Attractions over and under water
This was my second scuba diving trip to the Maldives, and I hoped it would be at least as good as the first one. It was better. Why?
Well, first of all, I came prepared. The Maldives are an isolated collection of around 2,000 islands, where consumer goods are a pricey commodity, if available at all. So if you plan to visit, bring everything you can’t live without. Trust me, a small bar of chocolate can cost USD5 and sunscreen close USD10 or more. Also, most resorts charge on a per item basis, so having your own mask for instance could save you USD8 per day.
Aside from a handful of personal items, this was what I packed:
- Wetsuit (unless you don’t mind risking a skin infection)
- Snorkel mask (for the best fit)
- Snorkel (because I’m a germ-phobe)
- Fins (mine have booties)
- Mosquito repellent (lots of bloodthirsty buggers on the island)
- Bikini x 2 (unless you’re happy to put on wet bathers every morning)
- Sundress/cover up
- A supply of multivitamins, iron and magnesium (to keep muscle cramps away)
- Underwater camera and housing
- DSLR camera
- Powerboard (I never leave home without one)
- Universal adaptor
Things I should have brought:
- A waterproof torch
- A reef hook
- Seasickness tablets
- My own supply of chocolate/good coffee
- Lollies for the boat
- Fish reference book
Secondly, the resort was excellent – newer than Royal Island, on Baa Atoll. It also had a “no shoes, no news” policy, which was welcome. Because nothing says tropical island getaway like going barefoot and without your mobile phone. Also, the buffet was top notch, with the traditional Maldivian breakfast known as mas huni (a finely chopped mixture of tuna, shallots, lime juice and chilli eaten with fresh, warm chapati) available for breakfast each day. For lunch and dinner, there was a great spread of vegetarian curries, healthy salads and fruit – perfect for almost-vegetarians like me.
Thirdly, the diving was exceptional. Baa Atoll is part of a marine sanctuary so trust me, the undersea life was pretty damn good. However, the South Ari Atoll where Vilamendhoo is located is home to a permanent population of whale sharks as well as a popular manta ray cleaning station. Believe it or not, we managed to see both of these behemoths on our first full dive day. This set the benchmark very high.
Nevertheless, we managed some lifetime experiences, as we decided to enrol in the PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course at Euro Divers Vilamendhoo. Our first dive, supposedly a “deep dive” (to 30m) turned very quickly into an adrenaline-pumping drift dive. The current at Lucky Rock was so strong, we aborted our first descent because we were carried past the dive site before we could get down. On the second attempt, we very quickly learnt how to perform a negative entry: turn head down and swim! Under the surface, we discovered that to avoid getting swept away required hanging on for dear life to a (non-living) part of the reef. You know how they say adrenaline is a drug? Well, while I will never forget the panic in my chest on that dive, I can’t wait to do another one – junkie alert!
PRO TIP #1: Get a reef hook and bring it on every dive so you don’t risk touching fire coral or a stonefish in strong current.
We also dived a wreck, the Kudhi Maa, which was spectacular – carpeted in colourful soft corals, and full of reef fish. Having been told by our lovely tutor – Natalie Skipworth – that sharks often hung out under wrecks, of course I had to see for myself. And see one I did! In fact, I practically came nose to nose with a nurse shark, who was probably more startled than I was, and promptly disappeared into the dark.
PRO TIP #2: Bring a torch. They are useful for deep dives, to look in caves and for night-time snorkelling.
To get to the more far-flung dive sites required an hour or so on a dhoni (a classic Maldivian vessel resembling Arabian dhows). I tend to get queasy especially on small boats in light swell so I avoided alcohol the night before, and sat mostly near the prow.
The boys on the boat (bless them) tried to offer me some local aniseed-flavoured confectionery but it made me want to throw up even more.
PRO TIP #3: Take seasickness medication before you board and bring mints or hard lollies to keep nausea at bay. Avoid the diesel engines and sit as close to the front of the boat as possible.
When we weren’t diving, we were snorkelling. The house reef at Vilamendhoo is a beauty – it had healthy hard corals, magnificent anemone, multicoloured fish (although less in number than at Royal Island), moray eels and we even saw a pair of octopus one day. From the pier early one morning, I also saw a large spotted eagle ray in the water – however, it took off when the supply boat arrived.
Watch a short video on a dive we did here to get an idea on the density of marine life and visibility:
Royal Island was a much older resort and also located in a more remote atoll and no-fishing sanctuary. For those reasons I believe that its house reef was in better condition than Vilamendhoo and the water was thick with fish of all kinds, from electric blue surgeonfish (Dory!) to massive parrotfish.
PRO TIP #4: Pick an island in the Maldives with a good house reef if you are travelling with friends who don’t dive. Or if you want something interesting to do on non-dive days.
Believe it or not, there was one day I didn’t dive (admittedly, I couldn’t because I was flying out that same night) so it paid to have picked a resort with a big, beautiful swimming pool and bar service! It also had a change room with showers for gym users – handy for a quick rinse and to put on real clothing after a week in swimwear!
PRO TIP #5: To fit in a final morning and afternoon snorkel, book the last seaplane or speedboat leaving your resort.