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Journeys: Reef Reconnaissance

Scott Goetz

I should have bought a new mask before coming to the Maldives. A month ago, while I was on a trip to Belize, a bottle of habanero sauce broke in my suitcase and soaked into my mask, and now it is burning my face. To make matters worse, I am being tested on my diving skills—the regulations in this strict Muslim nation require that even the most seasoned divers demonstrate their skills before setting out—and the scorching silicone is causing me to panic. Although I have 94 dives under my weight belt, I have become a hyperventilating fool in six feet of water.

Soneva Fushi is larger and more family-friendly than Gili. (Click image to enlarge
Ten minutes later, after catching my breath on a postcard-perfect beach lined with coconut palms and thatch-roofed huts at the Soneva Gili resort, I am calm and back in the ocean with a new mask that leaks water on my still-smoldering face. I pass the test (barely) and head off into the Maldivian blue.

Rainbow Reef teems with sweetlips, butterflies, and Moorish idols. Massive schools of anthias move in sheets through vibrant yellow, blue, and orange corals, while boxfish scuttle around sea fans, and moray eels hide in caverns below black coral trees. Even with a leaking mask and a burned face, I fully grasp why people from all corners of the planet come to the Maldives to dive in the Indian Ocean.But this underwater world is not entirely as I heard it would be.

The Explorer soon will be joined by two Four Seasons resorts. (Click image to enlarge)
The Republic of Maldives is a nation of 19 coral atolls, which together comprise about 1,200 islands and stretch for some 35,000 square miles along the equator south of India and west of Sri Lanka. The archipelago’s extraordinary diving owes to its geological history. Sixty-five million years ago, a midocean volcanic mountain range became inactive and submerged. Gradually, coral formations grew on the range’s underwater ridges and eventually surfaced as atolls. Oceanic currents eroded the atolls’ rims over time and created the channels through which, today, flow the plankton-rich tides of the Indian Ocean.

Before planning my trip, however, I heard that the Maldives’ dive sites had been damaged by the Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged several of the country’s islands in December 2004. The catastrophe purportedly exacerbated a situation already rendered bleak by the region’s coral bleaching in 1998, when the warm waters of El Niño whitened many of the local reefs. (Extended or frequent bleaching kills coral and releases toxins into the water.) To judge for myself, I arranged a nine-day dive trip that would take me aboard the Four Seasons Explorer and to three private island resorts.

After two days in an over-water residence at Soneva Gili, a sensationally eccentric resort that resembles something you might find in a convergence of Waterworld and The Swiss Family Robinson, I take the 15-minute boat ride back to Male, the capital, to join the Explorer. Four Seasons (which at press time was scheduled to reopen its tsunami-damaged Kuda Huraa resort in mid-September and open a new resort, Landaa Giraavaru, in November) runs three-, four-, and seven-day excursions through the Maldives on this 128-foot catamaran. The boat has 10 spacious stateroom cabins with full baths and picture windows, as well as a suite with a private deck and dining area. Getting aboard this floating haven, however, proves to be a bit problematic.Locals say that it rarely rains in the Maldives, and when it does, it never lasts long. I am somewhat surprised, then, by the torrential downpour in Male, which is creating swells so high that our transport boat crashes repeatedly into the side of the mammoth Explorer. After several failed attempts, we transfer to a Zodiac and then board the catamaran in pounding surf.

Once all of the passengers are on board, the crew calms us with drum-beating and cocktails and then brings us to gentler seas. By the afternoon, I am outfitted with a new mask and ready for a drift dive at Lankan Reef, where an explosion of colorful corals greets me. I swim past huge sea fans and violet soft corals that cover inlets to caves, providing sanctuaries for the smaller reef fish from the tuna and Jacks that patrol the outer edge of the reef. After inadvertently swimming into a school of barracuda, I, too, seek refuge in the caves and coral passages.

On the boat that evening, the Explorer’s resident marine biologist, Dean Bray, explains that dive sites in the Maldives fall into four categories: kandus (large, deep channels, best known for their pelagic and schooling fish); farus (circular reefs that rise from the ocean floor, usually within a channel); thilas (underwater pinnacles that top out at 15 feet or deeper and are marked by their coral growths and overhangs); and giris (pinnacles just below the surface that are ideal for beginners and night dives). Over the next few days, we dive them all, including the kandu of Rasdhoo Madivaru, or Hammerhead Point, where we watch gray sharks whipping through the waters as they feed on schooling fish.

After eight dives, I come to the conclusion that the rumors about the tsunami having destroyed the diving in the Maldives are exaggerated. Studies, in fact, have found that only reefs above a depth of 15 feet were harmed, mostly by floating debris. But the effects of El Niño, which rendered reefs around the world uninhabitable, are undeniable. Coral in the Maldives sustained significant damage from the warm waters, especially in the shallows, and yet the reefs seem to have recovered here better than they have elsewhere. The corals in the Maldives are more beautiful, profuse—and less bleached—than those of any other Asian dive sites I have visited.

I reach this conclusion despite the limited visibility in the water during my trip, a result of ongoing storms. The downpours worsen as I fly north to Soneva Fushi, a larger sister property to Soneva Gili, but regardless, I charge out to the reef upon arriving. The current is strong, making it near impossible to swim, and the visibility is much less than its usual 90 feet. However, I spot a turtle and some feather stars before returning to the island, where, the next day, I take a reprieve from diving to have a massage in an open-walled hut while warm rain trickles off the woven grass roof of the Fushi spa.

The skies fail to clear as I head for my third, and final, private island resort, the new One&Only Reethi Rah. The storm, locals say, is the worst they have seen in years, but the many activities—and the spectacular 100,000-square-foot spa—at Reethi Rah make waiting out the weather a pleasurable undertaking. Until, that is, I visit the resort’s dive shop, which is as clean as a showroom on Rodeo Drive and stocked with Scubapro equipment. When the resort’s dive instructor tells me of recent sightings of hammerheads and whale sharks out at Shark Point, I yearn for the swells to subside so I can return to the water.

On my last day, the sun comes out, the sea becomes calm, and the dive guides ready their boats. I pause, however, because my flight home is in less than 24 hours. Flying shortly after diving can lead to decompression sickness, or the bends, but for a moment, I consider risking it for the chance to swim with the sharks. Ultimately, after recalling my reaction to the habanero sauce, I decide to wait until next time.

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