The Maldives is near the top of most people's diving wish lists. The uncrowded waters, pristine reefs, and above all the pelagic action make this a terrific destination for scuba divers to visit.
I have long waited for my chance to visit and recently got it when Dive The World gave me a work assignment to visit and enjoy a liveaboard tour on the Baani Adventurer.
Being based in Thailand, I flew from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur and then caught the Malaysian Airlines 4 hour flight to the capital, Malé Town. The International and seaplane airports are not actually on Malé itself, but rather on a manmade island called Hulhule that is only 10 minutes by water taxi from Malé.
The cost of the transfer is 10 Rufiyaa (Rf) each way, and at the time of my trip there were just over 12 Rf to the US dollar. There are no set schedules for the water taxis between the airport and Malé, either way. The boats simply wait until they are either full or it appears that there will be no more customers for a while, and then they depart. In real terms this means that there is usually a boat leaving every 15 minutes or so as it is very busy between Hulhule and Malé. As well as having the international airport based there, there are also 2 seaplane terminals - for Maldivian Air Taxis (now called Trans Maldivian Airways) and Trans Maldivian.
Arriving the night before the boat departed, I transferred to Malé and overnighted in the Banni Hotel (US$ 100 per night per room). Taxis, necessary for those with heavy dive bags, all seem to cost about US$ 10 wherever you go. The island is not that big although it is home to 90,000 people, some one-third of the population of the Maldives. The main street, Majeedee Magu, runs right across the island and its full length can be walked in about 30 minutes.
For spending time in Malé, take some US currency with you since there are very few ATM's on Malé, although there is an HSBC about 100 metres along to the right when you arrive at the water taxi stand. Most of the smaller shops are happy to accept US dollars as well as Rf, and the liveaboards and resorts tend to only accept US dollars or payment by credit card.
The usual meeting point is at the international airport, and from there the liveaboard staff will transfer you by dhoni to the boat itself. This normally takes 5 to 10 minutes depending on where about in the harbour the boat is moored. And so my Maldives dive tour began.
Maldives liveaboards are fairly unique in the fact that most of them do not have a traditional dive deck on the main boat, but rather have a separate dhoni boat that all dives are done from and where the equipment stays set up for the duration of the trip. The dhonis also have the compressors onboard meaning that there is no noisy tank filling going on onboard the main boat. It is a good feature meaning plenty of space and peace and quiet on the main boat.
The Baani Adventurer's dhoni was very roomy, with plenty of space for 18 divers to kit up, no bumping shoulders and jostling for position on this boat, which makes a welcome change from traditional crowded decks. The journeys back to the main boat gave me a chance to chat with Saif, head dive guide onboard the Baani Adventurer, who has been working as a guide in his native Maldives since 1995 and been with Baani since the boat was launched. He assured me that I was in for the dive trip of a lifetime!
My first impression of the main boat itself was of the sheer width of it compared to a normal liveaboard. At 30 meters long and almost 9 meters wide it's quite an imposing boat, and with no dive deck onboard they make full use of all the space ensuring comfortable accommodations and communal areas - no small little cubby holes on this boat!
The Maldivian boats in general are built a lot wider than their counterparts in other areas of the world and this does make for extremely spacious liveaboards; in fact they offer as much space as you would normally find on catamarans. However, the downside of this design is that they are not suited for very heavy seas and thus there is normally a few months of the year in the low season when this style of vessel cannot reach the further atolls and must stay closer to Malé.
The Adventurer has 8 cabins for a total of 18 guests. There are 2 Suites on the upper deck, and 7 Standard cabins on the lower deck which compose of 3 doubles and 4 twin beds. If available, I would recommend taking a Suite as, although they are slightly more expensive, the view from the panoramic window of idyllic tropical isles going past is simply the perfect wake up for any holiday maker.
The main deck is given over to staff cabins, the galley and an enormous 45 m² saloon with sofas, tables and chairs, and also a large widescreen TV for either DVDs or checking out those underwater videos and pictures. Strangely the saloon is not actually air conditioned, although with a door on either side at the front, plus windows and an open corridor at the back leading to the rear deck, it was never uncomfortably hot as there was always a cooling breeze. The saloon is also where breakfast and lunch are served during tours, with dinner tending to be served on the 24 m² rear deck.
