In search of a whale shark in the Maldives

In search of a whale shark in the Maldives
The whale shark, the gentle giant of the Maldivian seas,

Dive into luxury at Dusit Thani, Maldives, and discover the surrounding atoll that are more of biodiversity hotspots

Mitali Saran
December 15 , 2014
12 Min Read

Here’s the thing I forgot to ask: is it the Maldives, which is what comes naturally to me, or just Maldives? According to Wikipedia, the official name is Republic of Maldives, also referred to as ‘the Maldive islands’ — and then it goes on to call it both ‘Maldives’ and ‘the Maldives’, so I hereby claim Wikimmunity from nitpickers.

The Maldives, then, is that ridiculously good-looking country just off the southern coast of India, where strings of coral islands — 1,190 of them — are haloed with an indescribable shade of aquamarine that bleeds into a deep, strong blue. It’s the sort of picture-postcard scenery that makes Photoshop look lame. Inevitably, tourism is the numero UNO industry. Many of the 1,200-odd islands are small five-star paradises, offering a petal-soft life of lounging around on powder-white beaches under swaying palms, looking out at vast bluey-greeny horizons.


But that’s only the smaller part of the country’s riches, because it’s under the spectacularly coloured waves that the Maldives really pretties up. That’s what I’m here for, to see if I can spot manta rays and whale sharks, both on the endangered list, in the waters in and around the Maldives’ only marine biosphere, Baa Atoll (and particularly Hanifaru Bay), which is now a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve. I’m not a scuba diver, sadly, so I’m settling for snorkelling in these lucid waters.

Or I will, once I’ve finished lolling about on the porch of my beach villa at the Dusit Thani resort. Given that the Maldives is bristling with resorts, you have to ask why Dusit Thani would launch yet another one, which they did in February this year. The answer, according to the affable general manager, Desmond Hatton, is that this Thai chain offers Thai hospitality, that particularly friendly, go-the-extra-mile variety that has made Thailand beloved of great-service junkies. The hotel staff comprises seventeen nationalities, but much of the face of it — wait staff, etc — is Thai.

I get there off the seaplane early in the morning, and am immediately confounded by ‘island time’, which is half an hour ahead of Malé time, so am almost late for my appointment with Ismail Mahir, the dive master.

Ismail, universally called Mattey, takes me to the house reef to find my snorkelling legs. The last time I snorkelled was in my teens, but it all comes back fairly comfortably. With masks fitted over eyes and nose, breathing through a plastic pipe, we kick our fins around the reef for about forty minutes, peering at the amazing world under the surface. Beautiful table corals, bright flashes of fish, swirling spirals of herring. The water is clear, and the pretty little fish nibble around the reef, while lower, where the reef drops away into the abyss, larger, slower fish like groupers sail around elegantly. There’s a dog-paddling turtle! And here a spiny, still sea urchin, there a smooth, lumbering sea cucumber. The sea is a dazzling designer, never failing to knock you dead with colour, form and kinds of movement.

At the resort’s Sala Bar, over a Royal Thai martini, marine biologist Lauren Arthur tells me about the ‘eco’ part of Dusit Thani’s mandate, which she heads. “Eco-friendly resorts are a dime a dozen,” she says, “but we want to be state of the art.” They’re working towards an Earthcheck certification, including top-notch back-house operations at the resort that includes water and waste management, of which more later. Lauren educated the staff, monitors the house reef and sets up guest activities including coral planting. In the middle of our drink, a couple comes up to tell her how much they appreciate the photos she has taken and sent them, of the turtle that they found digging a nest on the beach in front of their cottage.

The big attraction in the Maldives is the manta ray and the whale shark, the latter being a shark rather than a whale, and the largest fish in the sea (the blue whale, though larger, is a mammal). Lauren is a shark lover who can’t wait to get up close and personal. I, too, think they’re amazing creatures, especially when I’m on my sofa and they’re on Discovery. I find myself looking over my shoulder quite often while snorkelling.

