When considering a dive destination far away and little known, at least to North American travelers, you have to do your homework. I had long wanted to add the Maldives to my portfolio of exotic travel, so I sought answers to the obvious questions:
The 1,190 islands, many of them quite small, lie to the southwest of India, scattered across 56,000 square miles of the equatorial Indian Ocean. About 80 islands are exclusively for tourist resorts, 200 are occupied by fishermen, and only a handful have any level of urban environment. The capital, Male, boasts a population of 70,000.
The iconic Maldives island is pure white sand fringed by palm trees and lapped by a turquoise sea. Elevation rarely exceeds six feet above sea level, and 80 percent of the nation is less than three feet in elevation. If the current rate of global warming continues, the entire Maldives could disappear under water in just a century. Better book that ticket quick!
Warm all year, but monsoons do change seasonal expectations. The Southwest Monsoon, May to October, marks the rainy season. The Northeast Monsoon, November to April, is the dry season and best for diving. Air temperature year-round is mid-to high 80Fs, and the water temperature a balmy 82F to 86F. Most live-aboards, like the Madivaru 7 I traveled on, rate the diving seasons as:
Best: January - April
Good: August - November (likely to encounter mantas)
Wet season: May - July
Best for big animals: January - March
Best currents: August - November
What About Coral Bleaching?
No discussion of the Maldives is complete without mention of the recent coral bleaching episode. During the first half of 1998, a super-heated body of water moved across the Indian Ocean. Along the shallow reef flats of the Maldives the water spiked to 90F and stayed that way for a month. Massive coral bleaching swept the shallow coral reef, killing hard corals and even temporarily blanching the tridacna clams and anemones. The deeper reef and passes were largely unaffected, as were the soft corals, reef fish and pelagic marine life. Assume this is not the place to go to shoot thriving hard corals in shallow water. Fair enough. But the beautiful topside scenery, clear water, abundant marine life, and a chance for unusual open-ocean encounters were more than enough motivation for me.
The biodiversity and sheer quantity of reef fish are major attractions of these islands. Visibility is quite good, but tidal movements significantly affect water clarity. An incoming tide sweeping in from the Indian Ocean can bring 120- to 200-foot water clarity, but seasonal plankton blooms or an outgoing tide can drop clarity to 50 feet.
Tidal currents also affect when different kinds of diving are possible. Typically there is wall diving along the outer edges of the atolls and around submerged pinnacles inside the atoll (known as "thilas"). Neither of these dives is extreme in terms of currents, but some of the most awesome diving is done along the channels through the reef (known as "kandus"). Tidal changes funnel high-velocity currents through the kandus, producing gorgeous filter feeders and abundant marine life, but also making them occasionally challenging drift dives.
Not particularly quick or easy. I began in Miami and arrived in the Maldives about 42 hours later.
Miami to L.A.: 5 hours
L.A. airport: 7-hour layover
L.A. to Taipei: 12.5 hours
Taipei: 1.5-hour layover
Taipei to Singapore: 4 hours
Singapore: 8-hour layover
Singapore to Male: 3.5 hours
My Favorite Dives
On the southern end of Fushidhiggaru Falhu there is a nice cut with a pretty high-velocity current. Near the tip of the reef the current picks up big-time, and there are white-tip sharks at about 85 feet. Once around the corner the current picks up even more. It's very difficult to even stop and shoot, so don't ... just ride along and enjoy the show. But be safe: An outgoing tide will deposit you in the open Indian Ocean, maybe not where you want to be in rough seas, diminishing light, or when being attended by a negligent or inexperienced dhoni driver.
Guraidoo Corner #1
You drop into fairly swift current, even at the beginning of this dive. On my dive here, I spotted a downcurrent full of bannerfish and was able to shoot a whole roll. I finished off with some images of a Napoleon wrasse and then approached the corner of the reef where the current was really cooking. Some little caves lavishly decorated with soft corals were full of fish hiding from the current in the lee of the reef. Once you let go, you're gone. Enjoy the ride. High velocity for sure, but they give you a safety sausage with a string attached so you can stay under water while the safety sausage floats along at the surface. Very good system.
Guraidoo Corner #2
I'm out of film when we finally find the best set-up of the day. There is a small rock at 92 feet decorated with lots of soft corals. There is a little swim-through in the rock?perfect for a dive model. There is always a small cluster of sabre squirrelfish and soldierfish there as well, so the wide-angle potential is pretty awesome. A bit deeper, at maybe 95 feet, there is a small school of sweetlips that are quite approachable.
Miyan Kandu at Felidhoo Atoll
We started at the corner of the channel and crossed the sand flat at about 92 feet toward the corner on the other side. In between, in the current, we saw a hammerhead, a large school of eagle rays (15 to 20), chevron barracudas, white-tip reef sharks, bannerfish schools, and four green sea turtles. Pelagic wonderland for sure.
