Maldives – Part 2

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  The Maldives

 Part 2 – The Diving Part

November 21, 2011

Dateline: Male, Maldives

Latitude at Male, 4 degrees North, Longitude 73 degrees East

The Maldives Aggressor

The Maldives Aggressor

We were met at the Male airport by a crew member of the Maldives Aggressor. The Aggressor Fleet is comprised of a dozen or so live-aboard dive boats operating all over the world. Our vessel is a 115 foot motor sailor (a schooner with both engines and sails)  with a beam of 26 feet and 9 foot draft. She was built in Turkey two years ago and brought here through the Suez Canal which meant they had to pass by Somalia. The crew delivering her had a brush with Somali pirates, who apparently thought she might be a luxury yacht full of rich people, and since her maximum speed is 12 knots they could not outrun them. Luckily the pirates quickly discovered there were no ransom opportunities here and let them go.  We were taken to our vessel in the ship’s small boat called a dhoni, which will double as our dive vessel. Our ship was anchored in Male Harbor, which was filled with large wooden cargo boats called odi and all sorts of freighters, tankers, luxury yachts and other dive boats.

We were shown to our cabins which had  bunk beds with sort of a half twin-size bed on the top and a full twin size bed on the bottom, so I knew where my sleeping quarters were going to be. I was just trying to figure out how I was going to get to the bathroom (or head should I say) without stepping on a sleeping Gary. As it turned out, Gary found it too hot and stuffy in the cabin so he slept in the saloon which is sort of like the living room of a ship (as opposed to the Long Branch in Gunsmoke.)  He still had a bunkmate, a Scotsman who also found his room to warm, but they had their separate sofas. So I got to enjoy the relatively roomy quarters provided by  the bottom bunk. We also were assigned a “diving station” which is essentially a spot on the dhoni where a tank is provided for each of us which is filled after each dive. We were also provided a space below our tanks to stow our dive gear.

There are 18 divers (a full load) on this trip whom we met en route to the ship. It is an interesting  mix of North Americans and Europeans – sort of a Ryder Cup of diving.  We have on board 8 Americans, 3 Germans, 2 Canadians, 1 Scot, 1 Brit, 1 Dutchwoman. There were 7 women, and 9 men. All speak perfect English, as we have found to be the case in most of our encounters with travelers from other countries.

Chef Lakshita

Chef Lakshita

The Crew has only one European, who is the co-captain, a Brit named Chris, but our Captain  Hussain and the rest of the crew are Maldivian with the exception of the two chefs, Chandana and Lakshita from Sri Lanka.  We had two cabin boys who also served as deckhands and galley stewards, both of whom had changed their names. There was Adam whose real name is something totally unpronounceable, but which has those four letters in it and there was Jade, whose real name he says makes people from other countries nervous, which is Jihad, which originally had a spiritual, peaceful meaning. Our engineer’s name is Yayhaa  and he is in charge of all things mechanical. We also had crew for the dhoni, who actually live below-decks on there (talk about cramped quarters). There was  Captain Hassan and crew members Said (pronounced Sigh-eed) and Mohammed (which is about as common a name here as John in the USA). We also had two dive masters, Mario and Shumi (pronounced “shoe-me”) who worked with Chris (token Caucasian), who was dive-mastering when he was not co-captaining. The dive master’s job is to make sure the same number of people who go into the water, actually come out of the water (and that they are the same people – more on that later).

Since many travelogue readers are non-divers , I thought a brief word about the “stuff” – the attire, the contraptions and contrivances required for diving –  might be in order. This “stuff”, by the way, requires a bag for each of us, only slightly smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle. The attire  is essentially  a swimsuit and a wetsuit or dive skin for warmth. In cooler waters this would entail a wetsuit of various thicknesses, depending on water temperature, but in these delightfully warm waters, only a lycra dive skin (picture a Spanxx stretchy thing that covers your whole body except for head, feet and hands).  Unfortunately, unlike Spanxx,  it does not compress any telltale bulges that might indicate the woeful state  of one’s physical fitness. It is mostly to protect the diver from coral scrapes and any little stinging things that might be in the water such as jellyfish. On your feet you wear booties which will allow you to use your fins comfortably and avoid rubs and blisters on tender feet.  They are generally made of wetsuit material with a rubber sole. We go barehanded since gloves are generally banned in areas with coral reefs – the thinking being that you will be less inclined to touch anything if it can touch you back with a cut or a sting. It is also harder to operate the various equipment and devices that you need to operate in order to sink and float, see and breathe.

Dive Buddies at Depth

Dive Buddies at Depth

The equipment includes a dive mask which, if properly fitted and donned, will keep water out of your eyes and nose. (If not you will need to clear your mask of water by exhaling vigorously through your nose while tilting your head back.) While not life threatening, it is very distracting to say the least, to be underwater with a mask full of sea water. A major culprit in leaking masks are strands of hair caught in the seal, so when suiting up, you have to check for that. You have your fins, of course, which assist greatly in propelling you effortlessly under water. No matter how large your feet – fins will always outperform even Michael Phelps sized feet. Of course, fins are a little ungainly to walk in so you put these on last and be sure you are very close to the point of entry into the water.

Then you have the true diving essentials – a regulator, a tank, a buoyancy compensator (BC for short) and weights. The BC is a vest that the air tank attaches to so you can wear it comfortably on your back. Well to be honest, it is only comfortable in the water. Out of the water, it feels like you are carrying a bag of cement that is trying to flip you over like an upside down turtle. The BC also has pockets to insert lead weights which will allow you to sink. The goal of the diver is to maintain what is called neutral buoyancy once under water – this means that you do not sink or rise in the water unless you propel yourself up or down. And a note on propulsion – divers do not use their arms which are highly ineffective. Movement is achieved strictly with fins. An odd fact of the physics of water – the more body fat you have, the more lead weight you have to carry to offset the buoyancy that fat creates, so even the leanest of the lean have to carry a pound or two.

Then there is the most essential thing – the regulator. This attaches to your air tank and has several hoses – one the primary air source that goes into your mouth and ideally stays there the whole time you are under water and provides a continuous supply of air. You also have a secondary air source (called an octopus) for safety which is attached to the air tank by another hose which should be kept handy in case the first one malfunctions for some reason. The BC also has an inflater that attaches to your air tank via a regulator hose to allow you to add air to the bladders inside it to compensate for the weights which allows you to ascend and float (always a good thing at the end of a dive). Then you have a hose with your “instruments” on them which include your air pressure gauge which tells you how much air you have left and your dive computer which figures out how deep you have gone, how long you have been there, how long you have to be on the surface after the dive, how long before you can fly, etc. etc. The computer is intended to keep you from getting what is known as “the bends” which simply means, your blood has too much nitrogen in it (caused by breathing compressed air)  which can happen if you stay too deep too long. Then you have various “accessories” you can add such as a flashlight for peering into nooks and crannies, signaling devices to communicate with your partner, a reef hook so you can hook yourself into the coral in case of a strong current and so forth. My personal signaling device to get Gary’s attention is called an Aqua Maraca which is like a large baby’s rattle, although I am not convinced he can hear it.   Anyway – you may be thinking why would anyone go to so much trouble – The answer for us is that there are fabulous treasures down there – the nature kind, not the pirate kind – and our lives are  greatly enriched  by seeing them, no matter how briefly. I’ll have more on those treasures later.

