I’m trying to be very still. Bleached coral debris, sharp and beautiful, graze my knees, but I dare not move. Just a few minutes longer, I tell myself, and they’ll come out again. I keep my eyes peeled, palms perched on my sandy thighs, my gaze alternating between the beach and the pale turquoise water.
Dawn is breaking over Medhufushi and the island is putting on a well-rehearsed show. The sky is a mirage of pink, mauve, and orange. The ocean has a cerulean glaze that would make a potter weak in the knees. Even the coconut trees are in on the act. They shimmy faintly to the gentle breeze that tickles the tendrils of hair at my nape. For what seems like the nth time, I shake my head in disbelief. It’s ridiculously beautiful, fake even. Some gall the Maldives has, being this drop-dead gorgeous.
Wildlife sightings aren’t limited to the turquoise waters. Maldives’ beaches are inhabited by herons, colourful lizards, and shy hermit crabs. Photo: Michele Westmorland/Dinodia
From the corner of my eye, I see a creature scurrying across the beach to my right. A pair of hermit crabs peeks out of their home, eyes like mustard seeds, scanning the periphery, scrutinising me, wondering if they can trust this scruffy creature peering back at them. I hold my breath, careful not to shift the sands under me. In a matter of seconds, a few more crabs emerge from their conical shells, going about their morning chores. More shells come alive, and soon there are hundreds of hermits tip-toeing across the beach. One even nibbles at my toe to see if I might make a good breakfast, but quickly returns to a spool of seaweed that looks like a cassette come undone. “Oye!” I hear a friend yell from another part of the beach. “Are you going snorkelling today?” I nod my head, wary of disrupting my hermit friends, but it’s too late. The shells have gone back to pretending. They’re lifeless and unmoving again.
Over 99 per cent of the territory of the Maldives is water. The remaining one per cent comprises groups of small coralline islands called atolls. Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contribotor/Getty Images
The beauty of the Maldives takes some getting used to. Like most visitors, I spent the first few days mentally pinching myself every few hours, not to convince myself that I was actually here, but to assure my Photoshop-battered mind that places like this actually do exist. Understandably, every island resort in this archipelago milks its postcard-perfect landscape for all its worth. Open-air bathtubs by the sea, swings in the middle of the ocean, above-sea rooms with glass flooring, sunset cruises serving curaçao cocktails—it’s an Instagrammer’s wet dream and yet, I find myself taking far fewer pictures than I usually do while travelling. It seems too easy. And every other image on my camera’s viewfinder looks like a standard-issue desktop wallpaper. Even the hitches on my trip are airbrushed.
My first day is spent exploring the waters around Medhufushi resort. Most islands in the Maldives have their own home reef and waters filled with fish. Within minutes of entering the lagoon, I have seen shoals of barracuda, surgeonfish couples sniffing around crimson coral, sting rays, clown fish, and dozens of young black-tipped reef sharks scanning the waters with fierce concentration. I’m a little alarmed at first, despite the fact that they are obviously babies: Just how big are the adults?
As I get used to the faint ocean current, Kevin George Theseira, the enthusiastic manager of Medhufushi, whizzes by on a jet ski. “What are you guys doing here?” he asks, perplexed. I explain, sheepishly, that we missed the snorkelling boat. He offers to take the two of us over to a reef a few kilometres from the shore. I go first, excited at the prospect. A few minutes later, I am dropped into the ocean. “I’ll be back soon,” Kevin says. “You’re sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” I nod, and jump in, but it isn’t until the sound of the jet ski dies out that the magnitude of the situation truly sinks in.
I’m alone, completely alone, in the Indian Ocean. My pulse quickens. The shore is a thin, wavy, beige line that I see intermittently, as I bob on the surface. Shark memories return, along with flashes of conversations from the scuba hut. “This is also whale shark territory.” “Steer clear of trigger fish, they can be nasty.” “If you see a manta, stay very, very still.” Everything I’d been hoping—even silently praying—to see was now a terrifying thought. I will myself to think happy thoughts, to think of Nemo (“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”) but it takes me several minutes to summon the pluck to put my head under the water. When I do, my buzzing mind is stunned into silence.
