Two hundred inhabited islets spread over 56,000 square miles of ocean. Superb diving, coral swarming with fish. More and more luxury resorts. Is it starting to feel crowded? Welcome to the Maldives, as Mike Di Paola explores a test case in the limits of development.
The temptation is strong to reach out and touch the giant manta ray. Some of these marvelous beasts with ten- to twelve-foot wingspans appear to invite contact as they glide toward us, flapping in slow motion, then slip underneath us, just inches away. Some get so close I can see right down their gullets, where rows of gill arches fairly glow in the dark like a Halloween skeleton. We six casual snorkelers gambol with these creatures for more than two hours, enjoying both the mantas and our ironic luck: The larger group of our party, another twenty divers, had suited up more seriously for proper scuba at another site—in hopes of meeting giant rays.
We're in the southeast corner of South Malé Atoll, one of the 1,200 Maldives in the Indian Ocean, in a protected marine area called Guraidhoo Kandu. Our dinghy driver radios the main boat with news of the manta ray sighting, and the message is relayed to the dive boat, a traditional wooden dhoni pimped out with modern scuba accoutrements. The boat delivers the other divers, who quickly join us and the rays. Another tender from the main boat motors in with crew and more snorkelers. Oddly enough, the dozen or so mantas stay in the area to swim with us.
Soon a pair of sailboats from a nearby resort show up, and by now it's starting to look like a reenactment of Omaha Beach. I watch in horror as one of the sailboats slices into the school of mantas, clipping one as it plows through, and it's then that I realize the Maldives' conundrum: This watery world of unsurpassed beauty attracts more and more people to experience it; will the growing crowds eventually destroy the very thing that brings them here?
I'm aboard a luxury dive boat, the Four Seasons' 128-foot Explorer, cruising around the atolls with the Berkeley-based environmental group Seacology, an organization devoted to protecting island ecosystems and cultures. The group has a very simple and effective MO: identify an island's needs (a school, a community center, a water tank) and then help the inhabitants get what they want in exchange for an agreement to protect the local ecosystem. Seacology's members make periodic jaunts to scope out potential projects and check up on established ones—in Fiji, Sumatra, the Virgin Islands, or eighty-one other islands around the world—and they usually have the good sense to combine their work with pleasure, which is why there will be a week of underwater frolicking before they visit Kendhoo Island, in the north.
Before embarking on the Explorer, I'd spent two days at the older of the Four Seasons' two resorts, the Kuda Huraa, to sleep off the grueling twenty hours of flying time. Although the first day passed in a jet-lagged Dramamine-tainted haze, I do recall how each staff member, from the greeter at the airport to the activities director at reception, took personal responsibility for the rain, with everyone describing the weather as "uncooperative." [Read More]