We had our first meal on board and a briefing from Chris,  who explained our routine for the coming days, which was basically DIVE EAT DIVE EAT DIVE NAP EAT DIVE DRINK SLEEP. If you were really gung ho you could throw in an extra dive or two if your dive computer permits you to do so and you haven’t yet indulged in a cocktail.

November 22, 2011

Dateline : North Male Atoll, Maldives

We left the Male Harbor in the wee hours to get to our first dive site which was called Vahamanaa (easy for them to say –it sounds like the noise you would make when you have something too hot in your mouth and you want it to make as little contact as possible with your

The Dive Dhoni

The Dive Dhoni

tongue), located in the North Male Atoll. We had a 6:45 a.m. dive briefing, boarded the dhoni and suited up for our first underwater dive adventure. The first dive is typically shallow and easy and provides everyone with the opportunity to make adjustments for weights and check for any equipment malfunctions. We would be doing all drift diving (that is – we would jump in and go with the current and the dhoni would pick us up where ever we surface). For that reason we are required by the Aggressor crew to carry a signaling device known as a “safety sausage”, whose purpose is to allow the dhoni crew to find us once we come up so we don’t end up in Sri Lanka, and to allow other boats to see us in the water so their props don’t chop us into mincemeat at the surface.  The sausage is a long rolled up balloon-like thing that you put into the pocket of your BC until it is needed. We had used said sausages before and their operation is very simple. – Surface, inflate your BC so you float, and blow some air to inflate the sausage from your regulator and hang on to it.  However, here we were to inflate before we came to the surface, (to avoid the mincemeat situation)  We were to stay under at around 15 feet for several minutes to ensure all boats in the area see there is a diver down at that spot. The sausage has several feet of string attached to it to allow the diver to stay down and the sausage to go up. If only it had had worked that way – but no, you might say we had a series of teachable moments.  Among the pearls of wisdom we learned was that when you put air in that sausage – you’d better be prepared for a quick ride to the top and when you let that line out, it is going to get tangled in the coral and will truss you up like Christmas goose in no time flat.   All of that happened and more, and getting back on the boat, no one would have believed that we are experienced divers.  Fortunately, we were not the only ones – it was like the Keystone Kops go diving.

Diving in the Maldives is what would be called technical diving – wimpy divers need not apply. There’s the current strong enough to make your mask wobble pulling you along, there is the issue of trying to maintain neutral buoyancy in shallow water so you don’t bob like a cork or sink like a stone, there’s getting the sausage out and using your octopus to inflate it and staying down once it’s inflated. And did I mention the visibility? There is an old diver’s joke about dive boats in Cozumel, Mexico before it got fancy, which goes like this: You know you are diving in Mexico when the wreck you dive on looks better than your dive boat. In the Maldives that joke would go like this: You know you are diving in the Maldives when the soup you had for lunch is more transparent than the water you are diving in. However, the “soup” is created by the abundant nutrients in the water which attract the big critters that we have come so far to see, and so we learn to deal with it. The water temperature is consistently 85 degrees so that at least goes on the plus side of the pros and cons of diving here.

Emperor Angelfish

Emperor Angelfish

On this first dive, sausage malfunctions aside, we did see some spectacular specimens and I had my Aqua Maraca constantly rattling to get Gary’s attention. Right away we saw one of our favorites, a pair of angel fish – there are 8 species here, including one we had never seen before, the Purple Angel. Angel fish are flat and oval shaped – about the size of a plate, and come in brilliant colors and patterns, mostly blue, yellow, purple and white. They are somewhat shy so you can’t get too close, and as with all colorful fish, they show off best in shallow water on a sunny day.

Also new to us was the group of pipe fish which look like fuzzy pipe cleaners. The ones we saw were yellow-green and easy to mistake for seaweed, which is the idea since they use camouflage for protection. There are other camouflage fish such as the leaf fish which looks like a leaf, and even a stick fish which, of course, looks like a stick. Other fish may group or school for protection – sort of like zebras on the Serengeti – and the less smart fish get confused with the new shape and don’t know what to attack.

On this and every subsequent dive we saw anthias which are little goldfish shapes and goldfish size and come in various shades of pink and orange. They like to swarm around the tops of coral heads in schools and when the sun is out, they are particularly flashy.

Butterfly Fish

Butterfly Fish

We saw an amazing array of butterfly fish (there are 28 species here in the Maldives) – all beautifully colored and marked. They are almost always seen in pairs and in a combination of bright yellow, black and white. They are about the size of the palm of your hand (provided your palm is more like mine in size than like Gary’s) and are dainty little swimmers that dart in and out of the coral. Their names usually describe their markings such as the raccoon or double saddle or collared, etc. One of the more unusually marked is the 4-eyed butterfly which has a black dot on each side back by the fin. Speculation is that this is defensive marking so that an  attacking fish cannot tell which end is the head, and will get confused and go look for some other fish with only  2 eyes. A relative of the butterfly fish is the reef banner fish which looks much like the Moorish Idols of the Pacific with long banners streaming from their fins. Batfish  are shaped like butterfly fish, but are much larger and they tend to school versus pairing up. Their silhouette is more triangular than bat-like per their name with a large dorsal fin that forms the top of the triangle. They are not nearly as colorful as the butterflies with rather drab silver grey and black shades, but they are able to accessorize with one yellow fin.

 A Clownfish with an Anemone

A Clownfish with an Anemone

We also saw a number of Damsel fish, which is another colorful fish with a goldfish shape, but larger than the anthias.  There are 42 species of damsel fish here. This family includes the clown fish (aka anemone fish, aka Nemo). These are typically orange and white and live with an anemone (they are immune to the sting of an anemone, but most of their predators are not so it makes a good hideout). Other damsels may be yellow, black and white such as the sergeant major, which gets its name from its stripes. There is also a neon damsel with an indigo blue body and a yellow tail and belly.

Dive #1: Maximum Depth 45 feet, Dive time 49 minutes

Giant Manta Ray

Giant Manta Ray

We went back to the Aggressor for a big breakfast. Our next dive was to be at Manta Point, which they told us was the best place to see manta rays and see them we did – three came by as soon as we jumped in, but didn’t stay long. They can get to be huge (up to 18 feet across), but these were more in the 12 foot range, but still it was quite a thrill to be in the water (or should I say their soup bowl?) with them.

Gary and I stayed together, as all good dive buddies should do, but got separated from the rest of the divers from our boat. There were two other boats at this spot and underwater, everyone tends to look like everyone else since most dive gear is black. However, we did have an excellent adventure encountering

Green Turtle

Green Turtle

two green turtles which stayed with us on the bottom for several minutes crunching on some sort of vegetation that looked like Bibb lettuce. We used our reef hooks to stay with them since the current was really ripping, but unlike us land creatures, the turtles barely move a flipper to remain stationary. Most turtles we’ve encountered are shy and will swim off, but these two ignored us as they dined. We saw what we perceived as some attempt at romance , but apparently they were not at that point in their dating or maybe she had a headache or she just didn’t want to be bothered during lunch,  and he eventually swam off, looking a little dejected or so we thought.

