MALDIVES - MARCH, 2002

I was definitely looking forward to my return to the Maldives for a number of reasons. First, Iím attracted to the idea that itís pretty remote (roughly 300 miles SSW of the tip of India, in the Indian Ocean). Second, Iíd had a great trip there in 1996 and wanted to see how it had changed, especially in light of the coral bleaching that occurred in the Maldives in 1998. And third, I was very interested to see what it would be like as an American traveling to a Muslim country in these post 9/11 times.

The travel part was relatively easy. As long as you ignore the fact that it takes forever to get there -14 hours LA to Tapei, an hour in Taipei, then 4 hours to Singapore, a day and a half in Singapore (done deliberately so we could enjoy this fabulous city - the Singapore Zoo is a must-see), and then another 4 hours Singapore to the Maldives. But in general terms, the increased security measures werenít too bad. Things were slowest in LA (it took us a little over an hour to get checked in at Singapore Airlines and then snake through the security checkpoint) but pretty smooth and efficient at most of the other airports, which have always had more stringent and through security than American airports, so theyíve got the drill down pat.

And I must say at the outset that no matter where we were, we were warmly received. There were no anti-American comments or anything like that. And it was interesting seeing the post 9/11 world through non-American eyes. But this isnít politics, itís a dive report, so letís get on to it.

Singapore Airlines, as always, was an absolute pleasure to fly. The planes are on time, the flight attendants are pleasant and courteous, the food is good, the movies plentiful, and they make an arduous journey as easy as possible.

Our group consisted of seven: Kevin Brooks, Richard Craft, Jay Wilson, Bruce Graham, Vick Thomas, Elisabeth Sykes, and myself. We would be joined on the boat by four other divers who had booked directly with the boat.

Just arriving in the Maldives is interesting, because the Malť (pronounced MAH-lee) airport is built on a small island and the only way off is by boat. So you gather your bags and walk out of this modern airport not to a taxi stand, but to a pier where there are dozens of boats waiting to take the deplaning passengers to their final destinations. After about a 30-minute ride, we arrived at the Manthiri, our home for the next ten days.

It was certainly nice to see old friends again. Iíd had a terrific time with lead divemaster Manik and was looking forward to exploring the depths with him again. The same went for instructor/divemaster Moosa (who also serves as photo pro) who was just working on his DM credentials in Ď96, but who is now a full-blown PADI Instructor.

Total crew on the Manthiri numbers 11 and they consistently went out of their way to make sure all the needs of the guests were met. Whether it was getting "The Knock" at 6AM to start the day, or making your bed, or providing fresh towels, or loading your gear onto the dhoni (more on that in a bit), or handling cameras, or reminding you of something you forgot, or helping you on or off with your gear, and a myriad of other little pleasantries, as with my first visit, the crew of Ibrahim, Bodey, Ahamdey, Nizam, Mohmed, Dhonbey, Razak, Saif, and Ahsim, (in addition to Manik & Moosa) was absolutely top-notch. And because many of them have grown up together or lived on neighboring islands, thereís a cohesion and spirit to the crew that makes the trip that much more enjoyable.

When I visited in Ď96, the Manthiri (roughly 85í long and 25í wide) had just gone through a major retrofit. It was nice to come back on board and see that the boatís been improved some even since then. The six cabins on the lower deck (two to a room - now all with en suite facilities) are comfortable, clean, offer plenty of storage, and have individual air conditioning units and an overhead fan. Each cabin also has a small refrigerator/honor-bar. The main deck is mostly inside/sheltered with a large salon that serves as a lounge (six comfy couches, VCR, CD/stereo) and dining room (two large tables that each seat six) with a smaller salon (one large couch and a lighted photo table) behind it. The upper deck houses the bridge, a spacious sundeck, and a clothesline (with clothespins) on which to hang wet stuff.

There are some other welcome changes/improvements as well.

Most appreciated by me (and anyone else whoís a photographer) is the addition in the main salon of a very long waist-high photo table, which was the perfect place to work on cameras. The table runs almost the complete width of the Manthiri salon and there are cubbyholes below for small tool/film/battery storage as well as plugs around suitable for charging. (I donít use anything rechargeable so canít attest to the reliability of the electrical. But others seemed to have no problems.)

In addition to that, the boat now offers E-6 processing ($12/roll unmounted) for those shooting slides. The aforementioned photo table makes it easy to see what youíve been doing and make sure everythingís working right on your camera. And, unlike some other boats Iíve been on where they want to wait until there are five or six rolls before they develop, Moosaís happy to process even a single roll for you.

The other significant change involved alcohol. Being a Muslim country, alcohol simply isnít part of the norm in the Maldives and when I was there in Ď96, no alcohol was served on the boat. However, thatís not only changed, but itís now generally complimentary. Wine is now served as part of the dinner (which was always done after the night dive) at no extra charge. If you donít want wine, beer is also available, but youíll pay extra for that. They also charge extra for sodas but provide bottled water (2-liter bottles) at no extra charge.

