In the Depths of Satho Raha with Nekton - Folktales, Scientific Endeavours, and the Mysteries that Lie Beneath
Have you heard of the Legend of Satho Raha?
The story goes that an old Japanese scientist named Sato visited the Southern islands of the Maldives. He was a diver and hauled his oxygen tanks, BCD, and other equipment with him during his journey. One day, Sato wanted to dive into an area known back then as Medhuthila, in the middle of the vast Huvadhoo Kandu in Suvadiva channel, between Gaafu Alifu Atoll and Laamu Atoll. The locals believed it to be a dangerous part of the ocean. Some claimed it is the peak of a submarine mountain. Legend describes a pale blue patch surrounded by a vast expanse of deep ocean blues.
As soon as Sato arrived, he dove right in. Sato discovered a plethora of marine life, such as big-eye trevally, sharks, and stingrays. Species of damselfish, butterflyfish, and angelfish swam side by side with Satho. While revelling in the sea life around him, Sato spotted a peculiar cave. The cave called to him, and he listened. He dove closer to explore, ventured in, and, as the story goes, never resurfaced again.
The crew on the boat looked for Sato for hours. Alas, he was nowhere to be found. The story takes an unusual turn, as the ‘investigation’ found that Sato had been devoured by a hungry, giant crab.
Satho Raha, named after Sato and his supposedly fatal dive (supposedly as there is evidence that he returned to Japan safe and sound), is not a popular dive spot amongst tourists. Perhaps the story of the giant hungry crab was a deterrent? However, there are various dive spots in Huvadhoo Atoll and plenty of other ocean life to explore apart from the proverbial giant crustaceans. Divers can find an incredible variety of marine life in the Maldives such as whale sharks, turtles, and manta rays in different areas, including Huvadhoo Atoll.
Children of the Sea
Ancient cultures across the world practised freediving to gather food, harvest resources, reclaim sunken valuables, and perhaps even for recreation. Humans have a remarkable dive deep up to over 130 metres in one breath, demonstrated by the likes of freediving champions such as Alexey Molchanov, Alenka Artnik, and Alessia Zecchini. This is in part a consequence of our unique biological features such as webbing between our fingers, downward facing nose, insulation layer of fat under our skin, and most notably, the ‘Mammalian Dive Reflex’.
Historically, fishermen in the Maldives used to freedive to over 30 metres to retrieve lost anchors, cargo, baitfish and pearl shells. The term “kamalhafalhun” describes a method in which free divers would clench their fists and bang their foreheads in to relieve the pressure from diving into deeper depths.
One of the first scuba divers in the Maldives was Sarudhaaru Dhon Manik (SDM) - an extraordinary man with an extraordinary life. He invented his own scuba mask and it was so well-designed that the Maldivian army ordered 60 of the masks from him. SDM was also a renowned artist. He produced almost surrealist paintings of the underwater sceneries he witnessed, as well as documenting the diverse marine life in the Maldives. SDM’s ventures and the advent of dive tourism in the Maldives positioned us as one of the best dive destinations in the world. With 1000s of phenomenal unique dive sights, it is not surprising as to why the Maldives is so revered amongst the diving community.
SDM was one of the first people to document the bizarre, strange, and beautiful underwater world in the Maldives. To this day, his abstract paintings of the underwater world and detailed illustrations of the life beneath the waves perfectly capture the ‘essence’ of a dive in the Maldives.
The New Explorers
On 01st October 2022, the Nekton Maldives Mission, a systematic survey and sampling of the Maldives from the surface, made history after the expedition mapped a deep-sea mountain off the coast of the Maldives in the mythical ‘Satho Raha’ (also referred to as Satho Rahaa, Satho Thila or Huvadhoo Thila) region. The same spot that Sato himself dove into all those years ago.
Fishermen had long known of the ‘Satho Raha’ region as a hotbed of tuna, sharks, and other underwater life. This so-called tuna ‘spawn’ hotspot had always carried an enigmatic nature. Its shape and depth, however, remained a complete mystery. Until now, that is.
According to Professor Lucy Woodall, Nekton's Principal Scientist, the mount is 15 nautical miles in circumference and the peak is at a depth of 300 metres from the surface while the base of the summit was recorded at 1,500 metres. An underwater mountain lies in the famous Satho Raha region.
The Nekton mission successfully created a clear image of the underwater topography through sonar technology after a taxing 12 hour mapping mission. “A multi-dimensional map created by the Nekton team will now be eagerly studied by fishermen for whom the waters around the seamount are their livelihood” stated Nekton.
‘The Trapping Zone’
500 metres deep in the Indian Ocean, scientists aboard the Nekton Mission discovered a new ecosystem which they called “The Trapping Zone”. Alex Rogers, who spent over 30 hours underwater in a submersible, said “ "This has all the hallmarks of a distinct new ecosystem."
When micro-nekton swarms are entrapped in these habitats at specific times of the day, megafauna predators like sharks and other huge fish feast on them. In order to evade predators, zooplankton emerge from deeper waters before dawn and feed on phytoplankton that live in the sunny shallows at night. Numerous other species, including squid, small fish, and sharks, follow the migration.
The Maldivian atolls' volcanic subsea layers and fossilised carbonate reefs, which produce high vertical cliffs and shelving terraces that prohibit smaller animals from diving deeper after sunrise, appear to be the cause of the trapping effect, and the resulting feast for larger pelagic predators. This in turn creates an oasis of marine life.
Folklores and such tales often carry a hint of truth and realism in it. In truth, Sato went back to Japan. There were no giant hungry crabs. But the story is not about Sato, it is about the endless mysteries that lie right below the Maldivian waters. Geological wonders hidden by the passage of time, now coming to new light with the advent of scientific discovery.