We were looking for, but did not find the ugliest of the uglies, the frog fish, perhaps because it uses camouflage to snag its prey.  It may look like a piece of lumpy and broken coral, but if you look closely you can see protruding eyes and a little slit of a mouth among the warts and bumps. The frog fish lies in wait for unsuspecting prey to swim by. We probably  unknowingly swam by one  or two ourselves, but the frogfish wisely did not pounce

Scorpion Fish

Scorpion Fish

And speaking of uglies, there is the scorpion fish, also called a rock fish because it looks like a plain old rock, which in addition to having all the non-appeal of the frog fish, it is poisonous to the touch and in humans can cause a nasty sting. There are pretty members of the scorpion fish family, namely the lion fish, which is a beauty with its colorful stripes and fluttering “feathers”, hanging out in the current to sting whatever edible creatures may drift by. Lion fish have poisonous darts at the end of antennae-like feelers. They are boldly striped in red and white or yellow and white, but at this depth, the red looks brown. They are beautiful, but painful to touch. This is a case of beauty and the beast being from the same  fish family.

We saw a number of different types of grouper, not unusual since there are 32 different species of grouper  and they are abundant here and grow quite large. They are in the cod family and often have some sort of leopard spot pattern. They can become habituated to humans and in popular dive sites, and there are often a few who come up to be petted and give that you fishy stare. They must have no idea of how good they taste to us humans or else they would swim for their very lives.

Clown Triggerfish

Clown Triggerfish

We saw the belligerent Triton Trigger, first encountered at Filitheyo,  and every bit as aggressive here as there. You may recall the male is a rusty orange color – big buck teeth and full of bluster. The trigger fish family has 9 species, including that most dangerous fish to divers in the Maldives – the aforementioned Triton Trigger, who will aggressively defend his nest. After all, to his way of thinking, divers just may be interested in eating those tasty eggs inside). Triggers get their name from a dorsal fin that they can raise and lower as needed. For example if another predator fish is trying to pull them out of their hidey-hole in the coral they can raise it. However,  the Triton is such a mean customer, not many fish want to deal with his business end.  My favorite is the much more amiable clown trigger. His bottom half has white spots on a black background, and is separated from the top half by a solid black stripe. The top half is covered with a giraffe pattern of black on yellow. He has an orange mouth with a white ring around it and little hummingbird-like transparent fins. His tail is alternating sections of black and white.

There are 10 species of Jacks here which are a shiny silvery fish that can grow quite large. One of the most unusual is the horse-eye jack, which has a huge eye, which as you might guess, resembles that of a horse. They swim in schools often in shallow water so divers have to often look up to see them cruising just below the surface.

Lion Fish

Lion Fish

We thought the visibility (a.k.a. the “viz” in diver lingo) was bad below, but when we surfaced things got worse. There was a driving rain, 6 foot swells and no dhoni in sight. We heard them before we saw them and thanks to those handy safety sausages, they saw us. The swells made climbing the ladder back into the dhoni with all our gear interesting (not to mention bruising). Divers typically take their fins off in the water so they can more easily climb the ladder into the dhoni, but then they have to hang on to them and the ladder simultaneously. And the ladder by the way is only attached to the dhoni at the top, and the bottom of it pitches around like bucking bronco.  I had hold of the ladder with one fin off and trying to get the other one off when I was swept away by a wave. I had to swim back to the boat with only one fin which tends to make you go in circles, but a subsequent wave provided an assist and I got back onto the bronco again. After this episode, the crew wisely hung ropes over the gunwales for divers to hang on to in case of future ladder excitement

Dive #2: Maximum Depth 47 feet, Dive Time 30 minutes, Divers Exhausted

Scrawled Filefish

Scrawled Filefish

We motored to a different dive spot and decided to skip the next dive and rest up, which was probably a mistake because the sun came out, the water calmed and the day was beautiful as we lay at anchor off an uninhabited island with  water so clear, you could see the bottom. Captain Hussain offered to take us for a “special safari” short ride in the ship’s dinghy – next step down from the dhoni in size – since a crew member had spotted mantas on the surface a short distance away. We had a nice boat ride with Captain Hussain in the very dinged up dinghy, but did not spot any mantas. The captain did point out some of the physical features of the Maldives, including the narrow channels that separate the atolls, varying from 1,000 to 3,000 feet deep, discernable by the changing water color from turquoise to cobalt blue. He told us the largest atoll in the Maldives, as well as in the world is called Huvadhoo which is 70 miles across and spread out over 65 square kilometers with a central lagoon of 2 square kilometers  with a maximum depth of 282 feet. The only native edible vegetation grown on the islands are breadfruit and coconuts, and all Maldivians have fish as a mainstay of their diet. The highest point is 15 feet above sea level. Only 9 of the nearly 2,000 islands are larger than 1 square mile. The English word atoll is derived from the Dhivehi word atholhu.  Atolls are formed when the calderas of volcanic mountains collapse into the sea. Before the collapse, the centers of the atolls are simply the peaks of very tall mountains built up by lava. The reefs here are fringing reefs that encircle the atolls, versus barrier reefs that border continents. The hard coral formations (over 200 different species here) are the exoskeletons or coral polyps which have died over the millennia. Coral is found around 30 feet or less since it requires  sunlight to thrive. Soft coral is still living and can survive at much greater depths. When soft coral dies, it leaves no skeleton. The channels between the islands are called “kandu” and the steep underwater slopes that are actually the sides of the mountains are called “thila”.  The flat coral reefs just below the surface are called “giri”.

November 23, 2011

Dateline: South Male Atoll

Today we were up early again for our dive briefing at 6:30. The site is called Vadhoo Caves, but we are not cave diving since there are no caves in the literal sense. It is more like overhangs where coral has grown and created a shelf that cascades over deeper water. Again there is a swift current so we did another drift dive which is really quite effortless, with just an occasional kick of the fins for steering purposes. The highlight of the dive was the huge bump head wrasses (a.k.a. Napoleon fish), whose expression could only be described as lugubrious. They have big googly-eyes with kind of a wall-eyed look  and great big thick lips. They about the size and shape of a piece of plywood growing as big as 6 feet across. They are sort of the linebacker of the fish world and are very docile.  Wrasses come in almost every color shape and size, and every pattern imaginable.

Leopard Moray Eel

Leopard Moray Eel

We saw, 6 giant moray eels, with their slow motion yawning action, repeated opening and closing their mouths as if they are getting ready to say something and then change their minds. This is the way they breathe – getting oxygen out of the water in through the mouth and out through gills just behind their mouths.  An interesting note on eels – they have this teeny little snorkel like thing sticking out of each nostril which they use to detect scents of potential prey. It gives them a comical aspect  and seriously detracts from their appearance of their alleged ferocity.  Despite scenes from The Deep you may have seen, morays are quite content with eating fish and small crustaceans versus humans, but as a diving tip – you  do not want to stick your  hand into an eel ‘s hidey-hole or attempt to pet him.

Moray Eel

Moray Eel

There are 14 species of eel here,  including the teensy garden eels, which are plain and small (only a few inches long) poking up out of their holes until  a threat approaches (like divers) when they seem to melt into the ocean floor.  The blue ribbon eels are their fancy dressed up cousins with flashy blue and yellow markings. At the other end of the size spectrum , giant morays can grow to 6-8 feet with a softball sized head. They typically stay in their holes during the day and come out at night to feed, but there is one called the bandit moray that can get aggressive with divers if they think you’re trying to horn in on their action at mealtime.

