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Maldives diving with Manta's.
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Equipment: - Sony HX9V camera - Ikelite underwater housing - Ikelite red filter.
To build a picture of the Maldives’ seasonal highlights, we asked some local dive professionals to pool their knowledge
From left to right:  Lisa Allison of the MV Sea Queen amid a school of bluelined snapper;  healthy soft corals on a typical Madivian reef (Photos by Simon Rogerson)
This feature is DIVE’s response to a recent spate of letters asking us about holiday planning in the Maldives. There may be a wealth of resorts and liveaboards offering their services, but we’re still talking about a major archipelago, with 1,120 islands spread across a necklace of 26 atolls. Choosing where to go is far from simple.
Of course, you could make it easy on yourself and just book into the latest plush resort. Those aerial photographs of the water bungalows standing above the azure shallows are very tempting, and you can practically feel that sand beneath your feet. But while the resorts look pretty much the same, you don’t see the same things underwater. While certain species are typical of Maldivian diving and can be seen throughout the atolls – oriental sweetlips, honeycomb morays, blue-lined snapper – there are others that only appear at certain times and places.
The first lesson any diver needs to learn about the Maldives is the two seasons: the northeast monsoon (from December to April) and the southwest monsoon (from May to November). During the northeast monsoon, the prevailing ocean currents should run from east to west, bringing clear water to the eastern side of the atolls, while plankton accumulates on the western side. During the southwest monsoon, the process is reversed: the ocean currents run west to east, so you should get clear water on the west side of the atolls and plankton-rich water on the east.
But it isn’t quite as straightforward as that. There is the ocean water, and there is the atoll water, which acts as a separate entity from the ocean, its water levels dictated by tides. Oceanic waters force their way in, but the atoll must purge itself of the extra water, so the movement of water can be very difficult to predict. Guides who work for long periods in the Maldives grow accustomed to its peculiar rhythms, and can make educated guesses about sea conditions and the movement of pelagic creatures. We hope their insights here will help DIVE readers plan their holidays.
There is one final caveat – climatic patterns are not a precise science, so this should be read as a general guide, albeit one based on first-hand experience.
A typical Maldivian resort with views out over the jetty
We received some useful information from Ibrahim Jawad, a guide on the liveaboard Dream Catcher II (represented in the UK by Oonasdivers, www.oonasdivers.com). He says there’s a very good chance of seeing manta rays near to the village island of Guraidhoo in South Malé, at a dive site known as Banana Point, for which the best months are April to July. During the same period, tuna will be seen outside Guraidhoo at Guraidhoo Thila and Kandooma Thila. For those in search of hammerhead sharks, Ibrahim reckons that October is a fine time to visit Rasdho Madivaru Point in North Ari Atoll. His favoured manta site is Paradise Manta Point in North Ari, while just outside Paradise Resort he recommends a site called Sunlight Thila for its manta action. For whale shark spotting from December to April, he (and everyone else) recommends the seas around Maamagili.
Perhaps North Malé is more isolated than we thought. Kai Behrand of Euro-Divers on Eriyadu (www.euro-divers.com, represented in the UK by www.regal-diving.co.uk) says that only two per cent of their local reefs are visited by ‘outsider’ divers from liveaboards or other resorts. The centre has compiled a list of 250 regularly seen species of fish, mammals and reptiles, and the area is acquiring a reputation for shark action, notably at the dive sites Finger Point and Woshimas. These sites are best known for their sightings of reef sharks (grey, white-tip, black-tip, leopard), and scalloped hammerheads have been known to visit the deeper edges of Finger Point in September and October. For those in search of smaller attractions, the local sites have a few macro supermodels, including ornate pipefish and the resident frogfish, ‘Steve’.
One of the most fashionable resorts in South Malé is the recently refurbished Kandooma Resort, represented in the UK by H2O Active Travel (www.H2Odive.co.uk). Kandooma has a Euro-Divers centre whose manager Paolo Raimondi recommends June to November as the best period for manta action. The key site is Manta Point, a block of coral on a sand bottom at 17m, just a 15-minute boat ride from the resort. It’s a cleaning site, so as long as the divers can contain themselves, it’s an opportunity to get really close to the rays. Meanwhile, from June to November it is possible to see grey reef sharks being cleaned on the reef. The best site for this is Kandooma Thila, and according to Paolo you need to catch it on an outgoing current, when the sharks are best disposed to going through their cleaning ritual. Quite often, you will see the sharks go practically vertical in the water and then open their mouths as an invitation for small wrasse to go inside and peck parasites from their teeth and gills.
