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The Maldives Archipelago of atolls Maldives

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Map of our track & dives in Addu Atoll, Maldives. Click on a dive flag to see that dive.
Map of our track & dives in Addu Atoll, Maldives.

Language:  Dhivehi, with its own unique script.  English spoken well by anyone with a secondary education or above.
Population:  About 360,000, with about 27% on the small island of Male, the capital.  All are Sunni Muslims, a fairly liberal form like that practiced in India and Indonesia.
Money:  The Maldivian rufiya which is pegged to the US$, with about Rf13 to US$1 in 2007.
Landscape:  99.9% of the Maldives is Indian Ocean, and the land mass (made up of 26 atolls, and about 1100 islands) is less than that of Andorra, the smallest European nation.  The landscape consists of low coral atolls with lots of coconut palms on the  islands surrounding the lagoons.  There is no natural earth higher than about 4' (1.3m).  The entire Maldivian archipelago is slowly sinking as the oceans rise due to global warming.  Fantastic coral both in the lagoons and outside the atolls.
Visited:  31 March to 17 April, 2007.

Divers can get more info on our Maldives Diving page. Cruisers should check out our Maldives Cruising Information page.

A note on island names -- all of the islands and atolls in the Maldives have at least two different names, a traditional name and an administrative name.  Also, there's the difficulty of translating to English - just how do you spell it?  This confusion is what leads us to perhaps use different spellings throughout the site.  Addu Atoll is sometimes spelled Addoo, as on our charts, Feydoo can also be spelled Feydhoo, or even Feydu, and the same can be said of Hithadoo (Hithadhoo, Hithadu).  We try to be consistent but spelling may vary.

Maldivian "vedi" trading ship near Addu Atoll
Maldivian "vedi" trading ship near Addu Atoll

History: Very little is known for certain about the people or the islands of the Maldives prior to the 12th century AD.  It is thought that perhaps traders from India brought forms of Buddhism and Hinduism but the archeological evidence is unclear.  Traders from the Middle East en route to the Far East stopped here to collect cowrie shells which were used as currency throughout the Indian Ocean from as early as the 2nd century AD.  The true recorded history of the islands begins with the arrival of Islam via an Arab trader in 1153.  The then sultan converted and ordered that all the people also convert.  For the next 600 years the islands were ruled by more than 80 sultans and sultanas through 6 dynasties.

In the mid-1500's the Portuguese, eager to control more of the trade in the Indian Ocean (they were already established in Goa, India) made an agreement with the sultan to set up a fort in Male. In 1558 the Portuguese under Captain Andrea Andres attacked Male and killed the sultan.  The Portuguese ruled for 15 years with a stronger and stronger hand until they decreed that the population must convert to Christianity or be killed.  Fed up, and hating the Portuguese, a Maldivian named Thakurufaanu led an attack against Male and slaughtered the Portuguese.  Thakurufaanu founded the next sultanic dynasty which ruled for 120 years.  He is the national hero, and his victory is celebrated each year on National Day.

Woman in traditional robe and scarf
Woman in traditional robe and scarf

For the next century the Portuguese, and even the rulers of southern India who had originally helped Thakurufaanu, tried unsuccessfully to re-take the Maldives.  Knowing they needed external protection, the sultan agreed to a defense treaty with the Dutch, and later with the British who were in nearby Ceylon.  In 1887 the British granted the Maldives statehood, and thus formalized its status as a protectorate under the British Empire.  By the 1930's a formal constitution was drafted and accepted, with the sultan to be elected by a council of the Maldivian elite.

Men relax in "jolis" in the shade, Feydoo
Men relax in "jolis" in the shade, Feydoo

World War II brought hardship to the islands as trade with Asia was curtailed.  Many people suffered malnutrition or died of starvation. After the war, Britain agreed to oversee the foreign affairs and defense, but only in exchange for the right to lease an island on Addu Atoll in the far south.  The 1950's saw the establishment of a British Royal Air Force base on the island of Gan, with the local population forcibly moved to neighboring islands.  After a coup, and the re-establishment of a sultanate, the new government tried to oust the British, but the people of the southern atoll of Addu rebelled.  Forces were sent in to quell the disruption.  The British stayed, but at a higher lease price.  The base was disassembled in the late 1970's, but left behind a better infrastructure on Addu than other atolls enjoy.

