Don’t Pass the Bread

Why We Dont Feed the Fish

Killing with kindness. That is the extreme view of often completely well-meaning serving up of all manner of ‘treats’ to seemingly eager marine life all too eager to gobble it up. But short term wins (for the fish) can often have longer term losses.

World Environment Day today celebrates taking care of our world, but also raising awareness of the complexities of this complex eco-system we inhabit. Some of the worse fish feeding is the breads pilfered from the resort buffet (as the pictogram above describes). But even feeding fish scraps to scavenging fish like jacks and rays can pose problems. While the food itself might be fine for its digestion, etc., the practice can provoke adverse behaviour. Not just bad for the fish, but bad for people too (eg. they can start to associate food with humans and get more aggressive with humans thinking you might have some fish scraps tucked somewhere in your swimsuit).

There are no easy answers to making the world a better place. All we can do is try to learn as much as possible and respect the understandings that we do have. Just like the deep-fried Mars bars and doughnut-bunned burgers, not all meals are really that good for sealife.

Snorkeling by any other name

Snorkelling name

This week is the world famous Scripps Spelling Bee. The contestants should hope they don’t get the deceptively simple word of “what do you call the activity of using a snorkel?”

First, there is the UK/American variation. In the USA, it is “Snorkeling” and in the UK, it is “Snorkelling” (the way to remember is that the UK is “double-barrelled” with the “LL”. Sort of like a shotgun on a bird shoot or a double-barrelled name like “Baron-Cohen” or “Parker-Bowles”).

But, Maldives’ number 1 activities comes by a number of other monikers as well…

  • Skin Diving
  • Surface Diving
  • Snorting – rare, but comes from the “snorkel” on a submarine which is called a “snort”

I confess that I have used the two interchangeably. In the post body that’s okay, but it breaks up the tags so with this post I have done the housekeeping of updating all the tags for posts on this subject to the both versions (so that anyone doing searches will find either).

World’s Worst Snorkeling

Maldives may be the best snorkelling in the world (if Calsberg did snorkelling destinations…), and alternatives like Indonesia might rival it, but here are a few places that definitely do not.  Here is the definitely Maldives Complete list of ‘unconventional’ snorkeling  (shall we say generously) in the world (not surprising at all that 2 on the list are in the United Kingdom)…

  1. Bog Snorkeling – Wales, United Kingdom: In Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales crowds watch competitors swim up and down a 133 meter bog filled with sulphurous, weedy water. Some wear silly costumes but all entrants must not use conventional swimming strokes, relying on flipper power only. [ABOVE]
  2. Jelly Fish Snorkeling – Eil Malik Island in Palau: Well, not as hazardous at it appears as the Golden Jellyfish which populate this lake don’t sting actually.
    Snorkeling - jellyfish
       
  3. Snow Snorkeling – Somewhere in Michigan: Not a lot of detail provided, but we think alcohol is involved.
    Snorkeling - snow
       
  4. Sheep Field SnorkelingWest Bank, Jordan: Not quite the spectacle of the Red Sea, but still a spectacle of sort.
    Snorkeling - West Bank
       
  5. Reed SnorkelingCineplex near you:  “I don’t care if you did see that in a movie, Gilligan is not breathing through that reed!” — The Professor, Gilligan’s Island.   Turns out that escaping the bad guy by breathing through a reed would cause problems that “the width of the reed (or snorkel) needs to get wider the longer the tube. Otherwise you are just rebreathing the same air over and over, which will kill you after long enough. Unless you breathe out into the water, which defeats the purpose by highlighting your position with bubbles”.
    Snorkeling - reed
       
  6. Elephant SnorkelingPacific Islands: “Jumbo shrank after snorkel trip across Med” looks at the diffusion of pre-historic elephant species across a wide range of inaccessible islands and have come to the conclusion that elephants did their own form of snorkeling to cross large bodies of water though they speculate that these excursions were not exactly voluntary as they suspect that events such as a tsunami might have swept them out to sea. “[Gert van den Bergh of Wollongong University in Australia] has found fossils of pygmy elephants on islands across the Pacific. ‘The important thing is that elephants were excellent swimmers with high buoyancy and a snorkel for easy breathing’.”
    Snorkeling - elephant

        
  7. Polar Snorkeling – If the hypothermia doesn’t get you, the leopard seals might.
    Snorkeling - polar
        
  8. Australia Snorkeling – And in Australia, who knows what might get you…

       
  9. Fountain Snorkeling – Notts Market Square, Nottingham, United Kingdom: “There’s a kid snorkelling in the fountains at Notts Square. I’m done – Beth”
    Snorkeling - fountain
        
  10. Paddling Pool Snorkeling – And if you can’t get to a body of water, you can always make do with a backyard outing.

Maldives vs. Indonesia Snorkeling (Komodo)

Komodo Resort house reef

With the rising costs and declining reefs of the Maldives, one of the increasingly frequent FAQs is “Is there anywhere else like the Maldives”.  In particular, given the Maldives’ distinctive snorkeling, “Are there any places which rival the Maldives’ world-leading snorkeling experience.”

