Dive cruise in the Maldives
The chic undersides of the atolls
Hand on the wheel, his eyes lost in the horizon, Captain Hussein carves out his course across a glassy sea. Far away, the palm swathes betray the presence of an island. “The hardest thing about sailing in the Maldives, is when the sea is calm. You don’t see the reefs. Just last week, a diving boat ran aground near the Malé atoll.” His boat, the Haryana, a large dhoni measuring 20m in length and kitted out for cruising, was only equipped with GPS two years ago, but he doesn’t use if often. A native of the Lhaviyani atoll, to the North of Malé, Hussein began deciphering the sea on his father’s fishing boat. He learnt to recognise the profile of the islands, the treachery of the reefs and the peril of the currents, before continuing his maritime education as a seaman on a boat for cruising. 20 years ago, he took on his first command, and since then has continued to criss-cross the archipelago in every direction. 20 years watching the surface of a sea which is too blue to be true, 20 years evaluating the choppy conditions or the white horses so he can guess the direction of the current. The Arab sailors went out of their way to round the archipelago to the North or South to avoid this strong and unpredictable flow, which is a hybrid of oceanic and tidal currents. In a smile revealing perfect, dazzling teeth, Hussein prides himself on having the whole chart of the Maldives in his head, from islands, to hazards, shallows and other perilous passages. It’s sure to be true. And you just have to cast an eye over the atlas and the vast turquoise background, riddled with tiny islands with names as long as they are unpronounceable, to realise that this is no small matter.
Coastlines eaten away by the waves
The Maldives is a very strange land. 1,190 miniscule islands, divided into 27 atolls, are dotted along an 820km length and a width of barely 120km. In total it spans 90,000 km2 but just 1% of the land is above sea level. Above sea level here is a rather a different concept: indeed the highest point borders on around 2.50m so it’s nothing worth getting your crampons on for. A colony of water lilies scattered across the tight skin of the ocean. Alas, in contrast to water lilies, the islands don’t float. For some years the expansion of ocean waters, due to the now infamous global warming, has been exposing the islands to regular tidal waves. Waves and storms are tirelessly eroding away the coastlines, rolling over the top of the sea walls, smashing roads, knocking down houses and contaminating the meagre supplies of freshwater. Following the tsunami of 2004, 20 of the 200 inhabited islands had to be evacuated. The State is doing what it can to restore any natural protection such as the reef barriers and the mangrove swamps, but progress is too slow. Furthermore the weather models aren’t meant to be very reassuring either: some predict that the islands will be uninhabitable from 2030! Part of the tourist revenue is being reinvested into a sovereign wealth fund designed to purchase land overseas with a view to a complete relocating of the population. In the saloon of the Haryana, the rising water level is the subject of great controversy among the crew who are finishing their lunch. Following the example of the well-to-do, the captain, envisages buying a plot of land in India or Sri Lanka, whilst the crew simply refuse to accept a possible rise in the water level. “I trust in God. If it sinks, I’ll sink along with it!” says Ahmed, smoothing his hair which is black and shiny like the wings of a crow. His main concern is his three children and their ability to get a good job. In the Maldives, where the local language, Dhiveli, is only conjugated in the present indicative, the future remains rather woolly and distant.
The 10 divers stretched out on sun loungers up forward have other concerns: will there be shark on this afternoon’s diving menu? This morning, the fatigue from travelling and jet lag has been sluiced away during a dive over a small wreck to acclimatise. Sunk onto a sandy bottom in 1998 by the local clubs, the Kuda Giri is already completely enveloped in a layer of corals, sponges and soft coral; a real magnet for the small twirling, rainbow-coloured fauna of the Indian Ocean. It’s a very pleasant appetiser and it’s certainly whetted the divers’ appetite. Sébastien, the dive master, doesn’t just have the long sun-bleached hair of diving instructors to his credit. In addition to this luxuriant mane, he has gained vast experience of the sea bed and the inhabitants of the Maldives. With all the calmness of a general during a meeting of his staff, he begins his briefing by highlighting the special features of the upcoming dive. “Guraidhoo corner is a pass. As with all passes, there’s current there. The tide should be flooding. The launch is crucial. You have to jump when the signal is given and make your descent immediately so as not to get carried off. We’ll take up position at a depth of 30m and await the sharks. After about twenty minutes, I’ll signal to you to let go of the ledge and begin the ascent in the current.” Still totally tantalised by these promises, each of us steps across to the diving dhoni, a traditional little boat transformed into the headquarters for the diving activity. Used for transferring equipment and a space for filling tanks with air, far from the fragile eardrums of the tourists, it’s also a fast and manoeuvrable means of transport.
