Best of the Maldives: Underwater Objects – Summer Island

Summer Island - underwater objects

The Maldives seascape is a world of extremes. The house reefs are often dramatic, colourful, textured, vibrant spectacles. The lagoons, on the other hand, can be vast expanses of underwater deserts of endless, featureless white sand. A number of resorts have introduced a range of Reefscaping initiatives to brighten up their lagoon, but none more funky than the work of Diverland (the resident dive operation) at Summer Island.

In the lakes of England where they teach diving, they submerge bicycles, shopping trolleys, anything to provide some visual interest to the otherwise boring landscape. Summer Island has quite a quirky collection shown in the chart above and include a phone booth and a lamp post (see photo at bottom). All of the items are marked with a red buoy (12 in total) making it easier to find and navigate your swimming to them.

Summer Island also features probably the easiest beginner “wreck dive” one could ever find. They have sunk a sand barge and an old speedboat. Reminds me of the post-war practice by the American and British of scuttling obsolete naval vessels to provide reefs for recreational diving and promotion of sea life. Also, the closest thing to #7 in the 4th collection of “Haven’t Seen Yet”.

Summer Island - sunked boat

Summer Island - underwater phone box

Best of the Maldives: Resort Snorkel Day – Hurawalhi / Kuredu

Hurawalhi - snorkel day

Kudos to the resort s who celebrated World Snorkeling Day yesterday…

  • Kuredu“Kuredu is pleased to announce its very first Snorkelling Day! The celebration of this wonderful sport and the magnificent coral reefs of Lhaviyani Atoll will take place on Sunday, 30th July 2017, at 15:00. Snorkelling is one of Kuredu’s major draws: both the lagoon and the reef offer a wonderful array of marine life that will most likely be one of the highlights of your Maldives’ holiday.” [see photo below]
  • Hurawalhi – “In honour of the Maldives’ reef ecosystem and in celebration of the wonderful sport that is snorkelling, Hurawalhi is excited to announce its first Snorkelling Day. Prodivers and the Marine Biology Center invite you for special afternoon snorkelling trips on Sunday, 30th July 2017. During these 1,5-hour excursions, you can expect to see a wide range of underwater sights that – if it weren’t for the snorkel in your mouth – would make your jaw drop!” [see photo above]

  Kuredu - snorkel day

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…

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

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.