The anchor chain creaked and groaned next to our heads as the boat rotated to adjust to the shift in the tide. As surfers, we’re used to pursuing a life on top of the water and funnelling all our resources into holidays beside the water. But a boat trip in the Maldives is a rare chance to live completely inside the water – an extended experience immersed in our favourite element.
The portholes of our lower-deck cabin in the bow sat only a few feet above the Indian Ocean, putting our moon-bathed bed – and our slumbering bodies – right about sea level. On more than one occasion, I cracked open my eyes in the darkness to hear dolphins chattering outside. Can there be a better way to dive into a blue mind state than having the rhythm of the sea and its creatures ebb and flow through your dreams?
Of the 1,192 islands that make up the Maldives, 80% sit less than a metre above sea level. These are scattered across the country’s 26 atolls – coral reef formations that have developed around the top of ancient volcanoes. The islands, sandbars and lagoons cover 90,000 square kilometres of ocean and span the equator.
This year I had a birthday with a zero at the end of it. When my husband weighed up his short list of gift ideas, he realised there was one that would benefit us both. And that’s how we found ourselves on a 37-metre liveaboard with just six other guests, guided by Maldivian local Aman Ashraf and coached by Kassia Meador and Leah Dawson.
If you’re like me, you’ll have grown used to most surf travel tales from the Maldives featuring the words “hollow” and “barrel”, so it may come as a surprise to find there are a few golden windows of opportunity when this rich oceanscape transforms itself into a logging haven. The shoulder seasons – which roughly coincide with April and November – are marked by emptier lineups and slightly slopier waves.
As bookends to the wet season, these months understandably feature more cloud and rain than the dry season. But as a fair-skinned burn-phobe who spends 12 months of the year covered in neoprene, I view this as a bonus. We experienced a few white-outs, where rain and sea merged into a liquid environment of complete invisibility that had us paddling back to the tender to sit out the downpour. These always passed quickly, and nearly always produced a rainbow or some other splendid atmospheric phenomenon to make the wait worth our while.
I’ve experienced no other place on Earth where the dividing line between water, land and air is so faint. The crew landed tuna and wahoo every single afternoon, which resulted in curries and sashimi on the menu and on our tables most nights. We snorkelled with a thousand biodiverse beings when the wind wasn’t in our favour. And we were visited constantly by curious cetaceans that swam alongside our boat and boards. One baby spinner dolphin came so close in one of his airborne escapades that it seemed he only missed my outstretched high-five by inches.
In my seaside village in England we tend to see global warming as an abstraction – a contributor to better tomato harvests and more opportunities to wear shorts. But in the Maldives the concept is far more immediate. In this largely liquid world, you need only dip your head underwater to understand the effects of coral bleaching. One of our guides was the gifted filmmaker Annu Naseem, who shared with us how rising sea levels contribute to the complex challenges of relocating citizens from sinking islands to higher ground. The situation here feels urgent, serious, and worth fighting for.
In this context, tourism remains the biggest contributor to the country’s economy, which has put sustainable travel firmly on the agenda. Waste management remains a massive challenge in this small country where open burning is the norm. When we last visited the Maldives in 2019, empty bottles floated in and out of the waves with heart-breaking frequency. This time around, I was happy to find our boat equipped with two desalination units to provide fresh drinking water that bypassed plastic containers. And next year, the Maldives is on track to stop the import, manufacture and use of single-use plastics.
What can we do to be more responsible tourists? First, choose a travel agent or tour operator that will give you opportunities to experience and support local Maldivian businesses. Getting to interact with local culture, cuisine and people took our trip to another level. Study the environmental policies of the resorts and charters you book with, leave all of your packaging at home, don’t bring single-use plastics, use a refillable water bottle, eat local produce whenever possible and use only reef-safe sunscreen. For the chance to cruise warm waves with “crowds” in the single digits, these measures are an exceptionally easy pill to swallow.
So what were the waves like? There was a day we surfed six and a half hours all alone before lunchtime. One evening a few of us slid on knee-high dribblers within sight of others from our group surfing a tubing overhead left. There were sessions where our miniature cavalry of shortboards, mid-lengths, logs and even a surf mat simultaneously milked everything from the overhead peak to the endless rolling shoulder for all it was worth. The same wave that gave one fellow traveller a barrel saw Kassia riding switch on the nose. A bit of moving water, a steadfast reef, endless possibilities.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said that travelling with nine feet of fibreglass and foam is a walk in the park. Airlines including Emirates and Qatar will carry your log, but getting to Male is only one of the hurdles. We were lucky to travel with a specialist agency that handled logistics, so while we reached our liveaboard via a small internal flight, our bulky boards travelled the same journey by boat. In subsequently the chasing the best uncrowded waves, the agency applied its logistical genius to forecasting. Navigation and itinerary flexed to fit the goal of maximum slide time.
Our 10-day meander from the central atolls back to the capital of Male culminated with a full moon eclipse, which meant the tide and currents grew in intensity as our trip progressed. On any surf holiday you’re at the mercy of the elements, but this adventure took my understanding to a new pitch. After spending so many hours at sea, I realised I’d started to internalise the subtle motion of the moon, the tide and the planet – a real-time demonstration of the interconnectedness of the universe.
In turn, this notion of interconnectedness paralleled the surf experience itself. Having had a front-row seat for many a style masterclass presented by our hosts, I’ve decided that the elements of great surfing for me have nothing to do with how much spray you huck or how long you glue your toe onto the nose. The best surfers in the world don’t try too hard. Joy is the hallmark of their wave riding, and they squeeze it out of every drop of water they encounter no matter how big or small or glassy or indifferent. Above all they follow the example set by the ocean: they let things flow, and they flow along with it.
Our trip was organised by Maldives specialist surf travel agency The Ocean Spell in collaboration with Salty Sensations surf retreats and with photography by Sarah Lee.