One of the more commonly cited possibilities for tropical resorts with tranquil isolation as well great snorkeling and diving is Indonesia.  We recently took a trip to Bali for a friend’s wedding and thought I would add on a week to visit Komodo, Indonesia and check out the snorkeling scene.

We stayed at a lovely 4 star (equivalent) resort in Komodo national park – Komodo Resort and Dive Centre.  The pictures and reports indicated that I might have stumbled upon something to rival the Maldives’ snorkeling supremacy. The resort was in the highly rated Komodo Natonal Park which is a protected marine area as well as a national park on land. Roving police come to your dive and snorkelling boats to check that you have a requisite permit for being there (you purchase these on arrival).

The two destinations had some arbitrary subjective differences…

  • Maldives flat, Indonesia elevated
  • Maldives small, Indonesia larger
  • Maldives blue, Indonesia green

But below are some of my observed comparisons. Admittedly, my impressions are a bit superficial given that I only spent a week there. Still, I did do extensive research to prepare for the trip, the location is reputed to be one of the best in the country (so should show the destination in some of the best light), I spoke extensively to staff, residents and other guests there to compare notes and ferret out more perspectives, and I have the experience of snorkelling all over the world (eg. Caribbean, Mediterranean, Red Sea, Indian Ocean).

Not as good as the Maldives…

  • Fewer big fish:   The big 5 (shark, turtle, ray, moray, octopus) of the Snorkel Safari are much rarer in Indonesia.  They can be seen, but everyone talks about going on special excursions to special sites to see them.  During our entire stay and several outings, we didn’t see a single one.  And we were in one of the reputed top dive/snorkel areas of the region.  Curiously, the “smaller” fish (eg.  sweet lips, bat fish, parrot fish) mostly seemed significantly larger than their Maldivian cousins .
  • More current – There is no sheltered atoll topology.  Instead, the islands rise out of relative deep water much like the Greek Isles.  Furthermore, Indonesia lies smack between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  As a result, there are lots of currents as the water shifts back and forth squeezing through the archipelagos of the islands.  Our house reef snorkel had the strongest current I have ever snorkeled in.  Fortunately, resort took us in a dingy to one end of the house reef and we drifted back to the exit jetty. Our snorkel excursion was also a “drift snorkel” where a dinghy took us to a drop off and then picked us up again for another go around.
  • Colder water – Good for corals, but less comfortable for leisurely t-shirt/rash-guard snorkeling.
  • Infrastructure – In general, the Indonesian tourism infrastructure felt about 20 years behind the Maldives.  That might sound appealing to those old-timers who yearn for the simplicity of the good old days, but it did mean little inconveniences like weak Internet (slow in general, down most of the time we were there on public network and wifi), limited food choices and limited activities (though all those things might be plusses to some).  Payment infrastructure was particularly inconvenient and awkward (eg. difficulties getting online payment system to work, no Amex accepted, 50 Euro surcharge for using Paypal).

Better than the Maldives…

  • Corals – The key plus to the house reef was the coral.  Especially compared to the currently stressed (eg.  climate change, El Nino, COTS) reefs of the Maldives.  Great diversity, colour and health of hard and soft corals.  Especially, soft corals.  Greater quantity and diversity of soft corals than I have seen anywhere in the Maldives.
  • Cost – The big win in Indonesia is the cost. I would roughly estimate that like-for-like, Indonesia is at least half the price of a comparable property and activity in the Maldives.

Maldives v Indonesia

Komodo Resort house reef 2

Best of the Maldives: Snorkel Floats – Club Med Finolhu Villas

Club Med Finolhu  - snorkel float

With the Christmas shopping season formally launched, the biggest shopping day of the year, “Black Friday”, is upon us. I’m a big snorkelling aficionado, so any gear to help me peer into the aquatic world is always a hit with me. One of the most coveted items I’ve seen is the “Splash and Play” snorkel float by Bestway in Club Med Finolhu’s “The Boutique”.   I’ve seen a few resorts offer them for use by guests, but I haven’t seen any you can buy until now.  Just perfect for even lazier underwater gazing while soaking up the sun’s rays. Now if I can just get Santa to bring me an airplane ticket to the Maldives…

World Snorkeling Day – 30 July

World Snorkeling Day

Maldives Complete declares today, 30 July, “World Snorkeling Day”!

There is a “Day” for just about everything. Just in this blog, I have celebrated…

Not to mention, National Days for USA, Italy, China, Turkey, Japan, South Africa and of course the Maldives. In fact, Wikipedia lists over 200 international days of observance.

