N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose
Most checkout dives are pretty average, designed to allow you to check your weighs, gear and buoyancy and for your dive guide to assess your abilities. However, on a recent trip to the Maldives our checkout dive was far from average and was one of the most memorable dives of the trip. For a start the visibility was stunning and there were schools of fish everywhere, but the highlight was the biggest collection of moray eels we have ever seen. With so much to see we were surprised if anyone had time, or the inclination, to check their weighs, gear or buoyancy!
The Maldives, located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is a destination we have long dreamed of visiting. This island nation, the smallest country in Asia by population and land, is spread over 90,000 sqkm of ocean and consists of 26 atolls dotted with countless coral reefs and coral cays. While resorts are found throughout the country, the best way for a diver to explore the Maldives is on a liveaboard vessel, and with over 150 liveaboards, your choice is endless.
For our trip in February we booked a week on Emperor Virgo, operated by Emperor Divers. With six liveaboard vessels Emperor Divers operate the largest fleet of boats in the Maldives and have a vessel and itinerary to suit every divers taste and budget.
Boarding Emperor Virgo in time for lunch, after a day exploring the capital of Male, we got our first look at our home for the next week. Emperor Virgo is a 32m long vessel with accommodation for 18 guests split over three levels, a large dining/lounge area, a bar and sundeck. We quickly noticed something very different about this vessel to every other liveaboard we have been on over the last thirty years, no dive deck. In the Maldives all diving is done off a supplementary vessel, known locally as a dhoni. But this is no small tender, as our dhoni was 18m long with ample room for all the tanks, dive gear and compressors. The beauty of this dhoni system is that it frees up room on the main boat, meaning much larger cabins. Our cabin felt more like a motel room than a boat cabin, with very comfortable beds, air conditioning and a nice ensuite. It also means no wet smelly dive gear on the main boat!
Our afternoon was spent relaxing on the boat while we waited for the other guests to arrive. We also enjoyed the first of the wonderful meals prepared by the chef Camilo, who daily cooked a feast of Asian and Western dishes. Watching the sunset while we enjoyed a beer at the bar, we discussed what we hoped to see over the next six days.
Early the next morning it was time for our checkout dive, a short trip in the dhoni off North Male Atoll. We didn’t have high expectations for this dive at Kanduohgiri, being only a few kilometres north of the capital, but it was sensational. We jumped in to find the visibility over 30m and a nice coral wall to explore. We spotted the first moray eel within a minute, a large giant moray hanging out of a hole. But this one was quickly forgotten as nearby was another giant moray and a honeycomb moray sharing a hole. Beyond these morays we could see more, as every hole seemed to be occupied by an eel. The dive briefing from chief dive guide Issey had mentioned that this site was adjacent to a tuna processing plant and a good spot for moray eels, but we hadn’t expected so many. By the end of the dive we had seen well over one hundred morays, we even found one hole with eight squashed in together. We identified at least seven species of moray, but the best were the large black and white honeycomb morays.
However, the moray eels were not the only feature of this fabulous dive site, as we also encountered schools of trevally, barracuda, bannerfish, bigeyes, fusiliers and even a pack of remoras. During the dive we also saw Maori wrasse, stingrays, garden eels, mackerel and even many macro subjects. It was a great dive to start the trip.
While consuming breakfast we travelled to South Male Atoll to dive a site called Embudhoo Express. Most diving in the Maldives is all about currents, with drift diving popular. Many of the best dive sites we explored were atoll channels (known as kandu) that run between the open ocean and atoll lagoons. Embudhoo Express was the perfect example of a kandu dive. The dhoni dropped us on the outside of the reef so we could drift to the channel mouth. These channels are typically 30m deep (the maximum allowable dive depth in the Maldives), and either using a reef hook or hanging onto a piece of dead coral we would watch the pelagic fish and shark action in the blue water. We typically saw grey reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, trevally, mackerel, tuna, rainbow runners and batfish. But on this dive we also saw a large Maori wrasse, a green turtle and a huge marble ray. After hanging on for ten to twenty minutes we would then drift along the channel wall, exploring the ledges and caves, seeing nice corals and schools of reef fish.
After lunch we had a long cruise south to Vaavu Atoll to dive a site called Alimatha Faru. Entering the water at sunset we drifted along a sloping reef wall dotted with small coral heads. It didn’t take long to see one of the main attractions, a large tawny nurse shark. Located at the end of a resort jetty, the sharks, rays and fish at this site have been fed for many years and make for a very special night dive. Drifting along we must have seen a dozen tawny nurse sharks cruising around, plus numerous Jenkin’s whiprays. We finally settled on the bottom and watched a dive guide from another boat enticing the marine life with a bottle full of fish guts. Each time he squeezed the bottle the gathered sharks, rays and fish would mob the site searching for the source of food. It was a bit of a tease, but very entertaining for the divers. However, with divers, sharks, rays and fish stirring up the sandy bottom photographing the action was a bit of a challenge.
