Downey Duck Maldives

January, 2008

Whale sharks! Dolphins! Mantas! Mating octopus! Plus more slithering eels than we've encountered anywhere else, chomping turtles not caring how close we came, perky anemonefish flitting about the tops of pinnacles, and unfamiliar fish and critters that sent us to the fish ID books while barely dry after the dives.

The Maldives is an independent nation off the southern tip of India consisting of 1192 islets, or small islands; about 200 are populated. After enduring long flights and layovers, we began the serious business of body-clock readjustment while strolling around sunny 2-square mile Male, exploring the local streets. Although primarily a Muslim country and we certainly were dressed differently, no one paid too much attention to us and we enjoyed our walk-about there.

We boarded the Manthiri, our home for the next 9 nights, signed waivers, sat through a short briefing, unpacked, transferred our gear to the dhoni, the 55' dive boat, and managed to get in two dives. Twelve passengers make a full complement; there are 12 crew members, most of whom we never saw except when they were smoking on the stern of the boat; personal introductions were not made other than the three divemasters, probaly due to the language barrier. The Manthiri is an older, well-kept boat, with six guest cabins below the main deck, all decent sized with adequate storage. Half of the teak-paneled salon served as the hang-out area; the other half had two tables for dining. A smaller salon was used mostly by the crew. There weren't enough beds for the crew in the crew quarters, so several of them slept on the salon couches or up on the sundeck, roomy enough for sun and shade worshipers. The clotheslines, the first we ever encountered, were glorious, and included clothespins! Hot water in the Manthiri's heads and the two showers on the dhoni was truly unlimited-another first.

All the diving was done from the roomy dhoni. Baskets were under each seat; BCs remained on the tanks, wet suits were rinsed and hung in the center section, and everything was rinsed at day's end. Drift diving was the norm and we never had to wait more than a few minutes for pick-up. Sometimes the group was pretty spread out at the end of the dime, but we felt the need to raise a flag only once. There was always a current but only provided a wild ride once or twice. The quickly familiar routine consisted of a wake-up call at 6:00am, light breakfast, dive, full breakfast, dive, snack or lunch, dive, snack, sometimes a fourth dive, then supper around 7:00pm. We did three to four dives each day, but no night dives. All three divemasters usually went in the water with us, one usually hanging back with us photo slackers; we tried to keep up since they knew where to look for the really cool stuff, but invariably would fall behind composing photos. Between dives the dhoni scooted off for tank refilling, leaving the Manthiri extremely quiet except for the low hum of the generator; no white noise to cover the sound of snoring on this boat! When the dhoni began motoring closer, we knew it would soon be time to dive again. Nitrox was available at an extra charge.

The diving varied nicely from walls to pinnacles to channels to ridges to one small wreck. Most briefings were very thorough, with an occasional "get on the dhoni" briefing. Water temperature averaged 82-84 degrees and visibility ranged from 50-100 feet, depending on the site. By law, 100 feet was the maximum allowed depth, but we weren't chastised if seen dropping a little deeper; there also was no rigid buddy system. When the divemasters made an unusual discovery, they would look around to see who was close-by and wave them over; a couple times they came looking for me. One dive I saw all three divemasters disappear under a ledge; I zipped over to see what had gotten all three so excited-it was an orgy of three thecacera picta nudibranchs! Another time one divemaster was showing another a tiny red cowry, almost invisible on a sea fan; their enthusiasm was impressive.

My favorite dive site was Fish Head, starting off with the very friendly Napoleon wrasse, continuing on to the mating octopi, scurrying mantis shrimp, super photogenic turtles, and dozens of anemonefish. But after requesting two extra dives on this site, we had to move on. Ranfaru was the least favorite, where the ripping current made it impossible to slow down unless we aimed towards an upcoming overhang!

Meals were varied with lots of choices, ranging from the familiar to the "what is this?" Pre-breakfast was coffee, cereal, and toast while breakfast might consist of eggs, fruit, beans, juice, French toast, and sausage (hot dogs). Several courses, such as fish, pasta, and salad were offered at lunch, along with ice cream, and dinner was also several courses with fruit for dessert. Wine was served at dinner at no charge, and beer, alcohol and pop were in each cabin's refrigerator, with a price list on the wall. The crew often fished while we were diving, making for some super-fresh meals. Hot water for tea and coffee were always available; "biscuits", the closest thing to cookies in that part of the world, were not sitting out 24/7, but could always be asked for. One evening a barbecue was arranged on a private beach, with tablecloth, candles, and all the fixings, including hundreds of crabs scurrying along the beach.

Although the hard corals were not impressive, the soft corals were colorful and the wide variety of fish, invertebrates, and pelagics was exceptional. The quality of the boat, crew, food, and diving made us happy we'd done an extended trip-we'd have no problem doing it again.