And yet for the one thing in the Maldives where it stands heads and shoulders above all other destinations, there is no “Snorkeling Day”? June is SCUBA Month with its own special “Dive In Day” (11 June).

I have decided on today – July 30 – as it is the birth of the snorkel. On this day in 1932, Joseph L. Belcher patented “Belcher Breathing Apparatus”.

One detail I do need to clarify is the spelling. One L or two and I’m not talking lumps. The UK spelling is “snorkelling” and the American spelling is “snorkeling”. On this very blog, being an American relocated to England, I go back and forth between both so it is admittedly confusing.

However you spell it, today spell reef madness time so get on your fins, mask and snorkel to enjoy the underwater spectacle of the oceans.

Best of the Maldives: Lagoon Coral Garden – Canareef

Canareef - snorkeling 1

The Maldives lagoons. There aquamarine pools are perhaps the feature that most defines the distinctive Maldives topology from above. And yet for many Maldives aficionados and avid snorkelers, they often dismissed and disregarded. The “main event” for the Maldives’ world leading snorkelling is the ‘house reef drop off’. Where the coral shallows plummet into the deep blue ornamented with a living collage of vibrant sealife.

Lori and I often feel these unsung littoral shoals are underappreciated. On our first visit, we knew nothing about the drama of the house reef and spent our first days happily snorkelling among the scattered coral croppings in two-foot deep water. We were nonetheless still mesmerized by the schools of tropical fish darting here and there. Since that time, we have had some very fine snorkels in lagoons.

I long ago added a basic ‘house reef’ rating to the resort Profiles, but a couple years ago I thought of adding a ‘Lagoon Rating’. I didn’t have enough information to do a good job of it and, as I’ve mentioned, there’s not a lot of call for lagoon info. But I have seen many lagoons in my 70+ Maldives resort visits and snorkelled most of them, and I have been struck by a number of them. For example, Four Season Kuda Huraa’s with its early and ambitious reefscaping initiative stands out for example. But I have to call out Canareef’s “Coral Garden” as very possibly the best ‘house lagoon’ in the Maldives.

While lagoon snorkels are more sedate and less eventful affairs, our snorkel of their Coral Garden was one of the most exciting underwater excursions of the trip. First you are struck by the great variety of coral. Most of it in very good health. One of the best parts is the crewcut forests of staghorn coral tickling the underside of the ocean top. They weave in contorted shapes like a shrubbery maze in the garden of a stately home that you can get lost in roaming through the sandy channels.

And this water wonderland extends for acres and acres. In fact, it gets a bit spooky to swim half a kilometre offshore even if the depth is still chest high. The shallow depth makes the Coral Garden an attractive option for snorkelling novices especially at low tide. If you have any difficulties, you can just stand up (as long as you ONLY stand on the sand, not the coral, but there is plenty of sand around). Even though it is sheltered and shallow, always take every precaution when snorkelling especially if you are less experienced.

Many resorts have started adding a number of creative touches to give their lagoons more allure. Despite its abundance of natural blessings in the lagoon department, Canareef is not resting on its laurels. They are in the process of building a special overwater bar to support the snorkelling. You can get gear there and have a post-snorkel drink while sharing all your snorkel spotting tales.

Never have I seen so much marine life in such little water.

Canareef - snorkeling 3
Lori venturing out into Canareef’s Coral Garden

Canareef - snorkeling 2

Best of the Maldives Online: TED Coral Reefs

For those of you who can’t make even a brief stop over to the Maldives, but still wish to explore the wonders of its world famous coral reefs, I highly recommend Kristen Marhaver’s TED talk “How We’re Growing Baby Corals to Rebuild Reefs”…

“Coral reefs are farmers. They provide food, income and food security for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Coral reefs are security guards. The structures that they build protect our shorelines from storm surge and waves, and the biological systems that they house filter the water and make it safer for us to work and play. Coral reefs are chemists. The molecules that we’re discovering on coral reefs are increasingly important in the search for new antibiotics and new cancer drugs. And coral reefs are artists. The structures that they build are some of the most beautiful things on planet Earth. And this beauty is the foundation of the tourism industry in many countries with few or little other natural resources.”

Quite a few resorts now (17 by my count) invest in reef regeneration programmes on their island. Someday maybe Marhaver’s work will allow us to go beyond strapping coral pieces to frames and actually cultivate and propagate corals.

 

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Snorkeling

Today is International Water Safety Day. So time for a quick edition of Maldives QI…

Q: What is the greatest danger of water fatality in the Maldives?
A: Eaten by sharks?
Q: Buzzz…Nope (in fact, the Maldives has not had a single report of a shark attack on a human)
A: An adrenalin sport like scuba diving?
Q: Buzzz…Nope. Nearly all scuba diving is run by very high quality PADI dive centres or liveaboards with very high safety standards and one of the strongest safety records in for diving in the world (contributed by the fact that many dive sites are not overly deep and are often relatively sheltered in atolls).

