November 2021

  1. Lhaviyani Atoll, Maldives

Day 1: Arrival

We arrived in the Maldives today, after an epic journey of 32 hours that included a car ride, two commercial jet flights, a seaplane flight, and a boat ride. With a twelve hour time difference from Seattle, it’s in the farthest time zone from our home. All told, we were awake for around 50 hours straight!

Maldives is a country of tiny atolls scattered across a wide expanse in the Indian Ocean. It’s the lowest lying country in the world, with an average elevation of 1.5 meters above sea level, and therefore one of the countries that will most suffer from the effects of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2100 the sea could rise by one meter, which would submerge the vast majority of these beautiful islands. In fact, the beginning of this process is already disrupting the lives of the local population. We would like to believe that humans will reverse course and prevent such an outcome, but we’re not too confident. In addition, scientists from the University of Hawaii predict that about 70 to 90% of coral reefs will bleach in the next two decades, which makes us want to plan nothing but snorkeling-focused vacations while we still can. These facts plus the insane beauty of these tropical islands were enough reason for us to choose the Maldives for this trip. We haven’t gone on an international trip since before the COVID-19 pandemic, so we were extremely eager to finally do so!

Despite being so tired from our journey, our first impressions are extremely positive. We’re staying at the Hurawalhi Island Resort, which occupies its own private island in the Lhaviyani atoll. We haven’t yet gone in the water, and we’ve already seen dolphins during the boat ride to the hotel, as well as a cowtail stingray, a few parrot fish, and an eagle ray jumping out of the water, all while walking from the reception to our room. The room is perfect! It sits over the water, which means that we can snorkel right from our back patio! The small island is lush, filled with palm trees, orchids, and other exotic plants around every corner. The sound of waves and birds can be heard throughout, which is so relaxing.

We can’t wait to explore. But for now, we really need to sleep.

The island and its over-water villas.

Day 2: Snorkeling at the house reef

Hurawalhi is known for its healthy house reef, so we were eager to get our snorkels on and explore the marine life that surrounds us. We first chatted with the hotel’s resident marine biologist, who taught us a little bit about the local fauna and flora, and helped us learn the names of some of the local fish. We were warned about the triggerfish, a friendly-looking fish that becomes aggressive if you swim too close to its nest. Good to know. We snorkeled out to where the reef drops off into deeper water and followed it around part of the island. We saw many of the different types of fish and coral we had just learned about, and got to swim with a friendly turtle for a while. We made sure to keep our distance from any triggerfish. At one point, we were surrounded by a large school of tiny white fish, which swam purposefully around us in perfect synchrony. What an unforgettable moment!

Exploring the reef reminded us of how much we love snorkeling! We swam for hours and enjoyed every minute of the spectacle that nature put on for us. It also made us sad to think of the massive scale coral bleaching that’s been happening around the world in the last few years. The reef we explored today is wild, but while planning this vacation we considered other well-known destinations that advertise “coral gardens,” planted by humans, since all the local wild coral has already been bleached. This is the legacy we’re leaving to the next generation. 😢

Eric, free-diving where the reef drops off.

Clown triggerfish.

Day 3: More snorkeling, a massage, and a beautiful sunset

We started the day early, and took a boat to a nearby snorkel site, together with another couple and two local guides. We saw a lobster with super long stalks, a turtle, and many interesting fish. After returning to Hurawalhi, we explored some more of the house reef. One great thing about snorkeling is that we can go to the same place twice and have completely different experiences. Today we were able to identify anemone fish, schooling bannerfish, and powder blue surgeonfish.

In the late afternoon, we had the best massages of our lives. Not just the massages themselves, but the whole experience around them. We were first served a cool and refreshing herbal tea, then led to the massage room, which is suspended over the water. The side facing the ocean was wide open, letting in a warm breeze, the salty smell of the sea, and the sound of the waves. Lying on the massage tables, we looked down at glass panes in the floor, through which we saw the movement of the water and the occasional fish swimming by. The massages themselves were incredible, and by the time they finished, we had let go of any worries. Afterwards, we were offered ginger tea. As we walked back to our room, we wondered how we can replicate something so soothing on a regular basis at home.

