Coming face-to-face with a shark when snorkelling is not perhaps something you’d find entirely desirable on your hols, but if you’re swimming in the Indian Ocean in an area only recently opened to tourists it can happen with surprising regularity. At least it did for me in my week in the Southern Maldives, swimming off [...]

Sunday Times 2

Diving into the Maldives for sharks, sand and serenity


Coming face-to-face with a shark when snorkelling is not perhaps something you’d find entirely desirable on your hols, but if you’re swimming in the Indian Ocean in an area only recently opened to tourists it can happen with surprising regularity.

At least it did for me in my week in the Southern Maldives, swimming off the tropical island of Hadahaa in one of the largest and deepest natural atolls in the world. There are more sharks here now because there is a ban on hunting them and they seem totally unperturbed by divers and unsuspecting snorkellers.

The shark that made my acquaintance was a relatively small white-tip reef shark and I was close enough to see his bulging white eyes and down-turned mouth. He might have been just 4ft long, but he still had the look of Jaws. The sight of him stopped me short in the water.

I felt entirely exposed in just a bikini and my snorkel – I held my breath as he was just inches below me and I feared any sudden movements might draw his curiosity. It seemed incredible that I could be swimming with sharks so close to the shore.

I had to remind myself that there have been no shark attacks in the Maldives since 1976 (although I did then wonder what happened in 1975) and floated as nonchalantly as I could, keeping a watchful eye on him as he weaved beneath vulnerable, bikini-clad me.

I was fearful but also enthralled – to see a shark while diving is relatively common but to encounter one while snorkelling in the shallows seemed rare indeed.

But then the island where I stayed had only recently opened to tourists. It lies to the south of the Maldives’ capital Malé and forms part of the Huvadhoo Atoll, the deepest atoll in the Maldives with a central lagoon plunging nearly 300ft.

The atoll formed millions of years ago as volcanoes sank beneath the ocean, leaving behind a ring of coral islands. I could see them clearly from the plane on the journey south – massive circles of coral surrounded by sapphire and skyblue waters of shallow lagoons.

The lack of tourism until now means the coral beds have lain pretty much undisturbed, supporting an abundance of sealife. The resort where I stayed is surrounded by its own natural aquarium, built on a tiny island that one can kayak around in 30 minutes or simply stroll around, stepping from the sand to the shallows into another world – an underwater garden rich in colour and activity.

Snorkelling, I delighted in the chunky but beautiful parrotfish with their beak-like mouths and pretty turquoise, purple and pink colour. The smaller puffer fish, with bulbous bodies and pert ‘lips’, steadfastly avoided confrontation with other fish; darting moorish idols with their yellow, black-and-white heart-shaped bodies. And the tiny, striped wrasse pecked at my legs in an attempt to clean them… to my surprise and initial consternation.

I swam above the large table corals and saw the sand shift to reveal a previously camouflaged electric ray. It had a flat, triangular body and a tail with an ominous-looking fan at the end ready to deliver a hefty shock of up to 200 volts.

Two days later, we travelled 45 minutes by boat to a deeper part of the lagoon. I was enamoured by turtles – gracious and serene as they gently floated by like old men of the sea, going about their business.

I was in seventh heaven though or, as it seemed to me, a super-sized fish tank. I was thrilled to finally be in the Maldives as it is somewhere I have wanted to visit for a long time. Long famous for blue seas, palm trees, white beaches, sunshine and the ‘no shoes, no news lifestyle’, more recently the Maldives have become synonymous with climate change.

The people of these low-lying islands are sure to suffer if sea levels continue to rise. As I swam, I was reminded of the old travelling adage: ‘Get there before it is ruined.’ If the more pessimistic reports are to be believed, ‘Get there while it’s still there!’ would be more accurate in the case of the Maldives.

The Maldives is made up of 1,192 islands scattered across the tropical Indian Ocean. With the landmass at an average height of just 6ft above sea level, the islands are undoubtedly at the sharp end of the climate-change argument.

The people of the Maldives have inhabited these islands here in the south for more than 500 years. For most of that time, they lived a simple life, with fishing the main industry. In the north, tourism has taken over, but it was only relatively recently that former President Mohamed Nasheed gave his permission for the area in the south to be developed.

The potential sea-level rise and the devastation it could cause is something Nasheed was acutely aware of, as are the resorts he allowed to develop here in the south. The resort I stayed at has strived hard to show its green credentials.

The company that developed Hadahaa adheres to the Green Globe – the certification programme for sustainable tourism. Members save energy and water, reduce operational costs and contribute to local communities and the environment in which they are building.

I guess there is still an argument it would be greener not to develop here at all, but given the majority of the islanders depend on tourism, it is a tough call.

So was I right or wrong to be there as a visitor? Was my carbon footprint – even if I had offset it – worth the effect my flight would have on the environment?

My diving course culminated in a night dive. The ocean is a very different place in the dark and my adrenaline levels rose sharply as I approached the jetty. We were given a lengthy briefing from Shumi about what not to do underwater – panic for one – as he stressed that it was very easy to get disorientated in the dark. We were given torches and compasses, and would be reliant on them.

But Shumi emphasised that we must not shine our torches directly at the fish, especially sharks, as they don’t like it (so if I saw a shark I’d have to switch my light off – that was not going to be easy).

He also emphasised we must try not to attract moray eels, which come out at night, and scorpion fish, which have a sting. As I stepped from the jetty into the deep blue, I looked down to see a shark out on his twilight travails, hunting some unsuspecting creature. I saw morays slithering below and took great care not to drop too quickly.

At the end of my holiday, I was cheered to think that not only did I have a restful stay in Huvadhoo, but I also managed to become an ‘advanced diver’. It was a privilege to dive in sites that have remained unexplored until now. It would be lovely to think that it could remain unspoilt.

© Daily Mail, London

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.