Exploring the Fantastic Maldives
Aboard Manthiri and Madivaru 7
by Al Hornsby, Aug. 1997
The ocean is flat, calm and blue; the cobalt sky is lightly dusted with white powder puffs of cloud. In every direction, small islets crowned with coconut palms sit only a few feet above the waterline. The water below is crystalline, revealing jumbled reefs in the pink and fawn pastels of living corals. This is the tropical sea of your imagination, unspoiled and remote. This isn't imagination, however, it's very real, indeed. It's the Maldives.
In the warm Indian Ocean, the Maldives chain is a 500 mile long stretch of coral atolls, 26 in all, that dot an otherwise smooth, featureless sea. More than 1,000 islands, each surrounded by clear nutrient-rich waters, form a vast, living marine world that is unique in its complexity, diversity and vibrant collection of marine species.
Especially for the underwater photographer, the Maldives' qualities; very clear water; long periods of glassy seas; big animals, such as mantas, sharks, turtles and Napoleon Wrasse; miles and miles of intricate, healthy coral reefs covered by hard corals, soft corals and clouds of reef tropicals; combine to give it its rank as best all-around in the world of dive destinations.
The Maldives have long been a favorite of Europeans, with diving centered around some 80 small resorts, each on its own private island, that are scattered throughout the archipelago. For the more adventurous, there has also been a fleet of economy live-aboards, with bunk-style accommodations, limited water and few of the amenities and dive services Americans are used to.
That has all changed recently, however, with two live-aboards providing a degree of service and comfort to rival live-aboards anywhere. They also have an extended range to access an area spread over hundreds of miles, visiting exotic, seldom dived atolls that are absolutely pristine, true marvels of nature's handiwork.
A favorite of Maldives divers for the past three years, the Manthiri just underwent a complete refurbishing and expansion. The 85 foot craft, stable and fully air-conditioned, was already a comfortable, efficient dive vessel but the addition of a huge salon and upper sundeck has made it even more so.
The six cabins; four twins and two doubles; are large, each with private bath and independently controlled air-conditioning. A crew of ten provides a surprising degree of service. Meals are healthy, with excellently prepared American and local foods (the tuna curry, one of the staples of Maldivian cooking, is outstanding) in copious amounts. While you're not eating, sleeping or diving, there are videos, Indian television and a small library, all available in the salon, which has couches, chairs and tables that are also used for camera assembly. Electric power is available in both 110 and 220 volts.
Two PADI divemasters supervise the diving; Ahmed Manik, Manthiri's head divemaster, is one of the Maldives' most knowledgeable guides, having explored the islands' reef systems for many years. Manthiri's standard charters are ten days long.
The newest boat serving the Maldives is the Madivaru 7. Built in distinctive Maldivian style, it is a comfortable, 100 foot long vessel with eight independently air-conditioned cabins, each with a double bunk below and single above, and private bath. Intricate woodworking throughout the ship creates an attractive, luxurious atmosphere.
The cozy salon has dining tables, television/VCR and soft couches. Meals are served buffetstyle, with European (especially Italian), American and local cuisine. On the expansive main deck, there's plenty of room for sunbathing or shaded relaxation under a canopy; a large camera prep and storage table and E-6 processing system occupy the center.
Like Manthiri, Madivaru 7 is designed for the American market and has both 110 and 220 volt electricity in each cabin. A crew of seven provides a level of service that compares with the world's finest live-aboards. Diving is supervised by the ship's chief, Salvo Cacciola, and two PADI instructors, Danielo Bergoni and Tim Cole. Charters are either 10 or 14 days long.
Both Manthiri and Madivaru 7 conduct diving from local dhoni craft. Each diver has an under the seat basket for dive gear, which stays on the dhoni throughout the trip. A crew of three on each dhoni helps set up gear and gets divers in and out of the water.
Diving the Maldives
Both ships dive similar areas, covering a circuitous route chiefly through the southern Maldives, extending more than 250 miles. Dives are normally conducted at Male, South Male, Vavu, Felidhoo, Vattaru, Rasdoo and Ari Atolls, with special visits to distant Muloc Atoll and Baa in the north. Because of the vast area dived, there are literally hundreds of sites.
One fantastic spot is called Embudoo Express. The dive starts on a sloping outer reef face, where pelagics; especially big tuna; cruise back and forth. Eagle Rays are frequently seen and, like most Maldives sites, turtles, completely unafraid of divers, are practically everywhere. At the point of a huge channel, divers encounter Whitetips and Gray Reef Sharks, then ride the brisk current up the channel for several miles, passing overhangs loaded with soft corals, schooling Sweetlips and seemingly millions of reef tropicals of every description.
A unique inner lagoon dive is the Kasimo Wreck, named for the fishing boat that lies on a 70 foot sand bottom next to a cylindrical thila (bommie) that rises straight to the surface. Caves and overhangs riddle the thila's sides and are home to Longnosed Hawkfish, lionfish and many different species of angelfish, butterflyfish and triggerfish. A resident school of Batfish hovers over the wreck and, at one side of the thila, a field of hundreds of blue anemones creates a fairyland scene.
Another of the Maldives' very special dives is Manta Point, on distant Ari Atoll. At the end of the channel that spills over the wall at the edge of the lagoon, a soft coral covered slope falls into the depths. Huge schools of Surgeonfish and jacks mill about and, especially in the spring months, Mantas congregate, swooping and soaring as they feed on plankton carried through the channel.
Arguably, the Maldives' best dive is at the outer edge of a channel, a place called Gurardhoo Kandu. The outside slope of the reef, covered with hard corals and pockets of gorgonians, drops steeply away. Turtles and very tame Napoleon Wrasse allow divers to come in close and at the point of the channel, at 90 feet, there's a shark watching spot that rivals any in the world. Gray Reefs and Whitetips patrol back and forth and a resident school of gregarious Eagle Rays provides an opportunity for dramatic photographs. Around the point, the current sweeps in and the dive is finished with a swift ride past the channels' sides. Grottos and caves are thick with thousands of soft corals and swarms of schooling fish; what a dive!
With all this, the Maldives are undoubtedly one of the great dive destinations in the world. And now, with Manthiri and Madivaru 7 extending an invitation to American divers, there's no excuse; don't miss the fantasy that is the Maldives.