Back to school time. So let’s go back to schools Maldive style to mark the season…
You need cooling
Baby I’m not fooling
I’m gonna send ya
Back to schooling – Led Zeppelin
While the Maldives corals have taken a hit from the warm oceans of climate change and El Nino, the schooling bathing beauties remain as colourful and concentrated as ever. A-fish-ionadoes of the Maldives often refer to the waters as “fish soup” (perhaps an unfortunate term with the excessive water temperatures hitting 30 degrees!). And Instagram has become the digital runway for these fishionista pageants to be shared with the world. My favourite snaps are the one so jam packed with fish that they sort of form kaleidoscopic tapestries of underwater colour (thanks to Verena for help with identifying the more obscure marine models)…
(picture courtesy of Alexander von Mende)
Maldives diving expert Alexander von Mende not only helped with the Huvadhoo dive sites, but he also offered some very insightful tips for my Best of the Maldives research. He ventured that the dive site Dheeva Giri is the best in the Maldives for Mobulas. Well, I certainly hadn’t encountered these creatures in my 20 years of visits and research.
In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. So I turned to Alexander’s book which also includes an extensive marine life guide. It turns out that Mobulas as sort of mini-Mantas, also referred to colloquially as “Pygmy Devil Rays” (great name).
“We had a place which was regularly frequented by them in larger numbers: Dhevva Giri's southern sand flats – quite a sight these small Manta relatives”
The Queen has been such a supporter of of all of the June Jubilee activities including rocking out at the Buckingham Palace Concert which is probably not her dream Saturday night out. Rather, one’s favourite day in June is most definitely Ladies Day at Ascot today such is her love of all things horses. And ‘horses’ in the Maldives are a bit fabled and mystical creatures themselves…sea horses that is.
It indeed exciting to see the big game of snorkel safaris (and diving). But sometimes it is just as exciting and curious to uncover the tiny creatures. A baby manta, nudibranches, leaf fish. Perhaps the most enchanting and illusive is the Sea Horse.
Sea Horses are indigenous around the world including the Indian Ocean, mostly prominently Hippocampus borboniensis, dubbed ‘Réunion seahorse’ for its prevalence in this Maldive neighbour. I have asked many a dive master and no one has ever recalled seeing one or hearing reports of any. In fact, the TripAdvisor Forum on the Maldives posed this question last year and none of the Maldives veterans and experts had ever heard of a sea horse sighting.
Part of the issue is that sea horses live in sea grass which is not that common in the sand-bottomed lagoons and reefs prevalent in the Maldives. One resort which does feature sea grass is Kuredu (see photo above) and, lo and behold, they have reported sighting sea horses a few years ago. So if you want to start a holy grail hunt for these unicorns of the shallows, then start at Kuredu. Still, a bit of a long shot…or ‘dark horse’ if you will.
The best free divers in the ocean are our aquatic cousins the cetaceans. As I said yesterday, that’s not ‘free diving’ as in ‘free beer’. Nor is it as in ‘born free’. But in Rihiveli Beach it is. Rihiveli have their own resident dolphin pod in their lagoon.
‘Swimming with dolphins’ is one of those magical experiences that are regularly found a top people’s bucket lists. So popular that an industry is growing quite lucratively to provide dolphin swimming experiences. Some of these are tracking dolphin pods down to jump in the water and snorkelling with them. We tried one of these excursions in Mauritius and the dolphins seemed quite bored with our presence and simply kept their distance. Because of the dolphins independent mindedness, another popular alternative is swimming with dolphins in captivity. Either in large swimming pools or enclosed ocean spaces. The Maldives has approved a Dolphin Lagoon, the website for which was launched yesterday.
Such a facility has stirred, and always does, much debate about the ‘zoo issue’. The arguments essentially boil down as follows. Opponents say it is inhumane and immoral to extract creatures from their natural habitat and stress them with confinement purely for our entertainment. Proponents say that such facilities allow people to connect with these creatures they normally would not get a chance to encounter which in turns build financial and political support for environmental causes which in turn enhances the lives of the entire animal kingdom. I personally line up on the proponent side. Of course, I am all in favour of regulation and oversight to ensure that the animals’ captivity is as healthy and comfortable as possible. But in our increasingly virtual, urbanized, manufactured world, the more voters (especially powerful ones who take posh holidays) and walking pocketbooks (especially affluent ones who do the same) who have the chance to be enchanted by these whimsical creatures, the better the prospects for their species overall.
