South Ari Atoll: One of the best places to see whale sharks

The whale shark is the largest and heaviest fish ever seen in our oceans, and its existence dates back to more than 65 million years. Yet, we still know very little about these mysterious gentle giants.

Despite the broad distribution of whale sharks in tropical and subtropical areas of the globe, there are only about 20 locations where regular sightings of these creatures have been reported in coastal areas, including the Maldives, South Africa, Mozambique, Mexico, Belize and Australia, and the majority of these locations represent seasonal “feeding aggregations” for whale sharks, which are seen only for a few months each year.

In contrast, whale sharks are year-round residents of South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, which is a Marine Protected Area (SAMPA), making this a very special place. Maafushivaru is blessed to be located in such a unique part of this beautiful island nation indeed. Snorkelers and divers are frequently surprised by the colossal and magical presence of this iconic species, with the vast majority of encounters happening very close to the surface.

There are a few global facts we know about whale sharks. They are gentle, slow-moving filter feeders, feeding mainly on zooplankton, and the largest on record was reportedly 20 metres in length with a mouth that can be up to 1.5 metres wide! They can live up to 100 years, and interestingly enough, each individual whale shark has a unique pattern of spots and stripes, much like a human fingerprint, which can be used to identify it.

Out of the over 9,700 whale sharks identified in the global whale shark database, around 2/3 are juvenile males. Sightings of females and adults of both sexes (and babies) are very rare. Very little is also known about their reproduction and life history, and no one has yet seen a whale shark mating or giving birth! Whilst we still lack information about the global whale shark population, the species is considered endangered, having suffered a population decline of more than 50 per cent in the past three generations according to International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Maafushivaru collaborates with the Maldivian Whale Shark Research Project (MWSRP), a non-profit organisation, which carries out whale shark research to understand their population dynamics in the Maldives. Every time the resort takes its guests snorkelling or diving with whale sharks, ID photos and sighting data are submitted to the MWSRP. This means everyone can participate as a “citizen scientist” and help with the global conservation of this threatened species.

These collaborations have allowed the MWSRP to identify 391 whale sharks in the Maldives, of which 86.2 per cent are juvenile males. In addition, the data indicates that re-sightings of individual whale sharks at SAMPA are very high and over long periods of time. For example, the individual whale shark WS071 has been seen 238 times in 10 years. Therefore, SAMPA appears to offer a critical habitat and a global significant aggregation of whale sharks in the pre-mature stage, which shows no seasonality.

In the last couple of months, the team at Maafushivaru has had 10 incredible encounters with whale sharks in South Ari Atoll, including a few re-sightings, during snorkelling and diving safaris. The team has also been very lucky to identify a new juvenile male, which had not been previously registered in the MWSRP database. His name is Javaahiru (jewel in the local language Dhivehi) and it has been seen twice in two months!

Diving and snorkelling with these gentle giants is not only a truly breathtaking experience but also a unique opportunity to contribute to the much needed conservation of these amazing creatures.

Set in the picturesque South Ari Atoll and accessible by a scenic seaplane flying over the breathtaking archipelago of Maldives and its mysterious atoll formations, Maafushivaru is an island that charms guests with its dazzling turquoise lagoon, knitted with lush flora and wide sandy beaches. A stone’s throw away is Lonubo, its very own exclusive-use desert island, all set to provide couples with an intimate island experience.

The resort, which is managed by leading local resort operator Universal Resorts, offers a choice of three distinct villas. Beach Villas sit on the postcard perfect beach with views out to the sea, while the chic Water Villas offer panoramic views of the Indian Ocean. Families or friends travelling together will find the Pool Villas ideal as they come with two separate villas with a shared private pool. All villas are fine-tuned with hints of modern architecture and design.

Maafushivaru’s main restaurant overlooks the lagoon and offers a buffet of international and local flavours. 135° East is a contemporary Teppanyaki and Sushi restaurant with its own overwater pavilion. The Library Lounge coffee shop serves a range of tea and specialty coffees. There is also bar and a wine chiller.

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