Maldives QI – Part X

Realm of the Great White Shark

…for “X” marks the spot where in the world the Great Whites are.

Q: When was the last shark attack in the Maldives?
A: A year ago?
Q: Buzzzzz! No. The Maldives have never had a recorded shark attack on a human.

World Tourism Day today and the Maldives stand tall (much taller than its famously low elevation) among the titans of the travel industry as a bucket list destination. And for selachophiles, the bountiful populations of a range of shark species is one of the many oceanic attractions.

Still, for a few of the more aquatically apprehensive, all these dorsal fins can evokes a number of cinematic fears brought on by everything from Jaws to Deep Blue Sea and Thunderball. In fact, nearly all species of shark keep quite a distance from diving and swimming humans. When you spend some time diving and snorkelling with them, you quickly figure out how they are the scaredy-cats of the ocean turning and fleeing at the least disturbance.

In most cases, these cartoonishly portrayed “man-eaters” are the species “Great White”. And if sharks’ docile temperament isn’t enough to re-assure you then, you can at least travel to the Maldives knowing that you won’t encounter any Great Whites. Great Whites are found pretty much all over the world east-to-west, and north-to-south. But there is one place they don’t hang out in and that’s the Indian Ocean (except for a patch off the coast of east Africa).

Best of the Maldives: Zebra Shark – Gangehi

Gangehi - Zebra shark

Shark Week!

The Discovery Channel’s annual Selachii celebration of these always intriguing ocean characters. In the Maldives, every week is Shark Week especially for the ubiquitous reef sharks (black-tipped and white-tipped). But the waters also are home to some more exotic varieties. One of these is the Zebra Shark. Native to the Indian Ocean, but nonetheless quite uncommon on the Maldives reefs. The best place to spot on is Gangehi resort where several have been spotted (pun intended) with considerable frequency. They are quite similar to the Nurse Sharks with their long caudal fin at back and their lazy daytime habits on the seafloor, but they are distinguished by their many spots along their back.

In honour of Shark Week, I have added the new “Shark” category tag to Maldives Complete so you have your own Maldivian virtual shark extravaganza any time you like.

Best of the Maldives: Nurse Sharks – Huvafenfushi

Huvafenfushi - Nurse Shark 2
Photo credit – NICOLE HERZ MSc

International Nursing Day today I thought was an apropos time to call out the eponymous “creature feature” nurse shark. As dependable as those faithful healthcare workers who alleviate our suffering, the similarly calm and composed ‘Ginglymostoma cirratum’ can be found on the Huvfenfushi house reef. Even more precisely, the resident marine biologist Nicole Hertz told us we could see her under the restaurant’s decking among the support pillars. Now, we’ve had lots of snorkel guides enthuse about lots of aquatic residents and, but unfortunately we all too often don’t have the fortune to see these allegedly regular visitors. But as advertised, we swam over and the Huva nurse was sitting on the sand precisely where Nickie said she would be.

Nurse Sharks are much more nocturnally active so it was not unexpected to see her just lying there. But, when we participated in Huvafenfushi’s night time “night aquarium”, she perked to life and paid us a visit with a number of graceful passes by the window (see below).

Huvfenfushi - nurse shark spa
Watching the nurse shark at night from the underwater spa.

Huvafenfushi - Nurse Shark
Photo credit – NICOLE HERZ MSc

 

Best of the Maldives: Shark Feeding – Sun Island

Sun Island shark feeding

To feed or not to feed. That is the question.

Perhaps one of the many questions that might get addressed in this week’s infamous Discovery Channel “Shark Week”.

The feeding controversy rages across the online travel forums. The opponents tend to start from the ‘take only pictures, leave only footprints’ ethos of minimising interference in nature which is certainly a valid and sensible principle. To compound the protests are the quite serious health damage that can accrue to many fish when fed a number of human foods (most commonly breads). But there are also behavioural and other impacts to fish feeding practices. Even relatively safe foods fed from hands can make fish ‘aggressive’ to humans as they get thinking that any human will have some food to offer them.

Still, fish feeding remains an entertainment staple at many resorts. The most innocuous practice is to scoop out the large quantity of fish scraps that accrue from so many seafood dishes in the resort kitchens. These scraps are exactly the diet that the scavenging fish like sharks and rays eat anyway. Still, the dogmatic environmentalists will protest even these practices.

I have been torn on fish-scrap feeding. For the past year, I have contacted a number of marine biologists and posted on a number of forums to try to identify specific harmful impacts to fish populations of fish-scrap feeding. To date I have been unsuccessful in finding any bona fide harms to fish-scrap feeding.

I’m sure it is not ideal.  It is certainly not all ‘natural’.  So why would I even consider supporting the practice.

