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June 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 44, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When Diving in the Maldives Disappoints

the right information guides expectations

from the June, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Brought up on a diet of National Geographic, I was once thrilled to travel to Borneo to photograph the last surviving headhunter (now retired). I was disappointed to find an elderly gentleman, heavily bespectacled, neatly groomed and wearing a brown lounge suit. Times change, and with them, so should our expectations.

He wished he'd known how bad the coral bleaching was.

The Maldives once featured spectacular coral banks that went on without end and continued from near the surface to more than 100 feet (30m) deep. When I visited in early 1998, visibility was unexpectedly poor. By the middle of the year, the colorful coral banks had transformed into dramatic white constructions akin to an Italian wedding cake. They had been subjected to a mass bleaching. By the fall of that year, it had all turned to rubble. I worried that my best friends, who had just invested in their own liveaboard, might go broke.

However, circumstances changed, and the broken reefs became inhabited by hordes of algae-eaters like redtooth triggerfish, and their predators like sharks. Diving changed with it, and the better dive sites became the mouths of the channels or 'kandus' between the 'thillas' (reefs) where divers could hook on in the current and watch the show.

Although there has been a certain amount of coral recovery in some places, normally where the current is strongest, the expectation that you can visit the Maldives for relaxing diving on pretty reefs is 20 years out of date.

In those days, those spectacular reefs were the source of many wonderful underwater photographs, and many of those shots have survived. Some tour operators and even magazines still publish them, mistakenly propagating the wrong idea about diving in the Maldives.

Lawrence Babcock of the Aquatech Scuba Center (Evansville, IN) fell into the trap of misinformation when he booked a trip for a group through Explorer Ventures. He told Undercurrent he'd booked the trip two years in advance and explained to the booking agent that he knew nothing about the Maldives: When was the best time to go and when would they see the most fish? He asked directly if they'd be sure to see mantas and whale sharks. They told him, he said, that there had been some mild coral bleaching.

Once there, he had no qualms about the vessel, Carpe Vita. The food was awesome, and the cabins were spacious. But, he wished he'd known how bad the coral bleaching had been. A lot of the dive sites were nothing more than rubble. "It looked like a bomb had gone off."

To add insult to injury, when they ventured to the marine park south of Ari Atoll, famous for mantas and whale sharks, they were surrounded by boats full of snorkelers. And, the mantas had moved on, as they often do from that area once the currents of the dry Southwest monsoon drop. (The best time to see mantas at the cleaning stations here is from January through the end of March when the ocean currents are at their strongest, and the diving can be quite arduous.)

Lawrence's group was unlucky to be at the end of that season when the winds start to change direction, bringing wetter weather from the Northeast, and the mantas congregate at sites such as Hanifaru, a long way from where they were (and subject of an article in April's Undercurrent). That said, it's always difficult to predict the appearance of pelagic creatures.

Relying on Explorer Ventures, Lawrence had unintentionally mis-sold the trip to 20 enthusiastic customers, and he wished that he'd received better information from them about the destruction of the reefs. Aquatech Scuba Center has a large travel business, and at least half his passengers were unhappy with the condition of the reefs.

But, the Maldives cover a lot of territory, seasons change, fish swim, and Undercurrent subscriber Gerald Canning (Cape Coral, FL) had a different story to tell of his April trip to the atolls south of Male aboard the Carpe Diem. The primary focus was large animals, and they spent at least two hours underwater with many manta rays that were consistently coming close enough to touch.

His group saw lots of gray reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks, with smaller numbers of tawny nurse sharks and blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus), but only saw one whale shark.

And, he also observed that the diving dhoni that operated alongside the main vessel was far more comfortable than any day boat he'd ever been on.

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