Diving the Maldives

Diving the Maldives

1

July 2008

A wonderful place for good diving and great family holydays

Location

The Republic of Maldives are situated in the Indian Ocean, South of India and Sri Lanka, scattered across the equator 7° 6’ north to 0° 42’ south along the longitudes 72° 32’ to 73° 46’.

The Maldives archipelago consists of several atoll formations, each consisting one island or none to more than a hundred islands. The Maldives entails approximately 1,200 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 27 atolls, spreading over roughly 90,000 square kilometers.

Approximately 200 islands are inhabited and 100 islands are reserved for tourist resorts. The Maldivian law forbids the combination of the two on one same island.

Formation

Maldives, view from the sky
 

Millions of years ago, a great range of volcanoes rose from the floor of theIndian Oceanand burst through its surface. Slowly over the years, the volcanoes sank back into the depths, leaving only coral reefs in the vast expanse of the sea.

Because their formation, the reefs remained almost intact after the 2004 tsunami. The same is true for most of the islands that were engulfed by the wave. The reefs suffered the most during the famous El Niño in 1998.

First Arrival

Male, Maldives capital island, from the sky

At first, I had mixed emotions when flying over Maldives shifting between being moved at the sight of the overwhelming beauty of the green islands floating on the blue sea and feeling sadness at the thought that the Maldives inhabitants will be among the first victims of the ice melting due to global warming. AllMaldivesIslands are just about one meter above the sea level, except for a single one of them which is two meters above the sea level. After Marshall Islands,Maldives should be the next in line. I rapidly chased these dark thought out of my head in order to be as positive as possible to discover that splendid country.

When we arrived to Male, Maldives’ hometown or more exactly Home Island (Capital City – Maldivians call the island where they were born their ‘home island’), Cindy and Rob from “Maldives Scuba Tours” greeted us with a huge smile and drove us to “Sea Spirit”, the ship on which we would spend the whole week.

Sea Spirit

Sea Spirit and dohni in the Maldives

This 27-meter wooden ship built in the Maldives has all the necessary convenience to accommodate 12 divers. Each cabin is air conditioned and contains one single and one double bed, a private bathroom with hot water showers and flushing toilets. It has a nice and large sundeck to rest and to see the legendaryMaldives sunrise.

There is no diving deck from the ship. In the Maldives you generally use a smaller dive boat to get to the diving spots because of the reef formation. We had a 13-meter comfortable dive boat (dhoni) in the local Dihvehi language) with a place for each diver and a basket in which you can leave all the diving gear. Both, the BCD and regulator remain mounted on your tank. The dhoni crew takes care of refilling the tank between the dives.

Both, the Sea Spirit and Sea Queen, offer the Nitrox option. Approximately 50% ofMaldives live-aboard offer that option.

The dive masters

Cindy the divemaster and the Sea Spirit’s captain

Cindy, our tour guide and first dive master, used to be manager at Marks & Spencer’s in the UK. She decided to retire after 20 years of service in order to do what she loves the most at the location she loves the most, diving in the Maldives. She has a well-developed British sense of humor, which added a lot to our trip.

Rob, a great guy and our second dive master, is from Florida. He’s a cave diver; there are many caves inFlorida. He decided to come for a couple of years to the Maldives in order to have a taste of salty water dives.

Ali, my great friend and local dive master, could always find every single smallest critter you could ever dream to see in the sea.

Food

Banana view from the back of the live-aboard

You probably know that the divers, love to eat.

Sea Spirit belongs to a British company and I was happy about that before I went on the ship. I really don’t want to hurt anyone, but English food is not one of my favorites. I supposed that the food on a British owned ship, prepared for a gentle British group would be genuine English. I was happy with that because I was thinking I would come back home very fit after eating only the salad at each meal. Unfortunately for me, I got a cold shower from my dietician when I got back after she measured the result! The cook was Sri Lankan and very skilled. I don’t know how he did to guess, but he prepared all the food I love the most (except for the fish and the seafood that I prefer to see when I dive rather than on my plate). Wow, everything was succulent! Even if I deeply wanted, I couldn’t succeed to go on a diet during that trip.

