Maldives Dive Report
Copyright © 2006 -- All Rights Reserved
Consider Island Dreams' February 2007 Maldives Group Tour
FOURTH TIME'S THE CHARM -- It had been eight years since I last visited the Maldives, and much has changed in that time. On my three previous trips, I worked to gain an overall knowledge of this distinctive island nation. Two visits were spent inspecting and diving with the live-aboard safari boats hoping to cater to the U.S. dive travel market. In 1998, my third Maldivian journey was intended specifically to define and assess the various land-based dive resorts that grace these jewel-like islands straddling the Equator in the Indian Ocean. The report you are reading today is the result of my fourth visit to the Maldives, accomplished in January 2006. I made the journey specifically to experience the newest and finest dive boat in the region, Peter Hughes' superb Ocean Dancer. I will do my best here to provide you with an in-depth feeling for this vessel. Beyond that, it was important for me to reassess the quality of the diving subsequent to the powerful El Nino episode of 1998. It is my hope that you will find this information of value, and that it perhaps sparks in you some of the interest that I feel for this unique destination.
GETTING THERE - -- The Europeans have been coming here for decades, but it is only recently that this remote archipelago nation has begun to appear as a destination for travelers from the U.S.A. Located in the Indian Ocean, south of India and Sri Lanka; for Americans the Maldives are quite literally half way around the world. I'll not equivocate about the fact that it's a long journey. On this visit I again enjoyed the efficient services of Singapore Airlines, repeatedly rated number one for the quality of its in-flight service. Flights originate from New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, traveling, respectively east or west, into Singapore. Singapore's Changi International Airport is so modern, well designed, and equipped with amenities and orchid gardens that it is almost a travel destination in its own right. Prior to the connecting flight, one may take advantage of a quick (and free) Singapore city tour, shopping and a snack, or a shower and nap in one of the airport's two comfortable day room hotels. Then it's back aboard Singapore Airlines for the four-hour non-stop flight heading west, Singapore to Male, capitol of the Maldives.
ARRIVAL in the MALDIVES -- All of my baggage again arrived without mishap, as is to be expected of Singapore Airlines (they allow two checked bags per passenger at 70 pounds each, plus one carry on bag no heavier than 16 pounds). Be advised however that Customs and Immigration in the Maldives can be a bit more rigorous than that which we have come to expect elsewhere in our travels. A devout and peaceful Moslem nation, the Maldives wish to protect their citizenry from the ravages of Western civilization, in particular alcohol, drugs, and pornography, so you may expect to have your bags inspected upon arrival in Male. In fact, they x-ray all incoming luggage, looking for such impious items. While alcohol is available on the live-aboards and at the various tourist resorts, there is none in Male and the government asks that you not import your own. If Customs inspectors do find alcohol in your luggage, they will take it away, and return it to you upon your departure from the country. As it was, my bags passed through the x-ray machines without piquing any untoward interest, and again I walked through Maldivian Customs with nary a bag being opened.
INTER-ISLAND TRAVEL -- Male is the capitol, a city of 65,000+ people densely populating a small island. The adjacent airstrip is on its own aircraft carrier-sized island, called Hulhule. As you might expect of a nation composed of almost 1200 islands, taxi service is provided by small boats, speedy inter-island ferries, seaplanes, and even helicopters. Most of the islands have no roads at all, and I'm quite sure that the Maldives can boast of many more boats than automobiles. As a rule, guests are met at the airport by a representative of their resort or dive operation, and assisted with forward transfers. In our case arriving late at night, Peter Hughes' representatives met us at the airport and helped us to load our gear aboard their dive tender. After motoring ten minutes through the darkened waters we arrived at the brightly lit M/V Ocean Dancer, which was to be our home for the next week of explorations. We were greeted by smiling faces offering chilled towels and fresh fruit juices, providing a pleasant and propitious beginning to my fourth Maldives exploration.
