Often seen as a bolthole for the well-heeled ‘newly-wed and nearly dead’ the Maldives has a reputation for being expensive, exclusive and a bit boring. But if you don’t mind mixing marine conservation with your palm-fringed tropical holiday, you might be surprised by what the Maldives has to offer. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his cameras and heads for the Indian Ocean.
Although by no means one of the better reasons for travelling, a curious side-effect of visiting far-flung places is that once you’ve seen them for yourself, you’ll never fall into the trap of thinking about them again in that lazy way the Sunday newspaper travel sections want you to.
I wish it had been me, but when a fellow photographer friend of mine went on assignment to Timbuktu he bumped into Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in a café. “Did you photograph him?”
I asked, anxious to see if my friend had made the most of the opportunity. “Of course I didn’t. He was having a glass of mint tea. But we did play backgammon,” he added as an afterthought. That anecdote captures for me those little details that make travel so special. And while I’ve never even been there, I won’t think about Timbuktu the same way again.
When the commission came through for me to head off to the Maldives – this time for Country Life International magazine – I have to say that it barely registered in my mind. Not because I’m complacent about travel or adventure, but because I assumed it was going to be one of those drearily antiseptic honeymoon destinations where there are embarrasing signs on the palm trees asking you to keep the noise from your mobile phone to a minimum, and where newly-minted couples check their stock portfolios online before heading off to shatter whatever tranquillity there is on jet-skis roaring about the place like marine motorbikes. I wouldn’t say that I was unenthused, but I could think of other places I’d prefer to visit.
I was thinking about my friend’s chance encounter with one quarter of Led Zeppelin as I changed planes in Sri Lanka, turned right and headed south-west for the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives. I was also thinking about the great 14th century Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta who was the first tourist to visit the Maldives, an achievement he celebrated by marrying four of the local women during his stay. Sitting crumpled up like a paperclip in economy I mused that while this may not be exactly how Ibn Battuta arrived, as my plane made its descent through the equatorial cloud, you could see why the great man was moved to call the Maldives ‘one of the wonders of the world.’ Not to be outdone, Marco Polo wrote that the Maldives was the ‘flower of the Indes’. And he was right. Below me there were countless tiny emerald green islands set in aquamarine lagoons, cast adrift in an indigo sea. It is a sight of such incredible natural beauty that the early Indian traders in the region were faced with little choice but to name the country Maladiv, from the Sanskrit meaning ‘garland of islands.’
It’s not easy to find much agreement among the authorities that care about such things as to how many of the aforementioned ‘countless’ islands actually make up the country. But a figure that seems to come up a lot in official statements is 1,192. Because the Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country – the land mass rarely rises more than a couple of metres above sea level – perhaps a better way of describing the place is to think of it as a subterranean mountain range where only the peaks rise above sea level.
These are surrounded by coral reefs in an arrangement known as faru which, in the normal course of events are enough to protect the islands from tidal surges. But when nature refuses to follow the playbook – such as during the 1999 El Niño event or the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami – the coral can get wiped out, while rising sea levels can wreak havoc inland, often washing away entire islands.
But for my stay in the Maldives, the conditions were tropically clement, which meant that the only immediate problem facing me was that there didn’t seem to be enough to do. It may sound like great fun, lying around in the equatorial sunshine quaffing chilled Chablis while reading Treasure Island and waiting for the photographer’s favourite ‘golden hour’ just before dusk. But the truth is that listening to the crystal clear Indian Ocean gently lapping the brilliant white coral strand, with only hermit crabs, herons and the occasional parrot for company doesn’t quite justify (in my book at least) the tedium of spending a whole day in the lower stratosphere merely to get to the other side of the world. As the sea breeze rattled the palm fronds and the occasional coconut fell to the powdery sand, I decided it was time to find out whether life on the reef had anything more stimulating to offer.
If you like water you’ve come to the right place, because dry land accounts for less than one percent of the total area of the Maldives. The rest is open sea, reef and lagoon (with the odd monsoon thrown in for good measure). So it’s no surprise that almost every activity here involves the sea. As I think I might have mentioned I
dislike jet-skis, this for the same reason I take a dim view of the Swansea University students who live next door to me, who think I want to listen to their music at three o’clock in the morning in the middle of the week during lock-down, when I have pressing deadlines to meet for national newspapers. This in mind, I opted for the quieter distractions of the lagoon, where I made my made my first attempts at underwater photography. With snorkel and mask, I explored the stained-glass submarine world, an unexpected blaze of colour in which I photographed gold-headed butterfly fish, blue-striped snappers, blue-green damselfish and chequerboard wrasses. If I’d had the time, I’d have happily photographed every one of the hundreds of species that live on the reef.
