Monday, 30 May 2011

Diving in the Maldives - reflections

Diving here is good. Because there are very few wrecks, most dives here seem to be Atoll based featuring one or more of walls, plateaus or ridge overhangs. The insides of house reefs are tame but usually have reasonable coral and fish.

Fish life varies from non existent to extraordinary, sharks are plentiful and Mantas and Whale Sharks exist at certain spots. There are few Lion Fish and other routine aquatic life hazards. Corals and sponges vary from average to astonishingly beautiful. There was never nothing to see.

Diving here can be challenging and often not for the beginner. It would be a brave (perhaps foolhardy) diver who attempts anything other than house reef dives without reasonable dive experience in their log book. In my opinion, the open ocean atoll dive spots are only suitable for experienced divers with at least 50 dives in their log book, some deep experience, good buoyancy control and the ability to cope with challenge. Negative entries were frequent. Enough fitness to cope with currents is essential and a Nitrox Certificate is invaluable (up to 30% was available on the Orion). On this trip, most 12 ltr divers soon switched to 15 ltr tanks because going close to dive limit boundaries was the norm and dive duration was often long. The majority of dives are on average deeper than those in the Red Sea, going below 25m for time up to the Deco mark is common (local laws forbid diving below 30m but this seems to be unofficially ignored). Dive profiles seem to show longer time at depth with relatively short ascent profiles.

Drifting at speeds varying from slow to very fast is common and can speed can change during a dive and often changes with depth. The direction of current flow often depends on the tide time and currents are usually stronger closer to a full moon. Visibility can vary from brilliant to poor and is affected by the speed of the current. It is not unusual to descend through clear water and see a layer with poor viz below you (or vice-versa).

Having the use of a decent reef hook is essential and many dives would have been impossible without one. Boats have them for divers to borrow but the one I purchased in the UK (coiled plastic covered wire with eyes - £12.50) seemed to be superior to the “hook on a string” type available on board.

Dive Computers and an SMB are essential as is the ability to use them. Open ocean pickup is common and hence surface confidence whilst waiting to be located is essential and this would be assisted if you had a surface flag. I found that a strobe flasher for night time surface use helped in my location and we all agreed that buddy pairs would benefit from having identical coloured lights or glow sticks on their cylinders at night to aid location underwater (choice of colours needed to avoid using the same colour as another pair).

The water was warm - my dive computer showed between 27 to 30c with little variation for time of day or depth. I dived in a Rashy and Trunks and never felt cold (late May), others in my group wore 3mm or shorties. The weather was hot and humid with heavy rain in the late afternoon (the cyclones change at this time of year producing this weather). Winds can make the sea choppy and surface visibility drops down to a few 10s of metres in the heavy rain.

Those that work out here say that if day diving, choosing a dive company which is at least Padi 5 star is essential since some dive companies have poorly maintained equipment and inexperienced guides – you get what you pay for and if it cheap you are buying what goes with cheap prices.

On a live aboard here, three dives a day is the norm because of the use of a Dhoni although I did not find this too much of a disappointment because the dives were often hard work. Night dives are usually interesting and the fish life becomes very interested in divers lights. I did 18 dives over 6 days and spent just over 14 hours underwater.

All dives were offered as guided and this was welcome. In general the dive guides knew the sites and ensured that although you were diving close to the limits, you did not exceed them.

I went out without a Buddy and was allocated one on the boat. On this particular occasion the arrangement did not work particularly well but other members of the group stepped in with support. Onboard allocation has worked well for me in the past and I am sure it will do so again in the future.

Any currency other than the local currency is accepted - $US being preferred. Dive boat tips were $100 per diver per week – on my boat this was divided equally between all members of the crew including guides.

My mobile phone seemed to pickup a signal in most of the places where I was (the middle section of the Maldives) hence texting was easy. Roaming and data charges are high. My boat rented Dongles to those desperate to stay in contact although weekly included data allowances were not high (400Mb).

One of our number produced a great trailer video which shows far better than my attempts, the beauty of the Manta Rays, the challenge of the currents and the great fish we met and it is well worth a play (I do feature in it but you would have to be able to recognise my fins):

I enjoyed my week on the Orion the dives with the Mantas were the most fantastic I have ever had and I hope to come back sometime to try again for Whale Sharks.

