the journey


Living life in Uligan

We are anchored in an aquarium. Turquoise water glows under our hull, with help from the sand reflecting the ferociously strong sun. Twelve feet below our keel is a small boulder coral, home to 6-9 coral trout, shimmering fiery orange with brilliant blue dots. A green moray eel stares at me, mouth predictably agape. Returning to the surface through schools of tiny silver fish I revel in the beauty of this small patch of aqua water.

Even in the darkness of night it is stunning. In the light of the full moon the water is ethereal. It is so clear we can see the sandy bottom and the boulder coral beneath us.

Our luck is holding; someone is watching out for us. Our second night at anchor I woke up just before the wind shifted, something the other two boats anchored almost uncomfortably close told us never happens. A squall blew through, also rare for this time of year. With it the light wind circled around and we found ourselves peering into the moonlit water over the line of shallow coral that was once 100 feet from our bow and now dangerously close. At three am with help from the moon, we rigged the stern anchor and Gar rowed it out at a ninety degree angle to our primary anchor. He threw the hook just in time. We kissed coral, a sickening sound no matter how lightly we bumped. I urged him to hurry and then DreamKeeper was winched off without even a scratch. (We looked the next morning and the coral didn't have any blue paint on it either.)

In the early morning and late afternoon we stand watch, perched in the cockpit searching the reefs for black fins tickling the surface of the calm sea. We have been lucky. Three times we have climbed down the ladder and have been honored to share the domain of the angels of the sea. These giant mantas swoop through the deeper soupy water of the anchorage when the current is running strong, soaring gracefully in circles feeding. The emerge like ghosts through the nutrient rich water, unfurling their white wings as they pass.

I'ís hard to get any projects done here. The turquoise water is always beckoning us to take a plunge. When the heavy heat of the day settles upon us and our minds and motions begin to slow we find an excuse to cool down between boat projects and gratefully jump into the alluringly refreshing water. Sometimes we find our selves giggling and smiling ridiculously because it is such a perfect spot to be anchored.

After productive mornings we take the dinghy out to the farther reefs. On a particularly good day we spotted seven spotted eagle rays flying through the sea in perfect V formation at 30 feet. At least twenty different 2-4 foot round sting rays slept or fed on the bottom, snuffling sand through their gills while they munched crustaceans. A school of 50-70 midnight snapper shadowed my vision. Just beyond them, brilliant blue fusiliers and pink and orange anthias fish brought color back to the reef. Yellow and black striped and spotted sweet lips played hide and seek through the coral gardens. And I got spooked when two bull sharks cruised through.

It is surprising so much life is here. Each morning and evening fishing boats circle or are anchored just beyond the reef. They work the area day after day. But thanks to the new government's aim to keep fish stocks sustainable they have tight restrictions on the kind of fishing that can be done. Also, the Maldives are the first country in the world to impose the first total ban on shark hunting in the world.

A school of squid pulsed back and forth on our starboard side for a couple of days. By the third day at anchor we had attracted a school of a few thousand tiny silvery fish, in daylight unicorn fish took up residence. At sunset a pair or two of queen fish hunted. They schooled our silver friends, chasing them madly around the dingy and the mother-ship, separating individuals from the pack and lunging violently after them. We always knew when it was dinner time from the loud splashes beside the boat.

Days stretched into a week and beyond as algae quickly started growing on our hull. On Uligan Island, Imad, our agent, and his crew became friends and earned their keep. They were shy at first and by the end we didn't really want to leave. The crew is impressively efficient especially for a tropical island. For example, they filled 35 gallons of fuel within a half an hour. Three to five guys helped measure, funnel and pour the fuel, not a drop was wasted and all was accounted for. The guys had a great system for returning the jugs to the wharf; motorbikes. A guy drove the bike through the sandy streets while the one on the back had a 5 gallon jug of fuel in each hand. There were two motorbike shuttles that moved a lot of fuel.

We visited a couple of other islands with them and saw girls wearing white uniforms from head to toe and boys slinking behind bushes too shy to say hello. We saw tuna drying on racks in the sun awaiting shipment to India. And houses built with old coral and new ones built with concrete (an environmentally conscious mandate from the government). All of them had streets of blindingly white sand.

Strange to think these islands could all be uninhabitable in the next few decades. The Maldives, along with Tuvalu, Bangladesh, and parts of the Netherlands are one of the lowest lying countries in the world; it's highest natural point is 2.4 meters above sea level. The people we spoke with were hopeful that their homes might not be underwater and proud of their government for their plan to be carbon neutral by 2018. They informed us along with an article from the Economist that the new president is indeed setting aside funds from their billion dollar a year tourist industry to buy land somewhere else if they need to be relocated. Sadly, it is a real possibility.

We spent our last night at a potlatch with the few boats that were still in the anchorage and Imad and his crew. We chatted with Hussein who had been a dive guide in Male for years and learned tons about the animals in the sea and his love for diving and whale sharks. We dined on a huge vegetable salad brought by a South African, dutch pancakes with lemon and sugar, baked pasta from the Italians, chocolate chip cookies from us Americans and barbecued fish (snapper and sweetlips) chicken and hot dogs from the Maldivians. More than anything it was good to say thank you and spend a fun night together on the beach under the stars.

Our last morning, the sun rose boldly and the water was calm. We spotted the familiar rise of a black fin just slicing the water and slipped in hopeful we'd get one last chance. The visibility was just 15 feet. Waiting and scanning the water in circles I was amazed to see a 12 foot manta gliding slowly 3 feet directly beneath me. I looked into her eyes and wanted to reach out and touch her. Watching her fly gracefully away, I gave thanks for the magic and mystery and beauty of this place.