Maldivian Way of Life
Away from the tourist resorts, the Maldivian people live and work on their home islands much as they have done for centuries. This traditional and hard-working lifestyle is key to understanding the country. The combination of ancient and modern, Muslim and secular, and conservative and progressive elements in Maldivian society may be contradictory, but getting to know how locals live day-to-day is an enormously rewarding flip side to only meeting Maldivians working in resorts.
Maldivians are devout Muslims. In some countries this might be considered incidental, but the national faith is the cornerstone of Maldivian identity and is defended passionately at all levels of society. Officially 100% of the population are practising Sunni Muslims, and indeed, under the 2008 constitution, it’s impossible to be a citizen of Maldives if you are a non-Muslim. There’s no scope for religious dissent, which presents some serious human-rights issues, and apostasy for locals is still punishable – in theory at least – by death.
This deep religious faith breeds a generally high level of conservatism, but that does not preclude the arrival of over a million non-Muslim tourists to the islands every year, coming to bathe semi-naked, drink alcohol and eat pork. It’s definitely an incongruous situation, and one that has come under some strain since the tourist industry spread to inhabited islands. While the new guesthouses and hotels on inhabited islands enforce local standards of dress and behaviour, just the regular presence of foreigners on islands that have historically been isolated from the outside world has brought great change to traditional atoll villages.
Not quite Asia, not quite Africa and not the Middle East despite the cultural similarities, Maldives has been slow to join the international community (it only joined the Commonwealth and the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation in the 1980s, and withdrew from the former in 2016). Indeed, a deep island mentality permeates the country, so much so that people’s first loyalty is to their own small island before their atoll or even the country as a whole.
The hardship implicit in survival on these remote and relatively barren islands has created a nation of hard workers. The strong work ethic runs throughout the country; historically a lazy Maldivian was a Maldivian who didn’t eat.
Another feature of the Maldivian people is their earthy humour and cheerfulness. Joking and laughter is a way of life and you’ll notice this without even leaving your resort – take a few minutes to speak to the local staff and you’ll see exactly how true this is.
The most obvious dichotomy in lifestyle in Maldives is between people in the capital Male and those ‘in the atolls’ – the term used by everyone to denote ‘islanders’ or anyone who lives outside the immediate area of Male.
In Male, life is considerably easier and more comfortable than in the rest of the country on most fronts, with the obvious exception of space. Life in one of the most densely populated places on earth is very crowded and can feel intensely claustrophobic. The past two decades of extraordinary growth have created a massive economy in Male, although many residents of the city complain that while there are plenty of opportunities to earn and live well in the commercial and tourism sectors, there’s a great lack of challenging, creative jobs if exporting fish and importing tourists are not your idea of fun. With limited education beyond high school and few careers for those who are ambitious but lack good connections, it’s no surprise that many young people in Male dream of going abroad, at least to complete their education and training.
On the islands things are far more simple and laid-back, but people’s lives aren’t always as easy as those in Male. In the atolls most people live on the extended family homestead (it’s unusual to live alone or just as a couple in a way that it wouldn’t be in Male), and both men and women assume fairly traditional roles. While men go out to work (in general either as fishermen or on jobs that keep them away from home for long stretches at a time in the tourist or shipping industries), women are the homemakers, looking after the children, cooking and maintaining the household. Fish are traded for other necessities at the nearest big island. Attending the mosque is the main religious activity, and on smaller islands it’s the main social and cultural activity as well.
The most important ritual in a male’s life comes when he is circumcised at the age of six or seven. These are big celebrations that last for a week and are far more significant than marriages and birthdays (the latter of which are generally not celebrated). Marriage is important, but it’s not the massive celebration it is in most of the rest of Asia.
Rural life for the young can be fairly dull, although, despite appearances, even tiny fishing villages are surprisingly modern and most now have internet access, phones and TV. Nevertheless, many teenagers effectively go to boarding school, as provision for education outside population centres is scant. There are a few preschools or kindergartens, where children start learning the Quran from about the age of three. There are government primary schools on every inhabited island, but some are very small and do not go past grade five. For grades six and seven, children may have to go to a middle school on a larger island. Atoll capitals have an Atoll Education Centre (AEC) with adult education and secondary schooling to grade 10 (16 years old).
Officially, 90% of students finish primary school, and the adult literacy rate is an impressive 98%. English is taught as a second language from grade one and is the usual language of instruction at higher secondary school – most Maldivians with a secondary education will speak decent English, if heavily accented and rather old-fashioned.
The best students can continue to a free-of-charge higher secondary school, which teaches children to the age of 18 – there’s one in Male, one in Hithadhoo, in the country’s far south, and one in Kulhuduffushi, in the far north. Students coming to Male to study generally take live-in domestic jobs, affecting their study time.
Maldives College of Higher Education, also in Male, has faculties of health, education, tourism-hospitality and engineering as well as one for Sharia’a law. Many young Maldivians go abroad for university studies, usually to Sri Lanka, India, Britain, Australia or Fiji, although since 2011 Male's Maldives National University has been offering full degree courses.
Maldivian politics has undergone a sea change in the past decade. Having spent the second half of the 20th century under a series of strongman authoritarian rulers, the tide finally turned with the democratic election of young progressive Mohammed Nasheed in 2008 before turning abruptly back before he could finish his term in 2012, when a coup forced his resignation.
The country's current constitution, which enacted the separation of powers and provided for a bill of rights for the first time, was created in 2008. The constitution made Maldives a presidential republic, with the president as both head of state and head of government.
The Maldivian president is directly elected by the people and is limited to two five-year terms in office. The People’s Majlis (parliament) is in Male, and each of the 20 administrative atolls, plus the island of Male, have two representatives each, elected for five-year terms. The president chooses the remaining eight parliamentary representatives, has the power to appoint or dismiss cabinet ministers, and appoints all judges. All citizens over 21 years of age can vote.
The main political parties operating in Maldives are the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives, former President Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and the Republican Party (Jumhooree Party).
Tourism accounts for 36% of GDP and up to 90% of government tax revenue. The other major field of industry is fishing. Previous policies helped to mechanise the fishing fleet, introduce new packing techniques and develop new markets, which has seen Maldives remain a major fish supplier to markets in Asia and the Middle East. Nevertheless, the fishing industry is vulnerable to international market fluctuations. Most adult males have some experience in fishing, and casual employment on fishing boats is something of an economic backstop. Men are unlikely to take on menial work for low pay when there is a prospect that they can get a few days or weeks of relatively well-paid work on a fishing boat or dhoni.
Trade and shipping (nearly all based in Male) is the third-biggest earner; nearly all food is imported and what little domestic agriculture there is accounts for less than 6% of GDP. Manufacturing and construction make up 15% of GDP: small boat yards, fish packing, clothing and a plastic-pipe plant are modern enterprises, but mostly it’s cottage industries producing coconut oil, coir (coconut-husk fibre) and coir products such as rope and matting. Some of the new industrial activities are on islands near Male while others, such as fish-packing plants, are being established in the outer atolls.
Islam is the religion of Maldives, and officially there are no other religious groups present. All Maldivians are Sunni Muslims. No other religions or sects are permitted, though it's no problem to bring religious items for your own use into the country.
Maldives observes a liberal form of Islam, like that practised in India and Indonesia. Maldivian women do not observe purdah, although the large majority wear a headscarf. Until the election of President Nasheed in 2008, the media was strictly controlled and religious broadcasts were not common. Since the onset of more liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech, religious programming has become extremely popular, and young women throughout the country have reverted to covering their heads in large numbers, making it fashionable and not always just a sign of particular religious devotion.
There have been worrying signs of radicalisation all over the country in recent years; one high-profile case saw a 15-year-old rape victim sentenced to 100 lashes for 'fornication', based on principles of Sharia'a law, a sentence that was eventually quashed by the High Court after a global outcry. There have been frequent cases of Maldivians being found fighting in Syria for ISIS; indeed, per capita, the islands are said to have sent more fighters to Syria than any other nation.
The initial prayer session is in the first hour before sunrise, the second around noon, the third in the mid-afternoon around 3.30pm, the fourth at sunset and the final session in the early evening.
The call to prayer is delivered by the mudhim (muezzin). In former days, he climbed to the top of the minaret and shouted it out. Now the call is relayed by loudspeakers on the minaret and the mudhim even appears on TV. All TV stations cut out at prayer time, although only TVM (the national channel) cuts out for the entire duration – satellite channels just have their broadcasts interrupted to remind Muslims to go to the mosque.
