The Island Communities of South Ari atoll MPA
Map = ©Google Earth
Location: Longitude 72.92’41’’ E, Latitude 3.52’69’’ N
Area: Vegetation Line 45.2 Hectares
Population (2006 census): 420
Dhigurah is a long, narrow, atoll rim island that follows a rough SW to NE orientation. A huge lagoon can be found protecting the west side of the island, which is one of the more reliable places to see manta rays in this area, particularly in the south west monsoon.
Only about one third of the island is inhabited, at the northern end, which is also where the harbour can be found. The rest of the island is covered in mature foliage and numerous vegetable plantations, with a huge football and volleyball pitch marking the border between the village and the forest. The wonderful village has a very pleasant air to it, with the residential area toward the north of the characterful main street, which bisects the island on an east to west access. On this street can be found numerous tourist shops and general stores, as well and the only café on the island – home to what must be a contender for the best cooked ‘short eats’ selection in Ari atoll! To the south of the main street can be found the island’s excellent school, which teaches the Cambridge education system up to O-Level. Thoroughly modern, with a large computer lab and library, the children benefit from exceptionally motivated teaching staff, and the
ambitious thrust of the charismatic head teacher.
Generations ago, Dhigurah made its name and wealth from hunting whale sharks. The deep waters on the islands eastern shore are part of a reef complex which is home to the only known population of whale sharks which inhabit one region all year round. The sharks were hunted purely for utilitarian reasons, as their liver oil was used to protect the wooden hulls of the local fishing boats from fouling and parasites which would damage the wood. As soon as synthetic versions of this coating became physically and financially available, the hunting was stopped. To hear and see the incredible story of how the sharks were captured, click here.
Nowadays, Dhigurah is embracing tourism, hosting numerous excursions from nearby resort islands, whose guests are keen to see a sliver of the local life of the Maldivian people. Tourists may soon be able to stay on Dhigurah too, as a recent change to the legal system now allows paying guests to stay on local islands, something that some members of the Dhigurah community have encouraged with the construction of the islands first guest house being under way (as of June 2011). Any guest staying on the island will certainly have a most memorable trip, with the warm hospitality of the community, access to a great manta ray snorkel site in the islands western lagoon, easy access to whale sharks on the eastern reef and a top class dive site literally at the harbour entrance!
Map = ©Google Earth
Location: Longitude 72.87’95’’ E, Latitude 3.48’49’’ N
Area: Vegetation Line 17.5 Hectares
Population (2006 census): 116
The island of Dhidhdhoo is, by size and population, the smallest of the islands which border the South Ari MPA. Like Dhigurah, it has a long and slender shape, with about half of the island being inhabited, focussed mainly around the centre of the island. The very well protected harbour is found on the northwest edge of the island, and is accessed by a narrow zigzagged channel which requires excellent local knowledge to navigate in all but the calmest conditions.
The island has a wonderfully quiet feel, with a few shops to cater for the local population and one or two geared toward the occasional tourist who visits the island. A fantastic open sided gazebo near the harbour entrance is a great place to relax out of the sun, while being further cooled in the breeze. Further in land, anyone interested in Maldivian marine life will be stunned by the inhabitants of a large salt water pond, supplied with clean sea water by a pipe system from the nearby reef. It is home to a wide variety of local lagoon inhabitants, but also includes rarities such as torpedo rays.
The volleyball team of Dhidhdhoo is widely regarded as the best in the atoll, despite the small number of people from which its members can be drawn. One of the factors in the dominance of this team is the height of the players, who are in general a little taller than the people of the surrounding islands. It is known that several centuries ago, a French sailor was shipwrecked in the area and ended up on Dhidhdhoo. Not many records can be found on him, but legend has it that he was a tall man, who integrated into the community and had several children. The descendants of these children carried the tall gene and today, many generations down the line, this explains the height of some Dhidhdhoo people.
Dhidhdhoo island is also the birthplace of one of the Maldives most famous sons, Mr.Qasim Ibrahim. A renowned businessman, he is the founder and chairman of Villa Group – the largest company in the Maldives. He has since become the country’s wealthiest man and leader of one of the main political parties, the Republican Party.