On this dive we saw three eagle rays, with their black spots on a gray background,  seeming to fly through the water  as they flap their way around the reef. There are 6 species of rays  here, ranging from small sting rays,  to eagle rays to giant mantas. The smaller species like to burrow into the sand when resting, but the mantas do more of a hovering maneuver and are unafraid of divers

In these waters there are more than 1,0000 species of fish, plus sub-species, plus there are distinct differences in male/female/juvenile fish, not to mention the mammals such as whales and dolphins. This creates a veritable kaleidoscope of color and shape on every dive and snorkel trip. This, coupled with the colors and dramatic landscape of the coral and its array of sea creatures, provides an endlessly fascinating opportunity to explore.  There are 3 factors

Bannerfish with Anthias

Bannerfish with Anthias

forcing divers to surface after relatively short times underwater which are (1) are getting cold (even at 80 degrees you will lose body heat over time) and (2) running out of air (the more serious of the two problems). Air consumption is largely a factor of lung capacity, depth and rate of breathing. Big divers breath more air per breath than smaller ones. The deeper you are, the more air is compressed and you have to take in more air to get the same amount of oxygen. If you are breathing quickly whether due to anxiety, exertion or lack of physical fitness, you will be an air guzzler.  And of course there is (3) that nitrogen absorption thing. In diver lingo when you are out of the water or in 15 feet or less, you are “off-gassing” meaning you are releasing excess nitrogen from you bloodstream with every breath. Fortunately this type of “off-gassing is silent and environmentally friendly, keeping the live-aboard dive boat livable.

Juvenile White Tip Sharks

Juvenile White Tip Sharks

There are 40 species of sharks alone in these waters which are also considered fish. They are pelagic  – meaning they have no bones, just cartilage. In tropical shallow water such as Maldivian dive sites, the aggressive “man-eater” type sharks are extremely rare since they favor seals for dinner and seals live in cold water. Size is not at all indicative of the threat of sharks to divers.  The largest shark of all – the whale shark is here in abundance and is among the most docile. Quite often with sharks you will see remoras (also called shark suckers) who are the moochers of the reef. They have a suction disk sort of thing on top of their heads and they often attach themselves to sharks or other large sea creatures and not only get a free ride, but also scavenge whatever scraps might dribble out of the shark’s mouth. Their skin is coated with mucous to reduce drag in the water so at least they don’t slow their host down too much.

There are number of” cleaning stations” scattered along the reef where fish will congregate. Here small fish will eat little bits of algae or fungus or whatever might be growing on a larger sea creature’s skin. The big fish actually benefit because they get a good grooming and the little guys get a free meal, which unlike the remoras, they actually work for, and besides, they provide their own transportation. So for the big fish, a cleaning station is like a car wash, and for the little fish, it’s a delicatessen.

A School of Sweetlips

A School of  Oriental Sweetlips

There are 14 species of snappers here, including the delicious red snapper. There is one here we have not seen before called the Midnight snapper, because of its color, but the real interesting thing is that it can turn its mouth wrong side out, kind of like the faces kids make by pulling their lips inside out with their fingers. I don’t know what that’s about  –  whether trying to take in more nutrients, to intimidate other fish or to wow a lady snapper. More research is required. Another unusual fish from the snapper family was the  Common Oriental Sweet Lips – if this one is common, I can’t wait to see the rare one.  He had black and white stripes on his body, with black polka dots on a yellow background on the tail and fins. The sweet lips were really big Angelina Jolie lips that look ready to smack you with a big wet kiss.

We also saw lots of Goat fish which are small and plain gray or white – almost translucent, but interesting because they have these little whisker like things that extend from their upper lip(to the extent that fish have lips) downward, like a droopy mustache. They root around on the ocean floor with them digging up things to eat.

Blue Anemone

Blue Anemone

We saw a zillion little orange anthias swarming over the coral heads like ants. We also saw the ubiquitous clown fish (little Nemo’s)in their home of sea anemones, but on this dive we saw one of the more rare anemones which was electric blue. They can turn themselves fully inside out pulling all their tentacles in and resembling a smooth plastic bag stuffed full of sand.  There were a lot of big game fish we could see hints of out in the blue – the deeper parts of the ocean, but the visibility was not good enough to identify any. If the dive was effortless, getting back on the dhoni was not since there were large swells and a stiff breeze, but we managed to clamber aboard.

Dive #3: Maximum Depth 69 feet, Dive time 39 minutes

Gary and Jade the cabin steward

Gary and Jade the cabin steward

During breakfast the crew started the engine to begin our 3 hour motor sail to our next dive location. However, there was a problem with the anchor and so our departure was delayed.  A device called a clevis , which is used to secure the anchor to the anchor chain, had apparently  broken and crew members were dispatched to replace  it, but first they also had to find the anchor on the sea floor since we had drifted away from it. Then work began to reattach the chain. This gave us an opportunity to snooze and read and watch them work.

Once the repairs were done, we had lunch and motored southward to Rashdoo Atoll. There is a resort on an island here called Keramenthi which looked very inviting and we missed the pampering we had at Filitheyo last week.  Our next dive was on the Mandivaru Wall, which was a great place to see all the wonderful things we were getting blasé about, but also some of the bigger critters as well.  This dive did involve some pretty tough swimming against the current because as we jumped in, the dhoni was pushed away from the reef by the current. Once at the reef, we could hook in and watch or find little places in the coral to tuck in and get out of the current for a while. In quieter waters we had time to see things like really unusual starfish and tiny juvenile fish, trying to hide out until they could grow big enough to play with the big kids. We saw a combination of  5 gray and white tip sharks that were very curious and swimming by – close enough to enjoy, not so close that we began hearing the music from Jaws.  We also saw a school of giant tuna, which are abundant here. We were surprised at how close the sea creatures will come, and particularly the turtles, which in some cases will peer into your mask as you are peering back at them. We also saw on this dive, as well on all the others, a large number of giant abalone, whose scalloped shells can grow to be huge – like the size of my kitchen table, although occasionally their growth is restricted by their coral hosts. As the coral eventually, albeit slowly, grows around it, it can choke the abalone and prevent it from opening (and therefore eating) and will eventually kill it.

November 24, 2011

Dateline: North Ari Atoll, Maldives

We motor/sailed here overnight and got up for the 6:30 a.m. dive briefing, but decided to skip the dive. It was a 100 foot dive inside the atoll where the crew said we might possibly see hammerhead sharks. The visibility was poor and the divers who did go reported it was a bust, so we felt we made a good decision. We next went to a site called Kan Thila, but the current was too strong to have an enjoyable dive (the kind that will rip your face mask off – if not your wetsuit). Speaking of currents, the South Maldives get an equatorial current from Africa, while the currents in the North Maldives come from India so this creates diversity in the sea life from North to South. Currents also change seasonally, sweeping into the lagoon from open water, and then reversing. Some sea critters are small enough to be able to follow these nutrient rich waters into lagoons and back out again, but the larger ones have to wait it out.