Breakfast and lunch are a self service buffet affair, whilst dinner is table service including an attentive barman to make sure your glass is never empty. The food onboard is simply excellent with a fantastic range. The fish is incredibly fresh - in fact quite often you see the captain catch a fish and then you have it for the next meal - and the rolls that are served with the meals are baked fresh onboard each day.
Breakfast tends to be cereals, sausages, scrambled egg and fresh baked rolls, with lunch consisting of fresh fish, salads and a dessert, perhaps either ice cream or a freshly baked cake. Dinner is normally a soup to start, then pasta or salad, a main course of which fish features heavily, and then a dessert.
Water, tea and coffee are available all day on the rear deck and are included in the cost of the trip. All other drinks from the bar are extra and the barman simply runs a tab for you that you settle on the last day of the tour. Soft drinks are US$ 3 per can and beer (either cans or draft) is US$ 4. For those that prefer wine with their meals, they have a selection of Hardy's and Two Oceans onboard at US$ 23-33 per bottle, and if you really want to celebrate seeing the whale shark, the bar also has Champagne at US$ 40 to 80 per bottle.
One thing that I would highly recommend that you take with you when diving in the Maldives is a reef hook. Although ostensibly not particularly 'P.C.', these do less damage if properly placed than a diver flailing about for grip on the reef in a heavy current.
Nearly all of the dives that are conducted in the Maldives require a negative entry. For those that are not sure what this is, it means that when you enter the water from the dhoni, you do so with no air in your BCD. You hit the water and descend immediately to the dive site, with a slight pause at 5 meters or so to signal that you are OK to the guide. The reason for this is that the currents on the surface can be quite strong, and a leisurely descent having rinsed your mask on the surface and had a quick chat to your buddy will normally mean that you will miss the site entirely.
Once everyone has boarded the diving dhoni, it heads off to the site which is normally only 10 minutes or so away from the main boat. Once at the site, the first thing that happens is that the dive guides will enter the water to make sure which way the currents are running. Once they are happy that the dhoni is in the right position on the site for the currents, your guide will signal to your group that it's time for you to get wet.
My first dive was at Madivaru. This is a site in the southern area of Ari Atoll and is a good place for spotting manta rays as it's a manta cleaning station. Almost on cue after only 10 minutes or so we saw the first of the mantas as they swept in from the blue.
The top of the reef is at 8 metres and slopes down to a sandy bottom at just over 30 metres. As well as the manta rays, there was a dizzying amount of reef fish to take in. Strangely, my overwhelming impression from diving in the Maldives was the sheer number of redtooth trigger fish on almost every site. In fact there were that many that sometimes they actually stopped you from seeing other things, as you were trying to look through a veritable wall of them.
Another great dive was at Dhigurah Thila, which is a slightly deeper site and much more exposed to currents. However, it is also an excellent site for catching sight of whale sharks, and as soon as the guides had told us this we were all eager to get in the water. This dive consisted of a quick descent and then just "hanging out" at the corner, waiting to see what went by in the blue.
Unfortunately no whale sharks graced us with their presence on this tour but there were eagle rays, grey reef sharks, turtles, great barracuda, and pretty much every other fish that you can find in a marine I.D. book. The amount of marine life is simply staggering. This was the dive when I realized that having a reef hook is almost a necessity as you will use less air and enjoy the dive more by being 'hooked in' than having to fight the current.
The best dive of the trip was at Kudarah Thila, which was simply amazing. The site is made up of 4 large coral heads that are perched upon a plateau that rises from the seabed at 40 metres to 10 metres or so. The coral heads all have small caves in them that are full of gorgonians and whip corals, plus there is the odd nurse shark resting up in them.
What made the dive so special though, was the sheer amount of fish life. It wasn't small schools of blue lined snapper, its was schools of thousands, vast numbers of red tooth trigger fish surrounding you as you are on the corner with grey reef sharks and whitetip sharks patrolling the blue. The one down side is that with no shallow areas and strong currents, once you were out of bottom time it was a drift in the blue for the safety stop, but even that was enjoyable as we had a large eagle ray cruise past us.
All too soon it seemed we were back in the harbour at Hulhule and spending the last night onboard before disembarking to end our vacation the next day. All in all I would recommend the Baani Adventurer as excellent value for money among the lower budget boats. It is large and comfortable, has a long serving, knowledgeable crew and is one of the few boats that offers 3 dives per day for each full day onboard.
Written by Danny Galt, March 2008