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Asian Geographic

Michael Aw



This dream began with a photographic sojourn to the Maldives in August of 1996, staying at Kuda Huraa Reef Resort which was at that time still in it's final phase of construction. It was also the opportunity to reunite with our long lost friends, Catherine and Raymond, both denizens of the Maldives. Good friends, sunny equatorial skies, azure blue seas filled with millions of fishes and colourful corals were the elements which conjured up ideas and dreams to celebrate the beauty of the Maldivian sea. After months of planning, chasing up sponsors and budget meetings, we started shooting 'Dreams from a Rainbow Sea - Maldives` in February of 1997, using Kuda Huraa as our diving base. On March 12, together with friends, we embarked on a diving safari, journeying from Male across to Rashdoo, Ari Atoll then back to, Felidhoo, South and North Male atolls onboard the Barutheela, a replica of an 18th century galleon. For the entire expedition we were blessed with mirror calm seas and spoilt with sightings of hammerhead sharks, pilot whales, spinner dolphins and orcas - plus the chance to swim with mantas, tunas, turtles and even whale sharks as we explored the never ending rainbow-coloured reefs and rode swift channels with names such as Embudhoo Express. Our adventures were beyond the ordinary ; we found the diversity of life to be extravagant, density far exceeding the ordinary; the Maldives is the fish pond of the Indian Ocean. With an intensity unfelt since our adolescent years, we fought to absorb each myriad of impressions that thrilled our senses. Immense has never been so big nor numbers so uncountable, colours never so vivid and so rich.

We have found the end of the rainbow. The atolls of Maldives are the Mecca for underwater explorers.

Our experiences were the stories divers' dreams are made of.

Read the Memoir

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 "Dreams of the Rainbow Sea - Maldives"
After a whirlwind visit to the Maldives in 1996, Michael AW,completed 'Dreams from a Rainbow Sea - Maldives', a "Gift of State" quality pictorial almanac to celebrate the underwater heritage of the 'Nation of Islands'. The book has the endorsement of the Maldives Government and the Hon. Maumoon Abdul Gayoon, President of the Republic of Maldives is providing the foreword.

Using eight camera systems for both aerial and underwater, this work of art will show nature's intricate network of life from beneath abyssal chambers to stunning fisheye imagery of Indian ocean. The underlying intention of this project is to produce an everlasting record, which will show the richness of the Maldives' marine environment, the intricacies and fragilities of everyday life beneath the sea, an underwater heritage worth preserving for the world to enjoy and for children of the next century. Employing state of the art photography, imaging and print production techniques, the almanac is to produced to stringent archival quality standard. Dreams from the Rainbow Sea - Maldives shall be the yardstick for all future book of the sea. 'Dreams from a Rainbow Sea' is the first book of the Maldives to be published to contain four languages in one edition - English, German, Italian and Japanese. The book is presented in coffee-table format, 160 pages, 11.5 " x 11.5 ", cardboard cover and jacket with six colour production process. The Limited Edition is boxed in a high-quality presentation case.






Memoirs from a Rainbow Sea

Story and photographs by Michael Aw

I let the ocean current careen me gently downstream along a wall covered in entirety with rainbow coloured soft corals. As the rock rises, I dropped to the edge of the submerged reef called Okobe Thila. My dive computer tells me that I have spent 80 minutes at 18m, but by breathing oxygen enriched air, nitrogen saturation time is still 30 mins away. I checked my camera, only one frame left.. This was my last shot for the expedition, the last picture for a new coffee table book of the Maldives. With one click of the shutter, the expedition will end, we will bid farewell to Barutheela, the galleon and I would be going home to write and edit images of the many memorable moments I would dream to relive again.

The adventure had begun five weeks before, with two tickets flying Malaysia Airlines - our passage to Hulhule, the international airport island of the Maldives. This chain of 26 atolls lying 400 nautical miles south-west of the southern tip of India comprises of 1190 islands, none of which rise more than 3m above sea level. This is a country of infinite horizons - of open sky that is canopy to one of underwater explorersí greatest fantasies. From far above the earth, the Maldives is like emerald necklaces afloat on a dark blue ocean, each embracing itís own cluster of islands with turquoise lagoons and sand cays adorned with waving palms, bordered with glistening white beaches.