From the island of Vilamendhoo in South Ari Atoll, we received advice from Mike Cristiani, manager of the Euro-Divers centre (www.euro-divers.com, represented in the UK by Regaldive, www.regal-diving.co.uk ). Vilamendhoo is located between two channels on the east of Ari Atoll, and is noted for its high-energy house reef, which has ten entry and exit points marked along the shoreline. At any time of the year, you are likely to see eagle rays, turtles and big Napoleon wrasse. If you want to see whale sharks, Mike puts on dedicated full-day trips from December until May, though he says sightings are possible year-round. Euro-Divers visits a variety of sites anywhere from a ten-minute to a one-hour boat journey from Vilamendhoo. The best time to see mantas here is from December to April, with the best encounters taking place in the channels around the island.
From left to right:  lionfish (by Simon Rogerson);  schooling batfish (by Simon Rogerson);  anemonefish and anemone (by jane Morgan)
Baa Atoll is always popular with liveaboard guides keen to venture north from the traditional haunts on Ari and Malé atolls. There you will also find Reethi Beach Resort (represented in the UK by Regaldive, www.regal-diving.co.uk) and the Sea-Explorer Dive Center (www.sea-explorer.net), whose Swiss owner Robert Schneider offers an ‘almost 100 per cent’ guarantee of manta sightings from June to October.
The resort has a house reef that lies on a channel stretching out along the west side of the island, with a 30m drop-off wall and a big sand lagoon on the east side. It is known for the schools of fusiliers and regular appearances by resident spinner dolphins throughout the year. Another local speciality is the evening visits by stingrays and guitar sharks, which are regularly fed and venture right up to the shore, offering some unique photo opportunities.
Fish activity steps up at the height of the west monsoon in August and September, when whale shark sightings are at the peak around Baa. Naturally, the water can be a bit soupy at this time of year, so if you want to see distant sharks and enjoy the colours of the reef’s famous soft corals, December–May is the best time to visit.
One of the best-known diving resorts in the mid-southern atolls is Filitheyo Island, which is one of many resorts to have a Werner Lau dive centre (www.wernerlau.com). We caught up with Barbara Ebel, who has just finished a stint as centre manager and is about to start work at Kuda Funafaru, due to open later this year. She says that the best visibility can be experienced between January and mid-April, when clear incoming currents generate big-fish encounters on the deep edges of the channel entrances. At the same time of year, manta rays are seen at cleaning stations on the western side of the atoll (at Kuda Falhu).
Barbara has only seen hammerheads three times in six years of diving at Filitheyo. However, you do get a big school of diver-friendly batfish (150–200 fish) on this site, and sleeping guitar sharks can be found at Coral Garden and Barakuda Kandu. The house reef running along this relatively large island has a lovely wall, and there’s a good chance of seeing pelagic fish.
From left to right:  a pair of honeycomb morays with a giant moray and banded shrimp;  bigeyes patrol the reef (Photos by Simon Rogerson)
A RESORT TOO FAR?
Are there too many resorts in the Maldives? The destination currently enjoys a reputation for affordable luxury, but it is generally considered a step up from Egypt as a destination. Certainly, there are few issues with diver congestion, but from within the nation’s own government there have been mutterings that the development of islands for tourism is getting out of control.
In July 2008, tourism minister Mahmoud Shaugee resigned over plans to lease 31 new island-resorts to make up for a £180-million budget shortfall. These leases had not been figured into the tourism ministry’s 2007–2011 master plan and would be carried out ‘without any planning’, Shaugee told the press. Environmental groups say the archipelago needs a plan for nature reserves rather than unfettered development. If they get the go-ahead, the new resorts will add to the 92 currently trading, plus a further 60 under construction. The Maldives has a total of 1,120 islands with some form of vegetation on them; of these 991 are uninhabited.
THE LIVEABOARD PERSPECTIVE
As cruise directors on MV Sea Queen, one of the busiest liveaboards in the Maldives, Dave and Lisa Allison have had the opportunity to build up a comprehensive picture of seasonal marine events. They agreed to share some of their secrets with DIVE readers.
A Napoleon wrasse creeps up on Simon Rogerson (Photo by Jane Morgan)
December to April
In this season, Dave and Lisa recommend the west side of Ari Atoll as the best place for seeing manta rays at cleaning stations, singling out southwest and northwest Ari as the hot zones. ‘Mantas can be seen cleaning on the atoll reefs of the Bodu Hithi region in North Malé from December to March, and can be frequently seen on the west sides of North and South Nilandhe Atolls from February to April,’ they say. There is also a year-round manta site in Addu, the southernmost atoll in the Maldives, where there are remote resorts at Gan and the Shangri La at Villingilli Island.