LAND-BASED RESORTS -- Tourism in the Maldives has been permitted only since 1972. Now a major industry and important source of foreign exchange, tourism is nurtured, and carefully controlled, by the Maldivian government. Currently there are 86 tourist resorts in the Maldives, each on its own island. The government has recently opened eight more islands to the bidding process for the creation of new projects. As new atolls are opened to tourism, they are subject to wisely considered stipulations as to how the island may be developed. Sustainable, managed growth and a strong desire to preserve the intrinsic natural beauty are clearly both the intention and the reality. All resorts must have water desalination plants, proper sewage treatment, electrical generation plants, etc. Each resort has its own unique ambiance, often a result of the prevailing ethnicity of its guests. There are resorts specifically designed to cater to French tourism, German, Italian, British, Dutch, Japanese, etc. From its rate card, the Hilton Rangali Resort & Spa seems dedicated to serving the world's wealthiest travelers. Others focus on serving fishermen, wind-surfers, snorkelers, and, fortunately for us, serious scuba divers.
LINK - Learn more about land-based resorts in the Maldives
LIVE-ABOARD DIVING -- For all of the quality and variety of the various land-based resorts, I am convinced that a good live-aboard dive boat offers by far the best diving experience in this far-flung island nation. A live-aboard affords you the opportunity to cherry-pick the best diving sites and water conditions, easily moving from island to island, or even between the large atoll groups. As a result, there are now more than 50 such "safari boats" plying the waters of the Maldives. They come in various qualities, levels of service, and price point. Some are quite Spartan by U.S. standards. Fortunately, there are a few vessels that have chosen to go the extra distance to serve the demanding American dive market. Of these, the new Peter Hughes Ocean Dancer has just raised the bar for quality, comfort, and on-aboard service. As of 2006, Ocean Dancer is clearly the largest and finest live-aboard dive boat in the Maldives. Also still in the hunt are Ibrahim Manik's venerable M/V Manthiri, and Giorio Rossi's impressive Madivaru 7. I will first report on Ocean Dancer, and then provide updates on these worthy competitors.
M/V OCEAN DANCER -- Ocean Dancer is the love child of Captain David Mesnard, a Frenchman who already has 16 seasons of diving and surfing in the Maldives under his weight belt. Built at a cost of almost two million dollars, and two years in the making, Ocean Dancer is 110 feet long, and a spacious 30 feet wide. She weighs in at 200 tons, offering a swift and very stable ride. Built in the Maldives by traditional craftsmen employing modern techniques, she has a sturdy mahogany wood hull, teak decks, custom built furnishings, spacious air-conditioned cabins, modern bathrooms, a huge comfortably appointed salon, and spacious exterior decks. High-tech amenities include a Bose sound system and wide screen high definition LCD monitor in the salon, and personal DVD systems in each individual cabin. This excellent ship is graced with a Maldivian crew to match. Captain Zareer is one of the most capable, hard-working, and personable ship captains I've ever sailed with. His worth is all the more valuable in that he is a scuba diver and has worked in the Maldives for many years as both safari boat captain and divemaster. His crew was very friendly and always on the job. With never a command required, they stood waiting to serve exactly where needed. Captain David Mesnard also sails with Ocean Dancer, and heads up the divemaster team. A superb waterman (in fact he is also a free diving instructor), Mesnard's knowledge of the Maldives, and love of the sea, adds a very special touch to the Ocean Dancer experience.
DIVING DHONI -- In the Maldives, it has long been customary to cruise on a safari boat, but to dive from a separate boat that accompanies the cruise. Called a dhoni, this vessel is smaller, more maneuverable, and dive gear stays onboard for the duration of the trip. The dive dhoni also carries the air compressors. When it's time to fill tanks, the dhoni stands off from the main vessel, so that guests are spared the noise of the compressors. Ocean Dancer has chosen to stick with this traditional system, and has built a very good dive dhoni for the purpose, far superior to those typical of the Maldives. I was also pleased with the dhoni crew. They were knowledgeable and helpful in handling divers, scuba gear, and camera equipment. Of utmost importance, Ocean Dancer's dhoni driver was very capable and cautious as he maneuvered the boat to pick up divers at the end of dive. It helped immensely that he worked the boat from a modern forward helm, rather than steering via a tiller from the stern (with their feet!) as is the case with most other dhonis.
