Quick-change act
How can a diver justify returning again and again to the Maldives Easily, says John Bantin, kicking off this months Maldives Special Divernet

Maldives Special
Intro Liveaboards Coral Wrecks Currents

HOW CAN YOU JUSTIFY A TRIP TO THE MALDIVES WHEN YOU WENT ONLY LAST YEAR asked Liz Wood, the marine biologist.
     I had found myself sitting next to her on the plane. It was probably my sixth trip in as many years but I told her what she already knew - the diving in the Maldives is always changing.
     The island nation of the Maldives consists of tiny spits of sand atop coral reefs that grow on the rims of ancient sunken volcanoes. They sit south of the Indian sub-continent, a few degrees north of the Equator. They would be lonely outposts in the middle of the Indian Ocean if there were not so many of them.
     They are much affected by the Indian monsoons. The ocean currents are driven by these seasons. They race across the globe unobstructed by any land mass until they reach the bottlenecks caused by the Maldives atolls and the channels into them. In spring they come from the east, in autumn from the west.
     This huge flow of water, more powerful even than that caused by the tides, brings nutrients: plankton and the whole marine food chain. It brings both good and bad, which is why things change so remarkably quickly under water in the Maldives.

Before 1998, the underwater topography was notable for the coral growth that stretched down in endless banks to deep water. That year, the currents brought warmer water than usual, first noted for its higher levels of plankton, lower visibility, and large numbers of whale sharks. However, the essential algaes that lived comensally with the corals could not stand the temperature change and died. By the end of the year, those banks of coral looked like white wedding cake. By 1999 it was rubble.
     Things werent so bad for visiting divers. Coral-browsers such as the long-nosed butterflyfish declined in numbers but populations of algae-eaters such as the redtooth triggerfish exploded, as did the animals that predated on them. Big animal encounters seemed even more prevalent than before.
     Those currents continue to flow, and the underwater scene changes almost daily. The colourful soft corals, always opportunistic, have recovered wherever the current strikes. The hard corals are making a comeback and I have photographed whole clusters of table corals that were merely embryonic a year previously.
     Powerful currents are not always in evidence, but if you want high-voltage diving, early spring and autumn are the times to go.
     Fewer than half of the 26 atolls are yet open to tourism. As our Emirates airliner flew us over unexplored atolls, and the Moresby deepwater channel that divides some of them, we could barely imagine all the diving yet to be discovered. But some of the diving we do know is reflected in the following pages...


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new table corals at Rangali
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WELL WHAT DYA KNOW
FACT! The islands of the Maldives are grouped in ring-shaped coral atolls, each enclosing a relatively shallow lagoon with a flat sandy bottom. Water passes in and out through channels or kandus between the islands as ocean levels change.
FACT! The atoll chain is 530 miles long by 75 miles across at its widest point. The largest atoll, Huvadhoo, has 250 islands and the smallest, Thoddoo, is 1.2 miles across.


FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly via Dubai on Emirates Airlines from London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. Sri Lankan Airlines flies from London to Male via Colombo and there are charter flights from London and Manchester.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Maldives Scuba Tours owns and operates mv Sea Spirit and mv Sea Queen, 01449 780220 www.scubascuba.com.
WHEN TO GO : The wetter south-west season runs from May-November and the north-east monsoon from December-April. May is the wettest month. Diving is good year-round, with the focus changing from one side of the atoll to the other. Water temperature stays around 28°C.
MONEY: Maldivian rufia are rarely used by tourists - US dollars work best.
HEALTH: Vaccinations are not required (unless travelling from an area with yellow fever) and there is no malaria.
COSTS: A seven-night trip on Sea Spirit costs from £1250 plus £38 departure tax, 12 nights from £1650. Prices include flights, transfers, full-board accommodation, soft drinks, diving and excursions.


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