|YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO KICK OFF THE SHOES of Western culture when you enter the Maldives, and gear down for a more sedate way of life.
This I am used to, but I travelled there soon after the Boxing Day Tsunami, which had caused death and devastation across the Indian Ocean. So I set foot on a Maldives I had not known before - a nation touched by disaster.
My initial article, which appeared in Februarys (Post-Tsunami, Still Flying), showed that the huge waves had caused minimal damage to the reefs. But as I and the other mere 20 or so people alighted from the Air Lanka plane, I was shocked at how many people had decided to stay away, depriving the Maldives tourist industry of vital revenue at the peak of its season.
Following reports in newspapers, on TV and my report, numbers are swelling again. I welcome that, though I admit to a hint of personal regret - the more divers around, the harder it is to feel at one with a wild environment.
I hadnt visited the Maldives since soon after the 1998 bleaching event killed a huge swathe of its shallow-water hard corals. That one period of warm water had done more damage to the corals than a huge wave ever could.
Yet it hadnt discouraged visitors. New resorts are being constructed, and the government is building a new airport to the south of Ari Atoll to deal with all the flights.
Since I had been away Male, the capital, had acquired a new mooring for liveaboards. The lagoon is set away from the hustle and bustle and must be full of eelgrass, because it is also full of green turtles. After an almost 11-hour flight, sitting on the top deck of my Fathima under a sun so hot I could have fried an egg in my open palm, I watched green turtles pop to the surface every few minutes. It was remarkably relaxing.
Aboard with us were three German couples. Fathima is a German-owned boat, represented in the UK by Barefoot Traveller, and takes Italian, German, Swedish and British guests.
Its very continental, and I find mixing with other Europeans like this quite enlightening.
Near the liveaboard lagoon, a shallow reef-top falls gently to a sandy slope in about 27m, perfect for a check-out dive. This is no dead reef where students get taught the finer arts of sand-flicking, arm-waving and coral-crunching, but instead a rather pretty, busy reef.
A host of fish probably live in the shallows. but I was too busy fiddling with clips, hoses and my camera to say for sure. Over the reef slope wereÃ‰ er, probably more fish. I dont know - I had a problem with my octopus.
As I moved along the reef, however, mercifully with no further malfunctions, I came to a small outcrop of dead coral, home to a shoal of blue-striped snappers.
These pretty little predators are ubiquitous in the Maldives, particularly around upstanding formations such a coral stacks with the odd overhang.
After photographing them, I chased the other divers up the reef slope. My legs were just finding a piston-type rhythm when a hawksbill turtle appeared, swimming the other way. I slowed and went to photograph it, but my sleek, graceful movements must have confused it into thinking I was a shark, and it slipped easily out of camera range!
The check-dive done, Fathima turned south towards a channel on the east side of Male Atoll. A vista of open sea dotted with small islands was laid out before us.
Embudu Express, a channel in Male Atoll that faces east, was open to the full force of the Tsunami.
The huge waves would have found it an easy way through the wall of coral and rock that makes up the atoll rings. Yet there was so little damage. The marine life, both static and mobile, is accustomed to swift currents.
We hoped the water was rushing in from the Indian Ocean rather than out into it, as ending up in Sri Lanka wasnt part of our plan. It was, so we had to get in and down as quickly as possible.
I descended through a thick shoal of bigeye jacks, which parted around me. For a moment I was engulfed in a silvery, visibility-sapping cloud. Reaching the rocky bottom, I latched a finger into a hole and hung on.
The current rattled my mask as I stared into the blue. Two whitetip and three grey reef sharks cruised the drop-off.
As I eventually let go and headed into the channel, I started to rise. A female hawksbill drifted with me, stopping every so often to forage under a piece of coral rock and pull out a piece of sponge or soft coral.
At Kuda Giri there is a small wreck, so I fixed a wide-angle lens to my camera. I tell you this now because you may wonder why there are no pictures of the leaf-fish I found there, or the mantis shrimp on a small davit at the bow.