We moved on to Kan Faru for another dive, which also had poor visibility and a strong current. We had the choice of drifting over the reef or swimming to a pinnacle, and we chose the reef drift – which again proved to be a good choice since the pinnacle swimmers came back exhausted and most never found the pinnacle. We saw white tip sharks and a zillion fish and all the pinnacle divers saw was soupy water.

Dive #4:Maximum Depth 72 feet, Dive time 29 minutes.

After lunch we did another dive amid the nutrients,  with resultant soupy visibility, which is fairly normal for this time of year, but this site called Hafsa Thila, was more chowder than consommé and the current was ripping like we were in a blender. The dive plan was to go to the bottom at around 60 feet and hook into the reef, and I must say the abundance of sea life here made this chowder dive worthwhile. At this particular spot there is an upwelling from the deep that brings plankton and other microorganisms into shallow water which gets the whole food chain going, with sharks at the top. Our dive masters put a little fish blood in the water to get their attention and we saw a steady parade of 6 to 8 foot grey reef and white tip sharks on patrol – no feeding – just window shopping.  One of the real treats here was that this spot serves as a shark nursery with lots of little adolescents, curious and still at the cute stage. We also saw emperor angels, clown triggers, anemones – all the usual suspects. The idea of hooking in to the reef is to stay still and quiet and let the creatures come to you.

We also saw some other strange creatures – Italian divers, who didn’t get the memo on “still and quiet”. We were warned that they do not observe accepted dive etiquette and we witnessed it first hand as they bumbled onto our shark viewing area where we were already hooked in, scared off the sharks we were watching, and crashed into us trying to hook themselves in. They are the proverbial  bulls in the china shop in the Maldives – probably an unfair generalization, however this group earned their reputation, particularly one diver who ironically was clad in a camouflage wetsuit (we dubbed him The Duckhunter) who flailed around in the water so much, no self respecting fish would come within a hundred yards of him. The irony of wearing camouflage while thrashing around in the water we think was lost on him.  We had to yank on his fins to let him know he was about kick us in the face. He just waved merrily, and fortunately the current swept him off before he could cause any serious mayhem.

Dive #5: Maximum Depth 67 feet, Dive time 44 minutes.

Tonight the crew had a special dinner under the stars for us. They set up tables on the bow of the ship and served us al fresco. It was a beautifully warm evening with a light breeze and delightful in every sense of the word.

November 25, 2011

Dateline: North Ari Atoll, Maldives

Nemo, the Clownfish and his Host Anemone

Nemo, the Clownfish and his Host Anemone

Today is Thanksgiving Day and we have much more to be thankful for than we have ever had before. It is another glorious day and today’s plan called for finding the whale sharks.  Before we weigh anchor, we had an opportunity to dive at a place called Rah Dhihgaa Thila. This was a very tranquil dive, moderate current, fair visibility and lots and lots of sea life, particularly the anemones with their resident clown fish.

Dive #6: Maximum Depth 69 feet, Dive time 47 minutes.

After this dive we began to motor south to South Ari Atoll, billed as the Whale Shark Capital of the World, a few hours away. We sat out on the deck and soaked up the sun and scenery as we passed island after deserted island. On my IPOD I listened to inspirational music suited to the spirituality of the experience – quite different from the traditional Thanksgivings at home.

The plan for today is to snorkel with the whale sharks, rather than dive with them. This is for three reasons (1) they move quickly and so must you in terms of getting into the water once one is sighted and (2) they are in shallow water (20 feet or so) and (3) you have to swim hard and fast to keep up with them and you would burn through a tank of air in no time.  Our dive masters advised us to stay above and behind them so they don’t get scared and swim into deep water where we cannot see them. They are very docile and timid for their immense size which is, well, the size of a whale.

Whaleshark Close Enough to Touch

Whaleshark Close Enough to Touch

The crew sighted one and we all jumped in and saw him briefly before he descended to deeper water. We all clambered back onto the dhoni to find another one. There was a second one and we repeated the drill. We did get a good look at him, but again it was brief.  The third sighting was the absolute best experience for me. I happened to jump in just as one was coming by the dhoni and I was able to keep up and follow just above him, between his head and dorsal fin. I was so close that I could easily reach down and touch him, but refrained since he could easily leave me behind in a nano-second if I irritated or alarmed him. (An amusing thought since he was at least 10 times my size).  Instead I swam with him for about a hundred  ards. (I swimming like Daffy Duck – he with a leisurely sweep of his tail from time to time).  He eventually wandered off into deeper water although I could still see him, but I decided to stop while I could still see the dhoni in the distance (and before my heart rate went off the charts – I think as much from the thrill of seeing the whale shark up close and personally) as from exertion.  Although I have referred to the whale sharks as males, they could have been females – you have to see their undersides to be able to tell and, while they were docile, they were not that accommodating.

While they are immense (the largest shark in the world),  they eat microscopic krill and  plankton with their huge mouths (up to 8 feet) wide, open scooping up the soup. They do have a very small esophagus opening so if they take in any fish or small divers, they have to spit them back out. They have squared off heads and a body that tapers off to a relatively narrow tail section. They are light grayish brown with white markings – alternating stripes and white dots across their backs perpendicular to their heads. They swim effortlessly with a side to side motion of their whale-like tail. (Note – you can tell a fish from an aquatic mammal by the way they move their tails in the water. Fish (e.g. whale sharks) sweep their tails from side to side, while mammals, (e.g. dolphins) flip their tales up and down). The whale shark has smaller fins on the sides for steering purposes.   We saw a total of 8 today, but none as close as the first three.  We also saw a school of feeding tuna which had created a bait ball of smaller fish. Some of the smarter fish (and dolphins too) will team up to round up schools of small fish that clump together in a ball (the theory is that there is safety in numbers). The fish then swim through the bail ball with mouths agape and they can’t miss. It was a thoroughly magical day and to cap it off,   we saw breaching manta rays,  that is to say they were leaping out of the water, on our way back to the ship. Even Disney could not imagine anything better than this.

We did another dive later that afternoon at a place called the Arches. Again the visibility was like pea soup, but there were a lot of fish. The current was so strong it was kind of like doing a drive by, but we hooked into the reef when we wanted to look around. It is amazing how these tiny fish can stay perfectly immobile in a ripping current and we humans get tumbled around like we are in the spin cycle of the washer.  Some of the fish do have little hidey holes where they can get out of the current to rest and we occasionally were able to mimic them when we could find a hidey hole large enough for us – say more of a hidey closet.

Nudibranch

Nudibranch

We did see three really large morays that we stopped to visit for a while by hooking into the reef. When hooked in, you actually can see really small stuff, such as the lowly nudibranch, (pronounced nude-ah-brank) a small worm-like creature, albeit a really colorful one, rarely more than a few inches long . Nudibranchs,  are actually sea slugs. They are able to take on protective coloration to protect themselves.  They have a large muscled “foot” to attach themselves to whatever is available, and to crawl around on.  While hooked in we saw a variety of nudibranchs,  including one called the varicose, named for its pattern, not its circulation problems,

A Puffer Fish Unpuffed

A Puffer Fish Unpuffed

The puffers and porcupine fish are plentiful here and are most often seen sheltering from the current amid the coral. They are quite odd looking with huge horse-eyes and a box like body much bigger in the front that in the back as long as they are “unpuffed”. When they puff up ( this is their defense mechanism when they feel threatened),  they fill out to become balloon shaped, making them look much bigger than they actually are to predators, but also it also makes it hard for them to deal with the current. The porcupine fish have the added defense of sharp spines (more like thorns than quills) that further discourage

A Puffed up Puffer

A Puffed up Puffer

attackers.