As an example, here’s the menu of just one meal: Thai green chicken curry, Deviled shrimps, Potato curry, Dahl curry (lentils), Mango chutney, Indians poppadums (kind of fried bread), Grilled Basmati rice

I used to wake up very early, while on the boat, much before everyone else did and had a chat with Thilak, our chef to get some of his recipes.

Diving in Maldives

Ali the divemaster diving next to a turtle

I was first looking for a live-aboard with at least four dives a day, but it was impossible to find. All Maldives live-aboard organize three dives a day: at 7AM, 11AM and at 3PM. Anyway, you are so exhausted after three dives that it’s very hard to make a fourth one.

Currents can be very strong and the organization around the dives takes a long time. It includes getting to the dive spot, waiting for all the divers to get out of the water, and getting back to the boat….

For similar reasons, you can’t remain at the bottom for much more than one hour. By the way, the depth limit is 30 meters, in the Maldives.

Even if you wanted it, you couldn’t’ make a night dive every night because of the reef formation, the currents and the high waves making it more difficult for the dive boat to find you at the end the dive.

Night dives are usually organized once or twice during the trip, only when the weather conditions permit and only at specific spots that are known to be safe.

The most common type of dives in the Maldives is drift.

Types of Dive Sites

Maldives dive sites

There are a number of different types of dive sites in the Maldives. The most common sites are kandus, thilas and giris.

Kandus are channels or breaks in the reef which forms the atoll rim. The kandus allow the flow of water from the ocean into or out of the atoll. This nutrient rich water attracts many pelagic and schooling fish, sharks, rays and more, and often leads to a very exciting dive. However, strong currents can flow in these passes. It is important to follow the instructions of the Dive Masters as they are there to help you get the best out of your dive.

A thila is the name given to a reef inside of the atoll or in the middle of a kandu. Many are small and can easily be circled in one dive, whilst others are quite large and need several dives in order to see everything. The top of thilas are usually found between 5 to 16 meters, with the bottom parts dropping off to the atoll plate. On many thilas the place to be to view the action is at the ‘current point’ which is the side of the thila hit by the current as it passes by. When currents are running, the easiest way to keep yourself in position is to use a reef hook since this causes no damage to the reef and allows you to effortlessly watch the action.

A giri is similar to a thila but the top of it will only be just below the surface. These often make great night dives during which you can discover many small hidden creatures.

Currents

Maldives currents

 

There are many currents and they are famous for their strength which makes the Maldives a very special place. The sea is very rich in fish because of the food movement. On each diving boat, one of the dive masters uses the jump into the water before the dive in order to check the strength of the current and in which direction it is going. Rob was our hero that did the job during the whole week.

Climate

Sunbathing on the deck of the boat with a typical Maldivian skyline

Since Maldives is situated on the Equatorial belts, the climate is usually warm throughout the year but also dotted with mild monsoons. The temperatures remain mild, ranging between 26 to 31 degrees centigrade all year long.

The best time of the year to get there is generally during January to April. However; in February 2008 the rain was pouring non-stop for two weeks.

Our trip took place in July, during the wet season (between April and October). The weather was not splendid but it was relatively OK and the diving was really good! This is also a good period to see pelagic.

The dry season is between November and April. November and April are the transition months during which the waters are cooler than the rest of the year.

Summary of the dive trip

Honey comb moray being cleaned – Maldives

The dive week is a five and half dive trip (even if we dived seven days). When embarking on the boat the first day, we had some time to put our belongings in our rooms, get our equipment ready and rest a little bit after our long trip.

