In the deep blues of the Maldives, Habiba Azab finds enchantment and serenity alongside the majestic gentle giants of the ocean
Above the surface, the sea was dark and moody with drops of rain beating down upon its glassy exterior. Beneath the surface, there was a stillness, vastness and silence. I could feel my legs lose their fiery momentum as I pushed through wave after wave. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Still no sighting. Eyes wide open, I scanned the waters but all I could see was an endless expanse of lapping waves reverberating, drowning out my last hope.
It was two days ago that I made my first journey to the Maldives. Flying east over the Indian Ocean, I peered through the plane windows and marvelled at how quickly the clouds gave way to vast sparkling blues. As the island loomed into view, my mind reeled at the plethora of shades underneath; aquamarine in parts, azure in others, maybe even cerulean? The ocean was a tapestry of peaks and dips, dotted with white-sandy patches and distinct outlines of vivid coral reefs. A few hours in and I was already scrapbooking this country.
Just as I re-hinged my dropped jaw, the seaplane started its swift descent with everyone “ooh-ing”, “ahh-ing” and snapping away until we glided to a graceful stop at the jetty. I could hear the faint sound of drums in the distance and, a short boat ride later, I arrived to beaming smiles and charming Maldivian chants at Anantara Kihavah Maldives Villas.
This was one time in life to embrace clichés, because the resort was everything I’d imagined the Maldives to be; an endless sweep of blindingly white sand, cotton-swirled blue skies and rows of stilted bungalows enveloped by water that is such a perfect shade of turquoise. It looked like an Instagram filter in real life. With a swinging daybed, marble-clad infinity pool and an outdoor bathroom that puts all other bathrooms to shame, it was easy to understand why people spent entire holidays cocooned in this cosy sanctuary. After a few lingering moments, I managed to tear myself away from its comforting claws and made my way down to the beach as the dipping sun set the sea ablaze with its spectacular shades of orange, snapping a mental postcard for years to come.
I’d been told earlier that the best thing about the Maldives is its people. Friendly, kind and naturally hospitable, it was easy to be swayed by their genuine charm. And when my new friend Maldives (yes, his name was actually Maldives) called out a cheery “Haalu kihineh?” (how are you?) every morning as I rode my bike to breakfast, I couldn’t help but glow with glee. Never have I ever encountered an entire hotel staff so completely enamoured with their jobs as that at Anantara Kihavah. They lived in paradise and they sure acted like it. Whistling while they worked, and easily remembering every guest’s name, even my preference for an early morning orange juice. So, as the waiter at Sea poured me a freshly-squeezed glass, a cheesy smile nearly broke my face. But, to be honest, the rainbow-striped parrotfish playfully bumping his nose against my window may have been the reason why I was in such lively spirits. Voted as the World’s Best Underwater Restaurant for four years running, the aquarium-like restaurant offered a one-of-a-kind dining experience where it was unclear whether the fish swimming by were on display for you or the other way around. As I waited for my sumptuous meal to arrive, I spotted an unlikely alliance between a sea turtle and a baby lemon shark following by its side. We all watched in amazement as they put on a show of teasing each other behind the curved glass wall. “You’re very lucky, it’s a rare occasion to spot a sea turtle and a shark at the same time,” enthused Annika Bjorka, director of spa, wellness and recreation.
I could swear in that moment, it was just the ray and me, alone in an underwater world.
There’s something so meditative about the Maldives: the awe of millions of twinkling stars painting the midnight sky, the joy of a fresh chilly breeze or the sweet surprise of a gecko or a crab scuttling to take shelter. But the island’s true allure lies within its deep blue waters and the idea of snorkelling with reef manta rays had me buzzing with nervous excitement since the first day I arrived. I had watched enough videos of these majestic creatures to be prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime sea escapade that, by the time our trip rolled around, I couldn’t sit still. Not even having recently watched Jason Statham’s The Meg was enough to deter me from ticking this one off the bucket-list. With a sturdy life jacket strapped-on, I hopped onboard the boat and embarked on the 45-minute journey towards Hanifaru Bay, the world’s largest natural manta feeding region in the Baa Atoll where these mesmerising beings gather in groups of 150 or more between June and late November.
“Don’t chase them, let them find their way to you. These giant rays are playful and curious by nature so don’t be surprised if they go out of their way to interact, drawing incredibly near and managing to avoid contact at the last second,” said our guide as the boat continued to rock back and forth over the choppy waters. “Having the largest brain-to-body ratio of all rays and sharks, they’re also very intelligent beings. Many say they could feel an emotional connection whenever they’re in their presence.”
It had all come down to this moment. A sudden uproar of whooping and whistling signalled the arrival of something exhilarating. I raced up to the front of the boat and joined the flurry of spectators watching in awe as the outline of a manta ray vanished into the depths with a surging velocity. “Let’s go!” our guide hollered. I scrambled down the deck trying not to trip on my oversized fins while frantically scouring the floor for my misplaced snorkel. Mask askew, I leapt from the boat into the warm Indian Ocean and plunged my face underwater, ready to begin a speedy, front crawl pursuit.
15 minutes passed, 25, 35… and yet there I was, peering down my snorkel mask into an empty dark void. I knew that with the newly introduced protection ban, the Hanifaru Bay only allowed a limit of five boats and 80 visitors with only 45-minutes to spare. And with this information flashing in my brain, I felt like I was racing against the clock while trying to fight the impending disappointment waiting to take over.
That’s when everything changed. Just when I was about to give up and make a defeated retreat to the boat, a snowflake-speckled giant came swooping in behind a haze of bubbles. For a few seconds, my body froze, and time seemed to stand still as I marvelled at its graceful beauty. The all-encompassing silence enveloping me only served to intensify the experience and I could swear in that moment, it was just the ray and me, alone in an underwater world.
Four times my size and just inches from my fingertips, the dazzling creature began a dizzying dance ritual; turning, swerving and gliding off into the indigo haze unhampered by gravity. Close on its tail, another manta pursuing the nutritious black specks of plankton appeared, and another and another – that’s when I discovered you can squeal “oh, my God” into a snorkel multiple times and not drown.
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