Dateline: January 16, 2016 – Malé, Maldive Islands
It was out there, 9,505 miles from home and crawling with exotic fish species. But some small part of me, perhaps the reasonable part, was hesitant to get on the plane.
The Indian Ocean is my last big, untouched piece of water, and the Maldives are a famous destination there. This is the area I need to go – a lot – if I am going to reach 2000 species. But as long as I didn’t go there, I always had it in the back of my mind as the place I could go and that 2000 was possible. I felt like the bald guy who has a bottle of Rogaine in his medicine cabinet but hasn’t used it, knowing it could make a big difference but worried about bringing it out in case it doesn’t work, because then he would be out of options.
And no, it’s not my Rogaine, thanks for asking. If it comes to that, and it will, I just shave my head. I am am NEVER doing the combover. I remember a certain CFO I used to work with, and apart from the fact he was probably combing hair out of his armpit, the top of his head still looked, to paraphrase Dave Barry, like a spider trying to hold on to a boiled egg.
But I digress.
The plane lifted off, and I was on my way. The Maldives are an archipelago off the southwestern coast of India, comprising of some 1190 small atolls, and according to the fish books I read each night in the bathroom, these atolls are positively stuffed with fish I have never caught. I also had a major milestone in sight – 1500 species. With the three I had gotten in Singapore, I was only 19 away. This sounded very doable. The hypothesis was comforting, but now I was going to actually test it. (If high school chemistry is any indication, many of my experiments end in explosions.) But I was already in Singapore on a business trip, so the Maldives were four short hours away – I was going to do this. I don’t want to leave any “could haves” in my life.
Of course, this comes with some pressure – if this place didn’t produce big time, my dream of 2000 species would take a major blow. It’s a long haul and I would only get a few chances in my lifetime to fish halfway around the world. So I hoped for good weather and an understanding guide. Since I only had a few days, I focused the trip on reef fishing around the capital city of Male – the dogtooth tuna could wait.
I arranged the fishing and accommodation through Mohamed Latheef of Village Holidays Maldives. He runs a top-notch tour service throughout the country, and he had the perfect option for a short stay – a big, comfortable boat called the Alpha Royale for fishing, and quiet, solid hotels for the evenings. I trusted Mohammed with all of the details, but I was unclear on how I was going to get from the airport to the boat. He told me not to worry.
I flew in on Singapore Airlines – a marvelous carrier. (They are on time a lot more than United, and more importantly, when they are late, they are at least least embarrassed.) Mohamed was right there to meet me – great guy – and I finally could figure out how we would get to the Alpha Royale.
I almost tripped over it – the boat docks were all of 150 feet from luggage claim. This … is awesome.
The Alpha Royale, as viewed from the end of the baggage claim area. Best airport EVER.
I hopped aboard and met the crew – Captain Mohamed (different Mohamed than the tour guy) and deckhands Shahadath and Mujeeb. We barely had the boat on plane before he was slowing down to look at a reef dropoff – the atolls are that close together.
So we were at fishing spots before I could even get the rods ready. I scrambled to assemble some bottom rigs – remembering to never go so fast as to misalign a rod section or tie a bad knot. (Many years ago in Cabo, my buddy Mike Rapoport lost a dorado of at least 60 pounds because he was in such a rush to get a rig back in the water that he tied a poor knot which of course slipped out and left him with the telltale “pig-tail” forensic evidence. I am certain he does not appreciate my repeating it here, but I think of him every time I am hurrying to tie a rig.)
Mike Rapoport, in the happy days before the bad knot. See “My Guitar Solo.”
I then baited up with cut tuna, dropped to the bottom, and held my breath. I knew that I would be working against some very high expectations. I had slowly started to believe that I was going to get something new on just about every cast, and, in hindsight, this is simply not realistic. But then, my first two drops resulted in new species – the red-tinged grouper and the forktail large-eye bream.
The red-tinged grouper. First fish – and first new species – of the trip.
The forktail large-eye bream. I was two species for two drops and it doesn’t get better than that.
I barely had time to notice what a beautiful place it was. Everywhere I looked, there were always three or four atolls in sight, surrounded with coral and glowing with different shades of tropical blue and green. And this is supposed to the heavily-populated, least scenic part of the country.