We saw parrotfish on this and almost every dive. They  among the most colorful on the reef– the males any way – the females tend to be a little dowdy. They are named for the large beaver sized beaklike teeth that they used to actually eat the reef (you can hear them crunching). They are little sand machines – coral goes in the front and sand goes out the back. It is said that coral eating fish such as the parrot fish are responsible for all the sand in the ocean and on the beaches in the world, but I don’t know if that is the straight poop (no pun intended).

Surgeon Fish

Surgeon Fish

Another fish we saw on every dive is the surgeon fish, of which there are 27 species which includes the subspecies of tangs and damsel fish. They get their name from the distinctive scalpel-like  fin along their spines which they can erect to defend themselves. They are a symmetrical oval, pancake shape with a little puckered up mouth.  The fin is reportedly capable of slicing through a wetsuit, so it is best not to alarm a surgeon fish at close quarters. The most common surgeon fish here is a beautiful Wedgewood blue with yellow, white and indigo fins and markings. Many are quite flamboyant, but some of the less fortunate are quite drab, as is the lot of the convict surgeon with the black and white stripes, looking fresh out of jail.  Also in this family we saw the unicorn fish with the same oval shape, but with an unsightly little horn like thing on his head – perhaps for jousting with other fish.

Dive #6: Maximum Depth 45 feet, Time 40 minutes

We also had an interesting experience with divers climbing our ladder and boarding our dhoni who were not from out boat. It seems the current swept them away from their own dhoni and they were too exhausted to swim to it. So rather than repel boarders, our dive masters helped them clamber aboard and Captain Hussain took them over to their own vessel. One of the divers was quite overweight and had to be pulled from our dhoni to his own through the water  with a rope and a dive master swam alongside to ensure he made it. We were thinking he needs to find another sport, or at least go someplace with easier diving.

A Special "Thankgiving" Cake

A Special “Thankgiving” Cake

For the evening meal we had a Sri Lankan feast prepared for us by Lakshita and Chandana. They make all Sri Lanka dishes – I tasted everything, but ate mostly rice and Gary tasted everything and ate everything and pronounced it fabulous. For the Americans they made a special cake to wish us a happy Thanksgiving, however the inscription on it  read “Happy Thankgiving” with the “s” missing and the “g” sort of dribbling off the side. But we were touched by the gesture, and I pronounced the cake fabulous myself.

 

November 26, 2011

Dateline: South Ari Atoll, Maldives

Today we did another pea soup dive at a place called Kuda Rah Thila and were supposed to see the wreck of the Kudima at 72 feet, but the visibility was so poor, most of us missed it. Gary and I actually followed another pair of divers who swam like they knew where they were going, which proved to be a mistake.  (like the bumper sticker says – don’t follow me – I’m lost.) In only a few seconds, we lost them in the murky water.  The two of us stayed together and looked for the wreck for about 10 minutes, seeing neither the bottom, nor the wreck nor any other divers , nor any fish of any sort.  Since we were already at 75 feet, we figured we missed it so we surfaced and got back on the dhoni. We still had time and air, so one of the dhoni crew showed us where there was a reef we could poke around on. We did see quite a few fish, but after swimming with whale sharks, we had to admit we were getting sort of blasé. However, this did prove to be a challenging dive in another respect. We were close to a small town and resort, and as it turned out we were diving on an active runway for sea planes which added another element of excitement to our diving.  Safety sausages would do little for a diver here, so we had to listen closely for engine noise before surfacing. Upon surfacing, we had to look in all directions and if a plane  was coming in for a landing, we had to be prepared to dive like a submarine ducking a depth charge. This was probably our least favorite dive spot for several reasons.

Dive #7: Maximum depth 75 feet  for 10 minutes,  followed by  Maximum depth 43 feet, 20 minutes.

The Aggressor crew decided to find us some better diving so we motored for a few hours along the coast of the South Ari Atoll.  I spent the time learning about some of the more unusual Maldivian cultural beliefs, such as belief in the existence of jinns (a.k.a. spirits – around 70 different ones). Despite strict adherence to Islam by law, many of the locals are quite superstitious. The word “jinn” is possibly derived from the Arabic word, “din” which means formal religion.  Collectively these beliefs are called faratehgekan (no idea how to pronounce that one). Superstition has developed through the years, ostensibly to explain illness and the dangers of the waters, reefs and atolls.  Unfortunately jinn-sighting is never a good thing, but it’s kind of like smart phone apps. Whatever you ailment – there’s a jinn for that. Here are a few of the most bizarre jinns:

Buddevi, who lives by the sea shore (of course in the Maldives, this applies to everyone) is about 6 to 8 feet tall and is in the shape of a man, although he may enter your house in the form of a cat. If you see him, you will get weak and develop fever.

Mulhadevi,  is an underground jinn who makes a sound like “pi-pi-pi”. He appears in the form of a black man who is either very thin or very fat – a matter of perspective, but from what I’ve seen of Maldivians, if they think someone is thin, they’re probably seeing skeletons – there are no chunky native Maldivians. This jinn is seen around noon and near a graveyard. See him and you swell up and die of yellow fever.

Ravo is a spirit that causes disease in children, making them  thin and troublesome and if you see him, your skin will peel off. Perhaps with the advent of sunscreen, Ravo’s powers might have diminished.

Kissadevi is a female spirit which harms children and dwells in houses. She may be observed anytime, but her special hours are sunrise, sunset and moon rise.  Her specialty is making pregnant women sick.

Kudafulu (which translates as little navel, – no word on what that has to do with the jinn’s specialty) causes bone and joint pain (sort of the Jinn of Arthritis) and also epilepsy. He may appear as a tiger, a cat or as a thin man with piercing eyes.

Hamindi is a relatively harmless jinn who has a penchant for disturbing chickens and may appear as a chicken himself so I assume they must need to exercise caution when choosing one for Sunday dinner out in the yard.

Ifunifara takes the form of a shadow in desolate places and can assume any shape. Visitation by this bad boy can cause madness and problems with urination. It’s hard to see the connection here, but I guess if the infection is serious enough it could cause delirium.

Badi Fureta is a jinn in the form of a man who carries a gun that sounds like an egg cracking when it is fired. He appears during a full moon and can also appear if his name is said aloud. He is said to disturb women and cause infections in small wounds. He inhabits tall trees and he sometimes puts obstacles in the paths of unsuspecting people (e.g. I wasn’t  inebriated – the jinn tripped me.) And if that’s not enough, if he visits at night he can cause itching and madness (and we thought it was just the mosquitoes).

Babura Kujja – is not a jinn per se, but is sort of an evil Maldivian leprechaun. He is a dwarf black boy who hides in the undergrowth and can make sores all over your body with his long, sharp teeth.  And furthermore, if a woman sees Babura Kuija, she may become sexually aroused, although he can also cause headaches and fainting , and thus  the woman can always deploy the “Not tonight I have a headache” strategy. But according to belief, this arousal can last long after the headache is gone, so men may want to stick around.

