This necklace of atolls with white sandy beaches and coral fringes lies in the Indian Ocean to the south of India and west of Sri Lanka. The islands are famed as a tropical paradise holiday destination but equally as a place for snorkelling and diving around the outstanding coral reefs which are home to thousands of colourful fish and creatures which depend on this resource for their survival.
From north to south the chain of atolls extends some 500 miles and consists in total of 1,200 islands of which 200 are inhabited. There are approximately 100 holiday resorts throughout the region. Although considered as uninhabited, some of the other islands are used to cultivate crops and are visited by agricultural workers, some of whom live alone or in pairs on these remote islands in order to protect and care for the crops.
Today, the Maldives are as much known for their fragility in the face of global warming, which could cause such a rise in sea levels that these low profile islands could disappear. The archipelago is situated on top of a ridge of volcanic mountains (the Chagos-Maldives-Laccadive Ridge), and the tiny islands we see today are the remains of volcanoes which, over millenia, have subsided leaving the coral-fringed flattened tops as the only evidence above water that they exist. The dangers posed by global-warming-driven sea rise is so acute that the Maldivian government and people are striving towards making their country carbon-neutral as soon as it is feasible. It is to be hoped that the other countries around the world who have contributed so heavily to carbon emissions also take heed and play their parts in reducing the effects of Man's unsustainable and devastating impact on the planet.
The Maldive Islands are a Muslim-majority country that became a republic in 1968 following periods of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule. Today the country is ruled by a President and government but is again undergoing some political upheaval. The Maldivian economy relies heavily on tourism but also has a large fishing industry. The tuna fishing industry is of major importance for the livliehoods of the Maldivians, and the traditional method of fishing for them, which is by pole and line, makes it one of the most sustainable fisheries in a world where diminishing fishstocks are of major concern.
Many of the resort islands have 'house reefs' which are easily accessible from their beaches and which offer an excellent opportunity for brief forays to see the coral and myriads of colourful fish and other creatures that live on, in and around the reefs. You can also arrange day-trips from resorts to go further afield in search of some of the big fish and marine creatures which inhabit the sea surrounding these amazing atolls.
For those who are really serious about seeing some of the larger marine wonders of the area and who want to dive and snorkel away from the holiday hotspots, by far the best option is to take a boat trip and spend several days cruising around the islands and through some of the deep channels where the big fish and marine mammals live and hunt.
We joined a trip organised by Naturetrek and lead by professional marine biologist Dr. Charles Anderson, assisted by an excellent all-round naturalist, Naturetrek tour leader Jenny Wilsher, whose knowledge of the birds and plants of the region was invaluable. Although the Maldives are not famed for birds it is still possible to see interesting species including the Lesser Frigate Bird and the Tropicbird.
Dr.Anderson (or Chas as he prefers to be called) has lived and worked in the Maldives since 1983. During the course of his research into marine life he has published a series of scientific papers documenting the fish fauna of the islands. As a result of his work several species new to science have been described and several hundreds of fish species have been added to the list of fish recorded in the area. In 1995 he received the National Award for Fisheries in recognition of his work. He is the only non-Maldivian to be recognised in this manner. Chas is also the author of several books including Reef Fishes of the Maldives, which is the essential guide for anyone visiting the island to snorkel and dive, or even as a souvenir of the wonderful wildlife to be found in the Maldives. With over 500 colourful pictures of fish, this lovely book makes the otherwise formidable task of identifying many of the numerous species which live in the coral reefs so much easier.
Other than offering numerous opportunities to dive or snorkel in out-of-the-way places there is a whole host of iconic species to be encountered during a few days spent on a cruise around the islands. Eight dolphin species are commonly encountered: Spinner Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Striped Dolphin, Risso's Dolphin, Rough-toothed Dolphin, Fraser's Dolphin, Spotted Dolphin. Whales around the Maldives include: False Killer Whale, Killer Whale, Pilot Whale, Sperm Whale, Blue Whales, Bryde's Whale, Longman's Beaked Whale, Blainville's Beaked Whale, Cuvier's Beaked Whale, Deraniyagala's Whale
Although the Maldives is not a renowned birding destination there are still good opportunities to see interesting species whether you are on an island holiday or cruising in search of whales, dolphins and mantas.