It might be that there is a relatively small downside impact to the practice, but a rather substantial upside. That benefit would be the classic ‘zoo argument’. The notion that having zoos or feedings or other contrived (but controlled for animal welfare) practices that bring humans and animals closer together is good for both humans and the animals. In our manufactured, processed and urbanised world, one of the biggest threats to nature is mankind’s distance from it. When people don’t have strong and deep connections to these creatures, as they are just tasty filets on their plate, then they lose the political will to raise funds for their preservation and pass constraining laws for their protection. By offering guests these feeding events, it gives them an opportunity to witness up close these animals and their inspiring qualities.

The more interactions we can foster between humans and nature, the most admiration and connection we can foster to them, I am convinced the more the world will muster up the resources, understanding and interest in investing in their welfare.

I have seen many of these events at resorts and Sun Island was by far the most mesmerizing. You have the regulars like the rays and the jacks, but the star attraction at Sun were the sharks. Every island has an array of reef sharks. While some get to be quite sizable, few are over a metre in length and most are pygmy-like pups not much more than a foot long. Sun had these, some bigger than I have seen in the lagoon waters, but they also were visited by a collection of nurse sharks. These fellows are quite sizeable and have the peculiar behaviour of ‘sitting’ on the ocean floor. Before the feeding started, Lori and I had arrived early and noticed these and we couldn’t tell if they were really sharks or just shark-shaped rocks on the ocean floor.

The Sun Island shark feeding does respect a number of parameters which do minimise any deleterious effects. First, dietarily, they only feed with fish scraps which would be consistent with the shark’s natural diet. Second, they are feeding from a pier and not from hand (as some sting ray feeding is done and as now stopped diving excursions have done in the past).

Whatever ever your perspective on this healthy debate, enjoy the frights and insights of Shark Week so that everyone can respect and support these wonderful creatures.

Best of the Maldives: Whale Shark Event – Conrad Rangali

Conrad Rangali whale shark festival

 

 

Festival season has begun with Glastonbury kicking off this week. But in the Maldives the festivals are even wetter than the infamous British versions, and instead of willies, snorkel and fins are more de rigeur. And the ‘big acts’ aren’t aging rockers, but prehistoric monsters! A big shout out to Conrad Maldives Rangali for their gala “Maldivian Whale Shark Festival” which takes to the stage today drawing people from all over the Maldives and the world…

“The Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) in association with Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA) and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will launch the first Maldivian Whale Shark Festival in South Ari atoll on 29th June 2013. This one-day festival has been created to highlight the potential cooperative initiatives between resorts and local island communities while providing a positive platform from which to raise awareness of this magnificent species….Activities include whale shark excursions, an ecological treasure hunt, cultural demonstrations, guest presentations about whale sharks and coral reef ecology, participatory performance art coordinated by London based arts company Emergency Exit Arts and of course traditional bodu beru music and Maldivian food. Guests from surrounding resorts and local islands are invited to join the day of whale shark related festivities on Dhigurah Island in South Ari atoll.”

Posh mosh!

Best of the Maldives: Guitar Sharks – W Retreat

W Retreat guitar sharks

“Swimming in, lord, the deep blue sea. I’d have a, all you pretty women, fishin’ after me.”

Jimi Hendrix would have been 70 today. And I’m sure that he would be riffing today. Often considered the greatest guitarist of all time, today’s post pays tribute with a similarly rare, striking individual in the Maldives waters – the Guitar Fish.

I was first alerted to these allusive critters during our visit by the W Retreat divemaster Hamid who told me about seeing them regularly. Hamid’s successor, Tessa Van Den Abbeele, added the following when I contacted her…

“Out of experience from being in the Maldives for a few years the Guitar fish is a spectacular specie to see but not often spotted, but said that we have encountered 3 guitar fishes together a few times around the house reef of W Retreat & Spa. Other sites we have seen them is Maaye Thila, Fish Head and Himendhoo thila. The guitarfish are a family, Rhinobatidae, of rays. The guitarfish are known for an elongated body with a flattened head and trunk and small ray like wings. The combined range of the various species is tropical, subtropical and temperate waters worldwide. They often travel in large schools. Guitarfish’s have a body form intermediate between those of sharks and rays. The tail has a typical shark-like form, but in many species the head has a triangular, or shovel-like shape, rather than the disc-shape formed by fusion with the pectoral fin found in other ray. The animal looks like a mix between shark and ray, they are often confused with sharks, especially when seen underwater for the first time. Maldivian fisherman for example simply refer to them as sharks. The largest can reach a length of over 3 meters. Guitarfish or most often seen while resting on the sandy bottoms in the vicinity of coral reefs. The mode of reproduction of all the family members is ovoviviparous (yolk sac viviparity) They swim in a shark like manner with lateral strokes of the tail and caudal fin not by undulating their pectoral fins like most rays do.”

