Shipwrecks, snorkelling and coral reefs: the Maldives by small-ship cruise

Island-hopping offers the chance to go wherever the winds take you: meet local people, commune with tropical fish, sip a bottle of rum on a desert island. 

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The ship has seen better days. It’s leaning for one thing, to the port side and the point of near-capsizing. The bridge, ordinarily the source of all life on board, is dark, emanating the kind of macabre magnetic energy that simultaneously fascinates and unnerves. There are gaping holes in the hull, which is corroded from many years of exposure to the elements, with a rusty bike chained above with a large, black eel sprawled languidly in its basket. A shoal of bright orange anthias clouds around the stern, a whirl of startling technicolour in a world of muted blues. 

The Keyodhoo shipwreck has lain, half submerged and caked in coral, in the Felidhu Atoll for half a decade. Even its origin story is mysterious — some say it’s an Indonesian vessel that drifted empty into the island constellation one day. My guide — 28-year-old Mohamed Hailam, or Hai to his friends — thinks it’s a Maldivian supply boat that ran aground on the reef. He’s freediving several feet below where I’m snorkelling, taking a closer look at the bridge where the controls lie calcified in the positions of their final voyage, his long, black fins pumping methodically. On each one is a map of the Maldives, the islands picked out in brilliant white. Hai was born in Laamu Atoll, many nautical miles to the south, and now lives like many locals do, shifting from island to island with the sands but always inevitably drawn back to Malé, the capital.

We’re sailing aboard the Sea Farer, an 88ft-long white-and-green timber ship with seven ensuite rooms, on a leisurely week-long voyage of the South Malé and Felidhu atolls with G Adventures, journeying amid a scattering of islands that are like so many iridescent fish scales. It’s the perfect way to see the Maldives for those who don’t simply want to lie on a beach — island-hopping wherever the winds take us, stopping for forays in a rigid inflatable boat to snorkel the coral reefs and sip shared bottles of rum on diminutive blots of white sand, with platters of sweet, sticky dates and coconut for after. Before very long, each day falls into the same easy rhythm: swim, eat, nap, repeat.

On the surface, there’s not much to do in the Maldives — and that’s part of the appeal for many. The Indian Ocean stretches to the horizon, perfectly flat, ending in a smudged line where it joins with the mirrored turquoise of the sky. The rocking of the boat lulls you into that relaxed halfway point between waking and dreaming; the humid air is hot and still, like a warm bath. It smells of salt and sun cream. In the far distance you might see the dark crest of one of the 1,190 or so islands, emerging from the water like the shell of a hawksbill turtle coming up to gulp a breath. But mostly it’s just sea, endless sea. Turn a full circle and there’s a chance you’ll see nothing but sea and sky. 

To discover more, you must go beneath the surface. Hundreds of millions of fish — among them Clark’s anemonefish, stately Moorish idols, vivid oriental sweetlips and Kashmir snappers — live here in vast forests of coral. There are sea cucumbers, starfish and nudibranchs beneath formations that resemble African acacia trees. Around them are parrotfish, butterflyfish and rays. Enormous, whiskered nurse sharks, their glassy eyes aloof, cruise the deeper fringes, followed by skittish black tips and turtles.

One evening, with Hai and some of my fellow guests — a pair of French-speaking Canadians, an Afrikaans pharmacist, a film starlet’s British body double — I pull up a chair on the aft deck to watch a trio of dolphins undulating in and out of the inky depths on a fishing expedition. One by one, they select wriggling needlefish, which have been drawn to the surface by our ship’s floodlights, home in on them and gulp them down whole. One dolphin, which has been hiding behind our towed inflatable boat, waits for his quarry to pass and then surges forwards with a few powerful swishes of his tail, leaving behind nothing but a little glittery puff of scales.

Turning the tides

It’s a few days later, mid-afternoon in the harbour. Men are swinging idly in their hammocks beneath the coconut palms a few steps from the water, their plastic flip-flops strewn haphazardly on the sand. A group of women sit huddled on a nearby wall, their covered heads together in the universal sign that they’re engaged in excellent gossip. Children in knock-off football shirts are yelping and whooping as they clatter their little metal scooters around a concrete play track; beyond, another gaggle is playing hide and seek. One of the smaller boys crouches down behind me, grinning breathlessly, his tousled black hair shiny in the sun. When the others can’t find him, he runs and does a triumphant slide in the sand on his knees towards them, sending the grains skittering everywhere and the other kids hooting towards him. Two uniformed police officers ride past on a hot-pink moped.

