I have been visiting the Maldives since the 1970's, as soon as I saw the waters of Kuramathi, it was love at first sight.
Since then many things have changed: the journey which was once tiresome and not without unforeseen events, is now well-organized and comfortable thanks to the addition of a new airport, the establishment of direct flights and the diffusion of faster boats used to reach the various islands. The tourist resorts which then offered a Spartan life, now allow for choices of every kind. Even the cuisine once presented problems both for its irregular supply making it scarce and unvarying and for the great use of coconut oil, with its very foreign flavour to the European palate. Today, one can find an adequate meal throughout the islands and can even eat quote well in a few selected places. Electricity, once distributed sparingly to tourist areas, has become largely available and permits all the comforts we are used to.
Another important change is connected to the diffusion of motorized fishing and transportation boats, in fact, one notices significantly fewer sailing boats along the horizon. This includes the Dhoni-houses, large boats used by whole families of sea nomads, which have almost disappeared from the central atolls. These houses are multi-purpose, serving not only as shelters, but provide a home, a chicken roost, a means of transportation, a place to trade ones goods, a fishing boat and a fish-drying area as well. Interestingly enough, the big increase of western tourism and the recently developing eastern tourism has not seemed to have bad a negative effect on the happy and open-minded nature of the Maldivians. Furthermore, the magnificence of the islands has remained untouched, covered with tropical vegetation and surrounded by white sand: one can spend the day admiring the continuous changing colors of the sea and sky which finish in spectacular twilights.
From the beach one can see Dolphins playing and Flying fish shoot out of the water; it is also easy to see the tail of a large Parrotfish, a Triggerfish and even the Napoleon wrasse peep out when feeding on the shoals; the Eagle rays and the Devilfish stick out the tips of their flexible, wings-like fins.
In the distance, it is possible to make out the spout of a whale or a turtle coming up to breath; one can bear the noisy splashes of the Devilfish that spring out of the water in a courtship dance. At dawn and sunset small Tunafish, Jacks (or Trevallies) and Barracudas increase their feeding search by lifting swarms of small fish in a silvery shower or by forcing the long Needlefish to save themselves with record jumps.
Through these external impressions one can only get a sense of the exuberance of marine life in the Indian Ocean. Someone once said: "going to the Maldives without looking under water is like visiting Venice, and passing through the Grand Canal on board of a submarine". In spite of a few reefs damaged by the proliferation of the Crown of thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) which feeds itself on coral polyps, the absolute beauty of the coral world charms and enchants us with its variety of forms and colors amongst the hard and soft corals, sponges, anemones, sea urchins, starfish, sea cucumbers, jellyfish, ascidia, mollusks, crustaceans, seaweed and fish.
The coral reef is located close to shore in shallow, transparent water with an average temperature of about 27°C. Furthermore, the near absence of waves helps to create the perfect environmental conditions for surface snorkellers.
Fusiliers squads restlessly swim around the perimeter of the reef, glowing like neon lights against the background of a myriad of Brown chromis; Parrotfish noisily crunch at the coral, eating its polyps and skeleton only to dart off in a snowfall of sand; Butterflyfish, in a "pas à deux", explore every possible niche, ready to seek shelter in the madrepores along with the Squirrelfish and Soldierfish which wait for dusk before coming out.
Even the Damselfish bide themselves among the antlered madrepore only to venture out when the danger ceases. Small, insatiable Wrasse with their rainbow-like coloring dart about tirelessly under the dignified Groupers, Sea basses and Snappers. The elegant and diffident Imperial fish, with their blue lacquered masks appear next to the unhinibited, Undulated triggerfish, unbeatable when it comes to finding food and capable of demolishing a sea urchin in a few blows.
Clownfish, untouched guests of the poisonous anemones, defend their territories from strangers. While the slowly moving Boxfish or Porcupinefish use their fins like propellers, a school of imposing Giant trevallies appear out of nowhere, with their light fluorescent blue spots they allow themselves to be admired, but suddenly resume their sport as quick and ravenous bunters. Titan triggerfish, who swim with their bodies turned at a 90' angle, scrutinize contemporarily the surface and floor thanks to their independent eyes. Small Groupers and Hawkfish wait in ambush amongst the corals, while the Oriental zebras remain almost immobile amidst the flow of the current, and in contrast the agitated Surgeonfish and Tangs move about frantically showing their scalpel-like spine near the base of their tails. Goatfish, isolated or in schools rummage the sandy bottom with their ridiculous barbels, next to the Rock-mover, a robust contortionist determined to lift enormous coral fragments in search of food. Some Bullseyes, in front of their dens, change colors, passing from a reddish black to an intense red, to a mother-of-pearl pink, choosing between a solid color and vertical stripes. The surrealistic Scribbled filefish calmly navigates while its spots and color tone change, signaling danger (which does not include the small Reef sharks) by erecting its dorsal spine.
This view is enchanting, but the incredible richness of multicolored fish may overwhelm the visual sense of the observer, frustrating his rational 'fish watching' attempts.
I have prepared this booklet illustrating approximately one hundred and forty different species of fish, in order to supply the snorkeller with clues which will allow him to identify these fish. I have included reproductions of those animals most visible to the snorkellers, discarding those which are usually bidden in caves (Apogonidae), lay immobile on the sea-bed (Blennidae, Gobidae) or have a pelagic life (Scombridae, Istiophoridae).
