The real attraction here is under the water, while in the night sky you can see both the Pole Star and the Southern Cross at the same time

 

The Maldives resemble little freckles on the soft cheek of the ocean, hardly seen on the map. Their southernmost point is five hundred kilometers from the capital and the only way to get there is by air: a flight from Malé airport to the island of Gan, which is entirely covered by an airstrip, takes one and a half hour. Passengers receive a certificate in mid-flight to mark the crossing of the Equator: the GPS in Gan shows 0.38 degrees south. The island is just two square kilometers, while Hithadhoo (the largest island in the atoll) is three kilometers long, аnd you can cycle round the island of Villingili in 15 minutes.

On the map these tiny specks of dry land, conveniently located between Asia, Africa and Australia, look like they could have become an ideal harbor for cargo ships. They could have, but for one thing: the emerald-colored water and foamy white horses crashing onto the reefs, which are so much admired by the recipients of our holiday postcards, are a sailor’s nightmare. From the plane window, the atoll may remind romantic visitors of a heart, but it looks more like a jaw when seen from the sea. If a ship encounters bad weather in these waters, then only good luck, and prayer, will prevent it from running aground on these reefs.

However, it is these same reefs that attract divers from all over the world. Here, right on the equator, El Niño does not have such a harmful effect on the coral as elsewhere. On land this warm current causes hurricanes, torrential rains and droughts, and at sea it produces dangerous temperature fluctuations: every three to seven years the water gets three to four degrees warmer than it should be, causing coral to die. Although reefs make up just 0.1% of the ocean floor, they provide a home for a quarter of all species in the sea.

Acropora coral looks like the antlers of a young stag – bony at the base and tender and smooth on top. Broken-off parts of the coral cannot survive independently, so maritime biologists and volunteers search for still-living unbleached branches, and attach them with clay and super glue to a cement base the size of a small flower pot. These “seedlings” are then taken to an underwater flower bed away from shipping routes and where there is nothing to attract swimmers armed with diving masks and flippers.

In ten years, the coral “seedling” can grow from a branch the length of a finger to a “bush” the size of a melon. It can then be transplanted onto a reef, where it will risk breaking off again. You need to wear a wetsuit, or at least a t-shirt, for this underwater gardening, or your back will get heavily sunburnt, and your swimming costume will leave you with a white print of a cross between the shoulder blades (“the Southern Cross”, as people here like to joke). A marine biologist, a petite lady in a wetsuit with scratched hands, complains that the volunteers who help transplant the coral are far outnumbered by the swimmers who break the coral with their flippers while trying to take dramatic photos.

Not just standing on the reef, but even touching anything underwater with your hands, is strictly forbidden. Firstly, this is not good for the sea life, and secondly, it can be dangerous for the diver. Guides are required to warn tourists about the dangers at the pre-diving briefing.

The stonefish, a master of camouflage, has a deadly poison on its spines, as does the far more noticeable spiny red lionfish. But it is hard for people to keep their hands to themselves; they want to stroke the decorative shells of turtles or touch the elastic side of the thick-lipped and big-headed Napoleon fish. And the manta rays are best of all – giant creatures that fly like birds through the water; their backs are black and smooth like expensive suitcases, while their bellies, seen from below, are as soft and white as a wet fluffy towel.

In the Maa Kandu diving center, which is in the North West part of the atoll, there is a so-called manta-ray cleaning station: in the mornings the rays swim above the coral cauldron, teeming with life, and the current brings shoals of sparkling fish up from the reef – it is these little fish that pick small crabs and other pests from the marine giants. Seen from the side it looks like an intricate dance in which the manta rays soar, flap their “wings” and sometimes jump right of the water, which, given their size, would have seemed to be impossible. When one of these sea devils swims towards you with its mouth open you feel as if it could swallow a person up whole. But manta rays are completely harmless, feed on plankton, and it is a great thrill to be in the midst of a shoal of them.

As well as manta rays, Maa Kandu and the neighboring areas are visited by white tip reef sharks and turtles which sleep on the sand and, if disturbed, roll down along the edge of the reef like rocks from a mountain top. The turtles are extremely elegant and fast-moving under the water: a diver cannot keep up with them, but can only admire their underwater “flight” and try to get closer to them when they come up to the surface to breathe. Since two of the four channels which give access to the interior of the Addu Atoll are close by, it is important, when coming up to the surface, to be careful and use the signal buoy to warn ship captains of your presence.

