Everyone knows how 2020 went by. When the lockdown curfew was eased a bit, going even to the grocery store felt like a mini-vacation! After being indoors for more than eight months, my wife and I mustered the courage to take a vacation as the year-end approached. We didn’t want to expose ourselves to the vacation crowd (and not be a participant either). There were only a handful of countries that were allowing tourists from India so, our options were very limited.
Fortunately, Maldives checked off on all criteria and we started researching more. An ideal vacation in the Maldives would be staying in a beach villa and lazying on beaches all day. But I thought we had been lazy enough already.
The Maldives has about 1190 islands that are packed with a wealth of marine biodiversity. And the best way to explore this diversity is by diving up close. Since it was already on our bucket list, we chose to make it a purely dive vacation.
Researching more, we found that the best way to explore diving in the Maldives is on a liveaboard. Liveaboards offer divers the ability to maximize their time below the surface and experience more remote locations that aren’t accessible as day trips. It’s like living on a luxury yacht in the middle of the ocean with a sole focus on providing a great diving experience. A PADI Advanced Open Water Certification allowed us to qualify for this liveaboard dive trip. So off we went!
Life on Liveaboard#
We stayed on the Soleil 2 for a week from 26th December to 2nd January. During these 7 days, we covered most of the best dive sites in the Northern and Central Maldives. Usually, the Liveaboard housed 30 guests but due to COVID, we had 18 guests on the boat.
Waking up to an endless ocean away from the daily hustle of city life was an enthralling experience.
On a daily basis we would sail to the planned dive sites and anchor there. Accompanying the mothership were 2 sets of other boats
- Dhoani aka dive boat - helped us reach the exact location of dive site
- Dingi aka transfer boat - helped us visit nearby sandbanks and transfer to mainland
Food & Comfort
Since I do not eat fish or meat, I thought I would have to stick to a fruit-based diet for this trip. But again the house chefs on the liveaboard blew my mind with the delicious spread of food cooked every day.
If there was a sandbank near to where we anchored for the day, we would take the smaller boat (dingi) and spend some time there.
Particular dive day#
The Maldives is host to a variety of diverse dive environments, including reef dives, drift dives, and wrecks that provide opportunities for divers at any skill level. Generally, there were 3 dives planned every day. If the location had some great night action, we squeezed in a 4th-night dive. All the dives started with 15-20 minutes of dive briefing where the captain explained to us the geography of the area and the kind of marine life we would encounter.
After the briefing, we transferred to the dive Dhoani to Suit Up!
There’s an incredible sense of calm that washes over you once you’re in the water, seeing environments and wildlife that is almost impossible to experience on land.
After completing the dive, we would transfer back to the mothership and log our dives. Building a habit of logging the dives helps in many ways. Apart from preserving the memories, it also helps you improve the skills. We would log general dive related data and log interesting marine life sightings witnessed during the dive.
After our planned meal - breakfast / lunch based on the time of the day, we took a small break and leisured on the boat. We were with a group of super experienced divers where some of them had completed 800 dives around the world. So, there was always time for great dive stories from these folks! In the evening, guests who preferred having fresh food tried their luck at fishing.
The Maldives Islands have great and healthy coral reefs, but it's the abundance of marine life throughout the country that sets it apart from other dive destinations around the world. Due to the consistent water temperatures, larger marine animals such as turtles, reef sharks, mantas and, whale sharks can be found throughout the year.
I had never seen a real shark in my life. All the information which I had about sharks were from the movies which made them quite infamous. So, the idea of having my first shark encounter not in an aquarium but up close with them in an open ocean - in their habitat - was spine chilling. After diving and snorkeling with 9 types of sharks, I must say these are wonderful creatures. Most of them are not equipped to harm humans. And for the rest, if you protect their privacy, they are fun to watch and dive with!
The first encounter started when we were lazying on the boat when someone yelled shark!
We went to the back deck and saw 8 Nurse Sharks paying a casual visit. We were told that they usually come for food and they are very friendly. The boat owner also told us that we can snorkel with them since they are very friendly. 4 of us gathered the courage and snorkeled right in!
From seeing sharks in movies to find them bumping into you while snorkeling - this progression was something I had never - in my wildest dreams - thought of!
