Swimming With Sharks in the Maldives

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I’m currently holed up in our place in Brooklyn and missing my former pre-Covid peripatetic life very much. Yet I’m far from unique in this regard.

A piece in Friday’s Guardian made me feel very wistful, These Maldives islanders once saw sharks as the threat. Now they fear the plasti. I learned to dive in the Maldives, earning my PADI certificates: open water, advanced open water, and then master scuba diver.

I’d been snorkelling one day with a young couple off of Flores, an Indonesian island east of Bali. And I found myself apologising as I’d done for most of my life, for behaving as a clumsy lummox in the water. Why? I’was never very good at swimming, perhaps because I’m afraid of the water. I decided that day to confront that fear by learning to dive.

Now, diving’s really not much like surface swimming. With diving, one breathes compressed air (or Nitrox) with the aid of a regulator. While I love diving, I still don’t enjoy swimming on the surface very much. Being safe while diving relies on employing safe diving equipment, whereas with swimming, it’s about being comfortable breathing on the surface, doing one of those strokes that require one to immerse one’s face in the water, something I just don’t enjoy. I don’t mind doing the backstroke, however.

Anyway, onto the Maldives and its sharks. Per The Guardian:

Diving with tiger sharks off Fuvahmulah brought a tourist boom that has led to a destructive tide of plastic waste. But now locals are pushing back

“People used to think I was crazy,” says Lonu Ahmed. “Even my mum thought I was insane. Fishermen used to beg me not to dive with sharks.”

Ahmed lives on the island of Fuvahmulah in the Maldives, an island surrounded by tiger sharks. The islanders have traditionally been terrified of the creatures: fishermen would regularly kill them. Ten years ago, however, believing the sharks were misunderstood, Ahmed jumped into the water, to the horror of onlookers. He says he saw something they didn’t.

“Everyday, fishermen in the market threw tuna scraps into the harbour,” he recalls. “I noticed the tiger sharks came to eat but never hunted the live fish, only the dead fish. I’ve never been afraid of sharks and knew the shark’s job was to clean the ocean. I wanted to be close to the sharks, to see them face to face.”

Seeing Ahmed swim with the sharks, always returning unscathed, changed perceptions on the island. “I told them not to worry, that sharks don’t attack humans,” he says. “I love sharks. I feel relaxed and calm with sharks.

“Now fishermen know sharks aren’t dangerous. Today, a 12-year-old boy asked me if we can go freediving with the tiger sharks. The young generation especially love sharks. I tell the fishermen not to attack sharks because they keep the fish and tuna populations healthy,” Ahmed says. “The fishermen are beginning to understand sharks aren’t dangerous.”

His initiative has led to a tourism boom on the island and, after previously doing laundry and housekeeping in resorts, he now takes tourists diving with sharks. Scuba diving has transformed the economy, creating one of the biggest sources of income for local people. In 2020, Unesco declared Fuvahmulah a biosphere reserve, though the island lacks an official conservation or protection organisation.
Diving has transformed the lives of the islanders, both commercially and in terms of their relationship to sharks. Until Ahmed took them out to dive with his company, Fuvamulah Tiger Shark Dive, many of them, such as Sand Saeed, were unable to swim.

“I’ve always had a huge fear,” Saeed says. “But after Lonu took me to see the sharks face to face and see how they move and their behaviour, I realised the Hollywood movies, like Jaws, were pretty much bullshit

The Guardian interviewed the only local female dive master on the island. (Other women work as divemasters there, but they’re foreigners:

“When we were kids, sharks were something that infested the water,” says Hamna Hussain, a divemaster on Fuvahmulah. “My friends have real phobias but since diving with sharks, I’m never scared around them. It changed my life.

“If shark diving wasn’t discovered here, life now would be so different. I feel like this is a new era for this island. My goddaughter is two and every time she sees me she tells me she wants to see sharks. That’s a huge difference to when I was a kid.

“I’m the only local female divemaster here, and other locals, particularly men, see me and say: ‘If she can dive with sharks, so can I,’ which, although it’s kind of insulting, I see as a positive.”

Alas, the boom in Maldivian tourism hasn’t just brought benefits. Along with tourists has come another modern scourge: plastics. A connection that made me recall my friend, Renee Sørensen, whom I first wrote about in 2018, when she caught dengue fever and died, despite being healthy, physically active, and only in her forties, Dengue on My Mind: Spending on ‘Diseases of Poverty’ Not Enough to Create Effective Vaccines:

I’d met Renee– a proud Norwegian– in 2015, when she’d guided me on some diving excursions, and a couple of years after she’d upended the pattern of her life. She’d travelled to the Maldives in 2013 to learn to dive– and never left.

