Diving in Male Atoll, Ari Atoll and Vaavu Atoll
I return to the Maldives hoping to discover the world famous low-lying country with 1190 islands before it vanishes as a result of global warming or ruined by over-development and mass tourism. I do it in style by taking an 8-day live-aboard diving trip.Background During my brief stay in the Maldives in January this year, I met Sui Mei, an enthusiastic Beijing girl who falls in love with diving and has since become a diving instructor. She suggested me join her on a diving trip from April 2 to May 1. I therefore turn this diving trip into a 3-month journey beginning in the Maldives and ending in Madagascar, both in the Indian Ocean. Other countries on the itinerary include South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Mauritius and Reunion Island. As Sui Mei’s group had been cancelled, she arranged me to go with Larry in Princess Audrey from April 23 to 30.
April 21 Thursday: Hong Kong (GMT+8) – Malé, Maldives (GMT+5)
I took a direct flight with Cathay Pacific to Malé. As the airport was very busy, the plane was delayed for almost an hour and left around 6:30pm. I had a comfortable flight and watched three movies. The Malé airport was busy too and my plane could not land till sometime to 10pm. Luckily, I had arranged hotel pick-up for US$10 and was met on arrival. Sui Mei arranged me to stay at Hulhumale Inn near her dive shop.
April 22 Friday – April 23 Saturday: Hulhumale
I must finish uploading photos of my Norwegian trip to my website before going on board. But the internet is hopelessly slow. I only managed to get 98% of the job done. I stayed in the hotel all the time and only went out twice to pick up diving gear from Sui Mei and to eat. I discovered a newly opened Pakistan restaurant called Tandoori. The mutton curry with nann is excellent. My meal with a ginger tea and chai cost me $16. Good value!
April 23 – 30: 7-night Diving Trip on board Princess Audrey
Day 1 Saturday: Hulhumale Harbour
Larry picked up me at the hotel around 3:30pm and I met two young Singaporean couples (Joanna and Stanley, Yong and YY) at the airport. We took a dhoni (a traditional Maldivian wooden boat) to Princess Audrey which was in the harbour outside the airport. The boat is comfortable and spacious with 12 rooms for 24 guests. We had 21 people from three main groups – YY’s party of four, Darren, a diving instructor with five divers and two owners of the boat (PY and Keong) with eight friends/divers. I am the only non – Singaporean passenger. As the boat was not full, Larry kindly let me stay in Cabin 2 with seaview but one bed on the upper deck. Fantastic!
We followed a simple routine: breakfast between 8 and 9 am after the first dive, lunch around 1 pm followed by dinner between 7 and 8 pm. We were well-taken care of by ten dedicated staff including three diving masters and instructors! The day started off in style with a blue clear sky, calm sea and pleasant breezes with temperature around 26C. I love the sea and enjoy the gentle movements and soothing music of the ocean.
Day 2 Sunday: North Male Atoll – North Ari Atoll
I had a good sleep and got up before the morning call at 6am. I met the group Led by Keong which arrived around 11pm last night. After a short briefing, we put on our gear and were ready for a check dive at a manta ray cleaning station off Paradise Island. I joined YY’s party of four and our diving master was Shaneez. (Picture above shows a bridge under construction linking Male with the airport island)
My last dive was in Mabul, Malaysia in December 2014. I brought my mask with prescription while hiring the diving equipments from Sui Mei. As soon as I put on my mask, I realised I was in trouble with air and water sipping in. I had no choice but got out of the water. Ahmed, an attendant on the dhoni found me a mask without prescription. Though I would not see clearly, I could at least get into the water.
The second dive was at Sting Ray City nearby and right next to a fish factory). I put on the borrowed mask and jumped into the water. Somehow, the mask did not fit well: water was sipping in again. I told Shaneez to go ahead without me. Ahmed found me another mask which again did not fit. Finally I found a way to use the first one and snorkelled for some 15 minutes without problem. The water was clear and I could see a dozen of large sting rays in the water. I also watched some of our divers before they disappeared in the deep blue sea. I was thrilled to see half a dozen giant trevallies swimming by. As the mask seemed to work, I hoped to join the next dive.