Later we were told that the particular area -Alimatha House Reef- was frequented by Nurse sharks very often and, we had plans for a night dive with them. For many years, food waste was dumped into the ocean and sharks became used to foraging there. They still associate the sound of boat engines with food, so as the dive boat arrives, they swarm around it. We put up the gear for the night dive and went into the darkness. This was the sight when we turned the torch lights upwards.
They were hundreds! Swimming in the current above casually searching for food. I can vividly create the entire scene if I close my eyes. Pitch dark, only sound you can hear was of the gas regulator and the ocean filled with hundreds of Nurse Sharks. I literally couldn’t have asked for anything else as the first Shark encounter memory!
White, Black Tip and, Grey reef Sharks
We saw different kinds of sharks almost every day. Shark sightings are great when you have a good current. Below is a picture where we saw many kinds of sharks. We were anchored onto a reef with our reef hooks and watched the show in front of our eyes. It was almost like being inside of an huge aquarium with so many diverse fishes!
Here’s a White Tip Shark up close.
Next in line was finding the largest sharks, Whale Shark. Since they are so hard to find, one of our day in the entire trip was entirely reserved for diving with the Whale Shark. Usually all the dive sites are planned. We transfer to the diving boat from the mother ship and in 10–15 mins we reach the site and are in the water. But this time, we were already sailing in the dive boat for about an hour. We saw many other boats moving in the same direction. Everyone had the same question, have you spotted one?
After sailing for almost 90 minutes, we came to a halt. The captain said the chances are pretty low but can take a shot. Buckled up, we went under and started looking here and there. No sign. 20 minutes later, all the Dive Masters started hitting their tanks with sticks - to alarm all the divers in one particular direction. It was the whale shark! The next moment we all started kicking our fins as fast as we can in the same direction. It was a crazy race! Since the visibility wasn’t great, I could not see why people was running aimlessly. When we stopped, I was breathless. Being breathless because of extreme exertion is one thing. But clubbing it with a gigantic shark in front of your eyes is something that I can’t explain in words.
While casually discussing other sharks, our captain always said “A tiger is a tiger”. Rightfully so they are predators and the second to the great white in attacking humans. While North and the central Maldives generally do not have frequent visits of the tiger, they can be summoned by enticing it with food - dead fishes. We were told that there have been no Tiger Shark casualties in the Maldives till now. If we do not pose a threat to the tiger, it will just eat the given food and walk away. Our captain procured 3 buckets full of fish waste from a nearby fish market and the plan was to dump the fish food into the ocean and wait for the tiger to arrive. As planned, once deep under, we were hooked onto a reef and our boat circled some good meters away from us and dumped the food waste. After 20 minutes we saw a huge shark with tiger-like stripes approaching. The mission was successful.
Apart from Sharks, the Maldives is very famous for its different kinds of Rays.
As the name suggests, Stingrays have a venomous tail that can inflict harm. But they are very docile and are safe to scuba with. They have their eyes and mouth on the underside of the body. I distinctly remember one incident where a swarm of curious stingrays came to enquire on us when we had just entered the water. From the looks of it, I think it was very happy seeing us!
Eagle rays are mainly black with small white spots and have a distinct head that is shaped perfectly for digging up food from the sandy bottom. They are usually seen “flying” through the water in groups.
Mantas are the largest species of rays that are very hard to find. We saw them in a planned night dive at a site where Mantas often frequented to feed on planktons. The ones which we saw had an almost 4-meter span of the wings. It was a truly mesmerizing show witnessing them dance above our heads.
Other Marine Life#
Apart from these large creatures, we were able to identify at least 102 different species. This list only contains the fishes which we could identify. Other experienced divers counted around 200 different types!
Looking back, this was one of the most memorable trips my wife and I ever had. Every day we would discuss how today was better than yesterday! It’s difficult to put in words how this entire experience was. We made great new friends, improved our diving skills, and captured some incredible memories.
- Days on Sea: 7
- Total dives: 20 (18 days and 2 night)
- Deepest dive: 36.1 m
- Longest dive: 89 minutes
- Total time underwater: 948m / 16hrs
- Total identified species: 102
Where 2019 ended on an Icy note, 2020 was deep and blue. Couldn’t have hoped for a better way to end 2020
and welcome 2021