The other unique experience about diving in the Maldives (and this is not just with the Manthiri) is the dhoni (pronounced DOAN-ee), which is basically a small tender, about 40í by 10í which serves as your dive boat. All the gear is left on the dhoni (cameras obviously got back and forth) but you basically use the Manthiri as your mother ship and then when itís time to dive, the dhoni comes alongside, everyone climbs aboard, and off you go.

The dhoniís equipped with two compressors, all the tanks (steel 95s and aluminum 80s - all cleverly nestled in a central recessed rack), and dive stations for each diver. The dhoni crew hooks up your gear before each dive and helps you on with your tank. Each diver also has a large plastic laundry basket for fins, masks, and other goodies. Four entry points (two forward, two aft - two port, two starboard) make getting everyone in a breeze. Thereís a new and much-improved ladder to come reboard the dhoni when youíre done with the dive. And thereís a long 1" PVC tube running the length of the dhoni (with clips) thatís perfect for hanging your wetsuit or lycra after each dive.

One thing to understand about the Maldives is that if youíre a go-go-go diver like I am, youíre not going to squeeze in five or more dives a day. The general plan was for four dives each day, including the night dive, and on a few days we only did three. Some of the reasons for this involve the logistics of moving from site-to-site in an atoll, some of this is because of the depths encountered on each dive, and some of this is from being rooted in a more European mindset of two dives a day being plenty. Dives are escorted by Manik and Moosa, either as one big group or sometimes two smaller groups.

Weíd start each day around 6AM, congregate for coffee/tea/rolls in the salon, and dive around 7AM. Breakfast was around 8:30, followed by the second dive around 11AM. Lunch was served after that and many would get in a quick afternoon nap. We dove again no later than 3PM, had low tea around 4:30, and then usually did our night dive around 6PM (sundownís generally at that time), with dinner being served no later than 8PM. Most everyone was conked out by 10PM.

But the diving was - in a word - fabulous. The short version is that if you subtract whale sharks and manta rays, we saw just about everything else over the course of the 30 dives we made in 9Ĺ days of diving. We traveled to five of the Maldivian atolls (North & South Malť, Feldihe, Ari, and Rasdhoo). Water temperature was a toasty 85ļ and the visibility averaged 100í with the water generally a deep shade of blue. There was one dive where Manik, Moosa, and I all came back with grins on our faces and each of us asked, "So, what do you think the visibility was?" We collectively agreed that it was 200í and you got a stunning perspective of the reef on that particular dive.

To dive the Maldives (by the way, itís pronounced MALL-deeves, not MALL-dives) you had better be comfortable in current. The currents ranged anywhere from mild to I-canít-believe-how-fast-Iím-flying. Generally, we drifted with the current, but occasionally we had to go up-current or cross-current so thatís something you need to be prepared to deal with. The currents also make photography difficult at times. A Reef Hook will be put to good use..

If you go to the Maldives, you should also be comfortable with sharks. We didnít really see huge numbers at any given time (not like youíd find in Cocos, Galapagos, or the Sea of Cortez) but we did see sharks on just about every dive and at just about any point in the dive. Black-tips were very common, along with white-tips, a few grays, an occasional Silver-tip, and we had a very nice treat (twice) of encountering solitary hammerheads.

If you go to the Maldives, plan to seeing fish. LOTS of fish. More fish than youíve probably ever seen in one place at one time, and more species (over 1000) than youíve encountered before. In fact, itís an excellent idea, prior to your trip, to get a good fish ID book and go through it after each dive and check off the animals you saw. (I highly recommend "Indo-Pacific Coral Reef Guide" by Allen & Steene. The Manthiri also has a good collection of fish ID books on board.) But be prepared to be overwhelmed and plan on making lot of mental notes to identify species.

One impression I have, and really got on every dive, is that there have to be more Red-toothed triggerfish in the Maldives than anywhere else in the world. There were dives where youíd swear there were a million of these fish covering the reef. Amazing. And they were almost matched in numbers by the anthias (of all varieties) that also abound.

In addition those, we saw Blue trevallies, Golden Trevally, Giant trevallies, barracuda (both Chevron and Great), garden eels galore, dartfish (including an Elegant), parrots, every imaginable butterfly and angelfish (including frequent sightings of the stunning Yellow-mask angel), marble rays, black rays, wahoo, Titan triggers (lots of them), pipefish, lizardfish, countless clownfish (including the endemic Maldivian clown), scorpionfish, stonefish (some very brightly colored - first time Iíd ever seen that in a stonefish), Napoleon wrasses (humpheaded males and the smaller females), Eagle rays, big schools of jacks, gobies galore, sweetlips of all description, sweepers, puffers, some tuna (!!), delightful damsels, Bigeye bream, armies of soldierfish, morays of all shapes and sizes (including the impressive Honeycomb or Chain Mail moray), unicornfish, snappers, batfish (but no robinfish), barberfish, a comet (look it up) . . . did I mention the part about "more fish than youíve ever seen in one place before?"