When my friends returned to the boat, they told me they had a great time watching some 20 sting rays at the sandy bottom. Stanley showed me a movie of the rays with a gigantic moray eel.
As soon as everyone was on board, we sailed west to Ari Atoll, one of the biggest atolls located in the west of the archipelago. Spreading over an area of about 89 by 3 km, it is divided into North and South Ari Atoll. The original plan was to go to watch manta ray in the Fesdhoo Lagoon at night. As there were already five boat inside the lagoon, Captain Muhammad decided to move to another location at Maaya Thila for a night dive. As an open water diver without a proper mask, I would not go. Around 8:30pm, the diving party departed and had fun watching white-tip sharks feeding near the reef, eels and other nocturnal fishes hunting for food.
Day 3 Monday: 4 Dives in North Ari Atoll
Today, I was ready for action feeling confident even with a mask without prescription. I held my breath as I jumped into the sea. Shaneez kept a close watch and was always by my side. Farah an experienced diver working with the cruise company also stayed with our group of five. I felt very safe indeed!
My first dive was at Hafsa Thila where I saw a great variety of fish including white-tip and black reef sharks, jack fish and all the common coral fish families in the Maldives including trigger fish, groupers, cornefish, angelfish, butterfly fish, soldier fish, surgeon fish, sweet-lips etc. Though I could not see clearly, it’s better than nothing. Just imagine standing in front of an impressionist painting.
We had the second dive before lunch at Fish Head a pinnacle. The water was murky with poor visibility. But there are still plenty to see including sea ferns, shoals of Moorish idol, common blue-stripe snapper and one-spot snapper, butterfly fish, lion fish, parrot fish etc.After lunch, we arrived at the Fesdhoo Wreck. I went down with Shaneez. The visibility was low and we soon lost sight of the rest of the group. We dived along the pinnacle which was not impressive till we were almost at the top: it is a beautiful coral garden with abundant colourful soft and hard corals teeming with coral fish. The water was crystal clear. Suddenly I could not find Shaneez. But I was not scared as the water was shallow with excellent visibility. Soon, I saw my group again and stayed with them. After the dive, I realised Shaneez was very upset when he could not find me. He reminded me to stay close to him and never went strayed again! Anyway, YY’s group had joined other groups and dived all the way to see the wreck which has clear water and looks like a coral garden.
In the afternoon, I took another look at my damaged mask and one staff in the control room discovered a crack at the top of the mask. Ahmed then applied super glue and managed to fix the problem! We had a fun afternoon with a gigantic waterslide in the lagoon.
We had a night dive to watch manta rays in the Fesdhoo Lagoon. It is one of the highlights of this trip. Five boats in the lagoon all switched on a strong light to attract plankton which is the food for the rays. We waited for over an hour after dinner before learning the arrival of several rays about 100m from our boat. We quickly got into the dhoni and put on the diving gear within a few minutes.
Off we jumped with a torch in hand. Shaneez held my hand and made sure I knelt down in the sandy bottom about 12m below the surface. We formed a semi circle with all our torches pointing upward to attract plankton. Soon, three or four gigantic rays arrived. With my own mask on this time, I watched the majestic rays gliding by a feet from me or hoovering just above my head. This’s my second night dive in my life. What an experience!
Around 11pm, I returned to my cabin while others hanged around drinking and talking. Then I missed the show of the night when a couple of manta rays swam close to our boat around 11:30pm. What a pity!
Day 4 Tuesday: 3 Dives in South Ari Atoll
The boat moved south while we were still in bed. We had the 7am dive at Miyaru Thila a location for reef shark watching. I saw at least three white-tip reef sharks swimming above me or laying at the sandy bottom. The water was murky and I missed the sighting of a big Grey Shark. With my own mask, I began to appreciate the seascape, the cliff walls of the pinnacle with countless overhanging hard corals forming caves of all sizes. Shaneez showed me shoals of fish inside the caves and garden eels on the a cave floor.
