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May 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Maldives Princess, The Maldives

a long way to see whale sharks, but worth it

from the May, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

I cursed my burned-up cheap battery charger that didn't like the voltage adapter I had bought specifically for this trip; it didn't handle the 220- volt wiring of the Maldives Princess. Wondering if I could keep taking photos, I approached my shipmates to see if anyone had a charger I could use. Luckily, another diver did, and that became the communal battery charger for half the boat.

Danny, the boat's Maldivian manager, had met my partner and me at the Malé airport the day before. A shaggy-haired, shy young man, he proved to be an able manager throughout the trip. After waiting for other travelers whose flight was late, we walked across the street to the waiting dhoni, our dive boat for the week, and then motored out to the Princess. We were ushered into the main salon and given a welcome-aboard cocktail as a crewmember delivered our luggage to our cabin. While the cabins are large by liveaboard standards, mine lacked much storage space other than a two-level closet. However, it had a good AC unit, television with DVD player, a large shower (I never did get hot water, although people across the hall did) and a mini-fridge. The bed was comfortable -- cabins had either a queen or two double beds -- and the cabin was serviced twice a day.

The first morning, I was wakened at 6 a.m. by a ringing telephone. In my jet-lagged haze, I stumbled around to find the source of the unexpected noise. I lifted the receiver to hear Ashan, the Sri Lankan waiter, say, "This is your wakeup call!" I found my way upstairs to be greeted by the aroma of coffee and toast, my morning ritual for the next week. The Princess had remained at anchor the first night, near a nondescript shallow site we used for our checkout dive. Only a pair of rather large cuttlefish made it worthwhile. Following the dive, the captain headed out, while the 18 divers onboard (half were English-speaking Americans, Canadians, Australians and Polish, while the other half were non- English-speaking Italians) took advantage of the buffet breakfast: eggs served a variety of ways, meats, cheeses, fruit and cereals.

Our route, plotted each afternoon with a grease pencil on a map in the dining cabin, took us from Malé south to the North Ari Atoll, down to the South Ari Atoll, east to Felidhe Atoll and then north to the South Malé Atoll. While it was monsoon season in the Indian Ocean, the weather was warm and clear, and the water in the low- to mid-80s. I selected the exotic Maldive Islands, southwest of Sri Lanka, largely so I could photograph whale sharks. Over the week, many dives were a combination of reefs, pinnacles and walls, with the usual suspects for these waters -- varieties of clownfish, eels, clown triggers, bandcheek wrasse, Moorish idols, coral hind, scalefin anthias and Napoleon wrasse. At Maamigili Corner, the Blue Corner of the Maldives, a ripping current and sharks made this site identical to that famous Palau dive site. While the Princess provided no reef hooks, thankfully I brought mine to handle the Corner's currents, so serious that if I turned my head the wrong way, I could feel my mask about to blow off.

The Princess is a three-year-old luxury yacht, 147 feet long, with four decks. At the waterline, the cabin deck holds nine cabins, then there is the salon/kitchen/dining/outdoor lounge deck. Above that is a lounge and suite deck with two suites and the bridge. On top, the sun deck sports a whirlpool, which the crew didn't fill because the water sloshes when the Princess is underway. I could always find a nice place for alone time. The aging but well-maintained 28-foot long dhoni, loaded with our gear, followed us throughout the trip, tying up to the mother craft when it was time to go diving. That's how most liveaboards work in the Maldives. With a 15-foot-wide beam and an upper sun deck, the dhoni had plenty of room for us 18 divers. The crew put a sturdy ladder over each side when the dives concluded. They offered three dives a day with no time restrictions, and additional night dives. Depths ran 60 to 100 feet.

On my first night dive, the crew turned on a large spotlight, attracting a cloud of plankton, followed by mantas wanting to gorge themselves on the murky soup. I and everyone else jumped into the boiling sea, joining four or five mantas swooping in from all directions. I sat motionless, panning my camera, while the mantas came within inches. It was endless action.

Maldives PrincessAfter a day or two, I abandoned trying to change camera ports and lenses in my cabin -- there just wasn't a good place to work -- and used the main salon, which had tables, lounge furniture and a bank of receptacles for charging batteries. I spent a good share of my time here, socializing with others who were using the Internet or just kicking back. Some of the furniture has seen better days. Danny told me that one broken sofa happened when kids had repeatedly jumped on it. I could see how hard it was to keep a busy liveaboard looking good.

But they kept the meals ship-shape. Lunch buffets offered pasta, maybe a pizza, different soups and salads -- one salad of chopped tuna, coconut, curry spice and lime was so good that that I now make it at home. Dinners were a selection of fish, chicken and pasta, all cooked with a variety of spices that make everything taste exotic. Wine, beer and spirits were available for purchase. One evening, the crew trucked food and drinks to an island set up with tables and chairs; they laid down tablecloths, set up candles, lit grills and carved out sand sculptures of whale sharks, mantas and dolphins. This was not their first rodeo, as they say. Shrimp, chicken, whole fish and veggies were grilled to perfection. A very nice evening ended under the stars with dessert and good conversation.