We ended our day eating dinner on our patio and watching the sunset. What a great day!


Anemone fish.

Day 4: Did we mention the food?

Now that we’ve been here 4 days, we can confidently say that the food is absolutely incredible! We’re generally not big fans of buffets because we prefer quality over quantity, but the breakfast buffet is definitely not lacking in quality! Instead of a jar of honey, they provide an actual honeycomb where we can take our own straight from the source; the creativity of their straight-out-of-the-oven breads is nothing short of impressive; we’ve been enjoying plenty of our favorite tropical fruits such as mangosteen, rambutan, and dragon fruit (occasionally available in Seattle, but extremely expensive and not very fresh). We also tried some delicious Maldivian specialties, such as mas huni (tuna salad) and mas riha (fish curry). Highlights from lunch include fish carpaccio tacos, and our favorite, their “vegan mac” sandwich. Since we’ve given up meat, we’ve been searching for the perfect plant-based burger in Seattle, and have eaten plenty of dry, tasteless patties. But the “vegan mac” is not your typical veggie burger — it comes complete with caramelized onions, guacamole, zucchini “bacon,” a super tasty sauce, and a funky green spinach-infused bun! All of the food on the island is provided without a single disposable plastic. Straws are made of paper, and water is provided in reusable glass bottles. The focus on sustainability is apparent in every detail.

In addition to experiencing the great food, we did more snorkeling and swimming today, and couldn’t resist another amazing massage. It’s a good life!

“Vegan mac” sandwich.

Day 5: Fighting climate change

We’ve been noticing a strong focus on sustainability at the hotel, which is not surprising to us. For Maldivians, managing the large-scale negative effects of climate change is already a part of their daily life. Beach erosion, for example, is a huge issue on every island. As the coral reefs die, the beach suffers a double blow: the supply of new sand decreases, and the shores become more exposed to the strength of the waves. Even our small island in paradise has concrete blocks to prevent beach erosion.

Dealing with the effects of climate change has been the Maldivian government’s first priority, and they’ve done so with a multi-pronged approach. To raise awareness of the threat that rising sea levels pose to the Maldivian islands, in 2009, President Nasheed held the first-ever underwater cabinet meeting. Fourteen ministers used scuba equipment to attend the meeting, using hand signals to communicate, and underwater slates to sign a document asking for countries to cut their carbon dioxide emissions. More recently, the Maldivian government has begun to import sand from Bangladesh to aid in the construction of artificial islands. For example, Hulhumalé, built 2 meters above sea level near the capital Malé, already has a population of 50,000 and could accommodate up to 200,000 in the future. They’re also planning the Maldives Floating City (MFC), a floating island city also near Malé, in the shape of honeycomb hexagons that resemble coral. But they know these efforts may not be enough to hang on to their land, so they’re simultaneously preparing for Maldivians to be among the first climate refugees in the history of our planet by buying land in Australia, so that people can make the transition with dignity when the time comes.

Another day of snorkeling and swimming reminded us of the urgency of all of these issues. The marine life here is incredible, and not to be taken for granted. We thought about all of this as we watched another beautiful sunset from our porch and listened to the sound of the waves. Not a bad way to end the day.

Anemones and anemone fish.

Day 6: Snorkeling with turtles

We’ve been lucky enough to find a sea turtle during several of our snorkeling sessions, but today we decided to take a boat to an area that is known for its high concentration of turtles. Bea had a pet turtle growing up and is very fond of these animals, so she can’t pass up an opportunity to spend even more time with them. Turtles like to feed on sea grass, and the lagoon we went to has an extra-tasty grassy bottom that attracts many turtles. Sure enough, as soon as we got in the water, we spotted one. And then another one, and another one. We saw juvenile turtles, a humongous adult, and everything in between. Five of the seven species of sea turtles can be seen in the Maldives, and we saw several of them. We were advised by our guide to keep a respectful distance, to avoid touching or disturbing the turtles. But at one point, a turtle showed no fear, coming up for air right next to Bea and then ducking under her to come up again on her other side. Bea just floated and grinned, enjoying the whole experience.

