I still remember when my mum turned 40. I was 10. I didn’t really get why it was a big deal, but I knew it wasn’t a normal birthday. Afterall, it’s not every birthday where you throw a party and invite all the guests to write messages in marker on the bathroom wall. It’s a milestone event.
As I mentioned in a previous post, with a milestone birthday on the horizon for Katy (of an unknown number), she decided she wanted to tick a few items off her bucket list. As a reminder she had three in particular in mind:
- Pay off our mortgage
- Swim with whale sharks
- Go to the Maldives and celebrate in an overwater villa
So that’s how we found ourselves in the Maldives.
While it does the opposite of help pay off the mortgage, it happens to be one of only two places in the world – the other being Mozambique – where whale sharks can be found naturally all year round. Other locations (here’s a list) are all seasonal or keep the whale sharks around artificially by feeding them for tourists.
Our first taste of the Maldives
The Maldives is not a single landmass but rather 26 ring-shaped atolls made up of more than 1,000 coral islands. We couldn’t just land in Malé and head to the beach. To stand the best chance of seeing whale sharks we headed to Dhigurah.
Dhigurah is one of the inhabited islands, i.e. locals actually live there vs. the resort islands. As a Muslim country, this means there is no alcohol and there’s a need to be considerate of local customs regarding dress, particularly for women.
Our blissful home base
Our temporary home on Dhigurah was Bliss. Opened about a year ago by our lovely host Anne (Dutch) and her husband Mussanif (Maldivian) Bliss is a beautiful boutique guesthouse with a great staff. They even have handy information like packing lists on their website.
I also appreciated their efforts toward environmental sustainability, like the use of battery powered carts (there are no cars on the island) and, even more, refillable shampoo and conditioner containers instead of little plastic bottles. They also have plans for larger scale initiatives like water purification to avoid plastic bottles in the future.
If you’re headed this way, it’s definitely somewhere we would recommend staying.
The island is small but big enough for exploring, either on foot or with the complimentary hotel bikes. It was also a nice, if HOT, 5km run to go from the hotel to the south end of the island and back.
Another added bonus of staying at Bliss was the delicious restaurant, Hermit’s. We were told that when Anne and Mussanif opened the hotel they had planned to have a dive shop. However, when the realized there were already three of those on the island but not one good restaurant, they decided to put their focus there and it shows.
From Bliss there are a number of activities and excursions that can be booked. With three full days on the island, our plan was to try and fit in whale shark snorkelling (priority number one), manta snorkelling and a sandbank picnic.
Whale sharks are big, but that doesn’t make finding them easy
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t cooperating with our whale shark plans and the speedboat drivers wouldn’t go out in the big swells.
So, for day one we turned to plan B, swimming with the reef mantas which can be found in a calmer area inside the reef. As a bonus, Anne not only found us a boat that would take us out, but came along with us as our guide.
The mantas in the area are reef mantas which, while smaller than oceanic mantas, still grow to have a wing span of 3-3.5 meters.
Finding them means looking for dark patches in the water and distinguishing them from rocks and coral by the fact that they move. We were totally useless at it, but fortunately the guides on the boat were great.
Once they’ve been spotted it’s a matter of frantically getting your gear on and jumping in the water before they’re gone.
We were fortunate enough to see them three times over the course of an hour and half. It was amazing to watch how gracefully they moved through the water, especially when compared to our flailing about trying to catch up.
They were almost playful, not just running away but circling back to check us out, or maybe just to show off. I will admit that the first time one of them turned around and headed straight for me I did have a bit of an “oh shit” moment.
Our own private island, if only for a little while.
Day two rolled around and the high winds meant the swells were still too big for the speed boats to head out to look for whale sharks.
So, despite the wind, we decided to go for a sandbank picnic. A narrow strip of sand off the south end of Dhighurah. It almost looks like you could walk to the neighbouring island Dhidhdhoofinolhu.
We had walked close to the sandbank on the afternoon of our arrival, but for the picnic we were dropped off by a little boat that left us with an umbrella and cooler full of a delicious lunch, some water and pop.
Despite some pretty strong winds and a rising tide that eventually just lapped at our toes, it was a pretty beautiful place to be “stranded” for a few hours.
Mission accomplished – Whale shark snorkelling
Finally, on our last day on Dhigurah, the weather cooperated just enough. We still couldn’t get a speedboat for a private tour, but Bliss had a full day manta/whale shark/lunch/reef snorkelling tour going out on their Dhoni, a larger boat local to the Maldives, that we could join.
We set out and went first to look for the mantas. After circling for half an hour we gave up the search and the crew said we would go over to look for whale sharks.
At this point, Katy was getting more than a little nervous that the whale shark search would be equally futile. We made our way to the south end of the atoll just off the coast of Maamigili, the island home to the atoll’s airport.
As we came through the channel we could see that we were not the only boat. We joined the others in slowly cruising around with Shaheen on the roof leading the spotting.
After 10 minutes or so, there was sudden stomping and yelling on the roof. We were told to get our gear on and get in the water. I happened to be in a spot and got a decent look at the whale shark as he cruised below me.
I underestimated how competitive things would be in the water and was quickly engulfed in bubbles and flippers. Unfortunately, Katy who got in the water after me saw only a brief glimpse of a tail before it disappeared. As we climbed back on the boat, Katy was more than a little disappointed and worried that this would be her only sighting.
Our captain, Hafeez (Shaheen’s father) started circling again while Shaheen and the rest of the crew resumed their spotting positions. Before long we could see commotion coming from other boats and people hopping in the water but by the time we got there it was too late. Back to the search.
Over the next couple of hours we had a few more near misses and two more great encounters, with the third one of the day lasting more than 10 minutes. This last one left Katy on the verge of tears with joy and excitement.
The video below includes a small taste that doesn’t do it justice at all.
Thanks to the Maldives Whale Shark Research Project, and their app, we can tell you a little information about the whale shark with which we had the longest encounter. His name is Stephan (a.k.a. WS160). He’s a male and was first spotted in 2011 not far from where we encountered him. Then he was estimated to be about 5 meters long. His estimated length based on the most recent sighting is 6 meters.
At the end of the day, we couldn’t have asked for a better first experience in the Maldives. A big thanks to the folks at Bliss Dhigurah for making it happen.