Instead of photographs I have decided to use drawings patiently and skillfully carried out by Flavia Balbi, which better reveal the features of the given examples, taking into consideration the great variation of coloring: the same fish in fact, may appear differently without any apparent reason, due to changes in temperature and luminosity of the environment or according to the pattern of the sea-bottom, showing its extraordinary ability to camouflage itself.
Even a fishes' "emotions", can provoke a change in how it looks, as when they are afraid or behave aggressively, as when they are involved in love rituals or while they loose themselves to the cares of the Cleaner fish at the "cleaning station" (see no.14); finally, some species present different coloring according to gender (no.94) age and level of maturity (nos. 24, 35, 75).
For every fish I have quoted the English name together with the scientific Latin name of the family, genus and species.
The presence of examples that range from a few centimeters in dimension (Clownfish) to those that reach several meters in size (Devilfish or Manta ray) has made it impossible for me to represent them in scale; therefore, the number in brackets next to the name, gives only an approximate indication:
Thanks to my own experience, I know that the tourist gets information about the danger he or she can encounter and about the precautions to adopt, important before entering into any unknown environment. It would be a useful thing for me to add a few notes about this: the two major risks are solar radiation (and I will not explain here on how to protect oneself) and the presence of marine currents.
fish up to 15 cm
fish up to 25 cm
fish up to 40 cm
fish up to 60 cm
fish above 60 cm
The latter, owing to the rapid changing of tides and their speed, can cause difficulty for certain swimmers: it is a good idea not to go too far away from the island, not to swim alone or in unusual hours, to use flippers and to be aware of the changes in the current in order to always be able to get quickly back to shore.
The third danger, which is by far the least, consists of the damage that humans can undergo from marine organisms, under the following conditions:
a) traumas due to aggressions:
Sharks and Barracudas, which are known to attack man in different areas, have never shown aggressive behavior in the Maldives. The snorkellers will often see the small Reef sharks (Triodon obesus) with its white-tipped fins around the island; no more than one and a half to two meters in length, it is harmless even when it passes within a few meters of the snorkellers. In addition, the other types of sharks do not tend to stay too near the coast.b) traumas due to defense:
Moray eels and turtles can, if disturbed, react violently. Even the Balistoides viridescens (no.90) are capable of inflicting severe bites.c) toxic traumas due to defense or accidental contact with spines, teeth and similar apparata:
d) toxic injuries:
- Many fish, such as the Siganidae (no.30), Acanthuridae (nos. 58-66), Diodontidae and Tetraodontidae (nos. 76-95) are endowed with aculei, spines, or sharp projections which are toxic in some cases, but represent serious danger only for fishermen and imprudent cooks.
- The Scorpenidae and Synanceidae (nos.130-133), almost always immobile on the sea-bed or in caves have dorsal fins equipped with poisonous spines: among these is the Stonefish which can provoke deadly intoxications.
- Dasyatidae (nos.138-139), their tails armed with poisonous aculei, strike only when they feel immobilized, as happens when accidentally stepped on. Devil fish and Eagle rays (nos.140-141) love swimming in large open spaces and although have similarly armed tails are not to be feared.
- Among the various types of mollusks, there are some Cone snails present in the Indopacific, characterized by their attractively colorful shells, that launch venom-filled teeth, like tiny harpoons, by means of a proboscis.
- Some Sea snakes have extremely poisonous teeth however, they are shy animals spending most of the day hidden under the madrepores and rarely seen. Nature has provided them with a small jaw, limiting their ability to do harm only to particular areas, such as fingers.
Contact with many anemones, corals (the fire coral belonging to Millepora is the most common), starfish, sea-urchins, holothurias, sponges, mollusks nudibranchs, polychaetes worms, hydrozoa and jellyfish because of their ability to produce irritation substances can cause rashes or skin wounds, which tend to heal slowly in a tropical climate. Furthermore, injuries of toxic origin are capable, at least in theory, of inducing anaphylactic shock (as with bee or wasp stings).
To avoid risks, it is advisable, especially in the beginning, to swim when the sunlight is at its height, thus allowing for maximum visibility. This helps one learn quickly how to move along the reef without touching anything (in no case one should reach blindly into boles or crevices) in order to avoid poisonous organisms, and to minimize damage to the delicate corals. To escape from undesirable contact, it is useful to wear cotton gloves and light clothes. Cone shells should not to be collected with bare bands (the local legislation prohibits the removal of living sea organisms, except for those caught with fishing lines).
Walking barefooted on the sea-bed should also be avoided and one is advised to use flippers or shoes with sturdy soles, as one does in the Mediterranean to avoid the pricks of the Spider fish. This simple precaution protects one from the improbable contact with the fearful Stonefish (no.133).
It is better not to get into the habit of supplying fish with food: although fun, it creates certain expectations, arousing swarms of crazed fish capable of harming the swimmer (nos.66,75) either by biting him with their small teeth (no.31) or injuring him more seriously as can some small Reef sharks.
Too much trust should not to be given to Moray eels, large turtles or Titan triggerfish, especially when keeping watch on their clutch. Small fish, such as the Pomacentrus nigricans (no.12), the Amphiprions (nos.7-8) or the Rhinecanthus aculeatus (nos.85), which are very bold in defending their territory and ready to fling themselves against whoever comes too close, can do no harm to anyone.
Especially in the beginning. following this advice might cost a bit of effort, but in the end will become a natural practice thanks to which the hidden paradise of the Maldives will be savoured in absolute tranquillity.