News Article

In Conversation with Kaia from COMO

8 December 2023

Take a dip with the biggest fish in the sea in the Maldives

A thousand kilometres from the Sri Lankan coast, a thin necklace of islands lies nestled in otherwise uninterrupted expanse of the Indian Ocean. This is the Maldives’ Thaa Atoll, a congregation of 66 picture-perfect islands – all sweeping white sand and jump-in-and-surf-me waves – the majority of which remain uninhabited even today. On one of these islands, you’ll find COMO Maalifushi, the atoll’s first hotel and the group’s largest resort in the country.

180km to the north is another COMO hotel: Cocoa Island. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from the capital, Malé, taking pride of place in the region’s South Atoll. It’s also home to Kaia, the COMO group’s Marine Biologist and expert in residence on all things under the water in the Maldives. We’re chatting to her today about the experiences, work, and conservation on offer at both resorts, subjects about which she clearly knows her stuff.

The country’s unique density of marine life is a real draw for hotel guests and there are, Kaia tells us, 3 specialist types of snorkelling trips at each hotel for the less experienced. All that’s required is to slap on a snorkel mask, dive in, and soak in the sights. And the sights are something to behold. Turtles, she says, are top of the bucket list for many and there’s a dedicated snorkelling option to see these gentle ocean friends do their thing. There’s also an option to explore the reefs around the atolls, stuffed full of colour, life, and a living, breathing ecosystem under the surface.

For those guests who are a little stouter of heart, though, there’s also a specialist shark explorer snorkel tour. I visibly baulk at the prospect of snorkelling in the midst of our ocean’s predators, only for Kaia to quickly reassure me that this is nothing to be afraid of. The tour has rigorous safety measures, it regularly comes across schools of nurse sharks – which she describes as friendly and inquisitive, the puppies of the ocean – and the chance to see these graceful creatures in an undisturbed habitat is really quite something.

It’s on the subject of sharks that perhaps COMO’s most extraordinary experience is mentioned by Kaia. The Maldives is home to a large population of the ocean’s biggest fish: the whale shark. These massive animals can hit peak lengths of 20 metres and, as filter feeders, pose no threat to humans. Both hotels offer guests the chance to see and swim with the sharks.

From Cocoa Island, it’s an hour’s speedboat to the South Ari Atoll, the only place on earth with a year-round aggregation of the fish, giving visitors a prime chance of seeing them. A network of WhatsApp groups and experienced locals increases that chance even more. You’ll want to see them, too, especially if you spot one that hasn’t yet been tagged – if you’re eagle-eyed enough to hit the jackpot, the creature’s naming rights are all yours.

It’s at COMO Maalifushi, though, that whale shark expeditions take on a whole new dimension. When signed up, guests are given a mobile phone to monitor overnight; it can ring at any point and, when it does, they have to hotfoot it down to the sports centre in preparation for a moonlit ride to the destination. The phone ringing means that one of the local fishermen, whose boat lights and bait can attract the sharks, has spotted the familiar splashes and ripples from one of these gentle giants.

Once out at sea, guests can simply jump in, the whale sharks illuminated by the light of the boats and their massive frames hard to miss, even at night. It sounds like a genuine example of that oh-so-overused phrase, once in a lifetime. Kaia agrees, describing the expeditions in tremendous detail and clearly deeply connected with what she does – and what she and the team are able to provide for guests.

It’s not just guests that COMO’s marine biologists are providing for, though: at Cocoa Island, they’re focussing on the reef itself. The insidious effects of sea temperature increases have led to coral bleaching throughout the Maldives, draining its reefs of life, starving them of oxygen, and muting their dazzling colours.

In order to help the situation, Kaia and her team have established a programme whereby guests donate a frame of coral shards, which is then inserted into the reef, plugging the gaps that have been bleached. Kaia is keen to stress, though, that the COMO programme is different in that they use a honeycomb-like structure, joining their frames to create a long-term solution to the problem. It works, too. Guests are sent email updates of their frames, which they can see growing at rates of as much as 10cm a year, repopulating the reefs that they snorkelled and swam in.

“It’s on the subject of sharks that perhaps COMO’s most extraordinary experience is mentioned by Kaia. The Maldives is home to a large population of the ocean’s biggest fish: the whale shark.”

It’s pretty obvious that Kaia is an ocean and marine life nut, visibly expressing how much she loves seeing guests identify the fish and coral species that she briefed them on a few minutes before and establishing a connection with the reef that she loves so much. COMO’s marine experiences are, she says, part of getting people to think about the places they travel to, to understand them better and to foster relationships with the natural world. Here’s to that.

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