- OCTOBER 15-24, 2019
If you ever needed one word to describe diving in the Maldives, an archipelago south of India in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that would be the word. If you’re a fish person (and what diver isn’t?) then the Maldives definitely needs to be on your radar and your schedule. It is simply probably the overall fishiest place I’ve ever been diving.
This was our fourth trip here, the first in 1996 and the last in 2016. Each time we’ve dove with the Manthiri, and our good friend Moosa Hassan, their trip leader and DM, along with assistant DM Ali Maahir. In 1996, Manthiri was the first/only true liveaboard in the Maldives. (Of course, Moosa and I were both young men back then we kept reminding ourselves.) Now, there are probably close to 100 liveaboards plying these waters. Not all at the same time and not all at the same sites – many times we were the only boat around – but the point is that scuba diving in the Maldives has certainly matured and grown over the last 23 years.
Fortunately, the quality of the diving has not suffered for it. In fact, I think it’s gotten better each time we’ve gone. A lot of that credit has to go to the Maldivian people and the Maldivian government. Because of the nature of their existence – many small islands contained within larger coral atolls – they’re really conscientious about the ocean since they are so dependent on it for their survival, both from a sustenance and sustainable angle, to tourism. As such, they try to be very eco-conscious and they’re also attuned to things like effects of climate change and global warming, and the need for marine conservation, either though fishing practices, diving regulations, or creating marine protected areas.
In short, it all works and works quite well.
We were 11 strong on this trip. Manthiri only takes 12 divers total and we had one diver who wanted a single room so this was full. It’s also, from my standpoint as a trip leader, a good number for the group size because it’s not so large as to be unmanageable in case anyone needs some help or special attention, or we have equipment problems, or people want some photo advice, or whatever.
To drive home the point of how good the diving is and how enjoyable diving with Manthiri is, 7 of our 11 divers were repeat offenders from the 2016 trip. They were Donna & Cecilia Groman, Henry Gittler & Lisette Lieberman, Glenn Suhd, Laurie Kasper, and me (Ken Kurtis). The newbies were Hartley & Deb Wess, Lou Weisberg, and John Morgan.
We employed a variety of ways to get there. The Maldives is literally halfway around the world (12 time zones away) so it’s a schlep to get there. Laurie/Donna/Cecilia flew Qatar Airlines through Doha and then into Male (capital of the Maldives). Hartley & Deb arrived a week early and spent time at a Maldivian dive resort. The rest of us did the Singapore Airlines non-stop through Singapore and then on to the Maldives.
But we all encamped at Hotel78 (aka H78) for an overnight before we got on the boat. We can’t say enough nice things about this boutique hotel. They picked us up at the airport, it's a 10-minute drive to the hotel, they’re right on the beach, a fabulous on-site breakfast is included with the rooms, and then they took us to the nearby Hulhumale Jetty to board Manthiri. If you need a place to crash in the Maldives, give Hotel78 some thought.
The trend in liveaboards in the Maldives seems to be bigger and flashier, accommodating more divers. (Newer boats there are taking 25-30 people per trip.) The 85 x 25-foot Manthiri isn’t going to win style points, but it’s comfortable, quite functional, and extremely diver-friendly. In short, it works. (Glenn was staying on for an additional week on a different/larger boat so I’ll be interested to hear what the differences were between the bigger boat and Manthiri.)
Manthiri has three decks. All six staterooms are on the lower deck, each with en suite toilet/shower and air conditioning (although that varied in efficiency from room to room). The main deck consists of a salon area in the front half with couches and seating area on the left side, and two large round dining tables on the right side. The back half is the camera area. We only had two “big” cameras on this trip and four GoPros, but the camera area is large enough to handle more gear than we had. And charging stations are located on a lower shelf so it was always easy to keep batteries juiced up. The Manthiri upper deck has a spacious sundeck with lounge chairs, as well as the wheelhouse.
In addition to that, there’s the dhoni (rhymes with “pony”), which serves as the dive vessel. This is very typical of just about all Maldivian liveaboards and it frees up space on the main boat since all the dive gear as well as compressors, tanks, and weights, live on the dhoni. In our case, the dhoni is the Vasantha , which is 54 x 17 feet, approximately the size of some medium-sized SoCal dive boats. Again, nothing fancy but quite functional. It’s got separate gear stations for everyone, four entry points, a good ladder to come back on-board, showers, and a head.
