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Cruising the Maldives on a Coconut Log

“He said for some reason that the schnellboot – the fast boat—is not available.  We have to get up now and go.”  I shielded my eyes and peered down at my watch.  It was three in the morning and the flashlight being held on our faces by some unseen figure in the darkness was both disorienting and extremely irritating.  Robyn groaned.  “I knew it…we’re going over on one of those coconut log things…I just knew it.” 

We were on the island of Bathala in the Ari atoll of the Maldives, near the equator, southwest of India.  This was the beginning of the end of our Maldivian adventure, but it was the start of a voyage that gave us fresh appreciation for the oceanic wanderings of migratory peoples in dugout canoes and balsa rafts.  Bathala had been developed as a diving destination by German divers—hence the promise of a schnellboot to speed us on our way home.

There was another sleep-deprived couple making the same passage.  Jeremy and Brenda were honeymooners from Dublin who, like us, had expected a smooth and rapid transfer to Malé much later in the morning aboard this fabled, but not yet seen by anyone we could find, schnellboot.
In the predawn darkness, the two Maldivian crew members fussed over us somewhat. Light from their lanterns splashed a safe path for our feet as we stepped down from the dock, sensed the now-familiar smell of fish oil and diesel fuel, ducked under the framework of the shade canopy, and felt the motorized dhoni dip under our weight.  Without a word of English, they gently and politely organized us so that we sat two people on each side of the dhoni, properly stowed our dive bags forward, and offered us slices of papaya and bottles of water. 

A third Maldivian was asleep in what must have been discomfort—in a fetal position on the boards that braced the stern of the dhoni.  He remained motionless and comatose, occasionally swept by the beam of a flashlight, while the other crewmembers jerked the engine awake with a hand crank, cast off the mooring ropes, and swung the dhoni around toward the channel that led from the lagoon, through the reef, and into the open sea.  We mused on the reason for this third crewmember being here.
“Must be to help unload the baggage.”
“Maybe just a local passenger heading to Malé.”
“I wonder if he’s okay; might be ill?” 
“He’d be a lot better if the schnellboot was here…and so would I!” Robyn fumed.

We were in deep water as soon as we’d transited the short natural channel connecting the lagoon with the open sea and passed over the steep slope of the island’s fringing reef.  All 1,200 Maldivian islands sit atop coral reefs that have grown, and are still growing, on the gradually sinking basalt mountain peaks of the Chagos-Laccadive ridge—a rumpled spine of volcanic rock squeezed like toothpaste out of a tube from a southerly drifting puncture in the earth’s undersea crust. 

Upwelling molten lava cooled, hardened, accumulated in staggering amounts, and created north-south ridges extending over 1,500 kilometers and reaching close to the surface of the sea, if not through it.  Warm-water coral polyps, drifting free across the ocean in their larval stages, found these basalt ridges ideal territory for starting a family and began the speck-by-speck process of building massive reefs from their limestone secretions.  As basalt continued to accumulate, the sheer weight of it caused the earth’s crust beneath the ridge to slowly sink.  But the corals kept building upward toward the sun and the surf at about the same rate as their foundations were subsiding under them.  Every thousand or so years, the corals built a few centimeters of new reef. 

Today, pure coral deposits 1,200- to 1,400-meters-thick encrusting these basalt ridges create the chains of islands we know as the Laccadives, Maldives, and, at the extreme southern end, Chagos.  This is why the beaches of the Maldives are so blindingly white; there is no rock other than pure chalk-white coral in these islands for the sea to grind into sand.  None of the islands is higher than three meters above sea level.  There are no hills, no valleys, no rivers, and therefore no silt to run off and cloud the water—so we’d had some wonderful experiences here.

The first came at dawn on our first morning.  After landing at Malé late at night, we’d been assigned a temporary room on the island of Furana, just across from Malé International Aiport, itself a small coral island extended to yield enough area to accommodate a runway. Lights blazing in the moments after takeoff, our Singapore Airlines jumbo thundered low overhead as we puttered across to Furana in a small dinghy.  In the morning, we were to be picked up by a boat that would take us the 60 kilometers to Bathala. 

As soon as it was half light, I couldn’t lie in bed wondering.  I grabbed snorkel gear and walked the ten meters from our bed to the water, scattering fiddler crabs in sideways panic as I crossed the gently sloping beach. 