I have entered another world. Time slows, like a walkman running out of juice. It’s blue, crystal clear, and feels as though I can see for miles. Unlike landlubber wildlife, the fish are completely unperturbed by my presence. I glide over a school of yellow snapper for a few minutes, following their neon tails over a clutch of electric blue coral. Polyps sway in slow motion. A frilly, purple creature I do not recognise spins like a top a short distance away. The afternoon sun filters into the water, streaking the blue with lines of light. My hair swirls around my face like seaweed. I stop kicking. For a precious few moments, I hear only the sound of my heartbeat and the gentle lull of the ocean.
Heart-stopping as the morning’s snorkelling was, I can’t help shake off the feeling that I’m not getting a sense of Maldivian culture. Walking through Malé town, the capital, I get a glimpse of local life, but it lasts only a few hours. I stroll through the narrow, paver-blocked streets, past souvenir shops, shawarma stalls, small schools, and large mosques. In the food market, I chat with veiled women over packets of fish-flavoured crisps and rolls of coconut barfi. They tell me the travails of life in a world more blue than green. “It’s so expensive,” one confessed as she paid for her bag of vegetables. Almost all the produce consumed on these islands is flown in from China and Dubai (interestingly, both countries have funded rather elaborate mosques in Malé). Seafood is imported from Sri Lanka, since most marine life except for tuna and reef fish is protected. Coconuts are plentiful, but almost all other veggies are flown in, just like the tourists for whom they are brought. What’s a standard meal at home like? I ask the women. “Tuna fish curry,” she says, but shakes her head and laughs when I ask her where I can get some. “Come home,” she offers.
To get a sense of Maldivian culture, visit islands like Maafushi which are inhabited by locals but have tourist facilities as well. Photo: Tobias Helbig/Getty Images
I remember this encounter a few days later, on the evening cruise, when we’re served a platter of salmon and cream cheese canapés. I am deliciously tired after another long day of snorkelling and excited because tomorrow, I will go on my first assisted dive. The sun dips into the ocean, leaving the sky crimson with longing, and I sip on a mojito, chatting with honeymooning couples from Egypt and Germany. Most of them aren’t too fond of the water—one hasn’t set foot in the ocean—and yet, they cannot be happier with their choice of destination. “It’s paradise,” one says, nuzzling her husband of three days. “A tropical heaven on earth.”
This is the lure of the Maldives. It’s a perfect bubble, a piece of the planet that’s as manicured as it is naturally stunning.
It draws divers, leisure swimmers, and beach bums. Luxury tourists looking for a pretty place to vegetate, movie stars willing to pay top-dollar for their privacy, and more lovers, perhaps, than any other country in the world. These doe-eyed travellers fascinate me the most. They come here to pamper themselves, to mute out the world, to claim their piece of paradise, if only for a few days. And yet, they seem the least seduced by Maldives’s charms. They ooh and aah like the rest of us, but really, have eyes only for each other—it’s enviable and tragic at the same time. My own fascination with this island country has extended well below the surface. The beaches are stunning of course, but I want more of the blue.
Feather stars are commonly seen by divers exploring the deep blue. Photo: Franco Banfi/Getty Images
I can barely hear my lanky dive instructor over the roar of the motorboat. He is saying something about having three regulators strapped on to me, in case one malfunctions. We’re skimming the turquoise waters and the dive site is about half an hour away. “I’m going to be with you the whole time,” he says, “so don’t freak out, okay?” I have been reduced to a bobblehead. I’m nodding a mile-a-minute, my palms are sweaty, and I cannot stop grinning like a lunatic. I’ve waited years for this and to be taking the leap in the Maldives seems like a real blessing. Firsts don’t get more spectacular than this. I take a deep breath, put my right hand on my mask, and jump in.
