard vessel, the 35m-long, steel-hulled Maldives Aggressor.
Rated as the seventh-largest reef system in the world, the Maldives is an important coral kingdom. As a marine biologist, I was anxious to see if any long-term effects were still visible following the devastating coral bleaching event of 1998, which ravaged 80 per cent of Maldivian reefs.
Broadly speaking, corals exposed to temperatures above 32°C for extended periods expel their microscopic algal symbionts. These zooxanthellae, as they are formally known, provide up to 98 per cent of the coral’s nutrients, and their absence leaves the coral without colour and, most importantly, in a state of starvation. Remaining in this predicament for too long, the corals weaken and perish.
Surveys subsequent to the catastrophe have shown that the corals are still in varying states of recovery, but certainly the systems we visited around the central atolls of Malé and Ari were in such unbelievable condition that they were truly hard to beat.
These reefs were truly out of this world. As far as the eye could see, multi-hued corals flaunted shades of pastel pinks, purples, blues, yellows, greens and golds. And in all shapes and sizes imaginable – giant table corals 3-4m across, growing in layers above and below one another; huge bushes of spiny staghorns tipped in hues of electric baby-blues and purples; free-living mushroom corals lying sprinkled like saucers in the left-over gaps; and healthy mounds of brain corals breaking the colourful horizon. Meanwhile, shimmering streams of turquoise damselfish fluttered by as the sunlight danced soothingly over the coral landscape like sheets of the most beautiful music. The water was warm and clear and on almost every day the sun shone brightly.
A typical expedition day involved four, sometimes even five, snorkel sessions, each lasting for two to three hours. Between the breathtaking reefs and the area’s 2000 fish species, without fail each day saw us wrinkled like prunes by dinner time.
I always tell my fellow snorkelers that the best technique is to let the current drift you over the reef as slowly or as fast as it wishes. The longer a snorkeler spends being still and quietly observing, the more they can extract from the experience, and the greater the discoveries to be relished.
After six or seven hours in the water, we were observing multiple layers of the ecosystem and watching the fascinating interactions between them, from the tiniest shrimp living on the skin of the sea cucumbers to the trevally hunting the fusiliers; from the swish of the closing siphons of giant clams to the tentative emergence of the delicate coral polyps during feeding.
As the sun slipped below the horizon, we observed the switch in the reef’s theatrics as the day shift made way for the night. Diurnal reef fish would find their respective shelters inside the limestone matrix, whilst the nocturnal hunters and goggle-eyed, plankton-feeding squirrel and soldier fish emerged from their dark caves.
On a couple of evenings we went night snorkelling, which turned my imagination inside out. Not only were all the reef fish tucked away in crevices, but some were actually sporting completely different colour patterns in an attempt to camouflage themselves against marauding moray eels and hungry reef sharks. The parrot and butterfly fish surprised me the most, as some of them looked virtually unrecognisable in their ‘pyjamas’.
The water swarmed with small, undulating flatworms and the cardinal fish were out en masse, their glinting eyes flashing like diamonds in the inky blackness. Dozens of shelled snails, crustaceans and sea urchins had emerged from hiding and were busily feeding on the reef.
And then we turned our torches off.
Thrust into total darkness, we vigorously moved our limbs up and down and made angels out of the bioluminescent plankton. When disturbed, billions of these tiny animals release a light-emitting energy, ostensibly in an attempt to distract and confuse their attackers. It made for a truly outstanding life memory: a group of people floating in darkness, the stars high in the sky above, mirrored by those twinkling below us.
The deep waters around the atolls teem with mega-fauna and there are excellent cetacean-watching tours on offer. But we found that merely going snorkelling and diving all day often placed us in the path of feeding dolphins and manta rays. When the mantas were feeding, they would virtually bump into us, and we squealed in delight at being so close to these exquisite creatures.
We also dedicated a couple of days to the search for the most-wanted fish of the whole lot, the whale shark. I had never seen one before and I was extremely excited at the prospect of an encounter. It took three hours of cruising along a well-known section of reef known as ‘Maamigili’ before we found one.
A 7m shark was playing in between two yachts and there was just enough space for our clan to join in the celebration. Unbelievably, the shark spent half an hour swimming, unperturbed, just below the surface, in amongst the bubbling tourists. It seemed to be interested in the hull of one of the boats and kept coming in to get a better look, which gave us plenty of time to free dive down and directly compare ourselves with the largest of all fish in the sea.
The experience simply defied description. We ended up finding and swimming with another four whale sharks, one of which measured a healthy 11m long.
Whilst we spent countless hours in deep meditative states of bliss snorkelling faultless, sunkissed reefs, we spent nearly as many goggle-eyed, stupefied hours scuba diving the rich walls and swim-throughs of the many ‘thilas’ – underwater sea mounts.
Predicting tides in the Maldives is a tricky enterprise, as schedules are complicated by the intricate flow of strong oceanic currents sweeping westwards across the archipelago. These thilas warrant thorough dive briefings, as currents can be extremely strong at certain locations and, on a few occasions, the ability to get down quickly into the lee of the thila is essential to avoid being swept off the site completely.
Once on the thila, it was often like being plunged in ‘fish soup’. One of the epic dives of the trip was at Kudhara thila on South Ari Atoll, where we spent an hour watching a school of blue-lined snappers, thousands strong, move over the coral like a giant yellow Chinese dragon on carnival day. Clouds of blue-streak fusiliers floated on top, resembling shimmering tinsel and, inside the cauldron of fish, slender groupers cunningly disguised themselves, like pickpockets in a crowd of festival-goers.
The fact is that strong currents bring forth great fish. Sharks, too, occasionally made their silent way through the swarms whilst giant trevally patrolled the outer edges. Spread out like vibrant, intricate tapestries, sea fans fell from dazzling overhangs, where feathery tubastrea coral polyps unfurled their bright, sticky tentacles to ensnare passing planktonic prey.
I looked for a spot to rest a finger as I snapped the scene with my camera and almost put my hand into the mouth of a stunning honeycomb moray. A comet fish darted in and out of the shadows. A hawksbill turtle flew by overhead. I was in heaven.
Finally, we enjoyed one last magical experience. It just so happened that our expedition coincided exactly with the longest annular solar eclipse of the millennium, best observed – by sheer luck – from the Maldives.
Some discarded X-ray film served as perfect, makeshift protection for our retinas, whilst we watched in awe as the moon moved across the burning sun. We also turned our binoculars upside down to view the projected image on the sand, which worked a treat.
For 20 minutes, the eclipse played out its eerie show and, whilst our barbeque team made a banquet of our freshly-caught fish, we marvelled at our amazing good fortune.
Since this epic trip, which I still talk about in reverent tones to dinner guests, I have scouted many more of the world’s ocean’s reefs. Now, when I’m asked to give a rating at a snorkel briefing, I always think quietly to myself: ‘It’s great; it’s solid – but it’s nowhere near as good as the Maldives.’