Shops and offices close for 15 minutes after each call. Some people go to the mosque, some kneel where they are and others do not visibly participate. Mosques are busiest for the sunset prayers and at noon on Fridays.
This month of fasting, which begins at the time of a particular new moon and ends with the sighting of the next new moon, is called Ramazan in Maldives. The Ramazan month starts a little earlier every year because it is based on a lunar calendar of 12 months, each with 28 days. Ramazan begins on 5 May 2019, 23 April 2020 and 12 April 2021.
During Ramazan, Muslims do not eat, drink, smoke or have sex between sunrise and sunset. Exceptions to the eating and drinking rule are granted to young children, pregnant or menstruating women, and those who are travelling. It can be a difficult time for travel outside the resorts, as teashops and cafes are closed during the day, offices have shorter hours and people may be preoccupied with religious observances or the rigours of fasting. Visitors should avoid eating, drinking or smoking in public, or in the presence of those who are fasting. After a week or so, most Muslims adjust to the Ramazan routine and many say they enjoy it. There are feasts and parties long into the night, big breakfasts before dawn and long rests in the afternoon.
Kuda Eid, the end of Ramazan, is a major celebration that is marked by three days of public holidays. The celebrations begin when the new moon is sighted in Male and a ceremonial cannon is fired to mark the end of Ramazan. There are large feasts in every home for friends and family, and in the atolls men participate in frenzied bodu beru (big drum) ceremonies and other dancing, often all night. At this time, it’s polite to wish locals ‘Eid Mubarak’.
On the islands people still fear jinnis, the evil spirits that come from the sea, land and sky. They are blamed for everything that can’t be explained by religion or education.
To combat jinnis there are fandhita, which are the spells and potions provided by a local hakim (medicine man), who is often called upon when illness strikes, if a woman fails to conceive or if the fishing catch is poor.
The hakim might cast a curing spell by writing phrases from the Quran on strips of paper and sticking or tying them to the patient; or writing the sayings in ink on a plate, filling the plate with water to dissolve the ink, and making the patient drink the potion. Other concoctions include isitri, a love potion used in matchmaking, and its antidote varitoli, which is used to break up marriages.
Belief in traditional folklore is widespread. Particularly strong is the belief in jinnis, spirits that can be benevolent or malevolent. They’re believed to influence humans, causing everything from illness to successful careers.
Soccer is the most popular sport and is played all year round. On most islands, the late-afternoon match among the young men is a daily ritual, although volleyball and cricket are also common. There’s a soccer league in Male, played between club teams with names such as Valencia and Victory, and annual tournaments against teams from neighbouring countries. Matches are also held at the National Stadium in Male.
Cricket is played in Male for a few months each year, beginning in March. Volleyball is played indoors, on the beach and in the waterfront parks. The two venues for indoor sport are the Centre for Social Education, on the west side of Male, and a newer facility just east of the New Harbour, used for basketball (men and women), netball, volleyball and badminton.
Traditional games include bai bala, where one team attempts to tag members of the other team inside a circle, and a tug-of-war, known as wadhemun. Bashi is a women’s game, played on something like a tennis court, where a woman stands facing away from the net and serves a tennis ball backwards, over her head. There is a team of women on the other side who then try to catch it.
Thin mugoali (meaning ‘three circles’) is a game similar to baseball and has been played in the atolls for more than 400 years. The mugoali (bases) are made by rotating on one foot in the sand through 360 degrees, leaving a circle behind. You’ll sometimes see bashi in Male parks or on village islands in the late afternoon, but traditional games are becoming less popular as young people are opting for international sports.
All-Purpose, All-Maldivian Dhoni
The truck and bus of Maldives is the sturdy dhoni, a vessel so ubiquitous that the word will become part of your vocabulary just hours after landing. Built in numerous shapes and sizes, the dhoni has been adapted for use in many different ways. The traditional dhoni is thought to derive from the Arab dhow, but the design has been used and refined for so long in Maldives that it is truly a local product.
Traditionally, dhonis have a tall, curved prow that stands up like a scimitar cutting through the sea breezes. Most Maldivians say this distinctive prow is purely decorative, but in shallow water a man will stand at the front, spotting the reefs and channels, signalling to the skipper and holding the prow for balance.
The flat stern is purely functional – it’s where the skipper stands and steers, casually holding the tiller with his foot or between his legs. The stern platform is also used for fishing, and for one other thing – when a small dhoni makes a long trip, the ‘head’ is at the back. If nature calls, go right to the stern of the boat, face forward or backwards as your needs and gender dictate, and rely on the skipper, passengers and crew to keep facing the front. Longer distance dhonis that are part of the national ferry system now tend to come with built-in toilets.
The details on a dhoni are a mix of modern and traditional. The rudder is attached with neat rope lashing, but nowadays the rope is always plastic, not coir (coconut fibre). The propeller is protected so it won’t snag on mooring lines or get damaged on a shallow reef. The rooftop of the dhoni often functions as a sundeck and a place to relax, though most sun-wary Maldivians prefer to stay in the shade downstairs.
The best dhoni builders are said to come from Raa Atoll, and teams of them can be contracted to come to an island to make a new boat. Twelve workers, six on each side of the boat, can make a 14m hull in about 45 days. The keel is made from imported hardwood, while the hull planks are traditionally from coconut trees. A lot of the work is now done with power tools, but no plans are used.
Media in Maldives
The best source of Maldivian news in English can be found online at Maldives Independent (www.maldivesindependent.com), a balanced and well-written news site that has supported several major investigations in the past and ruffled feathers across the political spectrum.
Daily newspapers include Miadhu (www.miadhu.com) and Haveeru (www.haveeru.com.mv), both of which have online English editions. You’ll also see Jazeera and Aufathis on sale, but neither of these has an English edition online.
TV and radio stations are now crowded with debate and political programming too – the state-owned TV channel TVM often hosts talk shows and discussion panels about the political situation.
Women In Maldives
Traditional gender roles, especially in the atolls, have generally been the norm in Maldivian society, with women tending to their children, cooking and doing other household duties and men spending the day fishing before socialising at the mosque. Modernisation and development may have changed the traditional way of life somewhat, but in many cases has conferred a double burden on many women – income generation plus domestic responsibilities. More opportunities and better education mean that more women are ready to join the workforce or take up income-generating activities at home. This has become a necessity rather than a choice for most women living in Male, as rising expenses and changing lifestyles demand a dual income to meet basic family expenses.
Traditionally, a woman could choose a suitor and name a bride-price (rhan). The bride-price is paid by the husband to the wife, at the time of marriage or in instalments as mutually agreed, but must be repaid in full if there’s a divorce. The wedding itself is a low-key affair, but is often followed by a large banquet for all family and friends, who can easily number in the hundreds.
Women in Maldives can, and do, own land and property but in general women have a fraction of the property that men have. While inheritance generally follows Islamic Sharia’a law in Maldives, land is divided according to civil law, whereby a daughter and son inherit equal shares of land. There is little overt discrimination between the sexes, and although it’s a fully Muslim society, women and men mingle freely and women enjoy personal liberty not experienced by women in most Muslim societies.
Most countries prohibit the importation of things like narcotics and firearms, and most travellers understand such restrictions, but when you’re forbidden to bring ‘idols of worship’ into Maldives, what exactly does that mean? Maldives is an Islamic nation, and it is sensitive about objects that may offend Muslim sensibilities. A small crucifix, worn as jewellery, is unlikely to be a problem, and many tourists arrive wearing one. A large crucifix with an obvious Christ figure nailed to it may well be prohibited. The same is true of images of Buddha – a small decorative one is probably OK, but a large and ostentatious one may not be.
Maldivian authorities are concerned about evangelists and the objects they might use to spread their beliefs. Inspectors would not really be looking for a Bible in someone’s baggage, but if they found two or more Bibles they would almost certainly not allow them to be imported. It would be unwise to test the limits of idolatrous imports – like customs people everywhere, Maldivian authorities take themselves very seriously.
Death & Taxes
Income tax was introduced to Maldives in 2012 – the first time most Maldivians had ever had to pay tax in their life. As well as generating important income for the government, it was also aimed at getting the population to have more of a stake in their society.
Officially only Muslims may become citizens of Maldives. It is possible for foreigners to convert and later become Maldivian nationals, although this is extremely rare.
Sidebar: China vs India
Maldives’ biggest international ally is China, which in recent years has eclipsed India and donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the country, with an eye to building a submarine base in the country.
