KG Hjalmarsson – sharkman of the Maldives

Suddenly, there it was.

A shark swam out of the deep blue ocean, heading straight towards me.

It came to within a couple of meters, staring straight into my eyes, then veered away, passing between me and a diving companion. It circled, moving with those languid, powerful strokes, occasionally snapping its head to one side, as if at prey.

We stayed in our spot, rotating slowly in the water, watching the whitetipped reef shark watching us, with its sleek grey body, so aquiline: perfectly engineered for speed and strength, the ocean’s ultimate predator. Then it circled once more and left, cruising back into the big blue.

This was just one of the multiple highlights of a week spent diving in the Maldives – the world’s most abundant home of ‘friendly’ sharks. There have been no reports of shark attack since 1987, when a local, out snorkelling for lobster, found a nurse shark and tied its tail in a lasso, receiving a nip on his thigh in return.

It is a curious and wonderful quirk of nature. There are hundreds (maybe thousands) of grey reef sharks in the Maldives, none of them dangerous. Yet in the Pacific, the same species is known to attack humans. Here, there are whitetips, greys, nurse sharks, leopard sharks, hammerheads and whale sharks, probably the most diverse shark population in the world.

K-G Hjalmarsson, the Swedish-born divemaster who has made shark diving his life’s work and passion, is the most experienced and knowledgeable figure in Maldives diving. Resident here since 1990, he now heads a company with a series of cruise boats taking divers on marine safaris to the most remote and untouched regions of the atoll republic, showing them sites which are far beyond their experience or expectations.

In just five days diving, we saw upwards of a dozen green turtles, seven or eight eagle rays, a couple of giant moray eels, dolphins, massive tuna, grand old Napoleon wrasses, stingrays, scorpion fish, thousands of tiny multicoloured fish and – of course – many varieties of shark. These were the main event. Whereas K-G will point out a turtle or a Napoleon wrasse with a pleased grin and a gentle flap of his hand, or an eagle ray with a more excited jab of his fingers, the water really sizzles when a nice big whitetip comes into view, or even better, a leopard shark sleeping idly on the sandy seabed. One time, he actually punched the water and let out a whoop, like a football fan celebrating a goal. His passion is infectious.

While many of us have been conditioned to fear sharks, thanks to the ludicrously implausible fantasies of Steven Spielberg and his 1975 thriller Jaws, they really are the most graceful of creatures, tremendously poised and sentient, very easy in their taut, muscular skin. So before long, diving with K-G becomes a voyage into the shark’s domain, where we are tolerated guests, objects of curiosity to the ocean’s keepers, but neither a threat nor a source of protein (thank goodness). For the Maldives, sharks are a source of income in two very different ways.

For centuries, fishing communities have caught sharks for their meat, fins and (more recently) teeth and jaws, which sell in souvenir shops to tourists. More recently still, shark diving has become a popular fixture in the scuba world, as the islands’ fame has spread. Tourism only began here in 1972, when a group of Italian divers came here. There are now almost 100 Maldivian resorts, each on its own island, spread throughout the country’s twenty or so atolls – formed many centuries ago by volcanoes which sank into the Indian ocean, leaving behind these rings of islands.

Sharks are attracted to the coral reef by millions of fish, which feed from plankton washing through the gaps between the islands. K-G has dived more than 6,000 times all around the Maldives and found that the Huvadhoo Atoll, close to the southern tip of the country, has the best shark diving, along with the best coral and the least tourists. There are in fact no tourists at all on Huvadhoo, only local fishing villages and many uninhabited islands (only 200 of the country’s 1,199 islands are inhabited). Huvadhoo is also the largest coral atoll in the world, and the deepest – at around 90 meters – which may account for its stunning coral life. While high water temperatures killed off, or ‘bleached’, much of the Maldives’ coral life in 1998, Huvadhoo has remained almost untouched, by some miracle.

Marine biologist Bill Allison thinks it may be swifter water currents, the greater depth of coral life, or quicker regrowth than elsewhere. But on this trip he saw table corals four or five meters across, which he reckons are 25 or 30 years old. “It’s by far the best coral I’ve ever seen in the Maldives. In fact it’s about the best I’ve ever seen,” says the veteran of research expeditions to coral reefs in the Caribbean, Indonesia and the east coast of Africa.

Whatever the reason, the profusion of coral life adds immeasurably to the diving experience. Drawn along by the currents which flow between the islands, you float past vast towers, brilliant yellow ferns, velvet covered antlers, chocolate toadstools the size of a car, vivid purple clams, pale blue alpine flowers, russet caves and forested valleys. Sometimes you can soar and dive as though you’re flying, down into a mossy dell or up the coral face, where a turtle may see you and lift off, like a slow-motion cliff-bird.

While showing you all these (and more) pleasures, K-G is acutely aware of the fragile nature of this paradise. Over-fishing, rampant resort development, pollution and dredging all threaten the environment which has is so dear to him. It is a difficult issue: local fishermen have caught and sold sharks for generations, so why shouldn’t they?

