On to the Maldives!

Years ago I pondered whether a career in the scuba industry was right for me or not.  So much travel, so much hard work sweating under the hot sun, so much sand between my toes……OK, OK…I’ll take the job!

Here we are today and I can’t be any happier with my decision.  As part of my “job” (or living vacation, as some view it) I have the responsibility of going and checking our places we may want to run group trips to.  This week, my assignment is the liveaboard charter Ark Royal, and our destination is the Maldives.

This trip is starting less than 24 hours after the Beneath the Sea show ended, so as you might imagine, I am a bit disorganized this morning.  But I’ll manage, and have a high degree of confidence that I’ll make my flight this afternoon. Of course I have nothing packed, and my scuba gear actually just arrived on Friday after Air France lost it and then sent it to Genoa, Italy.  But like Peaches and Herb said, “we’re reunited and it feels so good!’  So I get some clothes together, and review the gear list, take out the cold-water stuff and re-pack for the 85 degrees that awaits me, and toss it all in the van.  Whew…glad I travel light!

In addition to my primary assignment of researching Maldives as a destination, and the Ark Royal as a viable liveaboard for a future Indian Valley Scuba trip, I’ll also be conducting a bit of a medical experiment on this trip, especially in light of the extended travel and flight times, and the stress on one’s system that can cause.  I’ll be traveling with a supply of Divers D\Lyte, the performance drink developed by John Dooley specifically to provide a combination of energy and hydration for divers and any other athlete for that matter.  Loaded with vitamins and electrolytes, this sugar-free, caffeine-free drink should help me  “Get my gills on!”   I look forward to reporting more on this later.

Recognizing that the adventure the next two weeks hold is far more than a mere mortal like myself can handle alone, and still smarting from losing Dave Hartman halfway through last week’s Egyptian extravaganza, I decide to put out the word and see if I can get a volunteer to step up and help me absorb all this culture and information to bring back for the IVS family of divers.  Fortunately, Michele Highley is available to assist in this work, and she signs on as my sidekick for the trip.  This should certainly help get a second person’s perspective on a trip of this magnitude and all the travel and other considerations that go along with it.

Our departing flight is not until 5:45 p.m. so I’ve got plenty of time to get a little caught up from the busy weekend.  A few hundred emails answered or deleted, some unpacking of the trailers from the show, a load of laundry, and I good to go and start packing for this week.  It’s time for the airport run, so I got started right on time at 3:30 (OK, original plan was to leave at 2:00, but who’s keeping score?).  Still, there’s no rush, the bags are checked in a good 20 minutes before the cutoff, no last minute heroics or special dispensation on the part of airline employees to comment on, nothing!  What a difference this trip is, deviating from my normal last minute rushing – I feel like I am suffering from a lack of adrenalin already!

Emirates Air makes the trip from New York’s JFK airport to the Maldives in two hops, stopping only in Dubai.  So that makes sense, doesn’t it?  No, not when you are working on maintaining your Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines!  So my route is Philadelphia / Atlanta / Dubai, then switching to Sri Lankan Airlines for Dubai / Colombo, Sri Lanka / Male, Maldives.  Yep, makes sense….not!  But hey, it’s me!  At the check-in counter in Philadelphia the Delta gate agent is a slug – you know sometimes you can read a person in a nanosecond, and that’s the case here.  She is not the helpful Ms Monika that saved the day when I missed my Cairo flight two weeks ago, that’s for sure!  When I started to say about checking the bags all the way to the Maldives, the look on her face said it all – let’s just check the bags to the end of Delta’s route, Dubai, and call it a day.  I’ll take care of things from there.

Sorry, but no “Blue Shirt” stories to tell; they were too busy arguing over breaks and time off to notice Michele’s two bottles of Vitamin Water in her bag as it passed through the x-ray machine  – America’s front line of security was absent today!   We boarded, and enjoyed an uneventful flight to Atlanta.  A little complimentary ‘hydration’ in the Crown Room, and we boarded our flight to Dubai.

Fourteen hours in a coach seat is a long, long time, let me tell you!  The good news is that they were exit row seats with no seats in front, so plenty of room to stretch my legs out and attempt to snooze a little between feedings.  And there were plenty of them, starting with late dinner, midnight snack, breakfast, and lunch, all accompanied by unlimited drinks and excellent cabin service by the flight attendants – so refreshingly un-Air France like, the experience was more akin to that you would enjoy on a cruise ship with the unending buffet line.

Finally, we land in Dubai, and sure enough, I manage to get our bags collected by the great gate agents at Sri Lankan Air, and they get loaded for our last two flights.  First we’ll enjoy 4½ hours of more great service and even more food and drinks are forwarded, served up with great smiles by the sarong-wearing flight attendants, and eventually we touch down in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Funny thing but it’s 5:00 a.m. locally (that’s 7:30 p.m. east coast time – seems they are a half hour out of sync here) making our journey 26 hours so far, with one more flight and a few more hours to go.  Sitting in the terminal, it is interesting to note how many westerners are passing through here, including a number gathered around us at the gate for the flight to Male.  My mind wonders how many of these folks will be our shipmates for this coming ocean adventure!