Best of all, the crew pampers you on every dive. There’s plenty of help getting ready to go, Saif (aka “Dr. Nitrox”) comes around with an analyzer and clipboard to get each nitrox diver to sign off on their mix and MOD, Moosa and Ali lead each dive, so you usually end up with small groups underwater (and you’re free to wander off on your own if you like). At the end of the five, Ali was usually stationed under the ladder and as you put your feet on, he’d whip off your fins and hand them up. Best of all, the dhoni crew takes your wetsuit and washes it for you between every dive. (They do that with bathing suits as well once you’re back on board the mothership.) So stinky dive gear – let alone stinky divers – is not an issue. They really pride themselves on pampering you.
Moosa and Ali are both excellent critter-spotters. They each carry with them a short metal pointing stick which, when they spot something, they can CLANG!CLANG!!CLANG!!! on their tank to get your attention. So you hear that and you know to look in their direction to see what they've found.
And let’s not forget the food. It’s simply amazing what they do in the galley. They swore to us that everything is made on-board, and this includes breads, cakes (they even made a birthday cake for Cecilia), and ice cream daily, as well as the main meals.
Every meal is served family style at the two large tables. What’s really nice is that each table is set for 7 people, so Moosa and Ali usually eat with us, which gives us all more time to talk about the dives or just chat.
Everyone in our group raved about how good the food was. Each meal offered two or three entrées, two or three vegetable side dishes, salads, breads, and more. (I was a little nervous about stepping on the scale when I got home.) There was also always water, coffee, tea, and juice available at each meal. You could also opt to pay for sodas or beer/wine as well.
The general dive plan was three dives each day. Most people were up by 5:30AM and had coffee/tea and continental breakfast, dive briefing at 6:30AM, board the dhoni and dive (some runs were 5 minutes, some were longer), back on board Manthiri usually around 8AM for breakfast, second dive briefing at 10:30AM, back for lunch around Noon, third briefing at 3:30, back around 5PM.
Because we’d move between dives at times, it wasn’t always practical to do more than three dives. (My recollection from previous trips is that Manthiri has never been big on true night dives for a variety of reasons.) Usually on these trips, you either do the northern atolls or you do the southern atolls. We set this up as a combo trip, because we wanted to try to encounter the manta aggregation in Baa Atoll (more on that in a moment) and we also wanted to hit some of the prime sites in the southern atolls. Over the course of our 9 days of diving, we hit 10 different atolls (out of 26 total that make up the Maldives) and, according to Google Earth, travelled 350 miles. That’s a lot of territory to cover.
We did four dives on one day by moving up dive #3 to 1:30 and then did dive #4 around 4:30. Much as I love to get in four dives a day (or even 5 with a night dive), the day felt a little rushed. There’s definitely merit to quality over quantity. As I said, sometimes we had long moves to make, so a fourth dive on that particular day wasn’t practical.
The diving was fabulous. That’s due to what we saw, not the actual diving conditions. Weatherwise, it was very unusual for the Maldives according to Moosa (and my recollection of trips past). We got a sprinkle here and there, but rarely got much sun as the days were usually cloud-covered, but relatively high white clouds, not a dark gray overcast.
Water conditions were also not ideal. My recollection in the past was fairly clear/clean water with 100-foot+ visibility being routine. This time, while we had a couple of 100-foot+ sites, we generally had 40-60 foot viz with a haze in the water, and sometimes by the end of the dive when we were shallow, the haze knocked the viz down even further. Water temp on my Oceanic Proplus3 was generally 84-85º with an occasionally dip as low as 81º. I wore my 1.5mm Pinnacle Shadow with a 1mm Tilos hood and was quite comfortable. Other dove in skins or 3mm suits.
What made every dive was the amount of fish that you’d see. Not only lots of individual fish, but lots of schools and groups of fish. We’d routinely see large schools of Bluestripe Snappers, Humpback Snappers (hard to get close top), a few Napoleon Wrasses (both male & female), Oriental Sweetlips all over the place, Pennant Bannerfish, White Collar Butterflyfish (with their distinctive red tail – really pretty), Gold-Spot Snappers, Crescent-tail Bigeyes, and more. And to be clear, this isn’t a list of schools we saw over the course of our 24 dives. We saw three or four of these different species schools on almost every dive.