Neither are there pictures of the octopus that crawled over my hand, or the cuttlefish so close I could have tickled its chin. It was a frustrating dive.
Sometimes there arent enough Smarties
The last dive of the day, a fairly typical mid-channel reef, was close to one of the local islands tourists are allowed to visit. Sandbags on the beach were the only indication of the Tsunami.
The houses and shops were all intact and the main street was sand anyway, but looked undisturbed.
Visitors come from the various liveaboards plying the atoll and the local resort islands, so a small tourist shopping street has sprung up. When I first came it was a small affair, a few ladies selling T-shirts, fizzy drinks or, sadly, shark jaws and cowrie shells.
Now glass-fronted shops sell an array of skimpy clothing; wooden carvings, often huge; dried or polished sea creatures and other items that travellers dont need or want.
Whats more, they all sell the same things. I find it sad to see this sort of tourist junk being sold on what should be a genuine local experience.
This is the only real source of income for many people, and authentic local handicrafts would be a better bet.
Otherwise, I enjoyed the experience. The children were cheeky and friendly and seemed overjoyed to eat the boxes of Smarties I provided in return for photos. As soon as the sweets came out, the gaggle became a group and soon a crowd.
The adults also seemed pleased to see us. I just wished I could help them financially other than by buying an Ã’I MaldivesÃ“ T-shirt destined to end up as a duster.
Oceanic currents dominate diving in the Maldives, which makes it exciting, but sometimes I crave a more relaxed experience. I found it at Kudarah Thila. The reef is a massive stack with a gap in the middle and plenty to see.
Sheltering under the overhang was a huge shoal of blue-striped snapper, a splash of intense colour in the reefs shadow.
Out in the blue were tuna and rainbow runners, plus a small shoal of jacks. In a field of seawhips at the base of the reef, a large sting ray was resting after a nights foraging.
I have found similar reefs in places such as the Red Sea. All the good stuff is at the bottom but they are left bare at the top by divers knocking the hell out of the delicate corals.
Kudarah, however, is how those reefs once were. Its cranium was covered in so much life that it reminded me of Brian Mays hairstyle. Soft and hard corals, fire corals, sea-whips, sponges and anything else that could find a foothold thrived while being force-fed in the high-energy environment. Above that swam hordes of reef fish, from red coral trout to vicious little damselfish, which will not be scared to take on a human, as my sore index finger testifies. Its a bit like a Jack Russell taking on a cow and winning.
Talking of cows, the Maldives is a magnet for large creatures such as manta rays, whale sharks and the people who love to watch them, so I looked forward to visiting Manta Point.
We had motored over a calm stretch of ocean between Male and Ari Atolls and were poised at the corner of the reef, waiting to see what the divemaster thought about the current.
He gave the OK and we took turns to jump, fall or, in my case, trip into the water. I turned, feeling flustered at my error, and took my camera from the boatman. He was either really friendly or was finding something very amusing.
The viz, not brilliant so far, was down to 12m here. I had dived this spot before, and put this down to environmental conditions after the Tsunami, with so much detritus being washed into the ocean.
We entered the water several hundred metres from the manta cleaning station and proceeded along the gentle reef slope. The coral rock looked uninspiring, but then creatures started appearing from the gloom - moray eels, small shoals of snappers, grunts and sweetlips and another turtle.
The cleaning station was just a barren area of dead coral rubble, but as we waited, staring into the aquatic mist, my heart was pounding in my chest. Ive seen lots of mantas, but the experience never palls. The gentle flapping of cartilaginous wings made my heart leap.
As the massive shadow moved over the reef, cleaner wrasse, butterflyfish and the like rose from their hiding places in the coral to pick the ray clean of parasites and dead skin.
