One thousand and 192 islands, islets and sand cays string the 26 atolls of the Maldives; from the air they float like emerald necklaces flung upon a cobalt blue sea.
Sitting right on the trade route of the early Arab merchants, the human history of these islands dates back some 15 centuries. The Maldives archipelago comprises of uncountable submerged reefs call thila in ‘dhivehi’—the local language—stretching 760km north to south and 120km from east to west. This natural barrier of walls beneath the sea has evoked fear among even the most seasoned of seaman since time immemorial; for them, it is a place to be avoided—a place where careless ships go to die.
The islets with names such as Kuda Huraa, Maayafushi, Kurumba, Ihuru, Kanifinolhu, Nakatchafushi and Feshu are themselves exotic, magical, romantic, only limited to one’s imagination of fantasy that may become reality.
The atolls, each composed of uncountable submarine reefs and islets fringed with glistening white sand beaches.
No other tropical isles or dream-like atolls rival these remarkable gems of the Indian Ocean. Some islands are adorned with lush foliage of coconut palms and banyan trees while others are just powdery white sand islets with waving palms.
Well-traveled writers describe the country as sexy, exotic and alluring; a setting for the romantic, the adventurer and the explorer—an expanse of sea, of open sky that canopies one of the richest celebrations of life beneath the seas.
For the intrepid diver, a live-aboard trip is the obvious option to explore the best dive sites of underwater Maldives. In 1996, for the Rainbow Sea project, I embarked upon my first live-aboard or safari as is commonly known in this country of infinite horizon. With friends, we started our sojourn from Male across to Rashdoo, Ari Atoll then back to, Felidhoo, South and North Male atolls onboard a replica of an 18th century galleon. For the entire expedition we were blessed with mirror flat seas; we dived into a school of hammerheads, swam with two gianormous whale sharks, played with spinner dolphins, spent three hours with mantas, tunas—big tunas— turtles, napoleon wrasse, boisterous reef sharks, snappers and more snappers in uncountable numbers were sighted on almost every dive.
The highlight was, of course, the orcas that came alongside our boat one early dawn in South Male atoll, the first recorded sighting of a pod in the Maldives. Sightings over our 11-day expedition were extraordinary. Our experiences were the stories divers’ dreams are made of.
Since then, I have been back for several more safaris on a few different boats to produce feature documentaries, videos or just a feature assignment for diving magazines. I was fortunate that all my safaris in the Maldives were productive, pleasant and memorable. However, I have had reports from many first timers that their trip was far short of expectation.
For us folks from the Asia Pacific, we must first understand that in the mainstream of divers visiting the Maldives, the European rules. Apart from the Red Sea, the Maldives is their escape from the maddening crowds. Blue water, spectacular marine life and ease of diving have made the Maldives the Mecca for the European.
Supported by 95 dive resorts, and just about the same number of live-aboard dive vessels, there are options to suit every whim and fancy. Much like the resorts, standards on safari boats varies considerably. While the quality of diving may differ dramatically from atoll to atoll and island to island during the year, the standard and skills of the diving operations are varied suiting the type of clientele they service best. Obviously, choosing the ‘right’ live-aboard is an important issue, which may turn one’s dream holiday into a nightmare. Careful planning is essential.
Though there are now quite a few that are locally owned and managed, the majority of safari boats have a definite European flavor, dedicated entirely to serving either the German, Italian, Swiss or French clientele. While some are relentlessly ....