Thoddoo – the Agricultural Isle

Thoddoo is a large island by Maldivian standards. At 390 acres, it’s also one of the Maldives largest agricultural centers. If lazy jaunts on a bicycle or quiet days on protected beaches appeal to you, this might be your ideal location.

Regal angelfish – shy but stunning

The island is crisscrossed with sand roads which lead to everywhere, and no where. It’s all one big circle anyway so it doesn’t much matter in which direction you head. A sand road rings the island and the loop can be done in 15-30 minutes by bicycle. A portion of that loop will be “in town”. The rest is bracketed between beach and agricultural areas.

As is traditional in Asia, the agricultural areas are a large group of fields which are obviously divided in some way, but there is no barn or hard fencing or indication of who owns what. Everybody seems to know which field is theirs and no one seems to care that their field is right in the middle of a dozen other fields just like it.

Offshore options?

Unlike many other islands in the Maldives, Thoddoo does not have many nearby submerged reefs to go exploring on a day trip. By speed boat, the nearest reef is off of Rasdhoo, an island 12km to the south. That’s not super far away, but it’s far enough that there aren’t many day trips going there (the logic being, if you want to snorkel Rasdhoo, go stay on Rasdhoo).

But one big advantage Thoddoo has over some other islands is that there is a very large shallow reef zone which is well protected by the emergent fringing reef.

The terrafirma on Thoddoo is not the only productive biome

How about the snorkeling?

From a snorkelers point of view, while the island is a nice place to take long leisurely walks or rides on a bicycle, it’s also a fantastic place to get in the water. Why? Three reasons:

  1. the fringing reef on Thoddoo is exposed at medium tide and
  2. the reef is hundreds of yards from the beach
  3. the result is a opulently massive swimming-pool-like area to play in!

Are there other islands in the Maldives with similar conditions? Absolutely. So while the huge swimming-pool-like area might not be the deciding factor, add the abundance of vegetables (more on that later) and the long bicycle-able pathways… and Thoddoo is definitely a contender in the Maldives-on-a-budget travel category.

Vegetarian means ‘no beef or chicken’, no?”

If you are a vegetarian or travel with a vegetarian, you may have come across such misunderstandings. I remember the scene in Japan… the small restaurant owner approaches after a consultation with the waiter and says “well, you can eat fish, can’t you?”

Such memories have me wondering what vegetarians must feel like in the Maldives. Personally, I love vegetables. I love pretty much everything else healthy too, but I’ve been scratching my head at how few vegetables there are in the Maldivian diet.

Granted, historically the Maldivian people have been living on islands so small that there was barely any room for a vegetable garden. And with a stupendous abundance of fish and coconut, green veg just wasn’t on the menu.

Thoddoo – a place for Vegetarians?

Well, not quite. But if you are a vegetarian on a budget, in the Maldives, Thoddoo might be the place for you. That is not because there are vegetarian restaurants catering to your type of cuisine! Quite to the contrary, there are very few vegetarian dishes at local restaurants, even those managed by Europeans.

So what am I talking about? Quite simply, the island grows a lot of veg. And you can go to a local mini-mart type grocery store and just ask. “Can you get me a kilo of string beans please?”. You might also try heading to the farming area in the early morning and seeing if you can score some veg direct from the farmer.

I’m gonna step out and say that’s the best vegetarian deal in the Maldives.

Sure, there are resorts which will have vegetarian food (you should probably ask them before booking). But suffice it to say that the local fare is based on fish and coconuts (which is historically what they had to eat, so no surprise there). And even in a dish listed on the menu as “Chicken with mushrooms and vegetables”.. expect to break out your magnifying glass to find any vegetables!

One of the many coral sand roads on Thoddoo

So if you’re going the budget route, and you are serious about your veg, then I think Thoddoo might be your cup of tea. Important note: you’ll want to stay in a guest house which allows you access to a kitchen. Buy your own veg, cook your own veg. And at prices which are a quarter of veg prices in the west, you’ll be singing Thoddoo’s praises.

