The special places...
Words & Pictures by Bob Whorton for Asian Diver 7th annual edition
The Maldives has always been regarded as a special place for divers, but if we look a little bit deeper the Maldives has some unique world-class sites - those extra special places, with some extra-extraordinary marine life...
Today’s diver learns very quickly to appreciate just what the sea has to offer them, and even the most extreme places on earth are now accessible without the need of a full scale expedition.
Natural history programmes on TV educate the individual and fuel the imagination, but there is no substitute for seeing those sites or those creatures first hand through just the glass in your mask.
If you are a veteran diver, like me you strive for that extra special excitement in discovering new dive sites or searching for new and unusual creatures. I have been travelling out to the Maldives regularly for almost 30 years, which is a testament in itself to the wealth of sites and its special creatures. With 1200-odd islands enveloped inside a dozen or more atolls the Maldives astounds even the experts as new sites and even new species are found on a regular basis.
The Maldives is a tiny nation compared to that of Indonesia, Malaysia or Thailand but the facilities that are on offer to divers either land based or live aboard rival them all.
Diving Tourism is concentrated around the central regions of the Republic with transfers out to the island resorts by either speed boat or ‘twin otter’ shuttle flights from Hulhule Airport. The latter allows you to see beauty of these islands surrounded by turquoise lagoons, standing out amidst a sapphire-blue sea.
Each of the 7 main tourism atolls: North Male, South Male, Ari, Lhaviani, Baa, Vaavu and Meemu offer extensive day boat diving services utilising the ever popular ‘Diving Dhoni’. Most adjacent sites are reached within an hour of these centres and cater for beginners through to the intrepid expert we would all aspire to be.
However, the best way to discover the cream of the diving in Maldives is onboard one of the many excellent safari boats out of Male. This option allows the diver to visit multiple atolls during a two-week safari to sample the more extreme sites just moments from your bedroom!
Three years ago the Maldives got the brunt of the bad press when the infamous ‘El Nino’ wreaked havoc destroying a good proportion of the hard coral polyps over the entire archipelago, but in reality was only one of twenty five locations that were affected. This had the obvious knock-on effect and Diving tourism declined dramatically as a result. However ‘Mother Nature’ did not lie down... she sent in the troops (Grazing fish species) to clean up the mess (Algal growths) and within six short months we were getting positive feed back regarding hard coral re-growth. One year later the so-called expert opinions were turned on their head’s, and now up to the present day where we are seeing reefs almost totally regenerated.
Here are just a few of the sites that make the Maldives so very special, some you may know but others you may not but they are all reached with the aid of a long distance live aboard vessels or by day boats from nearby resorts.
Thulaagiri Thila North Male Atoll
This site has to be one of the most complete of marine Eco-systems in the known world; marvellous considering it is a site frequently dived by all of the resort bases as well as Safari boats. The reef is almost always exposed to strong currents and it is this that makes it special as a way station for schooling fish and sizeable predators. The main reef sits atop a gently sloping sea mound at 20-22m. Two further large coral formations, one that almost joins the main reef in the east and the second standing 30m to the north in 27m of depth, all ascending to within 14m of the surface.
The main reef has large overhangs filled with corals and sea fans. Soldier fish, Grouper, Squirrelfish and Sweetlips varieties lurk in the shadows while outside huge schools of yellow-tailed Jack prowl. Every kind of fish you would expect to see is there, and then hundreds you don’t. The large rock to the north of the Thila is the place to see Schooling Bannerfish in numbers you couldn’t dream of, add to this equal numbers of Fusilier, Giant Snapper and Jacks and it just induces a state of trance. Great and Chevron Barracuda are frequent visitors in stiff current as well as Whitetip Sharks and eagle rays.
Guraidhoo Channel South Male Atoll
Regarded by many as potentially the most exciting dive in the Maldives... Myself, I regard it as one of the best in the world... Here is an account of just one dive with my Maldivian friend Hassan Shareef.
25th February 1999 was a very special day at Guraidhoo – Stiff incoming current, gin clear visibility and a whole lot of life. Crossing the channel from north to south is my favourite way to dive this site. Dropping quickly to 40m at the point where the sloping reef drops away sharply to 60m or more we came across our first blacktip shark roaming the rim with two Whitetip close behind heading towards the channel.
A loggerhead turtle came hammering towards us frightened by something I assumed... not too long before I saw the cause of its concern in the shape of a 3-4m tiger shark. The shark (thankfully) paid us little attention (we were hiding under the lip); instead it headed off after the turtle.
Towards the channel mouth the topography changes into a large flattened plateau with a sharp edge dropping 10m onto a long deepening slope-off. This is where the eagle ray can be found; this day a school of over 40 rode the back of the current like gliders, then in from the channel behind us came 20 more joining the school. What a rush, and these were big individuals too, several with leopard spots.
Glancing over my shoulder onto the plateau I saw 3 large silvertips and 2 greys - playing tag it seemed, while below, across the bed of the channel swam a sizeable leopard shark.
