Reef Rings: The Chagos-Laccadive Ridge

By Michael Kew

Chadd Konig, Lakshadweep. Photo: Kew.

CHARLES ROBERT DARWIN pledged the third part of his first chapter in “The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs” to the atolls atop the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, a 2,350-kilometer-long plateau in the north Indian Ocean. But Darwin never went: “My description is derived from an examination of the admirable charts lately published from the survey of Captain Moresby and Lieut. Powell,” he wrote, “and more especially from information which Captain Moresby has communicated to me in the kindest manner.”

Northernmost archipelago of the Chagos-Laccadive Ridge, Lakshadweep is scattered across the Laccadive Sea, about 300 miles west of mainland India. Beyond India, Lakshadweep is virtually unknown, with almost no Western tourists, sparse infrastructure, limited access, and a largely uncharted surf-spot potential. Swells here are usually well-organized, since they come from far away, and since prevailing winds are westerly, the east and southeast coasts of the islands are nicely groomed and are the best places to score waves.

While a study of Google Earth imagery will reveal a lack of likely set-ups, Lakshadweep does offer the savvy surf explorer some interesting options, especially if approached via liveaboard boat, which, if you’ve got the time and cash, is the best way to do it. The atolls aren’t graced with the sort of epic wave variety as the Maldives, and although mainland India has lots of potential, it’s still dirty, polluted, crowded India. In Lakshadweep, the locals don’t live in slums or use the beaches as toilets.

Trevor Gordon, Lakshadweep. Photo: Kew.

OF EARTH'S 195 COUNTRIES, just five are pan-atoll: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau, Tuvalu, and Kiribati, and aside from Tokelau, a New Zealand dependent, they are sovereign. Kiribati and Tuvalu are on the United Nations’ “Least-Developed Countries” list. The smallest Asian country in population and land area, Maldives was on the list until 2011, when it became the third-ever nation to graduate to “Developing Country” status. Still, in terms of surf tourism, Maldives is mature.

“The reefs of the southern atolls,” Darwin gathered, “are more constantly exposed than the northern atolls to a heavy surf.” In the north, lung-shaped Male’ beats as the heart of Maldivian surfing, and most of the archipelago can be defined by consistent, shapely, and user-friendly waves that peel over fairly forgiving coral, in 30°C water, in front of coconut palms or fancy resorts or a chartered yachts, beneath straight sun.

Darwin: “The smaller atolls in this group differ in no respect from ordinary ones; but the larger ones are remarkable from being breached by numerous deep-water channels leading into the lagoon; for instance, there are 42 channels through which a ship could enter the lagoon of Suvadiva.” (Suvadiva is the old Sanskritized name for Huvadhoo, the world’s 10th-largest atoll [Darwin called it “noble”], with at least 12 of those 42 channels offering great surf spots for much of the year.)

Seceded from the rest of the Maldives in 1959 till 1963, Huvadhoo, Gnaviyani, and surf-rich Addu (Darwin spelled it “Addoo”) formed a sovereign nation called the United Suvadive Republic. Reason being was that, back then, the Maldivian government up in Male’ ruled with centralism, and residents of these three southernmost atolls were pumped by the then-recent independence of neighboring Sri Lanka and India. (Maldives shed England in 1965.)

Maldives. Photo: Kew.

BALD BRITISH SURFER, late-30s, squinting at the pink sunset, gripping his fifth can of San Miguel beer at a white plastic table on the oceanfront deck of a Maldivian resort, watching dozens of fellow surf tourists hassling each other for the nice lefthanders here, 39 years later: “Mate, can you imagine being that Aussie bloke who shipwrecked here and found all these bloody waves with no one around?”

Me: “Tony?”

“Yeah, Tony.”

In the early ‘70s, Tony Hinde spent time in Sri Lanka before he and a friend boarded a yacht captained by an American. Captain America. The plan? Somalia, thousands of kilometers and a world away.

Instead of Africa, the crew wrecked on Maldivian coral. Salvage consumed the next two months. Meanwhile, the Australians found fun waves on Male’. Later, the guys left for India, but soon Hinde returned to the Maldives—for him, the seed was set. “Hardly a sunrise goes by that I don’t thank Allah for that shipwreck,” Hinde once said.

The Maldives proved fateful for Hinde, who in 2008 died surfing Pasta Point, ironically the same spot where in 1990 he’d established Tari Village, the nation’s first surf camp, exclusively represented to the world by Atoll Adventures, which he also founded. Humble little Tari Village is now the four-star Chaaya Island Dhonveli, “…the perfect destination for the discerning pleasure-seeker…one of the world’s best resort hotels,” according to its website.

Chagos Archipelago. Photo: Unknown.

NAVEL OF THE INDIAN OCEAN, yet aura-opposite to Maldives, the Chagos Archipelago is mostly bereft of surf, land, and infrastructure. It is the world’s largest nature preserve, some 648,000 square kilometers. Of its coralline structures, Diego Garcia is the most famous, an American military base (Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, its lease to expire in 2016). The base is the sole development in what constitutes the British Indian Ocean Territory—the six Chagos atolls, with more than 1,000 islands, a land area of 60 square kilometers. The Great Chagos Bank, in the middle of the archipelago and mostly underwater, is the world’s largest atoll structure, an area of 12,642 square kilometers. If it was all above water, Chagos would have many surf spots.

“In the Chagos group there are some ordinary atolls,” Darwin wrote, “some annular reefs rising to the surface but without any islets on them, and some atoll-formed banks, either quite submerged, or nearly so.”

That’s unfortunate.

Also unfortunate: the only way to reach Diego Garcia is via the USA or UK militaries, but you won’t be able to surf there since surfing is illegal, even for the people stationed there. Which is unfortunate too considering it receives near-constant swell. There is a confirmed left-hand gem off Simpson Point, the atoll’s westernmost nub, plus several shapely nicks in the surrounding reef. All blow offshore in the prevailing tradewind.

Elsewhere, surfing could happen at two of the other Chagos atolls—Salomon and Peros Banhos—publicly accessible by boat only, but windy and very fickle.

Beyond Diego Garcia, there are no airports or towns of any kind, no facilities, no indigenous residents—none because, in a major crime against humanity, about 1,700 of them were forcibly evicted to make way for the Navy base. They and their descendants now live in urban squalor in England, Mauritius, and Seychelles.

For the past few decades there has been a pointed quest by the islanders to get themselves back to the Chagos. In another study last year, the UK government again hired independent consultants (which included no Chagossians) to assess resettlement options and risks. In recent years, several online petitions have circulated and failed—not that they could accomplish anything, anyway.

The most recent one is on Avaaz. At press time, toward its goal of 3,000, its petition had received 2,841 signatures. Darwin’s isn’t one of them.

Living History: Lauran Yater

Pasifika Vailima