A bad habit. A guilty pleasure. It alleviates stress which, in the short term, is probably the bigger killer. Only I’m not talking about smoking tobacco. I’m talking about visiting the Maldives— in other words smoking the planet. Because in cigarette terms, the Maldives are the unfiltered Menthols of tourist destinations.
An indefensible habit. An indefensible holiday. This WAS our fourth trip.
LET’S TALK GODZILLA’S CARBON FOOTPRINT:
My wife and I live in a 500 square foot studio in central London. We walk to work, occasionally rely on public transport and do not own a car. We put out two bags of garbage and one bag of recycling every week. We never turn off the stand-by lights on our electronics. But pretty low impact, all things considered. Once or twice a year however, we blow our carbon credit, moral superiority and savings on exotic, far-flung holidays. Why? To visit threatened ecosystems before they're poisoned, developed, mined, hunted, logged or, in this case, drowned and over-heated to extinction.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
IN THE MALDIVES, THE ETHICS ARE particularly grim:
Every year a million foreign tourists take a long-haul flight (plus boat or seaplane transfer) to tiny, coral-fringed island resorts which must, by law, be self-sufficient in terms of energy, waste management and water. This translates to most power being generated, and all non-drinking water being desalinated, by burning discount OPEC crude, courtesy of the Maldives' status as a developing Muslim nation. Meanwhile (believe what you like about global warming) anticipating a rise in sea levels which would put most, if not all, of this thousand-island nation underwater— the average elevation is only 1.6 meters above sea level— the Maldivian government is seeking to buy up land in India, Sri Lanka and Australia should they have to relocate their entire population. 42% of this money will likely come from tourism, the Maldives’ number one industry. Namely, infidels like us sleeping in air-conditioned beach chalets, brushing our teeth with bottled water and consuming barrel upon barrel of resort-provided pork and alcohol forbidden to most locals (any booze brought in by tourists is immediately confiscated at the airport).
On average we will require 500 liters of water and generate 7.2 kilos of trash per person, per day.
This last statistic popped up on Al Jazeera while my wife was using the hair-dryer and I was crashed out under the aircon charging up our phones. 7.2 kilos per day. If this is true, over the course of our two week stay, we would generate almost twice our body weight in trash. The unrecyclable components of this waste would either be burned in open fires or become part of the daily square meter added to
...ONE OF THE NEWEST LANDMASSES ON THE PLANET, CURRENTLY 70 HECTARES— AND GROWING!
Built on reclaimed reefs in 1992, Thilafushi is an artificial island heaped with plastics, packaging, building materials including asbestos and, increasingly, batteries and junked electronics. It is also home to thirty-odd factories, a mosque, a port, two hundred mostly-Bangladeshi garbage sifters—
but enough about all that, let’s talk about the snorkeling!
IT IS, IN A WORD, SPECTACULAR.
It's not all bad news here. 463 square miles of the Baa atoll was recently declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve. The Maldives are only the second country on earth (along with Palau) to completely ban shark fishing in its national waters. By law, all tuna must be caught by pole, the most sustainable form of fishing. But best of all:
Maldivian reefs are healthy, teeming and colorful to the point of psychedelic.
Well, twenty percent of them are anyway.
In 1998, El Nino driven currents as hight as 90F led to what’s called a “bleaching event"— when the symbiotic algae inside many coral species, giving them their color, overheat and leave their hosts to die. This led to barren seabeds, fields of bone-white corals, an across-the-board decline in fisheries— the Maldives second leading industry— and, perhaps most damning of all, discerning divers taking their business elsewhere. Legend has it that only one resort’s “house reef” managed to escape the bleaching entirely— that of Kandoludhu, a twenty-room resort insanely priced beyond our range.
Then again we also can’t afford the 5-star plus W Retreat and Spa, where our seaplane stops to drop-off fellow passengers. Here, for around a thousand British pounds per day— not including drinks— every guest is greeted by twenty, wildly-waving white clad staff on what looks like mandatory Prozac. For £43,000 more per week (yes, you read that right) you can upgrade to an Ocean Oasis Lagoon View where, as part of the W’s trademark whatever/whenever policy, every day a different exotic dancer with a different advanced degree will sculpt your pubic topiary with a severed panda’s paw-- plus you get to keep the robe. Or so one must assume.
