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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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).