Sidebar: Addressing Locals
You can address Maldivians by their first or last name. Since so many men are called Mohammed, Hassan or Ali, the surname is often more appropriate. In some cases an honorary title like Maniku or Didi is used to show respect.
Sidebar: The Olympics
Maldives has participated in the Olympics since 1988, but have yet to win any medals. Unsurprisingly, the team has never taken part in the winter Olympics.
Sidebar: Caste System
The Maldivian caste system has effectively disappeared today. Traditionally the very lowest caste was that of the palm-toddy tappers (raa-very).
Learn more about the amazing development of Hulhumale, the artificial island next to Male that will provide the future base for the government and much of the city’s population in the face of rising sea levels, at www.hdc.com.mv.
Sidebar: Life Expectancy
Life expectancy for a Maldivian is about 77 years for men and 80 years for women.
Wildlife in Maldives
The world beneath the water is one of the most compelling reasons to visit Maldives. Whether you’re diving on a reef thriving with life or walking across your resort’s lagoon on a wooden walkway, you’ll find yourself seeing many of the spectacular and unusual creatures for which Maldives is famous. Maldives’ combination of amazingly clear and warm water, rich marine life and good environmental protection ensures that anyone with an interest in the underwater world won’t go home disappointed. There are even a few interesting critters on land to watch out for.
Life on the Reef
Reefs are often referred to as the rainforests of the sea, and rightly so – even though they take up just 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, they are home to around a quarter of all underwater species. Reefs are created by the calcium carbonate secreted by corals, and are most commonly found in shallow, warm waters, making Maldives a perfect environment for these complex and delicate ecosystems.
As well as the many types of coral, there are various shells, starfish, crustaceans and worms living directly on the reef. Then there are the 700 species of fish that directly or indirectly live off the reef, which can be divided into two types: reef fish, which live inside the atoll lagoons, on and around coral-reef structures; and pelagics, which live in the open sea, but come close to the reefs for food. These include some large animals, such as turtles, whales and dolphins that are very popular with divers.
These are coelenterates, a class of animal that also includes sea anemones and jellyfish. A coral growth is made up of individual polyps – tiny tube-like fleshy cylinders. The top of the cylinder is open and ringed by waving tentacles (nematocysts), which sting and draw any passing prey inside. Coral polyps secrete a calcium-carbonate deposit around their base, and this cup-shaped skeletal structure is what forms a coral reef – new coral grows on old dead coral and the reef gradually builds up.
Most reef building is done by hermatypic corals, whose outer tissues are infused with zooxanthellae algae, which photosynthesises to make food from carbon dioxide and sunlight. The zooxanthellae is the main food source for the coral, while the coral surface provides a safe home for the zooxanthellae – they live in a symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other. The zooxanthellae give coral its colour, so when a piece of coral is removed from the water, the zooxanthellae soon die and the coral becomes white. If the water temperature rises, the coral expels the algae and loses its colour in a process called ‘coral bleaching’, something that happened in 2016, and the legacy of which is sadly evident on coral reefs across the country today.
Polyps reproduce by splitting to form a colony of genetically identical organisms – each colony starts life as just a single polyp. Although each polyp catches and digests its own food, the nutrition then passes between the polyps to the whole colony. Most coral polyps only feed at night; during the day they withdraw into their hard limestone skeleton, so it is only after dark that a coral reef can be seen in its full, colourful glory, which is the reason so many divers like to do night dives.
These Acropora species take many forms. One of the most common and easiest to recognise is the staghorn coral, which grows by budding off new branches from the tips. Brain corals are huge and round with a surface looking very much like a human brain. They grow by adding new base levels of skeletal matter, then expanding outwards. Flat or sheet corals, like plate coral or table coral, expand at their outer edges.
These are made up of individual polyps, but do not form a hard limestone skeleton. Lacking the skeleton that protects hard coral, it would seem likely that soft coral would fall prey to fish, but they seem to remain relatively immune either due to toxic substances in their tissues or to the presence of sharp limestone needles. Soft corals can move around and will sometimes engulf and kill off a hard coral. Attractive varieties include fan corals and whips. Soft corals thrive on reef edges washed by strong currents.
Hundreds of fish species can be spotted by anyone with a mask and snorkel. On almost any dive or snorkelling trip in Maldives you’re pretty certain to see several types of butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish, rock cod, unicornfish, trumpetfish, bluestripe snapper, Moorish idol and Oriental sweetlips, but as well as these, you’ll inevitably see far less common ones.
Juvenile reef sharks can be seen without getting into the water: they love to swim about in the warm water of the shallow lagoon right next to the beach and eat small fish all day long. They’re tiny – most are around 50cm long – but are fully formed sharks, so can scare some people! They don’t bite, although feeding or provoking them still isn’t a good idea.
Get out into the deeper water and adult sharks are visible, but you’ll have to go looking for them. The most commonly seen shark in Maldives are white-tip and grey-tip reef sharks. The white-tip reef shark is a small, non-aggressive, territorial shark, rarely more than 1.5m long and often seen over areas of coral or off reef edges. Grey-tip reef sharks are also timid, shallow-water dwellers and often grow to over 2m in length.
Other species are more open-sea dwellers, but do come into atolls and especially to channel entrances where food is plentiful. These include the strange-looking hammerhead shark, tiger sharks, lemon sharks, nurse sharks and the whale shark, the world’s largest fish species, a harmless plankton eater. Sharks pose little danger to divers in Maldives – there’s simply too much else for them to eat.
Whales & Dolphins
Whales dwell in the open sea, and so are not found in the atolls, but may be spotted on dive safaris or boat trips. Species seen in Maldives include beaked, blue, Bryde’s dwarf, false killer, melon-headed, sperm and pilot whales. Sightings are not common, however.
By contrast, dolphins are extremely common throughout Maldives and you’re very likely to see them, albeit fleetingly. These fun-loving, curious creatures often swim alongside boats, and also swim off the side of reefs looking for food. Most resorts offer dolphin cruises, which allow you to see large schools up close. Species known to swim in Maldivian waters include bottlenose, Fraser’s, Risso’s, spotted, striped and spinner dolphins.
Stingrays & Manta Rays
Among the most dramatic creatures in the ocean, rays are cartilaginous fish – like flattened sharks. Stingrays are sea-bottom feeders, and are equipped with crushing teeth to grind the molluscs and crustaceans they sift out of the sand. They are occasionally found in the shallows, often lying motionless on the sandy bottom of lagoons. A barbed and poisonous spine on top of the tail can swing up and forward, and will deliver a very painful injury to anyone who stands on one, but you’re unlikely to get close to it as the sound of you approaching will probably frighten it away first.
Manta rays are among the largest fish found in Maldives and a firm favourite of divers. They tend to swim along near the surface and pass overhead as a large shadow. They are quite harmless and, in some places, seem quite relaxed about divers approaching them closely. Manta rays are sometimes seen to leap completely out of the water, landing back with a tremendous splash. The eagle ray is closely related to the manta, and is often spotted by divers.
You don’t have to be a hardcore diver to enjoy the rich marine life of Maldives. Hundreds of fish species can be spotted by anyone with a mask and snorkel. On almost any dive or snorkelling trip in Maldives you’re pretty certain to see several types of butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish, rock cod, unicornfish, trumpetfish, bluestripe snapper, Moorish idol and Oriental sweetlips. You’ll also inevitably see far less common ones.
For a comprehensive online guide to the fish of Maldives, visit www.popweb.com/maldive. For more information, try Photo Guide to Fishes of the Maldives by Rudie H Kuiter (Atoll Editions), the classic guide to the fish of Maldives.
Maldives anemonefish are around 11cm long, orange, dusky orange or yellow, with differences in face colour and the shape and thickness of the head bar marking. Their mucous coating protects them from the venomous tips of sea anemone tentacles, allowing them to hide from predators among the anemones’ tentacles. In return for this protection, they warn the anemones of the approach of fish such as butterflyfish, which feed on the tentacle tips. Juveniles are lighter in colour than adults, and have greyish or blackish pelvic fins.
Of the many species, 14 are found in Maldives, mostly found in shallow water, though some inhabit reef slopes down to 20m. They can be seen individually or in small groups. Small species are around 10cm, the largest around 35cm. They feed on sponges and algae. Regal (or empress) angelfish have bright yellow bodies with vertical dark blue and white stripes. The emperor, or imperial, angelfish are larger (to 35cm) and live in deeper water, with almost horizontal blue-and-yellow lines and a dark blue mask and gill markings; juveniles are quite different in shape and markings.
