Colours of the deep

Thailand February 26, 2014 00:00

By Chusri Ngamprasert
The Nation

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Turtle and dolphin watching are just two of the activities offered by the Marine Discovery Centre on Landaa Giraavaru

It seems like such a good idea when I cheerfully add my name to the Four Season’s sign-up sheet for a turtle safari. A chance to see sea turtles swim in their natural home is too big a chance to pass up, I tell myself while my inner voice reminds me that I’m actually scared of snorkelling in the big bad ocean. After all, who knows what strange creatures might be hovering under the water ready to take a nip of my sensitive flesh?
Curiosity wins out and the next day I’m sitting in a lecture room at the Marine Discovery Centre, which shares Landaa Giraavaru with the Four Seasons Maldives, listening to an educational briefing led by the hotel’s resident marine biologists and learning about the lives and habits of the turtles. The presentation is short but very informative.
“We can identify the turtle by their shells. The pattern on one shell is different from the other just like a human fingerprint,” says biologist Alexia Pihier.
My apprehension returns in full force a little later as the boat pulls away the jetty. I love swimming, I remind myself. “Yes, but in a pool,” retorts that nagging inner voice. Soon though, we arrive at the turtles’ habitat and I take a deep breath as I haul my fin-clad feet to the side of the boat.
“You jump, I jump,” says Pihier, as she checks my vest and other gear. I do what she tells me, lying flat on my stomach and placing my face in the water and breathing with my mouth through the snorkel. In the silence, my breath sounds annoyingly wheezy. 
The heat of the sun warms our backs and the cool water keeps us flipping our fins as we follow the marine biologist to the snorkelling site where the sea turtles live. 
Hundreds of colourful fish swimming in front of us make me forget the creepy monsters from the deep and I stare in wonder at what must be Mother Nature’s most colourful work of art, a never-ending palette of dark blue, deep green, vivid yellow, creamy white, shining purple and stunning orange. The delicate fins, the spectacular patterns, the dazzling colours and the graceful movements of the fish as they suddenly change direction are mesmerising. My fear is totally conquered by the sheet beauty of the sea.
Pihier leads the way while a diving instructor brings up the rear, making sure no one strays too far from the group. We snorkel for almost half an hour but there is no sign of the turtles.
Suddenly Pihier stops and points eagerly to her left. As we turn, we come face to face with a sea turtle. I pinch my leg to make sure I’m not dreaming. My excitement grows and I have to bite my mouthpiece to stop myself screaming with delight. I stop flipping my fins completely, fearing that any movement will scare the beautiful creature away. The turtle moves its front flippers up and down much as the same way a bird flaps its wings to stay airborne, but in slow motion. The graceful movements of the turtle are as charming as any ballerina on stage and I barely blink as I mentally record every moment of this encounter with a creature that’s sadly high on the endangered species list.
The next day, we return to the Marine Discovery Centre, this time to experience the Adopt a Coral Reef project. The aim here is to protect and develop the large coral population around the resort by participating in the making of the coral frame and sponsoring a reef.
“The Marine Discovery Centre works with Four Seasons Maldives both at Kuda Huraa and here at Landaa Giraavaru to educate locals and visitors about marine life and its importance to the earth,” says Pihier, as she shows us to tie broken coral to a reef ball.
Reef balls are man-made structures in special marine-friendly concrete, and are designed to mimic natural reef systems to facilitate the growth of corals in areas where the reef has been damaged. 
“We collect broken corals, which may have been damaged naturally by the wave or accidentally by divers, and attach the live ones to these reef balls to give them another chance to grow. We will later drop these reef balls around the resort and at the site where the reef has been damaged. These reefs are like nurseries for marine animals. You don’t have to get on the boat to snorkel. Just look down from your villas and you can see plenty of marine life.
“These reef also help the atoll, since they protect the island from strong waves, which reduce the size of the atolls every day. With every reef that’s adopted, we take photographs and send them to the sponsors so they can see how beautiful and how healthy their coral is.” 
After a lazy lunch and an afternoon nap, we are ready for the Dolphin Talk and Cruise. The briefing on the dolphins by a resident marine biologist is again short but very informative and we’re soon back on board the boat, cruising through the atoll to spot some wild dolphins. 
After an hour on the water, we still haven’t spotted a single dolphin and the young Chinese girl who earlier was so excited at the thought of seeing these beautiful creatures has fallen asleep in her grandmother’s lap.
Then suddenly a shout: “Over there, on the right hand side. Dolphins!”
And sure enough, a pod of dolphins is silhouetted against the darkening sky, bidding their farewell to these strange human visits with a magnificent acrobatic show that has them leaping and spinning in the air.
If you go
_ Tourists of all nationalities are entitled to a free 30-day visa on arrival at Male Airport.
_ Importing alcohol, pork or pornography into the Maldives is forbidden and all luggage is X-rayed on arrival. 
_ Exporting sand, seashells or coral is also strictly forbidden. 
_ Four Seasons Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru offers 103 spacious villas spread across a remote jungle wilderness in the Baa Atoll, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve. 
_ Bangkok Airways operates three flights weekly from/to Bangkok and Male. Visitors then travel by light aircraft and speedboat to the resort.