My story about luxury scuba diving in the Maldives on the MV Sachika liveaboard and at Soneva Gili and Sheraton Full Moon resorts has recently been published in Fah Thai magazine. You can read the complete article below
The Maldives is as famous for what lies below its sky blue seas as for the dazzling beaches that rest above it. Chris Mitchell and Jez Tryner explore the amazing underwater sights of the Maldives’ Male and Ari Atolls
Think of the Maldives and you think of tropical beaches, sunsets over aquamarine seas and beautiful beachside resorts. But what’s above the water is only half the story when it comes to this island nation scattered over 800 kilometres of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives is defined as much by the water that surrounds it as what’s on the atolls themselves. Where the sandy beaches provide little habitat for life on land, within the water just a few metres away there is an unparalleled diversity of marine life that is revered by scuba divers the world over.
You don’t need to even enter the water to appreciate the unparalleled richness of the waters surrounding the Maldives – just standing on the jetty at the Soneva Gili resort and looking down into the water, you can see tropical fish and juvenile rays skittering across the sand a few inches beneath the ocean’s surface. As the first resort in the Maldives to be built wholly over the water, Soneva Gili also invested heavily in regenerating and protecting the marine environment around Lankafushi island on which it’s based. After painstakingly removing a large concrete wall built in the ocean by the previous resort owners, the waters around Soneva Gili revived and became a burgeoning nursery for numerous sea species, including tiny blacktip sharks and baby mobular rays. A resident marine biologist at sister resort Soneva Fushi oversees coral regeneration and marine life care programs.
It’s a rule of thumb for divers that for the most pristine reefs and abundant marine life, you have to be prepared to travel to the most remote places. But due to local conservation efforts, there are some excellent dive sites a few minutes boat ride from the bustling capital of Male and its surrounding resorts. Submerge into the water at a dive site like Nassimo Thila and you’re greeted by huge schools of yellow snapper, thousands of fish strong, moving in perfect synchronicity together. Fronds of soft coral resplendent in electric reds and purples cling to the huge boulders that sit on the sandy bottom of the seabed, wreathed in clouds of tiny glassfish. Look away from the reef and out into the blue, and you can see for 40 metres, the deepening shades of blue shot through by the Maldivian sun, still visible above. The colours feel vivid and saturated, like an image enhanced picture postcard, but they’re completely real.
The abundance of the reefs near to Male spark excitement about what’s to be seen underwater in more remote areas, hidden away from any boat traffic or other human contact. The lure of seeing whitetip sharks, manta rays or possibly whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world at 12 metres long fully grown, makes many divers take to a liveaboard, literally a boat where you spend a week living on board. Originally liveaboards were quite primitive affairs for hardcore dive enthusiasts only. The MV Sachika typifies a new breed of liveaboard, where the boat is a floating luxury resort so that guests are not denied any comfort (such as jacuzzi, spa and massage, along with huge buffets of freshly cooked food). This lets non-divers enjoy the trip as much as divers with island hopping, snorkeling and sunbathing, as well as ever changing spectacular vistas of the Maldivian ocean, miles away from anyone else.
Over the course of a week the Sachika traces a route between Male, Ari and Felidhe atolls, criss crossing amongst numerous tiny deserted islands where Robertson Crusoe could be half expected to make an appearance. These islands within the atolls signify thilas, pinnacles of rock rising up from the ocean floor of which the sandy top is the only part visible above water. Down below the thilas are the aquatic equivalent of skyscrapers, home to all manner of marine life, from the tiny coral polyps that make up the enormous, man-size coral fans, to the dustbin lid sized grey stingrays that shuffle across the sand, to the enormous but elusive whale shark, which can sometimes be spotted straight off the boat’s sundeck basking a couple of metres below the surface. The thilas are also the cause of a couple of shipwrecks, like the Kuda Giri and Kudima, which have now been reclaimed by the sea and become impromptu marine sanctuaries.
At the edge of the atolls lie the channels, where the outside ocean meets the atoll interior waters. Channels are a magnet for divers as one of the best places to see white tip and grey reef sharks up close and personal as they ride in on the strong ocean currents. This is a real Maldivian adrenaline experience, watching the sharks effortlessly cruise by while hanging on to any available rock to avoid being swept away by the insistent movement of the water.
Sharks have an undeniable allure, but the highlight of the liveaboard trip for most was a more serene encounter with arguably the most graceful creature in the ocean – the manta ray. Known to congregate at certain coral bommies, mantas will hover there stationary in order to be cleaned by smaller pilot fish – it’s effectively an underwater car wash. At Donkalo in Ari atoll, the cleaning station attracts not just one manta ray – a cause for celebration in itself – but three of them, queuing up in orderly fashion to await their turn at the station before deciding to playfully hover over the bubbles coming from the divers themselves. To see a four metre wide manta ray swoop over you only inches away, moving its black cowled bulk with complete fluidity, is to witness one of nature’s greatest creations, and to be somewhat awed by it too. As a finale to our liveaboard, it’s unforgettable.
Back on land at the Sheraton Full Moon resort to relax before leaving, it’s impossible to resist the temptation to have one last dive – there always seems to be something more to see. The Sheraton is the nearest five star resort to Male Airport and has access to the same great sites as Soneva Gili, and a final dive on Lankan Reef proves to be turtle heaven - no less than seven of these endearing creatures are spotted, busy munching coral, drifting on the gentle current or simply sound asleep. Moments before surfacing, one super curious turtle circles around, completely unafraid and thoroughly intrigued about these noisy creatures in its realm. As a friendly farewell from the underwater world of the Maldives, it’s hard to beat.