Ranveli, South Ari Atoll, March 2004

I was searching on the Lunnpoly website for holidays in the Maldives when I came across an island I'd never heard of called Ranveli. There was a substantial discount for the last 2 weeks in March, with £400 off, bringing the price down to £1020 per person for 2 weeks all inclusive. My first reaction was to wonder what was wrong with it. It seemed too good to be true, but I decided to go ahead and book it.

View from the jetty of the north shore
View from the jetty of the north shore
The Lunnpoly website didn't make this easy. Whenever I tried to go through the booking process, it said it was unavailable and invited me to book by phone, but this wouldn't get me the £20 web booking discount. Eventually I used Opera masquerading as Internet Explorer and it worked OK. They seemed to be deliberately blocking non-IE browsers. Why can't companies write their websites properly so that they conform to W3C standards? And why should non-Windows users pay more because they don't have IE available?

I opted not to go for the pre-bookable seats option. About a week before we were due to depart, I got a “courtesy call” from Lunnpoly. In fact they were trying to get me to pay extra for the pre-bookable seats and warned that we may not be able to sit together because the plane was quite full. I declined.

During check-in, they were strictly enforcing a 5kg weight limit on hand luggage. Mine only really had my camera, housing and flash gun in it, but it was still 7kg. Next time I'm going to wear clothes with lots of pockets. The whole situation really is a farce.

The flight was the last out of Gatwick that night. It originated in Manchester and was a bit late because apparently they'd had problems disengaging the tug. It was a 767 with a 2-4-2 seat configuration, so unsurprisingly on a flight with mostly couples, we had no problem getting two seats together. Britannia make a selling point of the fact that they have a 30” seat pitch on long haul flights, rather than the usual 28” pitch on most charter airlines. As the seats are still about 4” narrower than my shoulders, I still found it very uncomfortable and slept little even though we left at around 11pm.

The flight was uneventful. They only offered a drinks service once on the whole 9:45 flight. There was a main meal and a snack. The only other source of drinks were the onboard water fountains which tasted pretty foul. Arriving at Male airport, we had to wait for the Thomson rep to come onboard to give us information about what to do at the airport. This sage advice consisted of being told not to import alcohol, but not being told to declare it for retrieval on leaving, and to look for our tour reps when we'd cleared customs. I really wondered why they bothered.

View of the accommodation blocks
View of the accommodation blocks
Once we'd got our bags, we found our rep and were told to wait for the others before going to the speedboat. I bought a bottle of Coke for the less than bargain price of US$4 while we were waiting. The speedboat was a bit cramped and not that comfortable. The driver really hammered it doing about 30 knots and the splash screens weren't secured properly, so most people got a bit wet even though the sea was fairly calm. Most of the journey was over open ocean between the atolls, so it wasn't very interesting. However, we made it in 1½ hours, beating those who had paid extra for the seaplane, because they'd had quite a long wait.

Ranveli island is situated on the eastern edge of south Ari Atoll. It's to the south of the resort island of Villamendhoo and north of the inhabited island of Dhangethi. It's very small, probably the smallest Maldivian island I've ever stayed on. It is narrow and runs in an east-west direction. The eastern end is the staff accommodation and is newly reclaimed land. The vegetation hasn't grown back yet, so that end looks rather scruffy, though you can only really see it from a boat. The guest part of the island, in comparison, is very pretty. The plants are all laid out in neat flower beds and the whole place has the feel of a tropical garden.

The accommodation blocks are two storey, semi-detached with 4 rooms in each block. There are about 60 rooms. Each room was spacious, with air conditioning and a fridge. The bathroom had a bath, but no bath taps, only a shower head. I guess you could use that to run a bath, but water is pretty scarce in the Maldives, and I certainly didn't feel like having a warm soak. The only downside to the rooms was that it was very noisy when the people upstairs walked around. The light fitting quite literally rattled and the people upstairs in the second week were positively skinny.

We were on the north side of the island which had no beach. Instead there is a small sea wall. The water there was deep enough to swim at most states of the tide. About 15 yards from the edge was the reef and just beyond that, the sea floor dropped away vertically to about 20m before flattening out once more. There were some hard corals in very shallow water in places.

The south side of the island had a sandy beach and here the lagoon was very large and very shallow. It extended westwards way into the distance and the water was never more than knee-deep, so too shallow for swimming. Since the island is so small, it really doesn't make much difference which side your room is on. You can walk from one side to the other in less than 30 seconds. One side is better for the beach, the other side has the best snorkelling, so really you have the best of both worlds.