Finally, it’s time for flight #4, to Male, the only airport in the Maldives, and thankfully it’s a short 1½ hour trip.  The Maldives immigration form has the customary ‘fill in the blank’ format, but it is interesting to note that the space for your name has room for 51 characters – I feel like my parents shortchanged me!  Customs is a breeze and our bags arrive  – what a pleasant surprise!  We walk outside and are met by a couple of representatives from the boat, and we gather with some of our fellow shipmates, a group from Spain, who had arrived on an earlier Qatar Airlines flight.  They walk us across the street to the dock where our dive tender awaits to whisk us to the Ark Royal.  Of course, just to keep the heart pumping, as our tender begins to untie to pull away, a local police boat feels a need to come alongside and chat with the crew – I was afraid the Canadians had sent some intel down here!  But no, just a formality, and we are on our way in a few.

It’s a pretty twenty-minute ride out to where the Ark Royal is moored and being fueled by the local delivery barge.  We tie up and board, and our baggage is hauled aboard also.  A quick briefing and our rooms are ready for us. I’ve got a standard cabin, and it measures about 10 ft x 12 ft, plus a full bath.  The shower is “Dave-size” so that is a big plus, as so many boats really have tight shower enclosures. All the diving will be done from the tender, which itself is actually a 40 ft long dive boat. The tanks & gear will remain on the tender, and will be filled between dives by the onboard compressor system.  Nitrox is the gas of choice and they have a membrane system to pump it right into our cylinders.  The gear is kept in roomy milk crates under each persons seat and there’s plenty of hanging space for wetsuits, but with the 86 degree water, we sure won’t be needing too many of those!

Our plan is to do a quick “check dive” at a nearby reef to make sure everything is in order, and for everyone to get their weighting right.  We pile into the tender, and run about twenty-minutes up the coast to Feydhoo Wall.  This turns out to be a really nice dive, with the wall starting at about 10 ft and dropping down until it ends in the sand at 100 ft.  It is covered with life, and riddled with cuts and grooves that provide refuge for plenty of colorful critters.  The most prominent fish are blue triggerfish, in the 3 to 8 inch length, and there must be 10,000 of them within sight.  Many of them are laying on their sides, with their heads in small holes, ostrich-like.  There are other species of triggerfish here also but the blue ones dominate.  With lots of hard & soft corals, sponges, and gorgonians, the life here is rich and varied.  We see numerous Nudibranchs, a great looking turtle sitting on a ledge, some morays, an octopus, anemones and clown fish, various crinoids, some tuna buzzing by, mantis shrimp, banded shrimp, angels, puffers and more.  What a great way to kick off the week, and we spend 50 minutes with a depth of 100 ft to get a good baseline of nitrogen loading in our systems.

And again, without sounding like a broken record, I must say we feel great after 30 hours of non-stop air travel, and I attribute a lot of that to Divers D\Lyte, which we have been mixing with our water and drinking all along (OK, in between beers for me!).  No sense of dehydration or jet lag to speak of!

Back to the boat, we enjoy lunch, and then motor south a few miles to South Kaafu Atoll, also known as south Male atoll.  Here we tie up for the night in a protected mooring area, off a site called Guraidhoo, and are joined by a few other liveaboards and some sailboats.  Dinner is served and it is delicious, and I sense that my diet plans will be on hold for the next few days.

One comment I might make on the boat and the crew is that there is not a lot of clear communication here on any level.  Having enjoyed some great crew introductions and briefings on such boats as the Spirit of Freedom, Aquacat, Odyssey, Aggressor, and others, one might expect to be introduced to the crew members, get an overview of the week to come, and learn some local culture and information.  Here, the information is doled out on a “need to know” basis, and sadly, that takes away quite a bit of the experience that could be.  And speaking of information, the only paperwork filled out (but not reviewed) was a simple diver info form, and never was a certification card asked to be produced at all! End of soapbox, but you can rest assured it will be passed on the boat’s owners.

Our fellow shipmates for the cruise include Tia (a fellow Lithuanian) & John from Palo Alto, Tony & Alan from the San Francisco area, Bonnie & Dana from Michigan, Cheryl from Colorado, Leigh, originally from Worcestershire, UK, but currently residing in Dubai, and a group of six from Spain who speak as little English as I speak Spanish, so we’ll just skip on the names and origins.

It’s 6:00 a.m. and the wake up bell stirs us.  First dive briefing is at 6:30 and then we’ll be in the water before breakfast.  We learn the dive leaders names this morning, Thippe (pronounced Tippy), and Boee (pronounced Boy), as well as some female DM who spoke Spanish for the rest of the divers, but evidently didn’t interface well with westerners.  Our first site today is Kandoomaa Thila, a pillar that rises from the bottom in the center of the channel, from a depth of about a hundred and fifty feet to approx. 40 ft at the top.  With the tremendous tidal flow of water from the atolls, the current this morning is just ripping as we head out. You can see the diverging flows boiling the surface of the water as we approach the dive site.  We drop on the west end of he pillar, and there is a bit of confusion as the current tries to split the group to the north and south.  Once re-organized, we pass along the north side of the reef, keeping the wall on our right shoulder (OK, most of us do, but in spite of the briefing, a few of the divers still manage to get themselves separated from the group….shaking my head here) and enjoy a nice 35 minute dive from 120 ft to 60 ft of depth.  White tipped sharks, eagle rays, triggers, titans, bumphead wrasses, turtles, all sorts of interesting life to take in and enjoy.  Good dive!

