Twenty-six atolls in the shape of a garland stretching down 800 kilometres to touch the equator. Roughly speaking, there are 1,200 islands and of these 200 are inhabited and 100 are resorts. By around 2012 that last number will be nearer 140.
Design by reef
There are a surprising number of differences between islands, given the few elements that make them up. And it’s the reef that determines everything, from providing its original material to its size, shape and location.
If an island has filled out its reef, it is considered to have reached saturation and will be stable. This is the case on a number of very small reefs inside the atolls, such as, for example, Ihuru.
All the other islands are dynamic and continually on the move, up and down inside their reef. It is a bi-directional process owing to the bi-directional monsoons, whereas Pacific island movements are mono-directional. That is not to say it is predictable, for one island might see its beach shift around from season to season while hardly moving itself, and another island might move a very long way, historically, before edging back.
This movement of the beach with the monsoons and the movement of the island itself over time, gives the resort islands a bit of a headache when it comes to providing gorgeous, deep sand outside every room every day of the year. See the beaches section for how, and how well they cope.
It is not even easy to say what is an island and what isn’t. For example Kunfunudhoo ‘island’ is next to Soneva Fushi and 500 years older at 2,300 years old. But because it is on a ring reef (a faru), it moves freely up and down and hasn’t been able to hold onto any vegetation.
The perfect desert island
The picture perfect resort islands of one’s imagination are the saturated islands in the middle of an atoll. These would usually be small and circular with a permanent beach all around, a clear, sandy lagoon and a reef drop-off within a couple of minutes swim. And lush with majestic coconut palms.
I hasten to add that even these islands can have their faults (Ihuru has a boggy depression in the middle, for example) and that islands towards or on the outside of atolls can have most of these attributes. Furthermore, it is on the outside of atolls and in the channels that the best diving is found.
With resort islands now – or very soon – in every atoll up and down the country, interested tourists have the chance to witness a far greater range of what the Maldives has to offer, geographically speaking, than has ever been the case before. And with few thorough studies so far made of the country’s flora and fauna, their input could be valuable about the local wildlife that they discover.