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Diving the Maldives - Villi Varu

by Mark Webster

Reproduced from in focus 1 (December 1983)

The mention of the Maldive Islands to most divers will generally conjure up visions of desert islands, white coral sand, warm blue seas, and of course some of the best diving the world has to offer. The Maldives can certainly offer all of these, and also a very comfortable, if not luxurious, base to operate from. As I was fortunate enough to spend some time diving there in January this year, I thought my experiences may be of benefit to others planning a similar excursion.

The Maldive Islands lie some 450 miles south west of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Here there are nineteen atolls containing between 1,500 -1,800 islands, only 200 of which are inhabited. Of these about 30 are set aside for tourist use, and generally are so small that each of these has its own hotel and literally no more. A holiday here offers none of the entertainment attractions common to other resorts, but if you simply want to 'pull your pin out' and totally relax, or alternatively are keen on water sports, then you have found a location which is close to paradise as you could hope for.

For our, all too brief, sojourn we had chosen the island Villi Varu (formerly Villingillivaru.) which is in the South Male Atoll, approxiamately 40 N of the Equator. After flying from Sri Lanka to Hulule airport, which occupies its own island alongside that of Male, the capital, we boarded our water taxi, a dhoni, for an eleven mile journey south to Villi Varu. This trip takes about 24 hours, weaving your way through the scattering of small coral islands and submerged reefs. Arrival at the island is initially something of a shock. One can literally walk around it in ten minutes, and there is nothing but the white coral sand and crystal blue waters gently lapping over the fringing reef. However you are by no means condemned to the existence of a castaway. The hotel here, part of the Taj group, is very well organised and offers just the right amount of luxury. The rooms are chalet style, and encircle the island, each with it's own verandah only 20-30 ft from the water's edge. The reception area, dining room, bar and lounges occupy the central complex close to the harbour. The rooms are simple, but comfortable and spotlessly clean, cooled by fans, and also equipped with a number of square pin electrical sockets

Power here is a normal 240V AC, an important consideration if you have come armed with cameras and flashguns. Your every need is catered for, even a boy to sweep up the palm leaves that may fall outside your room!

Diving is organised by the Water Sports Centre on the island, which is run by Werner Fleming. The centre can supply all diving equipment for hire, although you would be well advised to take everything except tank and weight belt, as the rates can be quite high. There is also a one man 'pot' on site, although this never showed any signs of being plumbed in, and I would have hated to be the victim of a therapeutic treatment in it! Wet suits are superfluous here, as the water temperature rarely drops below 700 and is often warmer. However, a pair of overalls or jeans and tee shirt are advisable for protection against coral cuts etc. Diving is available either from the beach on the fringing reef, or by daily boat trips organised by the Water Sports Centre.

My first dive was made from the boat, where I quickly discovered my only mistake of the holiday, and quite a frustrating element of the boat dives. I had come purely to take photographs, and without a diving partner. Whilst this problem was quickly resolved, the restriction on the boat dives are that they are led very much in the American style by Werner. This is all very well for the majority of the divers, many of whom are 'holiday divers', but of absolutely no use to the photographer, who needs to be left to his own devices for hours on end. Consequently I found myself diving mostly from the island, fortunately having found a German diver with similar interests. So my advice is to either come as a group to control your own boat diving, or at least travel with a diving partner'.

Diving from the island proved to be ideal for my purposes. The fringing or house reef is quite superb in places. Entry points are numerous and easy, a boon when loaded with armfuls of cameras, and there is nearly always a gentle current running down one side of the island providing safe and effortless drift diving. Underwater the reefs can offer everything from the smallest coral fish, through turtles to the occasional black tip shark cruising the channel between Villi Varu and its neighbouring island. The coral growth is extensive, and offers mini drop-offs, similar in many ways to the Red Sea, but perhaps lacking the variety of species found there. I don't think I suffered less than 100 ft visibility, and the fish life has never experienced aggression from divers, and are on the whole fearless, which are ideal conditions for the photographer. There are several reef residents which can be relied upon to make an appearance, the two most notable being an enormous shoal of Jacks which circle continuously (and apparently aimlessly) in the harbour area, and a pair of turtles which are very friendly.

After your dive you merely leave your bottle on the beach, and it will be collected, refilled, and re-deposited for your next dive. And of course between dives there is sunshine, cool drinks, good food and some daring sunbathing by other residents to be enjoyed! Altogether a very relaxing and civilised way to go diving. The trip is of course quite expensive, but if you are looking for something which is quite different, very relaxing, and which offers relatively unspoiled coral diving, then the Maldives must be your destination.

As an afterthought, I add a word of warning to anyone contemplating a diving holiday based at Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka. We spent some time in Sri Lanka, and I made one dive at Hikkaduwa on the famous 'coral gardens'. Whilst I cannot comment on any other sights in Sri Lanka, this one will prove to be a bitter disappointment to anyone who has dived on a living coral reef before. The reef has the appearance of being on its last legs, with very little fish life, and I found myself feeling quite dejected having just returned from the beauty of The Maldives.

Reproduced from in focus by kind permission of Mark Webster (http://www.photec.co.uk/)


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