We began our “safari” in the afternoon with a check dive at “Back Faru”, close to the Club Med Island. We had there a first taste of what would wait for us the rest of the week. We had quite a strong surge. It was really not easy to photograph, the movement going up and down made it difficult to focus. The visibility for this first dive was not fantastic, approximately 15 meters. After the dive, when I told Rob about the strong current we had, he answered “that’s not a big current for the Maldives!”

Manta rays turning over an anemone at the cleaning station in Male Atoll, Maldives

Manta rays turning over an anemone at the cleaning station in Male Atoll, Maldives

I understood very quickly what he said. We began the second day at LankanfinohuIsland. It’s a manta ray cleaning station. We dived twice at the same spot. During the first dive, the manta rays showed up only at the end of the dive. That’s why Cindy proposed us a second dive at the same place. During the second dive, we had the chance to see many manta rays and to get really close to them. It was almost possible to touch them.

The surge was quite strong and it was not easy to remain still, catch the reef with one hand and take pictures with the other. Moreover, I had the bad idea to dive with a shorty wetsuit and my knees and elbows really didn’t appreciate it! If you had seen my wife’s face after she saw my knees, when I got back home, you would understand why I would better have had a full wetsuit. We finished the second dive day with a dive at HP reef (thila) to see some small critters. I didn’t understand why that reef’s name was HP. Some people say it is called HP reef for ‘High Pressure’ as a lot of the time the current is very strong there. We timed it right when we went diving so the current was manageable! Up until that day, HP was for me only a huge computer company.

Schooling blue striped snappers, Maldives

The third day began badly because of the pouring rain and the rough wind. We couldn’t dive at 7AM and we had to wait for the weather to calm down.

We dived for the first time at 9AM at Himmafushi Kandu, in quiet waters, allowing us to see some schooling blue striped snappers.

We were supposed to take the direction of Ari atoll but had to change our plans because of the weather since we couldn’t get across. We stayed in the Male atoll and got to its Southern part. We dived at Embudhoo Express where we could see a Peacock mantis shrimp and some more small critters.

We finished our dive day at Kuda Giri, a wreck dive. Many wrecks in the Maldives have been sunken by resort islands to invent new dive spots, this is probably one of them.

When we woke up in the fourth day, the sea was perfectly flat. The sky was cloudy but the weather was nice. We began our first dive at Cocoa Thila. The top of this thila was reaching 16 meters, making the dive quite deep. At 30 meters, we saw a sleeping nurse shark, schooling jacks, and schooling black and white snappers. At the end of the dive, we spotted two large green turtles swimming on the top of the thila.

Peacock mantis shrimp, Maldives

We continued our trip to the Southern point of Male atoll and got to the Hathi Kolhu dive spot, well known for its population of blue/yellow and black ribbon eels, yellow leaf fishes and mantis shrimps.

The next dive was at Heart Thila; it is called like that because of the way it looks. We could see some small critters like anemone shrimps, porcelain crabs, and much more,

This was the only day we did four dives. The last dive on that day was a night dive, the only one we did at night during the week. We did it at the same spot. We could see there among many other species some spider crabs and juvenile parrot fish

On the fifth day in the morning, we could appreciate the splendid sunrise over Guraidhoo Island. We began our day with a dive at Cocoa Corner where we could see there some yellowhead snappers; white tips sharks, and huge lobsters…

Sunrise over Guraidhoo Island, Maldives

We called our second dive at Lhosfushi channel, the “washing machine”. It was the dive we had the strongest current of the entire trip. That would have been an ideal site to have used a reef hook on the corner. No way to stay still, the only way was to drift with the current. There were a couple of white tips, jacks, a huge group of bannerfish, but the current was so strong that it was pretty hard to appreciate anything except the stream. Yet, I had an unusual experience, I wanted to know which one is stronger, my head or the reef and I found out! In fact, while I looked up to take a picture of some jacks I hit with my head on the reef as I was drifting. It was not such a great experience as you can easily imagine…

The third dive was much quieter at Gaathu Giri. We saw some small species, like seastar shrimp, yellow pipefish, clams, and many more.