Back up, we return to the mother ship and breakfast is served.  Plenty of food and variety, so no one is going hungry here.  Before you know it the time to dive has arrived, so a quick briefing, and onto the tender tor our five-minute run to the site.  The plan was the same as earlier, we’ll dive in three groups.  OK, well that is the description of the start at least.  We end the dive in about 8 groups, scattered all along the reef – utterly amazing how challenging it is for these DM’s to monitor their groups and attempt to keep any sort of order there.  None the less, it is the best dive yet, with visibility in excess of 200 ft, and sharks, turtles, octopus’s, golden leaf scorpionfish, big spotted morays, titan triggers guarding their nests, and more.  Quick summary – great dive!

On to dive #3 for the day, another channel inlet dive, similar profile with the reef rising to approx 30 ft on either side of a 300 ft wide 100 ft deep channel.  Here we have a strong incoming tidal current, plus an ocean current to deal with, so we start off the dive about 100 ft west of the channel entrance, swim like hell to get down and not washed into the channel, then enjoy a nice deep dive traversing the inlet of the channel.  The water on the ocean side is several hundred feet deep and dark, while on the reef side it is crystal clear, except for some areas of mixed temperatures that make for a “jelly on the lens” sort of effect as you try to focus.  Here we start the dive with some of the usual critters but as we near the far side of the channel the real show begins, with gray and white tip sharks of all sizes cruising in to check us out.  At one point I can count 18 sharks in front of me, very cool to be here and experiencing this!  All too soon our tanks are running low at this depth, so we work our way up the reef to our safety stop and finally surface 45 minutes later.  Excellent dive, but note to self:  doubles would be better here!

Time for a quick nap on the sundeck, and then dinner is served.  Following that there is a lot of socializing and a bit of alcohol consumed as the boat nears our mooring destination for the night.  Well the temperature and clarity of the water is top much to deny, so what better than a late night swim in the ocean?  Not everyone is brave enough, but the intrepid few, consisting of Leigh and Michele, set a positive example for the rest as they cavort and frolic in the sea.  The current here is no small consideration, and one needs to be mindful of that while enjoying the water, cause the anchored boat gets pretty far away pretty darn fast if you are not paying attention.  Sure enough, not enough mind is paid to that, and as the mother ship begins to fade in the darkness, it’s time for the crew to fire up the dingy and head out for a little late night rescue!  All ends well, and there’s laughter all around.

April Fools Day, and we get to sleep in an extra hour for some inexplicable reason.  Communication from the crew continues to be somewhat lacking, but we just go with the flow here and take the extra hour.  We are near a site that lies within some sort of national park, again, can’t get a clear answer on what that means, but I’ve got enough information to make that statement with confidence.  The site is a small bommie, or pinnacle, that rises up from deeper water and it probably isn’t more than 150 ft in diameter, with the top at about 50 ft.  It is absolutely covered with life of all sorts, especially schooling fish such as grunts, snappers, and other local species.  We enjoy watching a turtle having breakfast on the many sponges that grow on the reef, and a couple of not-too-shy octopus are out and about.  Plenty of eels, a local version of a goliath grouper, and some tune darting along make for a great 50 minutes with a max depth of 110 ft.

Back for breakfast, the boat moves a bit, and the plans for the second dive are announced.  We’re going to search for whale sharks in the tender, and if we’re lucky and come upon some, we’ll jump in and snorkel with them.  Then we’ll do our dive, and maybe look for some more whale sharks on the way back.  OK, I just gave you the entire dive briefing, and yes, they forget to talk about the actual dive site at all.  I suppose we’ll figure it out when we get there.   Maybe…

If I may digress for a moment…It is always interesting when I get a chance to dive with non-IVS divers and observe just how “different” that truly is.  The first and most obvious observation is the overall worldly experience this group has, as they drop names of places they have dived like Fiji, Indonesia, Bali, Lembeh Straits, and all sorts of other exotic locations.  Most of them exhibit some great dive skills and their experience diving together as buddies truly shows.  In conversation I find quite a bit of continuing education achievements and aspirations, with a few rescue divers, some public safety diving experience, and more.  It behooves anyone who embraces diving this much to seek a solid understanding of the physiological effects of diving, and a clearer understanding of basic dive equipment and skills, that might in fact help save their lives somewhere down the road.  OK… off my soapbox…again!

