Conservation adventures at Four Seasons Maldives: Travel Weekly

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We got the call just a few hours before we were set to leave our little slice of paradise in the Maldives.

I had just gotten settled under an umbrella on the picture-perfect, white-sand beach, preparing for a nap before we were to catch a seaplane back to Male and a red-eye to Hong Kong.

While my traveling partner jumped up with glee, I admit I was hesitant to heed the call and scurry to the dock for the latest manta ray sighting. After all, it was the tail end of manta season, and by the time we got to wherever the resort's biologists had spotted them, they could be long gone. 

And, I thought, what could top our adventure from a few days earlier, when we snorkeled above a half-dozen giant manta rays doing endless somersaults in their quest for plankton?

Yet 45 minutes later, there I was back in the ocean, in complete awe as a group of 10 large manta rays swam straight at me, one by one, getting within inches of my face before dipping down at the last second to skim for food just below me.

As instructed, I stayed still to avoid startling them or hitting one with my flippers. But they were so close that one brushed my shoulder anyway.

"Now you're blessed," a hotel worker said when I relayed the encounter while turning in the phone they had provided to alert us to the sightings throughout our stay. 

Indeed I was, as that final swim with the manta rays was just one of many once-in-a-lifetime experiences on a six-day trip that offered the perfect mix of adventure, relaxation and pampering.

An overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa.
An overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa.

The first stop was Kuda Huraa, where I could have spent the entire time in my spacious overwater bungalow with its own infinity pool. Recently refurbished, the bungalows have spacious rooms carefully designed for both privacy and maximum views from every angle. The deck had cutouts lined with nets and decorated throw pillows to create overwater hammocks large enough for two.

While perfect for honeymooners -- which is the demographic I had always associated with the Maldives -- I was surprised at both the number of families there and the wide range of activities.

Just two days into the trip sponsored by the Four Seasons, me and a fellow travel writing friend had already taken surf lessons; jetted above and below the water on a crazy device called a SeaBob; snorkeled along the edge of a reef with fish, turtles, sharks and coral so colorful it felt like "Finding Nemo" brought to life; and watched the feeding of injured and baby turtles at the on-property Marine Savers conservation center.

And those were just a sampling of the more than 200 activities offered between the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa and its sister property, the Landaa Giraavaru, on a separate atoll.

While the Kuda Huraa location had better snorkeling, the manta ray program is based at the larger Landaa Giraavaru resort, where we stayed in beach bungalows with private lap pools and a covered outdoor living area complete with an open-air loft with a bed.

It also has a huge spa and wellness program offering single treatments and classes or extensive ayurvedic retreats and yoga programs. Besides swimming with the rays, one of my favorite activities was doing anti-gravity, or upside-down, yoga using aerial hammocks.

Perhaps most impressive, however, was seeing the resort's true commitment to sustainability. Besides eliminating single-use plastic, the resort funds and houses one of the region's top marine research centers. 

Armando Kraenzlin, head of Four Seasons Maldives, began the ocean conservation program there 17 years ago out of concern about the impact of global warming.

A manta ray on an excursion with the Maldives Manta Trust.
A manta ray on an excursion with the Maldives Manta Trust.

Today, in addition to reef restoration and turtle rescue programs at both properties, it also funds and houses the Maldives Manta Trust program at the Landaa Giraavaru on Baa Atoll, which is home during the summer to some 2,000 of the estimated 4,500 manta rays in the region.

The resort provides space, equipment, boats and other resources, while also paying the salaries of two dozen full-time marine biologists who track the region's turtles and manta rays by swimming with them and photographing their unique markings. (On turtles, the identifying marks are the spots on their head and neck; on mantas, the spots on their belly.)

With donations from guests, the program also has transplanted more than 100,000 coral fragments to grow reefs, and on-site scientists oversee 40 tanks of fish, seahorses, larvae and plankton reactors to help replenish ocean life. More than 2,000 turtles and 2,000 manta rays have been identified in a database, and many turtles injured in fishing nets have been returned to the ocean after being healed.

Guest participation is high. A donation of $5,000 built a tank for rescued turtles. And those who donate $150 or more to plant coral get annual updates with photos of the reef project they have funded.

It's a win-win for the resorts and the guests: It helps advance the protection and nurturing of the endangered turtles, rays, reefs and other important ecosystems, and it provides real, immersive marine experiences for the guests, who can attend lectures and go snorkeling with the scientists.

Rates at the Four Seasons' Maldives resorts start at about $1,100. See www.fourseasons.com.

Relaxing in the Maldives with Four Seasons

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