CRUISING WITH PETER HUGHES -- As of this writing he is 58 years old, fit and still dashingly handsome despite a lifetime in the sun and on the sea. Born in Scotland, raised in Trinidad/Tobago, and now a U.S. citizen and successful business operator, Peter Hughes has been scuba diving for almost 50 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he has personally made an indelible and very positive impact on our sport. Peter began his career in diving at Camp Crusoe in Tobago, teaching children to snorkel and dive. In 1971 he started from scratch the dive operation at Anthony's Key Resort in Roatan, rescuing AKR from becoming a sailing resort. His groundbreaking dive operation at the Flamingo Beach Hotel in Bonaire further revolutionized land-based dive services. Peter's first live-aboard dive boat, M/V Sea Dancer, continued the pattern of creativity and innovation, and sparked the concept of the luxury live-aboard Dancer Fleet. As a result of a lot of hard work and creative thinking, the man is now a living legend in the dive industry. Friendly, fun loving and easy-going, while still maintaining a steady eye on issues of service and safety, it was an honor to sail and dive with Peter Hughes during one of Ocean Dancer's very first cruises.
M/V MADIVARU 7 -- Commissioned in 1997, the Madivaru 7 is a 100 foot long, 22 foot wide, all wooden, motor yacht worthy of a millionaire. Most of the woodwork, even the hull and decking, is made of thick teak. Many of the internal fixtures, such as lights, mirrors, bathroom fixtures, etc. were imported from Italy. The overall level of craftsmanship is superb, and Madivaru 7 is a beautiful dive vessel. A total of 16 guests are accommodated in eight double occupancy cabins. Most cabins have both a large double bed below and a single bed above. Each cabin has a porthole, high "cathedral" ceiling, very good lighting, a full-length mirror, and a good amount of storage space. All cabins have an attached private bathroom, toilet, and shower remarkably spacious by live-aboard standards. Diving is accomplished from two traditional dive dhonis that accompany the cruise.
M/V MANTHIRI -- There are numerous smaller safari boats operating in the Maldives, but thus far few are set up to cater to the standards that American dive travelers have come to expect. One notable exception is the Manthiri. Built in 1994 for the U.S. market, she is 85 feet long, accommodating twelve guests in air-conditioned, double occupancy cabins, each with private head and shower. In the 1996 off-season, an additional superstructure was added to provide a larger salon and make her look more like an Aggressor boat. She offers 24-hour air-conditioning and 110-volt electrical power in the cabins. Though not nearly as large or fine a vessel as the Ocean Dancer or Madivaru 7, Manthiri receives consistently excellent overall guest commentary specifically because her dive operation is so well developed. Manthiri's lead divemaster, Manik, is acknowledged as one of the very best in the Maldives. Diving is done from a 47-foot compressor equipped dive dhoni that accompanies the cruise.
QUANTITY of DIVING - -- Historically, European dive visitors to the Maldives have been satisfied with logging only two dives per day. Most American dive travelers have come to expect the option of more. Fortunately, both the Manthiri and Madivaru 7's operations have been specifically designed to court the U.S. market, and they routinely offer at least three dives per day. The Ocean Dancer advertises three dives daily, plus at least two night dives per week. Jose Valverde, General Manager of Eurodivers, has assured us that his land-based dive operations are ready, willing and able to do the same. Land-based resorts will concentrate on dive sites within a one or two-hour radius, while the cruise boats will be able to cover more ocean and a greater variety of sites.
