Day 141, Year 5: Underwater in Uligan
Date: Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Weather: Sunny and Hot
Location: Uligan Island, Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives
We started our day with another snorkel. We realize that we are headed to Chagos and that there will be fantastic snorkeling there, but every place is different and we wanted to see as much as we could while here in Uligan. It was foggy in the early morning when we arrived on Sunday and again yesterday, but today it was bright and sunny, so we were in the water before 8:30 am. Both of our previous snorkels were in the afternoon and we know from experience that the fish are just never as prolific as they are in the morning. That held true today. Instead of one or two fish of the different varieties, there were many. The Powder-blue Surgeonfish were out in numbers as were the Collared Butterflyfish. These guys are about as big as my hand and have pearly gray scales trimmed in gold. The gray scales make them darker than most butterflyfish, but they have a bright red tail and a very distinctive vertical white band just behind the eye. This is the collar, thus the name ‘collared’. Mark spent time chasing a Big Long-nosed Butterflyfish to try and get a picture and he was successful. And then he came upon a mass of the Collared Butterflyfish hanging out with one lone Oriental Sweetlips. Sweetlips have horizontal black and white bold stripes with a yellow and black polka-dotted tail and dorsal fin. Mark was able to hover over the mass of Collared Butterflyfish and get photos of the Oriental Sweetlips. We saw Bluelined Snapper and Bluelined Surgeonfish, Black Triggerfish and Mustached or Titan Triggerfish, but the Clown Triggerfish did not show itself today. It is so distinctive with its big white polka dots on the bottom half, black on the top half, orange lips, and a yellow tail outlined in black. We’ll probably never see one of these again, but it was such a joy to see the ones yesterday. And we did not see those strange sea cucumbers today. Since our sighting of them yesterday was so unusual, I looked in our books to identify what we did see. Here’s what I found out:
Sea cucumbers are echinoderms. Echinodermata means ‘spiny skin’ and refers to the tough, sometimes rough and spiny outside. All types of sea stars, including feather stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers are classified as echioderms. The sea cucumbers every where else we have been on our voyage around the world simply lie on the bottom looking lifeless. You can pick them up and use them like squirt guns, and then gently put them back. But the sea cucumbers we are seeing here are active creatures. The first day we snorkeled we found one lying on the bottom looking lifeless as usual. Mark picked this one up and brought it to me to hold. But three of the ones we saw yesterday were very active. I thought I should try to identify this creature to make sure it is a sea cucumber and harmless. It is a sea cucumber and it is harmless. Glad to know that. Its scientific name is Bohadschia graeffei. From what I can find in the books we have, the movement indicates it was possibly getting ready to release sperm into the water. The sea cucumbers we saw were firmly attached to a bommie by one end with the other end reaching up and out and swaying in the water. When we swam over to investigate we could see that the end swaying in the water had tentacles that looked like a frilly black scalloped crocheted doily.
Mark and Ed spent most of this afternoon on the island checking out. It was a much longer procedure than checking in, but Mark reported that they did get a chance to talk to the locals and they got a closer look at how people live. They returned around 4:30 pm and we spent the next hour getting ready to leave here and head south. Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day and we will celebrate by beginning the 500 mile passage to the southern-most atoll in the Maldives, Addu Atoll. There is absolutely no wind being forecast, so our 500 miles will probably be a slow trip. It could take us a week to get there. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
Day 140, Year 5: Visiting Uligan Village
Date: Monday, March 15, 2010
Weather: Sunny and Hot
Location: Uligan Island, Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives
Uligan Island is now divided in half and there is a chain link fence dividing the halves. On the southern half of the island a three-star resort is being built. The people here tell us that they wanted a three-star so some ‘normal’ people could come and stay. What the Lonely Planet lists as budget resorts go for $150 to $400 a night, meals included. Mid-range resorts are more like $500 to $700. The top end resorts go for $800 to $3,000 a night, meals not included. Who in the world spends this much money for a vacation? Well, Tom Cruise for one. Evidently he often vacations in the Maldives. But I’m supposing the three-star resort is in the mid-range. So that is what Uligan will have. On the northern half of the island there is only one village on the western side where we are anchored. This little village is laid out like a cross, with a short street going east to west and a longer street going north to south. I say ‘street’ but there are no cars. We saw one motor bike and one bicycle with no place to go. And we did see the island’s only official vehicle which is an ambulance. But back to the village walk. The streets are sand as is everything on the island. The east-west street was not very long, but the north-south street might have been a quarter of a mile long. No food is grown here because the sand does not support it. There are breadfruit trees, a few papaya trees, and a couple of other fruit trees, some of which were covered with netting to keep away the fruit bats. Fish is the basis of most food here with rice and other staples being imported. But with fish as the main source of food, it was a funny thing that we saw no fishing boats. Evidently the village has one fishing boat that is out now, and some individuals have boats, but there are none of the small boats that we saw so many of in Thailand and India.