The reason I get so cross about jet-skis isn’t just the noise, but also the fact that they, along with other motorised water activities, damage the coral. This is something strenuously denied by responsible water-sports enthusiasts, and they have my sympathy because it’s not them causing the harm. But the fact remains that there are inexperienced and irresponsi-ble jet skiers that will inevitably damage the coral despite all the advice handed out before they go out on the waves to wake up the neighbourhood. It comes as no surprise that reef maintenance is the Maldivian equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge, and as a result almost every inhabited island has a small resident team of ecologists, marine scientists and oceanographers monitoring its progress. While I was in the Maldives, I made the journey to the island of Vabbinfaru to spend a few days looking at the work of a marine ecology laboratory partly funded by the luxury eco-tourism provider (and my host) Banyan Tree, whose corporate social responsibility programme in the islands focuses on helping with local environmental protection. At Vabbinfaru I spoke to the manager of the marine science pro-gramme, shark expert Alexandra Barron (who is now National Director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Ocean Program). She took me on a guided tour of the lab’s work that has conserva-tion initiatives with green sea turtles, eagle rays and blacktip sharks.
If it all sounds a bit scientific, I can tell you that it’s also great fun watching the scientists feeding the rays that swim right up to the shore. It’s also something of an eye-opener to help with cleaning the turtles using nothing more scientific than a tooth-brush. Elsewhere, Banyan Tree helps to feed funds into local coral planting by giving their guests the ‘opportunity to support’ environmental protection and then matching these contributions dollar for dollar. As I realise what positive impact such schemes have, I can’t help feeling the model they are based on is as efficient as it gets: make rich people feel ever-so-slightly guilty for lying around doing nothing to the point where they cough up some cash to help the turtles and then let the (mostly) unpaid junior scientists get on with their PhDs undisturbed in tropical paradise. And because everyone has to pitch in, I found myself recruited into what the programme director described as ‘not the most complex of duties’: hauling plastic buckets full of turtle hatchlings from the shoreline back to the newly-built ‘wet lab’, funded by the generosity of tourists.
It turns out that turtles are more important than I could have imagined. This is because all seven species globally (the Maldives has the green sea and hawksbill varieties) are endangered and regarded as ‘indicator species’ that present a perfect template for conservation issues. Nearly everything confronting the planet in terms of ecological conservation affects turtles. This may not sound like such a Good Thing, but because they’re cute they get a lot of public attention, they become ambassadors for the cause and are perfect for telling us plenty about the state of our oceans. And because their population numbers are so sensitive to human impact, they are also excellent vehicles for making us feel guilty enough to do something about their environment. If you’ve ever found yourself with a plastic bag caught on the end of your snorkel as I have, you’ll know the panic this can throw you into. This is how a lot of marine turtles die. So maybe it’s a good idea to stop throwing plastic bags into the sea.
The role coral plays in marine ecology is so important that if we lost the reef it follows that we’d lose forty percent of the ocean’s fish species, while countries such as the Maldives would simply be wiped off the map. One way to maintain a healthy coral stock is to actively build reefs. Although it is fragile and takes a long time to grow, in the right hands coral’s vulnerability can be turned into an advantage, as fragments that are broken off in storms (or by jet skiers) can be replanted to re-established communities providing the conditions are right. It’s a bit like taking cuttings from a garden plant, only with coral you need to anchor the fragments on submerged steel frames that make up the basis of a ‘coral garden’ (you can also use concrete rubble, chained-together car tyres and so on.) This process starts on the beach, where I photographed a team of local volunteers rolling out a large wire frame cage that would eventually become encrusted in new healthy coral, providing a natural defensive barrier for one of the local islands.
It’s quite reassuring to know that the fragile marine ecology of the Maldives is in good hands, and as I sit sipping a well-earned G&T in the swanky Banyan Tree lodge I can’t help thinking that it doesn’t just make sense for tourists and honeymooners to contribute to the upkeep of their reef: it’s their duty. After all, they have tons of money and with that comes a responsibility to ensure that all this ecological heritage has a decent chance of survival. A waiter puts a plate of spicy fried fish in front of me. I ask him if they’re fish from the reef, to which he informs me that they are not. A gecko falls out of a palm tree into my drink, as I reflect on the fact that my trip to the Maldives had been a lot more interesting than I’d thought it would be. Ok, so I didn’t get to play backgammon with the singer from Led Zeppelin. But I did get to clean the shell of a living breathing turtle with a manky old toothbrush.