MALDIVES - November 5-14, 2016

(Click here to see some pictures from this trip plus links to the SmugMug slideshow.)

This was our third trip to the Maldives but our first since 2002 and to say things have changed would be an understatement. When we were there fourteen years ago, the airport was totally surrounded by water and the only way out as by boat. Now there’s an enormous man-made island attached with dozens of hotels and hundreds of permanent residents living on it. In 2002, there were about five island-resorts that catered to divers. Now there are close to 200. And in 2002 there were two liveaboards, whereas now there are 70. So it’s not the same Maldives that I visited before.

But it’s still a wonderful place to dive and this was still a wonderful trip. As a nation, the Maldives has a unique connection to the sea and they take very seriously their stewardship of the waters surrounding their many islands and atolls. They don’t hunt reef fish and they’ve established marine reserves in many places. All of this helps make for very fishy reefs, healthy corals, and a wonderful diving experience.

Our group was eleven strong this year: Donna & Cecilia Groman, Henry Gittler & Lisette Lieberman, Rik Aceves, Dave Cooley, Glenn Suhd, Mark Geraghty, Tamar Toister, Laurie Kasper and me (Ken Kurtis). Except for Glenn, we all flew Turkish Airlines non-stop to Istanbul and then non-stop to Male, Maldives, after a layover. (On the way back we spend three days touring Istanbul and there will be a separate report about that.)

We arrived in Male (the capital of the Maldives) a day early and had arranged an overnight stay at Hotel78 (aka h78) on the man-made island extension of the airport, Hulhumale. We can’t say enough nice things about the hotel. They picked us up at the airport for the 10-minute drive to the hotel, which faces the ocean. They’re fairly small, probably a dozen rooms or so, but it’s very modern, clean, and friendly. Plus they face right out onto the ocean. On top of that, a fabulous breakfast is included and they dropped us off the next day at the jetty where the Manthiri was to pick us up. We can’t say enough good things about Hotel78 and highly recommend them if you need an overnight in Male.

Likewise, we can’t say enough good things about the Manthiri (but we’re going to try anyhow). Bear in mind I’ve maintained a relationship with them since my initial trip in 1996. Their primary DM and trip leader is Moosa Hasan and I see him regularly at dive shows, e-mail him on occasion, and he even gets (and allegedly reads) the weekly TWARS and monthly newsletters from us. So it was very nice that Moosa took time to greet us at the airport when we arrived and made sure Hotel78 knew where to drop us the following day.

Moosa, along with the second DM Ali, do everything they can to give you the best possible diving. The general plan is 3-4 dives/day, although on the first day of our 9-day adventure we only did one because we wanted to move away from Male for better conditions so some travel time ate up the available daylight. But the general daily sked was a wake-up knock on the door at 6AM, continental breakfast available at that time, thorough dive briefing at 6:30AM followed by the dive, breakfast following that around 8:30, dive briefing #2 around 10:30, lunch following that around 12:30PM, dive briefing #3 around 3PM, and then a dusk dive around 5-5:30PM, with dinner following that.

All the diving is done from a dhoni (rhymes with pony).  Dhoni diving is quite the norm in the Maldives, so you’ll see plenty of dhonis that are either paired with a mothership or simply day boats from nearby resorts. In our case, the dhoni (the Vasantha) is a 54-foot separate fully-enclosed boat that also has a head as well as a compressor. That's about the same length as a medium-sized California dive boat. All the dive gear lives on the dhoni and each dive starts by exiting the Manthiri down a small ladder to the side-tied dhoni, going to your designated dive station, turning on your air, and then donning your wetsuit. Just prior to the dive, those diving nitrox got a visit from Saif, aka “Dr. Nitrox”, who wears a lanyard around his neck with an O2 analyzer and each nitrox diver analyzes the tank and signs off on the nitrox log.

There are four exit places on the dhoni where you can do a giant stride entry, so once Moosa or Ali go the signal that the pool was open, it was very easy to get all 11 of our divers and 2 guides into the water. At the end of the dive, a ladder was hung out one of the openings, the dhoni would come pick you up, either Moosa or Ali would take off your fins, and up you’d come. When you removed your wetsuit and booties, a crew member would take them and rinse them in fresh water and then hang up the wetsuit and put your booties back in your dive bin. Not a bad deal.

