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Night Fishing in the Maldives

The crew after a night's work

At the Anantara Kihavah resort

Maldivian fisherman
by Nick Walton

[From Fall 2011] It's dusk, that magical transition time between blue sky and black night and I'm about to do something few tourists ever get to experience. With a rumbling gurgle from the engine and a bellow from the helmsman, a traditional dhonis pauses where I stand at the end of a chipped concrete jetty just long enough for me to leap aboard and join its crew of ten weather beaten fisherman for a night's catch. It's an ancient scene, one which plays out every night of the year, here in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

This is the Maldives, the Indian Ocean's poster boy, a nation of idyllic islands and atolls cast like so many marbles across satin seas. It's a country famed for its luxury resorts and turquoise lagoons; and one where tourism competes with fishing as the bread winning industry. But traditionally, culture, policy and geography have kept the people of the Maldives and the thousands of tourists who visit each year at arm's length. The mostly-Muslim population of the Maldives lives in the bustling island capital of Malé or on village islands fringed by coconut palms and coral reefs, and the closest most visitors get to a real Maldivian is the odd waiter or resort bell boy.

But hotels like the lavish new Anantara Kihavah, the newest luxury resort to open in the northern Maldives, are trying to bridge the gap between tourist and local, and authentic night fishing experiences like this – with nary a chilled hand towel or pina colada in sight – are an important part of that effort.

It's a fairly simple operation. The boat, with its traditional flaring stern, dips and bobs as waves pass beneath only to fling themselves across the reefs of the local island of Kudarikilu. The crew, their tarnished leather faces and square jaws testament to the Maldives' Arabic merchant roots, slip on gardening gloves and dish out lines while a man tasked with handing out bait dips a small net into a central tank filled with what looks like glistening gold fish. The live fish are unceremoniously skewered on hooks and the weighted lines and cast overboard.

One of the most green forward nations in the world, only sustainable fishing methods are allowed in the Maldives. For me this gives instant street cred to the crew of the tuna boats, their catches sometimes weighing over 100kg. But I quickly learn that my weathered crew and I are at no disadvantage as lines run taunt and the sea harvest begins with calls and cries in the sing-song Maldivian dialect. Fish after fish is pulled, twisting and dancing from the lapping seas, all varieties, from vibrant reef fish through to tuna and snapper. The tone changes distinctly every time someone nets a barracuda; with its rows of sharp teeth, these glistening dobermans of the sea are treated with a little more respect by the wizened anglers.

After 30 minutes we draw in the lines again and the helmsman points us away from the islands and further out to sea. All eyes on the boat look to the horizon; towering columns of clouds are forming in the distance and I can tell the crew are judging how long they have until a tropical squall reaches the lagoon. Darkness continues to descend across the Indian Ocean like a veil but from the activity on the boat I can tell we're just getting started.

We slow and the men call gurang to the Overseer of Gold Fish and are rewarded with flapping, wriggling bait. Handfuls of the bait fish are also flung into the air, the tiny fish flying a wide arc before handing in the water. I'm told this is to attract more fish from the ocean's depths and it works because no sooner have I dropped a line overboard and left the weight to free fall through the darkening water, than I get a tug.

It's slow yet frantic work; the thin line in my hand is getting harder and harder to see so I'm doing my 'fishing' by touch, pulling in the line as another crew member winds it again in neat coils at our bare feet. I can see a silvery shimmer dancing in the depths below as I pull the line in, while behind me a growing number of fat fresh fish swim in a tank of sea water, evidence of the sea's bounty.

Many fishermen in the Maldives still use the moon and stars to navigate; there is no GPS on our boat. In fact the only thing electrical seems to be a red-stained bulb and a small radio which quietly plays Southern Indian pop. Little has changed from the days when these men's grandfathers fished the same reefs and gazed upon the same stars. They know little of rising seas and global warming; their gauge on the world around them is in the size of tuna when their fins turn canary yellow, how many manta rays they spy in the shallows of deserted lagoons, and how often the fuel barge visits their isolated fishing island. Ignorance, it seems, is blissful.

Finally my fish and I meet and he breaks the surface, twisting and wriggling in the air as I guide the line to the deck. Ibrahim, the crewman helping me, beams with a mix of wonder and curiosity – it seems this foreigner is luckier than most. The crew laugh as they draw in their lines, fresh catch splashing in the tanks below. With a flash of Ibrahim's dark calloused hands the hook is out, my fish joins the others in the tank and as darkness takes over the sky and our time at sea drawing to a close, another live gold fish is sent to the depths below. It's an ancient scene, and one I hope that never changes.

If You Go:
Fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong and then Mega Maldives from Hong Kong to Malé, the capital of the Maldives.
The Anantara Kihavah resort is 35 minutes by seaplane from the capital.

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