In the climatic scene of Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the film’s eponymous protagonist journeys to the depths of the ocean in his submarine Deep Search, along with his ship’s very motley crew. There he encounters his nemesis, a fictional ‘jaguar shark’ that devours his best friend at the beginning of the film. Having initially tracked the shark with the intention of blowing it up with dynamite, the encounter is surprisingly ethereal. With Sigur Rós’ bewitching Icelandic melody playing on the soundtrack, the moment becomes poignant and melancholic. Zissou, who is facing the reality of a career in tatters, is overcome by the raw magnificence of the shark and starts to cry. As the camera pans out to a shot of the submarine’s exterior, accentuating its inferior size in comparison to the gargantuan jaguar shark, the audience is reminded of the transience of life in a way that only the magnitude of the ocean can.
The film, of course, is both a parody of and homage to the life of famous oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and is dedicated to his legend. Deep Search itself is modelled on Cousteau’s famous research submarine Denise, which he designed and built in 1959, the first of its kind at the time. By doing so, Cousteau paved the way for a new generation of non-military submersibles. The ocean floor was no longer only a highway for missile-carrying U-boats. Instead, the depths of the ocean became thought of as more accessible territory for researchers, conservationists, even tourists. The notion of the passenger submarine was born.
Today, thousands of non-divers have managed to observe the depths of the seabed from the window of one of these submersibles – nowhere more so than right here in the Maldives. The country’s Whale Submarine holds the record for being the largest passenger submarine in the world and operates up to seven times daily during peak seasons. Admittedly, its name is somewhat misleading; the submarine does not offer the chance to catch a glimpse of a whale. However, I like to imagine the submarine as a mechanical whale, diving to the depths of the ocean with its very own cargo of camera-happy Jonahs.
The submarine is docked in between the capital Male and neighbouring island Vilingili, the island where I live. For four years, I have passed its two modest docking platforms on an almost daily basis as I have taken the ferry to Male’ for work. Occasionally, I raise my head to ascertain whether the submarine is moored at the platform or below the surface on an excursion. Just as those living in Paris never visit the museums, prior to today I’d just never found a moment to join one. Until today, when a friend’s invitation changed all that.
As my husband and I disembark on the platform, we are welcomed by smiling hostesses in cutesy, retro sailor uniforms. Having thought about Zissou and his jaguar shark all morning, I stifle a smile. These women’s outfits could be directly from Anderson’s costume department. We descend into the vessel and settle into what look like vintage cinema seats, upholstered in purple velour. Another Andersonian touch.
As we leave the docking station, we are almost immediately greeted by a school of large surgeonfish that glide past the windows. The reef appears like a rocky moon from the blue, its topography like that of a distant planet. We descend smoothly to a depth of nearly 35 metres and begin to cruise along the reef’s edge. Faces to the glass, we begin to inspect this new terrain and its colourful inhabitants. As the large windows only look out to the sides, I cannot really get a sense of the depth, which is in the most part reassuring and helps me forget that I am rapidly descending to the sea floor in what is essentially a metal box.
Today, the submarine has Asia’s only female submarine pilot at its helm, Amina. Having initially joined the crew as a hostess more than a decade ago, Amina gradually trained as a pilot. She expertly steers the vessel only a few centimetres away from the reef, tucking the submarine alongside the long coral wall. When I catch up with her after the tour, I ask her if she gets tired of visiting the same spots, day after day. “Every dive is different” she replies, “There’s always something new to see, something you didn’t see yesterday”.
Of course, we encounter no jaguar shark here today, despite some passengers having extremely high expectations. Sporadically throughout the trip I hear voices from further down the cabin demanding ‘Where are the sharks and the whales?’ and ‘why are there no starfish?’ Clearly, many are more used to visiting aquariums than experiencing the real thing. Some seem disappointed that we don’t come across the entire cast of Finding Nemo or encounter Sebastian the crab singing Under the Sea. (I think he lives in the Caribbean, anyway.) What we do see is a colourful reef with beautiful overhangs, both hard and soft corals and a variety of marine species, including many kinds of reef fish, shrimps, clams and moray eels. The vessel’s exterior lights illuminate the reef and display colours that would normally vanish at this depth. Striking red and orange soft corals glow like embers.
Divers might be quick to dismiss a submarine tour as little in comparison to being in the water amongst the fish. Those who do so miss the point. Simply experiencing the agility of such a large machine and the expertise of the pilot’s navigation is an experience in itself. For a brief period, you are no longer part of the world at the surface. Instead, you join Cousteau in a long line of undersea explorers. You rely utterly on engineering you probably don’t understand and become a speck in the enormity of the ocean.
As we emerge blinking from the submarine and are delivered back to Male’ by boat, the stillness of the submarine stays with me. When I hop on the ferry back to Vilingili later that day, I notice that the submarine is out for another tour. I imagine it gliding unnoticed beneath us. Until now, I had always viewed this strip of water as merely a segment of my morning commute. It has now become a reminder that there is always something just out of sight that promises to be beautiful.
Tickets are $120/60 for adults and children. Children must be over three years old to join a trip.
To find out more about the Whale Submarine, please visit their website here.
To watch the latest (and very beautiful) promotional video of the Whale Submarine, click here.
To watch the jaguar shark scene from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, click here.