The rest of the day was amazing as usual: another excellent massage, more snorkeling along the house reef, and a fabulous dinner. We’re getting used to the rhythm of our life here, and we’re definitely not ready for this to end!

This huge green sea turtle is about a meter long.

Hawksbill turtle.

Day 7: The 5.8 underwater restaurant

The Maldives has no shortage of amazing hotels. We chose the Hurawalhi hotel over others for several reasons: it has a very healthy house reef, it has over-the-water bungalows, it’s an all-adult resort, and it has an underwater restaurant. That’s right — the hotel has a restaurant that is truly underwater, named “5.8” because the dining room sits 5.8 meters below sea level. There are only a few restaurants like this in the world, and we were thrilled to give it a try today!

As we were led down the spiral stairs to the restaurant, our host explained that the walls and ceiling are made of five inch (13 cm) thick acrylic. We learned that local scuba diving instructors clean the outer surface of this transparent shell daily to ensure that each of the 8 tables offers an amazing view of the surrounding sea life. Arriving in the dining room, we had to admit that the view was truly stunning. Once we were seated, we were given a one-page guide to help us identify the fish that were swimming among the coral just outside.

The five-course meal was a gastronomic delight. We selected a combination of dishes from the seafood menu and the vegetarian menu, and each item was beautifully presented. Our favorite was the pan-seared red mullet, cooked in a saffron, turmeric, and coconut broth, served atop a dashi bean puree, and garnished with a sweet potato crisp cleverly cut in the shape of a fish skeleton. That made us chuckle! The entire meal was equally creative and skillfully executed. Though the dishes were not large, we came away satisfied and very happy with the magical experience of dining underwater.

The reef visible from our table.

Pan-seared red mullet garnished with a sweet potato crisp.

Day 8: Shark!

Just another day in paradise: eating, reading our books, snorkeling at the house reef, and a massage.

We ended the day with another fabulous meal at the JFK restaurant (JFK stands for Junk Food Kitchen, a witty dysphemism for the food they serve, in our opinion). We sat by the edge of the patio where it overlooks the water, observing a massive school of baby fish that swam around in circles, forming a dense dark blob in the light aquamarine water. Our applied mathematician friends will understand that to us, the neatly arranged fish appeared like a time-varying vector field, with curl but no divergence. 😃 Occasionally, a juvenile blacktip reef shark would boldly swim into this cloud of miniature fish, sending them into a frenzy and disrupting the choreography of their perfectly organized swim (and adding divergence to the vector field by gobbling up a few fish). A ripple of silver flashes alerted us to the shark’s presence as the baby fish scattered and some even jumped out of the water.

There was a nice breeze and it was pleasant out, so we stayed after dinner for live music at the Coco bar. This was a wonderful evening, to wrap up a wonderful day.

A juvenile blacktip reef shark hoping to snack on baby fish.

Coco bar.

Day 9: A photoshoot

We enjoy taking photos when we travel, but we very rarely (if ever) take selfies. We’re much more interested in helping you, our readers, imagine yourselves in the places we go, than in coming home with proof that we’ve been there. In fact, when we recently needed a close-up of the two of us, we realized that the most recent one we have is from eight years ago (thanks to our friends Simon and Justine, with whom we traveled in South Africa).

Clearly, this needed to change. So, this afternoon, we hired the hotel’s photographer to go on a photoshoot. We noticed that he had the same camera as us, and we enjoyed chatting with him about cameras, lenses, and light as we walked to various points on the island. He picked out excellent spots for the photos, and gave us great instructions on how to pose naturally — something we aren’t accustomed to doing. We tried to follow his advice as best we could… but we kept getting distracted by the marine life nearby. In the course of half an hour, we saw a group of six spotted eagle rays, a stingray, several dolphins, and a baby shark. We really wanted to jump in the water, but did our best to keep smiling at the camera. 😊

Toward the end of the photoshoot, the sky became dramatic, with the setting sun peeking between puffy clouds and painting the sky in happy colors. Such a beautiful backdrop! Then, right on cue as the photo session ended, a few raindrops began to fall, and within moments turned into a downpour! We thanked the photographer and parted ways, running toward our villa. We were soaked within a minute, so we decided to just stroll home and enjoy the refreshing rain. We saw the eagle rays again, and watched as their diamond-shaped bodies flew through the aquamarine water. We were so enthralled by their graceful movements that the rain no longer mattered. We watched them for a while, then walked back to our villa, exhilarated by the evening’s events.