Among some of the amazing fish encounters we had were a very tame and calm male Napoleon who not only approached you to be caressed, but who also allowed (encouraged??) Moosa to kiss him on the lips! There was a school of barracuda hovering over a cleaning station that allowed me to glide in and become part of their group for a while. At Fish Head (Ari Atoll) thereís a ledge down around 100í that must have had close to 10,000 yellowstripe snappers schooling under an overhang, while sharks cruise the drop-off just in front, and Teira batfish cruise between the two.

One of my favorite spots was in Felidhe Atoll. The official name for the site is Boli Rock but I think the name ought to be changed to Laundromat because I saw more cleaning going on here than any place that Iíve ever been diving before. The little cleaner wrasses were having a field day going in and out of the gills and mouths of every species of fish you can think of. Photographically it was great because, since the fish are holding still while they get cleaned, if you can move in without spooking them, you can get some great up-close-and-personal opportunities. I ran through my whole roll of 36 in about 20 minutes (on a dive that lasted almost 70 minutes). Thank goodness for mental images.

The fishy highlight was provided courtesy of Moosa who came up to me at Atha Tila (Ari Atoll) with a huge grin and made me give him an underwater high-five before heíd show me what he found. I remember thinking, "If you demand a high-five, this had better be good." It was. Moosa had found a jet black frogfish, about the size of both my open hands put together, sitting in the branches of a coral. It was really cool. Moosa told me later than heíd spotted the same animal a few months earlier in the same area and assumes heís a resident.

As good as the fish were, the coral wasnít in quite as good shape, but itís certainly not a dead reef. If youíre looking for pretty Indo-Pacific coral, I think youíll do better in a place like Sulawesi, Indonesia, or Papua New Guinea. (But you probably wonít get as many fish.)

The reefs in the Maldives are recovering from the 1998 bleaching but you certainly still see evidence of the damage. I think that on just about every reef we dove, we saw coral rubble and white coral, but also saw healthy coral as well. I even checked my notes/report from my 1996 trip and donít see any mention of coral problems so this aspect of the experience definitely changed, and not for the better. However, thereís a proliferation of soft corals, including an especially lovely variety with a bright yellow stalk and red polyps. Youíll also find plenty of fans, whip corals, anemones, as well as invertebrates of all kinds, so itís not like youíre diving in a desert. But I definitely noticed (and itís certainly evident in the pictures I took) that thereís a lot more white (aka dead) coral than youíd normally expect to encounter.

I donít think the following has anything to do with the deterioration of the reefs, but there were a lot more dive boats now than in 1996. Back then, I think there were maybe two. Now there are 20 or more. In 1996 we pretty much had the place to ourselves. This time, there was almost always another dive boat somewhere nearby, especially at the nighttime anchorages. Not a big deal, but obviously, more divers probably equals more reef damage (although both Manik and Moosa were very good about counseling to stay off the reef, and Iím sure other guides are the same).

In addition to the underwater encounters, we made a couple of forays into local villages. Some of these are tourist traps (some cruise ships stop by, too) as they have more shops than most mini-malls but you can go in, look around, and learn to say "No thanks" an awful lot. (Although I must admit that at one little shop on a remote island I was able to find two of those cheesy plastic snowdomes - my mother collects them - so itís worth looking around.)

We also dubbed Kevin Brooks "The Candy Man" because heíd brought with him a couple of hundred small candy bars and lollipops to give out to the kids in the villages. The youthful mob scene around him everywhere he went (once the word got out- which didnít take long) made him look like the lead singer in a boy band with his fans clamoring for autographs.

We ended our journey where it began, in Malť, but this time with a walking tour of the city (about an hour long) thatís part of the overall Manthiri package (as is an evening visit to a village where the local men dance and sing fishermen songs - very energetic and unique). Malť is a bustling place with a population of somewhere around 50,000 but it was interesting to walk around and see the prison (the first place they take you), the first traffic light in Malť (only a few years old - they had to have classes for people to understand how to react to them), the main mosque, the presidential residence, and - my favorite - the fish market, where everyone comes to buy their daily fish. Itís a type of cultural experience you simply canít find anywhere in the U.S.

All in all, we had a fantastic time. Despite the coral problems mentioned earlier, the diving was still spectacular, the reef formations very dramatic, the food and service aboard the Manthiri nothing short of excellent, and the overall experience incredibly memorable. The Maldives is one of those places that takes a lot of effort and money to get to, but is well worth the investment.

Will I go back? Absolutely, and I will use the Manthiri again. Would I recommend you to go? Only if you want to savor a unique diving experience thatíll create lifelong memories.


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