These unusual looking and highly poisonous fish are sometimes encountered by divers in Maldives. They usually grow up to half a metre in length and feed on worms and other invertebrates on the reef and ocean floor. Boxfish are literally boxed in by a thick external skin, with holes for moving parts such as the eyes, gills and fins. That, coupled with their poisonous flesh, makes them formidable creatures. It’s a joy to see them swimming, their tiny fins moving their large bodies effortlessly across the reef.
There are over 30 species in Maldives; they are common in shallow waters and along reef slopes, singly, in pairs or in small schools. Species vary in size from 12cm to 30cm when mature, with a flattened body shape and elaborate markings. Various species of this carnivorous fish have specialised food sources, including anemones, coral polyps, algae and assorted invertebrate prey. Bennett’s butterflyfish, bright yellow and 18cm long, is one of several species with a ‘false eye’ near the tail to make predators think it’s a larger fish facing the other way. Spotted butterflyfish, which grow to 10cm long, are camouflaged with dark polka dots and a dark band across its real eye.
The smooth flutemouth is very common in shallow waters in Maldives, often occurring in small schools. They are very slender, elongated fish, usually around 60cm in length, but deep-sea specimens grow up to 1.5m. Flutemouths (cornetfish) eat small fish, often stalking prey by swimming behind a harmless herbivore. The silver colouring seems almost transparent in the water, and it can be hard to spot flutemouths even in shallow sandy lagoons.
These beautiful fish feature wing-like fins that make them look like small rays from afar, something they use to their advantage when trying to catch prey, as well as to defend themselves by frightening off would-be attackers. Juveniles even have a pattern on their fins that looks like an eye, a good defence tactic. Flying Gurnards usually don’t grow to more than 30cm and feed on bottom fish.
This large reef fish is commonly seen on the reef, normally alone, and it can be very skittish when approached by divers. Most commonly spotted are black groupers with blue spots or red groupers with green or blue spots; they tend to be around 40cm to 60cm in length. Groupers feed on mobile invertebrates and small fish, generally hunting in the evening when other species on the reef are looking for a place to sleep for the night. Groupers are cunning hunters and juveniles often mimic wrasses to get close to prey.
Jacks & Trevallies
These fast silver fish are formidable hunters. While they spend much of their time in the open ocean, they feed on reefs, preying on confused fish that stray too far from safety. With 20 different kinds of jacks and trevallies in Maldives, it’s common to see them hunting on the reef. The giant trevally truly lives up to its name and can measure up to 1.7m in length.
These attractive fish are firm favourites with divers and are easily recognised by their long and thin fanlike fins, which deliver a very painful sting and are used to trap prey. Raised fins can be a sign of alarm – in such a case stay clear and don’t corner the fish, as it may attack. Usually reddish brown in colour and growing only to 20cm, lionfish are commonly seen on the reef, although they are experts at camouflage, so are often missed even by experienced divers.
A common sight on the reefs of Maldives, these large, usually spotted eels are routinely seen with their heads poking out of holes on the reef edge. Those on reefs visited by divers tend to be extremely easy to approach, but will withdraw entirely into their holes (or swim away altogether) if humans come too close. They can also deliver an extremely strong bite, so do not feed or provoke them. Growing up to 2m long, they are one of the most easily spotted large creatures on the reef.
The Moorish idol is commonly seen on reef flats and reef slopes in Maldives, often in pairs. Usually 15cm to 20cm long, it is herbivorous, feeding primarily on algae. They are attractive, with broad vertical yellow-and-black bands, pointed snouts, and long, streamer-like extensions to the upper dorsal fin.
More than 20 of the many parrotfish species are found in Maldives – they include some of the most conspicuous and commonly seen reef fish. The largest species grow to more than a metre, but those around 50cm long are more typical. Most parrotfish feed on algae and other organisms growing on and around a hard-coral structure. With strong, beak-like mouths, they scrape and bite the coral surface, then grind up the coral chunks, swallowing and filtering to extract nutrients. Snorkellers often hear the scraping, grinding sound of parrotfish eating coral, and notice the clouds of coral-sand faeces that parrotfish regularly discharge. Colour, pattern and even sex can change as parrotfish mature – juveniles and females are often drab, while mature males can have brilliant blue-green designs. Bicolour parrotfish start life white with a broad orange stripe, but the mature males (up to 90cm) are a beautiful blue, with hot-pink highlights on the scale edges, head, fins and tail. Green-face parrotfish grow to 60cm, with the adult male identified by its blue-green body, bright green ‘face’ and white marks on fins and tail. Heavybeak (or steephead) parrotfish can be 70cm long, and have a distinctive rounded head
There are 18 species of the aptly named pufferfish in Maldives. These incredible creatures have poisonous flesh (which can kill a human if eaten without the correct preparation) and the amazing power to inflate themselves like a balloon when attacked or feeling threatened. Pufferfish vary enormously in colour and size, though Bennett’s pufferfish, with its green, orange and blue pattern, is the most beautiful. The scribbled pufferfish, one of the largest seen in Maldivian waters, is the most commonly seen.
Several smaller shark species frequent reef flats and reef edges inside Maldivian atolls, often in schools, while larger pelagic species congregate around channels in the atoll rim at certain times of the year. Most reef species are small, typically 1m to 2m. Reef sharks hunt small fish (attacks on swimmers and divers are totally unknown). White-tips grow from 1m to 2m long and have white tips on dorsal fins. They are often seen in schools of 10 or more in the sandy shallows of a lagoon. Black-tips, distinguished by black tips on dorsal fins and tail, grow to 2m. Grey reef sharks are thicker in the midsection and have a white trailing edge on the dorsal fin.
Hundreds of species are currently classified as Serranidae, including rock cod and grouper, which are common around reefs. Smaller species reach 20cm; many larger species grow to 50cm and some to over a metre. Rock cod are carnivorous, feeding on smaller fish and invertebrates. Vermillion rock cod (or coral grouper) are often seen in shallow waters and near the coral formations in which they hide; they are a brilliant crimson colour covered with blue spots and are up to 40cm long.
There are 28 species of snapper that have been documented in Maldives, mostly in deep water. Small species are around 20cm and the largest grow to 1m (snapper, themselves carnivorous, are popular with anglers as a fighting fish and are excellent to eat). Blue-striped snapper, commonly seen in schools near inshore reefs, are an attractive yellow with blue-white horizontal stripes. Red snapper (or red bass) are often seen in lagoons.
Several species of stingray, such as the black-spotted stingray, are often seen in very shallow water on the sandy bed of a lagoon, where they are often well camouflaged. Most rays seen inshore are juveniles, up to about 50cm across; mature rays can be over 1m across and 2m long if you include the whiplike tail. A barbed and venomous spine on top of the tail can swing up and forward, and will deliver a painful injury to anyone who stands on it.
The surgeonfish are so named for the tiny scalpel-sharp blades that are found on the sides of their bodies, near their tails. When they are threatened they will swim beside the intruder swinging their tails to inflict cuts, and can cause nasty injuries. Over 20 species of surgeon, including the powder-blue surgeonfish, are found in Maldives, often in large schools. The adults range from 20cm to 60cm. All species graze for algae on the sea bottom or on coral surfaces.
Only a few of the many species are found in Maldives, where they inhabit outer-reef slopes. Some species grow up to 1m, but most are between 50cm and 75cm; juveniles are largely herbivorous, feeding on algae, plankton and other small organisms; older fish hunt and eat smaller fish. Oriental sweetlips, which grow to 50cm, are superb-looking, with horizontal dark and light stripes, dark spots on fins and tail, and large, lugubrious lips. Brown sweetlips are generally bigger, duller and more active at night.
There are over a dozen species in Maldives, on outer-reef slopes and also in shallower reef environments. Small species grow to around 25cm and the largest species to over 75cm. Triggerfish are carnivorous. Orange-striped triggerfish (30cm) are common in shallow reef waters. Titan triggerfish have yellow and dark-brown crisscross patterning and grow up to 75cm; they can be aggressive, especially when defending eggs, and will charge at divers. The clown triggerfish (up to 40cm) is easily recognised by its conspicuous colour pattern, with large, round, white blotches on the lower half of its body.