The traditional Maldivian flat-bottomed boats are called “dhonis”. They can navigate the shallow emerald-colored water easily. Their benches have been polished smooth by hundreds of pairs of colored shorts and wetsuits, at the stern there are places for fishermen, and in the middle there is a kind of grid for fixing aqualungs. While a speedboat or yacht with a deep draft would not take the risk of getting stuck on the reef, a dhoni can easily maneuver between the sharp coral banks, allowing divers to get closer to their goal.

At a short pre-dive briefing, a curly-haired guide sketches the shape of the reef and the directions of the currents with chalk on a board. At the end he strictly reminds the group that the dive is 40 minutes long, the maximum allowed depth is 30 meters, and that they must not touch anything or swim inside the reef.

It is good on the dhoni: the sun shines through the glass of the diving masks, you can stand between the pillars supporting the decks like on a huge swing, – the deck plunges, strikes a wave and jumps. The tips of the divers’ flippers are soaked by the waves, the salty sea spray pours over the deck out of sync with the waves. And on the brief command “Jump!” you just have to let go and you drop into the current through a multitude of colorful reef fish: no photographs or film can give you an idea of the beauty and intensity of those colors.

A huge, smooth and colored wall can be seen slowly coming closer as if through a green magnifying glass – probably Captain Nemo looked out from his submarine the same way. But this is not the true reef, it is actually a boat; there are the steps covered with mollusks, that dark shape is the door where fish swim cautiously in the light of the lamp; there is the little porthole above the water line where a big lobster has made its home and is using its antennae to keep the small fish away.

A tanker called British Loyalty was sunk after the Second World War by the western wall of the atoll. As its hull was seriously damaged, even beginner wreck-divers can easily swim inside it. The biggest opening is in the engine room and black coral is growing on the propeller. Visibility is excellent here, there are almost no currents inside the atoll, and the maximum depth is 35 meters, so unless you are going to be swimming inside the wreck an AOWD certificate is enough.

The tanker is a reminder of the days when these island paradises were home to a British naval base. Gan airport and the tarmac road in Villingili are thus echoes of war. But the inhabitants of the sea have colonized the ship so rapidly it feels like part of the ocean.

To the south of the sunken ship there is a diving site called Shark Point, where at any time you can see dozens of reef sharks, nurse sharks and even a giant whale shark, which can come right up to the surface to feed, hanging in the water almost vertically. It can therefore be seen easily without an aqualung – all you need is a diving mask and flippers. Of course, you cannot touch it – the shark can brush away annoying divers with a forceful slap of its tail. It is best to admire the shark’s spotted markings, and the rapid sucker fish that always accompany it, from a respectful distance.

From almost any point in the Addu Atoll you can get to an inhabited island by boat in no more than half an hour. But if a storm comes up, the dhoni jerks against its anchor, and the divers have difficulty in making their way to it through the walls of foam; it feels as if the tropical rain is lashing them from all directions. They literally have to feel their way through the reef. On his monitor the captain can see the islands and the depth of the water. The guide is on the boat’s nose, still in his wetsuit and mask, shielding his face with one hand and signaling to the steersman with the other: to the rhythmic prayer the dhoni quietly makes its way back to its mooring place, where the rain drums on the palm trees and, safe and dry under the crown of a huge banyan tree, flying foxes are calling to each other.

At night after the rain the stars shine as if they have just been polished with fine sand. If you stand up with your left shoulder to the setting sun and crane your neck you can normally see the Great Bear. But since you are south of the Equator, if you turn 180 degrees and look up at the sky again you can see the Southern Cross as well as the Little Bear. This is all the more impressive when you think that just a few hours ago you could see, at the same time, a sunken tanker, the biggest fish in the world, and a shoal of dancing manta rays.

Your big fish
When on the boat, at first, it feels like nothing is happening – the fishermen are lazily drinking cocktails or iced tea, the boat is leaping through the waves, and it’s great to lie on the sun deck covered with a towel. Suddenly the fishing reel starts unwinding frantically, the rod bends like a bow and people shout ‘A fish! A fish!’ The fisherman grabs hold of the rod, two of the crew grab hold of him, and the wrestling contest between man and fish begins. The boat maneuvers and the fish dives down deeper under the water, until it runs out of strength. You think it’s a giant tuna, maybe, or a marlin. But in fact it turns out to be something smaller, say, an emperor fish (not a bad catch – its single fillet weighs 5–7 kilos). The fish that can be eaten raw are immediately cut up into sashimi. The fish that are better fried are put into baskets and taken to the island. If a young and inexperienced tiger shark gets caught, it is carefully unhooked and put back in the water. Ocean fishing is an adventure in the true Hemingway style.

 

Published on: September 25, 2018

Text: Maria Kuzmina