“THEY CAME AND TOOK EVERYTHING.” Divers have been known to use hyperbole – this big, so deep, that many – so I was going to take this with a degree of scepticism.
“This was the last place in the Maldives to be properly policed for illegal foreign fishing,” my dive-guide continued. “All the sharks and rays were taken – but now they’re coming back, juvenile sharks and mantas.”
Several dives into my trip, it seemed that his explanation was adding up. When divers talk about the Maldives, it’s often about the excitement of close encounters with outsize pelagics. So how had I ended up in one of the few places that didn’t appear to have any?
The Barefoot Eco Hotel sits on the island of Hanimaadho in Haa Dhaalu Atoll in the far north, just below the Eight Degree Channel that separates the Maldives and India’s Lakshadweep islands.
Designed around a Balinese longhouse, the hotel fits sympathetically into the landscape. It also ticks an impressive number of eco boxes, including producing its own power via solar panels, having a conservation centre and bottling its own water (in reusable glass bottles). The small dive-centre runs up to three dives a day, and all sites are within an hour’s dhoni ride.
It’s not a gilded-bubble resort but located on a “local island”, a rather surreal differentiation to have to make when travelling to another country.
With a town, a school and an airstrip, Hanimaadho offers a small but intriguing insight into Maldivian island life.
One consequence of this is that alcohol is forbidden on the island, so those important après-dive refreshments are catered for on a boat-bar a five-minute free water-taxi ride away.
Our first dives were both around Baarah, a fringing reef surrounding
a small island. When we arrived, our guide Paolo was quickly into the water, checking the current and reporting that it was going in the opposite direction to normal.
As we entered and descended, it soon became clear that the visibility was not great, at about 10m, the overcast sky and the water thick with nutrients soaking all colour from the reef below.
Stopping just above the reef to pass the obligatory signals round the group, I took the opportunity to unfurl my strobe-arms. As is often the case, I was the last to realise that we had now gained an extra member – a hawksbill turtle sat nonchalantly on a rocky outcrop, watching the formal beginnings of our dive.
It was for perhaps only two minutes that we huddled round to investigate, and soon the turtle had decided that enough was enough, and moved away.
The slight current gave us the impetus to continue the dive. As we moved past the reef, shoals of snapper intermingled with surgeonfish busying themselves in their morning routines. Below, a marbled ray drifted along where the reef met the sandy bottom at 30m.