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Enjoying M & M’s in the Maldives

By Nigel Marsh and Helen Rose

 

When you book on a dive trip to the Maldives labelled the ‘Sharktastic Tour’ you would expect to see plenty of sharks and for them to be the highlight of the trip, especially as all shark species have been protected around this island nation since 2010. Well rest assured we did see plenty of shark action, however the sharks were not the highlight of this trip, instead it was the M & M’s. No we didn’t go on a chocolate binge, but found that every major highlight of this trip started with the letter M!

 

We have dreamed of visiting the Maldives for many years, with the nation’s healthy shark population a big attraction. Spread across 35,000 square miles, the 26 atolls that make up this island nation are dotted with countless reefs, cays and resorts. However, the best way for a diver to explore the Maldives is to join a liveaboard boat, and with over 150 of these vessels plying the local waters your choices are almost unlimited.

 

While searching for a liveaboard to explore the Maldives we discovered the Emperor Divers website and their unique Sharktastic Tour. This trip sounded perfect for us, visiting four atolls and diving some of the best sites to encounter sharks. This trip is only offered from January to April, the best season to dive the Maldives, so we booked onto a trip in February.

 

Our boat for this trip was Emperor Virgo, one of six the company operate in the Maldives and one of the smaller vessels in their fleet at 32m in length. We were impressed with this vessel from the moment we boarded and were handed a cool fruit drink. The vessel accommodates 18 guests in large ensuite cabins spread over three levels. The vessel also has a large sundeck, a spacious dining and lounge room and bar. However, similar to other liveaboards in the Maldives it has no dive deck. All the dive gear, tanks and compressors are kept on an accompanying vessel, called a dhoni. This seemed a bit strange to us at first, but we quickly saw the advantages – no wet smelly dive gear and larger cabins on the main boat.

 

For our checkout dive the dhoni took us to a site just north of the capital of Male. We didn’t have high expectations for the dive at Kanduohgiri, as the dive brief didn’t mention sharks, but this dive was where our week of M & M’s started, with an extraordinary encounter with morays.

 

Seconds after descending we ran into the first moray eel, a large giant moray hanging out of a hole in the reef wall. We were just about to photograph this eel when we spotted a more spectacular sight nearby, a honeycomb and giant moray sharing a hole. Beyond this pair of morays was another honeycomb moray, and another, and another. We had stumbled across a garden of moray eels.

 

During the dive brief the chief dive guide Issey had mentioned that this site was adjacent to a tuna processing plant and was home to a few morays, but over the course of this dive we saw well over one hundred moray eels. The large honeycomb morays were easily the most spectacular with their bold black and white colouration, but we also saw grey, white-eyed, clouded, yellow-margined, giant and dark spotted morays. This has to be the greatest collection of moray eels at one dive site and it was our checkout dive!

 

Besides the morays we also saw an abundance of fish life in the 30m visibility – schools of barracuda, trevally, fusiliers, bannerfish, bigeyes and even a pack of roaming remoras. But this site was also home to garden eels, stingrays and a large Napoleon wrasse.

 

We quickly got into liveaboard mode aboard Emperor Virgo; dive, eat, nap, dive, eat, nap and repeat. The rest of the first day was more about sharks. At South Male Atoll we did our first channel or kandu dive at a site called Embudhoo Express. These kandu dives are a signature of the Maldives, and generally require the use of a reef hook to anchor you to the bottom in the strong current. Embudhoo Express ended up being typical of these dives, as hooked into the reef we watched a parade of grey and whitetip reef sharks in the blue water. They were great to watch but stayed frustratingly out of camera range. We also typically encountered trevally, batfish, mackerel, tuna, jobfish, bonito and Napoleon wrasse. After twenty minutes of shark and fish watching we unhooked and drifted down the channel, exploring the many fish-filled ledges and caves in the channel wall.

 

We got much closer to the sharks on our night dive at Alimatha Faru. This site, off the end of a resort pier, is renowned for its tawny nurse sharks and rays, and it didn’t disappoint. The sloping reef at this site is a popular overnight spot for liveaboards, and we were sharing the site with four other boats. Even with one hundred divers in the water it was a blast. During the dive we saw dozens of large and small tawny nurse sharks either swimming around the reef or inspecting the divers hoping for a bit of food. They were often accompanied by groups of Jenkin’s whiprays, trevally and also the occasional reef shark. Our guides didn’t feed the marine life, but it was very entertaining to watch a dive guide from another group getting mobbed by the sharks, rays and fish each time he produced some morsel.

