Whale Shark Conservation: The Women I Met in Dhigurah

I hadn't even arrived in Dhigurah yet. My flight to Maamigili, where I would transfer by boat to the atoll island of Dhigurah was late that night. But Day 0 of my volunteering stint in the Maldives was already marked with news of a dead whale shark that had washed over a reef near Malé.

No, no, this was a good thing! At least, as far as whale shark research is concerned.

Dead Whale Shark! Come Quick!

You see, very little is known about adult whale sharks. In part, this is because of the depth range the sharks can cover (1 kilometre as far as we know - yes, that's 1000 metres deep), so it is hard to work out where they even are after they leave the coastal zones where they spend their juvenile years.

They are also a protected species in many nations, including the Maldives. This means that the types of research that you could do need to take some restrictions into consideration. For example, you can't catch one to dissect. 

As a consequence, there's still a lot of unknowns about whale shark biology.

But when a whale shark dies naturally, and somehow washes up to a reef exposed to the surface, conveniently near a human city... well, it's time for the MWSRP facilitators to rush out for samples before the decay sets in!

(We volunteers were not involved in this though - which was perhaps a good thing. The carcass smelled to high heaven!)

whale shark diving into the gloom
Into the deep

The captain of the Dhigurah crew

So it was that I didn't meet my facilitators at Dhigurah, but were actually on the same flight as them from Malé to Maamigili.

Not that anything interesting happened, since it was late at night, and the past few days had been taxing for me. Going to the Maldives alone was a new thing for me, that swamped me mentally then.

I couldn't pick out Iru from the other Maldivians on board the small aircraft. But I could make a guess about Alex, the lead in-field facilitator, because she looked obviously foreign, yet somehow local. She didn't look like a tourist traipsing on holiday across the Maldives, nor a pensive traveller meandering solo off the beaten track.

And this jumble is reflected in other dichotomies that make her the kind of interesting of genuinely interesting people: they're not trying to be. Alex is efficiently commanding, while being extremely young. Very pretty, yet somehow unfettered by vanity. No mean feat in this age.

You couldn't quite place her either. Her accent is English - but there was something not quite entirely English either. For some reason, I wanted to suffix 'South Africa' somewhere. Certainly she has 'diaspora' upon her.

One hundred years ago, she would have been the English gentlewoman who had spent most of her life in the colonies. The one with the terribly on-trend chinoiserie room, except that unlike the fashionable set, she would not be copying the fashion to claim worldliness - but had genuinely lived it, the room furnished with things from her real life.

I could imagine her having a London room one day with a hanging Maldivian bed, artwork of whale sharks and the African savannah lying around - her own art.

What are you waiting for? Jump in!

Coral reef in the Maldives | snorkelling Dhigurah | Maldives sea life | branching coral
The water's fine

This is a novel condition for me.

No, I don't mean being in the Maldives part. Not the snorkelling with the whale sharks part either. Although both were certainly new.

Even more novel than these, is the ability to turn my natural observational insight, on people.

I've always struggled with seeing people, which frustrated me since I could decipher events and ideas so sharply. But in the social relations space, it was like the senses were muted, deadened somehow. Like being shortsighted or hard of hearing, without being completely blind and deaf.

But part of peeling off the cocoon, of being smashed open and put back together, is a renewed form. It's like getting used to your physical self all over again, as if it were a new body.

Or perhaps it's only that tragedy peeled off the 'new body' plastic sheets off that you never knew you had left on all this while. I could truly and fully feel with the sensations of my whole self, for the first time. 

Test driving

In Perhentian, the apprehension of this new ability made it hard for me to resolve the experience. It was a barrage of sensation and decision, which smeared over each other.

It was all I could do to just let it happen and observe how I thought and felt about it all. And then take my 'body' back off and think about it some more.

In India, the whole experience was softly clouded over in a kind of misty haze. I met with many new colleagues, discovered in astonishment that they connected with me, and that I could move them with my words. A little surprised that other people could see me in this form. Surprised that they reached out to touch me, followed after me - as if calling me to come back into my new avatar.

But in the Maldives, when I dropped into the water on the first day after Chiko the whale shark, there was not time to think about it. Jump in, and swim - or I would miss the shark!

