A week sailing the islands of the Maldives. Crystal-clear blue waters, white sandy beaches, abundant marine life and fresh sea air.
It had been Imbi’s dream to tack the Maldives onto the end of our 18 month travel stint. Having visited the Maldives 20 years earlier, I was desperate to return. Would it still be the paradise I remember? And would it live up to Imbi’s dreams?
Given our extensive travels, we couldn’t really justify the super appealing, though equally super expensive water stilted bungalows. So instead elected for a slightly different way of experiencing the Maldives, the Maldives Dhoni Cruise with GAdventures. This really appealed to our adventurous side and love of the water and snorkelling.
We arrived in the evening, the day before our cruise began. In true thrifty backpacker style, we decided to save money by sleeping at the airport. For anyone considering this, we can vouch for the airports’ cleanliness, safety, and warmth. However, the lack of any real area to stretch out meant little sleep was had. As a result, we would probably not recommend this!
Day 1: Malé to South Malé Atoll
Bleary-eyed, our guide collected us from the airport at 10am. We were transferred by small boat to our home for the week – Finch. Our first thoughts were that Finch was certainly not the traditional Maldivian Dhoni we were expecting. Apparently, the Dhoni was unavailable and we had effectively been upgraded. We weren’t entirely sure how we felt about the so-called upgrade for various reasons. But we were looking forward to seeing what the week ahead had in store for us.
After settling in, we along with 2 other passengers and 5 crew set off under an overcast sky for our first snorkelling stop. This was in the northwest corner of the Male’ Atoll (Kaafu). Only moments after departing, we had our first wildlife encounter. A pod of dolphins came to play with our boat for a few brief, but exciting moments.
Sadly, when we reached our snorkelling spot, the visibility was shocking, apparently due to it being high tide. We did get a fleeting glimpse of a Whitetip Reef Shark before moving to a shallower reef nearby. Although there was plenty of fish and some colourful things, it was sad to see the state of the coral. The reefs were extremely sun bleached and in some cases, dead.
We boarded Finch for lunch, before making our way down the west side of the atoll. We approached a beautiful white sandbar in the distance. But as we got closer, we realised that what looked like rocks on the sand, was actually a large pile of rubbish. We couldn’t believe that some had literally dumped it there! The snorkelling, like the morning, offered little wow factor, with only a few pretty fish swimming around the bleached/dead/damaged coral.
Despite the rubbish, we swam up to the sandbar were we could still find a few stretches of tropical beauty. But the mound of rubbish, along with the plastic debris washed up on the beach was shocking to see.
Our guide explained that over 70% of the Maldives reefs were bleached and either dead or dying. This was due to numerous reasons: water temperatures rising, changes in water salinity and the pollution we were seeing all around us. Not only that, but we passed several large scale developments of man-made beaches. Our guide explained that in some cases, sand was dredged from pristine lagoons to create new islands. The dredging causes the surrounding reefs to collapse, putting more strain on the area than ever before. And this was evident particularly in the Male’ Atoll.
That evening, we sailed for a short while before anchoring at the picturesque Rihiveli Island in the South Male’ Atoll for the night. We were able to squeeze in another quick yet disappointing snorkel.
Far more disappointment followed when we swam over to the pristine-looking deserted island. On arrival our hearts sank when we realised it had effectively become a dumping ground too. And surprise surprise, plastic made up the vast majority of the waste. After a pretty disheartening day, we swam back to the boat. Our day ended with a beautiful sunset and a feast of freshly caught fish.
Day 2: South Malé Atoll to Felidhe Atoll
We woke to beautiful blue skies and from the deck spotted a Manta Ray in the shallows. Unfortunately, by the time we donned our snorkel gear, the Manta was long gone. After breakfast, we quickly set off to our next snorkelling spot. Although yet another sad looking reef, it did offer plenty of marine life. We saw Nemo’s Maldivian cousins, the Black-Footed Anemonefish (Maldivian Clownfish) hiding in their anemone home. Moments later, we spotted a critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle.
Our afternoon stop took us to Kunavashi in the Felidhe Atoll (Felidhu Atholhu). Also known as Vaavu Atoll, we settled in as we docked for the night. We went out for a snorkel, which didn’t offer a great variety of marine life. But we did see some now-familiar faces (Clownfish, Long-Nosed Butterflyfish, Surgeonfish, Triggerfish, Rockcod and the bizarre, but aptly named Unicornfish.