The dining room and main bar is on stilts over the lagoon on the south side. There just isn't room for it anywhere else, but it's an excellent idea because there's almost always a light breeze. On other islands the dining area is often too hot as they're located in the centre of the islands. There was also another bar, the pool bar, on the north side. This is obviously by the side of the small swimming pool and there is also a sun deck overlooking the sea.

View looking east at the island
View looking east at the island
Thomson guests were on an all-inclusive board basis. Like most Maldivian resorts, if you had to pay for your drinks, they weren't cheap. A soft drink was US$2, a small beer $3, a spirit and mixer was $5.50 and a bottle of water was $3. The prices were also subject to a 10% service charge. As usual, the all-inclusive package didn't include every drink, just soft drinks, beer, white and red wine, whisky, rum, gin and vodka. Anything else, such as cocktails, had to be paid for. As the Maldives doesn't have its own brands of alcohol, they were all well known internation brands. The beer was Heineken or Tiger, the whisky Johnny Walker, the rum was Barcardi and the wine was an Australian brand in a box. The bar staff were mostly Bangladeshi and were very helpful. If you were sitting on the sundeck, they'd come round and bring your drinks to you during the day.

The food was reasonable if a bit repetitive. There was more chicken and fish than anything else, but we did have beef and lamb too. There wasn't any pork though, so the only bacon available at breakfast was Beef Bacon, and it just isn't the same.

Breakfast started at 7.30am. There was the usual guy cooking omelettes, cereal, pastries and breads. It was pretty much the same every day. About the only variation was that they alternated between having beef bacon and chicken sausage in tomato sauce. The pastries were always exactly the same.

For lunch and dinner, there was always pasta available. A lot of the guests were Italian and traditionally it was mostly Italians at the resort. Then there was always soup, steamed rice, rice with bits in it, curry, some type of potato and three main meat based dishes. Certainly, finding something to eat was never a problem and I never went hungry. In common with other islands I've been to, the desserts weren't that great. The cakes were usually a bit tasteless or just tasted of sugar. They also did various mousses and there was always some type of fresh fruit, often pineapple.Outside of main meals, there were also snacks in the afternoon from the pool bar. There were some sandwiches made up and some biscuits and cakes.

In addtion to the couple of bars, there was also a shop which had quite a large selection of souvenirs, including T-shirts, wooden carvings and things made out of shells. They were in the process of building a gym, though things didn't seem to be progressing very fast. There was also a spa which offered various massages. And there was the dive school.

I put my head around the door on the Monday evening when we arrived. They guy running it was related to people who owned the hotel. He was out there for 3 months sorting things out and had about a month left. Unusually all the other dive staff were Maldivian. I tried to get out of having to do the checkout dive, but they weren't having it. Normally it was at 10.30am, but having had no sleep on the plane, I wasn't sure I'd get up in time, so we agreed to do it at 2.30pm.

The next morning I woke up at about half past six. So I had breakfast as soon as it opened and then sat outside the front of our room in the shade reading a book, watching two dive boats go out and wishing I was on them. That afternoon, I turned up at the dive school for the dive. There was one other person doing the dive, a PADI OWSI from England.

A juvenile Clark's Anemone fish
A juvenile Clark's Anemone fish

I have DIN regs which isn't a problem because most of their tanks were DIN/A-clamp convertible. I set up my equipment. The English woman had a more problems because her regs wouldn't seal on the first two tanks she tried. As they were perfectly standard Sherwood branded regs, it wasn't her kit that was the problem. Then the instructor started to set up his kit, and his regs didn't seal properly on the first tank either.

We went into the water and practised a couple of skills in the shallows. We had to clear our masks, donate our AAS and do a reg recovery. Then we went down over the wall of the housereef. The reef drops away to about 20m almost vertically in places and seems in reasonable condition. We made our way towards the west until we came to a small barge which lays in 28m and sank 20 years before when the resort was being built. There were lots of coral banded shrimps in the wreck itself with lots of big Sabre soldierfish underneath the bows. In addition we also saw no fewer than four stonefish, a couple of morays and a turtle, so it was a pretty good dive. Our maximum depth was around the barge at 28m and we did a full hour. Visibility was in the 20m range and the water temperature was 29ºC.

