THE RED SEA CAN BE A GREAT DESTINATION, with the chances of diving with reef sharks and even hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and whale sharks. But on a southern Egyptian liveaboard the previous year my dive buddy, River Monsters’ Jeremy Wade, and I saw no sharks.
In 2013 large pelagics moved to the top of our hit-list. We wanted a bit more comfort and some guaranteed large-fish action. We would see whether a Maldives liveaboard could deliver.
Sharks are under siege across much of the world, with rampant fishing to meet the trade in their meat and fins. In 2010, shark-fishing in Maldivian waters was made illegal.
With large pelagics attracted to Maldives’ atolls, protected waters are close to land and can be policed effectively. Locals and tour operators have a vested interest in maintaining stocks of sharks and other large fish to attract paying visitors.
In the Maldives whale sharks and manta rays move with the seasonal winds to take advantage of nutrient-rich waters that fuel plankton growth.
In the north-east monsoon season (December to March) these plankton-feeding giants tend to be found on the west side of atolls, and in the south-west monsoon season (April to November) to the east. Pick the right time of year, and go with a knowledgeable operator, and you are almost guaranteed great sightings. We aimed for a one-week September trip on mv Orion billed as “Pelagic Magic”.
Orion takes 22 guests, and on our trip was fully booked with divers from Australia, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the USA and UK. It was a friendly bunch, aged from the 20s to late-60s.
At 39m long, Orion is roomy and well-appointed, with three decks and a small Jacuzzi. Food is plentiful and wholesome. Dive staff and crew are friendly and attentive.
A flat-bottomed 17m dhoni stores the gear and takes divers close to reefs. Unfortunately, the air-mix compressor was on Orion, so tanks had to be shipped back and forth, albeit efficiently, between mother-boat and dhoni. The compressor managed only
a 24% mix, too, but even as we were leaving the old dhoni was being replaced by a new, larger one with its own compressor.
At our first briefing, dive organiser Russ told us about the main kinds of diving on a Maldives liveaboard: along fringe coral reefs next to islands, drift-diving along a channel (kandu), coral pinnacle (thila) diving and wreck-diving. We would be treated to all four.
Jeremy and I were allocated to a group with buddy-pairs Alison and Dyfed from Australia and Tia and John from California, led by knowledgeable local dive-guide Maseeh.
Our seven-night trip out of capital city Male would range across North Ari and South Ari Atolls, returning through South Male Atoll. With three dives a day, and two on the final day, most people would manage 17 dives, with many in the 15-25m range and in comparatively gentle currents.
On two warm-up dives in North Male Atoll we become acquainted with the usual large shoals of fusiliers and blue-striped snapper, and pairs or small squadrons of butterfly, surgeon and unicornfish. With visibility of 15-25m and water temperatures of 27-28°C, diving was a treat.
On a night dive around Maaya Thila we spotted a nurse shark and our torches tempted whitetip reef sharks to use the beams to help flush out prey from nooks and crannies.
Hunting giant trevally hurtled past.
A shark, marbled ray and moray jostled to grab some creature unearthed from the coral sand.
When we turned off our torches we saw phosphorescent colonies of salps drifting in the water column like giant lanterns, the worm-like chains twisting and turning in the vortices generated by our fins.

AT HAFSA THILA WE HUNG ON CURRENT HOOKS to watch circling grey reef sharks. A diminutive eagle ray that hadn’t learnt to grow up is a feature of this site and came to within inches of my mask. Several whitetip reef sharks lay on the sand below us at 30m, while occasional dogtooth tuna ambled past.
During a dive on Fish Head thila, grey reef sharks circled nearby, but off in the distance I could see the much stockier, angular shape of a silvertip, a rare sighting these days.
Shoaling fish were plentiful, weaving around gorgonians and other soft corals, while several morays protruded menacingly from lairs.
On ascent the depth gauge on my computer packed up, forcing me to miss the next dive for safety’s sake.
That evening we were called to Orion’s stern to see giant shapes flashing black and white beneath the water. Manta rays, 3-4m-wide, were looping the loop, feeding on plankton and small fish attracted by the stern light.
We quietly slipped into the water with snorkel gear and gathered at the edge of an “exclusion zone”, keeping several metres from the rays. They swam with mouth open, gill-slits flared and lobes directing food-rich water into the mouth for filtering across the gills.
Remoras detached from their manta hosts and hunted rather ineffectually, while needlefish picked off prey with great precision.