Clownfishes in their host anemone, Maldives

The sixth day was our last full dive day. We began with a dive at Dhighu Thila, a very large thila with the top at 10 to12 meters depth. We saw six eagle rays schooling, yellow pufferfish, some nice and huge anemones.

The second dive at Miyaru Faru corner (Miyaru means shark but we haven’t seen any of them there). The reef was really nice but the water was greenish.

During the third dive at Banana Reef (again named like that because of the way it looks), we had no current at all. However, we had beautiful scenery, even if the water was greenish. We saw some huge grouper, napoleon fish, and huge schools of tiny glassfish. At the end of the dive, we took the road to Himmafushi (close toMaleIsland) when a storm appeared. We had to drive really slowly.

I the morning of the seventh day, those who had no night flight could dive again at the manta spot, as a farewell dive. It’s really moving to see from so close those splendid creatures moving slowly. At the end of the dive, we rinsed all our equipment and we went to spend the afternoon in Male city.

Diving equipment advice

Ali the divemaster and a sleeping nurse shark, Maldives

As on most of the worldwide live-aboards, you should bring your own gear.

Water temperature is warm all year long ranging between 28-30 degrees centigrade. I’d suggest not taking a wet suit that is too heavy, 2 or 3 mm should be fine.

Currents can be very strong and reefs are harsh. I am highly recommending a full wetsuit instead of a short one to keep your knees and elbows safe. Good buoyancy control is vital.

It’s also important to have an SMB safety sausage to be seen by the boat before surfacing.

Dive alert is recommended.

Because of the strong currents, reef hook can be useful in some situations. It’s generally available for purchase on-board at $30.

Keep in mind that most of the airline companies flying to and from Maldives allow only 20 Kgs in the suitcase.

Underwater Photographers

Manta ray at the cleaning station, Maldives

No problem if you have light equipment like point and shoot camera.

At the back of the boat, there are two large containers which are always filled with fresh water for camera rinsing.

If you’re an SLR user with a lot of equipment and, like me, you refuse to take the risk to send any part of it in your suitcase, you should have a large photo bag but not too bulky so that no one will look at it from too close. Mine looks bulky because of the built-in trolley so I had some problems to get into the flights with it but after explaining gently to the stewards that it’s expensive camera equipment, they let me in. Since the entire camera equipment bag is too heavy for airplanes regulations, I use a photo vest in which I transfer a large part of the equipment (lenses, flashes…) from my bag. It’s a little heavy on the shoulder and I generally look like an alien when wearing my vest with my pockets full, but the most important is that it’s discreet and that’s the key to traveling with your UW camera equipment.

Be ready, the bulky camera kit doesn’t help in the water against the current.

Lanyard might be a good option to secure the camera.

Turtle passing by in Male manta cleaning station, Maldives

Reef hook might help you at current points, but if you want to get really close to the action, it won’t help you and you will have to catch the reef with one hand and take a picture with the other. Very wide-angle or fish-eye lens will be the best choice for the manta cleaning station because you will see the mantas from very close!

The staff gave us the cameras after we jumped into the water and took them back at the end of the dive. I attached my camera flash arms together using a double end bolt snap so that it was easier for the staff (and for me) to carry all the kit. They even got so used to it that once, when I forgot to attach the arms at the end of a dive, they could not figure out how to pull the camera out anymore. When I noticed the problem I rapidly attached the arms and the staff guy was relievedJ.

Choose the lenses you will take with you in function of the wide variety of micro life and the many wide types of scenery,

Sea Spirit is not equipped with a photo table since there is no dive deck at the back of the boat. I usually took care of my kick on one of the lounge’s tables and Cindy reserved me a place on the ground where I could leave it when not in use.

