The
The Baani Explorer.


AFTER EXPERIENCING VIRTUALLY non-stop manta rays on the check-out dive, I spend my safety stop wondering how the rest of a weeks liveaboard diving can match it. Will subsequent dives be eclipsed What can the crew of Baani Explorer show me to beat this
On the other hand, with the instant feedback of digital photography, I already know I have a good selection of manta ray pictures in the bag, so maybe I should be thinking about subjects. Spectacular, graceful and exciting as they are, a whole week of nothing but mantas could be too much of a good thing.
Next morning were back at the same site, Lankan Manta Point on North Male Atoll. While I had been checking out my camera with the mantas, other divers had taken the idea of a check-out dive more traditionally and checked out their own diving while leaving their cameras behind. They had all voted to return with their cameras for more mantas.
Despite my best intentions to widen my horizons, I vote with them. Manta fever has got the better of me.
But how can a dive site be so different We find no mantas at the cleaning station, or on the approaches. It could be any stretch of reef, with a fair selection of reef fish, though not hordes - some snappers, trevally, anemonefish and many more of the usual suspects.
Looking up from a clown triggerfish, a particularly ridiculous favourite of mine, I notice my buddys pocket camera flashing and move closer to see what he has found.
Its the back end of a turtle, the front end being wedged tightly into a crack in the rock, the legs flapping madly. My first thought is concern that its stuck. Should I help it out
Then I notice that it is actually trying to get further in. Is it scared and trying to hide I look beneath the rock from another angle, and realise that both guesses are way out. The turtle is doing its best to barge its way far enough down to get its mouth around a well-hidden sprig of soft coral.
The coral is eventually bitten off as far as the turtle can reach. It moves into reverse gear and gives me a passing glance before swimming a few rocks along and burying its head in another crack, back-end upwards and not a care in the world. The best compliment any marine animal can pay me as a diver is to ignore me.
The manta rays are clearly not ready for a morning clean-up, but the turtles are all busy with breakfast, so what could have been a disappointment turns into a very enjoyable dive, as we move from one turtle to the next.

AT 30M LONG AND WITH an 8.5m beam, and all diving taking place from a dhoni, Baani Explorer is one of the most spacious liveaboards I have come across. The cabins are enormous, and there is plenty of communal space.
Our days are generally so busy with diving that no-one gets round to enjoying the Jacuzzi on the bow deck until late in the week, and I dont think the TV and DVD player even got switched on. The crew, dive guides and boat manager are all locals, and do an excellent job of guiding, feeding and generally looking after the divers.
The liveaboard crosses to South Male Atoll and a selection of thilas. A couple of days ago, as the Emirates A330 circled to land at Male, I had been eyeing up thousands of islands and reefs with a special eye for the submerged patches, not knowing what they were called at the time. Thila denotes any hump of reef that doesnt quite break the surface.
The best dive sites are invariably thilas in or close to a channel in the atoll reef, where current is strongest and coral growth most prolific.
Atoll current patterns are driven by wind and waves pushing water over the reef and into the lagoon area. Surplus water then flows out through the channels in the reef, a similar effect to the localised rip tide found on many surfing beaches.
But the current doesnt always flow out, it sometimes reverses, and the behaviour is particularly unpredictable close to the change of monsoon seasons.
Just after the switch to the south-west monsoon, dive briefings invariably include options for all possibilities of current direction.
Baani Explorers dive dhoni is a respectable 18m long, with a sheltered dive deck and a sun deck on top. All the kit and compressors stay on here, and its like taking the fully fitted dive deck from the back of the liveaboard and floating it off on its own hull.
As the dhoni arrives at a thila, one of the guides jumps in to check the current. We soon get used to the announcement of plan B, generally the same as plan A but drifting in the opposite direction.

TO CROSS WESTWARD from South Male Atoll to Ari Atoll we have an early and a late dive, separated by several hours of motoring across the open Indian Ocean.
Baani Explorer leads the way and the dhoni tucks in behind, using the bulk of the liveaboard to hide from the worst of the waves. Lying on sunbeds, the gentle rocking motion combines with latent jet lag to put everyone to sleep, only to be rudely awakened as the boat rolls on
a big wave. We all slide into a bundle at one side of the deck.
After the surprise of the first slide it becomes a game, divers laughing and cheering as sunbeds slide back and forth, before everything settles down again and the snoring resumes.
Arriving at the southern fringes of Ari Atoll, the dhoni heads out to dive at Broken Rock while Baani Explorer navigates into a sheltered anchorage for the evening.
A fin breaks the surface, and the cry of whale shark goes up. The dhoni circles ahead of it to drop us in with just mask and fins, to get a glimpse of a whale shark in the distance before its time to head on to the dive site.
Broken Rock is a thila distinguished by a canyon splitting it in two. Over the next couple of days many equally magnificent thilas blur into one, all teeming with fish.
Some of the tops have been El-Niñod, the shallow coral killed by the overwarm current switch that hits the Indian and Pacific Oceans once every couple of decades. Others are crested in healthy forests of thorny corals.
Deeper on the thila, healthy boulder- and leaf-shaped stony corals dominate, with soft and black corals beneath ledges and overhangs.