She qualified as a dive master and then an instructor, and initially, worked as a diving guide. Later, she set up two of her own businesses: the first, a tour company, to bring Norwegian clients to the island of Maafushi– a lower-cost alternative to the typical high-priced Maldivian resorts.

Now, I’ve written about Renee not once but twice and when I mentioned to my husband what I was thinking of posting about today, he gently suggested perhaps I was overdoing it a bit on the Maldives plastic beat, Waste Watch: News from the U.S. and the Maldives.

Yet Renee was also on my mind, because I recently received one of those Facebook notifications, reminding me of her birthday. I suppose no one’s thought to take down her Facebook page. I know that I won’t so bother my friends from beyond the grave, as I have my privacy settings set so no one else can see my birthday. Although I do admit I was a bit disappointed when I celebrated a milestone birthday in June, and other than family, few people remembered – even close friends, who later admitted they no longer keep track of birthdays anymore, but just rely on Facebook. I find that statement rather sad.

So today it’s the Maldives, sharks, tourism, and plastics and tomorrow I’ve planned a meaty legal post, discussing COVID vaccine litigation.  Now for a bit more about Renee:

After making a success of her first business, in part due to her commitment to customer service for her clients– who “get the same level of service people get at luxury resorts, at a far lower cost”– Renee became convinced that local diving companies weren’t doing enough to protect the unique Maldivian ecosystem.

So she set up a second company, an eco-diving operation, which in addition to promoting more ecologically responsible diving, launched efforts to clean up and preserve beach and reef systems, and especially, to involve local children and teach them to understand and appreciate the environment in which they live.

I’ll spare including here yet again the short inspiring video – in Norwegian with English sub-titles – that I’ve posted before, but it’s there in either previous post for any reader who might be interested in learning in Renee’s own words:

how one woman, along with friends, the community,  colleagues, and visitors, has worked to institute better waste management practices to deal with the spike in garbage that has accompanied the spread of local tourism on Maafushi and surrounding islands. Much of this waste was either being burnt or dumped into the lagoon.

Unfortunately, as with so many initiatives, worldwide, to deal with plastic waste management problems, the pandemic has set back the local Maafushi efforts. About a third of Maldivian GDP comes from tourism, and according to the Undercurrent newsletter:

One of our contacts in the Maldives reports that the island of Maafushi, famous for local tourism, has been inundated with garbage during the decline in tourism caused by the pandemic. He says a lot of the islands are becoming like this, having no proper garbage disposal plan. So, they are simply dumping their rubbish, plastic and all, into the once-pristine sea. Tourists are charged a Green Tax, but little of that money appears to be directed to solving the problem. It’s a crisis that’s destroying the environment.

The Guardian article also supplied further details about the Maldivian plastics problem:

The Maldives, isolated in the Indian Ocean, has one of the world’s highest population densities and little capacity to process plastic waste. Plastic is now building up across beaches, streets, backroads, front yards and palm forests. “This is the big issue in the Maldives,” says Ahmed. “We have a big mountain of plastic on the island, and we don’t have recycling. Plastic bags, bottles, fishing lines … Everything is here and the mountain just keeps growing.”

Much of it is washing into the ocean, entangling marine life on the reef. “I’ve seen many animals caught in plastic – manta rays, tiger sharks, silvertip sharks,” he says. “The fish also eat the plastic and then local people eat this fish, so it’s very bad. The beach is [also] covered in plastic bottles and bags. People here just throw it on the ground.

In the face of this deluge, other Maldivians are carrying out work to clean up their local waters. A big part of the problem is created by masses of plastic water bottles, as locals and tourists alike must rely on disposable bottles for drinking water:

To mitigate the effects of the plastic waste, Ahmed and an underwater photographer, Jono Allen, with the support of the local council and mayor, set up a conservation organisation, Fuvahmulah Marine Foundation (FMF). Its first goal is to work with the council to set up household waste separation scheme, sorting plastic, metals, paper, food and green waste so it can be processed on the island by hand. FMF is also trying to sort the current mountain of plastic on the island and reduce its size before it is transported to Malé, capital of the Maldives, for processing. (There is now a recycling plant there set up by the environmental organisation Parley Maldives.)

