Maldives' thriving atolls: A magical dive with mantas by moonlight

2017-01-07 15:40 - Shalini Tewari
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Maldives, diving in Maldives, dhoni

An ancient dhoni sails against the setting sun.

My eyes adjust from the dark airport to the scene outside. Mirage-like images shimmer in front of me until the colours and shapes slowly start to take form. A mesmerizing fluid of the most brilliant turquoise and green laps languidly against a dock in the distance.  A young woman walks by carrying her surfboard with henna-covered hands and a boat labelled ‘customs’ motors past idly.

I imagined the Maldives to have the picture-perfect white sandy beaches, vivid blue water and swaying palm trees, but I didn’t expect to see it right at my toes standing at the airport, just kilometers away from the busy capital city of Malé.

Maldives, Male airport, Maldives diving                                                       (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

All aboard the dhoni

The Maldives is a nation made up of 1 190 coral islands spread along a thin strip 754 kilometers long and 118 kilometers wide, therefore travel is done primarily by sea. We meet the dive crew and board our dhoni – the traditional all-purpose vessel of the Maldives. ‘Dhuveli’, which means speed in the local language of Dhivehi, will be our diving transport for the 7-day journey. It is equipped with a compressor for nitrox and air, and has enough space for each person in our group to have our own private nook in which to keep our gear and prepare in comfort.  We choose our spots, ready our gear, and cruise to what is to be our home for the next 7 days – The Ocean Oasis.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                       (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Luxury at sea

The luxurious 36-meter yacht holds 11 cabins – 8 air-conditioned cabins with private toilets and showers, 2 deluxe cabins and one suite. Additionally, it’s equipped with a lounge area where one can relax in front of a plasma TV and watch a DVD whilst charging your devices from one of over a dozen individual stations. The top floor is a spacious sundeck with lounge chairs and a massage table; the second holds 3 cabins and tables and chairs for socializing, as well as the best feature on the boat, a Jacuzzi. The remaining cabins are on the bottom floor that leads to the main deck where the large dining hall and bar are located. There is a wi-fi connection on the boat that runs at sea faster than in my flat in Cape Town.

I am thrilled to be handed the keys to one of the deluxe cabins and happily settle into my sunny suite. It’s got a double bed and ensuite bathroom. There’s something to be said about looking out across an expansive body of water whilst simultaneously showering and cruising along the Indian Ocean.

Diving the atolls

We only have 7 days to experience the underwater world of a nation that is 99% water and a collection of 26 atolls, so we set to it. Hulhule, Maldives’ International Airport, is on the North Malé Atoll and our first dive is off the Rasfari North Faru. My 5mm suit is much too warm for the 29-degree water temperature and I’m already planning to shed it for the next dive. Pushed along by a slight current, we meet the local sea life, which includes oriental sweetlips, white tip reef sharks, morays, playful clown fish, phantom bannerfish, and healthy, colourful coral.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                    (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Our first day in the Maldives comes to an end as we watch the first bright orange sunset melt into the sea.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                     (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Cowbell alarms

The next day I’m awoken by a pleasant sounding ringing that gets gradually louder. Athula rings an ancient cowbell throughout the boat as our wake up call and to signal mealtime. After a light snack, we prepare for our second dive of the trip at Boduhithi Thila. We pass morning greetings to parrotfish, white tips, leaf fish, and a giant Napoleon. A great start to any day. Back on board, another delicious meal awaits. This morning’s menu includes a coconut curry with chapatti and the local delicacy of Mashuni – tuna, minced coconut flakes, lime, onion and chili.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving                                                   (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Our third dive is off the North Ari Atoll on Rashoo Madivaru. This dive takes us down a channel past an amazing wall that drops 35 meters deep.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                     (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

We’re starting to get used to our ‘strenuous’ schedule of waking up, diving, eating, diving, relaxing, diving, eating, sleeping and repeat. We cruise past paradisaical scenes until we stop at the next section of sea to explore.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                       (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Mantas by moonlight

We arrive at our destination called Fesdhoo Faru. It is a popular stop for liveaboards as it is feeding ground for mantas.  This will be our first night dive. The crew has set up a spotlight at the back of the boat. We are given a dive briefing and then we wait for the mantas to come. As we wait, we take in the night; our eyes start to play tricks and we imagine shapes materializing from below. 