The next day we went out to the Ranveli wreck, a cargo ship which was sunk deliberately for divers and is about 5 minutes by boat westwards along the very large housereef. It lies in about 35m. We descended into the blue and came across the bow. I swam along the decking and then back to the superstructure and had a poke around inside the couple of rooms. It's Maldivian law that you're not supposed to dive below 30m, so I kept to 29m. Plenty of other people didn't though as they were definitely below me. After about 20 minutes, we'd pretty much seen everything, so I signalled to my buddy and we headed off to the nearby reef and finished off our dive there. Our total dive time was 44 minutes and when we got back on the boat, everyone else was already there. Looking at the dive log, they'd only done 25 minutes, so had been waiting for us for a while. Not that I felt guilty. It was the first time that I'd tried out my new camera setup in anger and I was pleased to find that everything seemed to work.

The following day was at a site called Alikoi Thila. Like many of their dive sites, it was located in the wide channel between Dhangethi and Dhigurah. It's smallish reef which is broken into five pieces, with swimthroughs between them. There was another dive boat on the same reef and at one point the instructor went and pulled off some idiot who was resting on the coral playing with the anemone fish. The fish life was good with two white tip reef sharks, a couple of Napolean wrasse, a big stingray and loads of oriental sweetlips in the overhangs. Depth was 28m and our dive time was 38 minutes. At the end of the dive, the instructor sent up his delayed SMB, a wise precaution given the amount of boat traffic around.

That afternoon I went to another site called Black Coral. This was another thila to the west. As the name suggests, there are quite a lot of black coral trees on this reef. There were also big shoals of blue trigger fish and black snapper and quite a lot of anemone fish, which all seemed to move just as I pressed the shutter on my camera. One of the problems I found is that the auto-focus is a bit slow and really I was just taking shots of them at random and hoping they'd be in a good position when the picture was actually taken. Still at least with digital, you can take as many shots as you like. If you dive in the morning, the dive centre rules were that you should limit the afternoon dive to 20m. I'd gone slightly over it at 21m on this dive and our dive time was 40 minutes.

The next morning, we went to Dhiga thila. This was another deep thila. My maximum depth was 28.6m and we did 45 minutes. During the dive we saw a couple of white tips, Napolean wrasse and what looked like a couple of small nurse sharks hiding under a coral block. There were also big shoals of blue-lined snapper.

A Napolean wrasse in the overhang at Kuda Rah Thila
A Napolean wrasse in the overhang at Kuda Rah Thila
That afternoon we went out and dived Orimas Faru. This is the ring shaped reef which lies between Ranveli and Villamendhoo. We were diving the wall on the outer side of the atoll. It started as a fairly standard Maldivian wall dive. I found a honeycombed moray and a giant moray to take a couple of pictures of. The current wasn't anything too strong until we got to the channel corner where it really picked up. Here there were big shoals of snapper and sweetlips, but we were going too fast to really see them. We did try to swim in the channel, but gave up fighting the current and drifted off into the blue. I sent up my DSMB and we did our safety stop in the blue water.

Unusually for me, I was still getting up early, so would have done the morning dive the next day. However, they were also running a full day trip, and my name was the only one down for the morning, so it was cancelled. The afternoon dive went ahead though. We went to Ranveli thila, which is about 5 minutes by boat to the south of the island. Visibility was about 25m and there were the familiar shoals of blue-lined snapper, a stingray and a white tip reef shark. My depth was a shade over 20m and we did 49 minutes. The end of the dive proved quite exciting. At the end of the reef, there was a sheltered area and it was here that I put up the DSMB. The current had started to run by this point, but as it came off the end of the reef, it started heading up. I started going up with it from 6m to 3m, and only by dumping all my air did I manage not to surface. At first I thought the DSMB was pulling me up, but a couple of others in my group, who hadn't deployed one were carried right up to the surface. My computer didn't seem unhappy, so I did my safety stop at about 4m and surfaced as normal.

The next day was another full day trip to Manta point near Rangali island on the west side of South Ari Atoll. I signed up and the boat left at 8.30am. When we got there, the current was too strong, so instead we went in on another reef nearby. The current wasn't as bad there, but it was still fairly strong, so we drifted along the wall. The water was thick with plankton, reducing the viz down to 15m and it looked soupy. The table coral was some of the best I've ever seen in the Maldives, with layer upon layer along the top of the reef. There were some really big grouper too. At the end, we started doing our safety stop, I clipped off my camera and a small manta swam past. By the time I'd unclipped the camera, it had disappeared again.

