Traveling to the Maldives as my 50th country is a dream come true. It’s hard to captivate the beauty of this country in words but I’ll give it a try.
We decided quite some time ago that we wanted to visit the Maldives and we have been counting down the days for most of this year. We stayed on Maafushi, a local island, which made the trip cheaper, cultural and meant we gave our money to the local economy rather than rich resort owners. Only fairly recently have the local islands been allowed to invite tourists onto them and the people we spoke to see this as a positive boost for their economy and lifestyles. As a solely Muslim country you have to respect the local way of life by covering up your shoulders when on the streets and the island is an alcohol free place. Something to bear in mind before you come.I learnt from talking to people that Maafushi has a population of 3000 ‘registered’ people (which seems crazy because it is tiny), and 700 prisoners. The prison takes up almost half of the island. I learnt that they have air con and a basket ball court. There are only 2 police men on the island and everyone knows everyone. I spoke a lot to the guys who drove the boat to the different snorkel sites and learnt that they consider themselves ‘forward thinking’ Muslims who like to mix with other cultures. They also enjoy an alcoholic beverage on the sand banks (no man’s land) where boats routinely drop off crates of alcohol for people to buy. As seems to often be the way, there’s a lot going on under the surface of this fairly strict Muslim country. The local people were incredibly friendly and happy to share their lives with us. As usual I had a million questions in my head about island life and quizzed people at every opportunity.Our reason for visiting the Maldives, aside from a real desire to get away from Penang for a bit, was for the ocean. I love the ocean more than anything. I love sea life, I love swimming, I love how scary it is. The first few days were spent on a boat visiting dive sites with Ahmad and Robert. Ahmad was a very moody man who I initially clashed with and eventually had good banter with. It was an up and down relationship. Robert was a very friendly Italian. I scuba dived for the first time and this was my first adrenaline rush of the week. That oxygen tank is just so fresh. The feeling of being underwater was the best. Ahmad said to me ‘Ah you’re a swimmer… Forget everything you know about swimming’. He was not wrong. You can’t swim otherwise you just float off randomly into blue nothing. You can’t breath like you would swimming or you’ll use up all your air. Lots to think about.
It was really a great experience. I’d do it again in a heart beat if/when I have some money to get my PADI.The main thing I wanted to see in the Maldives was a whale shark. People know I’ve been fascinated by sharks and whales since I was a child but I’m also very conscious of the ethics of finding wild animals and how you should behave when you’re around them. I read as much as I could find before we settled on Shadow Palm as the company who would help us find the whale sharks. We traveled for 1.5 hours to the area where the whale sharks are spotted. I jumped into the water not really knowing what to expect and it was right in front of me. Cue second adrenaline rush. I was honestly high as a kite.
Other people really are the downfall of any amazing experience I’ve had. There were people swimming who couldn’t swim, were selfish morons, touched the shark and so on. It doesn’t matter how many times the boat guys said, ‘do not go closer than 4m to the shark, do not touch the shark, do not cross the shark’s path’ , people will do all these things. You are a visitor in another animal’s space and you shouldn’t be touching it! The animals should not have to change their natural behaviour because of you! I got really irate about this. The whale shark was the most gentle giants. Just doing it’s thing, swimming in the big blue. What an experience. I imagine and hope it thought of me as one of those fish that swim directly under the shark and nothing more irritating. We also saw three humpback whales on this day swimming along doing what they do. That evening I did extensive reading on whale sharks so if you want any facts I’m your gal.
Next up: dolphins. The same guys, Ali and Eeshaan, took us to a lagoon where it’s possible to see and swim with spinner dolphins. Dolphins are not the same as whale sharks. Whale sharks just hang out alone, eating plankton and migrating for thousands of km. Dolphins are intelligent, curious and sociable. Dolphins are also very fast swimmers are work as a team. Jen and I jumped in and as soon as my head was under the water I could hear the clicks and squeaks of the pod communicating. I couldn’t see them which was slightly unnerving. Amazingly they swam towards us and passed by me at an arm’s length. It was one of the most incredible experiences in the sense that I felt completely the outsider in their environment. Somewhat alarmingly (but not really because at no point did I feel threatened by them) they split up and started to circle us, which is predatory behaviour. I was thinking ‘OK guys friends not food, friends not a threat’ and I made intense eye contact with one. I also waved at one because it felt like the right thing to do. They were just interested and nosy and soon went back to flipping about and squabbling with one another. A couple were injured which I assume was from human activity of some kind. One had a baby. Super cute.
You had to be a confident swimmer both physically and mentally to keep up with them, which I was warned about before I jumped in. It was deep and choppy. Diver selfie to celebrate being strong swimmers. Thanks parents for the early water experiences.
Now onto the sad, sad coral reef situation. I saw ONE live coral reef in a week of swimming every day. One. I begged for a live coral reef after swimming in coral grave yards for days. It was honestly so depressing. Some of it is from direct human damage; for example sun screen in the water, anchoring boats over the reef or kicking the coral. The extent of the damage is due to rising temperatures in the ocean, of course caused by humans. So many times I thought to myself ‘imagine what this would have looked like “before”.’ Apparently in 2016 the ocean temperature rose and the coral reefs massively suffered. Coral takes years and years to recover from bleaching.On a more positive note we were fortunate enough to see a beautiful coral reef and it was incredible.
Palm Reef was stunning and the abundance of life there was so wonderful to see. The reef was thriving. How long for I don’t know.
This blog has had a definite negative undertone to it but in spite of all the threats it faces, the Maldives is definitely a natural beauty. Made up of 1200 islands it is home to very welcoming and friendly people and animals. I’ve had some of the best experiences of my life this past week and I’m quite emotional about it. I’ve seen some of the world’s most loved sea creatures living wild and free. I’ve swum in crystal clear water and enjoyed soft, white sand. I’ve also seen plastic pollution, climate change effects and a definite lack of recycling going on. I’ve seen silly people doing harmful things. I’ve seen construction sites building new islands over precious coral reefs to build yet more extortionately priced resorts that don’t benefit local people.
This pile of plastic was found on an uninhabited island. I read that the Maldives could be under water in just 30 years as the islands only stand 2m above sea level. This is devastating for the local people who have such pride and love for their country.It’s been one of the best weeks of my life with wonderful friends in paradise. Thanks to Andrea for researching it all initially and to Jen, Jen, Hannah and Bryony for the lols. What an amazing experience! I had a cracking affogato 2x. I lost my hat and a man dove into the ocean and retrieved it for me. My bag straps broke x2. I went to bed at 9pm and woke up at 6am every day and loved it. I read lots of books. I ate a lot of cookies.
Ps. This is what life looks like when you’ve been on a boat for too long in the rain.
Touch down in Kuala Lumpur and I’m already feeling the come down. You’ll find me in my apartment for the next two days looking at photos of coral reefs and sharks. Sob.