Sarudhaaru Dhonbe: First Scuba Diver from Maldives

By Hamza Khaleel

Maldives.net.mv – The photos are in black and white and the world is dusting itself from the second world war. In the tiny islands of Maldives with a population of less than 60,000 people, Sarudhaaru Dhonbe’ or Ismail as it says on his national identity card, was taking his plunge to ensure his survival.

Dhonbe’ was a passionate energetic and artistic young man with a natural passion for the environment. His life has always been simple and introverted. His ideas and his dreams but were nothing less than those of a true visionary. Mild mannered but observant Dhonbe used to work for the Maldives National Security services. His job provided him with very little opportunity to learn or create but soon, in time, his natural instincts to reach to the inner soul of a true artist overcame him.

Due to the world war and the limited development of the country, food was at a shortage, and one who did not fend for himself often went hungry. Dhonbe’ decided to take fate into his own hands and with such a vast ocean surrounding the island it was obvious that the first option would be fishing. With crimson waters abundant with life surrounding the capital island Male’ of the Maldives archipelago, he had the whole ocean to hunt from. In his fishing/spearing expeditions, he was also simultaneously feeding his artistic hunger for colors shapes and images that filled the underwater; and it was true love that he found.

Dhonbe loved the ocean and found it natural to dive to about 20 meters easily and breath hold for about 3 minutes. His friends from the neighborhood joined him occasionally. Soon it became a passion and he found himself combining the two loves of his life. The ocean and painting and sketching the beauty of nature.

The passionate ocean lover was first given an underwater mask by a tourist which turned out to be too big for him. So he decided to let his handicraft creativeness come to use and designed his own underwater mask and snorkel. This mask was so well designed, with glass and rubber tires as a seal; the Maldivian Army came to hear of it and asked him to produce 60 more masks, for them. Dhonbe’ also designed his own spear gun. He designed it with hard flexible rubber from old tires, which still has its marks on his foot, reminiscent from all the times when he loaded the gun using his feet to pull the rubber. Dhonbe’ has speared more than any youth could probably claim to today, but for Dhonbe’, it was not only about the hunting, but so much more. It was the understanding of the life underwater and the creatures and their habitats and their behaviors. Even today, Dhonbe’ can tell you which cave to swim to in a certain atoll of Maldives where at a certain period of the monsoon one can endure watching some biological chef-d’oeuvre spawn in colors that you could never even imagine. His understanding of the creatures he hunted was his respect for them. Unfortunately this is a lacking attitude amongst the new generation fishermen who fish for fun and barely know their catch.

In the early 1960’s when the first tourists started coming to the Maldives in search of exotic island paradises, Dhonbe met the German tourist Mr.Rodney Jonklass. Mr. Jonklass, an avid diver and spear fisherman and explorer from neighboring Sri Lanka; exposed Dhonbe’ to spear fishing and also handed him the first factory made underwater mask. Later on Dhonbe’ was also lucky enough to meet the world re-known Dive Expedition Researcher, Professor Hans Hass, from Germany. It was Professor Hass who came to the Maldives, and intrigued Dhonbe’ to scuba dive and traveled with Dhonbe’ through out the Maldives exploring reefs, caves and different species of underwater life .With the dates in place it can be safely said that Prof. Hass was in the Maldives in 1957 for the shooting of the underwater documentary “Travelers Tales: The Undersea World Of Adventure” which was aired on BBC and other International Channels as well. He later published a book called “Expedition into the Unknown” in testimonial of his time spent in the Maldives.

When Prof. Hass went back, he left a spear gun, scuba gear and a diving compressor with Dhonbe’ but most importantly, techniques and tools to explore the oceans. Though Prof. Hass did not conduct a licensed scuba diving class for Dhonbe; he definitely gave the knowledge and explained the know how. In the next few years Dhonbe’ had traveled to most of the Maldives and swam, hunted, dived and scuba dived at some of the most luscious underwater gardens the world had to offer.

His memory is fond to remember the moments he once poked an electric ray near the house reef of Male’. It left electric shocking feelings that leaves jovial pictures of his youth engraved forever in his memory. Dhonbe’ also could never forget the first moment he saw a dark shadow coming towards him in the waters of Koattey Area (Addu Atoll, Maldives) which turned out to be a whale shark. The scientific significance of spotting a whale shark in that region during the early 1970’s could hold important information on the changing patterns of whale shark habitation in the Maldivian waters.

At 83 years old he still designs, paints and sketches the beautiful creatures and environment he had come to love and call home to. He never owned a camera or even used one underwater but his memory captures and his hands encompasses the images as if it was a picture. Dhonbe’ had no formal training in the field of diving nor painting but his life and work has affected so many a new younger scuba divers by encouraging and assisting them to be knowledgeable and interested in this field. His impact on the diving community of Maldives as well as the artists community will always be remembered as one who touched the hearts of so many. His plunge into new dreams has opened the hearts and minds of so many a youth and touched their lives in ways that entwined them and made them one with nature and fall in love with the beauty of the underwater life. His respect for all that is living lead him to believe his own saying that; “even if a creature like a sea urchin could harm you, you can still admire and love it”.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in Scuba Tribe magazine and republished with the permission of the author.

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