For lunch we went to a nearby uninhabited island and moored up the boat. I think normally they had lunch on the island itself, but the waves made this difficult, so we had it on the boat. The food was OK. After lunch, we went back to Manta Point. The dive itself was a bit of a cockup. The guide told us to go down to about 10m and wait for him. So we went in first, down to about 10m and waited. There were lots of Sabre soldierfish hanging around obligingly, so I took a few photos. After about 5 minutes, there was no sign of the guide, so we continued along getting gradually deeper down to about 19m. This was our mistake as we saw no mantas. The other group, who were ahead of us which was why we'd waited in vain, saw about 12. That said, it wasn't a bad dive. There were big grouper and trumpet fish hunting in amongst the shoals of blue triggerfish and we saw a turtle.

The next afternoon, we went to a site called Enderlhi Thila. There was myself, the instructor and an Italian couple. There were loads of blue-lined snapper in shoals around the thila. There were also both types of common anemone fish, Clark's and the black foot anemone. The host anemones were a red colour, something which is quite unusual. I've seen them once before on a site in North Ari Atoll. I also spotted a black and yellow striped moray, which are normally quite shy. This one lived up to their reputation and bolted before I had a chance to get close enough for a decent photo.

The following afternoon, it was back to Ranveli Thila. This time the current wasn't nearly as strong, so it was quite a leisurely dive, if somewhat uneventful. The highlight was seeing two turtles, one of which almost swam into me. I was too busy taking its picture to take avoiding action. Fortunately it did at the last minute.

The next morning, we were off to a place called Kuda Rah Thila. We were told that it was one of the best, if not the best dive site in south Ari atoll. It's a normal thila, but there are then a a few smaller blocks off the main reef, with a large overhang on the main thila and an archway between it and a smaller block. There were loads of fusiliers, blue line snapper, surgeon fish around the reef and in the overhangs. Large gorgonians were in the channels and there were a couple of Napolean wrasse too. Above the reef, big blue trevally and tuna hunted. Maximum depth was 24m and we did 48 minutes. The viz was much the same as normal at around 25m.

A red frogfish at Enderlhi Thila
A red frogfish at Enderlhi Thila
That afternoon, we went to Kuda Thila. “Kuda” means small in Dhivehi, which is why it's quite a common word in the names of some of the reefs. As it was such a small thila, we managed to get all the way round it. There was a stingray sleeping in a cave and the instructor with us had an eye for picking out scorpion fish. He managed to find at least 3. I wouldn't have seen any of them. There were also lots of anemone fish and black coral trees along the reef.

The following morning, we went to Villamendhu thila which is just by the island of the same name and only about 10 minutes away. There was myself, 6 Italians and the guide. I started to kit up as slowly as possible, but as usual, I was still ready before everyone else. At this point, two Italian women decided that actually their tank valves didn't fit their regulators. Why they hadn't noticed that they were leaking right at the beginning, I don't know. So we had to wait for them to change their tanks. We then all jumped in, got down to the bottom and the guide noticed that he'd lost a pair of them. He signalled to me which way to go and that the rest should follow. He then went back to get the others.

At this point, the two Italian women who couldn't check their tanks properly decided to head off downwards. I knew full well what they were doing. They were trying to set some sort of personal depth record. I ignored them and stayed with the other two. After all, it wasn't my responsibility. About 5 minutes later, they re-appeared and about 10 minutes after that the guide found us all again, with the other two in tow. The highlight of the dive was a big shoal of batfish and an equally big one of red bass. There were also quite a lot of sweetlips around the top of the reef. The guide was disappointed though. Apparently there are normally eagle rays, but I wasn't to see one on the whole trip. My maximum depth was 26m. Everyone else's on the sheet was 30m or shallower. Somehow, I think some of them lied.

Having lugged my torch along with me, I wanted to do a night dive. During my whole time there, only one had been done and that only happened because the Italian tour rep more or less organised it off his own bat. I'd only found out about it after the afternoon dive, so didn't really want to jump back in so quick.

The English woman also wanted to do one, so we asked if we could dive the house reef. They said OK, and we met up about about 6.30pm just before the sun went down. We had the usual farce with her regulator and leaking tank valves, but for the first time, there was a tank on which I couldn't get my DIN regs to seal either. Eventually we got ready and did a giant stride off the jetty, mainly for effect as we had an audience and it was a a few feet drop.