If you like to have the sun in your underwater pictures, you might want to choose a less cloudy period of the year than the one I chose. I was there in July. January to April should be the perfect months, but as you know, it’s also a question of luck.

Two video clips made by Ran Ton during our stay in the Maldives

Manta Clip

Diving Clip

 

Additional things you should know to travel the Maldives

Another hard working day in the Maldives

Visa

A 30-day tourist visa is issued to all tourists upon arrival. Tourists are required to have a confirmed booking at a resort, hotel or safari vessel for immigration clearance. Visa extensions may be obtained from the department of Immigration and Emigration in Male.

Electricity

Most of the boats provide 220V. Because of the historical British influence in the Maldives, all the plugs areUKmodel. If you are not from theUK, you will need to have the bulky adaptor in order to get power. Sea Spirit has adaptors onboard

There is a place in the lounge where it’s possible to recharge all the batteries. It’s forbidden to recharge in the room because of overheating reasons.

Male, Maldives capital island

Currency

Maldives Rufiyaa has a constant rate compared to the $US

1 US Dollar = 12.960 Maldives Rufiyaa

1MaldivesRufiyaa (MVR) = 0.07716 US Dollar (USD)

The $US can be used everywhere. It’s better to use the Dollars than to change them into Rufiyaa. Just be sure to keep the exchange rate in mind.

Phone and internet

There is a wireless connection available all over theMaldives. In order to get connected, you need to buy a mobile phone SIM card from Dhiraagu, the national mobile phone company, before embarking the live-aboard. The SIM card costs approximately $US 4. You can charge it according to your need. You can buy one at the airport when you first arrive – speak to whoever meets you!

There are two methods to do this:

Method 1: Get an account via SMS using Dhiraagu Mobile. Send an SMS to 414 with a keyword as detailed below, or just send a blank SMS to 414 to receive they keyword syntax.

Method 2: A prepaid voucher can be purchased from a wireless zone prepaid card dealer on the island.

Dhiraagu Wireless Zone

It’s not recommended to use your own (non-Maldivian) mobile phone with theMaldivesnetwork because it might be expensive. However, you could use it only to send SMSes.

Sun

Be aware that the Maldives is right on the equator, you will be really close to the sun. Even on a cloudy day the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays are present.

To avoid dehydration, it’s important to drink enough water all day long.

Cuts and Scratches

Small cuts and scratches become infected very quickly in tropical waters. Be sure to wash any cuts with fresh water after diving/swimming and apply antiseptic.

Male’s big Mosq, Maldives

Language & script

Dhivehi spoken throughout the Maldives is a language belonging to the Indo-Iranian group of languages. The language is spoken only in the Maldives and Minicoy Island in the Lakshadweep Atoll (India) to the north of theMaldives.

The present script, Thaana was introduced in the late sixteenth century and is written from right to left.

Maldives religion

Maldives is a Muslim country and so is the local law. It’s forbidden to import any alcohol, pork products, pornographic materials and, as in most of the world’s countries, drugs, of course.

Underwater life

A couple of white tips sharks passing by, Maldives

Sharks

Since the early 2000,Maldivesis not categorized anymore as a shark destination. The reason for that is the over fishing. It’s not easy anymore to see grey reef sharks like you used to see all over theMaldivesonly 10 years ago. Sometimes, you might have the chance to see one or perhaps more of them in theMaldivesbut it’s quite rare and sporadic.

One of the places where it’s still possible to see them in large schools is quite far from Male, in the Southern part of the Huvadhoo atoll, deep south of theMaldives. Over there, the dives are taking place in very strong current. The way to get there is with an “air-taxi” water plane and to reside in one of the local resorts from which, daily trips are organized.

Maya Thila is another good spot where sharks often visit; it is closer to the center islands, inside the Ari Atoll. It’s possible to get there even with a live-aboard departing from Male, if the weather permits the crossing between the atolls. Sharks are not coming there in the same quantities as seen in the Southern Atoll. However, a well-known great barracuda resides in the waters of Maya Thila.

