The Maldives consists of around 1000 islands, only 200 of which are inhabited. For adventurous travellers looking for genuine experiences and getting away from well trodden tracks, it’s quite a tough nut to crack. Weeks of research understanding the geography, how to get around, and what separates the different atolls, we’re helped by the one thing most people agree on: the best diving, if you want to see the resident whale shark, is in South Ari atoll.
To get here, it’s a flight into the capital Male, and an additional domestic flight to Maamigili, the largest island in the atoll. We’re picked up by a speed boat, in a velvety star filled night that smells of tropical freedom, and taken to Dhigurah - an island recommended in various email exchanges with dive schools.
Without knowing we've decided on a 'local' island. Most islands here are resort islands, and only some show any signs of local life. Dhigurah is a quiet, lazy island, shaped like a tadpole and with two thirds of the island uninhabited. Standing in the middle, you can see and hear the waves crashing on either side. But a perfect grid patterned little town has formed on the northern end, home to around 400-600 people (no one knows exactly) and a large population of Maldivian fruit bats (huge) sailing overhead. There’s a bird, yet to be identified, who coos in the most playful way, day and night. It’s unbearably hot, but the southwest monsoon brings a lovely, healthy wind that keeps us sane.
The Maldives is 100% Muslim (a requirement for obtaining citizenship) and on Dhigurah it’s felt. The daily prayer calls set a really interesting contrast to the swaying coconut palms, and the hanging bread fruit, bananas, pandanus fruit and almond trees. It’s a harmonious island, in a lazy, peaceful rhythm only broken by young Maldivians playing volleyball, and the odd Westerner, like us, turning a corner. There a several, small, neighbourly and very discreet mosques, and the guesthouse and dive shop staff all kindly excuse themselves during prayer time. Everyone we meet is humble, kind and smiling.
We dive, every day, with the excellent Island Divers, all locals from Dhigurah. If life on land is peaceful and sleepy, the underwater world, as expected, is buzzing. We patrol the Eastern outer reef, looking for that elusive rather large fish we’ve come to see, and in the process come across an abundance of cool players like schools of trumpet fish, a porcupine fish, many clown triggerfish (always in Chanel), the ugly but entertaining Titan Triggerfish, the impressive Emperor Angelfish, huge and ancient looking Groupers, the ever impressive Napoleon Wrasse, adoring Hawksbill turtles and the Unicorn fish that always make us chuckle. In South Ari, you only need to snorkel to be rewarded with schools of colourful and energetic Parrotfish (huge ones!) feeding, turtles darting around, always a whitetip or blacktip reef shark, and perhaps the most photogenic perhaps of all - the Moorish Idol.
But we’re here for the big stuff. And we get it. A pod of 30 spinner dolphins make three appearances, a huge stingray lurks in the sand right below me (I only see his eyes), a manta has us chase it for several minutes, some spotted eagle rays pass, and some very large reef sharks are found sleeping on the ocean floor.
And then, after eight dives, we see him. As soon as we drop down and turn our heads, he's there. A 5 metre long, spectacular whale shark glides past, gently swaying his fin to move faster than we could ever swim. He is one of only a couple of thousands in the Maldives. There are whale shark research projects here, seeking to acquire and disseminate as much knowledge as possible to preserve the population congregating in the area.
The afternoons are the best. The heat subsides, the waves crash onto the beach, there’s a warm glowing sunset light, and the bats glide above. It’s quiet. Granted, we visited during Ramadan, and everything was mostly closed. Even so, you wouldn’t have known that the town hosts a little police station, a small court (mostly for marriages) and a small health centre. It all seems empty - like all of that civilised stuff doesn’t really matter.
Maldivians live in close partnership with the sea. They fish it, dive in it, move themselves on it, and protect it. And yet, this partnership is one that can very easily turn sour. The highest point in the country is only two metres above sea level, and global warming and an associated rise in sea level threatens to completely overtake it. Before that, the rising seas are sure to damage the tourism industry, upon which much of the country’s prosperity and security rests.
But like the locals, we suspect, we choose not to think about it for now. We have the beach, stretching in both directions, to ourselves most days. The island is colourful in so many ways and patient locals let us play with our cameras as much as we like. The world's smallest nation has turned out to be so much more than can be seen when visiting the resort islands. A lazy, happy, kind and very interesting country, that we hope all get to see, before it's too late.