So we board the tender and head out to see if we can find some whale sharks. We’re in an area that is somewhat plankton rich, and a good location to find the biggest fish of the sea swimming, mouth open, into the current, filtering out lunch from the sea’s salad bar.  The method of searching consists of putting a few crew members on the roof and looking for shadows in the ocean as we cruise along.  There are other boats out here doing the same thing, but do you think anyone has a radio to talk to each other?  You know the answer to that.  So we pass the other boats and they pass us, repeatedly, as we all search in a fairly large area along the coast.  The plan is to search for two hours, and if we’re not successful, then we’ll dive and search for two more hours.  Let’s hope we find a whale shark in the first session!  One hour, a false alarm, back in our seats, almost two hours now….wait…there’s a boat ahead dropping folks into the water!  Sure enough, it’s a whale shark, who was enjoying a leisurely breakfast, but is now the subject of about 100 snorkelers chasing and racing to swim alongside it.  The scene is reminiscent of the starting line of the Iron Man Triathlon, with plenty of kicking and splashing and pushing as everyone wants the front row seat, but the darn front row keeps moving!   Still a decent photo op and I get quite a few shot off before the shark turns and heads to the peace of deeper waters.  Back on the boat, and the search resumes for a bit.  We find another, but this one is on the game, and heads towards the deep much quicker than the first.  Overall, I think it’s a bit abusive for the whale sharks, but at least they have the option of interrupting lunch and coming back when the crowds are gone.  The good news is that we don’t have to look forward to another two hours of searching now!

So we splash on the reef, and as soon as we get down, there is a beautiful black & purple flatworm swimming along the reef.  It stops and sets down on a piece of coral, and what is right below it?  Two beautiful large cowries, their shells beautiful and shiny, just perfect to compliment the scene.  Plenty of table top corals throughout the area, and lots of fish life, some nice nudi’s, including a really large purple one that bears a strong resemblance to a sponge, need to get an ID on this.  Decent dive, 60 minutes at 80 ft and up, and we return to the boat for lunch and a break before heading back out for a late afternoon dive.

Quick briefing and we’re back on board to our final site, which promises to be a manta ray cleaning station.  First bad sign when we arrive is that there are three other boats already there with divers in the water, and I am thinking, “Just how tolerant are those mantas of divers?”  Well, my suspicions were right on the money, as we spent 60 minutes huffing for a mile or so across so-so reef in search of non-existent manta rays.  A nice friendly turtle, a school of photographic sweetlips, and a stingray being cleaned were the highlights, but overall we could have dove this one a lot closer to home without 50 hours of airline travel!  90 ft max, 60 minutes, another dive in the logbook.  Let’s go to dinner!

Again we appeal to the guys who appear to be in leadership positions in the crew to have the guys introduce themselves, and again we are assured this will happen soon.  Flash forward – this NEVER happens; truly a disappointment to spend ten days in close quarters with nine or ten guys and never know who’s on first.  Something to consider for future charters.

Oh well, back to life on board – another great night under a clear skies with the heavens providing a fantastic star-filled show for us to enjoy.  The boat has a nice celestial telescope so all the amateur stargazers gather around and test their knowledge of the constellations and other things stellar.  Nice bunch on the boat and everyone is bonding well – well OK, there are two distinct groups, those who speak English, and those who don’t!

OK, it’s a new day and time to get some diving in.  Our first location is a wreck sunk in the 80’s as an artificial reef, the Kudhima Wreck, sitting perfectly upright in 100 ft of water.  This old inter-island freighter is covered with life, including a lot of hard corals.  It’s really interesting to see growth of table top corals right off the side of the hull!  We check out some morays, a really nice mantis shrimp playing hide-and-seek with us, big puffer fish, a remora looking for a host, and more of the usual suspects.  Sixty minutes and 100 ft of depth and we call this one a winner!

Back to the boat, breakfast is served, and then we head out to our second location, a site known as Five Rocks.  This is another “thila” (pillar, or bommie to our Australian readers) that rises up like a sea mount, from 120 ft to maybe 50 ft.  It’s split across the top with some deep crevices and just full of life.  We get buzzed by a few white tip sharks and enjoy another turtle munching away on the reef.  Just a thought – how come we can’t touch the reef but the turtles get to hammer away on it?  Just fooling of course, but the dangerous mind wanders you know!

On the way back in to enjoy lunch, I take the time to chat with Thyppe and see if I can encourage him to maybe get a little more diving into our day.  The original excuse was the time it took to fill the tanks.  Now, he confides with me that when the crew proposes four dives a day to a lot of their groups, they are met with laughter, so they learned to back off from that.  Well, this is no ordinary group here this week, I assure him, and we’d appreciate more bottom time.  He says the tanks could be filled quicker, so I challenge him to prove it to me.  As we tie up to the mother shop, he walks over to the white board where the daily diving info is posted, and writes “sunset dive” at the bottom of today’s schedule,  I high five him, and we go in to eat.