The men also have their own sex spirit called Kaadu Handi. This is a female spirit which troubles men, causing them to have sexual dreams and visions of intercourse and even unconsciousness. And a woman can get impregnated by a man while he is under the influence of Kaadu Handi and, quite conveniently, neither the man, nor the woman can remember a thing.  (again it’s  “the Jinn made me do it” defense.)

Nagusesaru is a jinn who looks like a dog with a long tail who emerges from the sea at night that is said to be troublesome to goats.  (Strange – but that’s their story and they are sticking to it. No word on how widespread this scourge may be).

Miskidhara is a smelly spirit which lingers near morgues and graveyards and is known to molest women (this is the “it wasn’t me officer,  Miskidhara fondled that woman” defense).

What to do about those pesky jinns? Well there is the fandita, which is sort of a voodoo like practice and can describe any curative ritual for people and crops including fertility, fish catching, romantic success and so forth. A practitioner or shaman of fandita is called a fanditavaria. The fanditavaria’s powers are supposedly derived from Allah, and thus they are able to weave together a little voodoo with a little Islam to make it okay. But this is for white magic, the good magic. There is a black magic called sihuru, which is not allowed in Islam and the practitioner of these black arts is called a sihuruvaria, although it is believed that these shamans can swing both ways – sort of the fallen angel/redeemed angel concept. With all these jinns, no wonder they don’t drink – they apparently have all the hallucinations they can handle.

After a few hours of motoring, we arrived at a much better dive site called Beyru Faru which was outside the lagoon and thus had deeper clearer water. It was colder than the lagoon, but well worth it. The fish were abundant and we particularly enjoyed the number and variety of lion fish.

Dive #8: Maximum Depth 49 feet, Time 56 minutes.

The captain had told us he would try to take us to a nearby island to the Mall of the Maldives ( mall being a collection of huts selling handmade crafts), but the water was too rough to get into the harbor and so we continued our routine of Eat, Sleep and Dive.

November 27, 2011

Dateline: North Ari Atoll, Maldives

Christmas Cookie Starfish

Christmas Cookie Starfish

Today our morning dive was excellent at a place called Gatha Faru. I think the crew decided we’d had enough of the big crill eating critters (mantas, whale sharks, etc.) and decided to take us to some more tranquil sites.  Gary sat this one out since he had an ear that was bothering him, so I buddied up with our friends, Bill and Mara. It was unfortunate  that Gary missed this one since it was beautiful and easy diving. We saw a number of red and white starfish that looked like frosted Christmas cookies, along witch schools and schools of all kinds of fish, including that old favorite, the clown fish and their host anemones. It was really spectacular to dive in such shallow calm water under  sunny skies with the fish to showing off their colors to the best advantage.

Dive #9: Maximum Dept 45 feet,  Dive Time 56 minutes

There was a second morning dive and this one Gary decided to snorkel since the water was clear, while the rest of us went diving on Elaidhoo Reef. This was to be the last dive of the trip for us. There was a fast current and lots of eels in the little nooks and crannies, so in order to hook in, we had to make sure the cranny we were going to use was not already occupied. As much as we had seen this week, will still saw something new to us. There were three large white and black spotted reef rays that circled around us in only about 20 feet of water just before we came up.

Dive #10: Maximum Depth 35 feet, Dive time 48 minutes

Crew Hosted Cocktail Party

Crew Hosted Cocktail Party

That night, the crew had a cocktail party for us upon our return to Aggressor’s mooring in the Male Harbor. Flaunting the law, even in sight of the capital, the Maldivian crew actually poured wine for us. The crew was dressed in sarongs (sulas in Fiji) but here they call them “mundu”. One of the crew gave his to Gary to wear, but another crew member had to chip in his as well since one would not cover everything requiring cover. We had dinner ashore – again at the Hulhule since we wanted to have wine with our meal and we came back to the Aggressor for our final night in the Maldives.

With my bedtime reading, I learned a little more about the sea plane that crash landed at Filitheyo, mentioned in Part 1 of this travelogue.  In 1917 Captain Abbot Meade and his copilot Guy of the Royal Navy were aboard the HMS Raven and were given orders to fly a new seaplane on board on a reconnaissance mission to the Maldives to see what was what. A big storm came up and blew them about and they got lost. They landed on the nearest island and tied the plane up to a palm tree, searching for food and/or inhabitants, but found neither. They took off again and ran out of fuel off the coast of Filitheyo. Their later reports indicated a great deal of heroism on their part as they abandoned the plane and swam naked through “shark infested waters” . These are the same waters that are snorkeled by hundreds of tourists today so it’s likely that “infestation” was probably an exaggeration.

The conversation between the two men, as reported by Guy, as they prepared for the swim to shore  went something like this:

Guy:  “ This may well be goodbye old chap”

Captain:  “It may well be. We had better swim apart, with the sharks you know”

Guy: “Well cheerio then”

Captain: “ Goodbye and Good Luck” (Edward R. Murrow may have later borrowed this phrase for himself  from this very source for all we know)

Both men managed the marathon swim and fought off the ravenous sharks to find boats on the beach and huts, but no people. They proceeded to chow down on coconuts (and probably get their stories straight), when suddenly they heard voices. Apparently the local people had hidden, thinking they were evil jinns planning some sort of bad juju, which in their language would be called” kaffaru.”The fliers never saw the people, but the next day they found they had left them “linens” in their words, which were apparently some sort of cloth out of which they fashioned rudimentary covering for themselves.  Meanwhile they could see the sea plane still floating offshore. They were eventually rescued by fishermen who spoke no English, but provided more “linens” and dried fish to eat. The fishermen also deployed 11 of their dhonis to tow the plane to the island of Feeali. The locals were somewhat in awe of the two airmen to start with, still suspecting a jinn connection, and this only intensified when once at the plane, the crewmen used the battery cables to administer small shocks to the fishermen, as a little demonstration of their power, just in case they might be thinking of cooking them for dinner.  This cemented their status as other worldly spirits and the locals were totally impressed. They built a grass hut shelter over the plane and treated it like a temple. The two airmen were taken to meet the sultan and he gave them Palace Guard uniforms and they were later transported to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). As if the little battery shocks were not sufficient “Shock and Awe” (couldn’t resist the pun), the fishermen were really dazzled when a crew came to repair the plane and flew it off into the sunset.

 

November 28, 2011

Dateline: Male, Maldives

Downtown Male

Downtown Male

Today we left the ship early to allow the crew time to get it ready for the next “safari”. We had all day until our flight out in the evening so we opted to take the ferry into the city of Male for a short tour. It was short indeed because it is a very small island with limited tourist attractions.  Our flight to Doha was at 7:40 p.m. – 2 hours in duration and we would spend the night there and fly to Washington DC the next day.  Our day went something like this from a transportation perspective:

Dhoni to the airport, Shuttle to the Hulhule hotel to drop our bags, shuttle back to the airport, ferry to Male, walking tour, ferry back to the airport, shuttle to the Hulhule for lunch and naps by the pool, shuttle to the airport, fly to Doha, shuttle to the hotel in bed at 1:00 a.m. and up at 4:00 a.m. to catch the flight to DC.  Except for the naps by the pool, it wears me out just thinking about it.

