Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj
Late November out in the atolls has become a time of modern migration. The school year ends and Maldivians head somewhere else for a change of scenery; the tourism high season starts and foreign guests flood in to do the same.
For islanders, it’s a time for getting married, and a time for hithaanee celebrations, with all the pomp and colourful decoration that goes with it. But these aren’t the only new decorations adorning the atolls at this time of year.
For, another annual migration is also taking place at this time; another invasion of guests moving with the changing moosun. Across the islands, hovering above the heads of hopeful brides and being captured by nervous young boys, all awaiting their big days, the island air purrs with swarms of dragonflies (dhondhooni).
It is this migration that undoubtedly pre-dates all the others, but one that relatively little was known about until very recently. Iruvaiy dhondhooni aun – the phrase meaning ‘dragonflies return for northeastern monsoon’ – is an old one in Dhivehi culture, but it was not until 2009 that a British biologist first fully theorised this annual occurrence in the atolls.
Dr Charles Anderson, having worked in the Maldives since 1983 – most famously in the area of marine biology – released his study of dragonflies in the Maldives in 2009. His results, he argued, suggested that these traditional tourists were in fact marathon migrants, undertaking the longest insect journey ever recorded.
With almost no freshwater resources on the Maldives’ 1,192 islands, the only place dragonflies can reliably find places to breed are in the yam fields and lakes of Fuvahmulah in the far south (where the Common Picture Wing dragonfly can be found).
Subsequently, after studying dragonflies’ migration patterns from Southern India, Dr Anderson concluded that these larger dhondhooni were in fact moving between 500 and 1000km across the Indian Ocean to the Maldivian archipelago, tracking their progress from north to south from October before peaking in November/December.
Within a day or two of arriving the majority of the insects disappear just as quickly, leaving catching jars and clearer skies empty as the drier iruvai (northeastern) moosun is firmly established. This rapid departure led Dr Anderson to further surmise that their next destination of the global gliders was East Africa and then further south, where the wet weather (and so the breeding grounds) go for winter. Some will pass back through on their way home, 4-5 months after, concluding their multi-generational 14,000km round trip.
The main types of dragonfly – around 98% – are known as ‘Wandering Gliders’ or ‘Globe Skimmers’ and are said to be called hei nakaiy dhooni in the northern atolls, referring to the two-week weather period between October 18th-31st when they first arrive en masse. According to this traditional dhivehi calendar, iruvai moosun officially starts on December 10th.
Other types of dragonfly (we think) we’ve seen around the islands of Laamu atoll this month include the Pale-Spotted Emperor, Keyhole Glider, and Blue Percher.
Dr Anderson’s findings were further corroborated recently by genetic studies of the Globe Skimmers by biologists at Rutgers University.
The final mystery of this process was exactly how the humble dhondhooni can begin the journey to the Maldives in October in the face of the south-western hulhangu surface winds, still blowing the other way at that time. Dr Anderson suggested that these high-altitude flyers are hitching a ride on the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ to its friends), which moves south over the Maldives during the intermonsoon period.
And so, should you see a few dhondhooni fluttering around the edge of the island at this time of year, invite them to the wedding party or the hithaanee celebration. There’s always some bondibaiy going spare, and they’re right in the middle of one of the nature’s most extraordinary journeys.