After the tanks get filled, and we head back to Manta Point to repeat the dive we did yesterday, which sucked.  Hopes are high that our previous experience was an anomaly, and as we approach the first good sign is that there are no other boats there to scare away any mantas.  We splash, and in less than one minute, there’s our first manta.  Our group displays some good discipline, staying low and not moving much, and we are rewarded with about ten minutes of manta aerobatics as the gentle giant swoops over us, runs through our bubbles, cruises up and down our group and just does about every other manta thing you can imagine.  Very cool.  OK, he leaves, so we move down the reef, and hey, here’s another, and more of the same.  It’s interesting also that the reef is absolutely covered with morays of various flavors and all sizes, and as we sit there motionless they are swimming between our arms, under our bodies and all around – really adds to the experience!  Two more big ones cruise overhead, then a couple more, so we get a total of six mantas for today’s dive – we are glad we did the second take on this one!!  Another 100 ft for 60 minutes total – great dive!

Back for a quick surface interval and tank filling, and we head out for a sunset  dive which quickly turns into a night dive on the house reef.  Very nice, although not very fishy – seems a lot of the inhabitants must head to deeper waters to survive the night.  We have some squid checking us out, a few sharks, and lots of sleeping parrot fish in the coral – seems like Key Largo!  All good, and another 50 minutes of bottom time for the logbook.  Back for dinner now!

What a most brilliant sunrise greets us this Sunday morning as we get up at 6:00 for our first dive.  A quick briefing and we head out to Dhigaa Thila, another lump on the sea floor about ten minutes from the boat. This is a pretty cool site with a dramatic wall that drops vertically down from about 15 ft to 100 ft, riddled with big caverns and crevices.  The soft corals here are the best we have seen yet, and we find a nice big octopus, some more white tip sharks cruising in close to check me out, pretty nudibranch’s, and the highlight of the dive, three ornate ghost pipefish that pose for me alongside a feather star.  Beautiful!  Another 100 ft and another 60 minutes makes for a perfect dive log entry!

Breakfast is served while tanks are filled, and we head out to Maahlos Thila, a beautiful wall dive along the side of yet another channel from the open sea.  We drop down to 100 ft to begin, and then ride the outgoing current along the wall which is covered with bright blue soft corals and so many other corals and sponges that no matter which direction you looked, you found yourself speechless.  Totally covered with schooling fish of all sorts, they wall was also riddled with deep undercuts and quasi-caverns, which provided even more homes for animals of all sorts.  We ended up on top of the reef at 40 ft, with 55 minutes of bottom time.  Overall a most wonderful dive to add to the list!

And this dive was even more special as it was Alan & Tony’s 100th dive.  Pretty cool way to celebrate!

And speaking of small worlds as we weren’t, Alan is wearing one of his favorite tee’s today, featuring Conch Republic Dive Center.  What a coincidence, I point out, that today Butch Loggins and Dave Hartman are leading the IVS crew on a dive in the Florida Keys with Conch Republic this very day!  The IVS dive flag is flying on both sides of the globe at the same time today!

Our afternoon dive was to Dhonkalho Thila, another manta ray hangout.  We dropped in to about 70 ft and there they were, in under a minute, our first two.  Swooping over and past us, they made for a magical experience.  We had about seven mantas in total spending time with us, and we did not move at all. Finally, they left, so we worked our way along the reef a bit, and ended up with another 50 minutes at 70 ft total.

No night is complete without a night dive, so by golly, we had one tonight!  The group got a little smaller as half the passengers opted to head over to the uninhabited island we are anchored in front of to do some swimming before we have a barbecue on the island.  The rest of us headed under, and were treated to the standard night time fare here, including another leaf scorpionfish, some really cool feeding coral with tentacles out about 24 inches, and all the other stuff.  I enjoyed it as a solo night dive, logging 100 ft and 50 minutes.

Now we get dolled up and head over on the dingy to the island, where the crew has put together a nice beach barbecue setting, complete with a 30 ft whale shark carved into the sand as our dinner table – really neatly done!  They have brought the entire dinner over, with all the fixin’s, and the bar too, so we enjoyed a few really pleasant hours dining under the stars and chatting on the first bit of land our legs have touched in a week!   All too soon, it’s time to wrap it up and head back to the Ark Royal for a good nights sleep.

First dive for Monday is a small ridge of a reef line called Fish Head, off North Ari Atoll.  Nice dive, 126 ft of depth, lots of fish life, nudi’s and feeding turtles, a few sharks in the distance, superb viz, mild currents and a great 55 minutes of bottom time.  We motor north while eating breakfast to our second site of another four-dive day, a site called Kan Thila.

For our next dive we head out to a site where big grey reef sharks abound.  We drop in and head down and into the current, and I am thinking, gosh, this is just like the 1st manta dive – and guess what – it was!  It sucked!  OK, so it was 86 degrees, and I am in the Maldives, but the dive sucked.  Or, as Cheryl noted, the best part of that dive was the safety stop!  So we spent the better part of an hour poking under rocks, looking at eels, some Nudibranchs, and not too much more.