You know that twitcher in the Anorak standing in your neighbor's hedge with the Oversized binoculars and the audubon field guide to european finches? I am that guy underwater.
A marine biologist who spent many years in the aquarium industry.
A certified, all-out fish geek.
That, and a middling breath-hold diver who openly scoffs at SCUBA. Why? Because breath-hold diving is a noble, pure pursuit that needs less and scares nothing. In alpine terms, breath-hold diving is off-piste telemarking while SCUBA is a lift-assisted groomed run to the lodge for après ski. This has nothing to do with my chronic seasickness or the fact I've ruptured both tympanic membranes while diving and am therefore no longer permitted below 20 meters, doctor's orders. That's right, a marine biologist who can't dive and hates boats. And no, I'm not conflicted— but thanks so much for asking.
So let’s forget the spa, the architecture, the Michelin-starred chef, the sucking-up and even, if it comes to it, the beach.
Let’s even deprioritize the view:
especially as more and more resorts protect their brochure-advertisement beaches with ugly, concrete retaining walls...
My main priority—and thankfully that of my long-suffering wife— is the offshore reef. Which, along with our mid-range budget, was what led us to Kadoogadu, Kandoludhu’s nearby neighbor.
Kadoogadu (what a name!) is the island’s original, Maldivian name and not the name of the resort they've built upon it. Why? Because none of the managers were willing to talk to me on record regarding this article. And you can see their point: these fine, mostly Sri Lankan folk— who often work eleven months per year, seven days per week, away from their homes and families—are in the business of delivering no news, no-shoes paradise to largely clueless, tipsy, foreign “holidaymakers” like ourselves. If I were in their footprints, I wouldn’t answer questions regarding shark-chumming, energy consumption or solid-waste disposal either—nor respond to rumors that the Chinese tourists next door just got rumbled boiling shore crabs in their kettles.
“Do not worry about electricity, sir, we have many generators. Are you enjoying your stay? Wonderful. Another pina colada?”
One of the managers was, however, quick to point out Kadoogadu’s paid and voluntary membership to the Green Globe Certification. This for-profit, Los-Angeles-based corporation uses local auditors to certify and promote environmentally-friendly building materials, waste-reduction, gray water recy— you know what?
I roll my own cigarettes using filters, light tobacco and the thinnest type of rolling papers— how can it be bad for me? it Might as well be coleslaw.
… when the Maldivian government tells the UN— or any political, charitable or environmental body that will hear them— that it’s Western fossil fuel use which far exceeds the global average, or holds attention grabbing meetings underwater, the subtext is “Hey kids, if you care about your health and that of those around you, please don’t smoke at home. Instead come ‘round my place after dark where it's cartons and Cubanos all around!"
Bottom line, no one can flaunt their green credentials in the Maldives.
So hop-aboard-our-sinking-ship-with-your-concrete-boots and
Can I interest madame in a trio of Parrotfish?
Perhaps a dozen boogie-board-sized trevally herding and hunting a thousand neon fusiliers?
Or an eagle ray seductress being chased and mauled by ten excited males?
Ah, I see madame is a woman of taste!
(either that or a freakishly obsessive, Epicurean fish twitcher— believe me, I know the type.)
very well: feast your eyes on this tasty little KUMQUAT...
The ORANGE SPOT FILEFISH, OXYMONACAMPUS LONGIROSTRIS
Largely doomed from the moment of capture in the aquarium trade, these exquisite creatures eat only certain species of shallow-water corals, their tiny, pointed rostrums perfectly evolved to snip the polyps from their calices. In my eyes, they are emblematic of the rice-paper fragility of this entire ecosystem, the underwater canaries in the coal mine.
THIS Was ONLY THE SECOND TIME I’VE SEEN ONE AND THE FIRST WITHIN THE MALDIVES.
Another reason We chose Kadoogadu
(seriously, say the name out loud: I swear it’s not made up)
is its location on the western edge of the atoll where, dependent on the monsoon
the manta rays are known to gather.
In Olympic terms, swimming with mantas is the underwater equivalent of the biathlon...
Exertion followed by absolute stillness. For our manta biathlon the starter gun was our Maldivian dive guide, Amjay, hopping up and down on the dhoni’s bow shouting, “Manta-manta-manta!” We slapped on gear and hit the water. Now it was only a matter of swimming as fast as we could to catch up, diving as deep as we could to get close, holding our breath as long as we could to hang out and staying as still as we could—in an environment where both subject and photographer are moving in and out of focus three-dimensionally— to maybe snap a picture.