I had my UK DS4R with me, which is no where near as bright as my usual 10W HID, but perfectly good enough, especially in clear water. My buddy had a torch she hired off the dive school. It was pathetic, with a narrow, not particularly bright beam. At night, the coral polyps come out. During the day, you see small tubes, but the polyps are hiding inside. As soon as it gets dark, they come out to feed and there's a riot of bright orange everywhere. There were also loads of parrotfish settling down for the night and lots of crabs. Nearly every table coral seemed to have a small crab in it, and I also saw what I think is called a spider crab. Unlike the UK spider crab, it's very small and looks like a little spider. Just as we were coming up at the end, we saw 4 stingrays heading along the channel and out to the blue water in a line. It was a nice dive. However, I did feel that being charged a premium of $34 rather than the usual $26 was a bit rich considering that the two of us had gone in on our own, with no guide and that didn't include a torch. It's certainly the most expensive tank and weights hire I've ever paid.

Maldivian Sunset
Maldivian Sunset
The next day was another full day trip to Manta Point and one of the instructors was away in Male, so they didn't have anyone for the normal boat dives. The pair of us asked if we could do the house reef again. Eventually they agreed, though I didn't see why it was a big deal. On most islands, it's routine for people to dive the house reef together if they're sufficiently experienced.

On arriving at the shop, the tank they'd left for me looked suspiciously like the one that didn't seal the night before. It was. There were also two other tanks. On one of them, the DIN insert was too tight to get out. The other one also didn't seal. All three of them failed to seal with my buddy's Sherwood regs and and with mine after I put my Posiedon A-clamp adaptor on. I wasn't very happy to put it mildly.

When I ran into the dive school manager, he happened to be sitting with the hotel manager. No-one had told him what had happened. He soon found out. About 20 minutes later, I decided that I would do the following morning's dive. The dive shop was a hive of activity and the tanks seemed to be the focus of attention.

The morning's dive was return to Kuda Rah Thila. I got the feeling I wasn't Mr Popular, but didn't care much. It was dive no. 666 for me, which perhaps should have warned me. The dive was pretty much like last time, but with a white tip reef shark. One of the Napolean wrasse got close enough to get a couple of pictures. Only problem was that, by the time I fired off a couple of frames, I looked around and my group seemed to have disappeared. Fortunately, the other group off my boat were nearby so I followed them until I met up with my own group again. What I didn't realise was that I was the only one with a DSMB. Our guide hadn't brought his because I had one. Unfortunately, as I went to deploy it, the bungee I use to attach it to the reel caught around the reel. I didn't have time to undo it, so just had to let go. I got it back on the surface though after we'd all made a free ascent.

My last dive was to Enderlhi thila again. I couldn't help but notice that most of the tanks on the boat this time seemed to have shiny new tank valves. There were the usual batfish and snapper, but this time there was a new addition. The guide found a red frogfish. At first I didn't realise what it was, but soon I and another guy were snapping away at it. It soon got fed up of the attention and decided to swim off. I ended up with one frame half filled with an out of focus red blob as it came towards me. At first I thought it was going to settle on me, but it swam off using its stubby, leg-like fins.

So in the end I did 17 dives. The price of a dive was $26 if you had your own kit. As is often the case in the Maldives, the boat isn't included in that. It was $10 a dive or $18 for two dives on the same day. The full day trip was $20 for the boat. There were packages if you did more dives, but you really didn't save much. A 10 dive package was $247, saving a mere $13 off the price of 10 individual dives. All the prices were also subject to a 10% service charge. This is the first Maldivian island I've been to where they imposed this on dive prices.

The diving was good, and apart from the tank valves incident, which they seemed to have fixed, everything went well. The sites were all good and most of them weren't that far away. There are a number of resorts in the area, so it was a bit more crowded than some places in the Maldives, but these things are relative. In this case, crowded meant there might be two other boats of about 10 people each on the same site. It's hardly comparable with the Red Sea.

On the trip back to the airport, we had a different boat. This one was called Sultan's Infantry and was far better than the boat we had on the ride out. The sea was absolutely flat calm for the last 3 days, but spray wouldn't have been a problem on this boat anyway. On the way back, we saw a couple of dolphins somersaulting into the air, which was nice.

The holiday proved to be a bargain. I don't know why there was such a big discount. There was certainly nothing wrong with the place. It was a fairly typical, small Maldivian resort island. The staff were helpful and friendly. At the end of the trip, they presented you with the bill. As we were on the all inclusive package, our drinks were free, but the bill showed how much we would have paid. It's amazing how quickly it mounts up.

The flight home was a long one because it stopped in Manchester on the way, so it wasn't that convenient for those of us going to London. I think next time I go with Thomson, I might opt for leaving the UK on a Monday rather than a Sunday because that flight goes direct from London.

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