Meedhupparu, Raa Atoll, April 2003

We decided that Easter would be a nice time to go back to the Maldives. I hadn't planned on returning to Meedhupparu so soon, but even booking months in advance, our choice was limited. So we decided to stick with somewhere we knew we would enjoy. This time I booked the holiday with First Choice because the flight was with Air 2000 rather than Airtours/MyTravel who had given us so much trouble on our last trip. I'm a firm believer in voting with your feet and your wallet when it comes to bad service. Air 2000's flight was also earlier in the day, so the return flight arrived Monday evening rather than the early hours.

Where's all the sand gone?
The flight was uneventful and left on time. The entertainment was reasonable. The legroom was pretty bad though and I think I only managed about an hour's sleep, so was pretty tired when we arrived in Male on Monday morning. Our luggage came off the conveyor almost first and we made our way to see our rep. She just directed us to the air taxi stand and gave us a generic and more or less useless pamphlet warning about the dangers of balconies and lifts with no internal doors. I couldn't see either of them being a problem. Slightly more inconvenient was that our luggage was going by boat to the island to reduce weight on the seaplane. This has happened to us before, but only once, so we didn't have a change of clothes in our hand luggage. There was quite a wait for the seaplane, but when we finally got on it, it was a pleasant enough 40 minute flight. The islands and reefs always look good from the air.

We checked in and went to our room. One thing that had changed from our previous visit was the shoreline. In all the aerial shots of the islands, there's always white sand around the whole island. However, these are taken at low tide, because the sand moves. It's eroded at one end of the island and deposited at the opposite end. Since our last visit an enormous amount of sand had moved from one corner. The rooms that had been close to the water now had the sea lapping around the foundations and weren't occupied. Our room didn't have the best beachfront. There were a lot of sandbags which did look unsightly, but you certainly couldn't complain about not being close to the sea. The couple in the next hut asked to be moved, but we weren't particularly bothered. They were doing remedial work while we were there. They'd built some groynes and were using a dredge to deposit the sand behind them. Mind you, it did take them the best part of a week to move about 30 blocks from one groyne to another, so progress is likely to be slow.

We'd never been in April before. Around mid-April is the change in monsoon when it starts getting wetter. The first thing we noticed on arriving was how hot it felt. The temperature was around the 32ºC mark, but it was also far more humid than earlier in the year. When our baggage finally arrived at 6.30pm, it was a relief to have a shower and a change of clothes.

A new addition to the facilities was the Fine Dining Restaurant. We didn't go because the normal, buffet-style food was as excellent as the previous visit. I spoke to other people who did go, and they enjoyed it. The prices weren't too bad. Perhaps it's because everyone on the island is on an all-inclusive basis, but the prices on Meedhupparu aren't at the rip off levels that they are on some islands. Basic spirits, beer and soft-drinks are included, but wine is only available at mealtimes in the restaurant, and cocktails cost extra. However, all cocktails cost US$3, which is a lot less than other islands I've visited.

With around 200 rooms, Meedhupparu is one of the larger islands, and there are more people around in the evenings. There is entertainment every night, but it is mostly aimed at the Italians. It seems that even less British people were going than before, but as most of the dialogue is in Italian, I don't think that's really surprising. They do some of it in English, but not much. Apart from the crab racing and the Bodu Beru (traditional Maldivian dancing) display, the entertainment goes on in a small, open air theatre, leaving the bar and swimming pool area for those who just want to have a quiet drink. There was also a television in one corner of the main bar which was mostly tuned to the BBC World Service for news of the ongoing Iraq war, or to one of two sports channels, which showed live football and cricket. A lounge singer sang couple of nights a week in the bar. She was also Italian.

Apart from the main bar, there is also a Grill Bar which used to be on the beach, but is now virtually in the sea and a swim-up pool bar. These are only open during the daytime. The swimming pool was very warm. In the afternoons it resembled a hot bath and was much warmer than the sea, which was itself 30ºC .

As repeat guests, we were invited to have cocktails with the manager one evening around the swimming pool. He was new, but many of the other staff were the same and quite a few of them remembered us including the head waiter and some of the bar staff. If our previous waiter had still been working there, they would have seated us at one of his tables this time too. Our new waiter couldn't have been more helpful. It was my birthday during the trip and they obviously check the birth dates on the registration forms, because he decorated the table with flowers and they brought me a cake. The room boy also decorated the bed with petals.

