Chapter 5: Into the Heart of the Maldives

Ahhh the magnificent Maldives. Look on a map for Asia’s smallest country and you will see only a tiny ring of dots running vertically below India’s southwestern tip.

Those dots are the 26 coral atolls that make up the Maldives and these in turn are made up by 1,200 tiny islands. Of those islands, only 200 are inhabited; there are a few that have become densely urbanised but most are simple fishing villages.

On the 1000 uninhabited islands walk no humans; some are crowned by tiny jungles and thin beaches whilst others are mere spits of sand brushing up out of the ocean. 

Each of the 26 Maldivian coral atolls is a ring of islands rimmed by coral and encircling a lagoon. The shallow waters between the islands within each atoll are filled with reefs, rays and reef fish – as well as larger creatures from deeper waters.

For around the edges of these atolls; the coral rim drops off into deeper waters filled with sharks, mantas, dolphins, turtles and pelagic fish like giant tuna, barracuda and jacks!

There are hundreds of dive sites around the Maldives comprising channels, reefs, lowlands (thilas & rock pinnacles) and manta cleaning stations. It is a paradise for marine life – and divers; many of whom consider it the best place in the world to dive. 

In total, the 26 atolls of the Maldives are 81 miles wide at their widest and stretch for 510 miles from 7 degrees north of the equator to just south of it. With a total ocean area of 35,000 sq miles and total land area of 115,000 sq miles, the Maldives is very much an oceanic nation…

maldives regions

Of course you don’t need all these facts; I’m just being a massive geography geek. All you really need to know about the Maldives is it’s a bunch of tiny islands located in the Indian Ocean just a click to the southwest of India and filled with incredible marine life, especially of the large variety! 

The Maldives also has a stellar reputation as a deserted-tropical-island-romantic-honeymoon-escape for big spenders but that ain’t me no sir-eee huhuhuh (!) so I’ll tell you how I got in and out of the place for almost entirely free!

It all started with flying down onto the largest of the Maldivian Island: Male, which is just 3.2 miles sq (roughly 14% of the entire country’s land mass) yet home to the Maldive’s capital and largest city: Male City (of Male Island).

Male City is quite a sight to behold: a dense cluster of blue, orange, yellow, white and green skyscrapers jumbled together; they reminded me of lego as I watched them rapidly grow closer from the window of the plane I was on; now pulling down towards the tiny runway of the airports tiny international airport. 

The roads around those lego skyscrapers were busy with traffic, stores and city life; everything packed tight together and crowned by a ring of cool white sand beach fringed with green palm trees; occasionally broken up by docks but otherwise running all the way around the tiny Male Island, which takes a mere 45 minutes to walk all the way around.

Aerial,Top,View,Male,Capital,,Maldivian,Capital,View,From,Above,

At the airport, I met with the team. Which team you ask? Why it was of course the noble team of the mighty Soleil 2 liveaboard; the finest damn liveaboard to ever cruise Maldivian waters and also the only one to so far be so generous as to offer me a free trip if I make some online content for them!

We stuck around until every last guest had turned up; most other guests were part of one big group from Bulgaria; a most cool and friendly bunch they were and excellent conversationists although I still can’t talk any Bulgarian. 

Next, it was but a short walk from Male airport to Male docks where we boarded the Soleil 2 Dhoni. A Dhoni is a traditionally built Maldivian boat outfitted with an engine; most liveaboards in the Maldives use one to transport divers between dive sites. 

Because that’s precisely what this Dhoni would be doing; we set up our dive gear there so it would be ready for tomorrow and then sat back and enjoyed the ride as for now the Dhoni tranposrted us to Soleil 2 liveaboard. 

Ah the Soleil 2 – I remember standing atop the Dhoni and watching that much larger boat pull into view out of the distance. It was easy to spot; this sturdy yet streamlined looking yacht; for its lower part was a magnificent royal blue which contrasted splendidly against the polished upper white section.

At forty five meters long, it was to be the biggest diving vessel I’d ever stepped foot on and to me it looked rather formidable; with it’s four decks and many cabins; some toting their own private balconies. The Dhoni gracefully pulled up alongside Soleil 2 and with the help of the crew; us guests began transferring our luggage from the smaller boat into the much larger one. 

As I climbed aboard the Soleil 2, I was surprised by how many plants there were everywhere; several gardens-worth at least; especially up on the huge partially shaded sundeck where there was also hammocks, rocking chairs and beanbags as well as a jacuzzi!

