The Maldives: Jewels of the Indian Ocean

Where once were great mountains, now are small islands. This describes the Republic of Maldives, a haven for divers half a world away, with...

Scuba Diving | Maldives - Photo by Scott Johnson

Where once were great mountains, now are small islands.

This describes the Republic of Maldives, a haven for divers half a world away, with more than a thousand coral reefs and white-sand beaches on hundreds of uninhabited islands.

The clear tropical waters and abundance of marine life around the atolls of the Maldives make an attractive setting for those who want to get away from it all on a dive holiday.

Earth-moving Origins

Many millions of years ago most of the Earth’s landmass was composed of the “supercontinent” of Pangaea, which during the Jurassic period broke into two large landmasses, Laurasia and Gondwanaland. To the north, Laurasia contained North America, Europe and Asia. To the south, Gondwanaland included South America, Antarctica, Australia, India and Africa.

These two chunks of land began breaking up even further about 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous period into the smaller portions that comprise our existing continents. The “continental drift” theory (plate tectonics) suggests that portions of the Earth’s crust (continental plates) float on top of a liquid core and are ever so slowly in motion.

The Maldives were created from a geological “traffic accident” between India and Africa.

India floated up and banged into Asia, resulting in their current alignment. Africa’s plate followed too closely and didn’t stop in time after the India/Asia pileup. This ramming of submerged plates caused a major “fender bender” that resulted in the formation of a long mountain range of volcanoes (1,250 miles [2,000 km]) rising out of the Indian Ocean. It is called the Laccadives-Chagos Ridge.

After a long period, the cones of volcanoes collapsed back into themselves, leaving a ring of small islands, each called an “atoll.” This is the only English language word that has been derived from the Maldivian language of “Dhivehi” from the word “atholhu.”

The Maldives is made up of 26 of these atolls, stretching 550 miles (880 km) north and south of the equator. These atolls contain 1,196 small, flat islands with no isle covering more than five square miles (13 sq km) or averaging a height greater than six feet (1.8 m) above sea level.

A Wealth of Cowries

It is unclear as to the origins of the first settlers of the Maldives. Legend states a mysterious group of explorers called the “Redin” were the first to visit the islands, but the first immigrants appear to have been of Hindu and Buddhist heritages from southern India, 275 miles (440 km) to the north, and from Sri Lanka, 440 miles (704 km) to the northeast. Ruins of Buddhist buildings from the second or third century B.C. have been found on the islands, including a stone head of Buddha on Thoddoo Island.

Local folklore says a Sinhalese prince, named KoiMale, became the first sultan of the islands after being shipwrecked there with his wife, the daughter of the king of Sri Lanka. Archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl noted that some figures discovered in the Maldives resemble items unearthed on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

The Maldives later became an important stopover for sailors along the trade route from Rome to China. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy noted the existence of “1,378 little islands west of Taproban (Sri Lanka). Records from the Ming dynasty of China tell about the submerged mountain chain called Liu Shan and noted the customs of the people who lived there. The ninth century Persian merchant/explorer Suliman wrote, “in the Sea of Herkend there lies 1,900 islands and the ruler is a woman and their wealth consists of cowries.”

Cowry shells (cyprea moneta) were an important form of currency in many areas of the Middle East and in regions of India. The Maldives was the “mint” of the region where most of the “money” shells were gathered. The islands were also famous for producing the Maldive Fish. A delicacy in India, this dried and smoked tuna was an important source of food for long sea voyages because the ebony-colored filet remained edible for a long time.

Arab Muslim traders began calling on the Maldives in the eighth century and proved to have the most influence on its people. By 1153, Islam was adopted in the islands and it was ruled by sultans for about 800 years until 1968 when it became a republic.

The Portuguese military captured the Maldives in 1558 and ruled it for 15 years. A mixture of early guerilla tactics by the islanders and logistical supply problems by the occupational force helped the Maldivians overthrow the Portuguese in 1573. The islands later became a protectorate of the Dutch when they ruled Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The British then took over the region from the Dutch and the Maldives became a British protectorate from 1796 to 1965. The Maldivian Independence Day is July 26.

The people of the Maldives are a mix of ethnic backgrounds but mainly all Sunni Muslims. Many come from Indian and Sri Lankan heritage, but there are many also descended from Arab traders and black slaves imported from Africa. The main language is Dhivehi, which is a dialect of Sinhala but with a script resembling Arabic. English is widely spoken along with Arabic and Hindi.

Unlike other Muslim countries, women play a prominent function in the Maldivian society with many in civic and business leadership roles. Women often retain their maiden names and can obtain and keep personal property and business holdings when married. This freedom of women in an Islamic state has been a tradition throughout Maldivian history.

Only a little more than 200 of the islands are populated with villages. Nearly a third of the nation’s population lives on Male, an island that measures only 1 mile by 1.5 miles (1.6 km by 2.4 km) in size. Yet already more than 80 islands are home to resorts, which bring in about 300,000 tourists a year — roughly equal to the entire population of the Maldives. Tourism is vital to the economy of the Maldives.

