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.

Snorkel Spotting Tips

Rosie Londoner snorkeling

A guide for snorkelling, a guide during snorkelling and now a guide to snorkelling.

I came across this fine post by the Constance folks – “7 ways to get the most from diving and snorkelling” (it would be be a “Best of the Maldives” candidate for blogs, but it is not just focused on the Maldives as it includes all their properties). The top points are…

  1. Scan the area
  2. Use your peripheral vision
  3. Weird behaviours
  4. Don’t forget to look behind you
  5. Focus in close
  6. Pick one thing to look at
  7. Stop and listenIt’s a fine list, but I would add a couple more…
  8. Use a Flotation Aid – Especially if you are a weaker swimmer (either in technique, experience or fitness), consider one of the range of floatation devices available. Everything from a proper lifejacket to a simple float like a foam noodle. By providing extra buoyancy, the aid can reduce the effort in floating. However, don’t let the device seduce you into undertaking more than you are capable of even with the aid and always snorkel within your limits.
  9. Use a Snorkeling Guide – Nearly all resorts and dive centres will provide a personal guide for you. If you go on a snorkel safari, then they are almost always included as part of the excursion. But you can request someone to join you for your foray onto the house reef too. Not only will this provide an accomplished snorkeler to accompany you and make it safer for you (again, if you are a ‘weaker’ snorkeler, I recommended an accompanying guide even more emphatically), but also the guide will help you spot the good stuff. They will know where critters tend to frequent and will have trained eyes for spotting many things you will likely overlook.
  10. Don’t Touch – Don’t touch anything. This is for your own safety as otherwise innocuous marine life can hurt you with a bite or a sting if you reach out to touch it. Also, be extra careful of what your fins touch. Being an extension of your body that you are not used to and having no sensation, people very often kick coral inadvertently and cause massive damage over time.

Given the focus I have on snorkelling at Maldives Complete, I’ve upgraded “Snorkeling” to its very own main category on the blog.

Best of the Maldives: Snorkel Rope – Centara Ras Fushi

Centara Ras Fushi - snorkel rope

While everyone’s first snorkelling question is about spotting cool stuff, their first concern should be about safe snorkelling.

One of the leaders in snorkel safety is Centara Ras Fushi. First of all, they require a swim test before guests are allowed to snorkel the house reef (other resorts like Dusit Thani do this, but it is still a rare measure). They also have the Maldives Coast Guard come and train all their resort employees including groundkeepers and housekeepers in lifesaving. A number of staff have jumped in the water and helped people needing assistance already this year.

Finally, they have stairs out of the water and onto water villa jetty placed at regular intervals. That way, if you go out snorkelling and you get tired, you can return onto the jetty relatively easily. In most resorts, you have to get entirely around the water villas and the only way you are allowed onto the jetty is if you are going to your own villa. The conventional approach is aggravating as the water villas often extend to the house reef edge. If you go snorkelling around them, then you are forced to commit to the entire distance in order to clear them and get to a beach entrance.

But what is really distinctive is Ras Fushi’s snorkel safety rope. Snorkelers can use it to grab onto in order to secure themselves and give themselves a rest. Or they can even stick entirely to it and use it to pull themselves along for a guided float across the ridge of the drop-off.   This use is a benefit to another safety measure – wearing life jackets or using flotation aids.   Without question, anyone who has the slightest apprehension about swimming, should consider swimming with a life jacket or floatation aid.   They will help protect from the #1 causes of problems which is fatigue and panic.  One does need to remember that they are not a panacea and weaker swimmers should not get a false sense of confidence just because they are using these devices.  Another issue with using the devices is that they impede mobility.  Therefore, the snorkel safety rope could be an ideal complement where a snorkeler is assisted in buoyancy with the floatation aid and assisted in manoeuvrability with the rope.

The rope is set just below the surface of the water so it is not visible from the island or impeding the view of those on the island (except for several discrete buoy floats, but such floats are found all around all Maldives islands marking channels, hazards, etc). They have strung the rope completely encircling the house reef. I snapped a photo (see above) when I visited. I tried taking one further back so you all could see in in perspective, but when you get further back, it actually not that visible in the open water.

One of the best snorkel “guides” in the Maldives.

Snorkel Spotter v2.0

Snorkel Spotter 2

Santa left Maldives Complete a big present under the code tree this Christmas – a completely re-platformed “Snorkel Spotter”.