Back for lunch, and then we headed out to Hafzaa Thila, to look for even more sharks.  We saw maybe two big grey ones, a few white tips, but the cool stuff was big honking tuna fish shooting along through the schools of baitfish.  There were quite a few of them, all in the 30 to 50 pound size range, and they were cruising for dinner.  Pretty neat to watch, but tough to photograph.  Up on top we had a dozen juvenile white tips, around two feet long, hiding under the table corals and thinking about living a longer life by doing so!  Must be a tough neighborhood when all the big grey’s come home.  Also had some more of the usual, clownfish, a scorpionfish, nudi’s, beautiful anemones, some squid, and zillions of schooling fish trying to avoid becoming someone’s dinner.  100 ft max and 70 minutes of bottom time, with a couple of inquisitive squid joining us at the end to top off a really nice dive.

We head back out to Hafzaa Thila for our night dive, and expect the action to be intense with all the food in the area.  We are not disappointed for sure!  Sharks are feeding all over the reef, big marble rays and morays out for dinner also, and thousands upon thousands of smaller fish seeking shelter and refuge there.  It was like someone pumped some Red Bull into the predators for the night, cause they sure had the energy to burn!  The good news for the prey is that the sharks and eels are terrible hunters, so you get plenty of chances to err, Still quite a few meet their maker tonight, and no one is going to bed hungry that’s for sure!  Another hour of bottom time rounds out the night, and we head in for a late dinner and right to bed.

Up again at 6:30 our plans are to head back to last night’s site for one more visit to this Thila.  But as we approach, there are three boats on it already, so we shift gears and head 10 minutes north to the site we had planned for our second dive, Maaya Thila.  It’s a similar site, although not quite as defined as a pillar, but still full of life of all sorts.  Nice dive, 120 ft max, 60 minutes of bottom time, just enough to work up a good appetite for breakfast!

OK, bellies full (like that is not a recurring thing all week!) and we head out to the original site, Haafza Thila, and enjoy our third dive on this pillar of sea life, where we get to see some more dogfish tuna nailing their breakfast, and the rest of the “busy town” life on top of the coral column.  We explore out in the sand for a while at 130 ft, do a little Project Aware work cleaning up some old fishing line, and then spend the rest of the sixty-five minute dive on top of the reef.  Good way to see three completely different versions of life and visitors on this reef, from yesterday afternoon’s pelagics coming in to visit, to last night’s feeding frenzy, and today to a nice quiet neighborhood to raise your kids if you’re a fish – just get them off the streets before sunset!

After lunch we head to a new site, a channel dive at Rasdhoo Atoll. We splash in on the ocean side of this barrier reef, along a wall that drops down into the abyss.  Large gray reef sharks buzz us, along with tuna, as they patrol the edge of their domain.  I drop down to 130 to check out some of the undercuts and crevices below.  There’s more to see deeper, but my Nitrox mix keeps me from pushing it any further.  I find some large beautiful cowries, a large moray, and schools of swirling bar jacks in the deep.  As I move up the wall, five nice eagle rays swim by slowly in perfect formation, giving us ample time for some great pictures.  Another great fifty minute dive, we collect our divers bobbing along on the surface, and head back to get cleaned up for this evenings island entertainment.

We take the launch over to the island and get a chance to walk through a typical Maldivian community, complete with all your standard Maldivian tourist and gift shops.  Seems this island is a regular stop for all the liveaboards, so you know what to expect.  Still, it is pretty and most of the show owners have a pretty good command of English so I am able to get a lot of questions answered about the islands and the local life.  Then back to the boat for dinner and Part II of our evenings entertainment,

The crew has something special for us, and after dinner, all the dining tables are stacked up in the corner  to make room for a large rug they unroll.  Next, here comes three large double-ended drums, and some cushions to sit on, and before you know it, the crew has transformed into a Maldivian folk band,  For the next hour and a half they entertain us non-stop with some high energy drum pounding and serious synchronized chanting and clapping and dancing.  None of us understand a word that they are singing but it was far more experiential than that, to see the passion that they put into this was truly amazing,  Even more amazing was the fact that these were the same quiet guys who have tended to our every need all week, and here they have their moment to let their hair down and show us with great pride how they like to celebrate – very, very cool indeed!  This is one of those moments words cannot describe – you have to live this one yourself to understand it!

After that, it breaks down into a dance party since the Spaniards are leaving us tomorrow, and the boat turns into a bit of a disco scene.  Well with a five o’clock wake up for some blue water hammerhead shark diving looming, I turn in early to get my beauty rest.

We started the morning off with a 5 a.m. wakeup and quick briefing so we could be out and in the water before the sun peeked over the horizon.  Better opportunity to view hammerheads that way, we were told, as they move to deeper water during the daylight hours.  So we motored out, and although the sun was not officially up, it sure was light when we splashed at 6:05.  We dropped in and immediately descended to about 110 ft, with the instructions to stay in a tight group, better to not scare the hammerheads off.  Well there’s always one, and sure enough, one of our divers felt some compelling urge or personal right to swim out in front of the pack, ensuring that any possible hammerhead sightings would now be a bit further out in the murky viz.  Why can’t some people listen, I ask, and respect the rights of all the others?  Needless to say, 30 minutes into the dive, we turned and headed to the reef to finish it off in shallow water and salvage an otherwise wasted dive.