Rings of Coral

All of the islands of the Maldives are circled by protective coral reefs that defend the white sandy shores against wave erosion. Its reef system is the largest in the Indian Ocean with an area exceeding 2,174 square miles (5,652 sq km).

Because of its proximity to the equator, water around the Maldives generally stays between a comfortable 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27 and 30 degrees Celsius). A light wet suit is recommended. In these tropical waters you can find about 187 types of coral and nearly 1,100 species of marine life. Underwater visibility ranges from 60 to 100 feet (18 to 33 m).

Plankton blooming begins in May at the start of the rainy season, which lasts through August. This reduces visibility, especially on the eastern sides of the atolls, but the trade-off is worth it — whale sharks and manta rays can be found here in large numbers, attracted by the plankton.

We toured the northern atolls on the Manthiri live-aboard after the rainy season and saw several remaining manta rays, but missed the whale sharks. Other dive boats offering excursions through the atolls include the MV Nasruali and the Isis motor cruiser. Many resorts have dive centers that offer land-based dive trips.

Sloping reefs and walls are adorned with colorful soft corals. Every nook and cranny hosts inhabitants such as lobsters, transparent “ghost” cleaner shrimp, or brightly marked moray eels. Anemonefish dart in and out of large anemones, immune to their stinging tentacles. Fish life abounds here, including majestic Moorish idols, stately emperor butterflyfish, and a variety of parrots, triggers and trumpets.

Even seemingly barren sand flats will reveal small creatures such as nudibranchs, mantis shrimp and our favorite, the ghost pipefish, an elongated cousin of the sea horse.

The “big stuff” — including a variety of sharks and rays, moves in the swift currents atop seamounts and in channels carved between the islands. Here, thousands of schooling fusiliers, silversides or jacks may pass in front of you on a single dive.

There are a few shipwrecks to explore throughout the atolls. We investigated a large Japanese fishing trawler, called the Varu, which had sunk off the coast of the capital island of Male. This unusual wreck was sitting nearly vertical, with its stern resting at about 100 feet (30 m) and its bow sticking about 33 feet (10 m) above the water’s surface. A nice array of soft corals grew on the belly of the ship, while schools of fish darted in and out of its many openings.

Getting Around the Dhoni Way

A nation of islands means that the general mode of transportation is by boat and the Maldives has its own style of sailing vessel — the “dhoni.” Skilled carpenters using few tools and no plans make traditional versions of these hand-crafted ships of coconut palm wood. The skills of shipbuilding are passed from one generation to the next. Tall, curved bows, like scimitars raised in the air, decorate the front of the boat while the ornate hand-held rudder distinguishes the stern.

Dhonis range in size from large cargo ships, called “buggalows,” which export fish and import most of the Maldives’ staple food items and general goods, to small water taxis. The Male International Airport is on its own island so tourists need to be transported to the island of Male by a dhoni taxi. Visitors to remote resorts are often transported by seaplane or helicopter.

The Manthiri is actually a two-boat operation. The large live-aboard houses the guest and crew, but divers transfer to a dhoni that takes them to the actual dive sites.

The main use for a dhoni on the islands is as a fishing vessel since the majority of Maldivians are employed as fishermen.

Island Touring

The Maldives are home to many posh tropical resorts that mostly cater to Europeans. Some have international telephone and Internet service, as well as satellite television service for those that don’t want to be too far out of contact with the world.

On a typical Maldivian island, a “Katheeb” or island chief is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the island. This chief then reports to the “atholhuverin” or atoll chief who acts as the governor of that atoll’s islands. The nation’s government appoints both chiefs. The republic is composed of a 50-member Citizens Council that has two representatives from each populated atoll, two from Male and eight appointed by the president. The president is nominated by the council and is elected by a popular vote to a five-year term.

Tourists arriving by boat need to first get permission from the Katheeb to look around the village. Often visitors are welcomed to be guests that evening of the “boduberu,” a traditional community gathering of music and dance with African influences.

Dress in the Maldives is casual with T-shirts and cotton clothing the most suitable for the climate. Since the country is an Islamic state, women should wear modest clothing without baring too much skin.

An Eye on the Climate

Even though the Maldives are situated away from typhoon or cyclone areas the threat of the entire landmass of the nation disappearing below the waves is increasing. Most of the islands are only 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) above sea level with 80 percent being only about 3 feet (1 m). The highest point is on Wilingili Island in the Addu Atoll with a height of only 8 feet (2.4 m).

The threat of global warming raising sea levels would be catastrophic for the islands and force its residents to become refugees. Coral mining (for building materials and souvenirs), sand dredging and solid waste pollution have also taken a toll on the islands’ ability to defend itself from the elements. In April 1987, high tides swept over Male and nearby islands after much of the natural reef was removed.

Already the increase in surface temperatures from El Niño has resulted in large-scale coral bleaching in shallow areas that used to be vibrant and healthy. The government has now taken a keen interest in monitoring climate changes.

The world will keep changing, but for now the Maldives offers a diverse underwater world for divers to explore and many island retreats where you can truly get away from it all and enjoy a bit of paradise.

Story and photos by David Prichard and Lily Mak