"Sharks. It was definitely the shark dive for me", enthused the English newly-wed when asked what the highlight of her liveaboard trip on MV Monsoon had been. Others had preferred their half an hour photographing a pair of inquisitive mantas. While for others it had been the bizzarely shaped pinnacle called Christmas Rock. When asked my highlight or the most memorable aspect of the diving in the Maldives' northern atolls, my answer was the sheer number and variety of fish life.
We had some excellent dives during my week-long tour around the atolls of Baa, Raa, Noonu and Lhaviyani and some wonderful encounters. The list of individual sightings was impressive, but still my mind could not get over the quantity and variety of marine life that gathered around these submerged pinnacles within these atolls.
The Maldives is one of those scuba destinations that you simply can't shake from your mind. Once you have read a few articles and seen some of those images of delightful little atolls set in the Indian Ocean and surrounded by turquoise shallows, you know you simply have to go there ... one day. Well 'one day' only happens if you make it and it happened for me in May 2009.
The flight from Male in a Maldivian air taxi (seaplane) might seem like an added layer of hassle, but the experience of soaring high above the atoll chain and seeing it from the sky is in fact an added bonus and gives you a great feel for the country. Our seaplane touched down in waters just off Kuredu Resort, where the MV Monsoon was waiting at the jetty. Staring from my seat through the cockpit, I had the same view as the barefooted pilots and could see the MV Monsoon getting closer through the windscreen.
It was the last liveaboard tour of the season when I went, so conditions were not first class. Visibility was sometimes not the best but the sites were still very good and the consensus of opinion was that an excellent trip had been had by all.
One of the best features of the MV Monsoon trips is that there are no other liveaboards around. While the water of the atolls closest to Male can sometimes be busy with boats, the north is largely your own playground. The arrangement with Kuredu Resort means that all the logistics are done through the resort which allows the Monsoon to remain far from Male, unlike the other boats.
So we were always alone on every site. When we sighted a large group of grey reef sharks at Orimas Thila or mantas at Dhonfanu Thila or some of the other highlights of our diving cruise, there was no mad dash of bubble-blowers from other boats to spoil the fun.
The area is characterised by submerged pinnacles, many of which feature overhangs and caverns creating shelter from the current. Certain creatures like sharks and whale sharks are more rare in these atolls than further south. However the waters here are nutrient-rich and the quantity of fish life is stunning. The variety is also very impressive with more species than anyone but the most experience fish identifier, can list from memory.
If you like big schools of fish and lots of species variety around sites of interesting topography then this could be your kind of diving. If you want whale sharks or large, pristine corals then other dive areas of the Maldives may suit you better.
The liveaboard is very spacious. Even with a full complement of guests it is always possible to find a little spot to yourself. The sun deck is enormous and has a good mix of sun and shade. The hot tub is a bit of a cherry on top, i.e. it has a positive effect on the psyche but it doesn't really get used much.
The upper deck houses the big saloon with a great plasma screen and a bar. There is also a seated area outside the saloon where briefings are given and an extended floor which acts as a ceiling to the dive deck and platform. This is a nice spot to watch the seas at night where dolphins and a manta were both spotted on our safari. A spiral staircase with grand, golden finishes brings you down from the saloon to the dining area which opens to the deck. 4 cabins are on the main deck and 7 on the lower deck.
Overall it is a spacious and well-structured liveaboard boat. It may not have anything in the way of Maldivian character, but as a Red Sea boat it is built for practicality. It is sturdy in the water and the scuba diving procedural movements could not be easier.
We checked into our cabins of which there are 11, each having 2 beds. However the beds are large enough for 2 so you can either have a bed to yourself and use the other for storage or sleep in both the beds. It depends if you know the person you are sharing with ... maybe.
The cabins were fine and with a reasonable amount of space and storage. The TVs are high above the wardrobe and each has a DVD player. The bathrooms are adequate although a little cramped. The boat was built in Egypt and the average Egyptian might fit below the shower head without a problem, but anyone over 5ft 10" might need to do some creative wriggling to ensure the spray connects with all the necessary places.
The air conditioning had a few issues which I was assured is top priority for the low season dry docking.
Unlike many Maldives liveaboards, the MV Monsoon does not use a diving dhoni. Instead there are 2 zodiacs (inflatable dinghies) which take guests to the dive sites and back. It is possible to stride off the platform, but quite rightly the management prefer not to park right on top of these sites thereby avoiding the risk of coral damage, plus avoiding terrifying the marine life with the noise of such a big ship.
Briefings take place in the comfort of the upper deck and you then proceed to gear up on the dive deck. Tanks remain in their stations where they are refilled. So you gear up, strap on your tank and walk down to the platform before stepping into the tender. The deck is spacious and well-organised and staff are always on hand to make getting in and out of the tender very easy.
Safety sausages and reef-hooks are provided if you do not have your own, and both are useful devices for diving in safety and comfort in these conditions. There can sometimes be current and you may surface separated from the dive guides. It is good to see an operator emphasising both safety and respect for the marine environment, not only at the start of the tour but also throughout and at the end when guests were thanked for their compliance.
Meals are taken in the dining area of the main deck, an air conditioned, dry area. They are served buffet-style and the variety is good. There are always salads, rice and potatoes (cooked in a variety of styles) plus a good range of vegetables and vegetarian options. Meats include roast chicken, steak and seafood including squid and fresh fish for those who are happy to devour what they spent an hour trying to photograph the previous day.
An impressive range of bread and croissants goes well with the excellent imported cheeses. Regular appearances by fresh fruit and yogurt were interspersed with special desserts like crème caramel, bread pudding and apple tart. Most guests agreed the food was fantastic and my waistline proves it, unfortunately.
We went ashore several times and visited a number of small islands where we could swim in the shallows, enjoy a beer on the beach and watch for juvenile rays or baby blacktips from the shore. On one island, one of the liveaboard crew scaled a palm tree to throw down some coconuts which were then taken on board and added to the menu.
For several reasons I would recommend the MV Monsoon. It is a big and spacious boat and is superbly convenient. The crew, a mix of locals, Sri Lankans and Indians are very helpful and always on hand with a smile. Chris Tricky, the tour leader is excellent. He explains everything well and manages to be authoritative without compromising his natural friendliness. He also maintains a chirpiness and genuine enthusiasm that many in his position lose after a few years.
I never enjoy competing with other groups of scuba divers for first entry onto a site, so to be somewhere as excellent as the Maldives on a liveaboard where we didn't have to battle with anyone else was fantastic. It is something that many do not appreciate until they experience being one of several boats parked next to one small dive site, and this is a major feather in the cap of the Monsoon.
The food was excellent and was remarked upon in glowing terms by several guests. I am sure the chefs received the warmest round of applause at the end of the trip. The association with Kuredu means that provisions are plentiful and fresh which makes the chefs job a lot easier.
So if you have been to the more popular atolls of the Maldives before or it will be your first time in this wonderful dive destination, then think about a trip in the Northern atolls. If the notion of having the sea to yourself, with no other divers around appeals to you, then think about the MV Monsoon for your next dream liveaboard tour.
Written by Gavin Macaulay, May 2009