Naturally, as soon as we let our guard down and go inside to have dinner, we hear someone yell, ‘manta!’ We scramble for our gear. We make haste in vain though because the mantas have found what they came for and aren’t going anywhere soon. At 6 meters deep, we enjoy the most magical 90 minutes with mantas as they swim gracefully in circles around us. It’s a sandy bottom so we find a spot to stay put and shine our torches above in order to draw the mantas near. The light attracts krill on which mantas feast. These massive giants don’t care if we are in their way and we watch in awe as they glide past. They turn their huge bodies as fluidly as the water that surrounds them. Mantas by moonlight – this is real-life magic.

Gradually, the other divers start to leave due to hunger and cold. I have to be pried away in the end as I just can’t get enough. If I could have, I would’ve stayed the whole night with my giant friends. The others are already dry and sipping on a nightcap when I ascend, but I can’t let mantas dance below me without being in their presence. The crew decides it's safe to let me snorkel at the surface on my own and I spend another 30 minutes with these lovely creatures. To say this is an amazing experience would be an understatement.  The one-to-one encounter takes on another level and I dive down trying to stay with them as long as possible. They don’t seem to mind my presence and if it weren’t for the pesky crab that keeps trying to latch onto me, causing me to shriek every single time, I would stay longer. Finally though, I bid the mantas farewell and watch them from above until my eyes can no longer stay open.

Ghost tales at night

On day three, we dive off Maalhos Thila and Fish Head. The first is a popular site on the outer edge of the reef with caves and blue soft corals. Fish Head is the most famous site in the North Ari Atoll. Many divers will spend more than two hours in a dhoni to get here from Malé for a day trip. The current is very strong but we are blessed with white tip and grey reef shark sightings, rays, and plenty of other large fish. This is not a dive for the weak-hearted. We come across a very panicked lost diver and help her back to her friends.

We travel farther south to the South Ari Atoll and our final dive of the day is on Raidihgaa Thila. We drop 30 meters down to many gorgeous gorgonians and plenty of colourful small critters.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                               (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

In the evening, we are taken by speedboat to the small island nearby. We are presented with a wonderful spread and BBQ on the beach. The locals have created mantas and whale sharks in sand and lit them up with candles. We lay outstretched in front of a warm fire after yet another scrumptious meal of barbecued fish and meat and a variety of salads and sides. We try counting the stars and bathe in the moonlight. It starts to drizzle and we run like kids into the small, forested area of the island. In the darkness, we swing from tree swings listening to Maldivian legends about dark spirits and his encounters with them. With the hair standing on the back of our necks, we listen and look nervously around in the dark. The call to return to the boat comes too soon and we bid farewell to our quaint little island of adventure and put our sea legs back on.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                 (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

The following day we prepare to dive at Bulhalhohi Thila and then our first wreck, the Machafushi. This wreck is also known as the Khuda Maa and was purposely sunk in 1999. It was a Japanese freighter, 52 meters long and sits at a depth of about 25 meters. Large shoals of horse-eyed jacks and snappers can be found here. It has two openings on either side and we can easily swim through and explore the cargo holds. We encounter groupers, batfish, lionfish and nudibranchs. Once we finish exploring the wreck, we end our dive on a thriving reef nearby.

Underwater Superman

Our last dive for the day is on Dhigurah Beyro where we spend time with a spotted eagle ray and hawksbill turtle. We still have 5 dives to pack into the two remaining days. We are south of Malé and need to start making our way back north. We dive Kudarah Thila, which is an adventurous and slightly taxing drift dive.