By this time the current had increased, slowly taking us in towards the uniquely shaped ‘wave thila’ in the centre of the channel. The overhang of which was packed with snappers and surgeonfish. 32m, and time to ascend - signalled by the characteristic whoosh of the 3m ‘Motherbuoy sky hook’. At 15m the unmistakeable silhouette of a large whaleshark appeared above, and at 5m during the stop a 4m manta ray buzzed by.
“Now that’s what I call a good dive!”
Kandooma Thila South Male Atoll
At just 350m long this Thila can be a challenging dive when the current is right, but it has to be another one of the most complete and visually stimulating marinescapes on earth.
The heavy currents have shaped the reef like an airfoil section with its north and western sides worn to produce picturesque overhangs completely decorated in pastels of pink, yellow and blue soft corals with sea whips and fans at every angle. The more vivid Alcyonium soft corals completely cover the surface of everything around, even the floor. The Hard coral species growing around the reef was widespread varied and attractive.
The outside corner of the reef is an outstanding point for observing large grey and silvertip sharks feeding on Barracuda schools. Respite from the incoming current is possible around the southwestern edge where smaller overhangs hide the smaller reef life and a Banded Shrimp cleaning station, again covered entirely in soft coral.
Atop the reef large healthy table coral’s sit unaffected by El Nino and below these a huge female Green Turtle is resident. At 25m off the southwestern tip of the reef are three coral structures where big schools of Barracuda and Jack congregated in the strong current. Diving here demands good skills; touching is not an option!
‘Raabandi Thila’ Southern Meemu Atoll
If you like being in among schooling fish; this is the place to dive... surrounded by a million schooling fish. Snapper species, fusiliers, Jack & Surgeon’s: Awesome.
Many new and established hard coral species are spread out all over the reef with a prolific and extensive variety of Sea Fans including the delicious purple variety. In the dimming afternoon light the Red Coral and sea whips begin to feed giving them a snow covered appearance. Sightings of the cartilage kind come in the shape of a Cow-faced Ray, a sleeping 2.5m Nurse shark and a hunting pack of Whitetip sharks persecuting the abundant octopus population. This is a good site for observing turtles too, with both green and hawksbills abundant.
Erlangen wreck: Gaafaru Atoll
To the west of Iruvai Kandu on the northern tip of the atoll is the final resting place of the mighty German 3500 ton iron steamship Erlangen. She hit the reef almost head-on during a rough night in 1894 whilst travelling from Ceylon to Germany, fully laden.
Time and storms have seen the wreck broken in half, the stern section rolling onto its starboard side in 45m at the base of the reef. The single screw of this ship is well worth a visit for its uniqueness, looking more like an aviation propeller. Inside the stern section the plates and rivets are visible, as are the ribs; the overhang it creates is now shelter for a wealth of life, even whitetip's.
Much of the shallower bow section is broken up above 15m; the huge iron ribbing presenting imposing silhouettes against the sky. Between the two halves are two massive boilers, masts, plating and the remains of cargo. The large anchors and chains can be seen in the shallows and explored during safety stops. Fresh new corals are now growing all over the site.
The Fesdu Wreck Ari Atoll
This particular wreck located off the northern end of Viligili Falhu is a firm favourite of mine due to the overall completeness of the site in general and the surprises it springs.
The wreck is a 30m coastal trawler lying upright at 27-29m on a gently sloping sandy bottom surrounded by an extensive eel garden. Hard and soft corals cover the deck and superstructure with black coral bushes growing around the hull. The wheelhouse is almost solid with sweepers, as are the open decking cavities. A small contingent of Batfish loiters around the stern but often escort divers around the wreck.
The wreck has aesthetic lines and an almost 'spooky quality' when viewed in its entirety.
A friend, kneeling at the stern of the wreck last year was confronted by a juvenile Whale shark. Surprised: He almost swallowed his reg! I almost swallowed mine too on the discovery of a red ghost pipefish and a blue frogfish.
Swimming west only 20m brings you to a small but exquisite Thila… The variety of life here is simply mind-boggling and includes Yellow Margin Moray, Lobster, Mantis Shrimp, Sweeper, and Lionfish: The list is endless!
Fotheyho outside reef: Eastern Vaavu Atoll
Both the outside wall and kandu are amongst my favourite dive sites in the Maldives, and best dived at daybreak.
The large overhangs at depth are still a place of stunning beauty; the soft corals, sea whips and gorgonian are nothing short of outstanding. The unique coral arch and formations are festooned in soft corals and literally throb within a living mist of tiny reef fish, ever mobile and alert. Huge schools of Jack take refuge within the reefs protection, parting only to let a grey shark through.
During early mornings this reef provides a Hammerhead spectacle during good visibility. Ascending to depths above 15m the marine life becomes dense... “I couldn’t see the fish for fish!” Atop the reef numerous Whitetip and great numbers of Grey reef sharks can be seen silhouetted against the growing intensity of the new morning light.