Marine experts believe that a live shark is worth more than 100 times more to the Maldivian government in taxes from tourists than it is to the fishermen, sold to the fish market. So jobs as boatmen, dive guides or cooks, paying better than fishing, are among the incentives to stop fishing. But the fishing communities on Huvadhoo do not yet see this money reaching them, so they continue to catch dozens of sharks each months, selling the fins to restaurants in Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong. ‘Finning’ has meant rapid and possibly terminal declines in shark numbers worldwide; wildlife campaigners estimate that 90 per cent of the US shark population has disappeared in the past 15 years, with an estimated 8,000 tonnes of shark fin transported to restaurants around the world. So there is an ecological argument for preserving sharks, quite apart from their value to tourism.

Already, the Maldivian government has outlawed shark fishing in some tourist atolls and completely banned fishing for whale sharks, the largest of all fish. K-G is now lobbying the government to set up a nature reserve in Huvadhoo to protect this unique and delicate environment from future incursions, whether touristic or industrial. “I’d like to see the shark fishing ban extended as much as possible,” says K-G. “They have already created some protected areas, but these are just popular dive sites, the decision wasn’t taken scientifically. I think the government has to strike a balance between fishing and tourism: if locals can earn money from shark diving, that might be the moment to ban shark fishing.”

From his hundreds of dives on Huvadhoo, K-G reckons the atoll has more leopard and grey reef sharks than anywhere else in the Maldives. He has also seen a tiger shark here, which is virtually unknown. Again, this species has been aggressive to people in other locations. Meanwhile, he and Bill Allison are collecting information for a proposal to create a protected area.

Coral life is also important to tourists, though it has a different emotional appeal to shark diving. At its best, it really blows your head off. We dived one morning in a place called Kode Kandu, on the east side of the atoll. After coming in from ‘big blue’, we entered a vast, steep-sided valley, with peaks, spires, towers and lost worlds stretching way above us. Just awesome.

Then, that night, we dived again, first using torches, but then finding a sandy slope, we knelt, turned the torches off and swam back along the reef, flicking phosphorescence from our fingers like raindrops, watching it spark on our fins and masks. A two-thirds moon swam above us and cast its watery gleam on our heads; fish darted this way and that, coral tables loomed and passed beneath us. It felt as though we were surrendering to the night and the sea, being so close to its dark, benign heart and making so little footprint on its fragility. Just the ripple of our passing and the luminescent air in large, small small, large globes ascending like glass prayers from our open mouths, hands together, knees bent, carried on invisible wings across the deep and silent ocean.

K-G is a funny and tremendously amiable man. Born in the small town of Trollhättan in southern Sweden, he trained as an electrician but developed a passion for scuba diving, thanks to beach holidays and Jacques Cousteau on the TV. When he visited the Maldives in 1987: “I loved the small, beautiful islands where you can have privacy; nothing is overcrowded; I love the peacefulness of the country.” And it’s true: anyone visiting the country is struck by its amazing tranquillity and calm. As one local said to me: “Maldives is best place in world, no guns, everything nice. No snow, no cyclone, maximum wind is 75 kilometres.” Maybe the sharks get the vibe too.  The more time I spent diving with K-G, the more I could understand his devotion to these animals. And when I see pictures of shark fins lying on a boat deck, or finned sharks dying on the sea floor, it’s an awful sight, really barbaric.

With luck, shark fins will one day be treated like ivory is now, as a shameful thing to harvest or to buy. For K-G, the experience of shark diving still has the power to thrill. “You see straight away that it’s a different fish,” he says. “Ever since you’re a small kid you know about sharks. It’s like the wolf or the tiger, it’s a predator, it has a mystique and danger which you feel in your backbone. “But I no longer have the fear I used to have. Even when I saw the tiger shark, it was just a happy feeling. When you’re approached by a large shark, especially in out in the ocean, it’s not fear, it’s just that you’re not number one in the water any more.”

David Nicholson stayed on the Sultan of the Seas safari boat. Contact www.sultansoftheseas.com. Here is a selection of the best shark diving locations around the world: Cocos Islands Fly to San Jose in Costa Rica and take a bus to Puntarenas, then a boat called the Undersea Hunter to the Cocos Islands, where hammerhead sharks congregate by the dozen. Contact: www.underseahunter.com. St John’s Reef Fly to Hurghada or Marsa Alam in Egypt and take a dive boat out to St John’s Reef in the Red Sea, where hammerheads and reef sharks circle around large coral undersea mountains. Contact www.touregypt.net. Roatan Part of Honduras, in the western Caribbean, Roatan is an idyllic island packed with great dive sites. Whale sharks are commonly seen here, along with eagle rays, on the world’s second largest coral reef. Contact www.roatanonline.com. Great barrier reef Last but not least, the best known of all dive sites, on Australia’s Queensland coast, thronging with all kinds of fish, coral and shark, some of them potentially deadly. Contact www.gbrmpa.gov.au.