Published in: Saturday, 01 May 2010
Features > The Maldives (Page 1/1)

The Maldives

The Maldives, a nation of coral atolls, offer visiting yachtsmen vistas that are hypnotically beautiful, and some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world.

The name Maldives is an Anglicised version of the Arabic, Mahal-dib, itself a transliteration of an early Sinhalese word referring to the island chain as a garland. The reference to a colourful necklace makes sense once you view the Maldive islands in their full glory. Every island is a coral atoll – the word atoll comes from Divehi, the native language, when early European explorers found themselves shipwrecked on Maldivian sandy shore.

Amid the Indian Ocean, each and every island presents an array of blues and greens as you approach the shore, the result of coral reefs and white calcified sands viewed through the prism of crystal clear water. Still dozens of metres out from a white-sand beach, one can look down and spot reef fish and corals as much as 20 metres deep. It’s spectacular.

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And in places, it’s grandly desolate. The Maldives consist of 1190 islands, with land covering less than two percent of the total surface area of the country. Of the islands, 200 are inhabited, with another 90 used by the resorts scattered about the atoll nation. While most visitors to the Maldives opt for a stay at one of these resorts, this can also deprive you of what’s best and most breathtaking about this amazing country.

Traveling by boat is both natural and a necessity. The 300,000 inhabitants of the Maldives were primarily fishermen in years past, traversing the atolls and harvesting the underwater bounty with their dhonis, small sailing boats with long, narrow hulls marked by high prows. Most are engine driven these days (being a Muslim country, the Maldives receives generous overseas help with fuel, making diesel prices about a third lower than elsewhere in the region), though occasionally, a sailing dhoni will creep into view somewhere along the horizon.

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Where fishing was once the number one economic activity, tourism has now taken its place as earner and employer. Many of the fishermen of the Maldives have thus become the boat operators that ferry their overseas guests around the islands. Liveaboards, large but spartan dhonis sprang into service, gradually becoming more luxurious over time, now ply Maldivan waters. Superyachts are coming to visit, and Male’s harbour master estimates that up to 100 per year now make the journey, with most using the Maldives as a lovely stopover point on the way to the Far East. Among the yachts making repeat trips are Roman Abramovitch’s Pelorus, and the 67-metre Feadship Anna.

For those without a superyacht but wanting superyacht-style service, the Four Seasons has developed two resorts on separate islands, and added a luxury explorer catamaran yacht to take guests on three, four or seven-day cruises that meander between the two resorts. The captain of the Four Seasons Explorer is a Balinese man with over eight years’ experience piloting yachts through the Maldives. The crew are mostly made up of local Maldivan people who are pleased to chat about their home country. The Explorer can be chartered by guests of the Four Seasons, or is available for charter in its own right. The service is excellent, and the facilities for divers and snorkelers are excellent. There are marine biologists on-board to guide you to the best places for spotting marine life (we even had the pleasure of watching three eagle rays at full speed in an underwater mating dance).

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Shifting sands

The Maldive atoll marks the spot of a range of ancient, underwater volcanos. These volcanos would have towered above sea level eons ago, and fringed with reefs (as many tropical islands are). Over time, these volcanos subsided as their internal structure cooled. As they slowly sank towards the ocean floor, the corals continued to grow, eventually covering over the crater and peaks of the dying volcanos.

As corals grew, reproduced and died, their remains added to the piles of calcified materials that would create the snowy sands of the Maldives, and the brilliant, cobalt blues of the seas surrounding so many Maldive islands. The lagoon bottoms of the Maldives are anywhere from one to several metres deep and covered in white coral sand. A moment floating in a lagoon is unlike any other.

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The Maldives thus have the curious distinction of being a nation whose biology and geology are combined. The islands are surrounded by seas that are between two and three thousand metres deep. Each atoll is a giant seamount, topped with up to one thousand metres of coral material. Yet, no place in the Maldives is over two metres above sea level. As the coral grow up to the surface, they die. The islands are therefore built up by waves acting on the coral sands that l ie just under the surface. If topped by vegetation, they tend to build up further. On the other hand, small sandbars may form up and then be eroded back beneath the surface, depending on the breaks.