An added bonus is that now you can log your Snorkel Spottings with your iPhone or iPad as these are now supported with the Safari browser.

As I mentioned recently, while I started out on an almost ‘completely’ Microsoft platform (due to where I was working at the time), the Microsoft strategy and execution in the Internet arena has been unfortunately pretty dire. Technologies it heralded as the next big thing were often discarded. The latest casualty of their myopia has been Silverlight.

I built the Snorkel Spotter dynamic control on this platform as it was hailed to be the latest thing for web interactivity. Unfortunately, neither I (still subscribed to too many Microsoft kool-aid newsletters) nor Microsoft saw HTML5 coming down the pike.

From the outset, Silverlight was an aggravation for users who increasingly were using non-Internet Explorer (IE) browsers which required a fairly complex installation of a special plug-in to get the Spotter to work. And last year, Google’s Chrome, the most popular browser of all, stopped support for Silverlight all together (even a plug-in wouldn’t work). So, prospective “Spotters” had to find a machine with IE or try to install it themselves (and often companies like resorts look down their computers and don’t let staff install whatever programmes they fancy, especially those downloaded from the Internet).

Enough was enough and I decided to move to the new de facto standard for interactivity – HTML5. Unfortunately, I had a few other projects in the queue (eg. WordPress Migration, Beauty Base launch). And once spec’ed, it took a while to code and implement. Hats off to .Net developer Tapesh M. from Ahmedabad, India who did the actually code migration for me. Microsoft has been woefully remiss in providing any migration tools or even guidance on moving from Silverlight for HTML5 (I spent a month researching it). Anyone faced with this problem should get in touch with Tapesh. He does brilliant work.

The migration has also given me a chance to clean up a few glitches and update some of the data and maps in the Spotter. I hope that the work makes the tool all the more fun and useful for everyone.

Happy Spotting!

Best of the Maldives: Snorkelling Guide – Jumeirah Dhevanafushi

Jumeirah Dhevanafushi - reef plan

On Groundhog Day today, I hope you spot more than your shadow in the Maldives. My whole Snorkel Spotter development stemmed from wanting more help for guests to know where to focus their hunting. Before I came up with it, I always suggested that the resorts post a white board with maps of the house reef so people could mark where they had seen different things (old school “Share”).

Jumeirah Dhevanafushi has come the closest to the digital sophistication of such a house reef guide. Their in-room IPTV offers a channel with an “Aquatic Life in the House Reef” guide (see above). It provides helpful tips about current as well as the creature most regularly spotted and where.

Who says there’s not point to watching TV in the Maldives?

Best of the Maldives: Fish Guide – Atoll Editions

Fish of the Maldives 1

Speaking of spotting things in the Maldives, one of the obligatory resources for any avid snorkeler or diver is a good fish guide. They come in books, but one of the popular variants is the “Fish Identification Card.” A handy piece of piece of laminate packed with fish (and sometimes other things like corals and animals or even birds). Veteran marine life maven Tim Godfrey has collaborated with Rudie H. Kuiter to come out with one which is in a league of its own.

Publisher Atoll Editions describes…

“Small and perfectly formed, this Fish Field Guide will let you locate species you have just seen underwater. The fish are depicted through both photography and silhouette icons to help you identify these diverse and beautiful creatures. The approximate length, common names, latin names, and distribution information are all easily located. There is even a tick box so you remember exactly what you have seen on each dive trip.”

For starters, it is a tri-fold 8-pages instead of the usually 2-sided card. Secondly, the fish are neatly arranged in a grid for maximum density. Most of these cards are quite a hodgepodge of pictures just scattered and packed in. So there are more creatures featured than any other ID card (240 in all).

But its not just the quantity, but also the quality that excels so much…

  • Photos – Most cards use drawings which always seems to be just a little bit off in their representation and we often are not quite sure if what we saw was the fish on the card. Tim’s guide uses actually photographs for more realistic illustrations.
  • Silhouette – If the photos weren’t enough, Tim adds a silhouette of each species shown. While markings can be very similar from fish to fish, often the distinctive differences are evidence in their outlines (eg. fin size and position ,etc.).
  • Book Reference – If that information is not enough for you, then Tim’s a page number reference to his companion book “Fishes of the Maldives Indian Ocean” so you an easily find the suspect critter and read more about him.
  • Marker – My favourite bit of all is a just a very little bit. A small square for you to mark off a sighting. So now you can track your Snorkel Spottings on your own personal log as well as on Maldives Complete. I feared that with the slick plastic a pen wouldn’t easily mark it, but I tried a simple ball point and it worked just fine.

