For casual lovers of marine activities, the prevalent image of Maldivian waters aside from colourful reef ecosystems may be seeing manta rays and whale sharks up-close. This prospect draws thousands to the archipelago annually. However, the Maldives also offers another extraordinary if less well-known adventure, and it is electrifying enough to send chills through the most experienced of divers – diving with tiger sharks.
Characterised by the dark stripes on their body, ‘Sea Tigers’ inhabit coastal tropical and sub-tropical waters. Known as “the garbage bins of the ocean” for their ability to devour everything, tiger sharks are also considered the second-most dangerous after the Great White, based on the statistics of recorded shark attacks.
These macropredators are not a novelty in the Maldives; they have been spotted across atolls like the capital Kaafu and southern Huvadhu. Most of these, however, are lucky sightings of ‘passer-by’ sharks. For divers who specifically seek tiger sharks, one destination is recently gaining popularity as the ideal place to regularly spot sea tigers in the Maldives – Fuvahmulah.
Fuvahmulah – an isolated nursery
The geography of Fuvahmulah makes it one of a kind in the Maldives. A single-island atoll, it lies just south of the Equator in the middle of the ocean. Without other land masses nearby, the unique patterns of ocean currents around Fuvahmulah make it a unique cleaning station and nursery for a diverse range of pelagic fish, including tiger sharks.
While the exact number of tiger sharks in Fuvahmulah is unknown, some estimate that the population may be around 200.
“We have identified around 40 tiger sharks now,” revealed Ibrahim Shiyan, the leading dive guide at Fuvahmulah Dive School.
The dive school, which was certified by Scuba Schools International (SSI) in April this year, has been conducting underwater research for the past six months on the marine life of Fuvahmulah’s vast reef. The team of Fuvahmulah Dive are the ones who recently found and developed the special dive site, “Tiger’s Zoo”, where tiger sharks can be observed all year round.
This site has since drawn nearly all the veteran local divers, for the rare chance to swim with a predator that has been arguably labelled as one of the most dangerous.
Beautiful and chilling
The “Tiger’s Zoo” gifted the first sighting of a tiger shark for Mohamed Seeneen, a professional diver with nearly twenty years of experience.
“The whole experience was just chilling,” Seeneen told Mihaaru, describing it as the next best thing to seeing a Great White.
He had visited Fuvahmulah early in October with another veteran diver, Adam Rasheed. Though not a first for Adam, he also declared tiger sharks as “one of the best experiences” in his career. For the duo, it was a tick off their bucket lists.
“The thing with a tiger shark is that, when you see it, rather than feeling fear, you appreciate its beauty. It’s a beautiful shark,” said Adam while Seeneen nodded in agreement. “…it’s not like anything else.”
One of the most prominent names in the Maldivian diving industry, Hussain “Sendi” Rasheed, also echoed the sentiment. After his visit to Fuvahmulah in mid-October, Sendi said tiger sharks “are just beautiful to watch. Absolutely unique.”
Sendi, Adam and Seeneen had all observed four tiger sharks during their dives, some of which were as large as three or four metres in length. But some divers, the latter reported, had seen as many as up to 14 or 19 sharks in a single dive.
“We usually see grey reef sharks, white tips and hammerheads in dives, but they don’t make you hesitate,” said Seeneen. “Tiger sharks give a whole other feeling – like you always have to look around you, be extra careful.”
While seeing tiger sharks is akin to the crowning glory of a diving career, it is not something just anyone can jump into. Fuvahmulah Dive’s Ibrahim Shiyan stated that the centre takes only divers with a certain amount of experience to the Tiger’s Zoo, mainly for safety reasons.
Adam and Seeneen provided another perspective on the issue: “You need to see and experience other sights before you move on to tiger sharks - because to an amateur diver, it would be just another fish. Only an experienced diver can fully appreciate and enjoy how special it is.”
Best precaution – respect
Saddled as they are with a bad reputation as aggressive man-eaters, the idea of these territorial predators coming to feed in Fuvahmulah’s shallow reefs and lagoons is fearful for many. However, divers maintain that this reputation should be taken with a pinch of salt.
“Nothing in the ocean specifically targets human beings as prey,” stated Sendi.
Fuvahmulah Dive and Adam both explained that tiger sharks’ natural curiosity is what may draw them to a diver. The best safety precaution, they said, is to respect tiger sharks by not intruding into their territory or provoking them.
“They’re not cute sharks,” laughed Adam. “There is a certain respect you have to give them.”
Adam and Seeneen highly praised Fuvahmulah Dive for the strict briefing they give all divers prior to tiger shark excursions. Aside from stern do’s and don’ts, Fuvahmulah Dive arms divers with sticks – to point warningly at tiger sharks that come too close for comfort – as well as accompany divers with experienced guides to control the situation.
But there is only so much sticks and knives can do in a worst-case scenario, pointed out Seeneen. “Pay them the respect they deserve.”
Need for close regulation
For the remote island that has been long cut off from mainstream tourism, tiger sharks is one of its greatest assets. Fuvahmulah Dive’s managing director Tatiana Ivanova acknowledged that the Tiger’s Zoo is behind Fuvahmulah’s recent promotion, while Ibrahim Shiyan revealed that the school now receives tourists as well, from China, Russia, Italy and the UK.
“[Diving with] tiger sharks is a new product to sell,” said Sendi, noting that it could bring much revenue to Fuvahmulah. However, he strongly stressed that it must be closely regulated, urging authorities to cooperate with dive centres to ensure the protection of both people and tiger sharks.
“There hasn’t been a single shark attack on a tourist diver in the Maldives’ history,” he said, disclosing that over 450,000 tourists had gone diving in the archipelago in 2015. “But we need to maintain ethics and principles. Otherwise, we can have a bad, bad negative impact.”
He highlighted that recreational divers may not fully understand tiger shark behaviour and, subsequently, the necessary measures to take. Just one incident gone wrong, he warned, would affect not only the diving industry but the entire tourism sector.
More to explore, discover, experience
The allure of Fuvahmulah goes beyond its local tiger shark population. According to Fuvahmulah Dive, the island’s reef, much of which remains unexplored, boasts every species of shark found in the Maldives, along with a variety of endemic species and pelagic fish like manta rays and, notably, thresher sharks.
Tatiana Ivanova described thresher sharks as “a real treasure”, as they are an isolated species difficult to find. Almost the only known spot in the world to see thresher sharks daily is off the shore of Malapascua island in the Philippines. However, Fuvahmulah as a cleaning station also draws these shy sharks and they can be seen all year round; an exciting prospect for Fuvahmulah Dive. The dive school has already compiled a large database on their findings.
“We are going to continue to conduct our underwater research and take a responsibility for the norms and regulations that should be followed diving with the predators in open ocean,” said Tatiana.
Fuvahmulah Dive hopes to expand its research and activities in the future, while bringing in more locals and tourists for diving. The centre was officially approved by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) at the end of October.
“We are going to promote Fuvahmulah as one of the best diving destinations in the world.”