White tips sharks can easily be seen all over the country.

Sometimes, scalloped hammerheads may be noticed in the Southern part of Rasdoo Atoll, next to the Ari Atoll. You should plan a couple of dives at that spot to increase your chances to see them. They generally don’t appear in large quantities as can be seen in theCocos Islandsor in the Galapagos and they are swimming quite deep, next to the ground, approximately at 40 meters.

Whale sharks can generally be seen in Maanigili, in the Southern part of Ari Atoll. That spot can be reached either with a 12-day live-aboard starting from Male or using daily trips starting from resorts close to the dive spot. Whale sharks around there are smaller (6-7 meters) than the ones that can be seen in the Galapagos and Cocos Islands(up to 15 meters).

Pilot whales, Maldives

Dolphins and whales

A couple of times, we ran across the way of schooling dolphins, one time we even had the chance to see pilot whales, from the ship.

Manta rays

You can see them all year long all over theMaldives. The place where you could see a lot of them and from VERY close is at the manta cleaning station, like atLankanfinohuIsland. Depending on the season and the monsoon, mantas will come to one or the other side of the island.

Turtles

There are many of them all over the archipelago, mostly hawkbill and green turtles. At some sites, there are underwater caves where you can see them sleeping or even breeding.

Schooling fishes

Many jacks,Maldives sweetlips, black and white snappers, humpback snappers and many more….

Micro life

There is a very rich micro life. Many species are so small or transparent that it’s often hard to see them and even harder to photograph. Some of them look so strange that you may think that you discovered new species (and you might).

Maldives History (from Maldives Leisure guide)

Male Mosq’s entrance, Maldives

Early History – Maldives lies on the maritime trading routes of early Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley civilizations. They would have inevitably stamped their mark on the early civilization and culture of Maldives. Later the Phoenicians sailed through the islands, and in the centuries that followed came Egyptians, Chinese, Greek, Romans and Arabs.

Islam – The most profound impact on the history and culture of theMaldives came from Arab travelers. For the Arabs, theMaldiveswas a popular stopover en route to the South East, where they replenished their water and food supplies. The most outstanding milestone of this relationship with the Arabs occurred in 1153 AD when Maldives converted to Islam.

The Portuguese occupation – During the early 16th century, the Portuguese started gaining influence in theIndian Ocean. In 1558 they invaded theMaldivesand ruled the country for 17 years. Mohamed Thakurufaanu, the most revered hero of theMaldives, led a guerilla war against the Portuguese. Eventually in 1573 he led a small band of men into Male’ harbor and in the stillness of the night searched for and defeated the enemy. Mohamed Thakurufaanu became Sultan and reigned for the next 12 years.

The Dutch – In the seventeenth century, the Dutch dominated theIndian Ocean. Anxious to befriend the new superpower, Maldives established diplomatic ties with the Dutch Governor inSri Lankain 1645 and exchanged tributes, a practice which continued for centuries. In 1796 the British took over from the Dutch in Sri Lanka and trade between Male’ and Colombo in creased.

British protectorate – In 1887, the Sultan signed a treaty with the British Governor of Sri Lanka andMaldivesbecame a British protectorate. TheMaldivesbecame independent from the British on 26th July 1965.

Male, the busy city, Maldives

20th Century Maldives

The twentieth century was a great period of change in theMaldives. The first constitution was passed in 1932 and the first attempt to form a republic in 1952 failed after one year. In 1968, three years after independence from the British the people voted to change the government from the centuries old Sultanate to a Republic.Maldivesbecame a member of the United Nations in 1965.

In the last quarter of the century, the economy changed from the age-old traditional system based on fisheries and agriculture to a modern economy that rode on the success of the newly established tourism industry and a modernized and mechanized fishing industry. Maldivians enjoy the highest per capita GDP in South Asia today.

 

 

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