The next day we explore more of Vaavu Atoll, doing wonderful channel dives at Miyaru Kandu and Golden Wall and later a reef dive at Rakeedhoo. Golden Wall was our favourite of these sites, with lots of caves and coral heads covered in yellow and orange soft corals. At this site we also saw reef sharks, Maori wrasse, bonito and some pretty schools of oriental sweetlips and five-lined snapper.
Moving south once again we were in for a special treat at Meemu Atoll while exploring the channel at Vanhuravalhi Kandu. This dive started like other channel dives with us hooked in at the channel mouth watching the sharks and fish, but we then explored a pretty coral head covered in snappers, sweetlips and squirrelfish. While photographing all the fish we suddenly heard a series of clicks and whistles. Looking into the blue we finally spotted the source of the noise, a pod of spinner dolphins. We swam out into the centre of the channel for a closer look and were rewarded with a procession of dolphins. Pod after pod zoomed by, several hundred dolphins. The parade only lasted about two minutes, but it was a spectacle we will never forget.
Only half the divers saw the dolphins, so we returned for another dive at the site after breakfast. Another lovely dive, but unfortunately the dolphins didn’t make a repeat performance. The afternoon dive at Mulah Kandu was another action packed channel dive, with lots of reef sharks, pelagic fish and stingrays.
Emperor Virgo then moved to the famous Ari Atolls to look for whale sharks. After enjoying 30m plus visibility for the first three days we were a little disappointed to see green water at South Ari Atoll, but as Issey explained the country has two monsoons that dictate conditions. The northeast monsoon runs from December to May, bring calm seas and clear water to the eastern atolls, but often stirred up conditions on the western atolls. From June to November the southwest monsoon brings clear water to the western atolls, but also rougher seas.
We spent an hour looking for whale sharks without success at a site called Maamigili (whale shark encounters are sometimes a little hit and miss in the Maldives), but still had a nice dive at the site exploring coral gardens and a coral wall. The visibility wasn’t too bad, around 12m, and we saw an abundance of reef fish, turtles and reef sharks. In the afternoon we went looking for manta rays at a site called Rangali. This site has ledges, caves and lovely corals, and would be wonderful with great visibility. We encountered hawksbill turtles, trevally, jobfish, reef sharks and soldierfish, and just before we had to surface a manta ray. The ray only hung around briefly, but we knew we would see more as the Maldives has the world’s largest population of these giant rays.
The next day we dived another manta ray site called Moofushi. This site has a sloping reef and numerous coral heads where manta rays gather to get cleaned. Our guides led us to the main cleaning station, a large pinnacle rising from 25m to 14m. This lovely pinnacle was covered in schools of snapper and sweetlips, but no manta rays. We waited for over thirty minutes, but no rays showed up for a clean. While most of the divers stayed, we decided to move on and only a few minutes later found another cleaning station with a manta ray. This ray was very inquisitive and came in very close to inspect us bubble blowing aliens. It was then joined by a second, third, fourth and finally a fifth manta ray. It was an incredible sight to see these elegant rays getting cleaned, and also performing graceful manoeuvres around the coral heads. One even did a somersault in front of Helen, unfortunately her memory card had just filled up!
A second dive at this site was just as good, with four manta rays now swimming around the main pinnacle and another three encountered on the smaller coral head. Once the rays had moved on we explored the caves and ledges of this coral head to find it overflowing with schools of glassfish, squirrelfish and soldierfish. We also saw moray eels, octopus, rock cods and even a ghost pipefish at this wonderful dive site.
Up to this point the currents hadn’t really been a problem, even for the inexperienced divers in the group. But the afternoon dive at the Fesdu Wreck was another matter. A number of ships have been scuttled for divers to enjoy across the country, with the Fesdu Wreck a 20m long fishing boat resting in 30m on North Ari Atoll. With only 10m visibility and a strong current, we didn’t get much time to explore this small wreck, which was covered in glassfish. Fortunately we could get out of the current to explore a nearby pinnacle, known as a thila, which was covered in reef fish.
With Emperor Virgo moving most nights between atolls night diving options were limited, so everyone was keen to explore Maaya Thila after sunset. This wonderful pinnacle rises from 35m to 6m and is riddled with ledges and caves. Under torch light we found resting turtles, lionfish, octopus, stonefish, nudibranchs, flatworms, crabs and shrimps. However, the action heated up towards the end of the dive when the trevally, moray eels, reef sharks and marble rays cruised the top of the reef looking for prey.
The following morning we had a chance for one last dive on Maaya Thila before we had to return to Male. This ended up being one of the best shark dives of the trip, with dozens of grey reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks patrolling the pinnacle. We also saw turtles, eagle rays, batfish, trevally, snappers, sweetlips, boxfish, pufferfish and a number of octopus. It was a wonderful dive and a great way to finish a fabulous trip to the magnificent Maldives.
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