During this season, the Sea Queen team tend to find a lot of eagle rays and white-tip reef sharks on the east sides of South Malé Atoll, Guraidhoo and Embudhoo, northeast Ari and Rasdhoo. Rasdhoo Atoll, a tiny speck above Ari, offers year-round encounters with scalloped hammerheads.
At this time, Vaavu (or Felidhu Atoll) is a good bet for sharks and rays, and the Sea Queen team have also seen marlin and sailfish alongside big schools of fish in this region. There are also plenty of eagle rays, but be warned that mantas and reef critters are sparse here, and the diving is more geared towards predators in big currents.
Heading further south, the atolls of Meemu, Laamu, Thaa and Huvadhoo offer spectacular drift and channel dives on their eastern sides, and both mantas and whale sharks have been seen there in February and march, though the encounters tend to be ‘swim-bys’, as they are not pausing to be cleaned.
May to November
During this monsoon, the currents tend to run west to east, bringing clear water to the west side of the atolls and plankton-rich water to the east. Dave and Lisa reckon the currents are less strong during this season, and there is an added bonus of fewer safari boats operating at this time of year.
For manta rays, the best atolls at these times of the year are North Malé, Baa and the far northern atolls. In North Malé, the Himmafushi region up to Helengeli is very productive, and they can be found in big aggregations. ‘Don’t expect to see much manta activity in Ari, as the cleaning stations go off the boil at this time of year,’ Dave says.
From left to right;  Frogfish (by Simon Rogerson);  Manta ray (by Jane Morgan)
If you’re after whale sharks during this season, Baa Atoll is strongly recommended, though the Maamagili region of South Ari is still good for sightings, and there seem to be fewer boats swamping the whale sharks at this time of year, possibly due to rougher sea conditions that come with stronger westerly winds.
For sharks, eagle rays and stingrays, the best atolls at this time of year are Lhaviyani, North Malé, North Ari, and the extreme southern atolls. ‘The west side of Lhaviyani Atoll comes to life at this time of year, bringing in clear water on the western atoll reefs,’ Dave says. ‘There are plenty of opportunities to find various types of shark – grey reef, white-tip, variegated, nurse shark. It’s also a good time to find eagle rays and several species of stingray. Ari Atoll is also quite good for shark spotting at this time, especially at sites such as Maaya Thila and Bat Kan. With clear water coming into the western channels, there are good opportunities to spot variegated sharks and also giant guitar sharks from these places.’
Of the far southern atolls, Laamu and especially Huvadhoo offer superb opportunities for shark spotting. Huvadhoo is so close to the equator that currents don’t seem so obviously influenced by the monsoons, so the east side has great visibility year-round. There are resorts planned for these atolls, but for now they can only be accessed by liveaboards.
• MV Sea Queen is owned and represented by Maldives Scuba Tours, (www.scubascuba.com; 01284 748010). The boat is planning a series of southern atoll expeditions for 2009.
Faadhippolhu Atoll (Lhaviyani): Diving mostly takes place around the northern side close to resorts. There is plenty of variety underwater but few thilas. It is best during the northwest monsoon, with sharks around Kuredu, the northernmost resort island.
North Malé: The principal atoll, with some 30 resort islands and excellent all-round diving.
South Malé: Smaller than its northern twin, but with 17 resort islands and classic Maldivian diving: soft coral caverns, schooling snapper and much more.
Felidhu (Vaavu): Less developed than other tourist atolls, it offers good channel diving.
Mulaku (Meemu): This atoll was severely affected by the December 2004 tsunami; the inner thilas offer simple diving and there are good drifts near the two resorts of Medhufushi and Hakuraa Club.
South Maalhosmadulu (Baa atoll): Popular with liveaboards, there are plenty of channels and deep water.
Ari: A big atoll, split into north and south for administrative purposes; known for plush resorts and great manta and whale shark action. Drops away to 2,000m on the west side. Together with North and South Malé, it forms the crux of classic Maldivian diving.
North Nilhandhe: Most diving takes place around Filitheyo and the northeast; good for fish, less so for sharks, though the thilas are pretty.
South Nilhandhe: Long drift dives in the channels and some deep-water thilas.
Addu: The southernmost atoll of the archipelago, with its own international airport at Gan Island, plus year-round sharks and mantas. Not so many schooling fish, but good pelagics and a classic wreck in the British Loyalty, which lies inside the atoll in the Hithadhoo region
020 8398 0505;
Maldives Scuba Tours
Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel
0800 072 8221;