Male was a series of streets with relatively short multi-story buildings, lots of motor scooters and quite a few people. The main street is lined with eucalyptus trees which surprised us in that (1) that they would allow the space to be used for greenery instead of for human habitation and (2) the amount of fresh water required to maintain them. We strolled through the fish market and fresh produce markets which were humming.  We saw the modest presidential palace and the legislature and an old mosque, first built here in 1654, with a drinking well dug in one of the few spots in the Maldives that has fresh water.  We tasted it using the community dipper although we felt we may be risking disease and little organisms that might haunt our digestive systems, but we figure once you have faced down a Titan Trigger, what is there to fear from a little mosque water? As it turned out, we had no ill no side effects so our digestive organisms must be in synch with theirs.

The Maldivian and Aggressor Fleet Flags

The Maldivian and Aggressor Fleet Flags

We were eager to see what true locals wore, not just the ones who worked at the resorts. We sort of expected purdah – whose literal translation is “curtain” in Persian. The word refers to the  practice of segregation of men and women and to the custom of women covering themselves to conceal their bodies when outside the home.  Maldivian women do not go in purdah, but some do wear a hajib or chador which is a head covering and the Maldivian women come and go as freely as in the Western World. The hijabs, secured with pins to ensure not wardrobe malfunction, are worn more as a symbol of faith and a sign of commitment to Islam, (much like  Christians wear crosses) than a desire to hide or for modesty.

There were also Hindus here, believed to have migrated from India in earlier times and their influence is also evident in the architecture and culture. Original Maldvian houses were made of coral stone and palm matting called cadjan, but nowadays they are made out of concrete. In so many of our travels we have found that the Romans were there before us,  and the Maldives may not be an exception. It is not clear that they were in the Maldives, but Roman coins were found when a Buddhist temple was excavated. Archaeologists found silver and gold wire along with coins from around 90 BC called Denarius – but it is speculated that the coins could have come from an Indian trader who had visited the Roman Empire. So perhaps the Romans missed this little bit of paradise.  In the early days, the Maldivians enjoyed a “cowrie shell economy”, instead of the gold standard.  These shells were unknown to Arab traders and thus they were thought to be valuable. Of course to the Maldivians it was like growing money on trees.

The first settlement was by the Dravidian people out of India 2,500 years ago followed by the Sinhalese out of Sri Lanka, which are the two closest countries to the Maldives geographically, between 200 and 400 AD. In 1153, the Arab Muslims arrived and the cultures blended and the islands were ruled by an Islamic Moroccan Sultan until 1868. The laws of the country are of mixed origins – some Sharia (no booze) and some Sinhalese (wrong doers are banished to a remote island).  By law the Maldivians are not supposed to touch liquor (including serving it), but on our ship there were no foreigners to do the dirty work and so we figure they must get special dispensation. (or else they have the don’t ask, don’t tell policy) The Portuguese tried their hand at colonizing but were ejected in 1558. The British took on the colonies as a “protectorate” in 1877, which is code for colonizing – this in the era where the sun never set on the British Empire. This lasted for 99 years when the last Brit left. The first tourist resort opened in 1972 and there are now over 90. Today visitors outnumber residents by 200 to 1. Most are Europeans and one quarter are German. Independence was declared on July 26, 1965 and 3 years later the republic was declared.

The country is 100% Sunni Muslim and there is no attempt to separate church from state. People are pacifist by nature, but make good workers and soldiers, since they tend to be obedient to law or authority.  While they are Sunni, they do have some of their individual beliefs. For example, Maldivian Muslims do not have dogs, believing them to be unclean, but cats seem to be okay. They observe Ramadan, all shops close for 15 minutes at prayer times (5x per day) and they are called to prayer by a  “mudeem” as opposed to a muezzin.

The local culture is quite different from our own in several other respects. For example, their language has no words of greeting in it and they have had to train themselves to conform to our customs, lest we label them “unfriendly”, although the  Internet is radically changing their world. Maldivians also show little emotion  and we think would therefore be good at poker). They do smile readily for us, but explained that smiling is not part of their native custom, nor are condolences, expressions of sorrow, enthusiasm, joy, anger, or words equivalent to “please” or “thank you. We must seem quite effusive and boisterous by comparison. Men find it hard to chat with women and vice versa – but to work in the tourist industry – they adopt our ways. They are not outwardly curious, inquisitive or affectionate and have to work at small talk. Despite cultural differences, however, they are among the most welcoming people we have met in our travels.

Another custom we found interesting was the old style Maldivian divorce which worked this way.  If a husband wishes to divorce his wife, he says “I divorce thee three times” and writes a short note to that effect to the islands’ administrative offices. To the surprise of no one, the divorce rate in the Maldives is the highest in the world and in fact, eight out of every ten people in the Maldives have been divorced. The government introduced a law at one time that limited the number of times a couple could divorce and remarry to 3 to sort of curb the “divorce as a result of a spat” problem.  If a woman wanted a divorce, she had to go to court and prove adultery or cruelty – but there does seem to be a loophole. She can possibly irritate her husband to the point of uttering the divorce declaration, or maybe get a jinn to work some magic. Modern Maldivian divorce today involves the court system, so that has tended to stem the impulsive divorces.

Some Muslim edicts are actually ignored here, e.g. in the past (distant past in the 1400’s) there have been female rulers of the Maldives, called sultanas, versus sultans. Then there was a dark ages of sort when women were believed to be without brains. But things have changed and are changing – albeit very slowly. Only as recently as 2008 was a law passed that a woman could run for president.  And many marriage laws were revised. In the past marriages were arranged and the husband paid the bride’s family a “bride price” called a” rhan”. Now the bride price thing is still in effect, but the bride can chose her husband and name her own price.  Civil inheritance laws have also been modified here to allow male and female children to inherit equally.

The 26 atolls of the Maldives are named for letters of the Dhivehi alphabet from north to south. There are 19 administrative regions with legislators. For example Filitheyo is on the Faafu Atoll which is the letter “L” in their alphabet. The Maldives also now have elections  Actually elections are not new, but President Maumoon Abdul Gayoon became president in 1978 and served  six  5 year terms, making him look a lot like a sultan since he won every election by a landslide, as is the case is so many “democracies” around the globe. However in 2008 they had their first non-rigged election and the new president initiated a lot of reform and liberalized old laws such as “Tourists and locals shall not mingle”. We are all culturally richer for that piece of legislation.

November 29, 2001

Dateline: Doha, Qatar

We flew here overnight and our stay was brief (four hours in the hotel), so surely the Qatari government did not begrudge we Western modern women a few hours sleep here. We had a 14 hour flight to Washington DC (2 hours longer than the outbound portion due to a strong jet stream) and then another 2 to Atlanta, so it was no wonder that we landed in the evening at Hartsfield Jackson,  we were not exactly sure what day or time it was. We were jolted back to the realization that we were back in America by the abundance of cleavage (bosoms and bottoms), tattoos and piercings, extremely plus sized people amid the mobs on the concourses – and we thought we had to travel thousands of miles to see exotic things!