Happy hunting holidayers!

Fish of the Maldives 2

Best of the Maldives: Turtles Snorkeling – One & Only Reethi Rah

One and Only Reethi Rah Turtle Adventure

One of the new items on House Reef profiles is the “Resident” field. This notes if there is a particular creature who is regularly found on the house reef and who can be distinctly identified. The first “Resident” I met in the Maldives was “Camilla”, a turtle on the Vakarufalhi house reef.

Turtles are quite readily identifiable by their shell markings which has allowed a few marine biologists to take Snorkel Spotting to a whole new level. The most spottable grounds might just be the eponymous “Turtle Reef” in the North Male atoll. This terrapin terroir is closest to the Makanudhu resort, but the the nearby One & Only Reethi Rah really gives the excursion the first class treatment (see video link above). Reports Reethi’s Scott Le Roi…

“Turtle reef is where we go for the Turtle Adventure trip (every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday). It is one of the most popular reefs we go to. The reef is next to Makundhoo resort, which is about a 25 minute dhoni ride or about 7 minutes in a speedboat from our resort. We take lots of private trips there as well and the dive centre also do there evening snorkel there on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s a hawksbill turtle feeding ground so there is always a good chance of seeing lots of turtles there. The most I have seen in one snorkel is 23! The turtles here are pretty relaxed. As it is their home territory, they don’t feel threatened by people, so our guests can have a really amazing encounter with them; Swimming alongside them or turtles coming up to breathe right in front of them! It is also a very beautiful reef. Nice corals and fish life, sometimes sharks and eagle rays.”

In the spirit of Snorkel Spotter, the Reethi Rah marine biologist also runs a spotting program (see pictures below)…

Since February 2012 our resident Marine Biologist has been identifying the different turtles seen during the Turtle Adventure Snorkel at both Turtle Reef and West Point Reef. Every turtle has a unique scale pattern on each side of the head which it can be identified by. Photographed turtles are uploaded into a photo identification database to try to establish their population size, foraging sites and migration patterns. So far over 100 different Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) have been identified at Turtle Reef and over 40 at West Point Reef. Many of these turtles are common residents of the reef and can be seen regularly.”

For people interesting in “Turtle Spotting” across the Maldives, the Four Seasons Marine Savers’ Turtle ID Project takes this ID programme to Maldives-wide level.

 

One and Only Reethi Rah turtle spotting

Best of the Maldives: Snorkel Safety – Dusit Thani

Dusit Thani - snorkely safety briefing

If there is one “Best of the Maldives” innovation that I would like all resorts to emulate it is Dusit Thani’s snorkel safety programme. We were taken through it by the resort’s dive centre instructor Manon (photo above).

  1. REQUIRED SNORKEL BRIEFING – For starters, all guests are required to have a 15 minute snorkel briefing before snorkelling on the reef. If you have not had your briefing and are spotted snorkelling, staff will approach you and politely inform you of the policy. For us, it didn’t matter that we had snorkelled over 50 house reefs and are a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver, we still had to have the briefing.
  2. REQUIRED SAFETY COURSE – If you can answer three questions, then you are cleared to snorkel the Dusit Thani house reef after they have shared a few details like entries, some current tips and other basic information about the island’s surrounding waters. The questions are:  (a) How does one clear a mask?, (b) How does one clear a snorkel?, and (c) How does one determine current direction?  If you can’t answer the questions, the guests are requires to take a snorkel safety course (cost $55).
  3. REQUIRED SNORKEL TEST – After the course, you are assessed with a boat accompanying you and your instructor/guide. If you pass, you are all set to snorkel freely on the house reef.
  4. REQUIRED SNORKEL GUIDE – If you do not pass your snorkel proficiency test, then you are required to use a resort/dive-centre guide every time you snorkel on the house reef (cost is $25 per outing)
  5. TRAINED SECURITY STAFF POSTED– All of the security staff are trained in lifesaving and all 3 of the resort jetties have security staff posted. The posted house reef entry points are located near these jetties and the security staff are instructed to watch snorkelers who go out. Probably the closest thing to full time lifeguards I have seen in the Maldives. A measure I think resorts should consider (though the resort points out that these security staff are not intended as “lifeguards” and people should not depend on them for their safety).
  6. LIFEJACKET RECOMMENDED – It still boggles my mind that a number of quite knowledgeable Maldives experts on the Maldives TripAdvisor Forum have asserted the bizarre argument that snorkelling with a lifejacket is dangerous. I think their reasoning is along the lines of (a) “just say no” – ie. if you can’t swim well, don’t try it (nice, in principle, but in the real world people don’t really understand or respect their limitations, not to mention that this prohibition removes one of the great experiences of the Maldives from their visit), and (b) “over-confidence” – ie. the same reasoning as to why some say seat-belts are unsafe – because the sense of security makes you drive more recklessly (one may drive recklessly, but whatever the outcome of your driving, you are safer with a seat belt). Anyway, authorities like the Red Cross and PADI strongly urge the use of lifejackets when engaging in swimming activities where there is any question of swimming capacity (eg. strong swimmers in tough conditions, weak swimmers in easy conditions). The fact that Dusit Thani strongly encourages this practice is an inspired attitude in my view.

