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March 22, 2015, Maldives

Chasing rays underwater

Snorkel and spot creatures such as turtles, pipefish and a variety of rays.

Jessica Yeo

Soaring up from the depths, its huge “wings” flapping gently, the creature is reminiscent of a bird in flight – except we are underwater. With a wingspan larger than my outstretched arms, the giant stingray is a majestic sight.

I am snorkelling on the edge of a pristine coral reef in the Maldives, where much of my three days is spent splashing in crystal waters teeming with abundant marine life.

At the reef off a tiny sandbar, where our boat has docked on a half-day trip to the Blue Lagoon, angelfish and butterflyfish play hide and seek among staghorn coral. A pipefish – a tiny creature resembling a straight-bodied seahorse – glides below.

My jovial guide, Mr Ali Manaaf, as comfortable in the water as a fish, free-dives every so often to explore the reef floor, sometimes popping up with treasures such as a gleaming, unmarred conch shell.

Half an hour later, I climb reluctantly onto the sandbank when the group is told to stop snorkelling, but another surprise awaits.

A guide walks up with something slimy on his hand. Everyone gathers round in delight – a translucent, spotted skin-coloured octopus just 15cm in length is sliding along his hand, its tiny suckers pulling and popping against skin as it moves.

I tell Mr Manaaf I would like to see mantas and eagle rays now that I have encountered my giant stingray – these three rays, which can be found in the Maldives, are on my must-see list. He laughs and says he will be happy enough to see turtles.

At the next reef, I see him shoot off like a torpedo. He must be happy indeed as the object of his attention is a turtle. I am taken aback, however, when he grabs it triumphantly. I realise he does this easily as the small animal has only three fins. A chunk of its shell is missing. Mr Manaaf tells me it may have been attacked by a shark.

My heart breaks when I see the little creature spin around clumsily when freed, finding its bearings before pulling itself through the water using its front limbs. I wonder how long it has to live when a human can catch it easily, but a travel companion tells me not to worry as nature will have its way.

After that, we head to Dhiffushi for a peek at how the Maldivians live. It is one of the 200 islands inhabited by locals in a country of more than 1,000 islands.

Here, one can stay at a guesthouse for US$90 (S$120) a night, a fraction of the cost at luxury resorts dotting the country.

We are told that homes in Dhiffushi used to be made from brain coral, which was crushed to form a cement-like mixture. It is no longer allowed, but we can see remnants of corals in the walls of old homes.

Outside almost every building on the car-free island are chairs fashioned from metal tubes and fishing nets. Some even hang from trees as swings. It amazes me how resourceful the locals are – one chair I spot has  only three legs, but it is not discarded; an empty water container offers support where the fourth metal pole used to be.

Locals cycle around on wide, sandy paths and children play atop short walls enclosing an old, disused cemetery overgrown with weeds. Shoes and uniforms are laid out to sun in the open. There is an atmosphere of trust on the quiet, sun-baked island, the tranquillity so foreign yet soothing.

Later, on the speedboat back to our resort, yet another surprise awaits. We are lazing around when we hear shouts from the bow.

“Manta! Manta!” Jumping to our feet, we see a huge black manta ray some 30m away, flapping its wings and breaking the surface as our boat drifts closer. I am beside myself as the day is only getting better.

After lunch, I snorkel again, this time near the resort and despite warnings from my travel companion of low visibility. True enough, the waters are surprisingly murky and I even lose my guide for a while.

However, it turns out to be a good decision. At the second site, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpse something flying through the waters. I give chase and get a better view of the spotted eagle ray, which soon glides out of sight. I am elated to tick all the rays off my list in just one day.

I also gamely try waterskiing and jet skiing. The ocean is choppy and even the calmest patch the instructor finds has waves washing over my face while  I attempt to untangle my waterskis. It is my first time on water-skis and I am later told that it is better to learn  in the morning when the water is calmer. However, the rough waters make for great fun when jet skiing. I  get an adrenaline rush from the sea spray on my face and huge crests of water crashing onto the jet ski, drenching me completely.

Every little tilt throws the craft off balance and I feel like I can be flung off at any moment, which adds to  the excitement. I finish my 30-minute session breathless after zooming around, dodging surges and and trying sharp turns. This may turn out to be a new hobby.

