string of pearls scattered over the deep blue Indian Ocean - The first
glimpse you get of this fascinating atoll- formation confirms two
unique aspects of the Republic of Maldives.
Not only does it consist of
the most beautiful tropical islands, but 99% of its 90.000 km˛ is
covered by the sea. 1190 islands are spread over 26 atolls, ring like
coral formations enclosing a lagoon, which gives the Maldives its
unique paradise-like appearance. They stretch for about 820 km from
North to South, 130 km at the widest point and do not exceed a length
of 4.5 miles or an altitude of 6 feet above sea level. No more than 200
islands are inhabited, the rest includes the 87 tourist resorts and
uninhabited islands, some of which are used for drying fish or other
agricultural activities. The capital Malé, the seat of government and
the centre of trade, commerce, business, health and education, is
located in the middle of the atoll chain, a small island buzzing with
the sounds and activities of about 75.000 people which is about one
third of the population.
The country stretches 823 km north to south and 130 km east to west. Out of the incredibly large number of islands only 200 islands are inhabited, with 88 islands adapted as exclusive resort islands. The sea forms over 99 percent of the Maldives. Only 0.331 percent, 298 km2 (115 square miles), of its 298 km2 (34, 750 square miles) is land.
Together with the Lakshadweep formerly called Laccadive Islands (formerly part of the Maldives, and now part of India) to the north and the Chagos Islands to the south, the Maldives form part of a vast submarine mountain range, on the crest of which coral reefs have grown. The Maldivian atolls are a classic example of its kind. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘atoll’ as "an adoption of the native name "atholhu" applied to the
Maldives Islands , which are typical examples of this structure". Each of these atolls is enclosed by a coral reef cut by several deep, natural channels and a lagoon. The reef structure, peculiar to the Maldives and consisting of a series of circular reefs in a lime, is known as ‘faru’. Strong currents, swinging round with the monsoon winds, flow among the atolls, though a journey between the atolls is often easy to navigate.
Most of the islands can be walked across in ten minutes; only a few are longer than two
kilometers. The longest, Hithadhoo in the Southernmost Addu Atoll is eight
kilometers (5-6 miles). Although most other islands are less than a mile long, one feels no sense of brevity as the merging of beaches, crystal waters, and crisp blue skies create an infinite vastness - a natural openness that is rare and a peacefulness that is always welcome.
The usual surface covering of the islands is a six inches deep layer of dark humus composed of a mixture of sand and organic matter accumulated from animal and vegetable matter through the millennia. Sand stone about 2 ft deep is found below, after which it changes to a layer of sand where fresh water can be obtained. Some islands where the natural water table is high, you may find several fresh water lakes The popular tropical look is finally completed by the green vegetation such as coconut trees towering above dense shrubs and flowering plants.
Rarely being more than six feet above sea level, the coral based islands are protected by atoll reefs. However, they are all susceptible to erosion, especially those lying comparatively close to the windward reefs. Indeed, in 1812 and again in 1955, devastating gales destroyed many northern islands. In 1964 the island in Alifu Atoll "Hagngnaameedhoo" was inundated by high waves, while the capital, Male', was flooded by a severe storm in 1987. If, as some scientists predict, the sea level continues to rise as a result of global warming, then Maldives, with its ancient and unique culture, may all be swept away within fifty years. As a precautionary step the government, with aid from Japan, has undertaken the biggest projects ever in the Maldives - the building of a breakwater on Male's southern reef. With the help of artificial measures, such as the new artificial breakwater and the natural coral reefs the islands have started to enjoy more protection from natural calamities than they have ever done before.
atolls of the Maldives are formed from coral structures, separated by
lagoons. The atolls are in fact part of a greater structure known as
the Laccadives-Chagos Ridge, which stretches over 2000 kilometers. The
islands are low lying with the highest point at approximately 8 feet
above sea level. 'Faru' or ring-shaped reef structures form the atolls
and these reefs provide natural defense against wind and wave action,
on these delicate islands.