From the same family as the surgeonfish, unicornfish grow from 40cm to 75cm long (only males of some species have the horn for which the species is named), and are herbivores. Spotted unicornfish are very common blue-grey or olive-brown fish with narrow dotted vertical markings (males can change their colours for display, and exhibit a broad white vertical band); their prominent horns get longer with age. Bignose unicornfish (or Vlaming’s unicorn) have only a nose bump for a horn.
Some 60 species of this large and very diverse family can be found on reefs, sandy lagoon floors or in open water. The smallest wrasse species are only 10cm; the largest over 2m. Most wrasse are carnivores; larger wrasse will hunt and eat small fish. Napoleonfish (also called Napoleon wrasse) are the largest wrasse species, often seen around wrecks and outer-reef slopes; they are generally green with fine vertical patterning. Large males have a humped head.
Coral Bleaching – Death on the Reef
In 2016, the waters of Maldives experienced a temporary rise in temperature that resulted in the loss of the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral polyps. The loss of the zooxanthellae algae causes the coral to lose its colour (‘coral bleaching’), and if this algae does not return, the coral polyps die. Coral bleaching has occurred, with varying degrees of severity, in shallow waters throughout Maldives archipelago. When the coral dies the underlying calcium carbonate is exposed and becomes more brittle, so many of the more delicate branch and table structures have been broken up by wave action. Mainly hard corals were damaged – soft corals and sea fans are less dependent on zooxanthellae algae and are thus less affected by sea temperature changes, allowing them to recover more quickly.
Some corals, particularly in deeper water, have recovered almost immediately as the symbiotic algae returned. In a few places the coral was not damaged at all. In most areas, however, virtually all the old hard corals died, and it will take years, perhaps decades, for them to recover, and this disastrous event took place less than 20 years after the last major bleaching in 1998 – from which many reefs were still recovering when the 2016 event occurred.
Maldives’ dive industry has adapted to the changed environment, seeking places where the regrowth is fastest and where there are lots of attractive soft corals. There’s still a vast number and variety of reef fish to see, and spotting pelagic species, especially mantas and whale sharks, is a major attraction.
Rise & Rise of the Atolls
A coral reef is not, as many people believe, formed of multicoloured marine plants. It is a living colony of coral polyps – tiny, tentacled creatures that feed on plankton. Coral polyps are invertebrates with sac-like bodies and calcareous or horny skeletons. After extracting calcium deposits from the water around them, the polyps excrete tiny, cup-shaped, limestone skeletons. These little guys can make mountains.
A coral reef is the rock-like aggregation of millions of these polyp skeletons. Only the outer layer of coral is alive. As polyps reproduce and die, the new polyps attach themselves in successive layers to the skeletons already in place. Coral grows best in clear, shallow water, and especially where waves and currents from the open sea bring extra oxygen and nutrients.
Charles Darwin put forward the first scientific theory of atoll formation based on observations of atolls and islands in the Pacific. He envisaged a process where coral builds up around the shores of a volcanic island to produce a fringing reef. Then the island sinks slowly into the sea while the coral grows upwards at about the same rate. This forms a barrier reef, separated from the shore of the sinking island by a ring-shaped lagoon. By the time the island is completely submerged, the coral growth has become the base for an atoll, circling the place where the volcanic peak used to be.
This theory doesn’t quite fit Maldives, though. Unlike the isolated Pacific atolls, Maldivian atolls all sit on top of the same long, underwater plateau, around 300m to 500m under the surface of the sea. This plateau is a layer of accumulated coral stone over 2000m thick. Under this is the ‘volcanic basement’, a 2000km-long ridge of basalt that was formed over 50 million years ago.
The build-up of coral over this ridge is as much to do with sea-level changes as it is with the plateau subsiding. When sea levels rise the coral grows upwards to stay near the sea surface, as in the Darwin model, but there were at least two periods when the sea level actually dropped significantly – by as much as 120m. At these times much of the accumulated coral plateau would have been exposed, subjected to weathering, and ‘karstified’ – eroded into steep-sided, flat-topped columns. When sea levels rose again, new coral grew on the tops of the karst mountains and formed the bases of the individual Maldivian atolls.
Coral grows best on the edges of an atoll, where it is well supplied with nutrients from the open sea. A fringing reef forms around an enclosed lagoon, growing higher as the sea level rises. Rubble from broken coral accumulates in the lagoon, so the level of the lagoon floor also rises, and smaller reefs can rise within it. Sand and debris accumulate on the higher parts of the reef, creating sandbars on which vegetation can eventually take root. The classic atoll shape is oval, with the widest reefs and most of the islands around the outer edges.
Geological research has revealed the complex layers of coral growth that underlie Maldives, and has shown that coral growth can match the fastest sea-level rises on record, some 125m in only 10,000 years – about 1.25cm per year. In geological terms, that’s fast.
Sidebar: Shark Mating Rituals
Male sharks show their interest in females by biting them on the sides, often causing wounds, even though the female shark skin has evolved to be thicker than the male equivalent.
Hammerhead sharks are among the most spectacular underwater creatures in Maldives. Your best chance of seeing them is early in the morning in Northern Ari and Rasdhoo Atolls.
Sidebar: Sea Snakes
The sea snake is an air-breathing reptile with venom 20 times stronger than any snake on land. Basically, don’t touch them if you’re lucky enough to see any!
Young male anemonefish living within the anemone are under the control of a single dominant female. When she dies, the largest male fish changes sex and replaces her as the dominant female.
Sidebar: Sea Urchins
Sea urchins are rare in the sandy shallows of the lagoons, but numerous deeper on the reefs – wearing fins or other protective footwear is always a good idea to avoid their nasty needles.
Sidebar: Whale Sharks
The whale shark is an evolutionary oddity, skipping almost the whole food chain to ensure its survival: despite being the biggest fish in the water, it feeds solely on plankton.
Wildlife on Land
Stand still on a Maldivian beach for a minute or two and you’ll see a surprising amount of wildlife: the ubiquitous hermit crabs scurrying across the warm sands; cawing crows in the palm trees, their call instantly recognisable; majestic flying foxes swooping over the islands during the late afternoon; and you will rapidly realise that Maldives is a fun place for nature lovers. And that’s before you get to the amazing variety of life down on the reef. The best thing about wildlife in Maldives is that it’s almost universally safe. Who said this wasn’t paradise?
One of the most unforgettable sights in Maldives is giant fruit bats flying over the islands to roost in trees at dusk. Their size and numbers can make it quite a spectacle. Colourful lizards and geckos are very common and there is the occasional rat, usually euphemistically dismissed as a ‘palm squirrel’ or a ‘Maldivian hamster’ by resort staff.
The mosquito population varies from island to island, but it’s generally not a big problem except after heavy rains. Nearly all the resorts spray pesticides daily to get rid of those that are about. There are ants, centipedes, scorpions and cockroaches, but they’re no threat to anyone.
Local land birds include crows (many of which are shot by resorts on regular culls), the white-breasted water hen and the Indian mynah. There are migratory birds, such as harriers and falcons, but waders like plover, snipe, curlew and sandpiper are more common. Thirteen species of heron can be seen in the shallows (nearly every resort has one or two in residence) and there are terns, seagulls and two species of noddy.
Most turtle species are endangered worldwide. Four species nest in Maldives: green, olive ridley, hawksbill and loggerhead. Leatherback turtles visit Maldivian waters, but are not known to nest. Turtle numbers have declined in Maldives, as elsewhere, but they can still be seen by divers at many sites. The catching of turtles and the sale or export of turtle-shell products is now totally prohibited, and you should report it if you come across it.
Turtles are migratory and the population can be depleted by events many miles from their home beach, such as accidental capture in fishing nets, depletion of sea-grass areas and toxic pollutants. Widespread collection of eggs and the loss of nesting sites are both problems in Maldives today, although both the government and various environmental foundations have done a lot to educate locals about the importance of turtle protection. Nevertheless, turtle eggs are a traditional food and are used in velaa folhi, a special Maldivian dish, which is still legally made today.
Resort development has reduced the availability of nesting sites, while artificial lights confuse hatchling turtles, which are instinctively guided into the water by the position of the moon. Beach chairs and boats can also interfere with egg laying and with hatchlings. Some attempts are being made to artificially improve the survival chances of hatchlings by protecting them in hatching ponds and cages in some resorts with professional marine biologists in residence.
Pilot fish can often be seen swimming alongside sharks or other large pelagic fish, eating scraps of whatever the larger fish kills. In return the pilot fish eats parasites on the larger fish.
Sidebar: Moray Eels
Moray eels’ bodies are almost entirely made up of muscle, which they employ when hunting to twist and crush their prey, much like a constrictor.