Me and Moussa

Thanks Dive Guide Moussa.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

A final snorkel – Banana Reef

By this point in the day (early afternoon), my dive computer was showing a NoFly time slightly in excess of 22 hours and it was certain that a further dive would put me in the position of a flight in less than 24 hours but a NoFly time of 24 hours, so for me and a number of others, the last dive became a Snorkel. There was no point in breaking the rule, particularly after a week of intensive and sometimes challenging diving.

Banana Reef Snorkel Plan

Banana Reef is so called because it looks like a banana with a bite taken out of it (so we were told). It offered the

Trigger Fish

usual range of fish and coral plus an overhang.

Unicorn

It was unusual to see the coral and fish life from

Plate Coral 

above and this gave a new perspective on an atoll

Coral-2

and the varieties of coral which were

Coral-1

growing on it. Usually when diving we are much closer to it and the light is very much filtered by the depth of water above it.

Coral 

Directly over the reef, the water was clear but as soon as you approached the edges, the viz started to deteriorate.

And so the day (and holiday) finishes with a decent snorkel, a Dhoni pickup out in the sea, a few more pictures for the file and a different perspective on atoll life.

The return flight the following day was very easy, smooth and on time. Male is a small airport with comparatively few flights and therefore queues were non existent. My SriLankan flight was only 1/3rd full and therefore there was space to spread out and relax. A good end to the week.

Dives 17 and 18 – Lankan Manta Point – North Male

Lankan Manta Point is a manta cleaning station off Lankanfushi Island in the North Male Atoll and these were the dives when we were hoping to see Mantas but we were warned not to get too hopeful because the current was flowing the wrong way – into the channel and they preferred out.

Lankan Manta Point Dive Plan

The dive plan is very simple – negative descent (no air in your BCD so you sink as fast as possible) to around 15 m, go with the current either towards the area of the larger cleaning station or to the smaller one depending on the direction of current flow and where we were dropped (but not stop on the cleaning station itself), hook on, relax to lower air consumption and wait.

Having arrived and hooked on, the current was clearly strong and reef hooks were essential. That it was strong is

Anenome in current

shown by this photo of a Magnificent Sea Anemone where its skirt is lifted.

Another diver

Whilst I was waiting, it was a matter of eye-spy with the fish to pass the time.

Fish

Powder Blue Surgeon Fish

Fish-1

a relative of the Surgeon Fish

Pipe Fish

and two varieties of pipe fish

Pipe Fish-1

Shoal in current

This shoal were keeping together in the current

Napoleon

an enormous Napoleon went by

Turtle

a turtle was quietly resting at at about 16m. Then at about 55min into the first dive, there was a distant sighting of a

Manta out there

Manta but we then had to come up because air was approaching the safety margin. At least we had seen one from afar and even if there were none in the second dive we would not be going back empty sighted.

The second dive started much the same way but with a slightly stronger current. Reef hooks were essential as a Lining up waiting

group of day boat divers found out to their cost when they descended and could not hang on with their hands (amateurs!) and were swept away rapidly.

Then  after about 25 minutes of waiting -

Manta heading towards me

I looked up and a large Manta was heading straight towards me from out of the blue. The rule with Mantas is to  Manta comes close-1

hold your ground and they will zoom over you at the last minute (we found this rule also worked with Stingrays on a night dive).

Manta and Ramorra

A second Manta arrived and they both gracefully pirouetted above our heads or hovered a few metres away in the

Manta comes close

strong current at our eye level for what seemed a long time. We were so engrossed with the Mantas that we took little notice of a White Tip Shark which passed a few feet in front of us – a few days ago that would have been big news - I just managed to snatch a poor photograph to prove it was there.

Get out of the way shark

The Mantas continued to turn above us, pause next to us

Manta coming towards underneath

Manta Overhead

Manta passing by

Manta underneath

Two Mantas

Two Mantas 2

and generally show us how graceful they were. 225 pictures later I was approaching safety margins (60bar) and after 70 minutes we had to leave just as a third Manta arrived.

Being that close to such amazingly graceful and enormous creatures for so long was magic.

As a side comment, some of the divers who were there or

Sensitivity 2

appeared whilst we were there seem to lack any form of courtesy. The air bubbles in the above photo were a continuous nuisance from someone who arrived after me and positioned himself just below me (you know who this refers to Mr MS – think about others next time).

In my face 1

as did this very late arrival who seemed to thing that his over-the-top camera gear gave him the right to stick himself in front of other divers.

Manta comes close

When we got to the surface, everyone was either standing on the boat or floating on the surface, whooping and doing Manta impressions – the communal high was astonishing.

