Monday, February 3, 2003

Male, Felidu & Ari atoll, Maldives, January 2003

One week live-aboard cruise around several atolls south of Male.

trip report

Sunday, February 2, 2003

Asmas live-aboard

Upon arrival in Male's airport, we're picked up and transported straight to the Asmas, a tourist class live-aboard, co-owned by Christine, a German woman, and Abdull Rahmann, her Maldivian business partner.

Christine's often, but alas not always, on the boat to smoothen the communication between the passengers and Mr Rahmann, who also acts as the main dive master.

The seven double cabins are small but decent, with private head and rather cramped shower. The living room is spacious enough, and there are two outside partially shaded sitting & sunning areas. The food is no culinary treat but it's edible, now and then even good, especially when Indian inspired.

The Asmas has no dive deck, but in stead uses another boat, a dhoni, as dedicated dive platform and gear storage room. On a normal day, there are usually three dives, an early morning one before breakfast, a late morning one before lunch and an afternoon one.

Gearing up & down happens on the dhoni while being transported to & from the dive sites in the neighborhood of the Asmas. After each dive, the dhoni sails out while the tanks are being refilled, thus sparing us, the guests, from the compressor's noisy laboring.

What almost ruined the trip

The washing machine

Christine’s presence should not be underestimated, as Mr Rahmann has absolutely no tact with western tourists to whom he caters and doesn’t really seem to care about proper dive briefings and in-water dive-site pre-checks. With Christine around however, things are suddenly done much more professionally.

His usual information not being much more than the name of the site and "Viele schöne Fische", we get taken by total surprise by very strong currents on the 4th dive of the trip, at Guraidhoo corner, resulting in the group being split up, some divers hanging on to the reef as well as they can, others being washed away into the blue...

As I cling to the steep sloping reef, I can see one of the junior dive masters with a couple of German tourists a little above me, but he seems as much at a loss about what to do as they are. Waiting in vain for a signal and seeing my no-deco time ticking away, I eventually let go, the current immediately picking me up like a leaf in the wind and presenting me with a new problem.

After having blown me away from the reef, the current now pushes me downwards... Being in the blue without any visual reference can be disorienting, but seeing your depth slowly increase even though you're steadily finning up, while your bubbles are whirling all around you, the smaller ones actually going down, really can freak one out.

Stop-Breathe-Think-Act. Easier said than done, but it works. So I start to inflate my jacket, till I can see my depth stabilize then decrease. Only to start rising way too fast as soon as I get in another layer and another current, now having to dump air out in order to slow my ascend and quieten my alarmed dive computer.

When I finally surface, I'm lucky not to have drifted that far away, and am picked up pretty fast. Personally I've never experienced this kind of crazy shifting current zones before, a.k.a. washing machines. A real briefing would have mentioned their possible occurrence and at least we would have been mentally prepared.

Chasing shadows

For some reason, Mr Rahmann's idea of good diving is dropping down to at least -40m and cross some channel with strong currents, just to get a glimpse of a shark in the distance. His motto being something like "no current, no work, no action". Which may be true in some cases, but the reward has to match the effort. It took us quite a few dives and flaring arguments to make him understand we have a different opinion about fun diving.

Decompression alert

Repeated strenuous dives in, by recreational standards, deep waters. Middle-aged out-of-shape jet-lagged dehydrated tourists. Put both together. Shake well. And you most probably get... bubbles!

One diver got pretty close to decompression sickness I'd say, feeling totally exhausted and weak after a dive. Good thing we had oxygen and a doctor on board.

Though Mr Rahmann advocates PADI rules, he's the first one to wipe them off his slate once in the water, dropping below the maximum depth limit without a second thought and expecting everybody to just follow him. Not really a responsible attitude when you’ve got less experienced divers following you trustingly.

What made this a great trip

A short but memorable encounter with a gentle giant

At Maamigili Kandu, a rather poor reef with bad visibility, out of the dark blue, comes an impressive sight, a juvenile whale shark about 5m long, passing by right beneath us, but alas too shy to hang around for a friendly chat.

Special treatment at Dhon Kalo Thila

Lying on the sandy bottom at 20m, waiting, looking at the surrounding reef, I suddenly notice a manta gliding in and hovering above the corals. After a short while it slowly moves on and disappears, only to be followed by another and another and another!

All three hovering in line while being cleaned by small fish darting up from the reef for an easy meal of parasites. Once they're gone again, I too take off, slowly drifting away and almost bumping into a fifth manta, a pretty large one, that lets me admire its graceful movements for a while... before heading on for its visit with the cleaners.

That night two mantas perform feeding acrobatics besides the boat, taking advantage I guess from the boat's plankton attracting lights.

Reef patrol

During our trip we've seen jacks circling the Victory wreck, turtles, big napoleons, eagle rays hanging seemingly effortlessly in the currents, stingrays, all kinds of triggerfish and snappers, besides of course many other fish.

And our last dive, at Maaya Thila, is a splendid end to an all in all great trip. Grey reef sharks keep cruising around, checking us out real close, as within touching distance! Two white tip sharks passing by seem relatively small in comparison. Facing the moderate current, a big barracuda pretends not to notice us. And on the reef's top, a turtle grazes undisturbed by all the action.