Before long, another manta arrived, the two taking turns at the station. Mantas have to keep swimming to keep oxygenated water passing over their gills, and it takes several passes to feel sufficiently expunged of detritus.
In the few seconds between one manta moving off and the other arriving, I crept forward. Keeping low to the reef and exhaling only when I had to, I concentrated on keeping as inconspicuous and unthreatening as possible. I was in about 12m, so there was no rush.
Thats when international relations broke down, however. When a fat German rises from the reef and swims directly at a manta on its way in to get cleaned, it ruins the experience for everyone. My flabber was gasted by this selfishness. I gave him the international sign for Ã’I dont like you very muchÃ“, but sadly he was swimming away and missed it.
Fathima skirted the south side of Male Atoll on its way to Ari Atoll, with everyone searching for dark shapes above the reef. This area has become a centre of activity for whale sharks as they feed along the reef edge.
It was the dhoni crew who spotted a small dark patch moving eastwards. Fathima was manoeuvred close to the whale sharks line of travel and we leapt into the water and swam hard.
It was a juvenile, a mere 3m or so long, and it wasnt feeding but travelling.
It continued its amble as the six of us swam hard to keep pace. I sometimes wonder what whale sharks think when surrounded by a pack of oafish creatures. They must feel as sorry for us as we do for baby birds learning to fly.
Though much coral, particularly in the shallows, was lost in 1998, the site known as Panatone tells another story. It is a manta site when the current is running out of the atoll, but this morning it was running in and the mantas were elsewhere, so the start of the dive was pants.
But as we came up along the reef slope, the coral growth was so refreshing to see that it whipped out my eyes, gave them a polish and popped them back in my head. At 12m the reef slope was very gradual, and a festival of pristine table and branching corals.
There wasnt a square metre left for anything else to grow, though red and cream soft corals were finding a way somehow. Calmness in the furore
The current was flying at Madihoss Thila. The group was swept past soft coral trees, overhangs lined with blue-striped snapper and all the other fish waiting for the underwater wind to abate.
We sheltered behind a hump in the thila as wide-eyed fish caught in the current rocketed past, along with a hawksbill turtle that may just have been enjoying the ride, like those greens in Finding Nemo.
Every so often a swirl of current washed around our protective hump and played with us like toys in a bath. I had the chance to study the bottom rung of the food chain rather than the big picture.
There were all sorts of skittish fish, a couple of sea-stars and several mobile backsides - otherwise known as sea cucumbers. I caught a nervous movement to my left and a pair of compound eyes staring up at me. It was a mantis shrimp, a marine version of a flying mantis with a disposition like a hyperactive caterpillar in a blue-tit aviary.
This is a creature that can break glass with its punch, so I wouldnt like to meet one in a dark alley.
Thats not something Id say about a whitetip reef shark, however, especially as I was heading out to dive Maya Thila later that evening.
This reef is a highlight of any Maldivian dive holiday, but it does get crowded and it was, even with so few people on the liveaboards that week.
We went in far earlier than I would have liked, and the sharks were elusive for a while. A very young whitetip, with big baby-cute eyes, swam around looking rather out of place, along with a larger female who sent the fusiliers nuts as she swam through their shoal.
It was, as usual a fantastic spectacle, though a few more sharks and a little less light would have been good. Why do divers these days take so much light under water I dont remember reading anywhere: Ã’God said let there be light, so a bloody diver turned on his torch!Ã“
The top of Maya Thila looked like that scene in Close Encounters when the spaceships swoop in over the weird mountain. If youre scared of the dark, dont get in the water!
Maya Thila the next morning was just as light but a different place. The reef top has been trashed, probably by bumbling night divers, though there were still anemones with clownfish, morays, starfish, turtles and so on to entertain us.
The walls remain in good order, and I even found another nervous mantis shrimp. It would climb on top of a piece of coral to watch me and then vanish, only to appear under it or at the side, like a comedy private detective.