Your basic atoll a few miles away from Male.
With two species on two casts, my overconfidence blossomed, and this is when the Fish Gods stepped in and crushed me. They sent the triggerfish – the same species I had caught in other locales. They came in relentless swarms, without question the dominant pest of the area, and they chased us for hours, until we moved onto a shallow, sandy patch late in the day. They hit any bait, any rig, and they hit it before anything else could even think about hitting it.
A triggerfish. I would really learn to hate these.
It was in that sandy area I got my third species of the trip – the oblong pursemouth (a type of mojarra) – but by then, I was deeply shaken.
At least it’s big for a mojarra. That expression I have is my “creeping self-doubt” expression. Or maybe gas, I forget which.
The sun was going down, and the crew had put in a heck of an effort, so we called it a day and I headed off to my hotel and dinner. (Both of which were quite nice – Mohammed really made this easy for me, and I’m an annoyingly picky traveler.)
The full crew. From the left – deckhand Shahadath Mia, some American dude, Captain Mohamed Waheed (he’s not seven feet tall – he’s standing on the engine housing,) and Mohamed from the tour service, and deckhand Mujeeb Rahman.
I didn’t completely panic that first night. I figured that this was sort of my introductory session, and that the crew would find plenty of spots with new stuff in the next three days. But still, all those miles and three species … I drifted off to sleep dreaming bad dreams about triggerfish, knowing that Jaime Hamamoto was somehow involved.
Morning broke clear and beautiful, and the crew was enthusiastic to get on the fish. It was hard to convince them that I wanted to catch the often minuscule reef species that form such a large part of my collection. They were very experienced in catching the bigger stuff that people usually come to the Maldives to catch – dogtooth tuna, GT, groupers – and the tactics and places that get these fish don’t usually result in the grab bag I am after. There are generally not small fish around GTs, because the GTs will kill them and eat them.
The skipper wanted to try some deeper water – he thought there should be a variety of groupers and some other fish. So we spent much of the second day on deeper reefs, dropping bait rigs and the occasional jig. I started out with some smaller hooks in about 100′ of water, and the first thing I caught was … a triggerfish. As a matter of fact, the first 26 fish I caught were triggerfish, and then the 27th was a type of small grouper I had caught before – a beautiful fish, but not a new one. Panic crept up my esophagus like an underdone Dairy Queen chicken tender.
Yellowedged Lyretail Grouper – also called a Coronation Trout by the Australians, because they just have to be difficult.
Then I got 18 more triggerfish, and, as afternoon rolled around, things were looking bleak. (Or dace.) But this is when a good fisherman, or me, has to be even more focused. Instead of ranting and raving and blaming LeBron James, I took a deep breath and tried to think. Perhaps a different rig would help. I put on some much bigger hooks and very large baits, reasoning that it would at least take longer for the triggers to shred them. This paid immediate dividends – the next fish I got was a decent-sized grouper, a longspine – which was both a new species and a world record.
Things were looking up.
I kept at it with the bigger stuff, and while I did get a few more triggers, about an hour later, I got another new one – a tomato grouper.
Or a tomato cod, as the Australians would say. What the hell is it with Australians and fish names? They actually have something they call a “groper.” See “The Hook and the Cook”
We kept at it until almost dark, and I added one more new grouper – the fourspot. It was a heck of a day for groupers.
Cousin Chuck – it’s called that because of the four black spots. So stop texting me and saying “It has more than four spots.” We get it.
In terms of a day of fishing, it was a great deal of fun, but it again resulted in only three new species, and one world record. This is a darn good day, but I was again looking at the idea that I was in the closest thing to untouched water I had fished in years, and I had done the math. I needed to be adding a lot of species here if I expected to reach 2000 before I was in adult diapers.
Still, it was progress, albeit scant – what Marta likes to call “directionally correct” – the kind of thing she says when I leave dishes in the sink but at least rinse them.
I went to bed early that night, but I didn’t get a lot of sleep. It was time to panic. I had hoped to be sending out triumphant texts about reaching 1500 species, and that seemed a long, long way off. Tossing and turning at four in the morning, I remember looking at my watch and wondering how long it would take me to ever reach 1500 species. I had no way of knowing that it would be exactly 29 hours and 40 minutes.