It’s stupid to worry, though, since whale sharks only eat plankton, those billions of tiny plants and animals that cloud the seas like drifts of mist. We ride out ten minutes by speedboat to Hanifaru Bay, looking for the plankton because where there’s plankton, there are plankton eaters. You have to turn off the motor and coast in the last bit to avoid accidental injury to the animals from the propeller. We check in with the ranger patrol boat and Mattey pops into the water to check on the popular feeding stations. And… there’s an easterly current, so nothing. The best time to visit the bay is from July to October, all right, in a western current which brings more plankton, but as in any wildlife-viewing excursion, it’s also a matter of luck — a matter of tide, water temperature, current and more luck.

However, as they say, there are plenty of fish in the sea, so we ride out another few minutes to the Dinagolhu Falhu lagoon. And there they are, tell-tale elegant little thrashes at the surface that indicate the wingtips of feeding manta rays. We jump in — the waters here are cloudy with plankton — and within a few seconds the stealth-bomber silhouettes of manta rays come slicing through the blue. Mantas eat by moving, ingesting plankton by the simple dint of opening their mouths and hovering the stuff in. Their mouths are positively weird looking, with a fleshy noodle-like thing sticking out of each side. They come straight at us, gentle and curious and close enough to touch (but we mustn’t, because they’ll scare). Mantas can get really big — up to six metres from wingtip to wingtip, and up to 2,500kg, though they’re more like four to five metres in the Maldives. They soar and glide and roll through the water, eating happily, like alien ballet dancers. They have long tails (without the nasty bits that sting rays have) and are absolutely beautiful.

Mantas are hunted for their gill rakers. The Chinese, for instance, believe that they cure cancer, chicken pox and respiratory problems amongst other things. Manta wingtips are also used to fake shark fins for soup. The tips are slashed off, dried and sold in bags — or crushed, ground and added to food. Lauren has a lot to say about $150-a-bowl shark-fin soup, too: that it is in fact tasteless, that they have to add beef or chicken stock to give it flavour, that the fin is rubbery and neither nutritious nor medicinal. Both mantas and sharks are hunted for approximately five per cent of their body parts; the rest is usually tossed back into the sea, alive but bleeding to death.

We aren’t destined to see any really gigantic mantas, nor, as it turns out, any whale sharks. I’m disappointed, but maybe you’ll have better luck. But the next day we get to snorkel at Ahlhudhoo, what Mattey calls the coral garden. It’s a study in prettiness, with waters so lucid you can see thirty metres into the deep. An eye-popping array of fish complement an eye-popping array of corals, many of them purple and blue and fantastically shaped. You can swim in waters just a few feet off the coral, instinctively sucking in your tummy and kicking your fins gently to avoid scraping against them. The big white spots of the clown triggerfish, parrotfish, yellowtail anthias, spinecheeks, butterfly fish, schooling bannerfish, damselfishes, a convict surgeonfish with its distinctive stripes, porcupine fish… it’s a tour through the kind of magical wonderland you just can’t see without a snorkel. The dive centre has a helpful book called Reef Fishes of the Maldives by R. Charles Anderson, which I peruse over a fresh and delicious sushi salad at the Sea Grill restaurant.

In the early evening, after the day’s snorkelling and before dinner, I take a tour around Dusit Thani’s back-house operations — purely out of curiosity about island management, but it turns out to be a highly recommendable thing to do. The resort has an impressive desalination plant, a sewage-treatment and water-recycling plant and its own water-bottling plant. (Taking the tour will also help you appreciate why a bottle of water costs $4 in the island restaurants.) I’ve never seen a bottle crusher in action before — they’ve used some grounds to make pretty, shiny tiles at the dive centre. There’s solar heating for staff quarters, a herb garden irrigated by treated water and a pleasant staff quarters.

