THE FESDHOO WRECK is a small freighter that was sunk for the benefit of divers a long time ago. Thanks to a gentle flow of water over it, the structure is now completely smothered in soft corals and other marine growth. In fact it has lost much of its appearance of a steel ship, and has started to look more like an oil painter’s impression.
With so few of us on board fit to go diving, I almost had the wreck to myself as the others made for the nearby reef.
I dropped into the water and headed towards the rudder, which is the deepest part of the wreck. There is a moratorium on diving deeper than 30m in the Maldives, so I never recorded a dive deeper than that on my stay, but I guess it was about that depth.
Trying to capture an image of a beautiful blue queen angelfish that was loitering there, I moved to the other side of the hull and came face to face with a large grouper, a true wreckfish.
It was gazing back at me with glassy bulbous eyes.
Grouper don’t usually get to grow to a large size without becoming rather defensive and shy. As I attempted to move closer, it ducked away into a hole and disappeared.
Wreckfish get to know every nook and cranny of their domain, but this one obviously wanted to keep an eye on me, so it kept appearing from moment to moment in different places as
I scouted around the wreck.
I was determined to get a close-up picture of it, and spent time watching and learning all its retreats until I was finally able to catch it out in the open as it dashed between two of them.

THOSE OF US who go on liveaboard diving holidays are usually met with incredulity from non-diving friends when we explain that all we do is dive, eat and sleep. “Don’t you pull into any pretty little harbours in the evening and go to pleasant restaurants” they ask.
Take most non-diving partners on such a liveaboard and, after a week or more of total boredom, a divorce would be sure to follow!
So a question commonly asked is: “What is a good holiday solution for diving that would also be suitable for a non-diving partner”
For those without such a partner and staying at a land-based resort, it can be difficult to make new friends, whereas such friends are immediately available when sharing a liveaboard.
The Maldives is made up of hundreds of small islands that are arranged around the rims of prehistoric sunken volcanoes. We call these “atolls”, a term derived from the original Dhivehi word for an administrative district.
Ninety-five per cent of Maldivian territory is made up of water. The challenge for would-be visitors is to choose the island right for their needs and budget, or the right diving liveaboard. However, there is a third way and because I had recently started drawing money from the national Ponzi scheme (OAP), the Editor felt I was suitably qualified to try it.
I was sent on the vessel that acted rather like a mini cruise liner. It was certainly bigger than any normal diving liveaboard, and most of its passengers were not divers, yet it had a dive centre on board and a diving dhoni that was employed just like any dhoni working with liveaboards in the Maldives.
Atoll Explorer carried up to 40 guests and had no fewer than 29 crew to look after them. Most of the guests were repeat customers and had been aboard more than a few times before. Some had experienced eight or nine trips, so they must have liked it.
Some of the crew had been with the vessel for as many as 17 years. All spoke English, and most of the passengers were English too.
Rotating weekly between routes around north and south Ari Atoll, so that both one- and two-week voyages were viable, the vessel stopped off at a couple of resort islands plus plenty of uninhabited islands and sand spits.
There the crew went ashore and set up umbrellas and sun-beds so that the passengers could enjoy a certain exclusivity on what was practically their own private island.
Sometimes, night-time barbecues were organised on these uninhabited punctuation marks in the ocean.
Any of the passengers could enjoy swimming or snorkelling in the limpid turquoise waters of the mini-lagoons without having to battle for space with anyone they hadn’t met before. Camaraderie soon developed among them, and many long-term friendships had been initiated in this way. Often people agreed to rendezvous year after year after such bonding during a voyage.
A hard day’s sunbathing and lotus-eating done, the passengers were then carefully ferried back to the familiar territory of the Atoll Explorer, where they could socialise further in the
all-inclusive bar (with wi-fi Internet access), enjoy buffet meals in the spacious restaurant or simply retire to their cabins.