 

The following day we dived sites on Vaavu Atoll, exploring more channels from the open water into the atoll lagoon. We saw plenty of shark action at Miyaru Kandu, but Golden Wall was spectacular with its lovely soft corals and masses of fish, including schools of pretty oriental sweetlips and five-lined snapper.

 

Each day the crew of Emperor Virgo spoilt us with their wonderful service and a feast of food. The meals were buffet style and chef Camilo cooked up an incredible range of Asian and Western dishes that left no one wanting.

 

On day three we had another case of the M & M’s, this time it was a rather unexpected encounter with a group of marine mammals at Meemu Atoll. Each time we dived one of the reef channels we expected sometime special, hoping for a sailfish, a tiger shark or a hammerhead, and it was no different when we dived Vanhuravalhi Kandu. We spent the first ten minutes of the dive hooked at the channel mouth watching the reef sharks and pelagic fish. But after unhooking we explored a large coral head riddled with ledges and covered in colourful reef fish.

 

We were busy photographing the fish when we suddenly heard a series of clicks and whistles. Peering into the blue, the source of the noise could be faintly seen, a pod of dolphins. We then swam like crazy into the middle of the channel and were rewarded with an extraordinary sight - hundreds of spinner dolphins! It was an incredible spectacle as pod after pod of these delightful creatures swam by a group of spellbound divers. The procession only last two minutes, but it is locked into our memory forever.

 

After this amazing marine mammal encounter the rest if the day could have been an anti-climax, but we saw plenty of reef sharks at Mulah Kandu to keep us happy. This site was also home to schools of trevally, barracuda and rainbow runners.

 

Our shark adventures were due to continue the next day at South Ari Atoll, with whale sharks on the itinerary. Unfortunately someone forgot to remind the whale sharks. Whale sharks are regularly seen on the sloping reef at Maamigili, but not today. We still had two nice dives on this reef seeing a good collection of reef fish and turtles. However, the visibility on this western atoll was only 12m, unlike the 30m plus we had enjoyed on the eastern atolls over the previous three days, due to the northeast monsoon pushing dirty water from east to west.

 

The following day the M & M’s continued, with the magic word today being mantas. The Maldives has the world’s largest population of manta rays, and while Hanifaru Bay is easily the most famous manta dive in the country, these gentle giants are seen at many other sites. We had our first brief manta encounter the day before at Rangali, but the best action was at a site called Moofushi. This reef has numerous cleaning stations and over two dives we had some spectacular manta moments.

 

On the first dive the main cleaning station was devoid of mantas, and it wasn’t until we moved to a smaller group of coral heads that we encountered one. This manta was extremely curious and we found ourselves eyeball to eyeball with it many times. But the real magic started when a second, third, fourth and finally a fifth manta joined the party, zooming around us and the cleaning station. It was a wonderful experience, but very frustrating to photograph with only 10m visibility. On the second dive there was even more manta rays to be seen. At the main cleaning station four large rays were hovering and we found another three on the smaller cleaning station.

 

Our final M & M of the trip came all two quickly with a visit to a wonderful dive site on North Ari Atoll known as Maaya Thila, that is home to an impressive group of marble rays. We dived this brilliant pinnacle of coral over two dives and found it overflowing with marine life.

 

The first dive was at night, and while the small critters like octopus, cuttlefish, crabs, shrimps, nudibranchs and flatworms were all fun to observe, it was the bigger creatures that entertained. During our hour long dive we encountered sleeping hawksbill turtles, soaring spotted eagle rays and an unexpected stonefish. Also out hunting for prey were reef sharks, moray eels and packs of trevally. But the highlight was a group of hungry marble rays. Every few minutes one of these rays would come into view, grubbing into the sand looking for prey. At one stage we had three marble rays swimming around us which made for a very special night dive.

 

We did a second dive at Maaya Thila the next morning. Unfortunately the marble rays had disappeared, but the shark action was wonderful on this final dive of the trip. We had seen some great shark action on this Sharktastic Tour, but had found the reef sharks frustratingly camera shy, but this was not the case at Maaya Thila. Cruising around this pinnacle were dozens of grey and whitetip reef sharks, including numerous juveniles. On previous dives we were lucky if the sharks came within 6m of us, but at this site they came within 2m. The only problem was I had on a macro lens due to the reduced visibility. Lucky there were plenty of great macro subjects, including a good range of friendly reef fish.

 

Our wonderful week in the Maldives ended all too quickly, and exposed us to some amazing dive sites and some incredible marine life. But our memories of this trip will always be the M & M’s – the manic morays, the marine mammals, the magnificent mantas and the magic marble rays.

 

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