Feb. 18th, 2021
For many marine-life enthusiasts, getting up close to the largest fish in the world counts as an ultimate bucket-list travel experience. Doing it at the Maldives’ southernmost tip from the idyllic Raffles Maldives Meradhoo takes it to another level entirely. Opened in 2019, the resort’s far-flung Indian Ocean location in Gaafu Alifu, one of the world’s most remote and pristine atolls, makes it a dream destination for diving, snorkeling, and pretty much anything else that involves being over or under the water.
Anyone headed to the 38-villa property can now add a once-in-a-lifetime whale shark encounter to that list of marine adventures.
Thanks to Raffles Maldives’ proximity to the equator, its surrounding environment is untouched, something resident marine biologist, Guilia Pellizzato, says makes it feel akin to living in paradise. She talked to JustLuxe about the new whale shark encounter, the resort’s marine life, and ongoing conservation initiatives that encourage guests to get involved.
“Swimming with whale sharks is an incredible experience, almost surreal. Despite their huge size, these animals are extremely graceful underwater. Their calm movements make you feel a deep sensation of inner peace,” says Pellizzato adding that while guests get to encounter these gentle giants from a traditional Dhoni sailboat, it doesn’t make the experience any less memorable. “Whale sharks are highly mobile animals that move across the atoll following plankton. It’s possible to spot them year-round but in different sites depending on the season. Twice a week, we are now taking guests out at night who get to see as many as three whale sharks while they feed.” On hand to answer any questions during the bespoke two-hour experience, Pellizzato shares that canapés and beverages are also included.
Raffles Maldives Meradhoo Marine Biologist, Guilia Pellizzato
One of the 87 tiny islands that make up the Gaafu Alifu atoll, Meradhoo is surrounded by warm crystalline waters and reefs teeming with colorful fish and abundant sea life. So, it’s to be expected that a location this beautiful and untouched demands attention to conservation. In a commitment to sustainability, the resort incorporated a chef’s garden, a reverse osmosis system, and banned plastic straws. When it comes to the ocean, Pellizzato works to reduce the impact of the resort on its environment and educate guests and staff about protecting sea life.
Graduating from the University of Padova, Italy, with a master’s degree in Marine Biology, Pellizato first visited the Maldives in 2018 to participate in a coral reef restoration workshop and immediately fell in love with the country. “I officially became a marine biologist in 2015, but the truth is I’ve been exploring the sea and conducting experiments as far back as I can remember.” Pellizzato shares that while the other girls at her school dreamt about becoming princesses, she was collecting water samples and analyzing them under the microscope.
Today, Pellizzato, who conducts weekly surveys of the resort’s coral reef focusing on fish biodiversity and coral health, also loves to involve the guests in her research. “Working in the hospitality industry gives me the perfect opportunity to reach many people and teach them the importance of protecting the ocean. Guests often want to get involved and assist me in my weekly surveys and help me to collect data.”
When not monitoring the reef, Pellizzato tracks the movements of the resort’s resident sea turtles using a photo identification technique that recognizes each turtle based on their facial scales. It also reveals patterns of residency and movement of the turtles between reefs and atolls. “I’ve identified 23 sea turtles around our island, mainly juvenile hawksbill turtles that use our reef as a feeding ground,” she says. ‘We named them after the Greek gods, so while you’re snorkeling here you can easily encounter Apollo, Zeus, Hera, and their friends.”
While a severe bleaching event in 2016 had devastating consequences on coral reefs across the country, Pellizzato has been transplanting small corals of opportunity from the sea bottom onto the reef to assist in its recovery. She says that while Raffles’ house reef was affected by the event, recovery signs are clear and give hope. “The coral recruitment rates are high, and many young colonies are growing back, also in the shallower part of the reef. Moreover, the large number of parrotfish that live in our reef keeps the algal growth under control, preventing them from smothering the corals.”
In addition to seeing whale sharks, Raffles Maldives Meradhoo offers plenty of other ocean adventures, from scuba diving to gliding around in a glass-bottomed kayak. Guests are also assigned a marine butler for the duration of their stay. Fully trained in the sea life commonly found in the atoll, they lead informative snorkeling or diving expeditions around the house reefs – easily accessed from those dreamy overwater villa terraces.
Raffles Maldives Meradhoo is reached via a 55-minute flight from Malé International to Kaadedhdhoo Domestic Airport, followed by a brief 15-minute speedboat transfer.