Sunday, 18 Nov 2018

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

maldives by air

It was an interest in sea turtles that brought Duane Silverstein to the Maldives, though not in the way you might expect. “I work for a nonprofit called Seacology,” Duane began, “and we work to preserve island cultures and environments around the globe. We do this by brokering agreements with islanders to curtail activities that are destructive to their local ecosystem in exchange for something tangible that their community needs.

“One day I was sitting in my office in Berkeley, California, and there was a call from the Four Seasons Resort in the Maldives. They were interested in sponsoring a project in the Maldives with Seacology. This first project concerned turtles, or, more accurately, turtle eggs. The Maldivian government had banned the taking of endangered turtles, but the regulation didn’t ban the taking of eggs. The project that was proposed was that we build a preschool on the island of Kendhoo in exchange for an agreement by islanders to not take sea-turtle eggs. One way that Seacology raises money to fund such projects is to sponsor trips that introduce prospective donors to the project at hand. When they see how far our money goes, and how much is accomplished both for the environment and the quality of life of the local villagers, they almost always become donors. A small part of my job as director of Seacology is to take potential donors to such sites. That was how I first visited the Maldives.”

Maldives. Republic of Maldives - photo 1

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

The Republic of the Maldives consists of twenty-six coral atolls and 1,200 islets, roughly 400 miles southwest of the southern tip of India. The landmass of the Maldives stretches some 500 miles from Tiladummati Atoll in the north to Addu Atoll in the south, and encompasses some 56,000 square miles of the Indian Ocean; the average elevation of this nation of atolls and islands is just north of three feet above sea level, making it the world’s flattest republic. Thanks to their isolated location and the strong currents that whip through, the Maldives are one of the globe’s biomass capitals. “If you’re not a diver and you’re sitting at home watching a Jacques Cousteau special, you’d think that on your average dive—wherever it might be—you’d see thousands of fish,” Duane continued. “That’s not true anymore. You don’t have many sites where you’re overwhelmed with pure numbers of fish, but this is still a regular occurrence in the Maldives. I remember one dive site in particular, a wreck called the Kudhimaa. The wreck itself was not very interesting, but there were so many glassfish that no one in my group could come up with an accurate estimate. It was a special experience to be swimming in the midst of tens or even hundreds of thousands of fish. You encounter such tremendous numbers of fish at many other sites as well.” In addition to great numbers of fish, the Maldives serve up excellent biodiversity, with upward of 700 fish species and more than 10,000 invertebrate species.

Maldives. Republic of Maldives - photo 2

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

“Another attraction of Maldives diving is the chance you have of running into charismatic pelagics,” Duane said. “We went to a place called Manta Point (Lankanfinolhu Faru in Maldivian parlance) for a morning dive, after our divemasters pronounced that it was the best place in the Maldives to see mantas. That morning, we saw zero. The divemaster wanted to move elsewhere, but we’d come pretty far to get to Manta Point, and we said we wanted to stay for another dive. We headed back down, and it was manta-ray heaven. Giant specimens came by, with fifteen- to sixteen-foot wingspans. They were so close we could have touched them. It was almost as if they were putting on a show for us, doing ‘loop the loops’ in pairs. It was a transcendental experience, both for the interaction with the rays, and the interaction with my fellow divers. I could see people’s expressions, even through their masks. Their beatific smiles made that dive quite memorable.” (Mantas visit Lankanfinolhu Faru from the deep water thanks to the presence of “cleaner fish” like Napoleon wrasse, who live in porites corals around the site. In a lovely symbiotic interaction, the mantas hover over the coral and the cleaner fish nibble parasites off the rays’ skin.)

Maldives. Republic of Maldives - photo 3

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

While there are a number of land-based resorts that cater to divers, visitors to such operations are limited to diving at nearby reefs (roughly eighty islands have tourist developments). “For serious divers,” Duane added, “a live-aboard is the only way to go. Sites are spread over thousands of miles, and the mothership puts them all within reach. As live-aboards go, the Four Seasons Explorer is unrivaled in terms of luxury—if one can afford it!” Most diving is done from dhonis, forty- to forty-five-foot local fishing boats launched from the mothership. Diving terrain around this atoll-riddled region can be divided into four types: thilas (submerged pinnacles inside the atoll); giris (areas of coral smaller than a thila and also found within the atoll); kandus (channels through the atoll rim); and farus (circular reefs generally resting in ocean channels). When diving in a kandu or outside an atoll, you’ll want (or be required) to use a safety sausage, lest the strong currents sweep you away from your group. During the southwest monsoon (spring) season, visibility can be up to 130 feet; during the northeast monsoon (fall), it can rise to 200 feet.

“As great as the diving is in the Maldives, the highlight from a recent trip was visiting the Seacology-funded preschool in Kendhoo that was built as part of our project,” Duane added. “Everyone on the ship went along to the school, and we were greeted by the entire population of the island, who wanted to show their gratitude. It was hard not to cry.”

Maldives. Republic of Maldives - photo 4

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

DUANE SILVERSTEIN is executive director of Seacology (www.seacology.org). For twenty years prior to heading Seacology he was the executive director of the Goldman Fund, one of California’s largest philanthropic foundations. He also headed the Goldman Environmental Prize, which has been dubbed the “Nobel Prize of the Environment” by National Geographic. Duane has met with many presidents of the United States, secretaries-general of the United Nations, and heads of state throughout the world. His work has been covered in newspapers and periodicals as diverse as Time, the Bangkok Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Rodale’s Scuba Diving magazine. Articles he has written have appeared in Asian Geographic, Fathoms, and Asian Diver, among many other newspapers and magazines. The New York Times has called Silverstein “one of the world’s leading island explorers.” He is a National Fellow of the Explorers Club.

Maldives. Republic of Maldives - photo 5

Maldives. Republic of Maldives

IF YOU GO TO MALDIVES:

Getting There: Male, the main island of the Maldives, is served by Qatar Airways (877-777-2827; www.qatarairways.com) and Emirates (800-777-3999; www.emirates.com).

Best Time to Visit: June to October and December to March are recommended, though conditions around the Maldives permit diving year round.

Accommodations: While nearly all the resorts around the Maldives offer diving, serious divers generally opt for a live-aboard. Duane stayed on the Four Seasons Explorer (800-819-5053; www.fourseasons.com/maldives; Dive the World Liveaboards (+66 83-505-7794; www.divetheworldliveaboards.com) lists a number of other options.

” Fifty Places to Dive Before You Die   by Chris Santella

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