Map = ©Google Earth
Location: Longitude 72.83’69’’ E, Latitude 3.47’66’’ N
Area: Vegetation Line 70 Hectares plus 73.8 Hectares of reclaimed land
Population (2006 census): 1671
Maamigili is the largest and most populous of the islands which border the South Ari MPA. Unlike all the other islands in this chain, it is naturally round in shape, owing to its position on one of the edge of one of the widest channels in the MPA.
The main area of habitation is toward the eastern half of the island. A deep water access harbour leads toward the enormous main street, which runs east to west straight through the heart of the island. This busy street is full of different kinds of shops at first, with the tourist souvenir shops dominating the eastern end. Toward the western end of the street is a small mosque, the medical centre, the huge and very impressive school and the island council offices. There is a real feel of growth and development on this island, and in many ways it feels more like Male or an atoll capital island than the traditional quiet village that is seen nearby.
Adding to this sense of progress is the impossible to miss development of a huge new deep water harbour and airport complex. The traditional harbour has been expanded by several times its original size, and is now capable of accommodating 20 metre plus liveaboard vessels.
On the southern edge of the island, the huge lagoon has been reclaimed, adding an area of over 73 hectares to the original island. This was done to construct the first airport in Ari atoll, with a plan to link into the network of larger capacity terrestrial landing planes, which are capable of reaching all parts of the country. The airport will also have a pilot training school. Progress on the construction of the airport is gathering pace, with regular flights being scheduled to begin by 2013. This development is being funded by Mr. Qasim, the founder and chairman of Villa Group, and will doubtless offer Maamigili excellent opportunities for growth when it is completed.
Map = ©Google Earth
Location: Longitude 72.78’29’’ E, Latitude 3.48’92’’ N
Area: Vegetation Line 18.6 Hectares
Population (2006 census): 560
Tucked away discretely in the south west corner of Ari Atoll, Fenfushi is a moderate sized teardrop of sand and the westernmost inhabited island in the MPA. Although it looks like a non-descript local island, Fenfushi is actually an island of huge historical importance, which nearly held a World Heritage Site status.
The main harbour of Fenfushi is on its north shore, with the village taking up most of the island except for the furthest west reaches. The main street is toward the centre of the island and runs parallel to the harbour. In the past, this street had numerous shops geared toward the tourists who visit the island, though this trade has quietened somewhat in recent years and now most of the shops are local general stores. An enormous football field takes up a large swathe of ground on the southern edge of the village.
Abutting the village and this football field is one of the most incredible early Islamic temples in the Maldives, the ‘Fenfushi Miskiiy’, which is thought to date from the late 1600’s. This makes it about the same age as world renowned sites such as India’s Taj Mahal and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in England. It is only slightly more recent, but very similar in design to the famous ‘Hukuru Miskiiy’ or Friday Mosque to which tourists flock in the centre of Malè. The mosque is constructed of coral blocks, on an enormous – and now hidden – foundation, which is probably the secret to its long survival on the shifting sands of the island. Each block is exquisitely carved in various mosaics by skilled craftsmen, something which Fenfushi held renown for in early days too. Inside, the wooden supports and beams of the roof are carefully pared, then covered in intricate lacquer patterns of the traditional black and red – so that the whole resembles a huge collection of the lacquerware containers that the Maldives is famous for. Just outside there are two large and dramatic graves said to belong to the builders of the mosque, who in turn were part of the royal family, as an early Sultan took a young Fenfushi wife at around this period. This site is so incredible, that in 1988 it was considered as a World Heritage site, though unfortunately this status was never achieved.
Incredibly, this ‘Miskiiy’ is not the oldest relic on Fenfushi. Right next to this mosque are the excavated remains of a Buddhist stone bath (see picture). Buddhism predates the introduction of Islam in the Maldives, which began in 1153AD. So almost inconceivably, this would make this site, on a sand island just 1050 x 330 metres long, older than places such as Ankor Wat in Cambodia or Thailand’s Ayutthaya!
The bath itself is constructed of coral blocks, which are engraved with Buddhist deities near the bottom. It is now partially flooded and contains some of the very few free living fresh water fish in the Maldives. The site is recorded in the book by archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl (of the famous Kon Tiki Expedition fame) titled ‘The Maldive Mystery’. Whilst this site is visited as part of some nearby islands excursion program, and by the occasional liveaboard vessel, this island and its relics deserves to be much better known to the outside world.