It was a relatively long swim across the coral-rubble littered lagoon.  Without stopping to lift and peer under slabs of rubble, there wasn’t much to see, either.  A few small parrotfish.  A pair of silvery jacks, patrolling the early morning calm of the shallow clear water.  An occasional juvenile clown triggerfish bumping its nose down into holes in the sand in search of food. 
It was the drop-off of the reef that I wanted to see, and I kept plodding quietly along staring into the pale blue horizon between the transparent surface of the lagoon and the creamy-gray bottom.  Deepening indigo gradually replaced the pale blue as the open sea beyond the reef edge started to fade into view.  Silently, but in just the same way that the low thumping bass raises excitement and anticipation before the opening act of a rock concert, the intensifying color acted as a spur to my eagerness, and I dug my fins in hard to speed toward the reef edge. 

Riotous color and activity drew a gasp of disbelief from me—the full scope of life on a Maldivian reef backdropped by the rich blue of deep water shot with the first rays of the sun.  Blue and yellow tangs,  purple fairy basslets, silver jacks lined in iridescent mauve, a small black and white manta, swarms of sardines, lavender and lemon butterfly fish, and countless colorful reef fish that I’d never seen before milled in erratic kaleidoscopic disarray.

“Robyn!  ROBYN!”  I raised my head, spat out my snorkel mouthpiece, and called to her across the lagoon.  Warm yellow sunlight was starting to gild the tops of the frayed fronds of the coconut palms that clothe Furana, as they do most of these classic coral islands.  I couldn’t help but try to call her out to share this moment, but the distance was too great and her jet-lagged slumber too deep for her to hear me.  Solitude in the sea is, for me, time to be treasured, but it comes distant second to sharing time and experience with my life’s traveling companion.  I called again, but when her familiar form didn’t emerge from the beachfront bungalow, I returned to my solo swim along the edge of the reef, consoling myself with the knowledge that there would be another week of mornings like this.

Bathala was even more spectacular.  Nearly 60 kilometers away from Malé, it had seen fewer people and less development.  It is small.  We swam around the whole island in one lengthy snorkeling session several times.  We took air cylinders from the small dive store and dived deeper along sections of the island’s reef.  We paid local boat owners to take us to more distant dive spots amid the maze of coral islands that sprinkle this remote tract of ocean.  Everywhere we went, we were confronted by the same vivid and animated profusion of life.

Strong currents sweep through the atolls of the Maldives.  With care, though, it was usually possible to intersperse exhilarating drifts with the current along deeper reefs with quiet and private exploration of delicate coral gardens tucked into nooks in the lee of the reefs.  On days when the currents eased, we could spend more time exploring individual tila—coral formations rising from the seabed.  Undercut and perforated with fissures and caves, tila create rich habitat. 

Our diving logbooks record eels thick as my arm sharing deep-shaded crevices with exquisitely delicate porcelain crabs and even smaller, wisp-thin shrimp marked in lavender and cream.  On the shoulders of the tila clustered enormous stinging anemones, bulging, baggy bags in pinks, oranges, and blues, each with their own families of immune anemone fish living safely within the crowns of waving tentacles.  Scorpion fish lay motionless among the corals, heavily tasseled and disguised, waiting for their next unsuspecting meal to come along.  All the while, swirling blizzards of sleek blue and yellow rainbow runners and flighty fusiliers circled and dipped, veered and swarmed all around us. 

On one occasion, a large rainbow runner dropped out of its school and braked to an abrupt halt right in front of me, mouth open, gills flared, just centimeters from the sandy bottom.  It was instantly attended by two tiny cleaner wrasse, fearlessly picking and nipping away at irritating parasites in the runner’s mouth and gill rakers.  Their flitting dance had flagged the presence of their cleaning station to the passing shoals of fish.  In some mysterious way, the runner had interpreted their signals and zoomed in for a service.  Job finished, the wrasse flicked out of the way like mechanics in a Formula One pit stop, and the GT Runner accelerated away like a silent McLaren to rejoin the race for food and survival.

