Expedition cruising in the Maldives

Regular readers of The Expeditionist will be used to learning about all manner of ships from the trusted and sturdy former Soviet oceanographic vessels through to the new wave of luxurious 'champagne' adventurers sailing to out to the remote corners of the world.

Here in the Maldives, expedition cruising takes on a much more rudimentary guise in the form of a traditional local 'dhoni'. These antique-looking wooden vessels have worked the Maldivian atolls for centuries, transporting goods and ferrying locals across the vast expanses of water that separate the inhabited islands making up this expansive oceanic republic.

Global operators like World Expeditions work with local boat owners to provide this fundamental, yet enriching experience here in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
Our all-wooden vessel, the 20m 'Gahaa' (meaning: North Star) cruises at a leisurely eight knots between the atolls that comprise this aquatic country to the SW of Sri Lanka. Accommodation is in four twin cabins with a crew of five who look after our every need. Our 'cruise director' is young 'Teddy' who guides us on snorkelling trips out on the myriad coral reefs and enlightens us on the ways of the Maldivians who have lived, fished and traded on these flat, tropical islands for centuries.

Some of the local boys fly kites on the shore. Photo: Roderick Eime
Some of the local boys fly kites on the shore. Photo: Roderick Eime

Geographically, the Maldives are one of the most widely dispersed nations anywhere in the world, but is the smallest autonomous Asian country in terms of usable land area and population, which numbers around 400,000. The capital Malé occupies its own little island, on the southern edge of North Malé Atoll where the airport is also located. Flying into Malé is quite a sight as you can see the city of 150,000 people crammed edge-to-edge on this speck in the middle of the ocean. You can easily imagine how these people live in fear of tsunamis.

The vast majority of international visitors will land at the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (MLE) and be whisked away by floatplane or speedboat to some platinum resort to spend their time in blissful isolation. As wonderful as these resorts are, the experience does little to expose travellers to the culture and wider environment of these vast tropical atolls*. Our modest little boat, on the other hand, can stop pretty much anywhere we like to either stroll the sandy beaches or snorkel the clear waters and reefs.

We spend our days in a blissful state relaxing on the sun decks, swimming and snorkelling with interruptions in the form of meals prepared by our resource cook. Fish, salads and vegetables cooked to local recipes are delicious and healthy.

Maldivians, however, are at something of a crossroads. With the highest point of land anywhere in the country just 3m above sea level, the rising oceans threaten the very existence of these hardy people whose ethnicity and language is a unique mix of Tamil, Hindu and Arabic. Even their native tongue shows influences from all races and their written script is an endemic blend of the complicated-looking squiggles of each culture and language group.

The famous coral reefs of the Maldives are under the same pressures as similar reefs all around the world as ocean acidification, water warming and the many human influences take their toll on the beautiful marine formations created over millennia of slow accretion. It was a discomforting sight to see every remote (untended) beach strewn with floating garbage, most common among the debris being the ubiquitous single-use drink bottles which I’m sure arrive from both local and international sources.

Debris like this can been seen everywhere. Photo: Roderick Eime
Debris like this can been seen everywhere. Photo: Roderick Eime

Like everywhere else in the world, fish stocks too are under pressure from commercial fishing and, except for one standout exception near one resort we visited (where they are fed), there are no sharks to be seen elsewhere. At all. This is despite the Maldives initiating a shark fishing ban in 2010.

My own observations make me wonder about the ecological balance of these reefs as sharks and larger predator species seem to be totally absent from the reefs we visit. Instead we see all manner of common 'aquarium' species, hawksbill turtles, rays and dolphins. Pleasing enough, sure, but is this sufficient to ensure the long term health of these delicate ecosystems?

A hawksbill turtle. Photo: Roderick Eime.
A hawksbill turtle. Photo: Roderick Eime.

The Expeditionist travelled as a guest of World Expeditions.

* the word ‘atoll’ is derived from the Maldivian language and means "circular groups of coral islets" that are most often formed by the subsidence of extinct volcanoes.

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About the Expeditionist

Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.