Yoshimas Thila was our second dive site today, and this was another pillar that hinted at the opportunities for shark sightings.  So in we dropped, and the top of the reef was at 70 feet, so I did a little exploration down the side hitting 160 ft and about a 1.9 ppO before deciding I was close enough to the sand to see that there was not much different here than there was up shallower.  I shot some pics of some nudi’s crusing about the reef, then headed up on top and finished up the dive there, with some nice schooling sweetlips and grunts swirling about us. We headed in for lunch, and afer a discussion with some of our fellow divers, I figured it was time for a little “Come to Jesus” meeting with the chief dive leader, Thyppe.  I told him we had been out enough times searching and hoping for sharks or mantas, and while these dives were cool in their own right, nearly every one of us had a camera, and none of the sharks came in close enough for any decent photographs.  That being said, with five or six dives left on our itinerary, we wanted clear water, minimal current, and close up photo opportunities.  Thyppe understood and agreed that the rest of our dives would meet this criteria.

While we ate, the captain moved the boat across the channel so we could be within range of dropping off the Spanish contingent.  Some of us are wondering if perhaps our itinerary and travel route was compromised by the boat having both 9-day and 6-day passengers on board, meaning we needed to be back near the airport three days earlier than usual so the others could depart.  Hmmmmm…

Our post-lunch dive site is Naseem Thila, a nice bommie that rises up from the bottom and tops out at about 45 ft, with the sides dropping down to the sand at about 130 ft.  In addition to the main pillar, there are several additional coral pillars just a short distance away, all covered with soft corals of every color imaginable, hard corals, and fish.  We get another sixty minutes of bottom time here and a slew of more great photos.

Our fourth and final dive of the afternoon is Banana Reef, another nice lump that comes up from the sea floor.  The current is absolutely ripping when we arrive, so we know this is going to be a fun dive!  We drop in and visibility is forever, and indeed the current is hot.  So we drop onto the corner of the reef, hold on to rocks for a bit to see what is going to come by, and then we let go and work our way around the bommie.  This is truly an adrenalin-producing dive, with currents coming from all directions, including down currents, as we move along.  A dive like this really gets your head into the game, thinking of your next move, being cognizant of the currents as you feel them or observe them affecting the fish or soft corals & sea fans.  Lots of eels, bumphead wrasse, turtle, tropicals of all flavors, octopus and more.  You can surmise that I absolutely loved this dive today!!

The Spaniards leave us when we get back to the boat, and gosh, I miss them already!  Not that I could say that in Spanish, but they were a pretty nice bunch and all really good divers, so it was a pleasure having them as part of our dive group.  The crew has the candles on our tables, and our next to last supper is served, as we enjoy  a quiet evening on the mother ship.  There’s one more day of diving and there seems to be a bit of dissent among the divers, with one camp (led by me) wishing for clear water and beautiful scenery, and another faction seems to think if we don’t go into deep murky water and wait for something big to maybe swim by, then it’s not worth diving.  We’ll see who wins this battle of wills tomorrow.

The day starts off in grand style celebrating Tia’s 65th birthday (yes, they still let them dive at that age here) with our first dive on a site called HP, appropriately named for the ‘High Pressure’ diving and convergence of currents there.  The surface is literally boiling with water moving in all directions and currents crashing into currents – very neat visual to give us a hint of what lies below the surface.  We drop in off the north side of the reef, with the plan to swim to the side of the reef, but the current isn’t too cooperative and is running both downward and parallel to the reef, so as we drop and swim hard towards the reef we are zipping along and down.  Whooops….it’s time to check the gauges, dang, that does say 140 ft and there bottom lies easily another 50 or 60 below us so that is not an option.  Kick, kick, kick, finally we make it over and begin sailing along the reef.  Gotta find some protection here, and after a turn or two we get into some calm areas, where we can enjoy some of the great sea life here, corals of many colors, and beautiful topography.  We do some Project Aware work on this dive, uncoiling a few hundred feet of old fishing lines from in and around the corals and sponges.  Excellent dive overall, 50 minutes of bottom time, and nothing but smiles all around when we get back to the surface.

Lankan Manta Point is our second drop of the day, and true to his word, Thyppe will verify that there are mantas on site before we waste time in the water looking for them.  We arrive, our man drops down, and comes back up to report zero mantas at the site (whether or not they were there, the answer he gave was appropriate, and yesterday’s debate is over!).  Thank goodness for checking – wink, wink!  So we head over to Naseem Thila and do another nice 100 ft dive  for 60 minutes on this proven good site.  Only one dive to go, how sad.

But wait…back on board, John & Tia ask me if I’d like to get another dive, and I have to think about that….for a nano-second!  Yeppers, so we run that up the flagpole with Thyppe, and he affirms, indeed, if we want a fourth dive today, then we get it!  Yippee!