For Ahmed, protecting sharks and reducing plastic are part of the same battle. “When I’m with the sharks, I feel like I’m in another world, like I’m in space or something.” The plastic is a threat to that. “I want to see the importing of plastic stop, especially plastic bags and plastic bottles,” he says. “I want to see a plastic-free future here in my lifetime.”

Figuring out how to supply safe drinking water without plastics is a necessary first step. I can’t think of any easy answers, as the atolls don’t extend very far above sea level and I believe suffer from a dearth of water supplies. Global warming will only worsen this problem as sea levels rise. Perhaps some relief might come from greater use of water coolers, which use bigger bottles, and thus don’t generate so much daily waste. Maybe the coolers could also be fitted with glass rather than plastic bottles. All issues to be considered in post-COVID days – if and when they ever arrive.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Carla


    Thank you for this post, and welcome back!

    Is it possible that we may have to learn to accept that some places on earth are not intended for ongoing human habitation?

    Condolences on the loss of your friend Renee.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author


      I really miss her. She was so inspiring. And joyful.

      As for the atolls of the Maldives, as sea levels rise, they will simply disappear. I wonder where the people will go.

    2. megrim

      This is where Roman pagan religion really shines for me. They had two types of sacred spaces–ones consecrated by humans, and those chosen by the gods. You are definitely not supposed to go to places the gods chose for themselves. We could do with a bit of that around here.

    1. Susan the other

      Watching Earthshot last nite on Discovery was encouraging, a little. Everyone everywhere is agonizing over the plastic pollution problem and things are starting to move. Maybe.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        What I find most depressing is that the problem has been well known for a long time. During my sophomore year, I had a high school English teacher, Mr. Gordon Muir, who was a big influence on me. He took me seriously. Did things like leant me his complete works of Thomas Jefferson when I expressed an interest in TJ. I was really into F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mr. Muir asked me to teach his sophomore class on him during my junior or senior year.

        And I remember quite vividly him discussing rubbish when McDonald’s opened up in town. Saying garbage would be a big future problem. And that was back in the ‘70s. So one can’t say we weren’t warned.

        He wasn’t a typical treehugger either. He preached at one of the local churches.

        1. Swamp Yankee

          Glad to see you back Jerri-Lynn, and my condolences for the loss of your friend Renee; she sounds wonderful.

          I also had a high school teacher, Magistra Hart, my Latin teacher, give me all her Jefferson material when I began to get heavily into him when I was 14. Ditto Dr. Heitzman, who let me do an independent study on none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald (and Hemingway) my senior year.

          Good high school teachers stay with you in the best and subtlest ways. Was thinking of my old music teacher Mr. Vinci as I plugged out some chords on an electric piano a few days ago. We don’t realize what a gift it is, as adolescents, to be taken seriously by kind and wise and learned adults.

          1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

            I had some good high school teachers, at Newton High School, in what was then largely rural, not particularly sophisticated, Sussex County, in NJ. Christopher Duane, my Latin teacher, introduced me to Plautus. And “Happy Jack” Hontz, the band director, was always up for an NYC excursion. A dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera? No problem. But also Burmese dancers at the Asia Society. And he taught Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross as part of a humanities unit on death and dying.

    2. John Zelnicker

      Aluminum, however, is the most cost efficient recyclable material. It takes about 4 times the energy to convert bauxite to raw aluminum as it does to melt down existing aluminum.

      1. t

        And there’s not really a lifecycle. There are drink cans on shelves today with aluminum from bauxite mined before anyof us were born. (Unless some of as are vampires.)

        1. John Zelnicker

          Mobile was always a major port for bauxite imports from Jamaica. In the 1950’s and ’60’s and for many years after that, Alcoa’s largest plant was here.

          1. J7915

            Dr No first James Bond? Opens in Jamaica IIRC. Saw it in Rio de Janeiro while in High school.
            Time and memories fly.

  2. juno mas

    I hear you on the surface swimming reticence. Took me quite some time to develop a relaxed breathing technique in freestyle swimming. As easy as Olympc swimmers make it look, swimming freestyle (facedown) takes hours of practice and conditioning. It’s no secret that VO2 max talent is a precursor to being an elite swimmer.

    Did some free diving at the Channel Islands with experienced divers while attending university in the late 60’s. The underwater world is an experience like no other. Today the Channel Islands are a National Marine Reserve and divers fly in from all over to explore them. (Yes, the local diving community was devastated by the Conception disaster.)

    Now, when I see divers board at the SB Harbor for the Islands, I’ll think of J-LS.

    Be Well Always

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      So maybe my inability to swim well is not all in my head!

