It’s our first contact with water on a week of wild swimming in the Maldives and 14 of us have just disembarked from a wooden dhoni and are gliding along the edge of a reef in South Malé Atoll. The water is warm; the sun bounces off the coral beneath us. The distance is set at 2km and our eyes, behind tinted goggles, are trained downwards, on the schism of sea life you find at the edge of an atoll’s shelf. The shallow side is turquoise, a bright and busy world with clouds of fish: butterfly and banner fish, triggers and fusiliers. The deep side is navy: as the coral and giant clams drop off, the small tiddlers disappear, and we look hard for sharks and eagle rays. We don’t see them. Instead, a small turtle appears just below me, slow and otherworldly, an ancient remnant from a prehistoric world. It glides towards the reef’s rim, and falls, like a base jumper, into the depths. I hover above, watching, as it starts to paddle my way, along the ridge. So, together we swim: me on the surface, the turtle 10 or so metres beneath.
There are many magic moments ahead of us on this trip: the time we swim so close to a large pod of spinner dolphins that we hear their pips and squeaks underwater; when stingrays gather around our ankles in the sandy shallows like cats; the morning we dive at a shipwreck and through a tropical storm. But this is the first. The experience not only of seeing but, by swimming, of quietly being part of this secluded and ceaselessly surprising submarine society. The Maldives, of course, need little introduction as a destination. Most of us, at one point or another, have daydreamed about the sandy atolls of this remote part of the Indian Ocean: the warm water, the space, the stars overhead. But fly-and-flop holidays at five-star hotels are not for everyone. So, capitalising on the soaring interest in wild swimming worldwide, UK company SwimTrek started week-long sea swim tours here in 2017 – an entirely new way to explore one of the most alluring, unswum oceans in the world.
Aboard our home for the week, the trip starts with introductions at a long banquet table on the boat’s base deck. We’ve surrendered our shoes on arrival and won’t see them for a week. This is us now: barefoot and sticky with sun cream, in a mishmash of clothes. We sit swaying in the bob of the sea and the swirling breeze of four overhead fans during our first afternoon, introducing ourselves via our affinity to water.
We are, unsurprisingly, a cast of doers. Among us are five doctors, an artist, a therapist, entrepreneurs and academics. “Maximum Efficiency Hazel” (as she was dubbed at med school) is in her early thirties and is one of the youngest on the trip. She’s not that into swimming. But she and her boyfriend Chris (who has 15 Ironman triathlons to his name) chose this holiday so they “don’t lie on a beach”.
“In rash vests, shorts and swim leggings, we look like no other expedition on Earth”
Paul and his wife Jo, both doctors in palliative care and in their mid-fifties, are similar – they “don’t do sitting-down holidays”. Mike, a 42-year-old triathlete from Washington, is a flesh-and-blood action man; he’s “looking forward to no chlorine and really excited about free diving”. Molly, 55, from Virginia, wants to see a lionfish.
As we go around the boat, a few people in their 30 seconds of airtime, make the kind of specialist statements which foreshadow the swim-nerdery to come. “I’d like to work on my open-water butterfly,” says Kari, who’s 70. “Fresh water just doesn’t taste right,” says Paul, a dedicated sea swimmer.
We are, in the main, very ordinary swimmers – part of the new generation of enthusiasts whose numbers have swelled in the past decade, so that long-standing swim clubs from San Francisco to Singapore suddenly find themselves with waiting lists that are years long. Even so, swimmers like us don’t talk about our craft very often. We do now, though: with no non-swimmers among us, and stroke analysis from the guides on offer, we’re free to fill hours talking about cadence and the catch, and not muffle our genuine excitement at the idea of a “floating session” where we work out how our 5kg heads affect our body position. It never ceases to amaze me that small humans can cover such vast distances by the simple repetition of a swimming stroke. We’ll only clock up a few miles each day, but it gives us a rare opportunity to study how to do it more easily.
Fuelled by breakfasts of pancakes, fresh bananas and honey, and lunches and dinners of curries, seafood and carbs, days follow a predictable pattern. Swimming settles the mind – most outdoor swimmers will tell you that – and a SwimTrek routine settles it further. Faffing is one of four central daytime activities, the other three being eating, swimming and hanging out (which occurs during all of the above).