Zinah, our dive guide, cautions that I should leave my camera behind but I have yet to meet a photographer who heeds this advice. With reef hooks at the ready, we whizz past coral formations and duck into crevices to catch our breaths. It’s always amazing to watch sea life swim effortlessly in the same current that has us scrambling to stay still. At the end of the dive, we hover up to the top of a reef, hook in and watch the underwater world go by as we hang like clumsy Supermen in the sea; no small feat with hefty camera gear and thanks to my dive buddies, I manage to hook in rather than be lost somewhere at sea.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                   (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

On our way back to the yacht for breakfast, we spot mantas feeding at the surface. Without hesitation, we jump in and experience yet another incredibly intimate encounter with mantas. They come from every direction. At some point, I can’t see divers for mantas as they bump and weave their way past us. We stay with them for over an hour.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                  (Photos: Shalini Tewari)

After breakfast we head to the destination of our 12th dive, Dhihdhoo Beyru. En route, we spot a whale shark and we all jump in to try to catch a glimpse. It is a small shark with what looks like propeller marks along its body. It doesn’t stay around long enough for us to get a better look.

Surrounded by sharks feeding at night

Our final day of diving arrives and none of us are ready to leave. We dive a site named Five Rock with incredibly strong current and large gorgonians. We then make the 5-hour trek northward until our last dive destination. Dive 15 is a shallow night dive near a pier where nurse sharks and stingrays are accustomed to gather to be fed by fishermen. The fishermen no longer feed them but that doesn’t stop them from still visiting each night. We each find a sandy patch and a safe place to hook onto as there is a bit of a current. Within seconds, nurse sharks and stingrays surround us. We shine our light in every direction and as we watch a shark above, another comes in from our side. We have to duck for rays and shift positions to let both pass.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                    (Photos: Shalini Tewari)

We are treated to a gourmet feast in the dining hall for our last meal on the Ocean Oasis. The crew has created food art and turned chickens into tribal idols, carved fish out of carrots, transformed beets into roses, and made serviettes into floral bouquets.

We sleep this night with Malé in our sights – a sad sight that signifies the end of this luxurious journey.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                    (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

The following morning we bid farewell to most of the group who are leaving on an earlier flight. The rest of us have flights later in the day so we head to Malé to shop and to get a feel for city life and Maldivian culture. The city is densely packed into a small area making it easily navigable by foot.  It takes only 30 minutes to walk from one end of the island to the other. The heart of Malé is rather hustle and bustle – a stark contrast to its surrounding atolls.

The island capital has grown to a population of over 100,000 within its single square mile. Maldivian culture is a mix of a number of different cultures. Sri Lanka and South India are closest in proximity and have a large influence on the Maldives. Arabic and African influences are also prominent and Islam is the countries’ official state religion.

We get what we need and make our way back to our yacht, deciding to wait out the rest of the time on our floating paradise.

Rita used to live on Funadhoo, the island next to Malé, and she suggests her and I take a stroll. It’s a far cry from its neighbouring island. Green trees line the roads, parks fill the empty spaces and a beautiful mosque lay in the center. We pass by local scenes with kids playing by colourful houses and young boys tending to their catch of the day.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                            (Photos: Shalini Tewari)

I buy some spices and then we decide to catch the last sunset from the beach. The sky is an ominous shade of grey but we are gifted with a vibrant rainbow that dips into the sea as the sun breaks through the clouds. A family sits on the beach in front of us eating Hedhikaa – a selection of local sweets and savouries; we drink in the beauty of the Maldives and watch the sun disappear behind the clouds leaving us to make our journeys back home.

Maldives, Maldives diving, liveaboard, diving
                                                  (Photo: Shalini Tewari)

Useful Dhivehi Phrases:

Hello – Asalam Alekum
How are you? – Haalu kihine?
What’s your name? – Kohn nameh tha kiyanee?
My name is – Aharenge namakee _______.
Yes – Aan
No – Noon
Please – Adhes Kohfa
Thank you – Shukuria

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What to read next on Traveller24:

-Quick Guide: Maldives

The Maldives = Beach therapy