The main bar area
Unlike the hotel staff, the entire dive staff had changed since our last visit. There were now about 8 of them, almost twice as many as before. They also weren't as laid back as the previous staff. I went to fill in the forms and took my insurance. They recommend DAN Europe and I had to find the specific line in my policy that mentioned hyperbaric treatment before they would accept it. Since all the diving is no-decompression diving to a maximum of 30m guided by an instructor, many of the standard UK holiday insurance policies would actually cover you.

There was the usual board to sign up for dives and I was told that if I put my name up, I would have to pay. In the event that I became ill, I would have to get a certificate from the doctor! Maybe it gained something in translation, but that did seem a little extreme. There was generally a dive in the morning, one in the afternoon, a night dive every other day and a full day trip. There were two full day trips to Baa Atoll, one a shark site and one a manta site. There was also an occasional one to see the wrecks in Lhaviyani atoll. It's a very long way and this one left at 8am.

On many islands you get a discount if you're a repeat customer. They just check your logbooks for stamps. I had visited The Crab website and they did appear to have something similar, but you needed a card, and I hadn't been given one on the previous visit. I later found out that the card was a relatively recent addition. I did find an online certificate that I could print out which gave me a 10 dive package for the price of 9 dives, which was well worth doing

I had hoped to avoid the checkout dive because of my previous visit, but having handed over my TDI advanced trimix card and filled in their form with my 570+ dives, I was told that I'd have to do one and limited to only 18m too. They also entered me on their system as an AOW diver, which I found amusing. So I signed up for the afternoon dive and found myself on the dhoni out to a small uninhabited island called Vaadhu. We were diving the island's fringing reef. I was diving with an OW qualified diver and an instructor, who had arrived relatively recently and had less Maldivian diving experience than me.

After the mask clear and regulator recovery, we set off on our dive. It wasn't bad. There were lots of bait fish in the water, something I remembered from my previous visit to Raa atoll. There were surgeon fish, red bass, rock cods, three Napoleon wrasse, lionfish and both of the common types of anemone fish. I somehow managed to personally spot two scorpion fish despite their camouflage. It must have been luck, because I didn't spot another one all holiday. Naturally I hadn't taken my camera on the checkout dive. The visibility was pretty good and our dive time was a minute over their maximum 60 minutes. After the dive, we all left our kit on the boat. I just took my camera and computer with me.

Blackfoot anemone fish
On the second day, I was still suffering from jet lag and waking up quite late still feeling very weary. So I signed up for the afternoon dive at 3pm. It was then rescheduled to 2.30pm, which was fine with me. We boarded the dhoni and my kit was there, ready for me in my crate. It had been washed and dried since I'd last used it. They'd removed the convertor from the tank valve for my DIN regs and there was a pile of weights next to my kit. The trouble with service this good is that I might get used to it.

We went to a new site called Thaavathaa. It was very close to Meedhupparu, only about 10 minutes away. The cynic in me thought that its proximity might be its best feature and when I hit the water, my fears were confirmed. By Maldivian standards, it wasn't a very good dive. The reef started off quite sandy, then there was a small ledge with overhangs in it at 25m which we followed for the first part of the dive. There wasn't much in them apart from a stingray and a lobster. There were still the usual fish like lionfish, snapper, fusiliers and anemone fish and also a turtle, but the coral wasn't up to much. Towards the end there was quite a lot of blue-green algae. Sitting on the surface waiting for the boat, I actually felt uncomfortably hot in my 3mm shorty wetsuit. The water temperature at depth was 30ºC. The place where we were waiting must have been where the water drained from the shallows in the lagoon, because it was quite a bit hotter. All in all, not a great dive and the visibility was only about 12m because of a lot of plankton. When the boat got back, the staff immediately jumped on the other boat which was full of OW students. I took this as confirmation of my suspicions on why the site was chosen.

I signed up for the afternoon dive the following day only to be phoned up and told that it was off. The reason given was that they didn't have enough instructors to run an afternoon dive and the full day trip. The previous staff had always run an afternoon dive, even on the one occasion when there was only me on the boat. I didn't want to get up early, so decided not to dive that day. Unfortunately, they followed this pattern for the rest of the holiday. It didn't suit me at all. Normally I dive every afternoon and some mornings. Now on alternate days, I had the choice of doing just one dive in the morning or doing the full day trip. I was planning to do at least one full day trip, but it is an extra US$20 and involves a long time sitting around on the dhonis which aren't exactly equipped for comfort. They have hard wooden seats and no toilets.