On the crossing back to Male, the Maldives was showing its ugly face, a stiff wind whipping the whitecaps off the wave-tops. Fathima was buffeted from all angles as it surged forward before wallowing in a wave hollow.
On the top deck, a bizarre German sunlounger dance was underway. Fast asleep, the Germans skidded this way and that as the boat rocked.
Luckily there was only one collision, and no beach towels were lost as a result of the movement!
Some places are spectacular, others poor, but there are signs of regrowth in Maldivian coral. Branching coral is a fairly swift-growing species or, at least, as swift as an old lady running for a bus.
But several decent-sized colonies have grown since 1998, especially at the famous Lions Head site. They will continue to do well, as long as dumb-ass divers dont hang onto it.
I couldnt believe it when I saw an elderly couple who had trouble staying still in the current both grab hold of live coral. I wanted to do them physical harm but instead made appropriate gestures. Even my six-year old nephew knows that touching coral kills it.
The Maldives Victory and Banana Reef are two of the most famous dives around Male itself, and while viz was down on the Victory, it was enjoyable. Lying next to the airport, its one of those wrecks that always ends up on a dive itinerary - not that big, not the greatest to look at, but a lovely dive.
A current was running from bow to stern, stiff enough to make me swim hard. Its a common feature, I guessed from the additional lines overhead.
I ended the dive pulling myself along the line connecting the top of the bridge with the mast, and surfaced under the bright sun just as an Air Italia jet came in to land.
When the Tsunami struck the Maldives, the waves that killed so many in Sri Lanka and Thailand never had the chance to build. However, a huge surge swept water up the streets of Male and swamped many islands, pushing sand and detritus into the water.
That did little real damage other than lowering the visibility, but it did also push a bunch of sand over the top of Banana Reef.
This is one of the last dives on many liveaboard trips. Divers are more used to flying than swimming in the currents here, but that wasnt the case today.
It was eerie, like walking around in the eye of a storm. A shoal of oriental sweetlips, a wall of snapper and a dog-toothed tuna all looked confused at the lack of current. At the far end I saw all the sand, clearly from the reef top. The currents would eventually sweep it away, leaving the live corals to feast on the nutrients once again.
Our last dive was at Feedhoo Finolh, a sheer wall next to the Maldives first resort island. About a metre off the face of the wall, the sea was a moving soup of blue triggerfish, but they werent the highlight, nor were the black snapper, tuna, jacks or even the hawksbill turtle.
No, I left the Maldives as I came in, watching green turtles, but this time under water. We saw several resting on the ledges or free-swimming after taking a breath from the surface - just as Id seen them from above on that first day.
|A green turtle lifts off from reef shelf. |
|A diver with a shoal of the ubiquitous blue-striped snapper |
|Stingray at Broken Rock |
|A diver examines new branching coral |
|A well-disguised scorpionfish attracts attention |
|Pristine table corals at Panatone (a piece of the old Maldives) |
|A mantis shrimp, wary of divers but not to be messed with |
|The mast of the Maldives Victory |
GETTING THERE: Gavin Parsons travelled with Barefoot Traveller (020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com), which uses scheduled airlines. He flew with Sri Lankan direct from London Heathrow and back via Columbo.
DIVING: mv Fathima takes 16 people in eight air-conditioned cabins with en-suite bathrooms. It has a diving dhoni, and a large sundeck with bar, restaurant and coffee shop..
WHEN TO GO: The Maldives has two main seasons - wet and dry. Excellent diving can be enjoyed during both, but monsoonal winds change the ocean currents, moving the nutrients and therefore, the main pelagic life. In the wet season (May-September) the area can be affected by rough seas, strong winds and rain. In the dry season (December-April) the weather is generally calm, though strong winds and raincn occur. Water temperature is around 27°C.
COSTS: A weeks diving aboard mv Fathima costs from£995 per person. The price includes return airfare, transfers, seven nights in a double cabin, full board and 3-4 dives per day.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com
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