Working large muscle groups without breathing in this manner is anaerobic exercise akin to lifting weights: every minute Kicking underwater is a minute doing squats.
The goal is fade to blue but not, you know, to black. And, unless you specifically train for this event— which, in London, believe it or not I don’t— within half an hour you're exhausted. Especially when the mantas decide to hang out twenty meters below the surface having parasites removed by cleaner wrasses.
BUT neither EXHAUSTION nor dodgy ears WILL STOP YOU BECAUSE MANTA RAYS ARE MAGIC.
As the always-clever octopus approaches intelligence from the path of snail, so the manta Seems to do but from the path of fish. There's just something in their eyes...
If you're lucky, when the current is just right; when the low tide drags the water away from the atolls to where the concentrated plankton feels like peppercorns against your skin, the mantas will move toward the surface and unfurl their cephalic fins to feed.
These horn-like appendages, Called Cephalic fins are what gives the rays creatures their common, sailor’s name: Devil Fish.
The cephalic fins unroll in a fascinating, reverse-prehensile motion and arrange themselves in flanges along the mantas’ gill-lined mouth.
On larger specimens, these toothless maws are big enough to swallow people. However, as with blue whales and whale sharks, mantas are purpose-built to tackle microscopic prey. Mantas are also unprotected in international waters, highly mobile, hard to study and, like all sharks, currently under threat— perhaps even critically endangered— by purveyors and consumers of traditional Chinese medicine. Their gill rakers are supposedly good for— I'm sorry.
Please excuse the following digression:
AttentioN consumers OF TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE:
Please stop killing endangered animals to enhance your subjective experience of “chi” and/or fail to cure your ills (none of it works beyond placebo, sorry). I understand many of you are pretty flush right now but please, for Buddha’s sake,
Stop encouraging a trade where people cut the fins off living sharks...
All for a soup I 98% taste-test guarantee as indistinguishable from something I can knock-up in my own kitchen using a sweaty mackerel, a tablespoon of gelatin and a drop of human urine, try me.
While we're at it, I also 98% taste-test guarantee the famous Bird’s Nest Soup as indistinguishable from a hearty bowl of My Spit Soup (the nest part being endangered-bird spit after all). Lastly, if any of these rhino horn, tiger penis or manta gill-raker aphrodisiacs and blood-cleansers(?) actually worked, the active ingredients would have been isolated, the pharmaceutical industry would have packaged it and
the SPAM-boxes OF THE WORLD WOULD be full of ads for Rhinoplasm, Tigercillim and Mantazac. instead of, say, Viagra.
RETURNING TO KADOOGADU...
...exhausted from your day of chasing mantas, you will consume three plates of fish, dhal and stir-fry Singapore noodles. You will wash this down with German beer and/or French Chablis. This will be followed by chocolate cake, two scoops of ice-cream and a handful of bananas. You will be asleep by nine and wake up in a puddle of drool. The next day, after a similarly gluttonous breakfast, instead of snorkelling, lounging on the chairs outside your beach chalet or even hitting the bar for an(other) all-inclusive cocktail...
…YOU WILL turn THE AIR-CONDITIONER TO “SNOWFLAKE”, THE CEILING FAN TO SUPERSONIC AND the television to AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL.
Congratulations: you are now the worst kind of over-privileged, five-toed sloth to ever walk the earth. And yet you will keep watching. Because the show fascinating.
If you're like me and have never seen this show before you will think: Let me get this straight: Is that a well-endowed young woman in full couture throwing a massive, wailing wobbly upon a belching camel? Yes. Yes it is. Is she being screamed at by a famous model for the crime of not having the appropriate expression while sitting in full couture while being photographed upon a belching camel? Again, yes.
If you're like me, you will consider, as AA Gill did recently regarding The Only Way is Essex— a popular British reality show— whether America’s Next Top Model would be better served by being narrated by David Attenborough.
Suddenly I had an epiphany: I can, like, totally do this.
“Honey, grab your gear.”
