We are missing our diving now we are based back in Europe. So I booked a sneaky two-week holiday in the Maldives, the first week on a live-aboard, and the second in Soneva Fushi, a ‘barefoot luxury’ resort we repair to when our souls and bodies need replenishing.
Arriving in Male, we had to wait and hour or so for our pick up. There’s nothing worse than eyeing up the similarly rumpled and tired bodies that litter the meeting point and wondering who is going to share our lives for a week. Some I was praying would not be on our boat. And when the moment finally comes and the pony-tailed Maldivian dive guide calls out ‘Emperor Virgo’ I quickly scan those following him.
Phew! All is well. We are a truly international crowd: Team Bulgaria, three lovely ladies who all speak excellent English and are serious about their fish studies and photos, although poor Ivanka is struck down with sea sickness for the first two days and has to go to a local hospital;
Pavel and Anna from Russia – he is in the winter sports business and has some interesting off-piste tales to tell, as well as a good tip for avoiding a hangover called the ‘safety stop’ which is to take charcoal tablets as it absorbs the toxins – and as they rival me on G & T consumption they might need it!
There is a group of friends from Stoke-on-Trent, Paul and Kay, experienced divers both, and Michael and Liz, the latter a non-diver and our surface coordinator, Pina Colada conoisseur and supplier of Cadburys Dairy Milk, much to Taiwanese guide Jacky’s delight (Jackie has a master in barnacle penises, hence her email handle ‘sexy barnacle’); Paul doubles as my dive buddy as Ross is more interested in his photos than me and Paul doesn’t mind being grabbed by mistake in strong currents.
Then there’s very Swiss Claudia, precise, punctual and hardy, no wetsuit; she’s off to Koh Samui after the trip.
Sarah, the First Class cabin attendant from Emirates (did you know 26,000 cabin crew are based in Dubai?) who has perfect buoyancy and likes waving at fish;
Zach from Singapore made us feel quite nostalgic; and the two of us. I am always fascinated to learn about other people’s lives, especially when they are so different from our own.
I had been a bit cross as we were bumped off our first-booked boat and itinerary, and ‘upgraded’ to the Virgo. As it turns out it is a better bet. The ‘Best of Maldives’ tour carves a great square around the Atolls, encompassing N and S Male as well as the N & S Ari and Vaavu Atolls, which is quite far south. Far enough to reach the manta cleaning stations and the whale shark feeding grounds, rich with plankton at this time of year. But as with all diving, ‘nothing is guaranteed’ a phrase we know well.
Dives are conducted from a dhoni, where all equipment and tanks are stored, making the Virgo a dive-free zone. All the better for the excellent margueritas and mojitos that Chandana conjures up each evening.
We chug through the Atolls every day, past the island resorts, with their beach and over-water bungalows punctuating the lagoons like little brooches on an azure cloth. Some look more enticing than others. One, the former Rangali Hilton, is now an ugly – huge – place, with its own staff island where we see trucks plying to and fro – and is now frequented by the Chinese. Others, like Mirihi, nearby, Dr Fi’s favourite, look simply idyllic.
One night we have a beach BBQ on am uninhabited island where the crew build a sand whaleshark, which we desecrate by using as a table.
It’s a good omen for the next day, when we see our own real live one. The experience is nothing like as good as in Ningaloo Reef, where we were privileged to be the sole boat enjoying this magnificent shark’s company – here we share the youngster with at least 10-12 boats. As English Michael said, ‘It reminds me of playing rugby’. The scrum is horrendous – a former boss said I had sharp elbows and I put them to good use as all the other snorkelers seem to lose any dive etiquette they may have had, cutting me up, swimming in front, bashing me left right and centre.
But I am one of the lucky ones as Issey, our guide, has cleverly dropped us upstream and as we swim in the direction of the melee I suddenly find myself face-to-face with the wide-mouth grin of this magnificent creature and only just have time to get out of the way as he bears down on me.
We have some fine manta moments too: on two dives we are serenaded by a pair of them, floating like giant spaceships overhead, while the cleaner wrasses carry out their duties. But as soon as one cleans the manta’s bottom too assiduously it gets annoyed and arches upwards, shaking its tail furiously, creating a magic manta moment.
The one night dive I did is memorable. An Italian resort used to feed the nurse sharks and this has led to a semi-habituated population over about 100 sharks who come out at night to hunt; there are also huge rays gliding around, and packs of hunting trevallies darting in and out of us. Imagine our surprise as we descend to be suddenly surrounded by nurse sharks 6-7 ft long, snaking in between us as we settle down to watch. Back on board, the dhoni skipper cuts up a barracuda he has caught and soon we have nurse sharks at the boat, including a mother and baby.
And for icing on the cake – a pod of pilot whales swim with the boat on our return to port, diving and jumping just like dolphins for a good 15 minutes. Amazing! For more serious underwater pics visit Ross’s website.
On our last afternoon we visit Male, the capital. Given the recent political history of the Maldives, with the inevitable power grabs and corruption at the highest level (remember the President who held a cabinet meeting underwater – well, he’s now in exile in London). 300,000 people are crammed on to a bustling island, scooters galore, and cars too, clogging up the narrow streets, spewing noxious gases.
A huge poster dangles from a building, ‘Free Qasim’. Who’s he, we ask the guide. ‘Oh, just politics,’ he says and adroitly switches to discussing Manchester United. Later we discover that Qasim is one of the richest men in the archipelago, owner of six resorts, and a member of the opposition. He was arrested in April as President Yaseem prepares to ‘win’ the 2018 elections. Freedom of speech is in short supply here. But at least tourism provides a living for these precariously positioned islands which may be destined to disappear with global warming.
Seventeen dives in six days ain’t bad; we are now ready for some R& R in Soneva Fushi – and maybe a little more diving if spa time permits!