Twenty minutes into the dive at Dhigurah Arches, I hear a familiar sound — the faint squeaking of bottlenose dolphins. I swivel to look for them, but like the countless times I’ve heard their telltale squeaks during my 10-day stay in the Maldives, I’m disappointed. Not a dolphin in sight — or so I think.
After exiting a swim-through, I pause for a moment to rest my DSLR camera against my BC. I look up to the curious stare of two bottlenose dolphins.
Frozen. Wide-eyed. Locked in a gaze. It lasts for only a moment, but those few surreal seconds call the words “magical” and “miraculous” to mind. Don’t bother looking for the photographic evidence — before I can lift my camera to take a photo, they take off into the blue.
Dhigurah — which translates from the local Dhivehi language to Long Island — is supermodel skinny at 650 feet wide and 2 miles long. This area is popular since neighboring island Maamigili is becoming increasingly reliable for sightings of whale sharks.
Small caves, crevices and swim-throughs define this South Ari Atoll dive site, but so do the chances of seeing dolphins, whale sharks, mantas and whales. A channel plummets into the deep just off Dhigurah Island’s white-sand-fringed shores, giving this site all of the ingredients for these animal encounters. It’s the mystery of what might emerge from the deep — such as two friendly porpoises — that keeps divers traveling back to this scenic oasis in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The Good Life
It’s September, and nearing the end of manta and whale shark season in the Maldives. Fellow Four Seasons Explorer passengers David Blumberg and Deidree Paterson are hoping to see the planet’s biggest fish on their second seven-night trip. “It’s not often we visit the same place twice, and we booked this trip when leaving the first time because we enjoyed it that much,” Paterson says.
Neither Blumberg nor Paterson dives, but they’ve brought their 15-year-old scuba diving grandson Billy Paterson, from Queensland, Australia, along for the journey for his first liveaboard trip. Billy snorkels the first day alongside his grandparents, but after one dive with my group, we can’t get the tank off his back the rest of the week.
Even if the scuba bug hadn’t hit Billy, he’d be hard-pressed to find a moment of boredom out here. With three dives offered daily by Four Seasons Explorer, there is enough to keep divers happy, but also enough time to squeeze in other watersports. If the adrenaline rush of tubing or wakeboarding through turquoise waters isn’t your thing, paddleboarding and kayaking can be arranged at remote beaches that appear to pop up out of the blue just for us.
Explorer’s upscale service is matched with amenities for divers and nondivers, including an onboard spa and gym, spacious rooms, and grand common areas for good old-fashioned relaxation.
The 22-person staff is dedicated to your every need, delivering delicacy after delicacy from fresh-baked chocolate croissants in the morning to tropical smoothie concoctions throughout the day and turn-down service at night. Take resident videographer Mohamed Ali — affectionately known as “Anow” — for example: His sole job is to film every dive and excursion, then edit a daily highlight reel for a viewing after our four-course dinner. Anow has his hands full — there are plenty of underwater highlights to capture.
Submerged reefs — referred to as “thilas” by the Maldivians — make up much of our dive itinerary. Despite a similar dive profile at each site, no two thilas are the same. In Baa Atoll, we find that Muthaafushi Thila is thriving with fish and hawksbill sea turtles. Most interesting are the anemones covering the top of the dive site. There are so many healthy and colorful anemones that post-dive I joke with cruise director Areef Usman that they should rename the site Anemone Thila.
In South Ari Atoll, Kudarah Thila is home to massive schools of yellow snapper. These snapper don’t shy away from divers; they simply fill in every space until you become one with the school of fish.
With these wonders filling his viewfinder, Anow might just have the best job on board, though Audrey Cartraud, the resident marine biologist on the cruise, also loves her role. When she’s not cruising with the guests of Explorer, she is part of a team of marine biologists at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru resort, where they look after and rehabilitate injured sea turtles.
From Cartraud we learn that the Maldives has its own species of anemonefish (Maldivian anemonefish) and more than 66 species of wrasse, 50 species of damselfish, 32 species of butterflyfish and 14 species of angelfish.
The Maldives is often linked to celebrities and their lavish vacations — and don’t get me wrong, Four Seasons Explorer definitely delivers in that category — but this group of nearly 1,200 islands should also be just as famous for its diving. We’re surrounded by fish at all times, from the moment we giant-stride off the dive dhoni. From fish-rich thilas to channel dives at shark hot spots such as Rasdhoo and purpose-sunk wrecks such as Machchafushi, the Explorer itinerary offers a diverse range of dive sites.
While the posh pleasures of the Four Seasons liveaboard life make this trip one of a kind, it’s the unexpected encounters, such as my dolphin stare-down in the middle of the Indian Ocean, that will stick with me for a long time.
I came to the Maldives hoping to see mantas, and instead I left with a rare look into a dolphin’s eyes — all while being pampered at every turn.
Need to Know
When to Go: The manta and whale shark season falls between May and October, which happens to coincide with the rainy season. Keep this in mind when planning your trip so you can prioritize what is more important to you: dry weather or potential animal encounters. Regardless of rain, the Maldives is quite warm year-round and offers a picturesque backdrop for many water activities, including snorkeling, stand-up paddleboarding, wakeboarding and tubing. Four Seasons Explorer travels with three tender boats and a dive dhoni, making each of these activities easily accessible from multiple stops throughout the journey.
Operator: Four Seasons Explorer departs from land-based Four Seasons resort properties at Landaa Giraavaru or Kuda Huraa. The luxury dive catamaran features 10 staterooms and one Explorer Suite that sits at the front of the vessel and comes with a private balcony.
Traveling Tips: Four Seasons Explorer offers three-, four- and seven-night itineraries, making it a great option for new divers looking for a taste of the liveaboard experience. The four-night itinerary visits more-advanced sites that tend to experience current and greater depths. For the complete experience, the seven-night itinerary is ideal — it starts out with reef dives and gradually progresses to more-advanced diving.
Price Tag: Rates are seasonal; a stateroom for a seven-night cruise starts at $6,300 per person, plus service fees.