Maldives Underwater – Cruising Around the Atolls and Discovering New Reefs

Even though I have the opportunity to go scuba-diving free of charge at Soneva Fushi, I hardly ever use the chance because I am so wrapped up in other projects and have my regular guest snorkelling trips anyway. The only time I can really add more entries in my dive logbook is during holidays – Palau and Indonesia last year were perfect for that purpose and offered so many highlights! During this year’s spring break, however, I wanted to explore the Maldives further and thus signed up for a one-week dive safari with a former colleague and dive instructor friend at Soneva Fushi. Jörg now runs regular dive trips through different atolls on his liveaboard “Mariana” and must have about 20 years of experience diving and living in the Maldives – very impressive!

Once we had picked up the 13 other diving guests, who happened to be all German speakers, Jörg, Marco and Ratana as the leaders of the dive safari took us by local wooden dhoni from Male’s International Airport to the liveaboard vessel, which was parked in the lagoon off Hulhumale’. The “Mariana” was a beautiful boat, had comfortable double rooms and a wooden interior. I lived on the outside deck, as all rooms were occupied by the full-paying divers, and did not mind that at all: the air was fresh, the temperature was perfect for sleeping, and the 6 a.m. sunrises above the still ocean gave me an extraordinary start into the day. Our days were packed with three dives, sunbathing, reading, eating, sleeping, and I also gave talks in the evenings for interested guests… ah, what a holiday! We all got along really well and often spent quality time together in the salon on the main deck; we had many laughs and good discussions about bio food, investment funds and books to read, apart from the fish and other sea life we saw.

The diving itself was superb. The “Mariana” took us from Male’ to different reefs in South Male’, then northern Felidhoo and then southern and central Ari Atoll before heading back to Male’. I had never been to these places before and was excited being able to see so many new islands and reefs. As the diving in Baa Atoll, where Soneva Fushi is located, mainly concentrates on the local thilas and giris, it was particularly thrilling for me to dive on the atolls’ outer rim and seeing sharp drop-offs, current-swept reef communities and “charismatic megafauna” like Hawksbill Turtles, Grey Reef Sharks (even one Hammerhead Shark!) and several ray species. Jörg, Marco and Ratana were wonderful guides and great at also pointing out smaller fish and invertebrates: Longnose Filefish, Leaf Fish, Halimeda Ghost Pipefish, lots of Honeycomb Morays, nudibranchs, flatworms and crustaceans definitely made the trip more than worthwhile for me! And even though we didn’t see any real Whale Sharks in southern Ari Atoll but I instead was fooled by a real-looking “stranded” Whale Shark made of sand on a picnic island, it was great being out on the water for this week! Thank you to Jörg, Marco, Ratana and the rest of the boat crew and divers for such a great experience!

Watching all these wonderful animals once again made me realise, however, how obvious the rapid decline in shark and turtle populations in Baa Atoll has become. When I started working at Soneva Fushi about four years ago, in March 2005, there were several dozens of juvenile Blacktip Reef and Lemon Sharks in our lagoon, Grey Reef Sharks would inhabit a lagoon at Anga Faru, Green Turtles would come and lay their eggs on our beaches, and spiny lobsters would be plentiful to see during night-snorkels or -dives. When walking around the island this year, you would be able to see neither sharks nor turtle nests, and only occasionally some lobsters! Instead, finned sharks would sometimes be found on the sea floor, staff at Soneva Fushi would tell me about their latest turtle or turtle egg meal in their home island, and the number of local, wild-caught fish purchased by resorts would continue to be unsustainable. Despite my presence and continued efforts to make our hosts and guests more aware of good environmental practices, the natural environment of the Maldives just seems to be in constant decline, which is personally very frustrating. The government of the Maldives has started a Baa Atoll conservation programme a couple of years ago and currently looks at potential marine protected areas, better waste management facilities and sustainable income opportunities for the local communities, which are all of great social and environmental importance for the atoll. There is even talk of making Baa Atoll a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve for its unique natural features and community engagement! All of these plans sound promising, and I will maintain my optimism and drive to make this small world a better place; on the other hand, I fear that many of these efforts will come too late in this quickly changing environment and culture…

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