But if you want see the ‘born free’ diving version, then Rihiveli is your resort.
A perfectly tranquil lake-like ocean with shimmering shades of mottled blue…then suddenly it erupts with a hundred tiny splashes. What the…?
This is fish hunting. Big fish going after little fish. The little fish congregate in big schools for some sort of anonymity in numbers, but it only seems to concentrate the opportunity for the big fish like trevallys and jacks. These predators also work in teams casually circling, or should I say ‘encircling,’ their targets until…Wham…they dart through the schools trying to snap at any unfortunately glassfish or blenny they can get their teeth into. The prey shift gears from their near suspended animation to an immediate emergency retreat to any exit they can find including right out of the water into the sky if that means safety.
It is a delightful ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom’ spectacle that you see across the Maldives. But, we were especially captivated by it during our very first trip to the Maldives visiting ‘Laguna Beach’, now redeveloped and renamed to Velassaru. My favourite picture ever taken in the Maldives came about because we were woken from our sleep all the way over in our bungalow early in the morning from the racket of one of these ‘feeding frenzies’. While we have seen many similar sights, we always felt that they were never quite as stunning as what we witnessed with predictable regularity and consistently large scale as what we saw at Velassaru.
We always chalked up the difference to ‘first-timer nostalgia’. But then we had the chance to re-visit the island on our last trip in July and what did we see the very minute we stepped off the boat…cinematic feeding frenzy. In the picture above, you can see the vast shoals of tiny, silvery fish in the lagoon. The light-shaded shapes in the midst of them are the wake of reef sharks who have joined the trevallys in their stalking. The fish wisely clear a path as the juvenile sharks wiggle through their masses. The picture below shows the dynamic more clearly and you can click on it to see even more close up.
I’m suspecting that the intensity of the feeding frenzy action at Velassaru has something to do with its massive shallow lagoon. In the direction of the water villas, the lagoon extends for 2 kilometres. While the long, sandy table means no house reef, I think it does attract more schools like this looking for the protection of the shallows.
Possibly one of the most placidly dramatic aquatic encounters in the Maldives is the graceful and commanding creature Manta Ray. Quite prevalent across most of the Maldives, we have seen them a number of times from shore. In fact, Conrad Hilton Rangali had a regular manta visitor who came every evening like clockwork to feed on the small sea life attracted by the lights of the dock. The resort guests would go down to watch the balletic display of this spaceship-like fish doing loop-the-loops underwater scooping up big mouthfuls (see picture below we snapped).
The YouTube clip above is from a National Geographic piece on Mantas in the Maldives which has great pictures and commentary. It provides good tips on ‘when’ to see Mantas (and other large pelagics like Whale Sharks). Unfortunately, the ‘best’ time for pelagics is the ‘worst’ time for weather, ie. the monsoon season. The seasonal rains spur the growth of the microscopic food on which these filter feeds feast.
“Manta Point has a world-wide reputation as being one of the most consistent sites for attracting large numbers of manta ray…In eight metres of water on the south east corner of Lanaknfinolhu reef are several large coral rocks which mark the point where mantas converge during the south-west monsoon season. Mantas have been photographed here as early as April and as late as December. These rocks are one giant cleaner station for the mantas. Blue-streak cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, often working in pairs, can be observed swimming out to the hovering mantas to remove old skin and parasites. The mantas circle the rocks awaiting their turn to be cleaned and when finished they swim gracefully up and down the reef feeding on zooplankton in the shallow water.”
If you can’t make it to Manta Point, but still want to regale in a spectacular show of these majestic creatures in the Maldives, MaldivesComplete has the scoop that BBC2 will broadcast ‘Andrea: Queen of Mantas’ on Wednesday 11 November 8 pm (if you do not live in the UK, check out the BBC iPlayer website to see if and when the programme will be broadcast over the Internet which many of their shows are now).
“Andrea: Queen of the Mantas tracks student Andrea Marshall over the course of a year as she dives the Indian Ocean unlocking secrets about the manta ray – a balletic cousin to the shark, with ‘wings’ which can span 7 metres (20 ft) wide…[R]evelations in the film include…the first tv footage of around 150 mantas massing near the Maldives…[in conjunction with the show] an online campaign seeking better safeguards for sharks and mantas is being run by The Save Our Seas Foundation, a main sponsor of manta ray research in Mozambique and around the Maldives.”