Fishes of many hues, shapes and sizes dart in and out of the reef. The coral garden itself seems to change colour as clouds pass by overhead. I adjust my goggles and tighten my grip on the step’s last rung, the only thing tethering me to the boat. A few metres ahead, a ledge marks a sharp drop in the ocean floor and beyond that, the deep dark of the Indian Ocean. I flip onto my back, and it’s a different world altogether, with unending electric-blue sky dotted by cotton-white clouds.
“No whale shark, sadly, but it is a rather beautiful day to be out on the water,” says Mark, swimming up to me. I try to take off my mouthpiece so I can respond, swallow some salt water, decide against it and raise my thumb in agreement. Spotting sea turtles, schools of multi-coloured fishes and snorkelling over acres of coral reefs is indeed quite the consolation.
I am at LUX* South Ari Atoll, about 45 minutes by seaplane from Malé, the capital of Maldives, in the ocean with Mark McMillan, marine biologist, on the trail of a whale shark. He has been gathering data on these magnificent creatures for a few years now and sightings are fairly common, he says. I’m hoping to catch a glimpse and my luck with spotting marine life had already been fairly incredible.
The night before, just as dinner at Umami, the resort’s Japanese restaurant, was winding down to a close, news arrived that a couple of manta rays had been spotted at the arrival jetty. Although I saw the irony in the situation, having just gorged on a delightful, entirely seafood-centric meal, I wasted no time in hopping onto a bicycle. My briskness was rewarded as I arrived just in time to catch the mantas put up a fantastic show. Gliding and twirling, turning loops, it seemed as if they were playing to the crowd, responding with flourishes to gasps from us.
“It’s remarkable how ingredients that you use at home in certain ways can have entirely different applications somewhere else across the world,” says Chef Habib Rahman. “Take for instance, this banana flower,” he points at the reddish-purple, fleshy flower that he has in his basket, which he is dragging along as I follow him around the herb garden. He picks up a few clusters of leaves before he explains. Back at his home in Bangladesh, banana flowers are cooked with a generous dose of spice, whereas in the Maldives, one of the more popular dishes is boshi mashuni, a salad of lightly steamed banana flower with freshly grated coconut.
Once the chef is done giving me the herb tour and collecting ingredients for the master class he’s about to conduct, we come to the live cooking station within the garden. He talks me through the multi-course meal he’s about to rustle up. Given the cultural cross-section of the Maldivian people, a number of local ingredients and dishes would be familiar to South Asians.
As I sip on garudhiya, a traditional fish broth that’s made with the famous Maldivian chilli, the flavours, although exotic, seem to leave an aftertaste that’s somewhat familiar; it reminds me of home. As does saagu bondi bai (sago pudding infused with pandan leaves), or biskeemiya (cabbage and egg stuffed samosa) and lonu linboa (lime pickle).
“I’m notorious in houseplant circles, I’ve unwittingly killed many,” I come clean to Mark, as he sets down the bucket of corals. Visibly unsure about how to respond to my weak attempt at humour, he carries on educating me about the invertebrates. “They will be taken care of by the ocean, all we have to do is ensure we secure them to the frame properly and then drop them off at an adequate depth.” I’m back on a marine biology session with Mark and this time, we’re participating in an initiative that has caught on across properties in this island nation—coral planting. Given that the resort is located within a marine protected area, replenishing reefs is also part of a larger, long-term plan.
Once we’re done tying as many pieces of coral as we can on a metal frame, it’s time to walk out to the jetty and drop it off at a designated spot. I dive in to get a closer look and realise that a little garden of sorts has been made with recycled odds and ends: an old bathtub, a stove, a bicycle bent out of shape and, of course, the metal frames dropped in after planting sessions with Mark. Everywhere, bits of coral, building towards the eventual garden. It’ll be years before there is a reef teeming with marine life but it seems the message has been received loud and clear; I remember this is the very same jetty where the manta rays had put on that magnificent dance.
The soft pealing of a bell drifts in from far away and I drift out of sleep. It takes me a couple of minutes to understand the massage is over. I am directed to a deck chair overlooking the ocean, a tree overhead casting thick, deliciously cool shade all around. The lapping of the waves, the gentle breeze, it all seems to be in harmony even as time itself seems to have slowed down.
By the time the haze wears off and I am capable of regular motor functions again, my appetite rears its head, albeit politely. I consider the eight restaurants and five bars on the island, and decide I want a bit of peace and quiet. So, I head back to my villa, a light snack on my private porch on the beach is more in sync with my energy today. After I’m satiated, I pack a book and a towel and hop onto the bicycle; I want to head to the ‘quiet section’ of the island. The reading room, perched on one end of the island, holds a surprise. As I walk in through the doors, I am almost overwhelmed by the fragrance inside, it’s so pleasant. It’s LUX*’s own and made entirely from natural ingredients, I find out. I am so comfortably ensconced that hours pass before I realise the time. I’ve had my fill of solitude and want some company. I cycle about aimlessly for a bit until I hear music in the distance.
I arrive at a sundowner in progress. The sun is within kissing distance of the ocean and the sky a brilliant crimson. I spot some familiar faces and make my way onto the sea deck. As my last evening at the LUX* wears on with music, food, drink, laughter and conversation, I take out the little map of the island that was given to me upon arrival. I trace out my routes across the atoll and to each little mark of my pencil, I attach memories. Memories of doing both incredible things and absolutely nothing at all.
Also Read | Of Sea, Sand and Serenity
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2022. Get your copy here.
Trans Maldivian Airways has seaplanes flying out from Velana International Airport on Malé to South Ari Atoll at regular intervals. Visitors can wait in LUX*’s lounge at the seaplane port before the 45-minute flight. Doubles from ₹27,230 per night. luxresorts.com
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.