When everyone was back on board, you’d head back to the Manthiri (which usually had moved close to the dive area so the dhoni runs were generally pretty short), climb up the ladder to get back on the mothership, and then the dhoni would move off a hundred yards or so to fill tanks (they don’t want compressor noise to “offend” the guests), while we chowed down on a meal.

Speaking of food . . .

Oh my, was it good. I want to say it was some of the best food I’ve ever had on a dive boat and there was plenty of it. I was rather scared to step on the scale when I get home. All the meals are served family-style (you sit at one of two large wooden tables) and there were always multiple entrées, multiple side dishes, and everything was tasty. Best of all was that dessert at lunchtime was daily homemade (truly) ice cream and dessert after dinner usually consisted on some sort of cake or pie, also homemade on board. They even made a special cake one day to commemorate milestone dives for Tamar, Laurie, and Henry.

The Manthiri itself is also very comfortable and has definitely gotten some upgrades since I was last on it. It’s an 85-foot vessel with all six staterooms on the lower deck (two doubles and four twins, all with bathrooms en suite). The main deck consists of the salon and dining area, a large photo area, and the galley. On the upper deck you’ve got a spacious sundeck, a separate covered area with big comfy chairs, the wheelhouse, and even a small forward-facing seating area right in front of the wheelhouse. Given that the boat only take 12 divers max, plus about a dozen crew who always seem to stay out of the way, it’s got plenty of room and you never feel crowded.

The diving, in a word was magnificent. You know it’s a good omen when 13 minutes into your first dive, three mantas show up to check you and the group out. Not too shabby. The reefs were generally very healthy and fishy (some more so than others) and we had a lot of wonderful and memorable dives.

Water and weather conditions weren’t so good when we started, however, but improved as the week wore on.  Moosa and I had been e-mailing and I knew they’d had about two weeks of fairly consistent rain, unusual for this time of the year. That definitely affected the visibility the first couple of days we were there with some sites, especially those closer to Male, having visibility of only 30-40 feet with noticeable particulate in the water. But as the week wore on, the weather improved as did the vis and we definitely were getting sites with 100-foot-plus towards the end of the week plus there were days when the water was glass-calm and it was hard to believe you were actually in open water. Water temp was a pretty constant 84 on my gauge but we hit a couple of spots where it felt slightly cooler.

I think I can accurately say that we never had a “bad” dive. And we did 27 of them. Some were definitely better than others but, even when conditions weren’t optimal, there was always plenty of see. Probably the most amazing dive we did was our dusk dive at the aptly-named Shark Circus in Felidhe Atoll. This dive reminded me a lot of the Manuelita Inside night dives at Cocos, where hundreds of Whitetips go hunting at night.

This time, it was dozens and dozens and 8-10 foot long Nurse Sharks who were on the move, brushing by us, checking out the edges of our lights, and just generally meandering all over the reef, and usually at a fairly high speed. They were eventually joined by a number of large stingrays and groups of Bluefin & Giant Trevallies in their quest for a snack and those guys can REALLY move and turn on a dime. So by the end of the dive an hour later, it had really become a feeding frenzy that was simply amazing to watch. I told Moosa this should be a signature dive that they should promote heavily.

But this dive was not without two other dramatic events. The first one can be summed up simply: A regulator exploded underwater.

Maybe ten minutes into this dive, I heard a BANG!!! underwater and looked over to see that the regulator hose of one of our divers had seemingly blown. The hose was whipping about wildly, spewing air quickly, and - more importantly - he was there with a second stage in his mouth but nothing supplying it. I quickly grabbed my octo and swam over to him, handed it him (he was still very calm and hadn't yet made a move for his own alternate air source) and he put my octo in his mouth. That was the key move because now that he had air again, we could safely and easily abort the dive (which was my original intent).

But there was still the whipping hose to deal with. I managed to grab it and hold it steady, and then reached over to turn off the tank air. Once that was done, we realized that his hose hadn't actually failed, but that his second stage regulator swivel - which screws into the reg second stage and then screws on to the hose - had loosened and come unscrewed, and suddenly detached from the hose (which caused the BANG!!!). He was able (while still on my octo) to screw it back together and reassemble it, I turned the air back on and insured that there were no leaks and that it was holding, we checked his pressure (he'd lost maybe 500psi overall), and we were good to go again.