Most amazing, and sometimes annoying from a photography standpoint, were the Redtooth Triggerfish. They’re a fairly common Indo-Pacific fish but I’ve never seen them in this proliferation. It seems to me like they were on a breeding spree since we were last here. EVERY site we dove had probably MILLIONS of these triggers all over the place constantly either moving or diving into holes as you approached.
And what I found interesting was that there were two types of Redtooths but I don’t know if they are different species or not. Most abundant were really small ones, maybe 2-inches long, and who would usually stay pretty close to the reef. They look just like what I’ve always considered to be full-sized adult Redtooths, but they were a much paler blue. And then there were the full-sized ones, 6-8 inches long, but a darker blue and they generally stayed 10-20 feet off the reef – especially on walls – hanging out in the current and sucking up whatever drifted by.
On top of that, and I think again these numbered in the MILLIONS at each site as well, were the various Anthias, all some shade of red, and most male and female Scalefins, with the females far outnumbering the males. They were everywhere, pulsing up and off the reef and then all shooting back down when they sensed danger, only to come out again moments later. When you added them to the ever-present triggers, you always had a cacophony of red, blue, and pale blue on each site.
Mantas are somewhat common in the Maldives but one reason we picked this time of the year and the combo North/South route was the hope of finding a manta feeding aggregation up in the Baa Atoll area. Each year round this time, thousands of mantas migrate to the area because it becomes very plankton-rich (which is what they feed on). At certain times depending on the tides, time of day, and location, you may run into hundreds of mantas gathered together near the surface, with their mouths open and cephalic lobes curved to scoop up plankton, gracefully making a mad dash through the water as they feed.
My oh my, did we get lucky. (And we have the video to prove it.)
The hotspot at Baa Atoll is Hanifaru Bay, which is a UNEXSO World Heritage site. It’s also limited access as you need a permit that’s only good for 45 minutes, it’s snorkel-only, and they only give out a few permits each day. Moosa’s friendly with the rangers there so he called them to see if there was any activity while we were in the area. Turns out there wasn’t, but the rangers said they thought some stuff was happening on adjacent Raa Atoll.
We did a late afternoon dive at Vandhoo Wall in Raa which was a wonderful dive in and of itself. But what made the dive even better were the number of mantas we saw streaking down the wall through the course of the dive. At one point in the dive (and we got this on video), ELEVEN mantas winged their way on by us in the space of 35 seconds, gracefully flapping their huge wings as they moved down the wall and faded out of sight. Something was afoot.
When we surfaced, the dhoni crew was very excited. While we were under, maybe 100 yards away, mantas were everywhere on the surface, moving as a herd, their wingtips breaking the water and then splashing down as they flapped. We quickly reboarded the dhoni and Moosa said, “Get your snorkels on!!”The dhoni maneuvered to get ahead of the herd and then we’d jump and hope the mantas all came by.
Wow!!!! I shot with the GoPro7 and in one one-minute long shot, I count 25 different mantas, all passing by, all feeding, all moving like graceful 2,000-pound ballerinas. When they moved off, we’d all reboard the dhoni, reposition, and try again. We did four different jumps over the course of about 30 minutes and it’s something we will all remember for a long time. Definitely a unique experience. (You can also see a two-and-a-half minute video of our experience on my YouTube page.)
The other amazing dive we did, unique to the Maldives as far as I know, was a place called Shark Circus in South Male Atoll. The site, right in front of a resort, has a large population of resident Nurse Sharks, each about 9-11 feet long (Moosa measured one). Every night around dusk, they become very active and are apparently feeding. (We also did this dive in 2016 and were blown away.) But this year – and maybe it’s because we were in a more wide-open area than previously – the sharks seemed to want to cuddle. They’d be swimming around and then all of a sudden would drop to the sand and glide to a stop right by all of the divers and nuzzle up. This all went on for about 45 minutes. (We have video of this too.)
What was really nice, other than the experience itself, was that we dropped in around 5:30 so it was still light enough – sundown was around 6PM – to see what was going on without lights. As the dive wore on, we had to turn our dive lights on, but it’s definitely an ethereal experience and if/when YOU go to the Maldives, this dive is something you have to do.
Generally, dives were one hour long. The Maldives government has established a depth limit of 100 feet max and we rarely approached that. Choice of what depth to start the dive was many times dependent on the current which – wit h one exception – were fairly mild IMHO. This also may have contributed to the lessened visibility.
