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Maldives adventure

by Brian Pitkin

Reproduced from in focus 41 (August 1991)

The Maldives Islands lie in the Indian Ocean. They include 26 atolls of about 1200 islands with vegetation which stretch over 750 kilometres from just south of the Equator at Gan to Haa Dhaal Atoll in the north.

At the end of March this year my wife Linda and I planned to spend two weeks cruising and diving some of the atolls of the Maldives Islands on MV Keema. Originally our flight out had been booked with Pakistan International Airways via Karachi, but in view of the Gulf conflict it was considered prudent to switch to Singapore Airlines and fly direct from Paris to Male. Two weeks before our departure, however, Linda received an invitation to participate in the International Blue Maldives Underwater Photographic Competition on Bathala in the Ari Atoll. The competition was due to take place the week before our proposed cruise on MV Keema and after a couple of calls to Maldives Scuba Tours, Linda had her flight rebooked to depart a week earlier than originally planned and was on her way.

When we next met at Male airport the competitors in the International Blue Maldives in Bathala had finished taking their photographs but the judging had not taken place.

Our hosts for the cruise, Samantha Harwood and Rob Bryning, greeted us at Male airport and after completing the necessary paper work and handing over our return flight tickets for reconfirmation we stepped aboard Keema's 30 foot diving support vessel, Godha, to ferry us out to MV Keema, our home for the next two weeks. Although we had received full details of the vessel's numerous characteristics and attributes we were nevertheless very pleasantly surprised by her large size and more than adequate deck space. She is in fact 80 foot from stem to stern and can accommodate 12 guests in 6 double cabins, two with en suite showers and heads and the other four each sharing two similar adjoining facilities. Our party comprised eight guests, two of whom had cabins to themselves.

We all settled in quickly and changed out of our travelling clothes into swim wear, which proved to be just about all we needed for the rest of the holiday. During lunch we set off for our first dive in the Maldives on Big Banana Reef in the Furena Channel. And what a dive! Their was a fair current running, which probably explains why there were so many fish in one place at one time. Whilst the majority of the group drift dived, Linda and I tucked ourselves into the lee of the headland behind some huge boulders to photograph some of these fish, Large Napolean or Humphead Wrasse, Snappers, Surgeons, Tuna, Trevally, Fusillers and Blue-fin Jacks played in the current. Squirrel fish, Soldier fish, Oriental and Spotted Sweetlips lurked in groups in small caves and beneath overhangs. Golden Line Emperors schooled and Butterfly fish danced in the backwaters as the Moray Eels watched sardonically from their lairs. Groupers, bright red and spotted with blue or marbled black and white, lay cautiously in wait for a passing meal. The almost bare exposed rock of the reef face gave way to a veritable rainbow of soft and hard corals in the quieter more sheltered overhangs. So tame were some of Big Banana Reefs inhabitants that they posed within the framer of my close-up lens!

After fifty minutes at a maximum of 16 M our air supply had dwindled to the point when surfacing became more important than the next photograph and we reluctantly followed our bubbles to the sunlight. Godha was waiting anxiously. The dhoni echoed to cries of 'Did you see ..? Did you see ... ?' as we climbed aboard - it was evident that everyone had enjoyed their first Maldives experience.

Almost before we had stowed our diving gear on the dhoni, we were back alongside Keema where fresh tea and coffee with biscuits awaited us and plans were under way for our second dive of the day in the Vaadhu Channel between North and South Male Atolls. By contrast there was little to no current on the steep reef wall of this site which was liberally colonised by dark green branching dendrophyllid corals up to half a metre in height. Here more Oriental and Spotted Sweetlips hung in groups and Moray Eels peered out at the beautiful Emperor Angels as they moved nervously from coral to coral. A large black Puffer fish cruised busily past as I admired a Phyllidia sea slug. A dark Lion Fish posed threateningly in the close-up framer. Here there were Bubble Coral, Gorgonians, stony corals and the odd starfish and cushion star. Christmas tree worms, adorning the stony corals, vanished from sight at the very suggestion of a camera lens. Although not as exciting as Big Banana Reef our second dive in the Maldives was very pleasant and much enjoyed.