House Crows and the Common Mynahs are frequently seen and heard in and around the islands, and on the beaches the White-breasted Waterhen scuttles in and out of overhanging bushes. Occasionally Common Sandpiper and Green Sandpiper, the latter occasionally straying, can be seen in the shallow water around the islands, and most resorts seem to have resident Grey Herons.
Out at sea Pelagic birds are what to look out for; both Great and Lesser Frigatebirds are encountered, particularly where other birds are feeding. Frigates get their food courtesy of other birds as a result of agressive attacks which force the smaller birds to regurgitate their recently consumed fish.
Of the terns that are seen in the area, Saunders's Tern and the Black-naped Tern are the most localised. Sightings of Ospreys, which nest on the coast of India, are also regularly reported. Other birds to look out for is the resident Striated Heron and the Indian Pond Heron both of which are smaller than the Grey Heron. The Indian Pond Heron has a white front and buff-coloured back.
A stay on an Maldivian island means that you are very likely to see Fruit Bats as they emerge from the tree cover as dusk falls. Even if you don't see one you are almost certain to hear them, as they squabble among themselves during the night.
The words 'tropical islands' are nearly always pre-fixed by adjectives such as 'lush' or 'verdant' and, in the case of the Maldives, these would seem to be entirely appropriate as you fly in over bright green dots surrounded by white sandy beaches which seem to float in an ocean of deep blues striped with turquoise. The term 'Tropical Paradise' is entirely deserved by this magical place.
The story of plantlife on the Maldives is possibly the exact opposite of how we would imagine it to be. Far from being fertile, the coral sand which makes up the substrate is almost entirely without the nutrients required to support plants of any kind, least of all the sort that you can eat. What few nutrients that existed in this base of calcium carbonate were washed away by the heavy tropical rains thousands of years ago.
Despite this, the Maldives is home to around 300 plant species, some of which are colonisers washed in from the sea, deposited as seed by visitng birds, or have been brought in by Man to populate the 'tropical gardens' surrounding the famous luxury resorts of the region. Some plants have been brought in to be grown, with the benefit of fertilizers, as food or, in the case of trees, to be used as construction material.
As a result, far from being a disappointing place in which to see plants, the Maldives offers an opportunity to see some of the most iconic tropical plants in rather easy and comfortable terrain to explore. The continued existence and succession of plant life is ensured by those plants that have established a foothold either eventually dying back or shedding dead leaves and other matter on the ground. This material is soon attacked by bacteria in the coral sand and broken down into material which enables it to be recycled by existing and new plants to great effect, thereby ensuring the continuation of plantlife on the islands.
With over 600 colourful pictures of 500 species of fish, this lovely book makes the otherwise formidable task of identifying many of the numerous species which live in the coral reefs so much easier. It is the essential guide for species likely to be encountered when snorkelling or diving around the Maldives or as a memento of a visit. Reef Fishes of the Maldives is written by Dr. Charles Anderson who has lived and worked in the Maldives since 1983. During the course of his research into marine life he has published a series of scientific papers documenting the fish fauna of the islands. As a result of his work several species new to science have been described and several hundreds of fish species have been added to the list of fish recorded in the area. In 1995 he received the National Award for Fisheries in recognition of his work. He is the only non-Maldivian to be recognised in this manner.
This lovely book with hundreds of colour pictures explains in a nutshell how plants manage to grow and survive in what may feel like ideal conditions to holidaymakers, but is actually an extremely hostile environment for plants. It is an invaluable guide to anyone interested in plantlife and who would like to identify the many fascinating plants found throughout the Maldives.
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