The most dangerous activity is the one that seems so alluringly easy – snorkelling. It’s not that snorkeling in the Maldives is particularly dangerous per se.  In fact, one could argue it is some the safest snorkelling in the world.  But it is those he mill pond calm waters in often shallow depths which lull guests into a exaggerated sense of security.  When water is involved, you have a serious risk to respect no matter what the situation. As the saying goes, you can drown in an inch of water in your bathtub (and some people do). So today is the ideal good occasion for a refresher on making this inviting activity as safe as it appears (and often is) easy and thrilling.

The typical contents of a snorkel bag are snorkel, fins, mask, towel, and room key. But the “safe” snorkeler might want to bring along some extra items – eg. whistle, floatation aid. And my favourite snorkelling accompaniment – a snorkel guide. Not a book or map, but a trained, proficient, resort staffer to help and support your outing. They not only will be there to assist if anything goes awry, but they know all the best places to see resident critters on the house reef and can provide lots of great information about what you are seeing.

“TravelJody”, also a top contributor to the Maldives Forum on TripAdvisor, has written a superb piece on snorkel safety “Staying Safe whilst Snorkelling!” She goes through a catalogue of possible safety concerns including…

  • Currents/Tides
  • CoralRock Cuts
  • Boats/Motorised Water Sports
  • Snorkeling Transportation
  • Sun
  • Marine Life
  • YOU!

Her tips include…

  • Use well fitting equipment
  • Be careful judging distance in water
  • Wear a whistle
  • Snorkel with buddy
  • Get instruction

A few tips that I would add include…

  • Consult the experts. Every resort has a dive centre and the majority of resorts have staff marine biologists both of whom know the resort waters intimately. They can not only tell you how the water behaves and where various hazards are, but also provide insider tips on where to see the best stuff and how (eg. maybe free dive to look under a ledge).
  • Don’t let the weather fool you. It’s all about the water and currents in the ocean not the air. We have snorkelled in a monsoon with an expert who knew the currents and knew the conditions in the actual ocean were fine. Conversely, a warm, bright day might seem innocuous, but some current shift or other under the surface situation could create a surprise problem.

For a superb overview, I highly recommend another gem from Kurumba’s studios – “Snorkeling Tips for Beginner for Maldives Resorts.”

The final point really concerns over-confidence. Just because it is all calm and sunny on the exterior (which is it most of the time in the Maldives) doesn’t mean that some hazards don’t exist below the surface. Some people get skittish about sharks and even fish, but the real monster of the deep is the deep itself. Deep water where people go beyond their capabilities, and get into trouble. In any water activity, the risk of drowning is an ever-present danger whether it is in a community pool or even the tranquil waters of the Maldives.

This syndrome of false confidence is the key reason why some experts on the TripAdvisors protest against the use of flotation aids in snorkelling. They feel that such aids instil confidence in the weak swimmer to go beyond their limits and going beyond you limits imposes more risk (to yourself and to the reef) than the flotation aid mitigates. I agree that over-confidence is a risk, but a floatation aid will in nearly all cases provide critical protection against the greatest risk which is drowning so do consider bringing or wearing one (but just don’t let it drop your caution).

Other references…

Happy and safe snorkeling everyone!

Snorkeling sign

Most Clearest Waters

Maldives clearest waters

The Weather Channel has come up with a list of the “The 50 clearest waters in the world”. Maldives comes in at a sparkling #5. But of the selections that pipped it, the Maldives is the largest area…

  1. Cook Islands
  2. Cocos Island
  3. Curacao
  4. Five Flow Lake (China)

Cook Islands is 91 square miles while Maldives is 115 square miles. So, you could say that the Maldives has the most ‘most clear’ water in the world.

I always thought that it was down to (a) reefs sheltering the inner atoll reducing sediment being stirred up from big currents and waves, and (b) coral reefs serving as a natural marine water filtration system.  But I came across this post, “Why Crystal Clear Water in the Maldives“, which gave 3 different reasons – (a) geographic location in the ocean (dark water dragged out from deep), (b) plankton giving the water a different hue, and (c) warm water providing higher density.

So I conferred with one of my favourite Maldives marine biologists, Verena Wiesbauer for her thoughts on this claim.  While I thought that the corals contributed to the clarity (as water filters), it turns out it’s more like the other way around (the clarity contributes to the corals)…

Corals don’t like too many nutrients in the sea; they need only the sunlight to survive.  Whenever there’s a high occurrence of plankton, the water becomes milky. But that happens too when sediment gets stirred up by ocean currents.

I’ve added a new tag to the blog for “Best in the World” for posts (like this one) about the Maldives destination global superlatives.