Ok, enough about the veg scene! Let’s get to the water!

The fringing reef at the drop off

The fringing reef on Thoddoo is relatively healthy and very long (about 6 km). Like many fringing reefs in the Maldives, it is far from the beach and is fronted by a large fore-reef area.

Shh! There’s excellent shallow water snorkeling here… but don’t let it get around!

The reef itself starts at about 3m of depth and can be easily located by the color of the water. The shallow fore-reef is a gorgeous aqua, while the fringing reef starts where the dark blue water starts.

The main reef drops from 3m down to as deep as you want to go. For snorkeling, it’s not as steep of a drop as some other islands, but neither is it a gradual drop. The best corals and under-sea life happens in the 4-8m zone. That is where the most light penetrates, and also where the reef is bathed in cooler waters from deeper in the ocean… not to mention the plethora of food particles which seem to drift toward the hungry mouths of the drop-off’s residents.

Reef residents in that area include large gatherings of reef fish, bait fish, predatory fish, sea turtles, tridacna clams, stony corals, anemones, and other uncounted hordes of invertebrates.

The diversity of fish found on Thoddoo is more that I’ve seen on other islands. Fun for underwater photography lovers. I wouldn’t say the fish are “unafraid”, but if you snorkel slowly (or better yet, just drift) then they won’t pay much attention to your presence. As elsewhere, the fish are all fat, happy and free.

To reef or not to reef, that is the question

While the reef at the drop off is nice, as with other seaward reefs, it is subject to waves and swells that may be slamming even if the weather has been calm for days. Does that mean the day’s snorkeling activities are kaput? Not by a long shot.

Surprisingly enough, the massive (and by massive I mean over 560 acre) fore-reef has a ton of stuff to see. Large corals? Check. Invertebrates? Check. Sea turtles? A very big check!

Corals and fish and reef? 15 meters from the beach? Check!

Most fore reefs are a wash with silt or sand particles. Those are stirred up by swells coming from distant locations or waves coming from a nearby downpour. And for beaches not protected by an emergent reef (like on Ukulhas), the fore reef is just an area you have to swim through on your way to a decent place to snorkel.

Not on Thoddoo. The fore reef is more like a lagoon. It’s shallow and the corals have no doubt been damaged by high sea temps in the past. But it’s still full of reef life. And it’s crystal clear, even when the wave are big off shore (still better to check the charts and go at low-medium tide).

Ok, let’s jump right to the first fore-reef spot. I’ve labeled it “turtle reef” on the map.

Turtle Reef

On the south shore, in 1-2 meters of water (depending on the tides) there are several large “clumps” of reef. These reefs consist of large VW beetle sized block of coral which are likely Stylophora pistillata. The Stylophora is not in great shape but is making a strong comeback in most areas. And the original coral boulders that these colonies formed is the rubble upon which they are building their new underwater city.

The old coral boulders are therefore “reef space” for various types of algae and other marine organisms which seems to be “cat nip” for the turtles. The result? The reef is chockablock full of turtles, namely, Hawksbill sea turtles.

Hawksbill sea turtle – sitting at the counter of his favorite diner

These turtles are looking for lunch and they don’t much care if you watch them while they do!

If you approach slowly and basically “act like a floating log”, they won’t even look at you. They will go about their business of finding little bites of turtle yum and do what sea turtles do.

On one part of Turtle Reef, I saw over a dozen Hawksbill turtles within a 15 minute circle of a football pitch sized area. None of them took off when I approached. The younger ones seemed a bit more “wary” than the larger older turtles, but in general they seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that there are clumsy landlubber types that frequent their favorite restaurant. And since the landlubbers don’t eat anything, meh, no need to give them any consideration.

Boulder City

The next area, which I like to call “Boulder city” is on the northern side of the island and starts just a few meters from the beach. It consists of washing machine sized boulders of (best guess) porities coral. There are other corals as well, but the diversity is quite a bit less than you find on the outside reef (at the drop off).