Day 10: Bodu Beru

At Hurawalhi, every couple is matched with a host, and we were very fortunate to be matched with Saam. Saam’s duties include helping us figure out which activities we want to do, keeping us on schedule for our appointments, and giving us local advice. But he’s also become a friend who helps us understand the local culture and patiently answers every question we have. We learned early on how Saam loves to dance. He told us all about the Bodu Beru traditional Maldivian music and dance, how he had learned it from his parents, and how growing up he never missed an opportunity to participate in dances. Today was our chance to see Saam perform with a Bodu Beru group at our hotel.

According to Saam, Bodu Beru is special to Maldivians because it’s enjoyed by all generations, bringing families together through their cultural heritage. In Bodu Beru, there’s a lead singer, a group of accompanying singers, and several drums (traditionally made of coconut wood). The show at Hurawalhi was less like a formal performance, and more like a group of good friends dancing and having a great time (locals and visitors alike). The rhythm reminded us of performances we’ve attended in Africa — in fact, according to some historians, Bodu Beru was introduced to the Maldives by African slaves in the 19th century. Now it’s an important part of Maldivian culture.

The Bodu Beru performance was a fun way to end another beautiful day of snorkeling and relaxation.

Day 11: Coral

Coral and the microscopic algae called zooxanthellae have a mutually beneficial relationship: the coral provide the algae with a home, and the algae provide the coral with energy through photosynthesis. However, as a result of warming water temperatures caused by climate change, the coral stresses out and expels the algae. When the algae leaves, the coral first loses its colorful appearance (it bleaches), then eventually starves and dies. Scientists predict that based on current trends, within the next 20 years, 70% to 90% of all coral reefs will die, and that by 2100 nearly all coral reefs will be gone. Take a moment to think about that.

Major global coral bleaching events have happened before, but according to a study in Science magazine, they’ve become particularly severe and frequent in recent years. The consequence is that coral is not capable of recovering between bleaching events, which eventually leads to its death. The latest severe bleaching event in the Maldives, which happened in 2016, affected 73% of its coral reefs, with many of these reefs still slowly recovering. This topic has come up in conversation a few times with the marine biologists and water sports staff at the hotel. They recall how badly the local house reef was affected by this bleaching event, but they also point out that they’ve since noticed that the coral is recovering.

We wonder how long the coral will have to recover before the next bleaching event.

Foster’s hawkfish using stylophora coral for protection.

Day 12: A relaxing day

Today is our last full day in the Maldives, and we took full advantage of all our favorite things to do on the island: snorkeling, great food, walking on the beach, massages, and a fabulous sunset.

During our time in Hurawalhi, we saw countless fish, sea turtles, sharks, and rays. We often saw dolphins passing the island in one direction as we ate breakfast, and returning in the other direction at sunset. Today they were particularly energetic, with several of them jumping out of the water, somersaulting or spinning in the air. We snorkeled so much during our stay! On snorkel breaks, with the help of the marine biologists and water sports staff, we learned the names of many of the animals we saw, as well as interesting facts about them. We learned where to find the best coral, where to find anemones and anemone fish, and where to find sharks. We learned to read the currents and track the tides, and how to pick the best snorkeling spots. We found our rhythm on this paradise island.

Day 13: The end

Today is our last day. We are not ready to leave this island and its friendly staff, but our time here sadly came to an end.

We really appreciate you following along, and we hope that through our posts, you travelled a bit too.

We’ll miss the Maldives!