      I’m fascinated by the underwater world and I’ve written a bit about my diving experiences. In fact, I’m just finishing up writing a detective novel, set on a dive boat, during a diving safari. It’s called Death in the Deep Red Sea and concerns an explosion on the Thistlegorm, a WWII wreck (with more than a wink and a nod to Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, set during a riverboat excursion down the Nile).

      1. juno mas

        I guess a peripatetic diver roving for wrecks and reefs around the globe would also have the energy to write a novel about it. Best of Luck!

  3. The Rev Kev

    Late to comment here – and welcome back Jerri. After reading this article, I am going to say that the only way to shut the door on this problem is to virtually ban the importation of disposable plastic items into the country. It’s not like they could just bury all the plastic rubbish in a hole somewhere and I doubt that incineration would be that ideal a solution as well because of the need for a constant importation of accelerants to burn it with. Throwing it all out to sea isn’t working out either so that leaves the only solution which is to stop importing the problem in the first place. yeah, people are going to say that this is not possible but I am sure that there are people in the Maldives who have living memories of a Maldives without plastic.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks for the kind wishes.

      I wonder how they handled the water issue in the Maldives back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, before disposable plastic water bottles were ubiquitous.

      1. The Rev Kev

        When the populations were smaller, I believe that it was a combination of rainfall and ground water, especially on larger islands. For any interested, the USGS did a report on this subject called “Ground Water on Tropical Pacific Islands—Understanding a Vital Resource”-


  4. Brooklin Bridge

    I got my NAUI certification (intermediate, I think) back in 66 or 67. Back then, the place we went to to fill up the tanks still wasn’t very fussy about checking your card, but that did change. A lot of fun, and the NAUI course taught us, among other things, not to panic by pushing us to the limit in several ways; gentle limits in real terms but they seemed hard enough at the time and they taught us that you have more reserves than you think as long as you don’t panic.

    A great sport but unless you’re really bitten it gets tiring to carry around all that equipment and check it all the time. Also, difficult to always have a “buddy” handy. Back then, there wasn’t as much scuba tourism, so renting equipment wasn’t always easy, but on the bright side, plastic litter was far less of a problem (though that changed very quickly because there were also far less regulations). We were still at the beginning of the water version of the great human mission; to destroy what ever it is that we love.

  5. Gregorio

    We had a neighbor killed by a tiger shark in Hawaii a couple of years ago, he was a great waterman and surfer, and was attacked just a few feet from a boat ramp. I don’t think I would want to get in the water with them without a cage.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Sorry to hear that.

      I’ve dived many times with sharks. Yet I understand that downed sailors once feared oceanic white tips – which I saw in the Red Sea – more than great whites. I’ve never felt frightened by sharks being nearby. They swim around and do their own thing and weren’t threatening.

      But I did exploit fear of sharks in my detective novel. One character freaks out when she’s trapped between two circling sharks. Another character rescues her. The point of the scene is to raise questions in the minds of readers: What’s this ace diver doing on this tourist diving safari? Turn the page to find out.

      And then sharks later fulfill the clean up function the Guardian mentioned, after an underwater explosion occurs on the Thistlegorm wreck in my book. That allows me to dispense with any CSI nonsense, which is the bane of anyone trying to write a classic locked room mystery set in the present.

    2. Bellatrix

      Yes, there are sharks and there are sharks. Give me white tips, black tips, silver tips, grey nurses and even hammerheads and I’ll swim towards them rather than away. But a tiger? No, I’m outta there!

  6. juliania

    I’m with you on backstroke, Jerri-Lynn. A childhood in New Zealand way back in the day made swimming lessons mandatory. I was proficient at freestyle, (face down breathing stroke, overarm, what we called it in those days), and the seas were cleaner — but oh, the joy of backstroke, suited my long arms. Backstroke was it!

    There was and still is I think, a gigantic pool along the eastern shore out of Auckland – sea water constantly replenished, the Parnell Baths. In high school, I would catch the bus down, cross the railroad tracks and swim a mile as it got dark, backstroke, contemplating the stars – 17 lengths it was. I never became a true competitor as I hated the racing turn. You had to be able to accomplish that; try as I did, it only disoriented me, so I did give up on that. But that exercise kept me in the running for local races, and I know it strengthened me for a long and happy life. Seventeen laps, five days a week in swimming season…heavenly!

    Thanks for this essay!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Having lived most of my life in the northern hemisphere, I love doing the backstroke in (mild) warm southern hemisphere waters at night. The constellations are so different! The Southern Cross pops right out.

Comments are closed.