Robyn saw her first shark here.  Silvery bronze, a whaler of some kind, it swept in from out of the blue behind us, slowed to swim alongside us, and then fluidly accelerated until it had disappeared ahead of us.  A beautiful fish, barely dipping into its reserve of power and speed to leave us behind.  Robyn spent the remainder of that dive mastering the art of swimming with her arms tightly folded and her knees positioned neatly under her chin.  Every attempt I made to pry loose a hand that I could hold was firmly resisted.

In the pleasant cool damp of first light, we often walked barefoot to the beach to watch the departure of fishing dhonis, which had sailed soundlessly into the tiny harbor sometime after sunset.  Softly billowing in the breezes that barely ruffled the water, their triangular, lateen sails crept the dhonis forward toward their daytime fishing grounds.  These were scenes out of history. 

Arab seafarers first reached these waters probably 2,500 hundred years ago, when they began trading with the original Indian and Ceylonese settlers of the Maldives.  It is difficult to consider such a sprawling archipelago to be a crossroads but, strewn as they are across the main sea trade route connecting Africa, India, and China, it was inevitable that the Maldives would evolve from a blend of cultures.  It is certain that early Chinese warrior-merchants knew these islands, and there’s some hint that the Romans did, too.  But it is the Arabs who made the most permanent impression, and the dhonis, closely related to dhows and feluccas, are evocative reminders of the Arab heritage of the Maldives.

No one knows when the first coconuts came ashore here, either as cargo or as flotsam, cast adrift from a beach somewhere in the western Pacific.  Like the corals millions of years before them, they found ideal conditions, and proliferated in the high humidity and well-drained sands of the Maldivian beaches.  In abundance, they yielded materials for trade, food, and shelter.  Preserved from sun and water by applications of fish oil, their tough and fibrous trunks also proved to be an ideal resource for the skilled boat builders of the atolls. 

Gracefully inefficient, built simply from local and familiar materials, embracing the wind, gently pressing their hulls through the sea, enabling modest yet sufficient catches, dhonis, like the coracles of Ireland, the kayaks of Greenland, the Polynesian outrigger canoes, and even the couta boats of southern Australia, seem to me to be the embodiment of harmony between people and their natural environment. 

This is pure romanticism, of course.  We couldn’t survive in our billions if we could rely only on such unsophisticated technology.  Harmony, as we travel inexorably toward our future, will depend on our human capacity to learn, innovate, and adapt. 

Virtually every commercial fish stock in the world is in some degree of collapse through over fishing. Fish farms, automated and insulated from the natural world, will most likely become the means of feeding the global village with fish protein.  There are problems associated with fish farming—the introduction of antibiotics, pollution from fish-farm effluent, escape of genetically changed farm stock.  But, by reducing the cost of production, fish farms will also probably be the most effective means for protecting what remains of the wild fish stocks.  Handicapped with uncompetitive high costs of production compared with fish farming, industrial wild-stock fishing will probably be unable to justify the current levels of government subsidies that today keep the big fleets afloat.  If that happens, open sea fishing will then largely vanish as a way of life, just as meat and hide hunting vanish as land-based agriculture develops.  In the meantime, there’s time to appreciate the insight into historical harmonious exploitation of the Earth’s resources that the Maldivian boat builders bequeath us.

It seemed that the motorized dhoni we were now in, heading back to Malé, would benefit from the attention of one of those boat builders.  Copious amounts of water gushed rhythmically into the sea from a length of black plastic piping, around ten centimeters in diameter snaking up from under the floor boards and twitched into position over the gunwale with a cinch of rusty wire.  Gamely attempting to be heard over the pervasive thump of the diesel, the unseen bilge pump signaled its efforts to propel the water through the plastic pipe with a reassuringly metronomic tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut.

We’d only pieced all this together after we’d been at sea for a couple of hours and the sun had popped up above the horizon ahead of us.  We’d noticed the radio first.  It was one of those handheld walkie-talkies, swinging on its leather strap from one of the cross members of the shade canopy.  Glistening crystals of salt crusted its body.  Green corrosion had ominously erupted, long ago, from its battery compartment. 

Motivated by this discovery, our eyes had then gone exploring for more calming sights, and settled on the compass.  It was a dry-dome type, although it hadn’t been designed like that.  Domed compassed are usually filled with light transparent oil, which allowed the compass card to rotate freely so that it can accurately indicate the desired course as the bow of the boat swung to and fro.  All the oil had drained from the compass of the dhoni and the card was tilted and stuck in one fixed position. 

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