Dives sites were generally either pinnacles, sometimes small enough that you could cover the entire area in one dive, or walls, which many times were quite steep and lengthy.
One favorite site for Moosa and me is a pinnacle known as Dog Biscuit. It’s known for a large number of resident and very sociable Longfin Spadefish. In 2016, we encountered probably a thousand of them. There weren’t that many this time round, but there were easily multiple hundreds and the nice thing is that they sort of greet you as you’re descending and then some of them simply start following you around and will actually hang with you for an extended period of time.
Most of the dive sites had numerous moray eels poking their heads out of holes. There were Greens, Yelloweye, Honeycomb, Hookjaw, Blackspotted, and Masked. The Masked are pretty much pissed off all the time and will be aggressive. In fact, in the "Tropical Pacific - Reef Fish ID" book, on page455, it says: "Can be aggressive towards divers." I confirmed this the hard way.
One thing I like to do is stretch my fingers out and wiggle them for the moray to see. They’ll generally come a bit further out of the hole to investigate which gives me a better photo op. I was doing that with a Masked when he made a lightning-quick strike on my right-hand middle finger and then quickly withdrew. OUCH!!!! Two of his teeth sliced through the skin on each side of my fingers and suddenly there was a green haze in the water (red blood underwater looks green due to light absorption) from my bleeding finger.
I backed off, cursed both the eel and myself, and took a good look. The cuts were almost surgical, each about an inch long, both starting at the upper finger joint and continuing to the tip of my finger. And they were both oozing blood pretty good. So I did what any responsible diver would do and assessed the situation, decided I wasn’t going to bleed to death or lose enough blood to make me light-headed and dangerous, and spent another 20 minutes underwater to finish the dive. (For the record, I'm being facetious applying the word "responsible" to my choice to continue diving. Don't do this at home. Your results may vary.) The biggest problem I had was that, since the blood was coming from my camera trigger hand (my right), the blood would drift in-between me and whatever I was shooting and would make the water hazy.
And in case you’re thinking, “But what about sharks with blood in the water,” that wasn’t an issue at all. A couple of sharks passed on by and couldn’t have been less interested in my bleeding finger. And fish on the reef didn’t seem to pay any attention to it either. Once I got back on the dhoni, we wrapped my finger and applied pressure, got back to the Manthiri and clean it, put on some antibiotic, and wrapped it really well. For the next two days, I wore a latex nitrile examination glove over my right hand to hold the bandages in place. And both wounds are actually healing quite nicely.
On dives where I wasn’t sticking my hand into the faces of fish, we saw plenty of anemones with various clownfish, schools of fusiliers, Yellowfin Tuna, Golden Trevallies, Bluefin Trevallies, Giant Trevallies, Moorish Idols, Palette Tang, all manner of Angelfish, Puffers, damselfish, Unicornfish (numerous species), Clown Triggers, Titan Triggers I(some of which were ENORMOUS), lots of turtles, both Fire and Two-tone Dartfish all over the place, some Barracuda, some nudibranches, and mnay more. The first time I dove the Maldives in 1996, I wrote “Visually overwhelming.” That still applies today.
Our last dive of the trip was a fav because we were going to look for something special. At a place in South Male Atoll called Middle Point, Moosa knew of ribbons eels and the fairly elusive Decorated Dartfish (I’ve also seen them called Elegant Dartfish) down around 100 feet. We hit the Motherlode. We found two Blue Ribbon Eels, one Black Ribbon Eel, and a trip of the Decorated Dartfish. Yahoo!!! On top of that, I was able to also find a Juvy Clown Coris (????), a Porcelain Crab in an Anemone, and a semi cooperative Scrawled Filefish. Really great way to end the trip.
By the way, you can see pix of many of the fish I've talked about as well as the five short videos we made during the trip by going to the Picture Page for this trip on the Reef Seeker website. (The link is at the top of this page as well.) Once there, you'll get 12 "teaser" shots plus links to my SmugMug page for the main slide show and links to the my YouTube page for the videos.
As I said at the beginning, “fishy" is the best way to describe the Maldives. “Fantastic” is the best way to describe the Manthiri and her crew. And “Fabulously memorable” is the best way to describe this trip. Make sure the Maldives is on your list of places to go. And maybe even think about going with Reef Seekers, because we’ll definitely be making the trek back again in the near future.