These – in addition to the countless shark teddies in the massive indoor saloon, bar and dining area, made everything feel rather homely; even more so thanks to the huge grins on all of the Soleil 2 crew’s faces as they moved to and fro’ helping guests and prepping.  

Next, it was time to check out my cabin down on the lower deck. It was a huge space; with two large double beds, a big ensuite bathroom and even a tiny porthole window just a couple of feet above sea level; close enough to the water to be occasionally splashed.

I quickly took advantage of the fact that I had this cabin all to myself and unceremoniously dumped all of my shit across the other bed. Having unpacked; it was time to head back up to the saloon for the boat orientation meeting. 

There we met the owner of the liveaboard; a local Maldivian, keen diver and underwater photographer, one Mr. Shahid who told us all about the layout of the Soleil 2, safety procedures, what to expect for the week – all that standard jizzle jazzle.

Over the next seven days, we would be diving the Maldives Central Region, mainly around the Male and Ari atolls; where the Maldives had first been discovered as a scuba diving paradise. 

There wasn’t any diving that day and I was exhausted; having only finished another liveaboard trip on the Seawolf Dominator in Egypt’s Red Sea two weeks before, so I grabbed an early night; wandering what tomorrow’s dives would bring. 

“Brieeeefinggggg”! The merry morning greeting blasted out across the ship’s intercoms, awakening me from a dreamless sleep. I made my way upstairs to the saloon where Shahid; dressed in turquoise like all of his crew, was about to give the first dive briefing of the week; a whiteboard and projector behind to illustrate his points. 

That morning, we explored Rasdhoo atoll which lies to the northeast of the much larger Ari atoll. There was plenty of hard coral amidst a dramatic underwater landscape of small pinnacles rising up towards the water’s surface like trees competing for light; fish spiralling around them and octopuses roaming across the ocean floor below, changing colour as we drew near. 

Scuba diver behind beautiful coral reef structure in the Maldives.
The Soleil 2 Owner himself: Shaeid amidst tasty coral.

But by far the most impressive dive we did on day 1 was in the afternoon when we visited a newly discovered dive site; found by none other than Shahid and his crew – and because they’re still trying to keep it a secret, I won’t give the name here!

As us guests dived on down; the dive guides came with us carrying armfuls of tuna heads that they spread across the ocean bottom some twenty meters below. 

Within less than a minute big grey stingrays began appearing out all directions; a trickle at first, then dozens and suddenly too many to count as they practically bulldozed past us divers; making a beeline for the food. With them came swarms of masked bannerfish, living clouds of yellow, black and white stripes darting through the cloudy waters in persuit of tiny scraps of food.

Nest came dozens of guitar sharks, a most curiously shaped fish indeed and then the even larger nurse sharks which in turn scattered as a mighty tiger shark came cruising out of the murky blue waters and began to effortlessly engulf tuna heads one at a time like some sort of marine pacman. It was an incredible first day of diving but we were just getting started. 

That evening, we climbed aboard the Dhoni and caught a short ride to Madigaa dive site; located in the North Rasdhoo channel. I was just about to take a giant stride entry off the Dhoni when I saw two ghostly silhouettes cruise through the black waters below. Manta rays.

Then down we dove; the seabed was only 14 meters deep and mostly bare sand where we kneeled and then flickered our torches out into the total darkness all around us. 

For several minutes the only sign of life was the hordes of plankton attracted to our torches but then more ghostly silhouettes appeared as manta rays cruised out of the darkness like ghostly entities, dissapearing and then re-appearing in different places as they hoovered up swarms of plankton; dancing and spinning amongst themselves like underwater acrobats. 

By the second full day, Soleil 2 had reached Ari atoll: the largest of the Maldives atolls, 42 miles to the southwest of Male and comprising the west-side middle portion of the vertical ring of 26 atolls that forms this archipelagic nation. 

Our first dive of the day was Maya Thilla! In the local Maldivian Divehi language, thilla means pinnacle. A pinnacle is a large, usually isolated underwater rock formation; the classic pinnacle image is a tall, pillar like structure although pinnacles can also be denser and resemble something akin to jagged rocks.

Often surrounded by boulders and gullies as well as bare seabed, pinnacles usually harbour plenty of coral growth and attract all manner of marine life; making them popular dive sites. They can drop down to 30 meters or more; although their pointy pinnacle part (the top) might come within 6 meters of the waters surface. 