Previously it has taken me eight trips over two years and an accumulation of thousands of hours underwater to produce a premium quality book. Normally, I would have the luxury of time to review images and perfect composition, often essential when working with marine animals. This time unexplained spirits restricted us to just one expedition to shoot for this Gift of State pictorial almanac. For the first three weeks, as we photographed the reefs of North Male Atoll, we were privileged to use Kuda Huraa as base; an island resort that is anything but ordinary, the opulence befits the rich but unobtrusively amalgamates in perfect harmony with peace, ease, sun and sea.

However the richness of the Maldives is really not seen above the waves. Not far from Kuda Huraa are four outstanding submerged reefs - Okobe Thila, Nassimo Thila, Banana and HP reefs. These are the rainbow reefs of the Maldives. Lush, exuberant soft corals of every conceivable colour explodes like fireworks of paint to cover these coral formations. Between the tides, enormous flows of water oozes through the atoll making diving a high pressure experience, moving through curtains of silvery trevally, surgeon fish, Napoleon wrasse and barracudas spiraling the blue realm. Lurking amidst these reef corridors of wall to wall iridescent soft corals are thousands of Blue-striped snapper, red coral groupers, giant cods, sharks and scorpionfish. Looking skyward, eagle rays soar majestically on a mission, undeterred by swift moving water.

Day after day, I returned to these sites, each time excitement expanding my consciousness, enthralled by its abundance and beauty, each experience more overwhelming than the last. I visualized the Van Goughs and Monets of the ocean going momentarily berserk when they were here last. Van Gough declared that he was the better artist, Monet launched the first pot of paint at such an outrageous claim. Hurling tubes of underwater colours at each other, brushes of varying sizes loaded with mixtures of every conceivable tinge were splashed at random causing glorious impressions of red, lavender, green, orange, blue, purple and yellow to be perpetually blended onto the 'canvases' of the reef.

On the fourth week, friends joined us on board the MSS Barutheela, a 25m replica of a 17th century European galleon with 200 m2 of rust-red sail. Navigating through the atolls onboard this wooden vessel is like sailing back in time to the age of discovery, on a voyage to explore beneath the most enchanting isles of the Indian Ocean, once called by Marco Polo as the Flower of the Indies. The archaic appearance of the galleon was deceiving; the notion of traveling in an ancient vessel is mitigated with luxuriously furnished air-conditioned cabins with private amenities, high ceilings, a fully serviced bar and exquisite cooking by Austrian chef extraordinaire , Andreas. We indulged.

Mushimasmingili, Kudahhoo Etheru Faru, Maamigili, Fotteyo, Devana Kandu, Kudaraa Thila and Lhosfushi are among the many submerged reefs and channels we visited sailing through the atolls of Rashdhoo, Ari, Felidhoo, South and North Male. The names themselves are exotic and mythical. They arouse excitement. They fulfilled promises and dreams beyond imagination. Spirits moved the sea to be on our side; for the entire journey the sea remained mirror flat, visibility dissolving into the infinite blue, our time underwater restricted only by our nitrogen clock.

I first read of Kudaraa Thila in Dive International, the premier British sport diving magazine. The author wrote - if this dive doesnít impress you, itís time to take up another sport!. These words stirred a challenge - experienced divers are a tough lot to please. I was the first to push off the boat, descending to the top of the sea mountain or thila to wait for Alison, Catherine and Raymond with my other camera systems. Three groups of fifty or so Batfish (Platax teira) swam past, fluttering like butterflies in the blue, I picked up speed to follow them down to a plateau where we were met with a school of swirling Faint-bar barracudas. Beneath me, the canyon bottomed into the shape of a saddle. Shadows of half a dozen reef sharks patrolled the channel, with layers of red gorgonian fans spilling out of huge overhangs. Hugh volumes of water rush through the three rocks of this thila, the flow of nutrients making the reef rich with endless outcrops of luscious soft marshmallow coral. Clouds of Blue-lined yellow snappers and Oriental sweetlips, in thousands swarm the reef. Big-eyed squirrelfish stare out from beneath coral ledges and caverns, waiting for night fall, their turn to take centre stage in the canyon where the axiom of survival is played out each night. Pairs of blue and yellow Regal and Emperor fish, swim blithsomely among an incredible pantheon of life as we continue to swim through the rainbow reef to find a Hawksbill turtle standing on his head while chomping off pieces of coral, oblivious to the flashes of my twin Ikelite 200 strobes. We were impressed, we stayed for three more dives.