EVERY DIVE FEATURES ONE OR TWO grey reef or whitetip reef sharks that cruise frustratingly just that bit too far away. Nevertheless, hanging away from the reef waiting for the sharks is never without the company of curious batfish and big-nose unicornfish playing in our bubbles. Back on the reef, any overhang or cave is filled with a soup of assorted snappers, sweetlips and squirrelfish.
The timidity of the sharks changes with a night dive at Maaya Thila. In darkness peppered by dive lights, the whitetips are hunting across the top of the thila, oblivious to divers as they snatch at the less fortunate members of a huge shoal of fusiliers.
An enormous barracuda follows closely behind one of the whitetips, taking advantage of the confusion to facilitate its own dinner.
Visibility takes a dive for the worse at Mashimushimi Thila, also known as Fish Head because local fishermen kept on catching only the heads of fish as sharks bit the rest off.
The blue water acquires a tinge of green, but the main limit to visibility is the cloud of juvenile fish that covers the reef. Its not only the juveniles - all the fish at Fish Head are squashed closer together than on previous dives.
The smaller fish panic and part to form a tunnel as bluefin trevally dart through, taking careful aim to snatch each mouthful of lunch.
Grouper take a more sedate approach to hunting, as does the biggest Napoleon wrasse of the trip; a wrasse that seems as interested in divers as in gulping the smaller fish. Even a passing eagle ray is more approachable than its relatives were on previous dives.
The long crossing from Ari back to North Male Atoll runs smoother and faster than the crossing out; we have the wind and sea behind us. Baani Explorer arrives early enough in the afternoon for a dive at Nassimo Thila, with its overhangs and stingrays, followed by the eagerly awaited third crack at the manta rays at Lankan Manta Point.
Late in the day, the mantas are back in force, circling off the reef and taking turns at the cleaning station. In the gaps between them I play with some anemonefish, a big brown moray eel and a pair of butterflyfish.
It is only after the dive that my buddy tells me that the gaps between mantas were not as long as I thought. Several times while I had been playing with the smaller fish, rays had been hovering above me.
With just one day to go, divers check their tickets for onward flights to work out how much diving can be fitted in while keeping 24 hours clear. I am one of the minority, in the Maldives only for a week. Two are staying aboard for another week, but most are moving on to island resorts by seaplane or speedboat.
The last day begins at Rainbow Reef, a thila with overhanging ledges and soft corals at the side and humps of healthy hard coral on top.
A stimulating current is just about right to time the dive along the reef, then ascend in the shelter at the downcurrent end. Almost painfully early in the morning, one diver with an early flight sits this one out, then a few more drop out to allow for their day of no-fly time before a later dive at Ukobe Thila.
While deco tables allow flying much sooner after diving, insurance policies and airlines both like 24 hours, and no one is taking chances.
Ukobe is the perfect wind-down; easy, pretty, shallow, little current and co-operative fish. A chill-out dive at the end of a very active week.

Preparing
Preparing to dive from the dhoni.
Behind
Behind the wheelhouse of the Kuda Giri wreck in South Male Atoll.
Turtle
Turtle portrait.
Barbecue
Barbecue ashore in South Ari Atoll.
Lunch
Lunch aboard Baani Explorer.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Flights with Emirates to Male via Dubai, www.emirates.com. An extra 10kg baggage allowance is available for divers on request.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Liveaboard diving with Maldives Liveaboards, www.maldivesliveaboards.com. Nitrox is available on its Baani Explorer and Stingray boats.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. The driest months with best visibility are in the north-east monsoon, January-April. Other months have more plankton and increased chances of mantas and whale sharks. John Liddiard travelled in May.
MONEY: Rufiyaa (MVR), but the boats take US dollars, euros and credit cards.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 26-30°C. A 3mm wetsuit is plenty.
PRICES: Barefoot Traveller offers one weeks liveaboard diving on Baani Explorer including return flights from £1295 (020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com).
LANGUAGE: English on liveaboards.

PRICE GUIDE - £s per day
(A) -£75 (B) £75-100 (C) £100-125 (D) £125-150 (E) £150-175 (F) £175+
MALDIVES LIVEABOARDS based in Male * includes flights
Adventurer 1 & 2 (C )
www.maldivediving.com

Amba (B*)
www.amba-malediven.com

Atoll Explorer (B)
www.diveworldwide.com

Baani Adventurer (A)
www.maldivesliveaboards.com

Baani Explorer A) as above

Barutheela (D*)
www.barutheela-maldives.com

Blue Lagoon (C)
www.diveworldwide.com

Carina (D) www.safarimaldives.com.mv

Eagle Ray (D) www.themaldiver.nl

Fathima (F) www.fathima.info

Four Seasons Explorer (B)
www.fourseasons.com

Happy Days (C)
www.aquatours.com

Maldives Aggressor (A)
www.aggressor.com

Maldives Ocean Dancer (F)
www.diveworldwide.com

Maldivian Dream (C)
www.aquatours.com

Monsoon (F*) www.scuba.co.uk

Nautilus 1 & 2 (A) as above

Nooraanee Queen (B)
www.aquatours.com

Ocean Dancer (D)
www.peterhughes.com

Princess Haleema (D) as above

Sea Queen (B ) www.scubascuba.com

Sea Quest (B) as above

Sea Spirit (B) as above

Sheena (F) www.wernerlau.net

Stingray (A)
www.maldivesliveaboards.com

Teate (D) www.scuba.co.uk