The Maldives is situated in the South West of Sri Lanka, on the equator. The numerous coral reef islands, 1,190 in total, form an archipelago of 26 natural atolls ( groups of neighboring coral islands). These 26 atolls are organized into 19 administrative atolls with the capital island of Male' established as an entity of its own forming the twentieth division. Seen from air, the atolls and the islands form breathtakingly beautiful patterns against the blue depths of the Indian Ocean.
The country stretches 823 km north to south and 130 km east to west. Out of the incredibly large number of islands only 200 islands are inhabited, with 88 islands adapted as exclusive resort islands. The sea forms over 99 percent of the Maldives. Only 0.331 percent, 298 km2 (115 square miles), of its 298 km2 (34, 750 square miles) is land.
Together with the Lakshadweep formerly called Laccadive Islands (which were part of the Maldives, and now part of India) to the north and the Chagos Islands to the south, the Maldives form part of a vast submarine mountain range, on the crest of which coral reefs have grown. The Maldivian atolls are a classic example of its kind. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word ‘atoll’ as "an adoption of the native name "atholhu" applied to the Maldive Islands , which are typical examples of this structure". Each of these atolls is enclosed by a coral reef cut by several deep, natural channels and a lagoon. The reef structure, peculiar to the Maldives and consisting of a series of circular reefs in a lime, is known as ‘faru’. Strong currents, swinging round with the monsoon winds, flow among the atolls, though a journey between the atolls is often easy to navigate.
Most of the islands can be walked across in ten minutes; only a few are longer than two kilometers. The longest, Hithadhoo in the Southernmost Addu Atoll is eight kilometers (5-6 miles). Although most other islands are less than a mile long, one feels no sense of brevity as the merging of beaches, crystal waters, and crisp blue skies create an infinite vastness - a natural openness that is rare and a peacefulness that is always welcome.
Rarely being more than six feet above sea level, the coral based islands are protected by atoll reefs. However, they are all susceptible to erosion, especially those lying comparatively close to the windward reefs. Indeed, in 1812 and again in 1955, devastating gales destroyed many northern islands. In 1964 the island in Alifu Atoll "Hagngnaameedhoo" was inundated by high waves, while the capital, Male', was flooded by a severe storm in 1987. If, as some scientists predict, the sea level continues to rise as a result of global warming, then Maldives, with its ancient and unique culture, may all be swept away within fifty years. As a precautionary step the government, with aid from Japan, has undertaken the biggest projects ever in the Maldives - the building of a breakwater on Male's southern reef. With the help of artificial measures, such as the new artificial breakwater and the natural coral reefs the islands have started to enjoy more protection from natural calamities than they have ever done before.
As to the origin of these unique atolls, it still remains a mystery despite years of research. In 1842, after studying other similar atolls in the Pacific and Atlantic, Charles Darwin suggested that they were created when volcanic land rose from the sea and a coral reef grew around its edge. The volcano gradually sank back into the sea leaving the coral reefs to encircle a shallow water-filled lagoon. Islands, then, developed when currents and tides swept coral and other organic debris into sand bars, which eventually, were colonized by plants and trees. When Darwin, continued his studies into the Maldive Islands, he had to admit that there was something special about the Maldive islands. Nevertheless he added that his theory of coral island formation was applicable to the Maldives in a general sense, and most scientists accept his theory. More recently, however, Hans Hass has suggested that over hundreds of thousands of years a platform of coral reefs built up on the submerged mountain chain in the Indian Ocean until they burst through the surface. Porous and unstable, the coral platform sagged in the middle, leaving only a ring of the hardest and highest coral - the rims of the atolls where debris and sand accumulated and vegetation took hold to form islands. Years and years of the sea moving with shell and coral particles around the islands, have grounded the debris into minute grains of sand. It is clear that the tiny specks of land separated by great stretches of water have long been a great puzzle.