But this underscores a number of things that people are sometimes too casual about: (1) Know your gear, (2) Check out said gear before each dive (or at least each dive day) to make sure it's all working correctly, and (3) Be ready to respond to any diver, not just your own buddy, if something should go wrong. And the way you do #3 is to practice/practice/practice so your reaction is instinctual. I personally really do do a mental checklist every time I go dive and sort of say to myself, "If something goes wrong with someone else, how can I get them air? If something goes wrong with me, who can I get air from?" Hopefully you'll never need to use these skills but in the event you do, it can literally mean the difference between life and death.

The other dramatic event occurred at the end of the dive when we got back to the dhoni and can be summed up this way: We were mobbed by little fish.

Because the dhoni has lights, while we were diving it attracted a huge school of Silversides, small little bluish-silver fish that dart to and fro. (Think of a golf pencil that wriggles.) I have no idea how many there were but it likely numbered in the tens of thousands (as you'll see in the pictures on the SmugMug site). So when we surfaced near the dhoni in the middle of the school, we felt some tingling on our exposed skin and quickly realized it was the fish bouncing off of us. They were colliding with our bodies that were underwater and, because there were jumping out of the surface, they were bouncing off of our faces above the water as well. If you took your reg out, you had to careful they didn't jump into your open mouth.

They were so frenzied that they were lodging themselves inside the cracks and crevices of our gear, so that when we got on the dhoni, Silversides were falling to the deck as they fell from our gear. Worse, the next morning when  I went to the photo table, I smelled something foul and realized that a couple of them had gotten stuck in between my housing and the tray and has started to decompose. Yuck!!!! Unfortunately, we kept finding/smelling stray dead fish for another couple of days. But it WAS pretty amazing and funny to be in the middle of that school, so thick that you couldn't see your own fins for all the fish between you and your feet.

Another dive that was amazingly wonderful was our second visit to Hurualih Madiga in South Ari Atoll. There’s a manta cleaning station here and while it was OK the first time we’d visited a few days earlier (I’m still spoiled by Stammtisch in Yap where they’re literally swopping inches over your head), it was spectacular on this particular day. And what a show we were treated to.

We had three mantas swooping in and out and over the cleaning station for a good 30 minutes or so. Best of all, there was an amorous male courting (aka chasing) a female. He stayed right behind her on her tail and they were doing loop-de-loops and going belly-to-belly and exhibiting other mating behavior. It was incredibly fun to watch and it was hard to tell at times if she was “flirting” with him or trying to shake him off. (So no different than the pickup scene at a SoCal watering hole.) On top of that, the conditions were pretty good with 80-foot vis and minimal particulate in the water.

Another incredible spot was Kandooma Thila (“Thila” means pinnacle) which has got to be one of the fishiest dives I’ve ever done. There were what must have been MILLIONS of red Anthias blanketing the reef like a fog settling in over San Francisco. Groups of Fusiliers streaked on by, avoiding the clutches of the Snappers and Trevallies that roamed around the edges of the thila.

But the reason for all of these fish being around was the ripping current that blasted over this pinnacle. I always carry a reef hook in my BC, even when diving in SoCal so this wasn’t an issue for me as I simply deployed it and hooked in when necessary to watch the marine spectacle. But I really don’t remember using reef hooks 14 years ago so I had advised my group that we didn’t need them because if there was a current, we’d simply be drifting with it. Ooops. They were not happy campers.

The other day there were not happy campers was on Wednesday, November 9, but initially not for the reason you’re thinking. Our dismay came from these words: The dhoni broke.

Don’t forget all the diving is done from the dhoni and for a number of reasons, you can’t just switch to the mothership. It turns out our problem was fairly serious as the fuel pump on the dhoni has broken and they didn’t carry a spare as it’s an unlikely failure. But it also wasn't like there was a Pep Boys nearby and we could just go get another one. They had to call their mechanic in Male – some three hours away by fast boat – and he was able to recommend a mechanic from a nearby island who came over and pronounced it in need of a major repair (some internal parts had broken). The only option was to send the fuel pump back up to Male by fast boat (which they had to summon like we would a cab here - sort of the Maldivian version of a water-based Uber), hope it could be quickly fixed, and then get it back down to us.

While all of this was going on, we were able to convert one of Moosa’s cell phones into a mobile hotspot. Wednesday morning in the Maldives coincided with Tuesday evening in the United States, so we were able to track the election returns in real-time.