OVERVIEW OF MALDIVIAN DIVING -- In addition to miles of very profound wall diving on the outer edges of the various atolls, there are two basic types of diving specific to the Maldives, Tillas and Kandus. A Tilla is a submerged pinnacle or seamount, a large coral structure jutting up out of deeper water. Approaching within just a few feet of the surface, and reminiscent of the barely submerged reefs of the Red Sea, Tillas serve as magnets for fish life, offering haven for juvenile reef fish up through cruising jacks, tuna, sharks and rays. A Kandu is a cut or pass into the reef, where current and tidal changes produce enhanced coral growth, and a conglomeration of both reef fishes and pelagics such as sharks and eagle rays. Of necessity drift dives, we learned that Kandus are best dived on the incoming tide, when the water is an intense oceanic blue and visibility can well exceed 150 feet. Diving the Maldives often means diving in current. Currents are generally more pronounced January through March, and markedly less so at other seasons. As the drift dives can cover a considerable distance underwater, a safety sausage is essential equipment so that you can be found on the surface if you are separated from the group.
MALDIVES WRECK DIVING -- There are also numerous wreck dives in the Maldives. Best known is the Victory, a 270' long oceanic freighter, sitting upright in 120' of water near the southern end of the main airstrip. The Victory offers interesting wide-angle photo opportunities, plus easy penetrations into the wheelhouse and open holds. With a cargo of cement and beer bottles, it is rumored that the Victory ran on to the reef and was sunk due to the inattention of her inebriated captain. Another well-known Maldivian wreck dive is on a small inter-island freighter sitting in 80 feet of water near Halaveli Resort Island. She's only been down a few years, and does not yet host much in the way of encrusting corals or macro life. But in the afternoon, the Halaveli Wreck is beset by boat after boat of divers, as it has become famous for its population of large Marble Stingrays that swirl on the sandy bottom around the wreck. The local divemasters feed and handle them as entertainment for their guests, and this dive site is now being touted as the Stingray City of the Indian Ocean.
MALDIVIAN MARINE LIFE -- As for marine life, the Maldivian waters are exceptionally well endowed. Coral growth is apparently controlled by currents and wave action. The walls and passes are host to a diversity of hard corals, while in most cases, soft corals and sea fans will be found deeper, and/or in the more protected waters. As for fish, divers familiar with the Pacific will find most of their Indo-Pacific favorites in place, with the addition of certain species endemic only to the Indian Ocean. Due to the frequency of strong currents, there is a good population of pelagics. White tip and gray sharks, the occasional leopard shark, manta rays, eagle rays, tuna, large jacks, and turtles, plus big snapper and other predator fishes cruise wherever the currents play. The large and very handsome Napoleon Wrasse are an oft repeatable treat, and in addition to the Clark's Anemone fish, there is a clown fish specific only to the Maldives. There are also some beautiful endemic butterfly fishes and a variety of colorful small wrasse and gobies, plus huge schools of everything from tiny sardines to french grunt, surgeon fish, and dashing fusiliers. There are lion and scorpion fish, moray eels, including the beautiful (and elusive) zebra moray, tridacna clams of various colors, giant scallops, big mussels amidst the soft corals, tons of tubastrea, octopus, star fish, and a sprinkling of nudibranchs.
CURRENT DIVING -- A major factor in Maldivian diving is the current itself. On some dives one can experience strong and unpredictable current action. A typical dive is to go outside the wall in blue water. Descend 80 to 100 feet and drift with the current along the wall, watching for sharks, turtles, eagle rays, mantas, etc. Then come to a corner where a channel (kandu) cuts through the reef and goes inside the atoll. This is where the highest concentration of fish will be found. Hang out on that corner for a while, then let go and ride the current and incoming tide up the channel until it plays out inside the reef. It can be very exciting, but it can also be physically challenging. One of the dives, Banana Reef in North Male Atoll, is notable in the dive guidebook for its "washing machine" current action. The currents in the Maldives are a seasonal issue. December through March, the Maldives is probably not a destination for beginner divers, or weak swimmers. The rest of the year offers easier diving. Just remember that the big fish thrive on the current, and that's what you will see on these current dives - big fish, sharks, eagle rays, mantas, and more. Divers who've learned to handle the currents and "go with the flow" will have a wonderful time, and December through April will offer the best marine-life encounters.