We’re on Felidhoo, a residential island (population: around 450) in the Felidhu Atoll, dotted with minarets and a pair of tall, candy-striped radio towers — the tallest things for miles. Hai files us past the mosque, the hospital and the school, his flip-flops crunching on the sand dusting the dirt road. “This is one of the few main islands where local people live,” he says as we stroll. “All of the others are too small for more than a handful of people, or belong to the resorts.” On the latter, alcohol and western-style bathing suits are permitted; here, indecent tourists are shielded from public view by the tall fences that surround the public Bikini Beach. He leads us past a single-storey structure that’s little more than a few sheets of corrugated iron and metal scaffolding poles. Outside, there’s a black motorbike leaning against an aviary of chittering budgerigars. “That’s the power plant,” he says, gesturing to the building. “It generates electricity for the entire island.” 

Up the road, fruit bats are swooping and loop-the-looping overhead between java apple and breadfruit trees. Beneath them, locals recline in plastic chairs amid hanging vines of fuchsia bougainvillea, sheltering in the shade away from the blistering midday heat. One man, the lenses of his thick-rimmed glasses fogging slightly from the humidity, gets up from his seat and offers us mangoes from his tree. I ask him how much they are. “Free,” he says, shaking his head, his palms outstretched. It’s the domestic side of the Maldives that few tourists ever see. We take the man up on his offer — and they’re the sweetest mangoes I’ve ever tasted.

As we continue, Hai says that many islands like this are already feeling the effects of climate change. He explains how more than 80% of the Maldives stands at less than a metre above sea level, making it the lowest country in the world. Global sea levels are rising between three and four millimetres every year, with some predicting greater rises in the coming decades; climate scientists have forecast that by the end of this century, the Maldives could be almost completely submerged, helped along by the bleaching of the reefs which act as natural barriers. 

To turn the tide, Hulhumalé island, a man-made ark laden with tower blocks, is under construction at a comparatively lofty two metres above sea level just northeast of Malé, and sand is being dredged from the centre of the atolls to preserve locals’ existing homes — damaging the reefs they rely on for food and tourism even further in the process. It’s reminiscent of trying to bail out a sinking ship. 

“I am worried,” Hai admits, frowning and crossing his arms over a T-shirt depicting two crossed surf boards. His trademark is a full-body laugh that makes him hunch over, but now he’s unusually serious. “None of our islands are safe, and if sea levels rise any more there will be nothing we can do.” Behind him, the children of Felidhoo are still playing, blissfully oblivious to what is happening to their home. By the time they reach their parents’ ages, it could all be gone. 

The way north

It’s nearing our final day, and we’re anchored beside a desert island, Bongo Veli, that’s little more than a drop of sand in the gargantuan expanse of the Felidhu Atoll. It’s nearing dusk and Hai has opened the bar — a battered blue cooler box. As I walk the five minutes around the island’s perimeter, carefully stepping over hermit crabs scuttling for the safety of the foamy surf, I spot a tiny mangrove seedling planted at the centre, its rounded fronds barely tall enough to brush my ankle. A previous visitor has placed a ring of spiney, bleached white coral shards around it, as if to cast a protective enchantment. “When you plant a tree, its roots start to grow and it prevents the sand from being eroded,” says Hai, pulling on his straw hat. “People plant them to make the island stronger.”

A little farther ahead, at the head of a meandering trail of footprints in the sand, Annette Arbuckle, fellow guest and retired clerk from the Los Angeles Superior Court, comes to a stop. This is her 22nd trip with G Adventures, and on her travels she’s abseiled into a Vietnamese cave system and hiked three hours to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan — the latter at the age of 73, three years previously. She’s wearing a loose pink dress that’s billowing gently in the warm breeze and a colourful bandana pulled tight over her blonde hair, a can of Tiger beer in her hand. She’s looking back towards the Sea Farer with a glazed expression, and as I draw nearer I can see her cheeks are damp in the amber light of the setting sun. “It’s not every day you get to walk around an entire island,” she says breezily as she sees me approaching, before adding almost to herself: “I’m just so happy to be here.”