So for our third dive we head out to another Thila, and the current is pretty strong as we drop in. Michele and I just chart our own course on this one, and as we head over to the edge of the drop off, there’s a little octopus looking at us. Great start, and we head over the side of the reef. I’m poking around, and sure enough, there’s another octo, substantially larger, peeking at me from over the edge. I cruise up slowly, and he is not startled by my presence. I spend the next twenty minutes at 80 ft just inches away from him, getting some great photos and interaction with this very intelligent critter. Truly one of those extended moments when life takes on a whole new perspective, just sitting and watching and communicating with another one of God’s great creatures. Sweet!

So I am thinking, that is enough, this dive is complete, and I leave my little eight-armed friend, and head over to check out a bit of a cavern in the reef side a few yards away. As I start to slip inside, I am pushed aside by a Napoleon Wrasse who must have figured if I see something in there, then maybe it is his! In fact he is so close to me I cannot back up enough in the cavern to get his photo, and have to change to the wide-angle lens to get most of his body into the viewfinder. He has no qualms about edging me out in the cavern, and it is yet another take-your-breath-away moment on this magical dive.

OK, enough of that, let me just cruise along a bit, but wait, here’s another friendly moray, and some more sweetlips, and just more great stuff to truly rank this as another of those top ten dives. I am energized for sure!

So we surface, and head back to the Ark Royal for a quick surface interval before we get our fourth dive in. Of course, this one is not without controversy either, as the “other faction” emphatically told the other divers that there would be no fourth dive, as the tender was needed to get provisions for the next charter. I just shake my head, wondering what it is within a person that causes such a need to be heard, without regard as to whatever is being said is factual or not. Some folks will never get it, I must conclude, and we have one of those examples on this charter with us.

So out we go for dive #4, in the tender, which of course is not really happening at all, according to “the voice”. But off we go anyhow, and as we approach, the seas are truly boiling with the currents and the incoming tide. This dive is going to be FUN! So we drop in, kick like made to catch the reef, and then begin our ‘sail’ along the sides of the thila, with currents probably exceeding 4 knots at some points, and what a rush it is! With our regulators cranked down tight to reduce free flowing in the currents, we cruise along, with east-to-west, then west-to-east, then down currents, then up currents, then combinations to just keep it fun and fresh and exciting for the entire 60 minute. We get washed down as deep as 140 ft, and washed up to less than 5 feet, so buoyancy control and situational awareness is key to a safe experience today. I stop to take some pictures of a banded coral shrimp, and as I frame him in the viewfiender, a moray shoots out of an adjacent hole and bites my camera right in my hands – very cool! More good photos, more laughter as we tumble along the reef, what a high-energy way to wrap up a great week of diving – and remember, this dive is NOT happening!!

So we come on back, and the crew takes our gear for some rinsing and drying, as we enjoy our last supper on board. Some more photo sharing, emails are exchanged, and our glasses are raised one last time to celebrate a great week and 30 wonderful dives. One last wake up call and we’ll be heading back to the airport for the journey home – how sad!

Our flights home are uneventful, save for one near-international incident in Dubai. First, the background – on my Sri Lankan flight from CoIombo to Dubai, I order the lamb dinner on the flight, and it is just a little bit stringy, so as I finish my meal, I need to dislodge a small piece of meat from between a couple of teeth, and what do I have at hand to do that with? Well, my boarding pass, right here in my shirt pocket, and what a nice little combination toothpick / floss it makes. Mission accomplished, I place the saliva-laden card on my tray to be disposed of. Now we land, and as we disembark the gate agents await us at the top of the ramp, demanding our boarding passes be turned in to them for some insane reason. Well I hand them my pass from the previous flight, but the eagle-eyed agent catches that and says he needs the one for this flight. Well, I try to explain the whole oral hygiene thing, but you can see it is going nowhere, and he gets a bit adamant in his demands. I take a deep breath, count to ten, and walk into the Dubai airport, leaving them to search for the missing Dave Valaika who must still be hiding somewhere on that aircraft. Amazing, but true.

A few more hours, a flight to Paris, overnight there to allow the French to redeem themselves and show me some love, and then back to Atlanta and Philadelphia, bringing this trip to a happy and safe conclusion.

Summary – we are going back!! Look for the Maldives trip on the website soon!

Before I forget, let me make a few notes here for anyone booking on the Ark Royal. First, Rooms #1, and #8, near the engines, are NOISY! Not too bad when you are dead tired, but anything short of that it might prove to be an issue. Second, if you want a larger tank to enjoy the deep dives that are so common here, you need to confirm it ahead of time. Bring a few bottles of your favorite wine as the selection is limited on board and is only sold by the bottle. Also don’t forget soft drinks, they are sold by the glass on board. If not for the delicious Divers D\Lyte I’d be suffering from a Diet Coke and Diet Mountain Dew shortage! Bring your snorkel for the whale shark chasing experience. Don’t forget the safety sausage and audible alert horn, plus your reef hook. Also you can rent an internet card on line from the crew for about $10 a day to stay in touch with the folks back home!

That’s all Folks!