Now I must at this point tell you that, simply coincidentally, this was a group of 10 liberals and one conservative. So as the results tickled in and as it became apparent that Trump was going to prevail, we not only weren’t able to dive, but our hopes of celebrating the first female president went down the tubes as well. But all was not lost (as least, not from the diving perspective.)

Even though we were in a protected lagoon with a sandy bottom, I suggested that, since the compressors on the dhoni still worked and it was side-tied to the Manthiri, we should do an exploratory dive and see what’s what in the area underneath us. Obviously, it gave us a dive and it also took our minds of off what was becoming a fairly depressing election result for most of us on the boat.

So jump in we did. It was sort of like doing an exploratory muck dive. It’s amazing what lives in the sand, plus we found scattered coral heads through our dive. We saw lots of little hermit crabs, plenty of small gobies, and even some Twotone Dartfish that were willing to pose for my 105mm macro lens.

Best of all, the fuel pump got fixed overnight. They sent it off to Male late in the day and I feared we would lose another day of diving, so we were trying to figure out alternatives. But give credit to Moosa and the Manthiri owners because they made sure that the repair shop worked on it through the evening after their closing time and for as long as it took. It turned out that the repaired and functioning fuel pump was delivered back to us shortly before midnight that evening. It took another hour or so for them to install and test it but we were able to resume diving the next morning at 6:30AM. So we only lost the one day and even then, we got in a dive. Kudos to everyone for getting that promptly taken care of and recognizing how serious and vacation-breaking a problem this could have been.

To help make up for the lost day, Moosa also made sure we did four dives each of the remaining full dive days, and we did three (instead of two) on our final dive day. To sweeten the pot even further and compensate for the lost time, we stayed on the boat all day Monday. Normally, trips end at 9AM on your "final" day because the need a day to reprovision the boat and then they start the next trip 24 hours after the end of the previous one. For those who have a late flight out of Male, as we did, that means you need to either hang around the airport all day, or book a day room at a hotel.

Since they didn't have a trip for another three days, instead of booting us off the boat Monday morning, they let us stay on the Manthiri all day which meant gear had time to dry (the Manthiri crew washed everything for everybody and hung it all out on the top deck) and they fed us too. So that was a really nice bonus and much easier than fending for ourselves. Plus we were able to take the dhoni over to Male proper and do a short walking tour of the city, which has really undergone major changes in the fourteen years since I was last there.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, id the fish market. They don't like to freeze things in the Maldives (and many homes don't have refrigerators or freezers) so every day they go to the fish market in downtown Male and buy fresh fish. It's amazing to see all the fish laid out for perusal and purchase. Sort of the Maldivian equivalent of Trader Joe.

Because it's literally halfway around the world from SoCal, it's a jaunt to get to the Maldives. But the diving is fabulous (as you'll see from the pictures) and it was made even better by the attention that Moosa and the Manthiri crew give to making sure your vacation is as fabulous as possible. After each dive, the dhoni crew would wash your gear. Back on the boat, another crew member asked for your bathing suit which was washed and dried prior to the next dive. If you tried to get a cup of coffee or tea they would insist on getting it for you. The level of service is simply above and beyond what you'd expect even from a top-notch operation.

Maybe the ultimate example of this is the cake I mentioned earlier. On our seventh day of our trip, Henry Gittler did his 1200th dive, Tamar Toister did her 500th, and Laurie Kasper did her 400th. In celebration, they made a special cake for dinner that has the milestones noted in the icing-writing on top of the homemade cake.

So as I said at the beginning, there are over 70 liveaboards dive boats you can choose from in the Maldives. They can all pretty much take you to the same spots as the Manthiri can. But I can't imagine having a better experience (let alone it's always nice to deal with a smaller group) or having a more attentive crew than you do on the Manthiri. And it's THOSE little things that made a trip memorable and one that you don't want to end, but when it does, you start thinking about when you'll come back again.

I know we'll be back and we'll be on the Manthiri again. The question is . . . when? And that's up to you. So if you're interested in seeing if Maldivian lighting can strike twice, let us now and we'll start planning our return.

As I mentioned at the beginning, we stooped in Istanbul, Turkey, on the way back for a three-day tour of that city. And if you'd like to read about that part of the adventure and see some pictures, use this link: Istanbul 2016 trip report (and pix link).

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