The image I will remember for ever is looking at a Manta and being looked at by a curious Manta, close, eye to eye at 16m depth in the Maldives. Thanks Moussa.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Dive 16 – Karumba House Reef – North Male

Before this evening’s dive, one of our number was whisked off the boat as a precaution to the local decompression chamber for a minimum of 10 hours because she was complaining of tingling in the hands and wrists and a general mid chest ache, all of which are possible symptoms of mild decompression sickness.

We are all now deep into repetitive diving (one day we had five dives), surface intervals are often tight, dive profiles are sometimes not ideal and ensuring that dives become progressively shallower during the day is not always possible. She had dived to 34 metres (on air) along with the rest of us (most of whom were on Nitrox) on the first 6am dive of the morning and it probably turned into a deco dive (your computer insists on a compulsory stop at about 20 metres) for her as it did for me. She then sat out the next dive not feeling well, had been put on 100% oxygen and failed to improve. At $1000 per hour for use of the chamber, the benefits of having travel insurance which includes diving is obvious. No insurance or no money means no treatment and we are told that you would not want to go to the public hospital here if you were ill.

This night dive was along a house reef wall – descend to around 10 to 15 m on the north of the wall and drift with the current. There were not many fish about but an enormous amount of active micro life, coral growth which comes out at night as well as some “any time” fish.

Dive Plan Karumba House Reef

At  night there are usually different type of anemones out

Anenome Sleeping Puffer Fish

and hence the reef colour can be very different.

 Feather Star-1

This Regal Feather Star catches food in its fronds which are then passed down to its “mouth” in the centre.

Shrimp on Sea Star

Frequently you find shrimps living in the fronds (there is one at about 1130 in this photo, close to the middle)

Sea Star-2

Some reef life is averse to light and starts to close up (here a Robust Feather Star is rolling up) when a light shines on them because they think it is now daylight - they soon unroll when the light moves away.

 Feather Star  

A common and rather beautiful Black Feather Star

Sea Star-1 Sea Star

Sea stars are common

Sea Cucumber

This sea cucumber was the colour shown – a reddish pink and must be one which comes out at night only since I have not seen it during a day dive.

Coral and Cucumber

This more common type of Sea Cucumber seems to be resting upon the top of a Terrace Coral block which close

Coral

up has an interesting structure.

Ornate Ghost Pipe Fish-1

This Ornate Ghost Pipe Fish is about 5 cms long and apparently is quite rare in this area

Moray-1

Morays (here a Honeycomb) are quite common at night and represent little threat provided you keep your fingers away from them.

Hermit Crab

This is thought to be a Hermit Crab – none of us were too sure.

A good night dive of about an hour with no difficult currents.

Dive 15 – Vaadho Caves – South Male

Vaadhoo Caves Dive Plan

The dive plan requires a very rapid descent to 25 metres on the North West corner of the reef (strong current flowing left to right on the dive plan), then drift as long as air allows. The caves are in fact very deep overhangs which unfortunately are some distance apart and the second one is some distance into the dive and at 18 to 30 metres. Therefore careful air management is important because ascent from deeper than normal takes place at the end of the dive and safety stops are essential. Viz out in the blue is poor but around 25m on the wall.

The dive was unremarkable other than for the beauty of the corral and plant life.

Coral

Pretty coral growing in small clumps

Coral Outcrop

or large blocks out on the edge of the wall.

Fish

As usual, fish use the coral for protection

Fish in Coral

or hide

Fishes in Cave

in the caves

Hiding Fishes

In the caves themselves, the roofs are covered with soft

Coral hanging from roof

hanging life

Sponge on Cave Roof

of numerous

Coral Hanging from Roof-1

and beautiful colours.

Coral Hanging from Roof-2

The strong current ensures a constant supply of food and hence most life thrives.

Sea Slug

The omnipresent Sea Cucumber

Scavenger Sponge Colony

Scavenger Sponge on Fishing Line

Life will grow on most things, here a fishing line is colonized by Scavenger Sponges

Sponge on Coral

Sponges will also grow on Coral

Coral Plate

Coral Plates are very large – I could not fit this one into a single photo

Something 

More Black Coral

Stag Horn

Staghorn Coral (here slightly bleached)

Anenome with blue skirt Blue Skirt closeup

A Magnificent Sea Anemone (a well deserved name) with a beautiful blue skirt lifted by the current. It will sting if you touch it (so don’t).

This was an interesting dive, difficult viz at the start and much of it at depth. I came up with good air but had to buddy breath someone else who was low.