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Experiencing Scuba Diving in the Maldives
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s we descend into the depths of the Indian Ocean, the strong waves and whipping winds are replaced by clear-as-glass water and a kaleidoscope of colors. Marine life of all sizes and characteristics surround us. My dive instructor and I slowly make our way through the sprawling coral gardens, amidst hundreds of different fishes and corals.
Through my mask, it’s hard to see the excitement on my face underwater, but I’m shrieking like a child in a candy store.
Swimming close to the corals, we see the cute orange-and-white anemone fish slithering amongst bubble-like corals, the rainbow-colored parrotfish nibbling on plants and the rather amusing-looking masked pufferfish seemingly half awake.
Diving in an Atoll
We’re diving in the North Male Atoll just off our resort Sheraton Maldives on Furanafushi Island. This area was one of the first to be discovered for its scuba diving delights and comprises some of the oldest and most popular sites in the Maldives.
According to Angelica, the northern atolls tend to have healthier reefs and better macro life, whilst the southern atolls have more sharks. Since the 1200 islands that make up the Maldives are scattered over a large area, and the best diving is found inside and outside the atolls’ lagoons and in the channels in between.
Inside the atoll lagoons, there are often pinnacles of rock vaulting up almost to the surface. They are known locally as ‘thilas’ and often house marine animals of all kinds. As the rock formations bring water up from the ocean floor against their walls, feeding the sponges and soft corals that cling to its sides, it creates an environment that supports a plethora of crustaceans and schools of resident fish.
Our first dive site, Lankan Reef also known as Manta Point, is located in the atoll lagoons and it’s famous for the manta rays that are often found lurking in the area. I’ve never seen a manta ray in action before, so you can imagine my excitement.
Angelica, my trusty dive master, is the expert – she knows where to spot the good stuff. With her in the lead, we glide by coral gardens, schools of trevallies, little clown fish, large morays and the fish I’ve heard so much about: Maldivian grubfish. A turtle even makes an appearance, swimming leisurely alongside us for awhile before we veer off to get a closer look at a nurse shark.
Amidst all that rich marine life, I spot an interesting looking creature that seems to be a cross between an insect and a crayfish, and it seems to be wriggling its way on the sea bed rather than swimming naturally. After we made our ascent, Angelica tells me that it’s a mantis shrimp, one of the rarest marine animals you can find in the Maldives.
Even though we didn’t see any manta rays in the area, I’m one lucky bastard for having the chance to see the mantis shrimp in action.
Maldives’ Marine Conservation
After a quick break, we head underwater again, this time to explore Gaathugiri, also known as Banana Reef. The reef is shaped like a banana, hence its name. This was the first dive site to be discovered in the Maldives, and it continues to be one of the most popular.
Angelica tells me this is well known for the underwater topography found in the area. Indeed, the minute we plunge beneath the water surface, we are surrounded by craggy rock faces, numerous caves, and precipitous overhangs. I find myself weaving in and out of the rock formations, swimming with big schools of squirrelfish, bannerfish, oriental sweetlips and angelfish.
Surprisingly, corals here are not as colorful and pristine as the ones I’ve seen while diving elsewhere. Angelica later tells me that the El Niño of 1998 affected some shallower areas of the coral reefs by bleaching. The reefs are now returning to their former colourful glory, thanks to the nation’s conservation effort.
Just before making our ascent, Angelica guides me towards to the bottom of the rock formations. There, hidden within the naturally formed caves is the gorgeous, flamboyant lionfish: all coy and wary but stunning nonetheless.
That just about made this my favorite diving experience ever.
The dive center at Sheraton Maldives offers leisure dives, introductory dives as well as PADI open-water courses for those interested in getting certified. Each dive costs US$97 (including equipment) and they can be booked directly with the hotel. For more info, head on their website for more details.
Disclaimer: This experience was made possible by Sheraton Maldives, but all opinions are my own.