If there's one place that you simply have to explore by liveaboard boat it's the Maldives. Dive safaris, as they're locally known, are the easiest and most rewarding way to check out the scattered groups of tiny island atolls and incredible reefs of this picture-perfect marine wonderland. And even if you don't dive or snorkel, there are few more idyllic holidays than cruising around the beautiful white sands and aquamarine lagoons of this Indian Ocean hideaway.
It may be clichéd, but as you fly in to Maldives you can't help but feel that you've arrived in paradise. 1 190 islands stretch from the equator north to about seven degrees - a string of little white and green jewels in a warm tropical sea. As you approach the reclaimed strip of land that serves as the international airport you see the yachts and floating palaces at anchor. There are over 100 registered safari boats cruising Maldivian waters – offering a range of specialist sailing, diving, surfing and fishing safaris. Given the extensive area, you're not going to get more than a taste of what's on offer on a typical week or ten day holiday so most trips focus on the pristine reefs and pinnacles of the centrally located North and South Male, and Ari, atolls. And that's where I was heading when I climbed about Eagle Ray, a 30m specialised dive liveaboard, and set out on my dream cruise.
Winner of the 'World's Leading Dive Destination' and 'Indian Ocean's Leading Destination' at the World Travel Awards 2006, the Maldives is the not only the ultimate when it comes to honeymoon and romantic locations, but is renowned throughout the world as a top class diving destination. I'd seen the pics – manta rays, hammerheads, big schools of reef fish, magnificent fans and incredible soft corals. I knew the marine life was rich and diverse. Maldives was somewhere I'd always wanted to dive – and I wasn't disappointed.
A sleek longboat, our dive dhoni, picked us up from airport then, after the short transfer to the mother ship, we headed to the South Male Atoll for an afternoon dive.
Eagle Ray is built in typical Maldivian tradition – a big, stable, double-deck wooden boat with spacious cabins, dining and lounge areas and plenty of outside deck space. Although she was only launched in August 2006 her crew have a wealth of experience in hospitality, and most importantly, in dive safaris. Once we'd unpacked our dive gear into crates we let them take over – half an hour later everything was kitted up and we stepped onto the dhoni ready to go diving. It was even easier after the dive – all we had to do was climb the steps – our cameras were put in fresh water tanks while everything stayed on the boat to be rinsed and readied for our next dive.
Eagle Ray sleeps 14 passengers in three double and four twin, en-suite cabins, each with proper flush loos, hot showers, air con and a mini bar, but we were a group of ten so there were more crew than guests. Life aboard ship was easy and comfortable. The main saloon is incredibly spacious with a big dining table, bar and plenty of sofas to loll around in – and there's a full range of entertainment facilities including big screen TV, DVD, video and music system, a library and games cabinet. The next level has a big outside covered deck then there's a massive sun deck above that so you could always find a quiet spot to read, sunbathe or simply escape from the other divers.
Not that I needed to escape. It was clear from the start that we had a good, fun group - an international mix of Poles, Japanese, French, South Africans and Brits. The crew welcomed us aboard, fed us fresh fish, newly baked bread and salad, and explained the house rules. Manik, our on-board host and dive leader, whet our appetites, he and the crew would find us the big pelagics we knew the Maldives were famous for – rays, sharks, big pelagic fish – and of course they'd try to locate the ‘big guy' – the whale shark. Manik's effervescence meant that he quickly became the butt of British jokes – and after our first whale shark sighting (when most of us were to slow too get into the water before the big guy disappeared) he was, inevitably, if unimaginatively, nicknamed ‘Panic'. Eccentric though he was, ‘Panic' cared only for the happiness of his guests, scouring the horizons, working out the best dive times, trying to get us a step ahead of the other dive boats. His dive outfit was unusual to say the least. Under his booties he sported two pairs of socks – a neoprene pair and his old football socks (his explanation - that he's a soccer fan - was not wholly enlightening) and a sort of cummerbund covering a hole in his wetsuit. But for all his quirky manner he was an attentive, and extremely knowledgeable dive leader who, with, Asraf , his fellow DM showed off the area's best sites.
Our first dive was an orientation dive on Kuda Giri, a pinnacle in the South Male atoll, with an old steel boat – an artificial reef - close by. It was late afternoon by the time we came to dive it so the sun was low in the sky making the wreck with its resident school batfish particularly atmospheric. The wall was very pretty and in the excellent vis we admired the profusion of lionfish, glassfish, soldier fish, fusiliers and jackfish but the highlights were the sheer variety of nudibranchs, a huge, curious Napoleon wrasse and a turtle that was amazingly unfazed by our presence.
On the first night we anchored in the company of another couple of liveaboards and watched as the light from the yachts reflected in the still waters of the lagoon. All the dive safari boats seem to be built on the same lines, supported by lovely wooden local boats (dhonis) as dive tenders. As dusk fell we sat up on the deck drinking our gin and tonics and toasting our first underwater adventure. I hadn't done my homework so had been surprised when my duty-free bottle was taken off me at the airport on arrival – and even more surprised to learn that apparently I could collect it on my way home – so I was relieved to find that, despite the fact that Maldives is staunchly Moslem, there was no restriction on alcohol on the safari boats or in the resorts.