And that was when I finally dropped into my body for good, and into the world.

I guess, you always have to say the magic words three times.

The little sister I never had

My room-mate Belle was a Melbournian girl, and the youngest in our group. You could perhaps imagine a more millennial person, but it would not be worth the effort.

Usually she would be found on the floor with luggage open, things sort of radiating from her epicentre. And yet, when she looks up with a kind of hapless cheery smile, the mess just doesn't matter.

Once, a long time ago, I did think it would be great to have sisters. But I couldn't really imagine a real sister. After all, I didn't really like other people's sisters. They all seemed so feminine, and winsomely obedient. All versions of a realistic sister seemed like something I couldn't put up with for long.

But Belle was sunny and rambling, active and easygoing. She treks and climbs - and I'd never once considered a little sister who is stronger than me, and yet gambols about like a cub.

I remember the main door of the house where we stayed had an inconvenient code system. And so she decided to go in and out through our window. Soon, we regularly came in and out through the convenient window. (But of course, we had to go around the counterweighted washing line system that we constructed outside).

As with all the best ideas, it seems so obvious in hindsight. Why did I never imagine a sister like this?

Conservation volunteering is always local

MWSRP houses their volunteers at a local guesthouse on Dhigurah island, and hires a local dhoni, the Dolphin, for their whale shark surveys. This is what the volunteering fee covers.

TME Retreats | Dhigurah resort | TME common al fresco sitting area | Maldives local resort | Maldives local island guesthouse
TME Retreats

Environmental or conservation volunteering is not quite like social volunteering projects. Usually for a social or charitable project, the benefit to the local community is already obvious, and the community might be willing to absorb the cost of hosting you in exchange for the skills or resources you bring.

However, conservation voluntourism is often about demonstrating to a community, the greater value of their environmental resources when left protected, or at least managed sustainably. And that is why the project will usually try to buy services from the local people.

TME Retreats, Dhigurah

The guesthouse that partners with MWSRP is a pretty sweet place, TME Retreats. It's so professionally run, the staff incredibly attentive.

The food was really good - which is nothing to sniff at, coming from a Malaysian. I really liked the Maldivian breakfast of shredded fish, which you eat with a kind of pancake. I liked it even though it was mixed with chopped onion, which I detest.

Birthday cake from TME Retreats | Dhigurah

The staff were somehow aware when it was my birthday during this trip. Somehow there was a birthday cake for me - and it was not the chocolate. I don't know if it was a lucky guess, or they watched and actually noticed that I always chose the fruit or cheesecakes and never the chocolate!

And to tell you how else they were attentive, I have to tell you about Nicole.

A vegan among omnivores

Nicole was the first vegan that I met personally. She was worried at first about how easy it would be for TME to accommodate that. Apparently, back in Australia, it isn't something people always took seriously. I can relate to this concern, since - as a Muslim - I also constrain my diet by choice. I worry much less about it now, but I remember the social anxiety when I was younger.

But her veganism was no problem whatsoever, and sometimes the rest of us even looked in envy at Nicole's special food, because it seemed tastier.

Still, dessert time remained hard for her. The cakes always have dairy.

But one day, the staff surprised her with (gasp!) a vegan cake! And it was good! I remember, she was so touched, she was in tears.

TME Resort | Maldives local island | tourist beach
To the sunset beach

The pointlessness of self-righteousness

Nicole was also the first vegan I liked.

And the reason for this is that up until recent times, chances are, a random vegan person I encounter is usually insufferable. (Unlike vegetarians. Vegetarians tend to be driven by more diverse reasons, and so the personalities vary more).

Of course, this is not unique to vegans. You see exactly the same kind of activism-without-wisdom in other arenas. In every environmental social forum, for example, there will be those impatient all-or-nothing purist voices. Reading or listening to them, I can tell you that despite my persistent commitment to environmental issues (20 years and counting), even I feel an irrational desire to order in a dinner of steaks wrapped in plastic delivered by Humvee!

But I override that impulse, because I know that just because someone committed to a cause is insufferable, it does not mean that insufferability has to be an inherent part of the cause.

