Snorkelling was a major part of our holiday in the Maldives. We went snorkelling every day, either straight off the beach or on the complimentary snorkel tour to one of the house reefs, a short trip by Dhoni (traditional Maldivian boat) away. Before guests were allowed to take part in the snorkelling tours or any other organised water sports, the hotel sports centre insisted on a swim and snorkel test. This was a fairly easy task to show that you were confident in the water and could swim a certain distance. The sports centre would lend out snorkelling equipment but we had invested in our own before travelling, certainly it is a good idea to consider your own mask and snorkel for clear viewing even if you borrow flippers at the resort.
Snorkelling straight off the beach prove to be less exciting as most of the immediate area around the island was sandy and therefore, not of much interest to any fish or other sea creatures. The sandy lagoon is fantastic for swimming and other water sport activities with no risk of painful coral nearby. However, we did go and venture into the corals near the water villas on the North side of the island. This is only possible during the higher tide periods though, as the water is otherwise too shallow and coral would be damaged or it would be easily to get hurt on the sharp rough branches. Despite this the boys were confident swimmers and managed to get a way through to the reef edge where they saw turtles and many other fish. A less risky spot was right next to the back of the boat jetty where the concrete blocks had made a super artificial reef. Even so swimming here you had to be aware of the potential dangers as the boats came in and out infrequently.
The best snorkelling at Lux was further out, maybe 500m to 800m from the island, and we enjoyed the boat ride on the Dhoni, it broke up our day. If we got lucky and the second tour was not completely booked (there was a limited number allowed on the boat) we would go out again after a short break. First thing after breakfast every morning we made sure to cycle to the water sports centre and register for the daily snorkelling tour to the house reef. We made friends with Hardy and Firsushwan the regular guides who were both amazing and helpful on the snorkelling tour. Jerome had taken a special liking to Firushwan and vice versa, as they both went off to free dive further away from the group. He showed Jerome some special spots where they saw some less common fish, like blowfish and moray eel as well as a deep spot where a turtle hides away.
Jerome and his Dad are super swimmers, can hold their breath for ages, and like free diving to maybe as much as 5m down. I was less adventuress and snorkelled around the main parts of the reef where it was less deep but also busier with all the other snorkelers. Despite this lazier approach I still saw loads of rainbow coloured fish, in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes we would be surrounded by large shoals and on the odd occasion one of the fish would be quite cheeky and follow me around, others were completely oblivious to me. One advantage about going out on the Dhoni was that we went to different places on the house reef every time and therefore always saw different fish and types of coral. The location depended on the tide and currents, sometimes we would be let off and drift along the reef for several hundred metres only to be picked up later.
We had spoken to other guests during our stay who had been to other places in the Maldives, with better reefs straight off the beach, but many also said that they preferred it at South Ari because of the very fact that you had the free boat out so had a more varied experience. The snorkelling approach is certainly worth checking before you choose a resort.
As I mentioned in my previous post the main reason for our stay at Lux South Ari was the Whale shark tour. Chiara, the marine biologist at Lux offered a guided whale shark tour a few times a week. At an extra $150 it certainly is not a trip to take every day, especially when there is no guarantee to see whale sharks on the tour. We had signed up for the next whale shark tour after our arrival and met Chiara and another family in her office. She gave us some basic information about the marine life in general, and introduced us to whale sharks and what is known about them. South Ari atoll is one of the places in the world where whale sharks can be found all year round, in other places it is more seasonal. As a result of pressure from conservationists the maritime area around the islands is now protected by the local government, research has been started to find out more about these gentle giants. Most people might think why would we be crazy and want to swim with whale sharks?!
Whale sharks might be daunting due to their size, they can grow up to twelve meters which is the same length as a London bus, but they are completely harmless to humans. They filter feed and only eat plankton, krill and fish eggs and are very docile towards divers and snorkelers. Chiara told us that the last few trips had been futile and no whale sharks had been spotted for about two weeks, so our hopes to see one on our first trip were not set too high. She also mentioned to not touch the shark at any point and to stay away from the head and tail fin. If we did not see one them there would still be a chance to explore other parts of the reef.
On board the Dhoni we were joined by the other participants for the trip, some guests were on their second or third trip to go and swim with the whale sharks. The Dhoni slowly made its way past our resort, we could spot our water villa and on towards the open sea, outside the atoll’s protective reef. Once outside the atoll we saw boats and yachts from other resorts all on the hunt for whale sharks. It was not meant to be on our trip that day we did not come across one of these giants. We did spot the occasional turtle swimming lazily by and many interesting sea birds though. Before heading back to our resort we went for a long snorkelling session outside the reef and this somewhat cheered us up and this would perhaps be one of the best snorkelling sessions during our stay. Jerome was sad but also determined to give it another go. Chiara said that she would give us a discount if we would come on a second trip and so we booked for another day.
On our second attempt the first creatures we spotted once we were outside the reef was a pod of dolphins. Their squeaky sounds followed us along for a few minutes, their fins popping out in between the waves every now and then. This made all of us happy and hopeful that we would be luckier this time around. Jerome, Chiara and some of the other kids were on the roof of the Dhoni keeping and eye out for whale sharks while we sat downstairs in the shade to look for them. Again we cruised all down the reef with several false alarms.
We were well prepared, with masks already on our heads and flippers on our feet, when one of the boat scouts shouted: “there is one”. We all got to our feet, rushed to the edge of the Dhoni and jumped in. Luckily few other boats were around. As we hit the water I could not believe my own eyes, there it was, this graceful creature swimming towards me. It was huge about the size of a large car. I was too excited to even think about being scared by this giant as it slowly glided past in this underwater world. I was absolutely fascinated by the beauty of this enchanting creature. I saw Jerome and Chris dive down follow it and to take some photos with their cameras. Most of the rest of us stayed behind as the whale shark slowly descended into the deep blue of the Indian Ocean and then it was gone…
Everybody went back on board of the Dhoni and we sailed on as we still had some time left before we had to turn back to the resort. There were no more whale sharks that day, but it did not matter, we were over the moon that we had had the opportunity to swim with one on our second trip. Jerome was all smiles for the rest of the day and we could not wait to find out from Chiara if the whale shark was one that had never been seen before. He also was keen to know if it was a female or male shark. It certainly was a younger one as it was only about five meters in length. Chiara had explained to us that the pattern of spots next to the side fins were used to identify the whale shark and that every time they were spotted, an entry was made into a shared database. Later, Chiara told us that she had identified our shark and that it was a female. Not only had we been lucky enough to snorkel with whale sharks here in the Maldives, we had also learned a lot about their lives and habitat thanks to Chiara’s information.
We where in for another surprise that evening. When we got back to our water villa we found a ginormous whale shark made of towels on our bed. Jerome was really happy to see the towel shark. He had been collecting the towel animals our room boy Ali made every day. There had been a dog, monkey, elephant, crocodile and many others. Of course Jerome would have loved to keep the whale shark but then we would not have had a bed to sleep on – it was huge! (and probably needed 8 towels to make). We left the whale shark until after dinner and then took it apart.
Snorkelling with the whale shark was definitely the absolute highlight of our trip to the Maldives and we are hoping to get a chance to go back and see these giant animals again sometime in the future. Jerome has also set his heart on seeing the giant manta rays too.