The second morning dive was at another pinnacle Camel Back, a manta ray cleaning station. The visibility was good. We dropped to a sandy bottom of about 20m and waited for some 25 minutes. No manta ray in sight. Shaneez signalled us to follow him and we spent 15 minutes looking at a coral garden. Just when we were about to ascend after having spent 30 minutes underwater, Shaneez suddenly spotted a manta ray coming in our direction. We hurriedly dived down and watched it for a minute before it disappeared.
Then the boat moved on and dropped anchor just off Dhagethi, the village our captain came from. Around 4 pm, we were on the dhoni heading to Nu Thila just off Dhagethi in search of eagle rays, reef sharks, barracudas etc. Once again, I saw plenty of fish except three types we were looking for. An uneventful dive.
At 6pm, we were dropped off at the pier and set foot on land for the first time. Dhagethi is a local village popular with tourists and divers. The island with a population of about 1000, looks tidy with a dozen of shops along the main street. I wanted to wander around. But Shaneez told me not to. At the end, he walked with me and we went to a pharmacy and several local stores to get ice cream for the crew. More interesting than visiting the souvenir shops. I also spoke with a couple of young girls who are not shy and speak good English. I ran into Sui Mei who was taking a group of 18 Chinese on another boat. She told me her group had already seen a baby whale shark earlier that day.
Day 5 Wednesday: South Ari Atoll – Vaavu Atoll: 3 Dives
After a briefing at 6:30am, we jumped into our dhoni heading to Dhihdhoo Beyru to look for whale sharks. It’s a fairly long ride passing by a few resort islands before reaching a 4km-long reef. We saw half a dozen dolphins and a lonely turtle before jumping off our boat. The underwater world here is beautiful with layers and layers of pancake corals teeming with most colourful coral fish. I dived to a depth of around 25m. Corals and ferns are flourishing on the pinnacle but the sandy bottom looked uninviting. Shaneez pointed at something black on a rock but I could not figure out what it was (it was an octopus). After diving for about 30 minutes, Shaneez signalled us to ascend. Just when we were about to surface, Shaneez spotted a whale shark coming towards us. We all quickly turned around watching in amazement at this beautiful creature of about four metres long with distinctive black and white round spots. Yong captured it beautifully on her camera. Within a minute, it disappeared into the deep blue sea. What an awesome and unforgetable sight!
By the time we got back to the boat it’s about 9am. I had a short rest after breakfast before heading for the second dive. But this time, over 20 boats large and small were already gathering in the area. Some were snorkelling posing danger to themselves and the boats. As I jumped into the water, I saw my friends and diving masters all racing to the bottom: something exciting must be down there. By the time I reached 30m, the whale shark had gone. Stanley saw it when he reached a depth of 35m. We looked in vain for the next half an hour. But the sea is full of wonderful marine life: a small hawks bill turtle was swimming ahead of me before settling comfortably in its home between rocks while a bright yellow colour trumpet following two beautiful yellow tangs was swimming by my side.
When I was back on the boat, I learnt that two whale sharks had been swimming close to the boat. The snorkelling crowd and our crew had a fantastic time watching them from above. The boat took six hours to get to our next diving spot at Vaavu Atoll south of Malé. We had a lovely sunset when we passed an idyllic BBQ island (which we had a BBQ dinner the following evening).
The boat just moored off the Alimatha Resort. This time, we went for a night dive near the jetty at a depth of around 12m. Yenn, a diving master dropped tuna fish on the shallow rock bottom to feed the fish. I had a firm grip on the rocks and managed to watch the live show featuring dozens of giant trevallies and jacks, four nurse sharks and a huge marble ray. The sharks would squeeze their pointed flat head between rocks and into the sand to find food. I did not notice the ray was lying on top of my leg while a shark were at my feet for a few minutes! On a couple of occasions, the sharks swam towards, beside or above me: the biggest guy almost knocked me off!
I had a close encounter with sharks while feeding them on a diving trip in 2001 in Australia. But this is the first time I can look into their small eyes and observe how they suck in the water and throw the sand out through their gills. Their skin is like sand paper. We were back on the boat around 9pm and had a late dinner. What an awesome Shark Day!