BY THE END OF THE NEXT DAY, my ID list of coral reef fish species had topped 80, and there were many more that
I couldn’t identify without a close-up photo. Blue Caves, Eboodhoo and Bollywood thilas had been a leisurely experience, with variable vis.
We finned through swim-throughs, entered canyon-like seascapes, and saw a dazzling array of hard, soft and horny coral, and gorgeous giant red tubular sponges. We got close to an orange frogfish and saw three large grey reef sharks and some dozen juveniles.
When one of our party unexpectedly developed pain, sickness and a skin-bends rash, the dive team treated him with utmost care.
After two hours on oxygen he was speedboated to a decompression chamber at Male.
He had dived within his no-deco limits and there were no obvious predisposing factors. He returned before the end of the week, snorkelling while the rest of us dived.
That evening we gathered on the beach of a nearby island for a barbecue amid an array of whale shark sand sculptures – a foretaste of pleasures to come
By day 4’s first dive we were accustomed to scanning the blue for sharks, rays, jack, tuna and turtles, while regularly turning our attention to the small critters in and around the coral.
We found several beautiful flatworms and nudibranchs, plus a crown-of-thorns starfish. Beneath us the occasional marbled ray swam by and above us small groups of bluefin jack attacked shoals of baitfish.
We were now in South Ari Atoll’s whale shark territory. The last time I had seen whale sharks was off Ningaloo in Western Australia, when spotter-planes found them for us.
Orion’s crew have had to become adept at spotting the giant tadpole shapes near the surface from the deck.
We approach a channel where two boats had anchored and at least a dozen snorkellers were in the water.
Russ’s urgent instructions were: “Snorkel gear only. When I say, follow my directions and go!” Within two minutes most of us were in the water.
Our first view of a Maldivian whale shark – small at about 5m long – was tantalising. It swam past 8-10m below, its chequerboard-pattern skin offering surprisingly good camouflage in the flickering light from above. It was gone in a trice.
We were better prepared the second time and stayed with the shark, some of us duck-diving alongside. It swam with mouth open, gill-slits pulsing and tail sweeping majestically back and forth. A gentle swim for the shark was hard work for us, but we stayed with it for some 5-6 minutes before it dived away.

WITH THE WHALE SHARKS staying put, we hurriedly changed to scuba gear and plunged into the water just ahead of another shark. In the underwater melee it soon disappeared.
Our group of seven went off to find grey reef sharks, a hawksbill turtle dining under table coral, and the most exotic jellyfish I’ve ever seen, its upper surface like hi-tech moulded blue plastic. Another group were rewarded with two whale sharks circling them – they appeared just as the first buddy-pair were ascending for their safety stop.
Back on deck, Jeremy, Dyfed and I were the only ones ready and determined to change to snorkel gear and respond to a sudden call. For me this was one of the best experiences, the three of us swimming with a 6m shark for eight or nine minutes.
For our final dive of the day we descended to a cargo wreck, the Kudhi Maa, scuttled in 1999 in 30m. With its cut-throughs and intact superstructure, highlights included myriad glassfish and a vivid purple stonefish.
As we swam past the staghorn coral of the nearby house reef the water looked greasy, the effect caused by swift changes in temperature and visibility as different water bodies collided.
Next morning we were woken at 4.30am to hear that a whale shark was at the back of the boat. We were treated to an amazing 80 minutes of watching a 7m-plus specimen circling. On each circuit it would slow and almost halt, head-up, gulping in plankton and small fish from beneath the stern light.
Its feeding was clumsy, relying on forward movement to push water into its mouth. When almost stationary, fish could swim in and out of its mouth before it closed.
The spectacle came to an end as dawn broke. Perhaps the changing light conditions momentarily disorientated the shark, because it swam into the stern ladder it had been so carefully avoiding.
We saw its snout buckle on contact with the metal, and winced. The shark turned and swam off into the depths.
Since 2006, Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP) researchers have identified more than 130 whale sharks at South Ari Atoll.
Most are immature males under 8m long. It’s not yet known where they disappear to when they grow larger.

WE FORMED A LARGE CIRCLE at a mound of rock that was a manta cleaning station, kneeling on coral sand.
After some 10 minutes, a manta with a 4m wingspan glided into view, accompanied by an escort of pilotfish and remoras, with attentive cleaner wrasse rising off the rock to meet it.
The manta swept around in two wide circles, before exiting stage left and returning a few minutes later.
When it left we dispersed above a small population of garden eels and slowly ascended the nearby reef.
The last dive of that day was a drift at up to 30m in a 1-2 knot current. Vis was 5-10m and the fun was in keeping together and navigating close to the reef.
Maldivian corals were badly hit during the El Niño of 1998. Some bleaching also occurred in 2010 but most of the coral we saw was vibrant.
The worst-hit seemed to be branching coral in one South Ari location, but the glorious 3-5m-wide table corals at several dive sites certainly look healthy.
Our last day brought us to a fishing-boat wreck in 28-34m. It was remarkably intact but less interesting than the crevices, small caves and swim-throughs of the nearby reef. Two titan triggerfish were so engrossed in fighting each other there that they almost hit my mask.
Our final dive, a drift dive not far from Male, was surprisingly good. Embudu Canyons has great topography, with overhangs and small caves, a friendly hawksbill turtle and an impressive Napoleon wrasse.
The shoals of fusiliers and snapper that welcomed us on our first dives provided a fitting farewell.
Our last night was spent moored off Male. Our visit had coincided with cancelled elections and the UK Foreign Office advised against going into the city because of demonstrations.
Most of us ignored the advice and found the demos good-natured.
It had been a great trip, with more whale shark encounters than expected and a feast of diving. Perhaps we’ll get hammerheads next time!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE 10-11-hour flight to Colombo with Sri Lankan Airlines, and a 1-2-hour onward flight to Male, www.srilankan.com, or go via Dubai with Emirates, www.emirates.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION mv Orion, but many other vessels offer similar dive tours of one- or two-weeks’ duration.
WHEN TO GO Year-round, although August and September are among the best months to see large pelagics in Ari Atoll.
CURRENCY US dollars.
PRICES Scuba Travel can provide packages aboard mv Orion from £1825pp, including scheduled return flights to Male with Sri Lankan Airlines, seven nights full-board in
a lower-deck twin room (two sharing) and diving, www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmaldives.com