By the by, if by gear you're thinking mask, snorkel, fins, swimsuit— think again:
the reason you haven’t seen a sea turtle is because every creature you encounter flees from you in mortal terror because you look like this:
So just in case you're wondering how to rock this season’s underwater fabulous, This is how it's done:
Please note the bespoke waterproof gimp-mitten on the wife's left arm
A week before we left she slipped and broke her wrist while wearing bang-on-trend through treadless flip-flops by Kurt Geiger. In peach. This means not only were we two-hours by speedboat to a less-than-five-star hospital should her cast get wet, but also that she was going to need to bloody focus on my precise artistic vision, namely:
IN MY MASTERCLASS OF OUTFITS, THE FISH I MOST RESEMBLE IS NOT...
the Moorish Idol, Zanclus cornutus, but, obviously…
the Pennant bannerfish, heniochus diphreutes.
"The plan," I explained, producing the waist-tie from my non-complimentary Kadoogadu bathrobe, "is for me to dive into the school then you come down and take my picture, 'kay?”
Only she didn't bloody focus, did she? She found something funny about the way the bannerfish dispersed every time I dived, or the way my jaunty "banner" tended to wrap itself around my leg.
"Hold the camera straight, Goddammit! keep the sun at your back! stop laughing!"
"Don't you throw your phone at me, naomi. This is supposed to be fun."
Suddenly we were in the middle of the Indian ocean arguing about a photoshoot both contrived and totally divorced from reality.
AMERICA'S NEXT TOP MODEL? EAT MY F***ING BOARD SHORTS.
On Kadoogadu— this shouty disagreement is what passes for a problem.
(That and having the "room boy" come to clean your room during your morning... newspaper.)
Happily, the wife redeemed herself forthwith. The day before we left our artificial paradise, she pointed her dive-rattle at a cabbage-size-and-looking blob which turned out to be a stonefish. Not a lionfish or puffer, mind...
or even a bearded scorpionfish (though dig the full-on Fu Manchu):
… but a bona fide stonefish. The most venomous fish on the planet.
Notoriously difficult to spot, stonefish come equipped with thirteen hollow, dorsal spines, each above a gland of deadly poison.
I had never seen one in the wild before and welled-up with pride. The Mrs.— who couldn't swim when first we met, and with a broken arm— had gone and found a stonefish. My love for her has never been stronger. What's more, after two weeks of spending 5+ hours/day together staring at unpixelated liquid wilderness, when we closed our eyes at night it was fish instead of worries swimming up behind our eyelids.
I'm not sure this is worth the price of admission
But i will say that when the urban/on-line world starts to feel like poison:
The antidote is wilderness.
Slow down, Bubba. Unplug the glowing rectangle and watch the pretty colors. In another world on planet Earth. In actual 3D.
Put a snorkel in your mouth and just. shut. up.
suddenly the trip was over.
Home for us is a four story, brick building above a homo-erotic pole-dancing bar in Soho, central London.
The area is peppered with what the natives call "parks" but seem to me more like cemeteries without the headstones. With ducks. At night I almost never see the stars. In fact, the most colorful thing in our immediate surrounds is our downstairs neighbor,
Heidilicious, a professional drag-queen.
LONDON IS A WILDERNESS OF HUMAN SPIRIT, wITH THE EMPHASIS ON HUMAN.
To better mentally survive here, my wife and I have taken to practicing "Urban Snorkelling"— present-tense awareness of what swims up from the grey. The fashionista's hat. The newest dim-sum joint. The rather trendy, trust-fund dope-fiend puking on her cashmere.
The mallard on the roof.
But next time there’s a double-dip recession...
...another premature death within our inner circle or an Act of Man which threatens to destroy another ecosystem... when sleep is hard to come by in between the grinding of my mental gears... or when the bank says we need sixty grand to secure a mortgage and here we are with only four, well…
If we're blessed enough to have the time, you’ll find us on the next plane out— to maybe even indirectly kill something just to witness it before it’s gone. And if, like the song says, hypocrisy is the greatest luxury, then no matter where we go, we will be taking a luxury holiday.
Next time, we’ll be going somewhere like the Maldives.
If you made it this far: thank you for your iBalls! Somewhere during the course of writing this, certain editorial relationships fell apart so I figured f*** it, I'm taking this piece sideways from trad journalism and into the world of unpaid snorkel-fashion-blog. Which is why we have the internet, and jaded freelancers selling bread at the farmers market! Please do share if so inclined.
many thanks again,