Male and female shark populations live in same-sex groups and rarely meet, save for mating.
Pipefish have a very unusual mating system. The female deposits the egg into the sperm on the underside of the male’s body, where fertilisation occurs and the pregnant male then incubates the eggs for a month before hatching.
Anemonefish are so-called as they cover themselves in a special mucous from the anemone, which protects them from its sting.
Sidebar: Napoleon Wrasse
The hump on the head of a Napoleon wrasse becomes larger and more pronounced as the fish ages.
Sidebar: Smaller than Andorra
Despite its total size of 90,000 sq km, Maldives is 99% water and has just 298 sq km of land, effectively making it smaller than Andorra.
Sidebar: Whale Shark Size
The whale shark is the largest fish in the world – they regularly reach up to 12m in length and are one of the biggest diving attractions when they cruise the kandus in May.
As on an African wildlife safari, it is the big animals that divers most hope to see in Maldives. Alongside vast shoals of reef fish, Maldives is home to a huge variety of megafauna, from turtles, dolphins and manta rays to the mighty whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean.
Five of the seven species of marine turtles are found in Maldives, with green and hawksbill turtles being the most commonly spotted. Turtles nest on sandy beaches across the islands from May to October, particularly in Shaviyani Atoll. Although the animals are protected, there are reports of fishermen catching turtles and harvesting turtle eggs and several charities are actively promoting turtle conservation in the islands.
Environmental Issues & Responsible Travel
Adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean and almost totally reliant on the marine environment for its food, Maldives is a country where environmental issues play a larger than normal role in everyday life. Moreover, lying at such a low level above the sea makes Maldives one of the most vulnerable places on earth to rising sea levels, and its fragile and unusual ecology means that responsible and thoughtful travel is important for anyone who cares about the impact of their holiday on locals.
However you spend your time in the country, you will never be far removed from the environmental issues. Resorts use enormous amounts of electricity and water, their imported food (not to mention guests) have significant environmental consequences, and in some cases they are not particularly responsible about their sewage disposal or energy use. We take into account resorts' environmental policies and highlight resorts that have implemented particularly sustainable and ecologically sound practices.
As a small island nation in a big ocean, Maldives had a way of life that was ecologically sustainable for centuries, but certainly not self-sufficient. The comparatively small population survived by harvesting the vast resources of the sea and obtaining the other necessities of life through trade with the Middle East and Asia.
In the modern age, Maldives’ interrelationship with the rest of the world is greater than ever, and it has a high rate of growth supported by two main industries: fishing and tourism. Both industries depend on the preservation of the environment, and there are strict regulations to ensure sustainability. To a great extent, Maldives avoids environmental problems by importing so many of its needs. This is, of course, less a case of being environmentally friendly than of just moving the environmental problems elsewhere.
Bluepeace (www.bluepeacemaldives.org) is an organisation campaigning to protect Maldives’ unique environment. Its comprehensive website and blog is a great place to start for anyone interested in the ecology of Maldives and the most pressing environmental issues of the day.
One of the biggest problems facing Maldives today is its waste disposal processes, or lack thereof. The issue gets worse every year as tourism numbers grow exponentially, with more waste produced. At present there is a 'rubbish island' near Male, which is overflowing and where trash cannot be burned quickly enough. There are no landfills in Maldives due to a lack of land, and the current government does not seem interested in finding a solution. Sadly, floating rubbish in the sea is a common sight and can blight the most pristine of beaches.
Along with Tuvalu, Bangladesh and parts of the Netherlands, Maldives has the misfortune to be one of the lowest-lying countries in the world at a time in history when sea levels are rising. Indeed, its highest natural point – said to be Mount Villingili, at a whopping 2.4m – is the lowest in any country in the world. Thanks in part to its crusading former president, Maldives has become a byword around the world for the human consequences of global warming and rising sea levels, as an entire nation seems set to lose its way of life and may even be forced to leave for good the islands it calls home. While the political will to get an international agreement on how best to combat climate change may finally be within sight, Maldives has long been making contingency plans in the likely event that whatever the international community does will be too little, too late.
These contingency plans range from an already well-established project to reclaim land on a reef near Male to create a new island 2m above sea level, to a plan to set aside a portion of the country’s annual billion-dollar tourism revenue for a sovereign wealth fund to purchase a new homeland for the Maldivians if rising sea levels engulf the country in decades to come. Both options are fairly bleak ones – the prospect of moving to the new residential island of Hulhumale is not one relished by most Maldivians, who are attached to their home islands and traditional way of life, but the prospect of the entire country moving to India, Sri Lanka or even Australia (as has been suggested) is an even more sobering one.
Perhaps because of its perilous situation, Maldives has become one of the most environmentally progressive countries in the world. Before its dramatic collapse in 2012, the Nasheed government pledged to make the country carbon neutral within a decade, managed to impose the first total ban on shark hunting anywhere in the world and made ecotourism a cornerstone of its tourism strategy. The successive governments of Presidents Waheed and Yameen have focused far less on a progressive environmental agenda, but it’s certain that environmental issues will continue to play a prominent role in Maldivian politics.
In the long term it’s simply not an option to protect low-lying islands with breakwaters, and if the sea continues to rise as predicted then there is no long-term future for much of the country. There have been bold efforts made to ensure the survival of the human population of Maldives in the future in the worst-case scenario that waters wash over many of the lower-lying islands. Most obviously this includes the land reclamation project that has created 2m-high Hulhumale island next to the airport, which one day will house around half the country’s population and all of the government. At present, over 40,000 people have now moved to the island and the island continues to grow at an impressive pace.
If the day does indeed come when waters engulf the entire country, then in theory the government’s sovereign wealth fund may be used to buy land elsewhere in the world for at least some, if not all, of the Maldivian population. India and Sri Lanka are the most likely destinations due to proximity and similarities in culture, climate and cuisine, but Australia is also frequently mooted given its large amount of free space.
The 2011 film The Island President is a fascinating documentary that followed the progress (or frankly, lack of progress) of former president Nasheed as he lobbied internationally for an agreement to curtail global warming and prevent Maldives from being one of the first victims of the world’s rising sea levels. It’s well worth watching to see just what an enormous challenge it is for such a tiny country to be heard on the international stage, regardless of the urgency of its message.
Net fishing and trawling is prohibited in Maldivian waters, which include an ‘exclusive economic zone’ extending 320km beyond all the atolls, meaning foreign craft cannot fish using these methods in the country's waters either. All fishing is by pole and line, with over 75% of the catch being skipjack or yellowfin tuna. The no-nets policy helps to prevent over-fishing and protects other marine species, such as dolphins and sharks, from being inadvertently caught in nets – something that has catastrophic implications for marine biodiversity elsewhere around the world.
The local tuna population appears to be holding up despite increased catches, and Maldivian fisheries are patrolled to prevent poaching. But the tuna are migratory, and can be caught without limit in international waters using drift nets and long-line techniques.
The Nasheed government banned the hunting of reef sharks in 2009, extending the ban to all sharks a year later. The ban was intended to arrest the plummeting number of sharks, whose fins were sold by local fishermen to Asian markets. This move has been widely celebrated by environmentalists, and while shark numbers are rising, there’s a long way still to go before shark populations rebuild fully.
Tourism development is strictly regulated and resorts are established only on uninhabited islands that the government makes available. Overwhelmingly, the regulations have been effective in minimising the impact on the environment – the World Tourism Organisation has cited Maldives as a model for sustainable tourism development.
Construction and operation of the resorts does use resources, but the vast majority of these are imported. Large amounts of diesel fuel are used to generate electricity and desalinate water, and the demand for hot running water and air-conditioning has raised the overall energy cost per guest.
Extraordinarily, most resorts simply pump sewage directly out into the sea. While an increasing number of resorts do treat their own sewage and dispose of it responsibly, the majority still do not. New resorts are now required to do so by law, but the older resorts can still get away with this negligent behaviour.
Efficient incinerators must be installed to get rid of garbage that can’t be composted, but many resorts request that visitors take home plastic bottles, used batteries and other items that may present a disposal problem.
When the first resorts were developed, jetties and breakwaters were built and boat channels cut through reefs without much understanding of the immediate environmental consequences. In some cases natural erosion and deposition patterns were disrupted, with unexpected results. More structures were built to limit damage and sand pumped up to restore beaches. This was expensive and it marred the natural appearance of islands. Developers are now more careful about altering coasts and reefs. Environmental studies are required before major works can be undertaken.
