by Cliff Terry

Rob, Annie and I met up with Martin and the crew of Nanou in the port of Galle, Sri Lanka where we were heading for the Maldives archipelago. Over the last six months we had immersed ourselves in South Asian history, folklore and culture and now we hope to follow in Thor Heyerdahl footsteps, filming a documentary film as we attempted to solve the Maldives mystery. Rob and I had met Martin some months earlier and when I told him of our plans to film in the Maldives and Sri Lanka, he invited us to join him on his 60 foot, cutter rig yacht, Nanou. Being a photographer and filmmaker himself he agreed to come on board as one of our sponsors.  The idea was to film some of the archaeological sites uncovered by Heyerdahl in the 80's while expounding some of our own maverick theories on the origins of the Maldivians. Like Heyerdahl in his book and film of the same name, The Maldive Mystery, this was meant to tie in with the subsequent film we were doing on Sri Lanka.

The Maldives is an equatorial chain of coral islands located just west of the Indian subcontinent. The islands are made up of 26 natural atolls, each enclosed by a coral reef with several deep channels between them. Their location places them along the ancient marine trade routes between the West and Eastern civilizations. Subsequently, the islands became a meeting place for early explorers and the merchants that followed with their influences still evident to this day. The journey from Sri Lanka to the Maldives was for the most part uneventful, but it gave us a chance to get to know the rest of the crew. Haven and Jason had joined Martin in Thailand, while Nigel had come aboard in Sri Lanka with us. The crew had spent their days in Sri Lanka shopping for supplies and making a few minor repairs on the ship.  The deck watch schedule and duty roster were made up and we set sail  with the tide in the late afternoon from Galle harbour. Within the next few hours we lost our breeze and had to motor the next two days to Male.

On the morning of the third day, just as we came in sight of North Male atoll, we became aware that our trolling line had just hooked a large swordfish. The crew sprang into action, Rob, Martin and I grabbed various video and still cameras while Nigel and Jason reeled it in. Haven and Anne got into the act as we attempted to land the fish onto the deck. In the ensuing altercation, the crew sustained a few injuries trying to avoid being impaled by the sword but we were able to get most of the melee on film.

Male is the capital city for the Maldives and the city covers the entire two square miles of the island. After clearing customs, and they are gracious enough to come out to greet you, we had to report in to the harbormaster to arrange for the various permits we would need to explore the islands.

Getting the permits was pretty cut and dry.  Basically, you were restricted from sailing anywhere but within the Male Atoll, which is a fairly large area, but did not contain any of the archeological sites we were hoping to explore. You could of course apply for an exemption but that could take weeks or even longer and we were under a time constraint. Martin had to continue his voyage on to Djibouti and we were due
back in Sri Lanka to attend a conference.  We decided to cut our losses and shoot as much as we could and hope that a new focus for our documentary presented itself. One of the first places we decided to cover was the Natural History Museum in Male that housed many of the archeological findings. The museum was surrounded by a large botanical garden, which covered the whole block. Many of the artifacts were situated outside the museum building up against the wall, which worked in our favor since we could bring the camera inside the museum. While shooting some coverage in the garden area we ran into a guide who was also a coral reef environmentalist. The impromptu interview we conducted with him gave us tremendous insight on the ecology of the Maldives reefs.

We concluded our day hanging around the docks and watching the sunset. It was there that we ran into Martin and the rest of the crew and we all headed off to find a good restaurant and a cyber café, which is the extent of the nightlife in Male. The plan was to leave the following day to take in some of the sights around the Male Atoll and get some diving in. This required making preparations to leave and getting a few provisions. The documentary crew was exempt from these tasks so we could continue filming some of the Male culture. Just before we were to begin our exploration of the Male atoll we discovered we had a problem with the fuel line. This meant that we could not leave until it was fixed and the more pressing problem of not being able to run the generator. We still had the solar panels and the wind generator, that and the small gas powered generator we purchased in town we were able to keep the batteries about half charged. This meant we had to severely restrict our use of electricity until the main generator was up and running. It took us the better part of two days to figure out the problem and that was thanks to the two engineers we had on board, Martin and Rob.

The next day after some discussion we set sail for Barros reef a two-hour sail to the western side of  the atoll and just next to one of the resort islands. A few of us got in a quick snorkel out to the reef before sunset. The duty roster called for Rob and I to cooked dinner so we pulled out of few of our swordfish steaks to make a fish curry while the rest of the gang went for cocktails over at the resort.  Over the next few days we were able to get footage shot of this reef as well as another reef off the southern tip of the atoll.

The Maldives is comprised of a cluster of equatorial coral islands. The islands are made up of 26 natural atolls containing some 1192 tiny islands. Each atoll is enclosed by a coral reef while a protective coral reef and a shallow lagoon surround all the islands. Coral reef eco-systems exemplify the richest known types of living communities, unbelievably intertwined in a complex food and resource collaboration. The coral islands found in the Maldives are made form the limestone skeletons of tiny invertebrate organisms.  These eco-systems are some of the oldest forms of life and are literally the skeleton upon which a complex web is draped. Some of the stony corals are as old as seventy million years. Averaging about 5 to 28 millimeters of growth a year, once damaged or destroyed a reef will take years to rebuild.

Reefs serve the interests of the inhabitants of the Maldives. They are a very effective way to prevent soil erosion, they create food for the islanders, and protect them form the ocean environment.  New isles are being formed from the coral growth but the rate of decline is vastly outpacing the formation.  In the Maldives, man-made degradation is a result of coral mining for building traditional coral houses and most recently the resorts. Further, recreation and boating interests have built jetties and harbors on the small islands. These structures prevent the natural circular movement of the sand around the islands and damage the marine ecosystem. As a result, more structures were built to slow beach erosion and more sand imported to make beaches look good to tourists. These practices further stress the natural eco-systems that created the islands a millennia ago.

Although the Maldives is considered a model of sustainable tourism, are the practices developed so far working over the long term? Most of the goods and resources in the Maldives are imported.  Resorts are using an increasing amount of resources in order to raise the standards to those of the western world.  Hot water, swimming pools, air conditioning and large amounts of diesel fuel to generate electricity are all contributing to increasing the overall energy cost per guest. Another pressing problem is trash management due to the increased usage of modern packaging. The resorts are required to manage their own trash according to their leasing agreements. Officially, the government in 1996 created an island to which waste can be shipped. Unofficially, resort guides have allegedly reported illegal dumping of resort waste on various reefs around the atolls.

As we sail past the small island, the Nanou crew has aptly named trash isle, heading back to Male harbor this is our final day in the Maldives. It is already late March.  While Rob, Anne and I are due back in Sri Lanka to attend the Worldview conference, Nanou still has to make it to the Red Sea by mid April.  Because of unforeseen delays and the engine trouble, we realize that we have only been able to explore one small corner of the vast North Male Atoll. We could have probably taken another week or two sailing around the area we were restricted to, north and south Male Atoll. It did, however, give us a chance to gain an intimate knowledge of the capital city and maybe an insight into the Maldives culture and history we were seeking.