All the talk in the world doesn’t prepare you for the sensation of falling in the sea. As soon as my jacket is deflated, the weights strapped to my waist band take over and I begin to descend, achingly slowly. It’s a few degrees colder and all I see before me is an empty expanse that threatens to swallow me whole. Occasionally, a lone fish darts out of the oblivion, making me jump in my suit. I sink some more, clutching the instructor’s hand, holding tighter than I’ve ever held anyone before. Even the blue of the mighty Indian Ocean can’t mask the white of my knuckles.
The real Maldives though, lies beneath the surface. Go diving to see spiral coral. Photo: Reinhard Dirscheri
I am suddenly, keenly aware of how laboured my breathing sounds in my ears. (Why didn’t anybody tell me I’d sound like Darth Vader down here?) I feel pressure building and clogging up my ears. My pulse quickens and though my breathing is fine, my ears refuse to acclimatise. “Get out! Get out!” my mind screams. Viscerally conscious of how this silent, still blue thickness is not my natural environment, I persevere for one more sinking metre, and then another. Nails dig into the instructor’s hand. Friends have described dives as liberating, meditative even. To me, at this moment, it feels unnerving, alien, life-threatening. At some point, I look up and see a halo of sunlight, a good distance above my head. That’s when full-blown paranoia kicks in.
I spend the next 90 minutes shuttling between the surface and a depth of three metres, in a futile effort to get past this crippling fear. The instructor tries to cajole me into trying one last time. “The reef is magnificent,” he says. “More fish than you can imagine,” he says to tempt me, but I can’t.
Dejected, I haul myself out of the sea and sulk all the way back to the hotel. The others have spent their evening dolphin-watching and return with videos that will make friends back home green with envy. They saw dozens of dolphins, clicking, swishing, and pirouetting by the boat. I slink away from the merry crowd to nurse my wounds alone with a stiff gin and tonic by the bar.
Maldives does its best to soothe this hurt with blushing sunsets, shallow ocean sightings, and by sheathing me in luxury. I swim with a massive turtle, encounter a manta ray in the reef around Anantara Dhigu, a plush but intimate resort in a nearby atoll. Anantara has a cluster of three hotels—for families, couples, and movie stars—and is in an atoll frequented by whale sharks. I could go kitesurfing and parasailing, or kayak to an uninhabited island a few kilometres away with a picnic lunch and an icebox full of pre-mixed cocktails. It’s a tempting idea, but I choose a snorkelling trip instead and am richly rewarded.
Meeru, among the Maldives’s oldest resorts, has a strong party vibe. Happy Hour signboards urge us to have another round of tequila, maybe some fish tacos, and let us know there’s a band playing on the beach later. At the large island resort, golf carts ferry bronzed guests between basketball courts, a mini-golf race course, tennis lawns, and six bars. It’s more crowded than the others but also more laidback. I’ve got a water villa at Meeru, which is a suite on stilts above the ocean. From the porch with steps leading to the sea, I watch sting rays and dozens of reef sharks. The more time I spend in the water, the more I realise that I need to get over that first dive.
In the Maldives, a photo-op is never more than a few steps away, and some hotels have in-house photographers who can be hired by the hour. Photo: Maisant Ludovic/Getty Imagesclick me
I excuse myself from dinner early, leaving the drinking, bobbing crowds to spend some time alone. A nice, hot soak in the Jacuzzi had seemed like a good way to spend my last night, but it feels too manicured now. Not with the sea a few steps away. Drink in hand, I settle on the porch, my legs dangling, toes grazing the ocean. I go over the dive again in my head. Why had I freaked out the way I did? But then I think, why should it have been any different? I had put myself in an environment entirely alien to me, and I’d reacted instinctively. Not in a manner most favourable perhaps, but not ridiculously out of line either. In a strange way, the experience had given me more clarity than ever.
A grey fin breaks the surface of water, and I see the snout of a reef shark move in my direction. It’s an adult, a gorgeous creature, at least two feet long and I am mesmerised by its movement. I’m acutely aware that, beautiful as it is, this is a fragile ecosystem and one that we seem perilously unable to protect. Conservationists say it could be as little as a decade before global warming claims the Maldives.
I watch the shark glide through the shallow water, casting shadows on the marbled water of the lagoon. I have two choices: I can stick to snorkelling the oceans for the rest of my life, or I can give it another shot.