Why highlight the area then? Because it’s a fantastic place to snorkel. Not only is it 1-2m deep and the size of a decent amusement park, but there are a lot of interesting things to see. One one recent trip, I could barely pull myself out of the water. It seems every 4-5 meters I’d run into a new and interesting scene. Like huge moray eels which love staring down a camera. Or coral heads full of Humbug damsel fish, or bright green Galaxea coral with “Sexy shrimp” (about the size of a grain of rice). As my reef brother put it: “sexy because they dance with their derriere in the air”.

“Boulder City” – the tide is going out and the reef is about to emerge (center top)

It seems no matter how many times I visit Boulder city, I always stay until I either run out of daylight or camera battery. And it’s not just for reef geeks. This area is super safe and fun, shallow crystal clear water that’s well protected by an emergent fringing reef (so no waves or current from medium through low tides).

I think if all the school kids of the world had a chance to snorkel for a day at Boulder city, the resulting “love of the reef” would drive that generation to reverse the damage that we have perpetrated. Ok, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Eel Grass Reef

Special mention goes to a small stretch of sand which is basically and area colonized with seaweed. “Eel grass” is a common name for this seaweed, and that’s about the best I can do to ID it, sorry.

In any case, the cool thing about eel grass is that it’s a different biome compared to a coral reef or a sand flat etc. The grass is obviously a productive area. There are tons of baby fish and other tiny critters which live there. For that reason alone, I think it’s worth a snorkel.

Pipe fish – the coolest cat in the grass

The other top reason I like to go there is to look for pipe fish. It’s very hard to see pipe fish on the reef. But in the eel grass, they are a bit easier to locate, and they are quite friendly. Getting a good pic is more an issue with the auto-focus system which can’t seem to find something to focus on when a spaghetti noodle sized fish is in a bed of string-bean sized grass. But that’s the fun.

And that’s just for starters. As it turns out, Eel Grass Reef is just the shallow end of the deal. Head out past the rubble strewn fore reef and there a drop off (of course). The nice thing about this drop off is that it’s only 50 meters from shore.

Did I say 50 meters? Yes! And why is that important?… because the drop off at other points around the island is 600m from shore! Looong swim.

The easiest drop off to snorkel is the one fronting Eel Grass Reef

Beaches

There are two primary beaches on the island, one on the north side of the island, and one on the south. The beach on the south side is bigger and tends to draw more sunbathers. And the beach on the north side has good amounts of shade and fewer people (not that either beach was crowded). For me, beaches are just a place to park my bicycle and drop a towel. But both are nice beaches.

Neither beach is really geared for walking. The south beach is long enough for a short walk, but serious walkers might prefer to just go on the circle-island sand road. There are practically no cars on Thoddoo, but plenty of mopeds. When it rains, there can be big puddles spanning the width of the road. Mostly, it’s a super calm and relaxed place to walk/jog/bicycle.

A quiet sunset on a quiet beach on a quiet island

One negative is smoke. Local trash collection is located on the south side of the island. It’s well away from the sandy beaches and inhabited areas. But if you are going around the island, and you see smoke drifting across the road ahead, you might want to turn around and go the other direction. On a bicycle, it’s easy enough to zoom through the area. But I wouldn’t walk or jog through there.

The Maldives in general has a plastic and trash problem. It seems there are sincere efforts to keep the beaches and surrounding areas clean and trash free (no easy feat). Nevertheless, I have to point out that islands in the Maldives with a “local” feel tend to be a bit trashy.

Easter egg photo – find the sandperch

In Summary

Thoddoo has a laid back vibe and the island abounds in agriculture. There are more westernized restaurants and the locals go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. It’s probably the place for budget vegetarian travel in the Maldives.

The fore reef on Thoddoo is a wonderful place. It’s not nearly as densely populated with reef critters as a submerged off-shore reef, but compared to most devoid-of-much-of-anything fore reefs, it’s a fantastic snorkel… especially for kids and no-so-proficient snorkelers.

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