Immaturity struggles in the space between standing up for something, but not encroaching on other people's choice not to. I was immature too.

But I got over it because the fact is, it is not even effective. And as you get older, you become more aware that you have no time to be the most right, but ineffective. 

Maldives beach | turquoise sea | Dhigurah coast
Too much is at stake

The power of grace

You see, I am vegetarian twice a week since I was with the Blue Temple Conservation. They had adopted vegetarian Mondays and Fridays, but they never imposed it on their volunteers. They only invited.

So why did I take up the invitation? Well, firstly because I agreed with their reason. Secondly, because two days seemed much more doable and quite reasonable than all the time.

But ultimately, (and here is the big lesson for all activists and evangelists everywhere) the clincher was that I liked them. So I wouldn't hate myself, if I adopted a change that made me resemble them. This is, by the way, why celebrity endorsements work.

Nicole never once pontificated about veganism. She spoke about her love of animals and how that was important to her decision. She helped others accommodate her choice. Nothing in her manner or expression showed negativity to anyone else.

While the rest of us didn't turn vegan, I'm sure it made us much more open to it. We wanted to try her vegan food. And when Nicole got her vegan cake, we were half in tears as well.

To the ship!

Every morning we would walk over to the MWSRP house before heading out to the jetty.

Dhigurah is easy to find your way around. It's a long, narrow island of sand, so all you had to do was roughly aim for the jetty end, or the opposite sandbar end.

coral house | local Maldives house
An abandoned old house on Dhigurah

We would pass by local village homes. The old ones have walls made of coral chunks, but the newer ones are not, because coral is no longer allowed to be used for building material.

About halfway we would cross the 'high street' of Dhigurah, where all the shops are. In front of these shops were the ubiquitous hammock-chairs of the Maldives. You also find them in front of homes, and TME has a few in their yard as well.

Jess thought they were awesome - a chair, but better! Why, you could perhaps market them in Australia - it might catch on and become a trend! We could be rich! We thought we would call this exotic item, a 'chammock'. Later I found out that the locals call it a jolie. But we doubted the marketing potential of 'jolie' over 'chammock'.

jolie | Maldivian local chair | hammock chair | Dhigurah island life
Volunteers on the 'chammocks'

Jess and Bobo the cat

MWSRP cat | MWSRP mascot cat | Bobo the Dhigurah cat
Bobo's indifference

Iru had a cat at the MWSRP house, called Bobo. Bobo was white with black patches.

I love cats, but my own had passed away about a year before. Seeing Bobo made me melancholy, but I still wanted to play with him. However, Bobo didn't really take to me. 

But he sure took to Jess!

It was awesome to see her with Bobo. Jess had a kind of sporty innocence, absolutely good-natured and down-to-earth - an Artemis. She was about motion: there was Jess swimming after a turtle, and there over the corals looking for life.

I was envious, but understood, why Bobo liked her best.

The dismal early survey days

For our first days of surveying for whale sharks, we took it on faith that the pictures of the Maldives we saw on the internet were true.

The island and the sea were still lovely, but the skies were frequently clouded. So the water was also dark. It was hard to make out shadows beneath the waves with the ripples always on the surface. I was often cold (in the Maldives!), and sometimes had to go down to warm up from the windy top deck. I had no need to take off my wetsuit.

The wind fetched swells upon the sea. And so Svenja would often be down there, lying down on the benches.

Seasick.

The worst thing ever when you're out aiming to swim with sea creatures.

Fortunately the days grew clearer and calmer.

A kickass lady

prow of a Maldivian dhoni
Against the wind

One morning at breakfast, I learned the most interesting thing. Back in Germany, Svenja is a prison guard. Like, break-up-fights-between-convicted-criminals kind of prison guard. Like, the boss of the yard kind of prison guard.

We thought that was the most awesome thing ever.

She promised to show us a picture of herself in her prison guard uniform.

I could well believe it, since by physical build she seemed like she could take on tough guys. But at the same time, I hadn't thought it either, because of how relaxed and pretty and feminine she is.

I thought that juxtaposition was perfectly wonderful.

Whale shark identification in Dhigurah

We had to record quite a number of things from every whale shark encounter. Not just about the whale shark itself, but also data about the prevailing current and water quality and wind at the location where we saw it.