THERE WERE TWO ENORMOUS sun-decks as well, with the aft deck reserved for smokers. In fact most of the guests were retired, or close to retirement age, so there were no early-morning starts, and it was all very civilised.
The vessel was big enough that it seemed unaffected by the sea state when crossing from one atoll to another, and nobody suffered from dreaded mal de mer, while the crew, under merry Captain Fulhu, were most attentive.
They needed to be – their client base was withering with time. The most adventurous activity in which anyone was required to participate was stepping from one vessel to another to join a shore party.
On first embarking, we were given a presentation by a marine biologist stationed in Male in the air-conditioned bar. It was an opportunity for everyone to learn a little bit about the coral realm and its inhabitants, which is useful whether people intend to dive or simply paddle in the water.
I was surprised when one of the guests told me that the previous week they had been on a whale-shark expedition but had not been lucky enough to see any.
The reason for my surprise was that I had been on a boat from another operation that week and had been alongside the dhoni from Atoll Explorer, and seen several whale sharks.
Then I realised that these people had not been under the water, but merely watching from their boat!
Another passenger told me proudly how he had seen lots of fish while snorkelling, but on further examination it turned out that he had merely been wading in the water while looking at the marine life with his polarising sunglasses. A third lady passenger told me that she intended to learn to snorkel, but “not this week”!
Since so many of the guests were battling more with time than anything else, with joint replacements and treatments for diabetes being foremost topics of conversation, there were usually few takers for anything as active as scuba-diving. If I’m making it sound like an old folk’s home afloat, you’re getting the idea.

DURING MY STAY ONBOARD, there were only four regular divers, plus one gentleman who seemed to be making very heavy weather of a PADI Nitrox course. This proved ironic when we discovered that he was actually a retired hyperbaric doctor. We were looked after by two very experienced dive guides.
Two of the guest divers were blue-collar workers from North Kent, travelling with partners and friends, and they soon bonded with a retired gentleman diver from East Sussex with
a similar background.
They were all very experienced club divers, so Saeed the dive centre boss and the young Japanese girl who had temporarily been moved onto Atoll Explorer from another Euro-Divers centre to help him, had a very easy time of it.
Our retired hyperbaric doctor friend was often seen to share gas with the Japanese girl on dives. Meanwhile, his wife was busy, out with the snorkelling party.

I WENT WITH THEM for an adventurous night snorkel. Five crew-members dressed in white polo shirts and shorts were in attendance in the water, making sure that nobody got into trouble or left behind. We each had lamps provided from the boat’s equipment.
I went ahead with one of the crew, and we came across a rather hefty grey reef shark and a bigger than usual whitetip reef shark hunting aggressively in shallow water in the dark.
I wondered what effect such an encounter would have on those following us. but it seems that nobody noticed them. They were too busy marvelling at the large coral formations.
What of the diving Well, that all depended on the diving ability of the guests and was obviously tailored to suit, but we went to all the well-known dive-sites in North Ari Atoll such as Mushimashmagili, Rasdhoo Madivaru and Maya Thila, and didn’t have to battle with any strong currents, thanks to Saeed’s local knowledge.
These are the places where one commonly sees grey reef sharks, manta rays, big marble rays and all the expected sights, including masses of blue-line snapper (the ubiquitous yellow signature fish), moray eels, scorpionfish and the Maldivian anemonefish that often shares its host with the more commonly seen (worldwide) blackfoot anemonefish.
We saw tuna and emperorfish and plenty of menacing-looking black jack.
I got lots of close-ups of hawksbills too busy feeding on their favourite sponges and anemones to worry about yet another diver, and I had fun with co-operative octopuses that posed in every shade of camouflage, colour scheme and texture they could muster as I snapped away.
Normally we would do only two dives in a day and the odd third. Sometimes we’d be out all day on the dhoni and, because it was a modern speedy vessel, we covered a lot of ground.
Saeed always chose sites that would have favourable conditions, and only rarely did we share a site with divers from elsewhere.

THE LAST NIGHT aboard Atoll Explorer was routinely spent off Kurumba, in sight of the airport island. A live band came on board to generate something of a party atmosphere, and next morning it was an easy early transfer to catch a flight and begin the journey home.
Atoll Explorer provided an alternative to either staying on a resort island or booking on a liveaboard in the Maldives. It wasn’t rough!
Alas, it couldn’t compete with facilities offered on the islands and, its regular clientele dwindling, it ceased cruising shortly after my visit. What a pity! It was the third way to visit the Maldives.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Direct flights with BA or Thompson, or go with Emirates, Oman Air, Air Sri Lanka, Etihad or Qatar Airways via their hubs.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Euro-Divers and Universal Resorts, www.euro-divers.com
WHEN TO GO Most stable weather is December to June.
MONEY: Credit cards or US dollars.
PRICES: Atoll Explorer, thought defunct when this article was written, has now been revived. Scaevola Travel offers a low-season price (April to start of November) of US$2060 for seven nights all-inclusive for two sharing. This includes 10% discount for booking more than 90 days before the trip, www.scaevolatravel.com. Euro-Divers again provides the diving, with a 10-dive package for $590, 15 dives for $825.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com