Given the strictures of travelling to Maldives, in most cases your chances to be a truly responsible tourist are limited. First, you’re almost certain to arrive in the country by long-haul flight, with all the emissions that entails. Second, you’ll be using electricity-thirsty air-conditioning wherever you go, eating imported food and drinking expensively desalinated water (or even more costly imported water). Nevertheless, there are a few things you can do to lessen your carbon footprint and take care of the local environment.
First of all, choose your resort carefully. We have given resorts with excellent sustainability credentials a sustainable icon in the reviews – these are resorts with the best environmental records in the country. This can mean anything from having a comprehensive recycling program; using home-grown food; not using plastic bottles; using ecologically sound wood for their buildings; serving only sustainably sourced food in their restaurants; running environmental education programs for the local community; stimulating coral growth on the reef; and donating money to offset the carbon footprint of its guests. If in doubt, contact your resort directly before you book with them and ask them for some information on their environmental record – any good resort will very happily provide this, and if they don’t, then don’t book with them.
Other things you can do to be a responsible visitor to Maldives: taking home any plastic bottles or batteries you bring with you; respecting rules about not touching coral when diving or snorkelling; picking up any litter you may see on the beach; using water and air-conditioning judiciously; avoiding imported mineral water and drinking desalinated water instead; not replacing your towels daily; and not buying souvenirs made from turtle-shell or coral, which can still be found in many places.
There are 25 Protected Marine Areas in Maldives, usually popular diving sites where fishing of any kind is banned. These are excellent as they have created enclaves of marine life that’s guaranteed a safe future. There's also the Hanifaru Bay, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve in Baa Atoll, one of the country's most important and fully protected feeding grounds for manta rays and whale sharks.
Maldives' first marine national park was officially formed in 2012, but its boundaries remained undetermined in 2015, and progress has been decidedly slow after the change of government following the 2012 coup. However, in theory the park will cover the Edu Faru archipelago, nine uninhabited islands in Noonu Atoll, and will be by far the biggest reserve in the country, enjoying full national park status.
Aside from the new marine national park, there are no specially designated island reserves in Maldives. However, the vast majority of the islands in Maldives are uninhabited and permission from the government is needed to develop or live there. With some of the tightest development restrictions in the world, Maldives’ future as pristine wilderness in many parts is assured.
An Alternative Geography
While Maldives has appeared in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s flattest country, with no natural land higher than 2.4m above sea level, it’s also one of the most mountainous countries in the world. Its people live on peaks above a plateau that extends 2000km from the Lakshadweep Islands near India to the Chagos Islands, well south of the equator. The plateau is over 5000m high and rises steeply between the Arabian Basin in the northwest and the Cocos-Keeling Basin in the southeast. Mountain ranges rise above the plateau, and the upper slopes and valleys are incredibly fertile, beautiful and rich with plant and animal life. The entire plateau is submerged beneath the Indian Ocean and only scattered, flat-topped peaks are visible at the surface. These peaks are capped not with snow, but with coconut palms.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Ensuring a supply of freshwater has always been imperative for small island communities. Rainwater quickly soaks into the sandy island soil and usually forms an underground reservoir of freshwater, held in place by a circle of saltwater from the surrounding sea. Wells can be dug to extract the fresh groundwater, but if water is pumped out faster than rainfall replenishes the supply, then salty water infiltrates from around the island and the well water becomes brackish.
One way to increase the freshwater supply is to catch and store rainwater from rooftops. This wasn’t feasible on islands that had only small buildings with roofs of palm thatch, but economic development and the use of corrugated iron has changed all that. Nearly every inhabited island now has a government-supported primary school, which is often the biggest, newest building on the island. The other sizable building is likely to be the mosque, which is a focus of community pride and the social centre of every island. Along with education and spiritual sustenance, many Maldivians now also get their drinking water from the local school or the mosque.
Expanding tourist resorts required more water than was available from wells or rooftops, and as resorts grew larger, tourists’ showers became saltier. Also, the groundwater became too salty to irrigate the exotic gardens that every tourist expects on a tropical island. The solution was the desalination of seawater using ‘reverse osmosis’ – a combination of membrane technology and brute force.
Now every resort has a desalination plant, with racks of metal cylinders, each containing an inner cylinder made of a polymer membrane. Seawater is pumped into the inner cylinder at high pressure and the membrane allows pure water to pass through into the outer cylinder from which it is piped away. Normally, when a membrane separates freshwater from saltwater, both salt and water will pass through the membrane in opposite directions to equalise the saltiness on either side – this process is called osmosis. Under pressure, the special polymer membrane allows the natural process of osmosis to be reversed.
Small, reliable desalination plants have been a boon for the resorts, providing abundant freshwater for bathrooms, kitchens, gardens and, increasingly, for swimming pools. Of course, it’s expensive, as the plants use lots of diesel fuel for their powerful pumps and the polymer membranes need to be replaced regularly. Many resorts ask their guests to be moderate in their water use, while a few are finding ways to recycle bath and laundry water onto garden beds. Most have dual water supplies, so that brackish groundwater is used to flush the toilet while desalinated seawater is provided in the shower and the hand basin.
Is desalinated water good enough to drink? If a desalination plant is working properly, it should produce, in effect, 100% pure distilled water. The island of Thulusdhoo, in North Male Atoll, has the only factory in the world where Coca-Cola is made out of seawater. In most resorts, the water from the bathroom tap tastes just fine, but management advises guests not to drink it. The precariousness of Maldives' water supply was highlighted in late 2014, when a fire at Male's only desalination plant left the city without running water for an entire week.
Maldives’ Volcanic Past
The geological formation of Maldives is fascinating and unique. The country is perched on the top of the enormous Laccadives-Chagos Ridge, which cuts a swath across the Indian Ocean from India to Madagascar. The ridge, a meeting point of two giant tectonic plates, is where basalt magma spews up through the earth’s crust, creating new rock. These magma eruptions created the Deccan Plateau, on which Maldives sits. Originally the magma production created huge volcanoes that towered above the sea. While these have subsequently sunk back into the water as the ocean floor settled, the coral formations that grew up around these vast volcanoes became Maldives, and this explains their idiosyncratic formation into vast round atolls.
Sidebar: Big Wave
Bodu raalhu (big wave) is a relatively regular event in Maldives, when the sea sweeps over the islands, causing damage and sometimes even loss of life.
Sidebar: Water Conservation
The depletion of freshwater aquifers is one of Maldives’ biggest environmental problems. As all freshwater comes from rainwater collected below ground and from desalination, water conservation is extremely important.
Sidebar: Importing Food
Maldives has a very small proportion of arable land – just 13% – meaning that fish and imported foods make up the bulk of most people’s diets.
An excellent organisation to look out for is the nonprofit environmental protection NGO Ecocare (www.ecocare.mv), whose comprehensive website gives interesting accounts of environmental problems and current campaigns.
Sidebar: Shark Hunting Ban
The small but active shark-meat trade was still claiming thousands of sharks a year until a nationwide ban was introduced in 2009. Shark numbers have been recovering ever since.
Sidebar: Beach Erosion
Beach erosion is a constant problem facing most islands in Maldives. Changing currents and rising sea levels mean that beaches shrink and grow, often unpredictably, with the resulting sandbags holding the beach in place often marring that perfect white sand beach photo.
Sidebar: Water, Water, Everywhere
The approximately 1200 islands that make up Maldives account for less than 1% of the country’s area – the other 99% is water.
Sidebar: Marine Protected Areas
In 2009 the Maldivian government set aside large areas of Baa and Ari Atolls as marine protected areas for the breeding of endangered whale sharks, manta rays and reef sharks.
Sidebar: Turtles in Maldives
Maldivian turtles are protected, but they are still caught illegally. The charity Ecocare Maldives has campaigned to raise awareness of the turtles’ plight. See www.ecocare.mv.
Arts, Crafts & Architecture
Despite Maldives being a small country with a widely dispersed population, Dhivehi culture has thrived in isolation from the rest of the world, finding expression in Maldivian arts and crafts, and retaining a strong national identity even in the modern age. Islamic beliefs, Western and Indian fashions, pop music and videos have all shaped local culture, but on public occasions and festivals the celebrations always have a recognisably local, Maldivian style. Bodu beru (traditional drum and dance performance) remains vibrant, rock bands sing Dhivehi lyrics and traditional crafts are surviving in the face of modernity. It’s actually remarkable that such a tiny population maintains such a distinctive culture in a globalised world.