But one of the key things was to identify which whale shark it was.

Luckily the whale sharks of Dhigurah have photo ID.

photographing whale shark spots | Maldives Whale Shark Research Program volunteer
Aiming for a snapshot

Reading the stars on their cheeks

At some point someone figured out that the pattern of spots on each whale shark was unique. What's more, you only needed a photo of a relatively small section just over and behind the gill, to tell them apart.

What's even better, is that some bright spark had the idea to re-purpose NASA's constellation identification software, to read the whale shark spots as if they were stars. And so, it became possible to carry out whale shark identification by software. This made it feasible to keep a database for individual whale sharks across the years.

Our nightly chores after dinner at TME involved transferring data from the data sheets into the computer. The bit that involved processing camera images to select ID photos of the sharks was quite fun. After a while, we sort of could recognise the spot patterns of recurring whale sharks, and waited to see if the software agreed.

But no one was a match for Iru, the other MWSRP in-field facilitator. She does not need software.

Iru's reserved presence gives no clues of her talent. But time after time, she proved it. It seems she knows every whale shark around Dhigurah, on sight. The spot patterns are like a face that she recognises. And if she sees a shark she doesn't know, it was a moment of excitement, because that means a new shark - previously never recorded - is in town.

And I have trouble remembering faces of my own species... !

Whale shark near the surface
Taking a photo alongside

The cloud of loss

But I am telling the whole story of this milestone trip. And it is often the case that important stories are not composed solely of exciting, interesting things.

I had to deal with the loss of a friend at the time of this trip, without fully understanding why it was even necessary. I had thought a friend from a supposedly more liberal, modern country, would be more likely and more capable of a diversity of unique friendships. At least, more capable than Asians.

And yet, not only was this untrue, it turned out the opposite was the case. It took me another year to deduce a glimmer of why this paradox is so. But at the time, I took it hard.

The waves roll away, they roll away!
With the brightening day
But the water's grey, the water's grey.

His voice is sealed away, it's sealed away
Cloud rolls over the sun ray
He cannot play, no he cannot play.

Don't linger with Circe, do not stay!
But I watch the sun decay
And the waves roll away, oh they roll away.

Dhoni on a sea swell | overcast Maldives

Clara's beautiful eye

The amazing thing was, when I tentatively began to share my dismay with the girls, the sisterhood understood instantly. It was surprisingly a great comfort to me.

That despite the diversity of our backgrounds and worldviews and personalities and current situations, women understand the shared bruises of womanhood. I was really lucky to have such a supportive group with me during that time.

But it was Clara that gave me a gift I had never received before.

You can't really think of Clara without thinking of her photography. Her Instagram is full of evocative images of life coupled with thoughtful quotes from a seemingly inexhaustible resource.

If only all eyes of beholders are connected to projectors...

It's always great to have a member of the group who is into photography, because you'd be sure to have the memories recorded. What's even better, is to have someone who is inspired by it - because they have a beautiful eye for showing you the important things you need to see.

So when she took pictures of what I look like, she was able to show me what she sees. Something others have told me they see, but could not make me believe. It was so different from how I thought I looked like. Especially considering that I felt like crap at the time.

I have no idea how she did it, considering I am unphotogenic, there is no makeup when you're snorkelling, there's no way to maintain good hair as a mermaid, and I have no modelling aptitude whatsoever.

I'm not sure why it was such a comfort to me, but it really was.

Free from the tyranny of beauty standards

Indeed we were a diverse crew. We came in a range of body types and skin shades, from different backgrounds. But we happened to be all women.

On a little island in the Maldives, there was no advertising and no mass media.

After some days, we began to remark, how surprisingly relaxing that simple fact was for a change.

You see, in spite of the diversity of our appearance, no matter what our body type was, we all had felt we were not good enough. And it was welcome, when the question of physical appearance and enhancements simply dropped from all relevance.

There was no pressure to get all made up before leaving for the day. The very idea was out of place, in the context of sea sports and the punishing Maldivian heat that makes sweat rush out of every pore.