Embroiled in the violence of the currents
Having arrived on site, Sébastien, a snorkel in his mouth, glides along in the turbulent surface chop so as to get a grasp of the situation: the pass is right there, the current is coming from the right direction and, even though it appears to be a little vigorous, it isn’t any less suitable for diving. It’s all good! The launch is carried out with the precision of a parachute commando. Ahead of lies a wild descent, into the blue yonder, in pursuit of the dive master’s pink flippers. The most important thing is to hang on in there! A veritable Moses clad in neoprene, Sébastien leads his little group of divers to the observation post, just at the entrance to the pass, overhanging the fall. Miss this place and you mess up your dive: all you can do at that point is to climb back up with the current and get picked up, ashamed and crestfallen, by the dhoni inside the atoll. One by one we position ourselves stomach on the ledge, facing the ultramarine of the open water which is spitting out a devil of a current. A whole series of bubbles streams out at 45°. We hold on as best we can. Right, now what? The intense blue alone is wearing out our eyes. Finally there is a metallic jingling sound. It’s a bit like the three knocks at the theatre. Someone is hitting their tank to alert us to something. The interlude is over and the blue velvet curtain can be raised. Two Silvertip sharks hurtle out from the wings and skim over the bottom with the concentrated air of truffle hounds. They are soon joined by four others, which are just as indifferent to the current, whilst the hero of the play, a muscular grey reef shark, a thickset creature measuring at least 2.50m, looms out of some secret trap like a dues ex machina. In the distance, finally, a learned assembly of eagle rays, shy supernumeries that are much appreciated by the public, round off the spectacle with a few elegant beatings of their wings. The audience in the stalls is overcome by the emotion, as well as the nitrogen. It’s time to head back up and recover in the hands of the current, which carries out its mission pretty well. Poor wispy things swept along by the flurries, we’re now prisoners in an invisible lift stuck on down, dropping from 15 to 25m without warning, before being returned at pace to the upper floors. The dive computers squeal in distress, the divers task themselves with remaining calm and coping with their painful eardrums. It’s what we refer to in underwater jargon as a spell in the ‘washing machine’, on the full 30 m/mn spin cycle.
Back onboard, the tongues can begin wagging and the anecdotes burst forth, the cameras are extracted from their cases and, with the magic of digital, their images are already enabling us to relive the dive, our hair still dripping wet. Soon it’s time to fill in the dive book and leaf through the identification guides in search of the name of this little yellow fish with blue eyes or that strange prawn discovered hiding in the folds of an anemone. After all that we sit down to devour the specialities of the Sri Lankan chef, before retiring to the mild peace of the deck which is shaded by a canopy. Then there’s the excursions on land, which really spice up the cruise, such as Dhangethi towards the Ari Atoll. In the sandy streets flanked by pink houses with blue windows, small groups are having games of cards while smoking cigarettes laced with enough tar to tarmac a road. On the beach, the women gossip amidst little girls in ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ style princess dresses. The sun fades into a glimmer, the clouds are ablaze and the calls of the muezzin get lost in the evening shadows. Tomorrow, the day will be dedicated to the quest for the whale shark, the largest fish in the world, which haunts the outside edge of the atoll when the tide is rising. The day after tomorrow, we’ve made an appointment with the manta rays at Don Kalo, a tongue of sand where these huge rays have got into the habit of having their parasites removed by the little labroids there, which are as agile as they are greedy. A right royal agenda then! Who said anything about a holiday anyway?
When is best to go?
Conditions are favourable for diving from November to mid-May and mid-July through to mid-September. Outside these periods, the sea is choppier and there can sometimes be violent winds.
“In the passes, the dives are sometimes lively”, admits Sylvie-Anne Reveret, who has been organising dive cruises in the Maldives for the past 23 years. Diving in the ‘tillas’, or the shallows, is easier but you do still need to know how to swim back up to the top in the deep-sea, as the boats never anchor. “We also do dives where there’s no current, but they’re not as spectacular. Aboard the boat we accept beginner divers, level 1, but ideally they should have around thirty ocean dives to their credit.” It’s forbidden to wear gloves and dive beyond 30m. The water stays at around 30°C all year round. Cruises can be enjoyed over one or two weeks (7 nights, 10 nights or 12 nights). The Sun Maldives’ contact in France from June to October is: +33 (0)681 71 75 05 www.sunmaldives.fr.st
The cruise boats
For a lot of people these take the form of large dhonis, the archipelago’s traditional craft, equipped with a flat bottom and a shallow draught so as to navigate the shallow inland lagoons without risk. They measure around 20m in length and 6m wide, often with 5 double cabins, 4 or 5 crew and a 220 V generator. The compressor for the tanks can be found on the small diving dhoni.
Balanced on the equator, the Maldives archipelago dozes close to the water, sluggish in the blazing sunshine of the Indian Ocean. It’s beneath the surface that everything explodes into life and goes wild with swirls of fish and overpopulated coral reefs. The dive cruise, using the Anglo-Saxon “live aboard” or “safari boat”, are still by far the best way to bite into this mouthful of paradise.