The boat is big, with break-out areas all round it, and handrails that soon flutter with multi-coloured costumes at different stages of drying, pinned on by giant faded clothes pegs.
We swim for about 5km a day, which in a pool would take most of us an hour and a half plus. Out here, with so much to look at and a group to chat to, it takes more like three to four in all. In the mornings, we do the long swim – 3–4km in theory (sometimes longer in practice as the currents make us drift). Come afternoon, it’s all about the “snorkelling” swim, where many of us add flippers and masks, and the pace is set by the fish.
During this long exposure we experience it all: boxfish, scorpionfish, lionfish. pufferfish, sweetlips, parrotfish, rays. We see clown triggerfish with large white spots on a black body and preposterous yellow lips. Rabbitfish that look like they have constellations of stars on their bodies. A unicorn fish doing a moderate charge. I spend a lot of time, as I watch the fish below, trying to work out who is ambushing whom. Shoals of butterfly fish show us all the ways that royal blue and yellow stripes can be arranged on a body: parallel, inverse, singular, front and back. Clownfish brush themselves against waving anemones. Humbug fish disappear into brain coral. Giant clams – their mouths big ripples of lavender blue – close up if you make a current over them. Lionfish do not live up to their name: timid, they retreat at the first sign of our gathering group. Eels wave their faces blindly out of their holes. Generally, they retreat, but one emerges from an opening under me and Paul, and swims beneath us, one and a half metres of blind, black moray eel, snaking along. It doesn’t hold the same magic as the swim over the turtle – or the one with a ray. But, even then, it’s amazing how quickly the unknown becomes known. What dazzles us on day one becomes routine by day six.
I swim a lot with Paul, and all of us share things that qualify as big excitements. We swim for a bit, then chat for a bit.
“I haven’t seen a turtle for days,” is actually heard, alongside: “Oh, dolphins, again?” The first time we saw dolphins, we nearly caused a tsunami.
On day three, we wake up next to the castaway island of Maldivian adverts: a white sandy atoll (one of 1,100 uninhabited islands) with nothing on it but some small scuttling crabs, terns, and – once we’ve dived off the boat and swum to it – us.
We wander its limited parameter in a state of awe at the oceanic expanse around us, and our good fortune to be here. This is not only a holiday, it is also an expedition of sorts, taking us out of the ordinary, via physical effort.
“It’s amazing that small humans can cover such vast differences by the simple repetition of a swimming stroke”
The swimming isn’t hard, but it’s not nothing either: we have to put in the hours, under the harsh sun. Most of us wear a lot of clothes as we swim – rash vests, shorts, swim leggings – and we look, to be honest, like no other expedition on Earth. But we celebrate all of it. I return home much fitter and thinner, but the point of it isn’t how our bodies look, or even just how they feel, but that they take us places. And, while swimming is the main thing, there’s opportunity for night fishing, scuba diving and an evening of wild dancing to local boduberu drums.
The last day comes all too quickly. The sea, when we wake, is like a millpond. As the sun comes up, swimmers are either dotted around the boat, reading on the back, curating their photos or studying dive guides to fish. Our kit flutters on the handrails, the now familiar kaleidoscope of swimwear streaked with white zinc from sun cream and salt. A few of us go up to the top to stretch and do yoga.
Conversation turns to where we are going next. The answer, it seems, is anywhere SwimTrek goes. The sunburnt noses, the tougher swims – you can endure anything on a trip like this and it never, ever, makes it a holiday you would swap. There’s talk of Baja California, the British Virgin Islands, the Philippines, Croatia. A few people are considering Oman. Paul wants to see the landscape of the Norwegian fjords.
For now, though, this bunch of aquatic adventurers has more fish to find. There are black-tipped reef sharks around here, the guides say, so it’s goggles on, and in we go.
Kate Rew was a guest of SwimTrek, the original pioneer of swimming holidays that offers adventure swimming expeditions worldwide.