So it wasn't a very good start as far as I was concerned. It wasn't until the 4th full day that I got to do what I considered a decent Maldivian dive without depth restrictions. The site was Fenfushi Tilla and was one I remembered as being good from my previous visit. It didn't let me down. There were clouds of small fish around the tilla, or deep reef. There was also plenty of big stuff including sweetlips and Napoleons. Our maximum depth was 29.7m and our total dive time was 55 minutes. I really enjoyed it. It was just a shame I had to wait so long for a good dive.

Lionfish
The next day, and I went to Kottefaru Kammati on morning dive. The site is a fairly vertical wall down to about 50m with some big overhangs in it. The visibility was up around the 40m mark, so it looked particularly impressive as you hung in the blue halfway down the wall. There were shoals of black jacks which played in our bubbles, something I've seen surgeon fish do before, but not this species. There were also shoals of schooling bannerfish, big black saddle coral grouper, surgeon fish, black box fish, tuna, more Napoleons and my second turtle of the trip. Depth was 28m and we came up 3 minutes short of the hour.

The next morning's dive was Maa Faru. This reef has lots of large overhangs which you can swim into. The roof and walls are sea of soft corals in bright yellows, blues and oranges. Until this dive, I hadn't seen a single blue lined snapper, which are normally common. Here there were hundreds, as well as black snapper, bulleyes and some big flowery and black saddled grouper. This dive is one of the shallowest, with a maximum depth on 19.8m. The hour limit seemed to go right out of the window as we stayed down for 72 minutes. The visibility was down at around 12m.

The afternoon's dive was to Viligili Corner, which the school had recently discovered. It was the corner of a channel entrance into the atoll. There was a big school of red bass circling the area and one patch of really good coral where the currents must have been especially favourable. We also found a couple of stingrays resting in the overhangs, loads of black triggers and two Napoleons. At 27m the depth was deeper than the morning's dive, so doing them the other way around would have been a better idea. The visibility was better than the morning, at around the 20m mark.

The following morning and we went to Beriyan Bodu Tilla, a site that's only about 20 minutes away. It was another good dive with more stingrays in overhangs, lots of trigger fish and a shoal of blue finned trevally. The visibility was again around the 20m mark.

The next day I gave the morning dive a miss and booked on the afternoon one and the night dive. For the afternoon we went to a place called Kukuludhoo Faru. We entered the water on the corner of a channel. There were hundreds and hundreds of blue lined snapper where we went down. Then we turned the corner onto the outer reef. There were lots of soft corals and we saw a big, green turtle with a remora underneath it. The remora decided that we looked more interesting and started hanging around us. This was the second time this had happened in under a year. Fortunately it didn't bite, unlike the one at Airlie Beach, Australia.

Local fishing boat by uninhabited island
The night dive was at Beriyan Bodu Tilla and was a very different, and more enjoyable, dive than the daytime one. There were loads of manta shrimps. The tails of blue triggers poked out from the holes they were hiding in. We saw a couple of undulate morays free swimming on the reef and it seemed that ever hole had a small black cheek moray in it. The coral polyps were out and put on a colourful display. The normally ugly black corals had green polyps visible and there were some very vivid orange colours. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Dive time was a bit shorter at 53 minutes and our depth was just over 20m.

The next day I was signed up on an all day trip to Baa Atoll to hopefully see some mantas. Some cushions were provided on board, but it still wasn't exactly comfortable for the 2 hour trip there. The site was called Kashi Faru and we entered the water at the opening of a long channel. It was not our lucky day. There were no mantas and without them, the site wasn't very good. We ended up doing a fast drift. The only excitement was the occasional up and down current, some nice soft, starburst corals and a bug jellyfish at the end.

For lunch we moored up at an uninhabited island. The lunch was definitely better than the previous year. The small pack lunches had been replaced by a small buffet including chicken, savoury rice and fruit. It had been packed in cool boxes, so hadn't been stewing in the heat all morning.

The afternoon's dive was at Fares Gili and was excellent. The site consisted of a series of coral blocks alongside a wall. There were swim throughs, good table corals and soft corals, giant morays, oriental sweetlips, giant soldier fish and no fewer than 6 lobsters all sitting in an overhang. Maximum depth was a shade over 30m, so it was another reverse profile. Our dive time was 51 minutes. The only thing that spoilt the dive for me was the Italian moron that I had the misfortune to dive with. Apart from kicking the coral, he also had no clip on his octopus, so it dangled free and kept catching on the coral. I saw him break at least three bits of table coral as he pulled it off when it got caught. I could have quite cheerfully strangled him. The coral in the Maldives has got enough to worry about without people like him.

