My first flight was leaving from Frankfurt. Luckily, my brother works for Lufthansa and can get cheap flights so he came with me to see me off. After a painful goodbye, I found myself onboard my Condor flight straight to the Maldives. If you can choose another airline do so, I was not very happy with Condor… not much leg space, no good service, no good in-flight entertainment (and I love in-flight entertainment!). It was the only direct flight so I didn’t really have a choice! In the Maldives, I was going to be a part of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme for two weeks. So, I hope I can give you some Madlives tips and tricks.
Getting to the Maldives
Condor or no condor, nothing will beat the moment of my arrival. I had just opened my eyes when I spotted the first islands in the warm light of the rising sun. This fascinating moment of pure beauty literally made me cry. I have to say I didn’t expect there to be so many islands. Every resort is on a separate island. The airport is an island on its own as well and the capital Malé a separate island directly next to it which you can reach by ferry all day long. I took it on my last day in the middle of the night to visit some local friends. As for now, I did have no other choice than trusting the pilot that he knew what he was doing and I just kept hoping we wouldn’t end up in the ocean when preparing for landing. It all worked out perfectly.
Maldives Travel Tips
Immigration at the border control went smoothly, I didn’t even have to show the verification statement for my medication (the Maldives were the strictest country on my route in regards to bringing medication into the country). The airport is small and well organized. There are several counters and water taxi stands where personnel is already awaiting excited tourists to bring them to their fancy as resorts. I had a different plan in mind. Awestruck by the brightest turquoise water I have ever seen I excited the airport to get to the domestic terminal located right next to the international terminal. There is no other way to put it – the terminal is just ugly! My plan was to make my way to one of the local islands. I made sure to withdraw enough cash since I knew I couldn’t get any on my island. You won’t need much cash, though. That became my constant routine – arriving, immigration, hoping my backpack didn’t get lost, using the airport Wi-Fi to let parents know you’re alive, getting local currency…starting the adventure!
Basic information on the Maldives
The Maldives consist of a number of 26 atolls. To get to the southern atolls you will need to take a domestic flight to another local airport. FlyMe is the only operator in the Maldives handling those flights. For your return flight, FlyMe will ask you when your international flight is so they can plan your domestic flight around that. Definitely tell them an earlier time so you will get a seat on an earlier plane. They don’t calculate a buffer time in and their planes are always (!) delayed – a friend missed her international connection back to the States because of it and she was NOT happy!
My domestic flight took me to Maamigili Island. From there you either take a water taxi to your island or in my case a dhoni (local boats) picked me up. My first day already brought me more joy than I could have possibly imagined. Once I had boarded our dhoni ‘Dolphin’ I spontaneously ended up spending the whole day on it, including snorkeling and watching the sunset while swimming in the calm and warm sea. If I had known then that this beautiful boat was going to be our research vessel for the next 2 weeks I would have been even more excited.
The island we stayed at was a local island with the name Dhigurah which means ‘long island’. We were staying at TME Retreats which was organized through the project for us. Good options (especially for divers) on the island are the Boutique Beach Hotel and Island Divers. It’s Muslim culture around here so you will have to cover up on the island but will be fine out on the boat.
Whale Sharks in the Maldives
The Marine Protected Area (MPA) surrounding Dhigurah is the biggest area of a total of 31 MPAs in the Maldives. This was our ‘office’ every day. We would board our research vessel in the morning, take lunch with us and spend the whole day out on the reef looking for whale sharks squeezing in a short workout session every 30 min. (‘What time is it? It’s squat o’clock!’). 97% of the population in the Maldives are male sharks of a certain age. Whale sharks are a mystery and no one knows why this is the case and where they are the rest of their lives.
Your tasks as a member of the Whale Shark Research Team
Our main research work included logging data on boats and megafauna spotted in the MPA as well as collecting environmental data at fixed nautical coordinates. Whenever we would spot a shark we would get in the water to swim with it – swim as in swim cautiously not disturbing or touching it! We would film the whole encounter with the GoPro to be able to analyze the shark’s body language later. It was also important to define the sex of the shark. Finally, we would check for scars and injuries. Sadly, every shark we encountered had some kind of injury mostly caused by tourist boats. Whale Sharks have the incredible ability to heal themselves within a short amount of time which is an aspect extremely interesting for the field of medical research all over the world.
How to measure a Whale Shark’s ‘Fingerprint’
Every shark we encountered was also measured and most importantly identified by their unique fingerprint. This fingerprint is a certain area on the shark’s body that will always have to be captured in a picture and later entered in the data system to identify the shark. Therefore, the picture is uploaded and remarkable spots on the shark’s skin within a pre-defined area are highlighted. The system then calculates a match and gives out an identification number. This internationally operated identification system was originally developed in the Maldives to keep track of the sharks. The ID is then entered in the Whale Shark App and will give out a profile of the shark. If none of the above results in a match – congratulations, you have found a new shark and have the honor of naming it! On any ‘no shark’ day, the system would respond ‘Oh I am sorry you didn’t see any whale shark today, did you maybe see any other wildlife?’ – such a cute touch.
My first Whale Shark
I won’t forget my first encounter. It was a male, ‘Noomara’ 4.89 m, and he allowed us to swim with him for around 42 minutes which is really rare. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and can get up to 12m in length, though some individuals have been spotted with a length of 17m. Throughout my time in the Maldives, we saw around 8 sharks (the biggest was 7.56m), plenty of reef sharks, turtles, dolphins, rays, octopus and I am still quite certain I also saw a tiger shark further away.
Another highlight was our ‘Manta Day’. We probably felt like the luckiest people on the planet ‘dancing’ around with the big giants of the ocean in the beautiful water of the Maldives. There is a similar identification system for manta rays which a research team in the Philippines developed. We managed to get the relevant fingerprint shots of the mantas’ bellies and had them send over to the coordinator via email. We received a response with the mantas names and cute little stories about each manta (‘He’s a very cheeky one’).
A Plastic Ocean – an unpleasant waste problem
Experiencing the Maldives in such a local manner was a gift. With time we became a part of the local community and also got to experience all the issues that are not that obvious to tourists. Sadly there is no thorough waste management system in the Maldives which results in corporations simply dumping their waste, either into the ocean or on a so-called ‘waste island’. It is not recycled in any kind of way so it mostly ends up in the ocean. We participated in beach cleanups where we collected tons of waste just within hours. It’s the sad truth.
Reflecting on amazing moments
On our last day, we took a moment with our team, just us at the beach. And in the peaceful silence of the early morning hours we watched the sunrise. We gave ourselves some time to reflect on all the unique moments that were a part of us now. And with a final ‘Oh my god Lisa you’re so dark…you switched to Maldivian’ we went our separate ways. And I also took something else with me: the realization that I had just conquered one of my biggest fears. I was always afraid of the deep blue sea and deep waters in general. Before coming to the Maldives I didn’t even know if I could really fulfill my duties as a member of the research team. But I chose to face those fears and in the end surprisingly they turned into pure fascination. Since then, as soon as I slide in the water I just feel whole and it’s a beautiful feeling. This experience made me realize that you never know what you’re capable of unless you give it an honest try!
Standing in line at the airport to board my plane, I watched the waves crashing towards shore. And I was thinking of those amazing whale shark giants that were somewhere out there. And I could feel a tear running down my cheek.
~ Ready for a culture shock in Hong Kong ~