CLIMATE CHANGE / EL NINO -- Eighty percent of the Maldivian Islands are less than three feet above sea level. It has been surmised that at current rates of global warming, in just 100 years the entire country of Maldives could disappear underwater. As sobering as that thought may be, consistently warmer water can have other effects on a coral reef. During the first half of 1998, a super-heated body of water moved across the Indian Ocean. For approximately one month Maldivian ocean temperatures went up over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Bathtub-warm water may sound like a diver's and snorkeler's dream, but in fact the unusually warm water had a visible effect on the reef. Coral bleaching became widely evident. Likewise many anemones and even some tridacna clams lost their normal colors. As corals weaken, they can eventually be overcome by algae. Ocean water temperatures in the Maldives have now returned to their normal range of 80-84 degrees Fahrenheit. However, in the 1998 episode as much as 60% - 80% of the hard corals were damaged.
REEF CONDITIONS IN 2006 -- On this trip I turned a critical eye to the condition of the reefs in the Maldives. The big fish life is certainly still there, seemingly prolific as ever. It was a joy to swim amidst large tuna, schools of jack, snapper and fusiliers, giant Napoleon fish, and the like. I also noted a good turtle population, a scattering of reef sharks, and had the good fortune to swim eye to eye with two different whale sharks. Manta ray sightings are common, though I personally was not so fortunate this time around. Looking closer, it was clear that many of the hard corals had suffered from the 1998 El Nino episode. In places the reef remains relatively bare. But in others, especially on current-bathed reefs, it was heartening to note a good re-growth of hard corals. I saw many table corals already four to six feet in diameter, a revealing gauge of how fast they have grown in just eight years. Other stony corals, such as brain and star corals, grow more slowly. In some areas they were in little evidence, while on the most healthy reefs, there were new growths of such corals, some already as big as basketballs. In these areas, encrusting corals and sponges were also filling in the gaps, and adding to the reef diversity. Soft corals seem to have been similarly impacted. On some reefs there were relatively scarce, but around Ari Atoll, especially at Panetone Reef, the soft corals were as luxuriant and colorful as ever. There it was invigorating to experience the richness of the tropical ocean in all of its splendor.
SEASONALITY -- Due to their location in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives enjoy a seasonality quite different from Pacific destinations such as Fiji, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Most of the islands are just north of the Equator, and there is little topside temperature change over the course of the year. Likewise, water temperature remains consistently warm and comfortable (80-85 f.) throughout the year. But it is the twice-annual monsoon (windy) period that has the greatest effect upon diving conditions. June and July are to be avoided as the worst of the rainy season. As a general rule, the best time for diving runs from late January through early May and again August through early November. However, these "rules" are open to plenty of exceptions. On my fist visit, we departed the Maldives on February 7, and the wind was still blowing a consistent 15-20 knots. The second trip, March 26-April 6, had superb weather all the way. My third visit was in July, supposedly the heart of the wet monsoon period. Over the course of eleven days in the Maldives, we experienced three moderately rainy days and the rest as sunny and bright as one could wish.
The changing wind and current patterns also effect visibility and fish life. During the period January though early May one would expect to find better visibility, strong currents, and the opportunity to see plenty of sharks. August through mid-November will be characterized as lesser currents, visibility reduced due to more plankton in the water, and a greater chance to encounter plankton feeders such as manta rays and whale sharks. Remember that there are no absolutes when it comes to weather, currents, and visibility. As this is a tropical paradise, you may experience some rain showers at any time.
THE MALDIVIAN PEOPLE -- As would be expected of an island nation, the Maldivians are natural fishermen, sailors, and builders of boats. In appearance they are similar to their Indian and Sri Lankan neighbors, dark skinned and handsome, with wavy black hair. While the endemic language is called Divehi, in the Maldives English is the language of government, commerce, and tourism. They are uniformly friendly, helpful, and curious about tourists. They tended to be shy around us, but like most people, responsive to a smile and a kind word. Over my various visits I've made some good friends in the Maldives and look forward to seeing them again.