The following afternoon's dive was to Mamungau Tilla. It was another nice dive, with good corals and hundreds of orange basslets all over the reef. Our guide on the dive liked to point out small things on the reef. At one point, everyone was so busy looking at a nudibranch, that only my buddy and I saw the rather larger turtle that swam straight past us. She did also find a well camouflaged scorpion fish, the first I'd seen since my first dive of the holiday. The visibility wasn't that good. There was a lot of plankton in the water and it was down to 10m.

View of Meedhupparu from the sea
The next morning the weather wasn't too good. It was overcast and a bit windy, so our planned dive site was changed and we went back to Kukuludhoo Faru. We jumped in on the same corner as before in amongst the shoals of blue lined snapper. We then drifted along the wall and saw amongst other things, lots of anemone fish and a pipe fish. When we surfaced, it had started raining. On the way back, it got heavy, so the doors at the front of the dhoni were closed and the tarps at the side were lowered. This kept everyone nice and dry apart from the poor guy steering the boat. He was absolutely drenched standing at the back by the tiller. On the journey back, one of the instructors went around and asked if we'd like to do a dive at 2.30pm. It was for AOW divers or higher only because most of it was deeper than 18m. He also said it was only about 10 minutes from the island. Looking at the weather, there didn't seem much else to do, so I signed up.

As it happened, after lunch the sun came out and it was hot and sunny as we kitted up. We put our kit on whilst still at the jetty and set off. The 10 minute journey time had been an exaggeration. We only went about 50 yards from the end of the jetty, if that. We descended onto Naghili tilla. There were a couple of nice swim throughs, shoals of bat fish, loads of lion fish and blue finned trevally. We then finned over to another smaller tilla to finish the dive off there. It was a nice dive and I really didn't understand why they didn't do it more often given just how close it was to the island. Our dive time was shorter than normal at 43 minutes because most of the dive had been below 18m. The viz was better than the previous couple of dives at around 15m.

The final Friday afternoon was to be my last dive. It was a long way from Meedhupparu and it took about 50 minutes to get there. The site was called Labyrinth and it was a tilla which had been heavily eroded so that there were several canyons cut into it. A stingray conveniently swam past so that I could take its photo and there were some curious batfish. The most striking thing about this dive was just how many orange basslets there were. They must have numbered in their thousands and it was like swimming through orange snow at times. The viz was a slightly disappointing 10m, but it didn't really affect the dive. Maximum depth was 30.3m and we did 58 minutes in all. It was a good dive to finish on.

Sun setting over nearby Meedhu island

After what had not been the best start, things did improve on the diving front. The lack of daily afternoon dives was less than ideal for me and it's something that I will have to consider if I go back to Meedhupparu for a third time. If I'd known that there was a nice dive practically at the end of the jetty, I would have requested it a couple of times. As it's unlikely to be in the immediate future, all the dive staff will probably have changed anyway. Many of them were only on 6 month contracts. There were a lot of people doing courses and try dives whilst I was there, which was probably one of the reasons why there weren't enough staff to organise afternoon dives for certified divers every day. At the end I did get my discount card, but it's only valid for 3 years and I've got to keep it safe somewhere. Relying on logbook stamps to identify repeat visitors is so much simpler.

The viz was definitely down in the second week as we got further into the start of the wet monsoon, but the rain was only occasional and the diving was still good. Meedhupparu is still the only resort in Raa atoll, so the fish aren't as used to humans as in other parts of the Maldives. The surgeon fish don't play in your bubbles or bite your hair and they're a bit more skittish, so it's harder to take photos. Well that's my excuse anyway.

All the diving was done in groups led by a guide. By the end of the fortnight I was a bit fed up with having to follow sheep-like on every dive. I would have preferred the option of doing my own thing as I have with other Maldivian dive centres. It was nice to have so many British people on the dive boat. It was good having someone to chat to, even if dhonis are a bit noisy for long conversations. Discovering that four people had booked the holiday after reading my previous trip report was a bit scary, but they were still talking to me at the end, so I think they were happy.

The hotel itself is one of the best run that I've been to in the Maldives. It is bigger than most, so perhaps not as quiet, particularly as half the clientele are Italians, but it's still a very relaxing place to go and it is reasonably priced in comparison with other resorts. The only problem you're going to have with the food at Meedhupparu is the amount of weight you gain.

The flight home took off about 10 minutes early and was 25 minutes early by the time we reached Gatwick. Unfortunately, we then sat on the runway for 25 minutes as there were no available gates. I later heard the MyTravel plane was an hour late. Some things never change.