Considered one of the Maldives' best dives. I concur. We dropped along the outside reef to about 80 feet. I shot a nice clownfish and anemone set-up. A little farther down the wall we came across the archway. Lots of yellow soft coral and encrusting sponge in the archway, and a small cavern just below that had some jacks and black coral. Nearby, at about 90 feet, is an absolutely awesome shelf and ledge. Lots of soft corals, sea whips and fans, plus plenty of soldierfish, bannerfish, sabre squirrelfish, angelfish of several varieties and coral grouper. Then, on the way up, is a sand plateau at about 60 feet that has great macro life, particularly gobies and shrimp. You then encounter a thila that rises all the way to within 10 feet of the surface. Spend your offgas time with small schools of sweetlips, clownfish, morays, titan triggerfish and lots of small creatures like fire dartfish. The coral is mostly dead now, but it still provides habitat for wonderful marine life. The next day: whale sharks that seemed to love us as much as we loved them.
There is a broad curvature from the outside reef to the inner channel, but you'll know you are approaching the mouth of the channel by the increased concentration of soft corals and other filter feeders. My favorite photo-op is a massive shelf of rock that apparently sheered off from the wall some time ago. It slid into deeper water and now provides substrate for a kaleidoscope of soft corals and encrusting sponge. I did a wide-angle series here with a coral grouper in front of a white soft coral, with the background totally cloaked with various encrusting sponges.
A very good place to see white-tip reef sharks and gray reef sharks when the current is right. Higher on the thila is a wealth of extraordinary scenery as well, including batfish, schooling surgeonfish and especially hawksbill turtles. I followed one particular hawksbill (although I saw three on this dive) as it meandered along the reef face. This is yet another site that confirms for me that the Maldives is a world-class dive destination, worth the trip from anywhere.
The south side of the Embudhoo channel is a terrific drift dive (sometimes high velocity, hence the name). We entered from the blue-water side and dropped to about 112 feet following a hawksbill turtle. I moved on to a lovely small ledge with bannerfish and phantom bannerfish tucked amid the soft corals in the lee of the current. The next set-up was a thick concentration of anthias against the blue water and afternoon sunlight. From then on, I had to pace myself because there were just so many good things to shoot and so little time remaining on the bottom. The ledges and overhangs are packed full of soldierfish, butterflyfish, angelfish and bannerfish. For some reason, many of the butterflyfish that are hard to shoot on an open coral reef are quite approachable here, presumably because they are reluctant to leave the lee of the undercut. Large trevally jacks, head-band butterflyfish and a wide variety of other tropical life make this a productive site.
At North Male Atoll, the Maldive Victory sits in 115 feet of water with a slight list to starboard. This 270-foot freighter was incoming from Singapore with goods for the resorts when it struck a reef in the channel and quickly sank (Friday the 13th, February 1981). Now there is a mooring buoy affixed to the mast to assist descents in strong currents (which can apparently be quite treacherous here). There was very little current when I dived the wreck, and reasonable visibility. The fish life is abundant on this wreck, and quite approachable. Because it is close to Male, this wreck is frequently visited by divers and the fish are tame as a result.
The name of this reef stands for Hans Peters, a German dive guide here in the mid-1970s, but to us it could be Horse Power, High Performance or my personal favorite, given the quality of this reef, Highly Productive. There is a massive amount of soft coral on this reef. Most of the corals are not huge, but they are colorful, and with the combination of clear water and abundant anthias, it is a wide-angle paradise. Lots of bigeye underneath the ledges, as well as coral grouper, sabre squirrelfish, and, for the critter shooters, scorpionfish are fairly common. On our dive the current was very slight, but once again we had to do a blue-water hang time, so once again our deployable safety sausage was very helpful. Some days, HP means Huffin' and Puffin', for the current picks up big time and it is hard to even hold position. In fact, you can't hope to swim against it, and the best you can do is find a lee from a rock face and work there. There's lots of stuff to shoot, but the current is so fierce sometimes that it takes some of the enjoyment out of diving this very special reef.
Drift Diving In the Maldives
Live-aboard diving is typically done from "dhonis" rather than from the mothership. A dhoni is a 40-to 45-foot chase boat, generally with ample deck space, tank racks and even a compressor on board. This is where the dive gear and tanks stay for the week, eliminating onboard noise from tank refills. Rules of thumb for current diving in the Maldives:
1. Dive on the incoming tide.
2. Use a safety sausage, preferably one attached to a line so you can do subsurface hang times and the dhoni driver can keep an eye on you.
3. Dive with a reputable company, with experienced and responsible dhoni drivers.
Dive In: Maldives
Baggage allowance: Singapore Airlines allows two checked bags at 70 pounds each, one carry-on at 45 inches circumference and 15 pounds.
Immigration: Tourists need a valid passport, sufficient funds for expenses during their stay, and an onward or return ticket. No visas are necessary.
Customs: Your bags will be X-rayed to ensure you do not import prohibited items such as firearms, drugs, alcohol and other illegal goods.
Departure tax: US$10 per person.
Time differences: Maldives is 5 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so when it is noon in the Maldives it is 11 p.m. the previous day in L.A. or 2 a.m. the same day in New York. Subtract 10 hours to get the time on the East Coast.
Currency: The Maldivian rufiyaa (Rf) is made up of 100 larees. The current exchange rate is about Rf.11.50 per U.S. dollar.
Electricity: 220-240 volts, 50 cycles.