So there we were at Maya Thilla – a rather massive specimen of a pinnacle; a magnificent underwater tower of rock that in places folded inwards into caves whilst at others jutted outwards into overhangs; dropping down to 30 meters in places. 

Maya breathed with life; this vast underwater structure; covered in hard and soft corals of blue and purple, orange sea fans and red sea anemones; all these home to clownfish, nudibranch, lionfish and moray eels.

Spiralling around it swam big schools of jackfish and giant barracuda; keeping an eye on the sleepy whitetip reef sharks wriggling through the water a little deeper down and the larger grey reef sharks (which we’d become very familiar with that week) cruising along somewhat more purposefully than their smaller whitetipped cousins. It was a bloody wonderful dive!

Readers Note: I visited the Maldives during December which is at the end of rainy season. Subsequently, water visibility was poor for most of this trip as you’ll see in the many photos and videos I’ve included. However; if you visit the Maldives during dry season, which lasts from January to April; water visibility can be amazing with plenty of clear blue waters!

Next we made for Fish Head; a very famous Maldivian dive site indeed, one with marine protected status and also consisting of a mighty pinnacle; this one plunging down as far as 35 meters and totally covered in black coral bushes adorned with yet more overhangs and caves. 

If it had seemed like there were loads of fish at Maya Thilla there were even more at Fish Head – countless sweetlips, masked bannerfish, moorish idols and batfish swirled through the water amidst literal clouds of even more numerous fusiliers, red toothed triggerfish (which are actually blue) and blueline snappers (which are actually yellow with thin white stripes).

I also saw mackeral, tuna, trevally and giant barracuda amidst countless reef fish plus an eagle ray, a turtle and even a manta briefly passed by off in the distance. 

There were yet more grey reef sharks here – there must have been at least sixteen individuals! Some were over 2 meters long; they were quite stocky looking sharks; powerful and strong; unperturbed yet also uninterested in us divers.

Then we had a third dive…but I can’t remember the name of it – some other place up round North Ari; where I’m sure the pinnacles were both pretty and fish-fullsome!

Day 3 ended up being the best one we’d had so far. We explored the legendary dive site known as Manta Point; a trio of three manta cleaning stations and one of the most famous places in all the Maldives for seeing groups of manta rays together. 

The first dive was spent moving between cleaning stations 1 and 2 where we didn’t see anything besides a lone manta that appeared way above us for half a moment before disappearing again.

But on the second dive we visited the third cleaning station and it was here we were met by four reef mantas together.

Amazingly, we were able to spend the next thirty minutes with them as the mantas kept circling back around the cleaning station; at times somersaulting through the water or gracefully weaving around one another as if they were putting on some kind of underwater performance. 

They appeared to be rather interested in us divers; especially me – perhaps it was my camera equipment or maybe just my natural underwater charm but every time they circled past they came a little closer to me. 

On the very final circuit; they drew up in a line and swam directly towards me; at the last moment before collision, twisting their bodies sideways to brush past me by centimetres. It was an awe inspiring experience. And then; as if having made a point, the four mantas drifted away through the water and disappeared – and then just like that, it was time to end the dive.

That evening; from the outdoor lounge at the stern of Soleil 2, we watched dolphins stalking small fish that were in turn hunting tiny plankton attracted to the boat lighting.

There was suddenly an almighty splash as several of the Soleil 2 dive staff went leaping into the dark waters. Of course, myself and several other guests grabbed a mask and snorkel and followed them straight into the black waters. 

Floating at the still surface of the ocean at night; if I dipped my head beneath it; I could actually hear the clicks and whistles of the dolphins’ echolocation. Every now and again the mighty silhouette of one would cut across the boat lighting before melting back into the dark.

Snorkeling with dolphins at night was an extremely cool experience and something we got to do several times that week. We also saw them at the end of a dive in the middle of the day at one point; but I didn’t catch it on film!

Snorkeling at night trippy awesome
Can you spot the dolphin?!

Well, day 3 had been the best but day 4 topped it again! For on this day; I had one of the coolest shark encounters in my life – and I think many of the other guests who were there would say the same thing!

It was a clear blue sky overhead as the Dhonni transported us to the day’s first dive site; tiny islets and islands with little fist-fulls of palm trees shimmied past us; their reflections bouncing back up off the picture calm blue ocean waters around them. 

We reached Guiradhoo Channel and dove on down – it was exactly as described: a huge channel – a channel of course being a wide strait between two landmasses (in this case the tiny Maldivian islands of Guirdahoo and Maafushi ).