Manik outlined the plan for the next day; we were diving South Male Atoll again first thing - in the Gurado channel. This provoked some lively debate as he tried desperately to remember the Japanese word for ‘channel'. It's amazing how one gets into odd conversations when thrown together with a whole load of strangers on an adventure. Manik had worked with a Japanese DM on a previous liveaboard, and gets plenty of Japanese customers so he enjoyed the banter with the young Japanese couple on board. He knew the word for ‘open ocean' (umi) but channel eluded him. The Japanese didn't know either – one of them had spent half her life in the US and the other was too laid back to care. They did volunteer the words for volcano (kazan) and deep sea (fukai umi) before the Poles joined the fray – pointing out that there's no word for channel in Polish as far as they know! It was agreed that English would be the preferred language for such technical terms.
Come dinner time we were starving after the excitement of the first day and the spicy chicken curry, barbecued fish, rice, salad and chips went down a treat. Our first dive was at 6.40 so we enjoyed the warm breeze and the starlit sky before turning in early. Before I went to sleep I turned on my computer to type up my notes – amazingly I picked up a wi-fi internet service - if only I'd bought a pre-paid Dhiraagu scratch card at the airport I could have kept in touch with the real world along the way. At less than a dollar for half an hour I could have escaped the office without being noticed!
Day two, our first full day, was mindblowing and I began to realise why divers return year after year to the Maldives. After an exciting drift dive in the Gurado channel, on which we were treated to superb sightings of eagle rays, sting rays, more Napoleon wrasse, honeycomb morays and an abundance of sweetlips, batfish, bannerfish and squirrelfish, we started cruising through the shallow lagoon to the next site. Suddenly Manik was urging us into action ‘quick quick, grab masks and snorkels'. There, in no more than five metres of water, were three manta rays that playfully swam around us as we floated next to the dhoni.
Then it was one of the best dives of the whole trip, a little gem of a pinnacle, Vilamand Giri, just off Vilamandhoo in the East Ari Atoll. There was so much to see that my memory card was soon full as I snapped away happily at scorpion fish, huge dogfish tuna and wonderful brown and black bannerfish. In the briefing Manik had assured us that we'd see banana fish – and there they were – you guessed it, bright yellow fusiliers! The photographers were in their element as they tried to frame the huge shoals of coachmen, batfish and menacing red-fanged parrot fish. They day ended with our first night dive. It was full moon and slipping into the 30 degree ocean on the totally still night was quite surreal. The reef was alive, and Manik sought out a range of unusual scorpion fish, clams, cowries and lizard fish to impress us.
The week went by too quickly – and true to their promise the crew found us whale sharks, mantas and massive schools of barracuda as well as amazing submarine ridges and incredible walls of gorgonian fans to wow us with. My favourite dive was on Broken Rock – a small site with fantastic canyons lined with gorgonion fans and amazing corals. In this tiny area we saw white tip reef sharks, swimming morays, mantis shrimps, swift, menacing barracuda, mean-looking tuna and cute, Oriental sweetlips. And to cap it all, as we motored back to Eagle Ray, the water filled with the splashes of sailfish jumping. When we weren't diving we lazed in the sun, went ashore onto deserted islands or strolled among the souvenir shops of the tourist islands buying postcards, painted fish, kikois and t-shirts to take home. One night we anchored off a little uninhabited island with a few palm trees and went to ashore for an hour between dives. That evening we were in for a treat. We were ushered to the dhoni and taken back to the island where the crew had lit lanterns to make a walkway, and prepared a big buffet feast under the stars. It was unbelievably romantic – just us, on our own desert island, surrounded by ocean. The water sparkled with phosphorescence as we donned masks and snorkels and swam back over the coral to Eagle Ray. It was a night I'll never forget.
On the final night we ate out on deck, toasted a fabulous holiday and wished we could stay longer. Again the crew had gone to town - fairy lights twinkled all round the railings and the Bangladeshi chef had conjured up a lavish buffet. We'd asked for sashimi, so they'd sliced up a freshly caught fish, there were chicken and meat curries, and an assortment of fishballs, samoosas, filled breads, sambals and pickles. What a feast.
A week was not enough, but in that short time I realised that I had to come back to these wonderful islands and experience more of what Maldives has to offer the diver. Not only was the trip on Eagle Ray luxurious and remarkably good value, but I was impressed at how well regulated and safety conscious the dive operators are. (It's mandatory to carry an SMB and dive on a computer for example and dives are limited to 30m). And despite the tsunami and the coral bleaching following the El Nino of 1998 the reefs are in good condition – the hard corals have recovered well and there's plenty of colour in the bright soft corals and sponges. The marine life is abundant and – unlike so many popular dive destinations – remarkably unskittish. In a nutshell, Maldives offers something for everyone, fast drift dives, precipitous walls, shallow lagoons and pretty pinnacles. It's somewhere you have to dive once in your life – and I can think of no better way than on Eagle Ray.