It seems particularly a propos that a resort so imbued with music (and innovative music at that) would have such a captivating creature frequenting its reef.

PS. Joke for the kids…What do guitar fish perform? Guitar reefs?

Best of the Maldives: Whale Shark Odds – Holiday Island

Holiday Island whale shark sightings

Perhaps the ultimate underwater treasure in the Maldives is a whale shark sighting. Most of the time, the biggest animal that you can see there. And a paragon gentle-giant docility and prehistoric charm. And number of spots are known hang outs for these elusive creatures who spend their lives in the depths unless they are feeding. Those locations (eg. Dhidhdhoo, Hanifru) are all protected by the Maldives as Marine Sanctuaries. While they are more prevalent in these places (and at certain times of the year), there are never any guarantees when it comes to mother nature.

The resort dive centre, Dive Oceanus, keeps and publishes detailed data on whale shark sightings (see above) which can also help to focus one’s holiday timing and planning for the highest incidence and probability as well.

I have to confess that Lori and I were tinged with a touch of disappointment when our whale shark excursion this summer came up empty. Most South Ari resorts offer such excursions, but on specific days. If you really are obsessed with sighting one and want the highest odds possible, then Holiday Island (also located within the Dhidhdhoo Marine Sanctuary) offers daily excursions. They will even add extra trips for people if they request it. It might mean a lot of event-less boat rides for your holiday. But at least you will have given the effort you all. And the beautiful Maldives seascape makes for dazzling scenery as a consolation prize.

Best of the Maldives: Nurse Sharks – Dhiggiri

Nurse Shark

These creatures should get an endorsement contract with ‘Night Nurse’, the cold medication to help you sleep. It seems all these Nurse Sharks do is sleep. During the daytime when most dives occur that is.

My wife Lori got to see a couple of them diving Furana Thila from Kurumba. Her log book notes…

“Highlight of the dive was a young nurse shark resting in a shallow cave approximately 1.5 metres long. The mother is often there, but not this time. Saw another resting on the sandy bottom.”

Nurse sharks can be found through out the Maldives. They like caves where they can sleep during the day time. My nomination for the top place to see them is Fulidhoo Caves near Dhiggiri. According to Tim Godfrey’s book on Maldives diving, Fulidhoo Caves is one of 4 cave sites meriting the top 3-stars marks in his ratings and a great place for Nurse Sharks…

“The reef slopes from there to 50 metres with caves and overhangs ranging on depth between 25 and 40 metres. The most interesting feature of this dive are the nurse sharks sleeping in the caves.”

Maldives Tour 2011 – Day 13: Kurumba Farewell

Kurumba is perhaps the most unsung house reef there is. You don’t often hear about it being mentioned as one of the tops, but I must say that Kurumba is simply the best house reef we have ever snorkelled. And we have snorkelled dozens. Especially for reef sharks, Kurumba is Shark Central (though a local tells me that Bandos is also extremely good for reef sharks). Our first snorkel at Kurumba we lost track of how many sharks we saw at about 20. Some well over a metre long. When they swim, sharks shake their butt more than a double-jointed salsa dancer. We thought maybe it was a fluke. Sometimes you see things snorkelling and other times you don’t is typically how it goes. But every single day we snorkelled at Kurumba, we saw tons of fish and lots of reef sharks of all sized.

But that wasn’t all. Lots of sting rays (mostly by the water sports centre), every type of lion fish, a turtle we swam with. A friend we met found an octopus in the lagoon and took lots of pictures. My wife’s favourite was finding a Zebra Moray (see picture below). They are very shy so she waited by his hovel for a long time hoping for him to pop out a bit more for a better photo op.

Dusk seems to be a particularly good time for fish activity. What we recommend is starting your snorkel around the front/reception side of the island (a bit to the left of the restaurants) around 4:00 pm and circle the house reef leisurely until you hit the Sunset Bar. Pull up there just in time for a sunset pina colada. Then, order your dinner right there too and eat on the beach while the sunset sky changes hues and the stars start popping out overhead.

Kurumba zebra moray

Best for Grey Reef Sharks – Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo

Fish Head Dive Site

If Maaya Thila is the ‘White Tip Reef Shark Capital of the Maldives’, the Fish Head dive site is renowned as the ‘Grey Reef Shark Capital’. And if you want to check it out, the Chaaya Reef Elliadhoo resort is your closest dive centre.  Tim Godfrey describes Fish Head in his book ‘Dive Maldives’

“The presence of a large school of grey reef sharks, combined with the favourable underwater scenery and the wide variety of marine life, have given this reef the reputation as being among the ten best dive sites in the world.”