The next morning, after a group breakfast of warm chapatis and Maldivian mas huni, a zingy mix of tuna, onion, coconut and chilli, we chart a course north back to Malé, the ship’s bow setting off flying fish like fireworks. As we cross back into the flat and seemingly nondescript expanse of the Rihiveli Lagoon, in the South Malé atoll, we stop for one last snorkel. And find the best was saved for last.

I hear them coming immediately. Unlike nurse sharks, which so far have had a slightly unnerving way of drifting silent and uninvited into the peripherals, spinner dolphins announce their intended course. It starts with a distant clicking, like pebbles being dropped onto pebbles — only detectable with your head fully submerged — then shifts as the creatures grow nearer into an almost electronic squeaking, like an antique radio being tuned. The sound gets louder and louder as they power into range with their muscular tails, faster than the fastest Olympic swimmer. 

All at once my mind is flooded with their chatter. It’s so loud I can almost feel it. Maybe I can feel it, it’s hard to say. Spluttering, I pull my head above the water, and I can still make it out. I dip back under, and they emerge through the murk: what must be hundreds of dorsal-finned spectres heaving themselves through the gloaming towards me. They turn this way and that as one in aquatic murmuration, slip-streamed, swift and strong. Each one is lit in the tremulous shards of light penetrating the surface; soon they’re close enough for me to make out their stripes, fading from elephant grey to eggshell, and their beady black eyes. 

All I can do is watch and float, paralysed by the spectacle, rising and falling in rhythm with the deep, lingering breaths of the tide. How long were they there, I wonder, these dolphins? Were they there all along? They’re a reminder that, while the Maldives may on first glance seem flat and empty, a place far from the rigours of everyday life offering little more to do than doze in perfect Indian Ocean sunshine, there’s far more to be discovered if you look beneath the surface.

The Essentials

What should I bring?

Aside from the usual essentials, it’s worth bringing a waterproof camera such as a GoPro, a dry bag for safely transporting non-waterproof items to islands and a quick-dry towel. Don’t bring your own snorkel gear and flippers if you’re travelling on an organised tour, as this is usually provided. That said, it’s worth investing in a prescription snorkel mask if you usually wear glasses. If travelling on a cruise, bring a small, soft-sided suitcase rather than a hard-shelled one, as you will have to be comfortable carrying it on and off boats and space is usually limited. Bring everything you think you’ll need, as shops can be few and far between away from the residential islands.

What should I wear?

With most activities focused around the ocean, you’ll generally spend the majority of your time in your swimming gear, so it’s worth bringing a spare to wear while the other is drying. The sun can be strong in this part of the world, so it’s also good to bring a decent hat, high-factor sun cream and a long-sleeved shirt to wear while swimming. Bring modest clothing for visits to any residential islands (which are more conservative than the resorts) including loose, long-sleeved shirts and light trousers or a dress that falls below the knee. 

How can I stay safe while I’m snorkelling?

While the waters around the Maldives are generally safe, the usual hazards of open ocean swimming apply. Ensure you can swim without the help of a floatation device and follow the advice of a guide. Be sure you’re aware of your surroundings and stay with the group at all times. It’s worth also knowing how to escape a riptide: swim parallel to the shore, out of the path of the current.

Is there any danger from sharks or other wildlife?

While sharks in the Maldives, from nurse sharks and whale sharks to white tips and black tips, are generally harmless, tiger sharks, which can be more aggressive, visit the atolls at the far south of the country and their presence can never be ruled out. Avoid touching any reefs, both to protect them from damage and to avoid being stung or bitten by wildlife such as scorpionfish and stonefish. As a rule, keep your distance from wildlife at all times — even turtles can bite if provoked.

How much should I allow for spending money and tips?

There are no ATMs outside of Malé, so make sure you bring all of the cash you will need with you. US dollars are the best currency as the Maldivian Rufiyaa is non-convertible and cannot be purchased beforehand. It’s customary to tip service providers such as waiters around 10% of the final bill, and ship crew around US$10-15 (£8-12) per person per day. For religious reasons, alcohol isn’t available for purchase on residential islands though it is on resorts and on board ships — but it can be expensive: budget around US$40 (£31) for a mediocre bottle of wine.

Published in the Indian Ocean supplement, distributed with the September 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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