The British granted the Maldives independence in 1965 and a referendum in 1968 once again abolished the sultanate.  Ibraham Nasir (who had been prime minister since the 1950's) was elected president of the new republic and held the position for 10 difficult years, until he was forced out of office.  The Maldivian Ambassador to the UN, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, became the new president.  An unsuccessful coup in 1988 led to massive arrests and torture of political prisoners.  Opposing political parties were outlawed and a strong-arm approach was taken towards dissent.  Although Gayoom has promoted massive international tourism and the selling of fishing rights as the two bolsters of the Maldivian economy, most Maldivians see that only the Gayoom friends-and-family-circle are benefiting.

Main street (sand) in Hithadoo, Addu Atoll
Main street (sand) in Hithadoo, Addu Atoll
Feydoo Island child
Feydoo Island child

In 2003 a young prisoner was tortured to death and his body put on display by the family in protest.  Prisoners who voiced their protest were summarily shot. Citizens reacted with riots and attacks on police stations, and Gayoom's security men responded with more brutality.  Finally, to appease the masses, Gayoom paid lip-service to punishing the torturers, and in the same year (after his own 5-year term was renewed in a one-party election) agreed to allow opposing political parties to form.  On what has become known as Black Friday, August 13, 2004, a peaceful demonstration of former political prisoners and reformists gathered in the capital, feeling that they were finally free to voice their concerns without interference from the government.  Without warning the government security forces beat back the protestors, including many women and children, and imprisoned hundreds.  All across the county members of the newly founded Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) were also hauled from their homes, taken to Male, and imprisoned without explanation for days or weeks.  Today, Gayoom still rules, and the fledgling MDP struggles to promote free elections in the coming years.

When the December 2004 tsunami swept through the atolls, it could have had worse effects were it not for the deep sea channels between the islands which absorbed much of the waves' impacts.  As it was, over 80 people lost their lives, and over 11,000 had their homes destroyed and remain "internally displaced persons" three years later.

Our Impressions

Our Addu anchorage, with Gan to the right
Our Addu anchorage, with Gan to the right

(Jon)  The Maldives are a chain of coral rings (atolls) forming a north-south line along about 73E longitude, just SW of India.  While the archipelago is over 450 miles (800 km) long, they're extremely low, with no natural land formation rising to more than about 4' (1.3m) above the high-tide line.  They were a fun stop but the bureaucracy was a bit frustrating.  If boats go to the capital of Male, they're charged hundreds of dollars, way out of line with other countries and much more than any other country we've ever even heard of.  But clearing in and out at the southern end of the archipelago is free and painless, so that's what we did.

Proud fisherman!
Proud fisherman!

The Maldives has an interesting policy of encouraging tourism (to get the hard currency) but not wanting the tourists to mingle with the locals, presumably to keep our disruptive ideas away.  The Maldives has been run essentially as a dictatorship for 25 years and President Gayoom's popularity was very low in 2007 (at least, in Addu).  The British, when they built the airport on Gan, also built schools and educated the local kids.  When the British left, the people of Addu were noticeably better educated than the rest of the Maldives.  Now, the new Addu-based Maldives Democratic Party is gaining strength.  Apparently, all signs of political unrest are quickly hidden from prying foreign eyes.  The British also built all the causeways that link the southwestern islands of Addu Atoll, the only Maldivian atoll with such easy transportation.  This means that the foreigners at the resort on Gan can freely associate with locals on the other islands, the only place this can happen in the Maldives.

Typical curved coral walls in town
Typical curved coral walls in town

Maldivian citizens are all Muslim - by government edict!  Walking down the streets in the afternoon was interesting - the kids would all greet me and try out their English, but the older women wouldn't even look at me.  Men weren't afraid to return my greeting but wouldn't usually initiate a greeting themselves.

Of course, there are always exceptions, and we met a wonderful local store owner who introduced us to his family, showed us around, gave us advice, found us a nice restaurant for my birthday, and even gave me a nice T-Shirt.  It's so wonderful to have that sort of local connection.

The Maldives are famous for their scuba diving and we wanted to get some in before heading for Chagos, so we contacted the dive operators on Gan Island.  Annie is Swiss and she's a great dive guide, filling us in on local Maldivian life as we motored to and from our dive-sites.  We did 2 dives with her, and the second one, on a WW II era tanker, was incredible.  We could see the hull from the surface, even though it lies on its side in about 100' (30m) of water.  Annie showed us some very rare and camouflaged leaf-fish, as well as showing us over the whole wreck and then taking us through the blown-out bottom of the tanker.  Very cool.