Channels are usually prone to strong currents – and strong currents there were. Within just a few minutes of reaching the seabed some 25 meters below we all had to ram our reef sticks into the sand to avoid being blown away! And there, our bodies at a somewhat precarious angle by the current, we waited. 

Then; out of the blue came cruising a grey reef shark. Its muscular, streamlined body was barely moving save for a slight twitch of the tail. This shark was in fact surfing the current. Dude! As the current continued to rise, more and more grey reef sharks appeared until there had gone from being none to a few to literally hundreds of them in less than a minute. 

As us divers held onto our reef sticks for grim life, flattening our bodies low against the seafloor to reduce the drag trying to tear us away, the grey reef sharks effortlessly rode the currents back and forth. Like all but carpet sharks, grey reef sharks must constantly swim to avoid drowning – so to save energy whilst doing this, they surf the currents of channels!

Grey reef sharks are also unusually social; so it’s not at all uncommon to see hundreds of them during the day time when they congregate before swimming off alone to hunt at night. In fact, being so social and pretty smart at that, grey reef sharks often meet with the same group of individuals during the day for many years!

As a shark enthusiast, I was delighted to see so many sharks all together; especially requiem sharks like these grey reefs, which are always the most sharky of sharks. Some might even say it was sharktastic:

We actually did a couple more dives with hundreds of grey reef sharks in channels like this that week. Then at one point; as the Dhoni was cruising around with us in it, one of the dive guides spotted a whale shark at the surface. 

There was a frantic commotion as everyone grabbed a snorkel, mask and pair of fins – at the time I’d been taking a leak so as I manically burst out of the toilet cubicle with a frenzied cry of “whale shark?! Whale shaaaaaaark”!!! ; smashing my foot against the door in my hurry to get past it; I saw that there was a long line of people queuing to jump off the Dhonni.

To my dismay I found myself right at the back of that line and when there was just one other guest in front of me he hesitated for a moment, fumbling with his mask.

Knowing there was no time to loose, in a lightening movement, I grabbed his head and with all my might slammed it into the side of the boat where it cracked like an egg in an eruption of blood and skull fragments. Then I toppled his lifeless body into the water and took a giant stride entry right over it on my way to reach the whale shark faster.

Just kidding. I waited patiently as he sorted out his mask and then infuriatingly casually slid into the water like there was all the time in the world. 

But by the time I was in the water and swimming towards the whale shark, I was merely swimming towards where it had been. Everyone was already swimming back my way. I heard euphoric exclamations of “WOW – That was one of the COOLEST MOMENTS EVER”!  or “GEEZ you’d have to have be some kind of IDIOT to have missed that”!

Do you know; it appears I was the only guest who didn’t see that whale shark. Ah well. It doesn’t even really count if it was snorkeling. 

Back on the Dhoni, as I had been all that week, I interviewed various guests about the quality of their scuba diving ear; namely masks, fins and dive computers before photographing said scuba gear for the Diving Squad gear reviews. 

Later that evening, the Soleil 2 staff threw a beach barbecue on a tiny uninhabited island, in the centre of which lay a mini jungle of dense bushes, lush shrubs and palm trees and the edge of which was lined by a white sand beach. 

Walking all the way around this island; I saw a baby grey reef shark only a foot long dart into the shallows and back out to sea as the sun reddened the sky, before dipping down beneath the horizon like some fiery diver descending into a dive. 

The barbecue itself was a most jolly affair fuelled by delicious food, cake and a considerable amount of alcohol that meant there were a few rather hungover divers the next day.  

Out of the very sand of the beach, the staff made an almost life sized manta ray…and also a sand whale shark – so in a way I did see one after all!

After the food was eaten and the drinks were drunken; the Maldivian members of the Soleil 2 crew performed a traditional chant and dance; shaking their hips; wriggling their booties and beating their drum. Many guests were invited into the circle to dance around the fire; but I successfully avoided this under the pretext of being the photographer. 

On day the fifth; we did another dive with hundreds of grey reef sharks plus two more dives around beautiful pinnacles flourishing with coral, reef fish and whitetip reef sharks.

But by far the most memorable part of the day was actually the night when we journeyed to Alimatha jetty which is part of Vaavu atoll and one of the best damn night dives in all the world. We dived on down…

It was a shallow dive site – no more than ten meters and with a mostly sandy bottom and some rocky reef. Us divers; we made our way to the centre of the sandy bottom and sat in a semi circle to enjoy the show. That show being some one hundred nurse sharks congregating on the seabed right before us!