FOOD and DRINK -- I found the tourist fare throughout the Maldives to be varied, fresh, and almost uniformly excellent. Breakfasts would be familiar to most Westerners. Corn flakes and other cereals, scrambled eggs, omelets cooked to taste, a variety of freshly baked breads, juice, tea and coffee. Lunches and dinners most always included rice, pasta dishes, choice of chicken, meat, fish, and wonderful curries. Salad bars were also offered at lunch and dinner. Deserts included fresh, and/or canned fruits, cakes, flan and a variety of mousses.
ALCOHOL -- I mentioned that the Moslem dominated government of the Maldives is strictly anti-alcohol. However, they are also tourism friendly. All of the tourist resorts feature both canned and draught beer plus fully stocked bars and barmen capable of mixing anything from the simple to the exotic. Beers cost about $3.00-$5.00 U.S., with fancy drinks ranging from $5 to $10. All of the dive live-aboards and adventure cruise boats now also have well-stocked bars onboard.
VISITING MALE - -- Male, the capitol, is far from a holiday spot, but well worth a day, or at least a few hours, to get a feel for the country and its people. A good lodging choice in Male is the Nasandhura Palace Hotel, which while far from being palatial does offer air-conditioning, hot water showers, telephones, a serviceable restaurant, CNN on the telly, and even an Asian version of MTV. It makes a good base of operations for walking forays into the city center. Despite the global warming concerns, high-rise office building construction in Male is advancing at a record pace. The National Mosque and its adjacent gardens are well worth a visit. The shopping is simple but fun, especially if you enjoy bargaining, and the photo opportunities in the fish and produce markets are excellent.
THE BOTTOM LINE -- Maldives' diving is not for everyone. For American divers it is very far away - literally half way around the world. The occasionally strong currents are a real treat for some, and a bane to others. The quantity and diversity of the marine life are excellent, and the opportunity for pure diving excitement is matched only by places like the Galapagos and Costa Rica's Cocos Islands. Photo opportunities, both above and below the waves, appear to be limitless. This is a place where a divemaster truly knowledgeable of the waters and current conditions can spell the difference between great diving and a waste of time. Still, despite the currents, the long distance travel, and the cultural differences, I believe the Maldives to be a destination that will attract increasing interest from well-traveled Americans in search of the next exotic dive experience. Land-based resorts will continue to serve facets of the world's divers and sun seekers, while competition will lead to better boats and improved service in the live-aboard market. Most importantly, as we add to our own knowledge of the seasonality, dive sites, and water conditions, the diving will become safer and more accessible to adventurous travelers and divers ready to experience the magnificence of the Maldives.
Story and Photos Copyright 2006 - All Rights Reserved
Please also visit our: Maldives Photo Portfolio
Consider Island Dreams' February 2007 Maldives Group Tour
MORE MALDIVES INFORMATION -- Kurt Amsler has an interesting book highlighting the Maldives' most popular dive sites, complete with detailed drawings of the sites and actual maps of the suggested dive plans. Used copies are available on Amazon. The definitive guide to the region's marine life is "Indian Ocean Tropical Fish Guide," by Helmut Debelius. The ISBN is 3-927991-01-5, and it can be found on Amazon. A stroll through the travel section of your favorite book store will offer a choice of general guide books, which while thin on dive related information, will at least give you some insight into the nature of the Maldivian Archipelago and its people. Beyond that, you are invited to call or e-mail Island Dreams for additional information, advice, or assistance with bookings and discount airfares to the Maldives, and other choice destinations around the Caribbean and the Pacific. We bring you a world of great diving!
SPECIAL THANKS -- My four Maldives explorations and subsequent reports could not have been accomplished without the assistance of Dan Marino of Singapore Airlines, Fred Siems of Malaysia Airlines, Giorgio Rosi of Seafari Adventures, Ibrahim Manik of M/V Manthiri, Jose Valverde of Euro Divers, John Boozer of Live Dive Pacific, David Mesnard of Ocean Dancer, and the inimitable Peter Hughes. Their contributions, and their friendship over the years, are greatly appreciated. KDK