Day 6 Thursday: 3 Dives at Vaavu Atoll – The Best Day
The sun was torching hot when we jumped off the dhoni at Miyaru Kanda around 7am. The sea was calm and looked like a mirror. This is one of the best spots for drift diving. The water was crystal clear with excellent visibility of some 30m. I dropped to about 32m before starting to drift upward. Finally we hooked ourselves onto rocks on the atoll with our face towards the deep channel. Like in a movie, I watched an eagle ray, a dozen of Grey sharks and white-tip reef sharks, tuna, blue trevallies, giant jacks, big Napoleon wrasse and many shoals of fusilier, rainbow runners and many families of coral fish swimming by. During the 15-minute ascent, I watched the most beautiful white sandy underwater landscape I have ever seen. The ever moving sand has sculptured a magnificent landscape scattered with dark tree-like corals that look like bonsai decorated with colourful coral fish.
After breakfast, the energetic group went for water ski-boarding and had great fun. I was lazy and laid in the shade on the sun-deck enjoying the breeze and expansive ocean.
We returned to the same spot for the second dive. I dropped to 33m but visibility was not as good as before. Anyway, I saw sharks and two eagle rays and a large shoal of groupers.
The third dive was called “Fun Express”. The water was clear and visibility was perfect. We dropped to the sandy bottom 20 metre-deep. Here we spent some ten minutes taking group photos. Then I took off the fins and walked bared footed. The white sand is soft and beautiful; the sea is surreal with a postcard range of purple – blue colours. On both sides of the sandy bottom are gentle slopes with the bonsai-like dark corals. I walked slowly gazing at small details that have gone unnoticed before. I saw goby, sandperch and other coral fish that look the same as in the book.
Before sunset, we went ashore on a BBQ island. The staff were busy setting up the table, digging sand to create a manta ray and a whale shark and preparing food. I was busy taking pictures of the sunset and the staff at work. We had a most enjoyable dinner. The only thing missing was the moon!
Day 7 Friday: Last Dive in South Male Atoll
We had our last dive at Kandooma Thila at 7am. I dropped to a depth of 33m for the last time and enjoyed a drift dive. I hooked onto some rocks around 25m for about ten minutes to watch sharks, eagle rays, barracudas, tuna coming and going. Today’s highlight was a gigantic Napoleon. Unfortunately visibility was not good enough for an impressive grand finale.
After breakfast, the boat headed back to Hulhumale where it moored for the night. The staff were busy cleaning and drying our diving gear. Time passed quickly and I only managed to sort out the photos I have taken for my friends and the staff. YY has kindly given me his videos on the whale sharks, shark feeding and the rays. An excellent souvenir of this trip!
Day 8 Saturday (April 30): Malé – Hulhumale: End of Diving Trip
At 9am, we were transferred by the dhoni to Malé. I wandered aimlessly around for an hour walking past the Medhu Ziyaarath, the shrine of Abu al Barakaath Yusuf al Barbari, a North African believed to be responsible for converting the Maldivians to Islam since 1153 AD, the Friday Mosque (1656), the Munnaaru (a minaret built in 1657), the Mulee-Aage (now the Presidential Palace) and the Islamic Center.
But the most lively and interesting places for me are the vegetable and fish markets. As it was sunny and hot, I returned to the dhoni at 10:30am. When everyone was on board, we were taken and dropped off at the airport pier. I said good-bye to Yong, YY, Joanna and Stanley who were having two more days in Holiday Inn Resort before returning to Singapore.
Farah and Keong who would not fly out till 11pm, gave me a lift to Hulhumale. I was back in the Hulhumale Inn before noon. I returned the diving gear to Sui Mei (rental of $155 for a wet suit, BC, regulator, computer watch and a pair of fins). I thanked her for arranging my first live-aboard cruise in the Maldives.
I feel like going home when I stepped into Hulhumale Inn. I had a nice spacious room on the ground floor and spent the rest of the day getting in touch with family and friends and preparing trip notes. I had a late lunch with mutton and union naan in the Pakistani restaurant.
May 1 Sunday: Maldives – Doha, Qatar – Cape Town, South Africa (to add)