On my last morning, I try to fit in sailing and kayaking before heading to the airport. The resort has glass-bottom kayaks that sound very promising, but the staff say the waters are too rough even for paddling by the beach.

So I head to the gym instead, where I bump into my second snorkelling guide. He has told me that he saw an eagle ray at the house reef while snorkelling in the morning, so I ask him what he saw today.

“A mobula ray!” he exclaims.

I guess I’ll be returning to complete my list.

Eco escapade

Secluded on an island in the Maldives that is just a 10-minute walk from one end to the other, Finolhu Villas offers couples a luxe, intimate retreat.

From $1,900 a night, they can cocoon themselves in one of 52 villas overlooking the sunrise or sunset, with a personal butler to indulge their every whim.

The adults-only Club Med resort on Gasfinolhu is a short speedboat ride from Male International Airport.

Snug beneath thick, fluffy covers and soft pillows in my Sunrise Overwater Villa, I am torn between lounging in bed and luxuriating in my villa.

Full-glass doors on my left open onto a private terrace, with daybed, infinity pool and steps leading down into the ocean and, on my right, a semi-outdoor tub tempts.

There is a second bathroom indoors, a dressing room with a large wardrobe, as well as a plush living room. I feel ensconced in a modern home in the city, except with the caress of the sea breeze and roar of waves in the distance.

And all this is powered by the sun. Shiny solar panels line the top of open walkways and utility buildings, providing shade while absorbing energy.

The eco-friendly resort, opened in February, also purifies its own water using desalination, uses biodegradable waste as compost and filters waste water to flush toilets and water the plants. It is looking to install a zero-waste management system.

I awake at dawn every day, sitting by the infinity pool as the sky lights up in various hues of pink, to catch the sunrise. Waves lap gently against the villa and a tiny crab scuttling around the wooden steps to the sea is the only sign of life I see.

Shortly after is my favourite meal of the day. My personal butler Priscilla delivers to the terrace my American breakfast. There are four other choices: Deluxe Continental, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.

The stay also includes afternoon tea, as well as lunch and dinner at in-house restaurant Motu, which serves European and Asian specialities.

A wide range of activities is also included, from sports such as yoga and wakeboarding to recreation such as board games and “cinema under the stars”. There is also a small gym for fitness buffs.

For those who love to snorkel, there are corals as well as a house reef nearby, and life vests are provided in the wardrobe. I sight baby blacktip sharks, small stingrays, octopuses, needlefish, batfish and a lone pufferfish around the island, but only on occasion.

Finolhu has a coral propagation programme, which could attract more marine life. Guests can buy a frame from US$100 (S$135), on which coral fragments attached will grow into new colonies. Proceeds support the resort’s marine conservation research programmes and local community environmental initiatives.

For a different ambience, our group heads to Club Med Kani Premium Resort, a five-minute boat ride away.

Every night, Club Med staff, also known as GOs or genteel organisers, put on a show and lead guests in the company’s signature Crazy Signs dance, a fun communal dance with choreographed moves which everyone joins in. We dance till midnight, then go stargazing at the jetty while waiting to catch the boat back.

Our group also tries the buffet-style selection at Kani during breakfast – the spread will please those who prefer a wide variety, compared with the a la carte and set menu options available at Finolhu.

GETTING THERE

I fly to the Maldives on Singapore Airlines, which takes four hours.

From Male International Airport, it is a 40-minute speedboat ride to Finolhu Villas on Gasfinolhu, where I stay for three nights, go on a half-day Blue Lagoon excursion, snorkel, waterski and jet ski.

I packed my own mask, snorkel and fins, but gear is provided.

A four-day, three-night twin-sharing package starts from $2,850 a person for a Sunrise Beach Villa to $3,830 for a Sunset Overwater Villa. The price includes the Club Med membership fee and covers food and drinks as well as a wide range of activities.

The Blue Lagoon trip, waterskiing and jet skiing as well as airport transfer are at extra cost.

Five minutes by boat from Finolhu is Kani Premium Resort, where guests have access to facilities, entertainment and dining options. A boat leaves every 10 minutes.

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