While this creates a playground for visitors, who can stop off on tiny islets for picnics and a private moment or two, it can also create headaches for navigators. Piloting a course through atolls at night can be very treacherous and is ill-advised, as depths suddenly change rapidly. Sandbars that didn’t exist a month ago may now be gathering grass. The Admirality Charts that serve as the only serious means of navigation were drawn up in the 1850s and have remained unchanged, simply because of the shifting nature of the Maldives, according to the captain of the Explorer. Add to this the fact that, outside of the area around Male, the main island and capital of the Maldives, and the airport, a separate island, there is little to nothing in the way of night-time navigation aids and no lighthouses.

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The low-lying nature of the islands also prompts some degree of caution on the part of the boater, who will need to be sure of a solid anchorage on the leeward side of an island in the event of a weather change. During the north monsoon period from about November to March, this is not a problem, as winds stay remain light and steady. This is the time when motorboating comes into its own, with flat seas and constant sun. During the rainy season, frontal storms can bring winds gusting up to 60 knots in brief spurts, with more turbulent weather. However, it is during this period that diving can bring its greatest rewards. The water is less clear, owing to run-off, but the big fish will be drawn in to the islands at this time. 

If you don’t like scuba diving or snorkeling, you’ll miss the best of the Maldives. Its coral reefs ensure an enormous diversity of marine life. Unlike other diving destinations however, the corals and their attendent fish are everywhere you look. Coral reefs are even to be found just offshore from islands that are devoted to industry. Shoreside restaurants perched on stilts just above the waters of a lagoon (a popular treat to be found at the many resorts) give guests a fantastic view of marine life next to their seats. One restaurant on the Four Seasons resort island of Landa Giravanu has become a popular place for Lemon Sharks, a smallish shark that seems to enjoy frolicking in the waves at the shoreside. 

Led by Four Seasons, resorts have begun to implement coral reef rebuilding programmes, which attract all manner of sea creatures right up to guests’ bungalows. In addition to having a number of marine biologists on staff, Four Seasons has contracted a firm (www.reefscapers.com) that now builds reefs by taking bits of reef and grafting them onto a thin metal frame structure with wire. Placed in advantageous spots (being near another coral reef assists in the growing), the wire frames quickly become covered in coral. This transplant method is also used by conservacy organisations in the Coral Triangle of Southeast Asia. The good news for visitors is that the fruits of these transplant methods are available for all to see in the Maldives, whether at a resort or out on a lonely atoll.

 

Climate Change and the Maldives

The government of the Maldives held a cabinet meeting underwater last year, in full Scuba gear and complete with laminated documents, to publicise the dangers of global warming to low-lying countries. The stunt worked in that the plight of the Maldives was brought to the world’s attention. But this was also, potentially, a mis-reading of the real climate threat to the Maldives. While rising sea levels may seem like the harbinger of doom for the atoll nation, the real problem may be in rising sea temperatures.

In 1998, the Maldives suffered a horrible natural disaster: a very powerful El Nino effect. The El Nino is a periodic warming of the seas, which results in a series of reversals in the normal weather and sea patterns in an area stretching from Madagascar to Chile. For a three-month period, the sea temperature around the Maldive coral reefs rose by as much as five degrees, bleaching and killing up to 70 percent of the corals – 90 percent in some estimates. Coral cover was reduced drastically and the Maldives faced an existential crisis; if the reefs die out, they will erode under the waves, as will the rest of the nation.

Since that terrible year, the reefs have recovered, though not to their former glory. This in some part explains the desire of resorts to help ‘seed’ their own reefs. One of the expected effects of climate change is a permanent warming of the oceans. How that will affect coral reefs in the Maldives is not certain. Sadly, a more immediate threat may be the new El Nino due to affect the atoll nation by this summer.