Kuda Ari thila
This particular site was discovered by Maldivian dive guide Hassan Shareef and myself in February 2000 whilst looking for whale sharks... The Maldives has some very good Manta stations, such as Madivaru, Paradise and Bodahiti thila, but this one knocks the spots off of them for one simple reason... It caters for ‘Oceanic Manta’
Initially the dive began as a drift parallel to the outside south western rim of Ari Atoll where it splits into two, the visibility was poor and we were getting pretty bored, and looking at nothing was making my eyes go funny. Then below we noticed the seabed rising towards us topping off at 15m into a broad thila thickly covered in gorgonian sea fans.
Hassan sounded his rattle I turned to see one of the biggest Manta I have ever seen, its long pointed wings twisting as it held position over an area of coral. We slipped slowly over towards it finding a whole army of cleaners picking clean the acres of skin. This ray’s width was over twice our combine lengths ...
As we continued to gaze it went very dark; looking up another even larger ray had hovered above us allowing our bubbles to roll around its undersides... this beast must have been over 6m across its span, with a mouth over 1m wide. Two smaller rays joined this one as it drifted into a growing current to take its turn at the station. It was like watching an imaginative sci-fi movie with silent surreal spacecraft.
This small individual atoll south of the Male atoll is an underrated treasure. The atoll has only one entrance to its expansive lagoon on the south eastern end adjacent to the tiny island of Vataru. The “Corner” has been well documented as a “must see” location... Absolutely! On a good day you can see a “who’s who” of pelagic’s whilst hovering on the channel edge... but there is much more below. The shallow channel slopes steeply to 35m where the base of the wall spreads into a 45 degree slope covered in sea fans and sea whips. The base of the wall has numerous overhangs teeming with snappers and surgeonfish and on every occasion nurse sharks too. This is a great site to see the small ‘mobula’ manta (or devil ray); in September 2000 we observed two groups of six in deep and shallow water. During the cooler periods of the year large congregations of scalloped hammerhead can be seen here too.
GOLDFISH RUN - VATTARU
This site was discovered and dived by myself and a group of friends during September 2000, on the north eastern side of the atoll – drifting south... I had often wanted to just drop in and see the walls here having noticed on previous drive-pasts some huge ‘massive’ coral structures.
Boy, were we in for a surprise... The bubbles cleared to reveal a steeply sloping wall rounding off at 40m. Immediately we were buzzed by a school of large eagle ray ascending from the depths enroute to the submerged reef top. Seconds into the drift it became apparent just how special this area was... humungous schools of every fish you could imagine, including many species of parrot fish, Sweetlips, Bannerfish and angelfish.
This spectacle just did not stop, each school replaced by another and another. The hard corals were also outstanding, massive corals as big as houses with their bases fringed in soft corals; housing millions of smaller fish life. Sharks - I only counted about 22 whitetip’s and two greys. The whole site throbbed with anthias, chromis and damselfish too. It was an honour indeed to have the site named after me!
These sites will remain special to my colleagues and me for all time, and that list is getting bigger every time we return. The Maldives is like ambrosia, it can never be overrated, for the simple fact that no one has seen or knows it all, and why we will make the pilgrimage as often as we can – To taste some more.
MALDIVES Information at a glance:
Capital City centred on Male Island in the south east of the North Male Atoll with Hulhule Airport Island adjacent to this.
Population of Republic: Approximately 240,000 people according to national census.
Main Hospital: Indira Ghandi Memorial Hospital on Male Island. Thoroughly modern - long awaited facility.
Hypobaric Chambers: Bandos Island, plus several more (like Lhoifushi Island) with transportable one person units.
Diving Facilities: Every tourist resort island has an associated dive centre.
Live aboard Facilities: Over a dozen different operators offer reliable live aboard boats.
Both types of facilities are exploreable via the Maldives official web site.
Best Dive Window: From October through until early May, with October/March optimum whale shark season.
Climate & Weather: Tropical weather and temperatures, this includes heavy rain as well as clear blue skies. September is usually very wet! Temperatures vary below the water from 24 – 30 degrees C, whilst above expect 26 – 36 degrees C. Good tanning sunshine but be warned it can burn through even the heaviest of UV factors. As in most tropical locations dehydration can also lead to problems – three litres of water per day helps here.
Inoculations required: None stated but advisable to have Tetanus, Polio, Typhoid and Hepatitis A & B. Malaria prevention is not required here as there is little or no standing fresh water for larvae to grow. However the leaf-born micro-mosquito’s can be a pain during the night but are disease-free.
Main attractions – Many: Channel diving – brisk currents for drifts. Diverse marine life; includes many species of Shark and Ray including Hammerheads, Whaleshark Eagle Ray & Manta. Plenty of Wreck diving available too! The Maldivian Topography varies enormously from classic reef profiles to vertical walls and isolated Thila's and Giri’s (Large independent Coral formations usually found inside channels – formerly part of the annular wall).
Regular flights to Male are available by carriers such as Emirates, Air Lanka and Air Seychelles from Singapore - taking around 4 hrs.
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