The magic of the Maldives

The magic of the Maldives

The dark water is alive with hungry sharks, and I’m in the middle of this frenzy. The ravenous beasts, the bigger ones easily three metres long, jostle me as the chunks of food are doled out under the glare of a waterproof floodlight. A brave lone stingray also tries his luck while a few timid reef sharks patrol the pack’s perimeter.

Thankfully, these nocturnal sharks are not your typical man-eaters, like an understudy for JAWS. They are the big brother of our own Wobbegong and clearly used to human proximity here in the waters off the Alimatha resort in the remote Maldives. Nevertheless, an inadvertent nip from any of these gregarious ‘puppy dogs’ is going to be painful.

So, what the heck am I doing here? I challenged my local guide, Teddie, to show me some sharks, and he certainly rose to the challenge. This little tale is all part of my ‘cruise’ aboard a local dhoni boat among the lesser visited regions of the Maldives.

When people think of expedition cruising, it’s easy to think it’s all about ships like the trusted and sturdy ex-Soviet oceanographic vessels through to the new wave of luxurious ‘champagne’ adventurers venturing to out to the remote corners of the world’s oceans.

Here in the Maldives, expedition cruising takes on a much more rudimentary guise in the form of these traditional local ‘dhoni’ boats. These antique-looking wooden vessels have worked the Maldivian atolls for centuries, transporting goods and ferrying locals across the vast expanses of water that separate the inhabited islands making up this expansive oceanic republic.

Global operators like World Expeditions work with local boat owners to provide this fundamental, yet enriching experience here in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Our all-wooden vessel, the 20m ‘Gahaa’ (meaning: North Star) cruises at a leisurely eight knots between the atolls that comprise this aquatic country to the SW of Sri Lanka. Accommodation is in four twin cabins with a crew of five who look after our every need. Our ‘cruise director’ is young ‘Teddie’ who guides us on snorkelling trips out on the myriad coral reefs and enlightens us on the ways of the Maldivians who have lived, fished and traded on these flat, tropical islands for centuries.

Don’t bring your sequins or tuxedo, this is rustic, bare boat travel in the local style. If you’ve travelled on a sailing yacht or small motor cruiser, you’ll get the idea, but don’t get the notion you’ll get a turndown service and pillow chocolates.

Geographically, the Maldives are one of the most widely dispersed nations anywhere in the world, but is the smallest autonomous Asian country in terms of usable land area and population, which numbers around 400,000. The capital Malé occupies its own little island, on the southern edge of North Malé Atoll where the airport is also located.

The vast majority of international visitors will land at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (MLE) and be whisked away by floatplane or speedboat to some platinum resort to spend their time in blissful isolation. As wonderful as these resorts are, the experience does little to expose travellers to the culture and wider environment of these vast tropical atolls*. Our modest little boat, on the other hand, can stop pretty much anywhere we like to either stroll the sandy beaches or snorkel the clear waters and reefs.

We spend our days in a blissful state relaxing on the sun decks, swimming and snorkelling with interruptions in the form of meals prepared by our resourceful cook. Fish, salads and vegetables cooked to local recipes are delicious and healthy and occasionally supplemented by something we catch along the way.

Maldivians, however, are at something of a crossroads. With the highest point of land anywhere in the country just 3m above sea level, the rising oceans threaten the very existence of these hardy people whose ethnicity and language is a unique mix of Tamil, Hindu and Arabic. Even their native tongue shows influences from all races and their written script is an endemic blend of the complicated-looking squiggles of each culture and language group.

The famous coral reefs of the Maldives are under the same pressures as similar reefs all around the world as ocean acidification, water warming and the many human influences take their toll on the beautiful marine formations created over millennia of slow accretion. Nevertheless, we see all manner of common ‘aquarium’ species of reef fish, hawksbill turtles, rays and dolphins.

The dhoni experience is certainly a contrast to that typical of most visitors and a unique way to explore local communities and the environment away from the cloistered environs of the fairytale resorts.

Fact file

The World Expeditions 5-night dhoni adventure includes all meals, airport transfers and accommodation on board a private Dhoni on a twin share basis, tourist taxes and tour permits as well as basic snorkelling equipment with local guide and crew.

The writer travelled as a guest of World Expeditions. 

* the word ‘atoll’ is derived from the Maldivian language and means “circular groups of coral islets” that are most often formed by the subsidence of extinct volcanoes.

Written by Roderick Eime. Republished with permission of MyDiscoveries.