We could wear clothes that we liked for comfort and not for show. Up on the dhoni top deck, we ended up with a big range: everything from a bikini to shorties, rash vest to wetsuit, even full face-full body cover. We could like each other's stuff for purely aesthetic reasons rather than because of trending fashion and competition.

It is rare that a group of women are able to come together, and not have competition for the pecking order of 'mate fitness' create factions and disharmony. To be the trophy, or to win the trophy. People can't fully be themselves in such an environment.

I was glad that we didn't have anyone who needed to be about that, who didn't have a self that isn't benchmarked to a man. Glad that we were all the ones who were like 'Oh thank God! We can be just women people!'

female diversity | MWSRP volunteers | sisterhood

Collide

We spanned a great age range as well, though the median age was fairly young.

Here, as in Perhentian, the youngest ones were blown away by how different actual post-30 people really look like, compared to their imagination.

But it was what you could still do, that was even more mind-blowing to them.

Of course, most confusingly, I am frequently mistaken for a student. I guess I have indeed done life at a strange, inconsistent pace. Even I don't know how old I am, since other measures disagree greatly with what culture dictates should be expected from chronology. (Although interestingly, non-chronological measures agree with the age range people generally assume me to be in).

But Carol, the eldest of us, was the shining example. She still travels, has adventures, and not only keeps up - she's ahead. There are quite a few whale shark photos with a Carol photobomb!

It really reminds you that while it's true that there are certain unchangeable limits to life, most of the time our own mindsets place taboos on what is possible well ahead of the constraints that nature imposed.

That life is progressed linearly, for example. That this or that milestone happens at such and such ages. That if you're not there by then, you're 'late'. Or 'too late'.

I wonder how much happiness is foregone, because we believed these things. Chased these milestone mirages, instead of discovering our own personal ones.

Coral lagoon in the Maldives | island lagoon in South Ari

Anchorage.

It was Carol who volunteered me for the MWSRP blog.

I hadn't written seriously for a very long time, but Alex asked me to write a post in Malay. The idea intrigued me.

Although I am much more comfortable writing in English than my native language, I'm not terrible. Certainly better than most people would be, who write in a clunky utilitarian ugly Malay that strips all the emotional, flowing richness of the language. What's more, while not an expert translator, I could reasonably translate how it feels, into English.

So I guess, I felt responsible to represent my country and language.

And the rest is history.

In a way I have taken an extremely long-winded way to tell the story of Teja on the Horizon. From the founding of this blog, I took a whole year of travel and deep personal growth stories just to arrive at this story about that milestone!

But indeed, Dhigurah, and the diverse women I met there, was a milestone. It was the pivot between when I stopped thinking, and began doing. Between testing out the wings, and actually taking flight.

I drifted into Dhigurah. But when I left, I set sail.

Dhigurah harbour

Carbon offset information to Dhigurah

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Dhigurah via Malé produces carbon emissions of approximately 2,651 lbs CO2e. It costs about $14 to offset this.


Did you have a life-changing moment in travel? Was it about the place, or the people you met?

You may also like...

43 Responses

  1. Varsha Gawai says:

    Oh, what a great post I came through. You have put it very nicely. All the photos are awesome. I would like to meet Bobo. :)

  2. Raksha Rao says:

    That’s awesome. I heard so much about spotting whale sharks in Dhigurah when I was in the Maldives. But alas I wasn’t able to make it. Maybe I’ll visit Dhigurah next time then :)

  3. Alexander Popkov says:

    I did many kinds of photography but never tried underwater shots. What are the shots made with? :)

    • Teja says:

      We only needed to snorkel for this program, so I used my trusty Canon PowerShot D20. It’s good down to 10m. I’ve had it for some years now, and so far the seals are holding. :)

  4. Rachel says:

    This sounds like an incredible experience, and those whale sharks are spectacularly beautiful. And so glad you got to meet and befriend so many wonderful women, it sounds like a great group!

  5. Anu says:

    Being vegetarian or vegan is not easy – believe me I have to struggle a lot at times even in very touristy places.

    • Teja says:

      I think it’s getting easier though. I am often vegetarian while travelling, being Muslim (vegetarian food is automatically also halal). So I’ve kinda noticed it’s getting easier. :)