There are more than 1,000 fish species in the Maldives. And they are more densely packed here than quite possibly anywhere else on the planet. The colours, the variety and the action is like nothing else you will witness in your life above sea level.
More animals below sea level than above it are carnivorous, due to the fact that there isn’t nearly as much in the way of greens for a herbivorous life. Parrotfish are the obvious exception. With some thirty different species, they can be seen grazing all over the reef in their colourful outfits, scraping off thin layers of algae and other organic matter, along with chunks of coral. This unwanted coral is ground down and then excreted as puffs of coral sand – the main building block of the islands.
Carnivores and omnivores dominate the scene, making for a cut-throat existence that mostly passes us by as we marvel at the pretty shapes and colours. The many species of delicate butterfly fish and the beautiful angelfish flit in and around close to the corals, solely on the look-out for open coral polyps and tiny animals and sponges. I describe more of these creatures in the magic of snorkelling.
Some fish are obvious carnivores: the slimline barracuda with its pin-sharp teeth; the staring, open-mouthed moray eels; the mean and muscled jacks, and most of all, the sharks.
It is a cliché to say that in the Maldives even the sharks are friendly, but it isn’t a cliché for nothing. There is so much food swimming about already that a well-behaved diver is never in any danger. There is no history of shark attacks in the Maldives.
The hammerhead is the trophy shark of these waters. These bizarre creatures are found in a few spots only and spend nearly all of their time in deep water way beyond the limit of recreational diving. In the very early morning, however, they can sometimes be witnessed circling upwards in groups of twenty, forty, or more.
The most common sharks are whitetip, blacktip, nurse and grey reef. The latter is a beautifully proportioned and imposing animal – always a thrill to see coming in from the deep. The blacktip and whitetip are smaller, with elongated bodies, and so common that their appearance doesn’t set the heart racing – after that first encounter or two.
Plankton bloom is a time of over-generous food supply, and the biggest predators of all make their appearance to scoop them up in their zillions. The whale shark simply moves through the clouds with its cavernous mouth open, while the graceful manta rays glide around scooping them up with the help of those strange flaps on each side of their copious mouths.
Turtles have a special place for Maldives divers. They are one of the emblems of the country and so frequently seen on dives that they are sometimes, just sometimes, taken for granted. However, all five species are endangered. The hawksbill is the one most commonly seen; the others are the green turtle, Olive Ridley, loggerhead and leatherback.