Whereas there had been about 10 meters between us and the schooling grey reef sharks; the numerous nurse sharks were extremely close and they were also everywhere; they kept bumping into us divers rather gracelessly! 

The nurse sharks around Alimatha jetty are particularly friendly towards humans as they used to be fed many years ago before regulations changed. Even though now they are now (allegedly) not fed, they still really like divers!

With tiny mouths and preying on small animals like crabs and squid; nurse sharks are no threat to humans but are very cool to look at with 6 foot long, spiky bodies. Because they are members of the carpet shark family, nurse sharks can actually rest on the seabed (unlike grey reef sharks); which they do by day before becoming more active to hunt at night. 

By the sixth and final day, we were back where we had begun and could see Male island with its coloured lego skyscrapers from the boat. But we still had two more dives to go. 

The first was the Maldives Victory wreck – an 80 meter long cargoship that had sank in 1981 – moments before it would have reached the resort islands it had been travelling all the way from Singapore to. So close!

For me, the best part of the Maldives Victory to explore was at 20 meters where it was densely coated with coral and home to many lionfish, mantis shrimp, frogfish, nudibranch and moray eels. I swam through the engine room and holds to be momentarily encase in a cloud of crimson red anthias. 

After having spent the whole week marvelling at huge marine creatures and epic underwater landscapes it was so fun to do something totally different. Exploring this wreck – originally a manmade structure but now very much reclaimed by nature reminded me of the awesome power of the natural world and the fragile, temporary status we humans have on it. 

Then came the final dive of the trip, the name of which I can’t quite recall so I’ll make it up – it was Bavubu Thilla! And boy did Bavubu Thilla end the trip in style! It was another shallow dive site with a bare sandy bottom; but “bare” is the last word one would use to describe what went down. For Bavubu thilla was in fact to be another feeding frenzy!

Simply put, the lads and lasses of the Soleil 2 crew still had a few tuna heads stashed away, possibly in their cabin wardrobes, and they bought the lot of these down with them for this final dive. 

In no time at all; the waters around us were filled to the brim with countless grey stingrays and masked bannerfish as well as unicorn fish, anthias and redtooth triggerfish.

It was as if someone had taken a giant underwater piñata, filled it with fish and rays; placed it in the middle of us divers and then WHAM! Outwards and around us they exploded in a grey, white, yellow, black and blue fireworks display of scales and fins and long tails with stings that twisted and turned through the water; turning in on itself, mashing bubbles.

For a moment the rays and fish became one singular living entity, rising and falling in sync as they turned inwards in an ever tightening spiral after the last scraps of food before suddenly it was all gone and then as quickly as they had appeared the many stingrays and fish dispersed. Everything was calm once more. 

And with that dear reader, it was time to climb back aboard the dhoni, hop across to the Soleil 2; grab my shit…get back on the Dhoni and make for Male City! 

Having done two liveaboards in the last three weeks (the first being the south Red Sea), I was utterly spent. I didn’t even go for the city tour that the Soleil 2 crew took the other guests on. 

Instead, I made my way back to my apartment and flung myself down on the bed as loudly and spectacularly as possible. I rolled onto my back laboriously and stared up at the ceiling fan whirring above me in a blur. This seemed a good way to pass the afternoon before my flight out of the Maldives tomorrow…

My mind turned back to all of the incredible moments I had experienced over the last week.

Dancing manta rays, snorkeling with dolphins at night, hundreds of grey reef sharks, a hundred nurse sharks at night, avoiding dancing beneath the stars on the beach to the drums of the Soleil 2 crew, missing a whale shark, being engulfed in clouds of stingrays and fish during feeding frenzies, guitar sharks, the tiger shark (!), turtles, eagle rays, octopus, nudibranch, pipefish, wrecks, the incredible underwater landscapes, pinnacles, channels…

…it was around this point that I drifted off to sleep; snoring loudly and drooling all over my pillow. I had a dream that night. It looked like this: 

Written by:

Alex

Alex

Scuba fanatic, travel ecstatic and loveable rogue. A rootless divemaster and perpetual adrenaline-junky, Alex holds the esteemed rank of Grand Admiral of the Diving Squad; a title he most nobly awarded to himself. A scuba-junky since 2014, he's dived much of the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Maldives, Red Sea, Ireland, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. It's hard to say where he'll pop up next for he never settles; forever a leaf on the wind... or perhaps a lone bubble blasted along on the current.