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Island hopping

While boaters may enjoy pleasures of cruising through pristine lagoons and over live-preserving coral reefs, there are points of interest on land as well. Most visitors who stay at a resort are likely to miss out on Maldivan culture. The Explorer stops by one island known as Khendoo, and thanks to an agreement with the Four Seasons, the village chieftan and elders lay out a royal welcome. It’s not something that would be expected for yachties that turn up out of the blue, but given that it takes place on the beach in the shadow of a house claimed to belong to the Persian explorer who brought Islam to the atoll nation, it’s a visual treat all the same.

Maldive streets (outside of Male) are paved with sand. Football (soccer) and beach volleyball (no surprises) are popular diversions, and boat building still takes place on numerous islands. Buildings in the Maldives are now constructed from concrete, with supplies shipped in by dhoni. Originally, dried corals were used, and some old walls still show their structure. Walking through the streets of Khendoo, the strains of Pink Floyd’s Money comes blaring out of one house. Electricity comes thanks to diesel generators on the island.

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Food in the Maldives is all about fish, coconut, some staples, and combinations thereof. There isn’t a tremendous amount of variety in Maldive cuisine, and most residents seem happy to switch to something else, though fish stews and soups remain popular gathering points.

Male is the capital of the Maldives, and is home to nearly half of the country’s population. Crowded but colourful, Male is a tangle of unplanned roads, with a single ring road circling the island. On foot, one can walk across its widest section in less than two hours. Though it is not an attraction in its own right, Male can be an interesting diversion for a day. To the southeast, there is a surfing beach where local practitioners showcase their talents for observers. There are plenty of mosques and small eateries.

The Maldives have seen many travelers in the past. Its original South Asian inhabitants have been visited by Arabs, Persians, Indo-Malayans, Africans and Europeans. For centuries, the Maldives were a staging point for seafarers plying the vast Indian Ocean. There, they would restock on fish and even fresh water (the coral sands have the effect of being natural desalinizers), or just try to get their boats off the shifting sands. Along the way, a unique and fascinating group of sea-people have emerged on this atoll nation, a wonder of the world that will hopefully keep its head above water.
 

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Useful Info

Visiting by yacht:
The Maldives are best experienced by boat. However, the lack of yachting facilities does require on the ground assistance. To properly prepare for a visit to the Maldives, one should check with a local support agency. There are over 40 such agencies based in Mali, and the taciturn harbour master in Male, Mr. Ahmed Rasheed, a  provided a list of his preferred choices for yacht support. The Four Seasons Explorer uses the services of the Silver Company.
Alpha & Mike Services Pte Ltd. – email: alfamike@dhivehinet.net.mv
Gatway Shipping Pvt. Ltd. – email: shipping@gatewaymaldives.com 
Lily Shipping & Trading Pte Ltd. – email: lilent@dhivehinet.net.mv 
Maldives National Shipping Ltd. – email: mnsl@dhivehinet.net.mv 
Nevada Shipping (Maldives) Pte Ltd – email: nalahiya@dhivehinet.net.mv 
The Silver Company Pte Ltd – email: silco@dhivehinet.net.mv 

Marinas:
There are, as yet, no proper marinas in the Maldives. However, some resorts do have docks that can be used for medium-sized yachts. Additionally, there is mooring space available in Male, near the government buildings along the harbour front. Between the airport island and Male, there is a sizeable anchorage for pleasure vessels. During Asia-Pacific Boating’s visit, two superyachts, including the ISA 47-metre Axioma, were spotted here.

Chartering:
Bringing your own yacht to the Maldives can be a long journey, as the atoll is quite remote. There are numerous charter options that let visitors get out and explore the islands and the reefs properly.

For consistently good chartering, the Four Seasons Explorer offers service and facilities that are the nearest to superyacht quality. Though the Explorer is chartered primarily by guests of the Four Seasons, the yacht is also available for private chartering. Charter packages are available.
www.fourseasons.com/maldives

Liveaboards have been a growing feature of the charter scene in the Maldives, and they range in quality from bare bunks and numerous guests, to opulant staterooms and private terraces for the lucky few. Some are dedicated to diving or surfing. A good starter list of the available options can be found with the new Liveaboard Association of the Maldives.
www.liveaboardassociation.mv

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