We arrived on the island just before 11 am and a young man named Hammadh was waiting for us at the concrete sea wall. We don’t know how he knew we were coming, but this is a small village of about 480 people and news probably travels very quickly. Not that many yachties stop by here and since we are one of their only sources of income, being there to greet us is important. And besides, you are not allowed to walk around the village without a guide, so seventeen year-old Hammadh was our guide for the day Our first stop was at the office of Antrac Maldives. This is a tiny little one room building where the Uligan agent for Antrac works. His name is Imaad Abdulla, but he is away right now. Hammadh is actually one of Imaad’s six brothers. We sat outside under a breadfruit tree for shade and read the letters of thanks that cruisers have written to Imaad over the years. It was fun to see entries by friends who were here earlier this year. Next we walked down the north-south sand street lined with walls built of coral and mortar. These walls are about 5 feet high, just high enough to give privacy in the yards behind them. As we approached the school, Imaad called us on Hammadh’s cell phone to apologize for being away and to welcome us to the Maldives. We explained that we will not be staying long. We are allowed to stay for 72 hours without paying for an agent, and that is what we have decided to do. We will leave on Wednesday morning. We watched the students in grades 8, 9, and 10 leaving the school. All of the young women were covered from head to toe in a flowing white Muslim uniform and most were carrying umbrellas to shield them from the relentless sun. The young men were dressed in dark slacks and white shirts. They were less than anxious to have us take photos of them, but I did get a few. We then walked on to see the Energy Resources Pilot Project which consists of more than 20 wind generators and a few solar panels sitting in a field of weeds. The grand opening of this project was in January of 2009, but it has already been abandoned. The wind generators were supposed to supply power for the village for four to five hours each night, but Hammadh said it just didn’t work. What a shame. But somehow the villagers are getting enough power to keep their televisions running. Almost every home has a television. Some can only receive the local stations, but others have a huge array of choices. While we were in the little store on the island, we watched the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel. We stopped by the Antrac office on the way back to the sea wall and checked our email. They are receiving internet by using a 3G telephone modem like the one we used in Cochin. Hammadh told us that the way young men find wives from other islands is through chat rooms on the internet. Many of the young people own laptops. I have no idea where the money comes from as there is no industry on this island and the resort that will bring in income has not been built yet.
We headed back to Windbird and waited for Hammadh and gang to deliver fuel to us. We had wanted to buy 250 liters but at $1.20 US a liter we decided to get only 80 liters and hope for wind. The 80 liters we did buy cost us $96 US dollars. We paid $4.54 per gallon for this diesel. Ouch! And by the way, in last night’s log I erroneously stated that diesel in Cochin was $1 US per gallon. I meant $1 US per liter. The currency of choice here is US dollars and since there are no banks and no businesses other than the one little store, we would have no way of getting local currency. So we broke into our reserve of US dollars. After the diesel was delivered, we went for a late afternoon snorkel. This time Mark took along his underwater camera. I just had to have some pictures of the Powder-blue Surgeonfish and Mark got those for me. He also got great video and photos of the strangest looking underwater creature we have seen. It looks like a sea cucumber but is much more active than most. It attaches one end to a bommie and twists and turns its long body in the water. It looks like something out of a science fiction movie. And I finally got to see a Clown Triggerfish. This was in deeper water so Mark was not able to get a good photo, but I had great fun swimming with this guy for a while.
It is hard to believe, but tomorrow we go ashore to check out. But I’m sure I can talk Mark into one more snorkel before we head south.
Day 139, Year 5: Arrival in Maldives
Date: Sunday, March 14, 2010
Weather: Partly Sunny, ENE 4-5
Latitude: 07 degrees 04.685 minutes N
Longitude: 072 degrees 55.223 minutes E
Miles Traveled to Date: 281
Location: Uligan Island, Haa Alif Atoll, Maldives
The wind never returned so we ended up slowly motoring through the night and early morning to reach here about 9:30 am. We were a bit surprised to see an Australian boat anchored off the southern tip of Uligan, and to find another boat in the main anchorage. This one ended up being a French boat we knew from the Bolgatty anchorage that is traveling to Chagos. So we have company here.
Uligan is a low island like all islands in the Maldives and is covered with green vegetation and ringed with beautiful white sand beaches and aquamarine water. Unfortunately, we have to anchor out in deeper water so that we don’t damage the coral and it doesn’t get a chance to damage us. Shortly after arriving, the Customs, Immigration, Public Health, and Coast Guard representatives (seven in all) boarded our boat and took their places in the cockpit. Check-in was quick and efficient and all of the young men were most pleasant.
We haven’t been ashore yet, but we have been snorkeling. The 1998 El Nino year sun bleached all of the coral here, but it is coming back and we saw a wonderful array of different fish. We saw loads of Powder Blue Surgeonfish. This is a fish we have not seen before and it is beautiful. But most other varieties of fish were not as numerous. We saw one of this and one of that, but that was fine with us. It was just such a wonderful treat to be able to jump in the clear, beautiful water.
Low tide is early in the morning, so if the sun is shining I might snorkel the reef again to try and get some photos. Then around 10 am we will go ashore and arrange to get fuel delivered and see the town of 480 people. There is a small store here that sells a few essentials, but there is no bank or ATM. The currency here is the Rf or rufiyaa. Somehow this is attached to the US dollar so that the exchange rate between the two always stays the same. So we will have to spend some of our precious US dollars to buy fuel and to pay for anything else we decide to do. The price of diesel here is very high, $1.20 per liter or $4.80 per gallon. We thought $1 per gallon in Cochin was expensive, but Uligan prices are higher. After we get some fuel, we will spend a couple of days here and then head south to the southern-most atoll in the Maldives, Addu. Both Constance and Windbird need help with repairs, and we are hoping that reports we have from other cruisers are correct. They indicate that the level of workmanship there is very good. Constance really needs someone to take a look at their malfunctioning generator and we would love for someone to take a look at our freezer compressor. The trick here is to get permission to anchor in a second Maldivian port without paying the $500 US cruising permit. We just can’t afford to do that.