Instant connections are great, but some things require time and effort. I will never know what love-at-first-dive is like, but my first encounter with the ocean has been life-changing in more significant ways. So I make myself a promise: When I return home to Mumbai, I’m going to book myself a four-day dive course in the Andamans. I will get acquainted with the process, slowly; ease myself into the ocean and eventually, I will learn to dive. Not because it’s on a brochure or because it’s the thing to do in a place like this. But for myself, and for the wealth of experiences that await me. Seventy per cent of the planet is just too much to miss out on.
Among the many, vivid creatures that call these waters home are anemone fish. Photo: Rene Frederic/Dinodia
The Republic of Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 islands (about 300 inhabited) spread over 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean. It lies about 600 kilometres southwest of India. Malé is the capital and most populated city in the island nation. The airport, flanked by glittering azure waters, is on Hulhule Island and has among the most beautiful airstrips in the world. It is a 15-minute speedboat ride from Malé.
Maldivian Air has direct non-stop flights from Chennai and Trivandrum to Malé, and Air India has non-stop flights to Malé from Chennai and Bengaluru. Flying to Malé from most other Indian cities requires a transfer in one of these cities or a short layover in Colombo. Travelling between islands requires planning ahead. Dhonis (local boats) offer transfers between the airport and Malé, and some other islands, but getting to most resorts requires speedboat or seaplane transfers. Speedboat transfers range from $90-250/₹5,500-15,473 per head depending on the distance. Seaplane transfers can set you back anywhere from $300-700/₹21,600-43,326 for a round trip (transmaldivian.com). Some hotels will work the cost of the transfer into room rates, especially off-season. If you score a seat on a seaplane, make sure it’s by the window, and keep your camera handy. The views of the lagoons and atolls are mesmerising. For our guide to hotels for every budget, see here.
A free, 30-day visa on arrival is issued to travellers of all nationalities provided they have a valid passport, return tickets, and adequate funds. The Maldivian currency is the rufiyaa but tourists have little need for it (except if shopping in Malé’s vegetable and fish markets). American dollars, credit cards, and debit cards are accepted at all souvenir stalls and resorts.
The Maldives’s proximity to the equator ensures it has balmy weather around the year (26 to 30°C). There is little difference in temperature between high and low season; what varies is the humidity. During peak season, which stretches from November to April, the region receives light, occasional rainfall. Low season begins in May and extends until September, bringing temperamental weather and heavier, more frequent showers. Save for June however, the rains aren’t heavy enough to dampen a holiday. Room rates at hotels are significantly cheaper during off-season; water clarity is minimally affected by the monsoon.
Most resorts have scuba shacks with PADI-certified instructors. First-timers can go on assisted dives with experienced instructors, or take longer certification courses that can last a few days or a few weeks (from $50/₹3,100 per dive depending on the resort; gear rental free). Visit Dive Advice and PADI websites for information on specific atolls. All resorts take guests on free daily snorkelling trips to reefs in and around neighbouring atolls. The boats generally leave around noon every day and require prior registration. Snorkelling excursions generally last about two hours.
Appeared in the Jan 2015 issue as “Blue Planet”.
• The island nation is an Islamic state and alcohol consumption on islands inhabited by locals (like Malé) is strictly prohibited. Dress conservatively in the capital, especially when visiting mosques.
• Don’t expect to go island-hopping. Transport between islands is limited and expensive. The odds are that you’ll spend all your time in your resort, so choose carefully based on what your priorities are. Some resorts have cheap room rates but pricey food and alcohol.
• Not all resorts have a home reef, a ring of coral that surrounds the island. The lack of a house reef does not discount encounters with colourful fish, but you might miss out on a wealth of sea life. That being said, even hotels without a home reef take guests on daily snorkelling trips to other spots in the atoll.
is Nat Geo Traveller India's perpetually hungry Web Editor. She loves exploring food markets or better still, foraging for new kitchen ingredients. She hopes to have a farm near the mountains someday. She tweets and instagrams as @nehasumitran.
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