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Bandos Island: A close shave

Swimming with sharks beneath the Maldives in a delicate world that’s under threat from global warming

Bandos Island: A close shave
Blacktip Reef Shark off Bandos Island in the Maldives. Image: Stuart Forster

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It’s like looking down a steep mountainside. The banked coral from which Bandos Island is formed slopes into the dark depths of the Indian Ocean. Above me a shark sways through sun-dappled water while, unconcerned, dozens of colourful reef fish continue nibbling between outcrops of coral.

Until yesterday the prospect of seeing a six-foot shark while scuba diving would probably have set my heart rate soaring. But my instructor, from the Bandos Resort’s diving school, explained that blacktip reef sharks are not aggressive. Since this Maldivian resort opened back in 1972, there’s not been a single incident in which a human was attacked.

I regulate my breathing and observe the smooth grey skin of the creature as it glides serenely through the water, slowly turning from side to side on a constant lookout for food. The shark doesn’t even give me a glance — why would it? I was extremely careful shaving this morning. Turning to my diving buddy I make the circular ’ok’ gesture with thumb and forefinger. She responds in kind. We then slap a high five in celebration of spotting a shark.

I’m here during the Maldives’ rainy season, but underwater visibility is surprisingly good. There was no downpour yesterday, which means no rainwater washed sand and dirt particles into the sea. Nonetheless, much of the coral is muted in colour. That’s because of bleaching caused by a rise in the temperature of the Indian Ocean during 2016 — a symptom of the El Niño weather phenomenon. Coral can’t survive if the water temperature remains elevated for longer than about a week. Thankfully, patchy signs of recovery are already visible in the reef off Bandos Island.

I rise to a depth of about six feet below the water’s surface and float within touching distance of five semi-transparent squid with dotted patterns on their backs. Rhythmically, almost in synchronisation, the squid pulse their tentacles and propel themselves out to sea.

Sinking to a depth of around one-and-a-half times my height I control my buoyancy so that I can view the underside of a rock. A cunningly camouflaged scorpionfish sits motionless against the rock face. Its colour and bulbous form mean it takes a moment for me to spot the creature, even with the aid of the divemaster’s pointing finger.

A few kicks of our flippers propel us towards a porcupinefish, whose wide head, big eyes and broad mouth give the fish a benign and goofy appearance. Tiny barbs lie flush against its light grey body. When porcupinefish feel threatened by a predator they push their spikes out while inflating their bodies, making them appear more difficult to swallow.

Not wishing to be mistaken as a potential threat I swim away. I approach a lone hawksbill turtle, almost three-foot-long, that decides to check me out. Fearlessly, the beaked turtle flaps its curved flippers and swims around me, coming almost face-to-face. She dives and I follow. We swim together for a few moments, like old pals enjoying the water of the Maldives.