Nearly 20 years ago, Judy and I visited the Maldives, an ellipse of atolls south of India. We came to see it as one of the top 10 snorkeling destinations we had visited anywhere.
This year I returned with a friend to visit Vilamendhoo Island, our favorite in the Maldives.
When we first came to Vilamendhoo Island, it was simpler than it is today. Just ½ mile long by a few hundred yards wide, with 141 beachfront cottages, it was a tropical dream. There were shady paths with soft coral sand so you could walk barefoot everywhere, including in the sand floor dining room. Walk out of your cottage, and into the warm ocean, where you could swim or drift along the edge of the coral reef, among hundreds of fish of exotic species. The major coral bleaching episode of 1996 had killed almost all the coral, as in much of the world, but the fish populations were robust and varied. We loved it!
Today, it has 30 of the new vogue, over-water bungalows, and has moved into the 5 star zone in service and food. But the trails are still sand, as are the floors of the buildings. Vilamendhoo is still charming.
The choice used to be either a 3 hour speedboat ride from the airport at Malé, or a 25 minute seaplane flight. Now you must come by seaplane, which is certainly scenic as you fly over the many small islands making up the Maldives (1190 of them).
Our barefoot seaplane pilot. As a glider pilot, I like his style, which is only well suited to the tropics. Gliding, up high it can get cold, and freeze your toes off.
Seaplanes land out on a float, and a boat shuttles you in.
The Resort sailboat has five cabins for overnight trips.
It might seem crowded with cottages, but it doesn’t feel that way. Being steps away from the warm salty water is a delight. We would don our snorkeling gear (including lycra full body suits to avoid sunburn in the intense equatorial sun), walk out to the water and swim to the edge of the reef and follow it along.
My friend Suwan Sentrong enjoying her first snorkeling ever.
Did I mention lots of fish?
A ‘Picasso’ triggerfish, one of my favorites here and in Hawai’i.
Many grey herons live on the island, and look well-fed on reef fish.
Harmless blacktip reef sharks swim in the shallow water hunting crabs. It’s great to see the sharks protected, as they are part of the healthy reef fish population.
Regal or Royal Angelfish
Imbriated Turtle. Very large, old turtle. We swam with it for quite some time, watching it feed.
Coral is slowly growing back (but not all kinds) It may be that some species that can tolerate higher water temperatures may prevail. One can hope. It seems inevitable (if you believe in science) that episodes of hotter than normal water will become more frequent.
Ghost crabs are abundant, and probably are a big part of the reef shark diet.
The main problem at Vilamendhoo is not gaining weight, as the food is so varied and good.
One of the surprises on this second visit was the new Whale Shark National Park at the southern tip of the Ari atoll. As whale sharks are the largest fish by far (25-30 feet long is common), and don’t live everywhere, people who snorkel or dive a lot sometimes spend a whole lot of money trying to see one, once in their lives. We had never seen one in more than 20 years of snorkeling and diving.
So we signed up for a 4 hour whale shark trip (no guarantees we’d see one). One hour by speedboat to the south to look for them in the marine park area. Unlike whales, it is a fish with gills, and is just called ‘Whale shark’ because of its size, the largest of all fish.
Soon we spotted one, and jumped in the water with snorkel gear, and swam as fast as we could to keep up.
It’s hard to grasp from the pictures just how big this Whale shark is. I’d estimate 25-30 feet long, as big as a humpback whale. And it cruises along by slow flicks of its huge tail. The average size is 32 feet long, and 20,000 pounds weight. The largest on record was 41 feet long, weighing 47,000 pounds, but bigger ones have been reported.
We thought we’d been lucky to see even one in such clear water, and be so close. But our captain was not done. We cruised on, and sighted another. In we jumped. At first we saw nothing. Then, out of the dark blue depths this giant Whale shark swam straight towards us, mouth open, feeding on plankton, at a depth of only about 9 feet. We had to move to the side to let it glide by nearly in touching distance. Wow! It is important to not touch or disturb them. In the Philippines, by law you must stay at least four feet away and not touch them, or risk a fine and jail sentence.
We shall never forget our snorkel with this amazing fish.
Playing in the warm Maldivian waters when we weren’t snorkeling was so much fun!
The clouds on the tropical seas are dramatic, and we had some lovely sunsets. After six glorious days on Vilamendhoo Island, we vowed to return one day.