(Amanda)  Maldives is one of those countries that I didn't know existed before we started this trip, or even before we started talking about sailing past Australia.  It may be a small country but it's right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and therefore a fairly important stopover for crossing to Africa.  We only went to the southernmost atoll, Addu, because we were in a time crunch and bureaucracy makes it difficult to visit many atolls - or so we thought when we were on our way there.  We've since learned that several boats have gotten a cruising permit from the northern-most atoll all the way to Gan (without the right to go ashore) with little hassle.  Too bad we didn't know that at the time!

Amanda, Abby & Eliza at the new restaurant  overlooking the lagoon and causeway
Amanda, Abby & Eliza at the new restaurant
overlooking the lagoon and causeway

The little islands in Addu are quite cute, with their coral walls and sand-and-shell roads (one road, connecting all the islands via the causeways, is paved but that's it) and concrete or coral houses with beautifully swept yards.  It almost feels like being in the Tuamotus of French Polynesia again. That wasn't quite my first impression and definitely wasn't my last, but about halfway through our stay there it sort of worked its way into my forebrain.  Of course there are many things that are different - the religion, the language, the Indian culture instead of the Polynesian one, and the lack of dogs, to name a few.

Motorbikes are the main transport
Motorbikes are the main transport

The food is another difference.  While we were there, we had three big meals ashore.  Granted, that's not many for the two-and-a-half weeks we were there, but those meals stick out more because we weren't eating ashore every night.  The first was for Dad's birthday, but as we couldn't celebrate on the day, it turned into an Easter lunch - though we didn't tell that to the Muslim organizers of the meal.  We got all the other yachties in the anchorage to come to a communal, all-you-can-eat type lunch with all sorts of local food - chicken curry, fish, rice, spicy veggie curries, rotis and chapatis.  We also ate a delicious lunch after diving one day, though it took a long time to come.  The third big meal was after being driven up to Hithadoo to clear out and stopping to see some sights on the way.  We took Mulla (our driver and the very helpful owner of the 2-Plus-1 supermarket) and his son and wife to lunch at a new restaurant on the island north of Feydoo.  The curries are delicious, and not too spicy unless you get unlucky.  Fish is very common, chicken and other meats less so.  Pork is not served.

The diving was excellent in Addu, though the days we went supposedly had the best visibility they'd seen in months.  The coral was decent, and while there weren't too many big fish, there were a few. I wish we'd stayed longer and visited some of the other atolls in the country, but like so many things that'll have to wait until some point in the distant future.

You can also see my Feydhoo (Feydoo) Walk journal entry for more of my impressions of the Maldives.

By 40 most women cover their heads in dedication to Islam
By 40 most women cover their
heads in dedication to Islam

(Sue)  I loved the slow pace of life in Addu Atoll, watching the people walk or bicycle across the (British-built) causeway from Feydoo Island to Gan Island for work each day.  Women in long robes or jeans and head scarves sauntered by, and men arrived by bicycle in the early evenings to fish from the roadside. We spent many hours walking the sandy streets on both islands, watching the white fairy terns high in the trees, or popping in and out of the small tourist shops on Gan or the (one) small grocery store on Feydoo.

While diving with Diverland Gan we spent travel time to and from the dive sites talking to the dive instructor about her life for the past 15 years in Maldives.  She echoed our thoughts that the people are warm and friendly, with a nice sense of humor.  It seems that the local men who work in the resorts live a different life from those that are fishermen or businessman.  In the resorts, the men have no qualms about putting the moves on European women, or drinking (forbidden) alcohol that they get from the resort supplies.  While women tend the homes and children many men are away at sea for weeks at a time.  Men who work on resort islands (isolated from the towns) only get to return home about once a year.  The Maldives used to have the highest divorce rate in the world, but in 2001 the government stopped the unilateral (and easy) divorces whereby a man could simply say he divorced a woman and it was done.  Luckily there is no stigma on a woman to be a divorcee.  Women retain their maiden name, which is good when one could be married 3 or 4 times in one year!!  Polygamy is allowed, with one man having up to 4 wives at a time.  But in practice it is rare because each wife must be treated equally -- same size house, same car, same income, etc.  It gets pretty costly!  Mistresses can often be "bought" for a mobile (cellular) phone and a motor-scooter and there is no stigma.  But if the woman gets pregnant and the man refuses to acknowledge his paternity the woman can be publicly stoned once she has recovered from childbirth.  What century are we in?

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