Yassir, our divemaster heard rumour of mother & calf whale sharks recently sighted off the outer reef of Maamigili, the south-west end of Ari Atoll. As all sharks are not known to be maternal, I was hopeful, but I didnít hold my breath. As I have said many time before, interaction with these leviathans of the sea is at the choice of the animal, not ours.. It was near to the end of the dive, with only five frames in one of my camera setups remaining, when we turned to see a nine meter whale shark casually swim past. My wife Alison and I followed as fast and as long as we could to catch this encounter on film. After 15 minutes, we were left in her wake. We swam back to the dhoni, our diving tender boat, to find an exhilarated bunch of divers who had been snorkelling with a five metre juvenile male.

By the 7th day of the safari, our dive log was already impressive, sightings of whale sharks and dolphins, Hawksbill turtles, uncountable numbers of Napoleon wrasse, moray eels, barracudas, Dog-tooth tunas, mantas, eagle rays, reef sharks, even the bigger predators like Hammerhead, Gray and Silvertip sharks. We found the diversity of life to be extravagant, density far exceeding the ordinary; the Maldives is the fish pond of the Indian Ocean. With an intensity unfelt since our adolescent years, we fought to absorb each myriad of impressions that thrilled our senses. Immense has never been so big nor numbers so uncountable, colours never so vivid and so rich. We have found the end of the rainbow in the sea.

Nothing that nature has to offer could be more serene than the first morning light emerging from the distant horizon to bath on shimmering, glassy, dark water. Almost impalpable to the eye, the orange sun rises with a luminary glow melting the dark indigo sky into a yellow blaze. One morning, the sun heralded a transient pod of Orcinus orcas, Killer whales, an unheard of sighting in the Maldives according to the Maldivian crew. Commotion ensued onboard the ship, bodies and cameras flew between bow and stern, hoping the get a fleeting glimpse of these graceful predators of the ocean. The Orcas hung around for a while - some cynical soul swore they were not Killer whales Ö I have the picture of mother and calf to prove him wrong.

Nearing the final days of the expedition, Captain John sailed the Barutheela back to North Male atoll, our last chance to dive the rainbow reefs of Nassimo, Okobe and HP reef; a befitting finale and fanfare for the glorious trip. It was also my last chance to recover a Nexus camera housing with twin Ikelite 200 strobes set up, that mysteriously vanished on the 3rd week. I placed it along with a marker on the reef flat Ö there were no currents, no other divers around. Some very big fish must have decided to take up photography.

Leaning forward, I caught sight of a familiar face, large fleshy cheeks and big bulbous- eyes in a small hole. A bright orange blenny. I had not photographed a blenny for the entire trip. Anyone who knows me knows that they are my all time favorite subject. I often spend hours shooting just one fish. I felt a sense of guilt that bigger pelagics had lead me astray from these little cute fellows. Those who know blennies would testify that their intelligence is often superior to that of the photographer trying to capture their funny face. The blenny appears to have an aptitude to pre- empt oneís every move, confounding the camera with an artful routine of disappearing acts, only to emerge finally, with a broad grin, when your human underwater time is speeding toward the danger zone and you have spent all your film and energy swimming around in circles. Often a photographer has to fire off an entire roll just to capture one clear shot of this roguish imp. With ONE frame left, I hated my chances. I held my breath, and gently pressed the shutter. The curtain fell.