Day 3: Felidhe Atoll
The following morning after a fairly unexciting snorkel, we pushed on down the western side of the atoll. By lunchtime, we docked at the uninhabited Ambara Island, where we snorkelled the perimeter. This was our best snorkel yet. We saw another Hawksbill Turtle and some beautiful Eagle Ray’s. There was a huge variety of fish life along with a steep and impressive drop-off. As we’d come to expect, the reef itself wasn’t overly healthy, but at least fish numbers were good.
Upon setting foot on the small island our hearts sank – again! From the boat, the small sandy beach area and pristine adjoining sandbar looked so inviting. But in reality, it was another dumping ground. Several years ago, the island had an onsite caretaker. But due to poor government wages and an unmanageable job for one person, he left. The once well kept island was strewn with all sorts of rubbish including large piles of plastic. Boats regularly docked there for picnics and beach visits, literally leaving their filth behind. There was one main pile, but with no one there to manage and/or dispose of it, it just got bigger and bigger.
The saving grace for the island was the adjoining sandbar which was beautiful. Sadly, we imagine that was only because the high tide washed any rubbish away. We saw another beautiful sunset, followed by a feast of freshly caught and barbecued Jackfish, Red Snapper and tuna curry.
Day 4: Felidhe Atoll
Being the only boat docked on the jetty, we were the only people on the island the following morning. In the dawn hours, we enjoyed a seriously stunning sunrise.
With a low tide, we made the most of having the place to ourselves. We strolled along the beautiful sandbar in an attempt to burn off at least few calories before the inevitable breakfast feast we knew was coming.
After a great start to the day, we headed off on our zodiac for our first snorkel at Keyodhoo. Located on the eastern side of the atoll, it was the best snorkel to date. The reef looked a little healthier and we saw Turtles, Lobster, Clownfish, Moorish Idol and plenty more. The snorkel finished off at a shipwreck, where there was even time for a quick cycle!
Prior to lunch, we squeezed in another snorkel at Felidhoo. Now this was our longest to date and easily the most picturesque. With a steep drop-off, the fish life was abundant. The large shoals of Schooling Bannerfish and a type of Sturgeon casually drifted around us. The reef itself was dancing with colours with all the different fish darting around.
That afternoon we visited Alimatha Island. Here we saw Eagle Ray’s, Nurse Sharks and Blacktip Reef Sharks, which were all a highlight for us. Having a deep appreciation for bigger marine life, we would have loved to stay in that area longer.
In the afternoon and evening, we ventured onto firm ground at Fulidhoo. We explored the little island, inhabited by around 300 locals. We then experienced a very loud traditional drumming and dance performance. Not really our sort of thing, but interesting nevertheless. The sunset that night was again beautiful and the afterglow that followed was stunning.
Day 5: Felidhe Atoll to South Malé Atoll
Day five started with a snorkel at Turtle Reef, after we sailed back up into the South Male’ Atoll. Amalgamating with another small group, we snorkelled off in search of the reefs namesake – turtles. It didn’t take long to spot one. Straight away we knew we would hate the experience with people swarming the poor creature. So we snorkelled away from the group in the hope of finding some turtles without causing them any distress. Once away from the group, we found several Hawksbill Turtles. As always, it was a lovely experience watching them gracefully glide by, venturing to the surface occasionally for air, before diving back down into the murky depths.
Never had we seen so many Hawksbill Turtles at one time. Hawksbill’s are distinguished by their narrow, pointed beak, hence their name. As well as that, they have a distinctive pattern on their shells, overlapping scales with a serrated-look along the edges. Sadly, this beautiful shell has led to millions of these turtles being hunted for the tortoiseshell trade. This combined with other human impacts like global warming, reef damage and coastal development means their numbers are plummeting. They’re now critically endangered. So, it really was an amazing experience to spend time in the water with such rare and majestic creatures.
Begrudgingly, we then started heading back north to the Male’ Atoll. We had another awesome dolphin ‘swim-by’ en route.
Being high tide again, we didn’t have high expectations for our next snorkel. A previous high tide snorkel in a nearby reef had offered terrible visibility and a very average experience. And sadly our predictions of poor visibility weren’t inaccurate. However, the marine life certainly surprised us. We quickly spotted a different species of Clownfish – Clark’s Anemonefish, a Moray Eel, and yet another Hawksbill.
Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable call of a dolphin and to our excitement, a large pod swam straight past us. In the poor visibility, we weren’t too concerned about photos and were really able to just enjoy the moment. Free-diving down in pursuit of a pretty Oriental Sweetlips, I noticed some big eyes staring at me. It was a Black-Blotched Porcupinefish hiding in its little cave.
On my second visit down for a photo, I found a beautiful, but highly invasive Red Lionfish in a hidey-hole just opposite. Only a few feet further on, one of the ladies in our group found a camouflaged Scorpion Fish ‘hiding’ out in the open on a piece of coral.
All in all, it was a really great snorkel, despite the visibility.
Day 6: South Malé Atoll to Male’ Atoll
Our final day started off with another mediocre snorkel. We did see both Clownfish species, a Nurse Shark and another Moray Eel. But generally speaking, it was a pretty average reef.
Our intended final snorkel couldn’t have really been much worse. The reef was incredibly dead with minimal marine life. But more alrmingly, there were pockets of film-like scum floating on the surface. We were out of the water after 15 minutes, feeling pretty demoralised. The scum on the surface of the water was coming from the development and construction on the surrounding islands. The building waste was literally drifting into the ocean.
After scouting out some other decent reefs to snorkel with no luck, we moved on. With so much development and pollution around, it wasn’t surprising. But very sad to see the reefs in the Maldives in so much trouble. Our skipper made a quick dash over to Kurumba Island, passing ‘garbage island’ en-route. Its thick cloud of smoke smouldered 24/7, generated from the burning of the countries garbage.
Once we reached Kurumba, we snorkelled on the bleached reef surrounding it. Despite the dire state of that reef, we did see a fair bit of marine life. Two species of Boxfish, another Black-Blotched Porcupinefish and lots of Blacktip Reef Sharks beig the highlights. I inadvertently picked a fight with a plucky hand sized Trigger fish. Notoriously territorial, it seemed to be squaring me up before bumping my fins as I fled. Overall, our final snorkelling excursion wasn’t the experience any of us had expected.
Our crew cooked a lavish Maldivian banquet for our final dinner with some local delicacies including a broth with freshly boiled tuna, moringa leaves, freshly caught spicy octopus, coconut daal, barbecued jackfish and an array of local snacks. A lovely way to finish the trip.
Day 7: Malé
And just like that it was over. After another massive breakfast we said our goodbyes to the crew and guide and disembarked the lovely Finch. It was only a short boat transfer across to Hulhule Island in the North Male Atoll, to the Male (Velana) International Airport. Next stop Borneo via a quick stop in Penang.
The wonderful turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean and its beautiful marine life certainly fall into the ‘good’ category. Likewise the crew and boat. Initially we had been sceptical about not being on the traditional Dhoni we’d expected. But in reality this modern and luxurious replacement was an upgrade and we loved it. But, the best thing about this trip, was that we got to see so much of the Maldives in a short space of time. It was just as we hadd hoped for.
However, the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ which really amalgamate, will also be a lasting memory of the trip. Since my last visit 20 years ago, there’s been some major changes to how I remember the Maldives. The reefs themselves have drastically deteriorated and bleached beyond recognition in many areas. The massive increase in tourism demand, has created incessant construction of man-made islands. This has led to to reef damage, water and beach pollution. This was particularly noticeable for us in the South Malé Atoll. But it was probably the sheer volume of plastic waste which was the most shocking. And certainly not what we envisioned from the Maldives.
But, one of the things we admire most about GAdventures is they practice what they preach – responsible and sustainable tourism. Since our trip they have included a ‘Your G for Good Moment: The Maldives Plastic Clean Up’. So now, on all trips the group will have the opportunity to do a beach clean up with a local partner. The collected plastic is properly recycled and reused to create new materials. It really sounds like a wonderful initiative.
- Take what you need. Male International Airport is not the place you want to be buying Sunscreen, especially if you’re on a budget. Make sure you have plenty of decent ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen. Floating on the surface you will fry yourself without decent sun protection.
- A rash vest is also a great option to protect the back, shoulders and arms from the sun. Quick dry tops are great alternatives if you don’t have a rash vest.
- Make sure you take a decent pair of sunglasses.
- A dry-bag is great for keeping camera gear, phones and books nice and dry.
- If you like your underwater photography a decent underwater camera or GoPro is a must for a trip like this.
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