 

HINT FOR THE TEST – We knew the first technique for checking current, but hadn’t thought of the other two which are quite obvious on reflection…

  1. See which way the fish are facing (they swim into the current)
  2. Ask the dive centre
  3. Ask the boat captains.

 

Happy (and Safe) Snorkelling!

Best of the Maldives: Channel House Reef – Gangehi

Gangehi channel

For many Maldive aficionados, the holy grail of the ideal idyll is a spectacular house reef. Typically, the best house reefs are on the dot-shaped islands in the center of an atoll as the topology on the edges of the atoll lend themselves to long, broad shallow tables which make for great lagoons, but often hard to reach “drops off” (the defining feature of a great house reef).

The Gangehi resort has a very distinctive house reef because its drop off is in a “channel”. Channels exist all over the Maldives and are narrow water passages between the inside and the outside of the atoll. Gangehi’s is named “Gangehi Kandu” which is the Dhivehi word for these waterways.

Bigger fish tend to like the deeper channels, but being intra-atoll, they should be a bit calmer. Certain species tend to favour outside the atoll and other the inside. But this area would seem to have the best of both worlds (Gangehi also has a sheltered side (East) to its house reef to provide more conventional house reef snorkelling). The resort brochure describes…

“Gangehi Island lies on the north-western edge of Ari Atoll, on a oceanic pass, a natural channel crossing the atoll ring that keep in communication the atoll lagoon with the open ocean. The pass, named ‘Kandu’ in Divehi, has a very high ecological function for the Atoll marine life, as it makes possible the renewing lagoon waters. Kandu usually subject to strong currents, incoming or outgoing depending on the tide conditions, and creating a unique environment great for many pelagic species, and a few benthic species cling to the substrates. Gangehi Kandu is one of the longest channels in the Ari Atoll, with a drift of more than 2.5 km from the channel’s entrance to the end of the dive at the inside of the Atoll. The wall here is quite unremarkable really. There are interesting things to spot such as lionfish, moray eels and porcupine fish but the real action is out in the blue. With an incoming current the visibility can be excellent and the parade of pelagic and local residents, impressive. You might see vast schools of fish like fusiliers and blu trigger fish feed in colliding waters, a number of reef sharks as well as barracuda, jackfish and tuna. Large squadrons of eagle rays are frequently seen here seemingly flying in formation in an unforgettable display. The bottom of the entire channel at Gangehi Kandu is sandy, making it a perfect resting ground for Stingrays, White Tip Reef Sharks and the Leopard or Zebra Shark which is commonly spotted here when the conditions are right. At this impressive sites divers can find caves covered with excellent soft coral, a wide range of colourful invertebrates, gorgonians and sponges. The water inside the atoll is breeding ground for plankton and when the outgoing currents bring the plankton-rich water through the channel into the big blue large and beautiful species like manta come to feed.”

Lori and I had the immense pleasure of snorkelling the kandu during our stay there and Lori then went on a drift dive at the edge of the atoll where she saw black sting ray, octopus, eagle rays, a monstrous Napoleon fish (bigger than herself) and many, many sharks especially grey sharks.

That’s the Kandu Spirit!

 

Gangehi Kandu