One afternoon we head off to Dhonfanu, which used to be an island of whale catchers, and which is now Dusit Thani’s pet CSR project. This is the Maldives as she really is, outside the la-la-land of five-star resorts awash in booze and romance: a hundred per cent fairly orthodox Islam, not a drop of booze to be found (officially), covered up and at the moment in the middle of Ramadan. Clothes purchased on visits to Colombo or Bangkok dry in the sun — it’s cheaper to travel and shop than to buy things in the Maldives, which does not produce anything. Everyone is sitting around conserving their energy during the Ramadan fast. It’s so hot I’m dripping sweat in two minutes. A clutch of young men are just back in a wooden dhoni with a catch of fish. Ex-President Nasheed’s party flag hangs limp on a mast.

Fishing used to be the primary industry in the Maldives, now a poor second to tourism. Islands like Dhonfanu now see poorer catches, and survive on sending people to work at resorts. Dusit Thani funds the island’s school computer lab, helps with waste management and cleaning up beaches and encourages people not to kill turtles for soup. I leave the island wondering how well local culture sits with the tourist bubbles, despite the obvious employment opportunities.

It’s easy to forget the question, however, when you’re dining on the beach at Dusit Thani. If you never do another fancy thing in your life, do this. The staff put out a little fairyland of mashaals, candles and lanterns hung on driftwood to illuminate a table set with linen and glassware, while the sea whispers a few feet away and the breeze blows romantically through your hair. Speaking of dining, also don’t miss dinner at Benjarong, the Thai restaurant under the Sala Bar. The food is fabulous, and if you get a table out on the deck, it’s like dining at sea.

It’s hard to say whether the mantas and whale sharks will always be around in the Maldives. They’re part of a fragile ecosystem that is battling human interference and changing climate. These beaches and resorts are truly beautiful, but don’t miss exploring the underwater world that is the Maldives’ most precious and beautiful heritage.

The information

Getting there
Sri Lankan Airlines flies from the metros, including Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to Malé via Colombo; then a seaplane to the resort. Air India offers non-stop flights to Malé from Bengaluru and Thiruvananthapuram.

A 30-day visa will be issued on arrival.

The resort
Dusit Thani Maldives has a hundred rooms including beach villas, beach villas with pools, lagoon villas with pools, ocean villas with pools, ocean pavilions with pools and two-bedroom beach residences with pools (+960-660-8888, Thai architecture, Maldivian woodwork. The whole island is wired. Breakfast is at the Market; the Sea Grill by the infinity pool is open for lunch and you can have dinner either at the Sea Grill or at Benjarong, the Thai restaurant (if you’re not dining on the beach). The Sala Bar floats above the sea, and the Sand Bar squats by the infinity pool. Both are lovely places to have a drink.

The Devarana group runs the spa ( and prides itself on its excellent Thai therapists and therapies, and on its rooms at treetop level. There’s also a gym and tennis courts. There are well-appointed, supervised areas for kids to be in safely should you want them babysat.

Snorkelling guidelines
There are three main areas in the house reef where you can snorkel, with entry and exit points you should follow. The reef is 4-5m below the water at its shallowest and 13m deep. Swim with the current rather than against it. If you’re snorkelling, do not submerge the snorkel by diving. Don’t touch anything you see, including the corals, which can be damaged or killed. If you’re in a shallow area of the reef, be careful with your fins. When you’re done, if the water is rough, keep your mask and snorkel on until you’re well up on the beach. If you’re experienced, you can go out to the reef at any time, including at night with a torch. You don’t have to be a strong swimmer to snorkel.

A visit to Hanifaru Bay costs $120 per person, including the $20 fee for entry to this protected area. There’s a season for mantas and whale sharks at Hanifaru — sometimes the water is so thick with them, you can’t move your arms — but the rest of the year there is lots to see at other snorkelling sites including Angafaru, protected for reef sharks. Touching the animals attracts a $500 fine.

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