One day, we visited a manta cleaning station at Madivarn, where a pair of mantas came to spruce up. Unfortunately, five other dive boats visited then, too. Following our dive, my buddy and I bobbed on the surface for a good 15 minutes, waiting for our dhoni to locate us among all the other dive boats and divers.

The Maldives Princess contracts for the dhoni and dive crew, apparently the norm for the Maldives. After a bell sounded to announce a briefing, it was usually Danny who drew the site on a whiteboard and described the location, depths, tank pressure to begin a safety stop, etc. Nitrox was supplied to all divers, but apparently no crew ever checked to see if everyone was Nitrox-certified. Oxygen percentages were measured and presented to divers to log, but sometimes tanks went unlogged for a given dive. The dive guides, all Maldivians, were friendly, worked hard to keep the groups together underwater and interacted with us after the dives. The Sri Lankans tending tanks and towels kept more to themselves, mostly because of the language differences. They set up and handled all the gear.

Maldives Princess, The MaldivesAt Maamigili Beyru, known for whale sharks, they had us prep for snorkeling so we could get into the water fast. They didn't explain why, once we had spotted the whale shark on snorkel, we could then get into our dive gear. At some point, I gave up asking why and just went along. My take was they were keen to have divers see the shark and once we did, the crew figured we would try again on scuba. However, whale sharks, like freight trains, don't stay in one place for very long. This was a shallow site, and the crew could spot the shimmer of the sharks' wake on the surface, but our first effort, while following the fastswimming divemaster, brought no sightings. Back to the dhoni and off we went in hot pursuit. This time I jumped in, swam a short distance, took a quick breath from my snorkel and down I dived, camera in hand. Suddenly there he was, slightly below and swimming majestically toward me. I had just enough time for a single shot, then I headed to the surface for another gasp of air, and down I went again for a parting shot of his tail. The following day we tried our luck on scuba. No whale sharks, but a squadron of devil rays swam by. (I should add that most places' visibility ran 75 to 80 feet. Not gin clear, but February is the start of whale shark season and it takes a lot of plankton to feed one.)

One day we visited the Kudhimaa wreck, a 150-foot cargo ship sunk as a dive site. Sitting upright in 90-plus feet of water at the edge of a reef, she literally bristled with sponges, corals, crinoids, algae and sea squirts painting every inch of the exterior of the boat. While the inside was easy to access, the good stuff was outside, with schools of batfish, puffer fish, leaf fish, and all sorts of macro subjects.

Maldives Princess, The MaldivesAt a night dive at Aumataa House Reef, where the resort feeds the fish, the popularity was apparent by the number of anchored liveaboards (the boats do a shark-feed night dive in heavy current). After a short briefing, I was off, reef hook in hand. The action was everywhere. Large, black-blotched stingrays and nurse sharks mauled the rock mass where the divemaster had hid the cano- fish guts, while white-tips cruised the perimeter. As I moved closer to get a decent shot, a big nurse shark, its body suspended vertically toward the surface, shoved its head into the pile of rocks. It was seven feet long, but its thick girth made it look like an oil drum with fins.

Back on the boat, I heard that Konrad, a diver from Poland, had missed the dive. Having ear issues, he had missed a few dives but had been looking forward to this shallow night dive. Most of us had been hanging around in the outdoor lounge, so the dive crew assumed everyone was present and didn't ring the bell. Konrad, however, was in his cabin. After I told Danny that the crew had failed to ring the bell, he directed them, with some prodding, to take Konrad out for a personal dive, while the rest of us sat down to an alfresco meal on the back deck and awaited his return. Konrad was thrilled.

Throughout the trip, I saw plenty of dolphins in the wake, visited beautiful islands with thatched-roof bungalows stretching over the water, and saw desolate spits of sand, vistas fit for the covers of upscale travel magazines. Yes, it is a long trip from the States, with never any guarantee of whale shark sightings or decent weather, but I was here at the right time for excellent diving with plenty of unique creatures, good whale shark sightings, and an enjoyable group of people to share them with.

-- A.V.

Maldives Princess, The MaldivesDivers Compass: I paid $2,646 per person, double occupancy, for seven nights, with airport transfers . . . My flight from Chicago ran $2,271 aboard Air Emirates; before connecting to Malé, I had to overnight at the International Hotel in the Dubai airport . . . All arriving luggage is X-rayed, and contraband (read alcohol) will be confiscated in this Muslim country; alcohol was not available on any of the land excursions . . . My travel agent, Ultimate Dive Travel, had suggested I reserve a forward cabin away from the engine room, but I heard no complaints from guests rooming near it . . . You can leave your heavy gear at home; the Princess's rental gear was all new Scubapro . . . Website: www.maldivesprincess.com

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