Back on board Keema, anchored safely within the lagoon, an excellent meal was served. Log books were completed and films changed prior to going ashore for a drink - Keema does not have a licence to sell alcoholic beverages and drinks can only be purchased at tourist island resorts, when these are within easy reach of the night anchorage. In the event this didn't cause undue hardship. After two or three days three of the staunchest drinkers were openly admitting they did not miss a drink, although the frequency with which they did so suggests the reverse was probably the case. They certainly made up for lost time when we did go ashore, however, and ensured some very entertaining evenings - wet or dry.

For the next 11 days we dived before breakfast, before or after lunch and just before or at dusk. All of the dusk and night diving took place within a lagoon due to the difficulty of navigating and picking up surfacing divers with the dhoni in the dark in possible currents. It was also Ramadan during our visit which meant the crew's first meal of the day was served at 6.20 p.m., just as the sun set, and all were understandably keen to break their fast. However, we did enjoy several night dives seeing many night active creatures such as slate pencil urchins, cushion stars, many different species of starfish (including Crown-of-Thorns), featherstars, red coral crabs and octopus.

We sailed south from S. Male Atoll to Felidu Atoll, diving on the reefs and tillas of Felidu, Thinadu, Hulhidoo, Foteo and Rakeedu, across to Ari Atoll to dive Kudibolla, Daghetbodu, Timfushi. Mushimagilli, Maatafushi and Velido reefs and tillas and north to Rasdu Atoll to Madivaru before returning to Male and Big Banana Reef and the wreck of the Maldives Victory. We saw an impressive selection of Maldives' marine life on all dives, notable among these were Spotted Eagle rays (at Felidu, Thinadu Tilla, Rakidu and Velidu Tilla), White tip Reef Sharks (at Embudu Finolhu Tilla, Thinadu Tilla, Mushimagilli, Maayafushi, Velidu Tilla and Maduvaru), Grey Shark (at Madivaru) and Green Turtle (at Thinadu Tilla and Kudibolla Tilla)

The most memorable dive, however, has to be that at Velidu Tilla in the Ari Atoll. The Tilla rises to within 18 M of the surface and rumour has it that Manta Ray are found there throughout the year. The dhoni put our entire party in the water directly over a large Manta which looked big, even from the surface. As we descended, I was convinced that the giant would take off before we reached bottom. It was indeed big, possibly in excess of 5 metres, although estimates varied up to 6 metres. Much to my delight the Manta, which was maintaining station over a large stony coral with just its cavernous mouth held up and open in the current sweeping across the tilla, stayed put even when surrounded by 10 divers.

I started to take photographs using a full-frame fish eye lens and had to move away to get the whole beautiful animal in the viewfinder. In my excitement I had to be restrained by Rob, who gave me a gently tug on the fin to remind me that I wasn't the only one enjoying this amazing encounter. Very slowly the huge fish rose and edged forwards like a vast space cruiser in the current, passing directly over and only inches from my head. A huge white belly, punctuated with perfectly symmetrical, rhythmically pulsating gill covers, filled my vision. Wow! The Manta gathered momentum and moved off leaving us feeble divers battling the current in pursuit to no avail. This was not, however, to be the end of our enjoyment. Linda and I gave in to the current and slowly drifted across the tilla meeting shoal after shoal of snapper, the occasional White tip Reef Shark and Eagle Ray and, yes, more Manta Rays, this time flying effortlessly in pairs, passing so close that I did, gently, touch the wing tip of one as it passed. Spooked briefly, the majestic ray gave a couple of extra strong beats to its enormous wings before curving effortlessly away to resume feeding at a more leisurely pace with its companion and accompanying remoras.

After the delights of diving, the warm tropical evenings were frequently filled with spontaneous entertainment. Although there was a video player and monitor with a selection of tapes available, this was rarely used. Instead we found ourselves either ashore taking in the local culture, barbecuing on the beach or onboard playing games - thanks Richard, Andy and Steve for the performing horse and other amusements.

Apart from some excellent diving, we watched some beautiful sunsets, ate some marvellous meals, including Wahoo steaks cut from a four footer Steve and I caught over the stern and were well looked after by Sam, Rob and all of the crew of MV Keema.

Further details of cruising and diving with MV Keema are available from Maldives Scuba Tours Ltd, Barkers Farm, Rattlesden, Suffolk, IP30 OST. Telep

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