Song & Dance
Bodu beru means ‘big drum’ in Dhivehi and gives its name to the best-known form of traditional music and dance in the country. It tends to be what resorts put on once a week as an exponent of local culture, but despite this sanitised framing, a performance can be very sophisticated and compelling. Dancers begin with a slow, nonchalant swaying and swinging of the arms, becoming more animated as the tempo increases and finishing in a rhythmic frenzy. In some versions the dancers even enter a trance-like state. There are four to six drummers in an ensemble and the sound has strong African influences.
Thankfully, these performances are not just to be found in resorts. If you’re staying on an inhabited island, you’ll often hear the bodu beru being played as groups of young men hang out and dance together after sundown. Witnessing it can be a fantastic experience, as the dancing becomes more and more frenetic as the night goes on, and there's no chance that this performance is for tourists.
Apart from bodu beru, the music most visitors will experience at resorts will rarely be a highlight. Local rock bands often perform in the bars in the evening, where they usually do fairly naff covers of old favourites as well as performing their own material. They may incorporate elements of bodu beru in their music, with lots of percussion and extended drum solos when they’re in front of a local audience. Some popular contemporary bands are Seventh Floor, Mezzo and Zero Degree Atoll.
Despite the unique Maldivian script that dates from the 1600s, most Maldivian myths and stories come from an oral tradition and have only recently appeared in print. Many are stories of witchcraft and sorcery, while others are cautionary tales about the evils of vanity, lust and greed, and the sticky fates of those who transgressed. Some are decidedly weird and depressing, and don’t make good bedtime reading for young children. Male bookshops sell quite a range of local stories in English. Again, most of these are legends of the past, many overlaid with Islamic meaning. Novelty Press published a small book called Mysticism in the Maldives, which is still available in some shops.
Alternatively, if you’re looking for thematic beach reading, you could always try the Hammond Innes thriller The Strode Venturer, which is set in Maldives, or for some real escapist fun and a great behind-the-scenes look at one of the country’s top resorts, Imogen Edwards-Jones’ Beach Babylon is a good pick.
There is no historical tradition of painting in Maldives, but demand for local art (however fabricated) from the tourist industry has created a supply in the ultra-savvy Maldivian market, with more than a few locals selling paintings to visitors or creating beach scenes for hotel rooms.
The National Art Gallery in Male puts on an exhibition of Maldivian art every few years. It combines photography, painting and some conceptual art, and is well worth a visit if it happens to coincide with your time in Male. Some local names to look out for are Eagan Badeeu, Ahmed Naseer and Hassan Shameem.
Some islands were once famous for wood and stone carving – elaborate calligraphy and intricate intertwining patterns are a feature of many old mosques and gravestones. A little of this woodcarving is still done, mainly to decorate mosques. The facade of the Majlis building in Male is decorated with intertwined carvings, for example.
Natural-fibre mats are woven on many islands, but the most famous are the ones known as thundu kunaa, made on the island of Gadhdhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll. This was once an endangered art form, but renewed interest thanks to the increase in tourism has arguably saved it from disappearing. A Danish researcher in the 1970s documented the weaving techniques and the plants used for fibre and dyes, and noted that a number of traditional designs had not been woven for 20 years. Collecting the materials and weaving a mat can take weeks, and the money that can be made selling the work is not much by modern Maldivian standards. Some fine examples now decorate the reception areas of tourist resorts, and there’s a growing appreciation of the work among local people and foreign collectors.
Traditionally, lacquer work (laajehun) was for containers, bowls and trays used for gifts to the sultan – some fine examples can be seen in the National Museum in Male. Different wood is used to make boxes, bowls, vases and other turned objects. Traditionally the lathe is hand-powered by a cord pulled round a spindle. Several layers of lacquer are applied in different colours. They then harden, and the design is incised with sharp tools, exposing the bright colours of the underlying layers. Designs are usually floral motifs in yellow with red trim on a black background (most likely based on designs of Chinese ceramics). Production of lacquer work is a viable cottage industry in Baa Atoll, particularly on the islands of Eydhafushi and Thulhaadhoo.
Ribudhoo Island in Dhaalu Atoll is famous for making gold jewellery, and Hulhudheli, in the same atoll, for silver jewellery. According to local belief, a royal jeweller brought the goldsmithing skills to the island centuries ago, having been banished to Ribudhoo by a sultan. It’s also said that the islanders plundered a shipwreck in the 1700s, and reworked the gold jewellery they found to disguise its origins.
A traditional Maldivian village is notable for its neat and orderly layout, with wide sandy streets in a regular, rectangular grid. Houses are made of concrete blocks or coral stone joined with mortar, and the walls line the sides of the streets. Many houses will have a shaded courtyard in front, enclosed by a chest-high wall fronting the street. This courtyard is an outdoor room, with joli (netted) and undholi (swing) seats, where families sit in the heat of the day or the cool of the evening. A more private courtyard behind, the gifili, has a well and serves as an open-air bathroom.
Mosques tend to be the most interesting and attractive buildings you’ll see on inhabited islands. Some date back to the 16th century and are extremely impressive examples of craftsmanship both for their coral-carved exteriors and their teak and lacquer-work interiors, although in most cases you’ll have to view the insides from the doorway, as non-Muslims are not normally allowed to enter mosques in Maldives.
Male has several very beautiful 16th- and 17th-century mosques, as well as its impressive, modern Grand Friday Mosque, the city’s most striking and, arguably, iconic building – its large golden dome is visible for miles around.
One island that is particularly worth visiting to see traditional Maldivian architecture is Utheemu, in the very far northern atoll of Haa Alifu. Here you’ll find the best example of a 16th-century Maldivian nobleman’s house. Although rather hyperbolically called Utheemu Palace, the building is nevertheless fascinating to tour for its interiors and interesting outer design.
Sitting in Maldives
Maldives has two unique pieces of furniture. One is the undholi, a wooden platform or netting seat that’s hung from a tree or triangular frame. Sometimes called a bed-boat, the undholi is a sofa, hammock and fan combination – swinging gently creates a cooling movement of air across the indolent occupant.
The joli is a static version – net seats on a rectangular frame, usually made in sociable sets of three or four. Once made of coir rope and wooden sticks, these days steel pipes and plastic mesh are now almost universal – it’s like sitting in a string shopping bag, but cool; you'll see these curious and ingenious inventions all over inhabited islands.
Sidebar: Buddhist Past
The government plans to properly excavate the country’s large number of pre-Islamic Buddhist sites in a bid to attract travellers interested in more than just beaches and diving.
Sidebar: Vandalism in Male
In 2012 an Islamist mob attacked Male's National History Museum and destroyed around 30 priceless carvings depicting Buddha, effectively wiping out all significant pre-Islamic relics in Maldives.
Sidebar: Coconut Palm Oil
Coconut palm oil is a traditional product that has been widely used in Maldives, most commonly as a fuel for lamps before electricity. Today many islanders make shampoo, soap and lotions from the oil that they sell to tourists.
Sidebar: The Wonderful Dhoni
The crown jewel of Maldivian arts and crafts is the unique dhoni boat, which anyone travelling in Maldives will have the chance to see and, normally, travel on as well. Made entirely from wood, and having evolved from the Arab dhow, the dhoni is a most uniquely Maldivian creation and something that all locals are proud of.
Life on local Maldivian islands is starkly different to that in a resort. Alcohol and bikinis are out, while calls to prayer from the mosque and landing the daily catch are in. Inhabited islands in Maldives are conservative and locals often shy, but visiting one is a unique cultural experience.
Call to Prayer
Island life is dominated by the call to prayer, which signals the arrival of dawn and then recurs four times throughout the day, its last one sounding just after the sun sets. Most men attend prayers at least once a day, while women pray at home.
Eating in a Teashop
Even the smallest of islands has a teashop or two, where locals go to drink tea, eat simple plates of 'short eats' (snacks) or bigger meals. They're the social hub of each island, and a great place to meet people and find out what's going on each day.
Swinging on an Undholi
Maldivians love to while away the heat of the day on their beloved undholis, a large swing chair that can fit several people. It's an ingenious way to create a cool breeze, can be found in almost any local home and many Maldivians will tell you they essentially grew up on one.
Catch of the Day
Most Maldivian islands don't have markets, and so instead fish is usually sold at the harbour as fishing boats return. You'll never know what fishermen might have caught, but you'll find a small crowd gathering when they do and see some interesting exchanges as any excess is quickly sold off.