Velidhu, North Ari Atoll, December 2002/January 2003

Ever since our trip to Fesdu, the Travel Collection have been sending me information on holidays. One dropped through the letter box in June with details of a Christmas break on Velidhu in North Ari Atoll. It wasn't cheap, at £2199 per person for 14 nights all-inclusive, but the idea of spending Xmas and New Year in the warm really appealed. So we booked it.

The flight was with Monarch, who I have always found to be one of the better charter airlines. It was direct from London Gatwick to Male and it took off on time. Soft drinks were complimentary and they even gave you wine with your meals. At 100ml, it was very small, but it was also warm and not very nice, so that was the good news. The plane was an Airbus and it had very uncomfortable seats. Getting any sleep proved to be practically impossible, so it was a long 10½ hours.

The Maldivian Air Taxi
Male airport was very busy, probably the busiest that I'd seen it. Our luggage didn't take that long to arrive and we went to find our rep. We had only paid for a boat transfer, which takes a couple of hours. However, they had put us on the seaplane, probably because there were only two couples going to Velidhu. It probably didn't save us much time, as we had to wait almost two hours for our seaplane flight. Still it was more comfortable and I always enjoy the flight. You get a great view of the islands and reefs.

The flight first went to Kuramathi, in Rasdhoo atoll. This took about 20 minutes. Then it was only a 5 minute hop to Velidhu. Velidhu is run by a Sri Lankan company, John Keells. A majority of the staff at the hotel were Sri Lankan, with some Bangladeshis. According to our waiter, only about a third of the staff were actually Maldivian.

We arrived at the island, checked in and went to see our room. The accommodation consisted of individual huts with corrugated roofs which were covered with palm thatch to look the part. The main room was large and there was a largish bathroom with a shower. Both hot and cold water were available, though the hot packed in for the last two days of the holiday. Even in a hot climate, it's surprising how cold that water felt. Unlike many islands, the bathroom was completely roofed in. There was also a fridge for the mini-bar, but this wasn't included in the all-inclusive package, not even the soft drinks. There was an air-conditioning unit and a ceiling fan. Outside the room was small patio with a couple of plastic chairs and a table. There was also an outdoor tap for washing the sand off your feet. The beach was about 10 yards away. Further along the island were some water bungalows.

After some sleep, we went to check out the bar and the dining room. The bar was on the beach, with some plastic chairs out in the open and some more comfortable ones inside. Our package meant that we were allowed basic spirits, beer and soft drinks. Wine was only allowed in the dining room with meals. We were also allowed cocktails from a special list. There was a waiter service and they were very friendly. Unfortunately, the beer was often not very cold, so I tended to stick to rum based cocktails. I was glad that I wasn't paying for them. Many guests were on a half-board basis. The cocktails I was drinking were US$8 each. Even the mocktails with no alcohol in them were US$7.50. And I don't think those prices included the service charge either.

One of the huts
The dining room operated on a buffet basis. You are allocated a table and a waiter for your stay. The island wasn't full, it was at about 70% occupancy, so we had a table to ourselves. The choice of food was reasonable. It was mostly European with an Italian night and a Chinese night once a week. They often had some really nice Australian beef, but the pork could be a bit on the tough side. The worst thing about the food was that, unlike the beer, it was sometimes cold. We always went to meals soon after they started, and some dishes were cold already.

We arrived on the 22nd December. The locals obviously don't celebrate Xmas, as it's a Muslim country, but the island had been decorated with lights and Xmas trees. There were special dinners arranged on both Xmas Eve and New Years Eve. There was also entertainment planned long into the early hours. The slight catch was that after midnight, you had to pay for your drinks.

Unfortunately, the hotel management seemed to view Xmas as a chance to get some more money out of you. During meals the day before, they tried to sell us bottles of champagne. They were charging $83 a bottle. Needless to say, I wasn't interested. They also had some other bottles of wine at $30-$35. One of the $30 bottles was Mateus Rose. You can buy a bottle of that for £3.47 in my local supermarket and I chose not to. So I politely said “no thanks” and he didn't go away. He gave us the hard sell and I struggled to hide my annoyance.

The Xmas Eve meal was impressive. There were lots of extra choices and a barbeque grill. The entertainment in the bar afterwards was a bit less impressive. They had a DJ and he was quite popular in his slots. They also had a guy playing the keyboards and singing. The problem was that he didn't really seem to know the words. Of if he did, he couldn't say them properly. So he made a sound a bit like the real words. The end effect was vocals that sounded almost like they were being gargled. “Baby don't hurt me” became “Waygee don oort me” for example. We were still suffering from jet lag, so the price of the drinks after midnight became academic. We went to bed at 10:15pm.

The singer came back for other nights in the bar, but we also had hermit crab racing one night. You buy a crab. They're placed in the middle of a circle under a bucket. When the bucket is removed, the first crab to get out of the circle is the winner. They also had bingo one night. We must have missed the part where they told us it was going to cost $4 + service charge for a ticket, because I was a bit surprised to be presented with the bill for $10 the next day. Fortunately, we won both a line and the full house, so got a bottle of Chianti and a bottle of Hardy's sparkling wine.

The sun rising over the beach and sunbeds, complete with German towels
New Year's Eve was a similar affair. Again we got given the hard sell on the wine. Again I said no. One of the foods on offer was roast turkey. I watched the chef slice into it and the centre was raw. It wasn't just pink, it was red. It looked like it hadn't been defrosted properly. Now you don't have to be much of a food hygiene expert to know that this is a really bad idea. Even worse, he only had one knife and was using it to cut all the other roasted joints of meat.

The entertainment in the bar that night was much the same as it had been on Xmas Eve. This time we did manage to make it to midnight and see in the New Year, but only just. The next morning, my stomach wasn't very happy. Over the next couple of days, it became clear that I wasn't alone. There were several people cancelling their dives and even some of the dive staff were affected. I think I got off lightly, because I did hear that some people were a bit feverish.

The dive school on the island was run by Euro Divers. I popped in on my first day to sort out the paperwork. It was run by a guy called Tom, who described himself as “having a German passport”. Every Maldivian island I'd been to so far had insisted on an orientation dive. On Velidhu they take you in on the house reef for about 20 minutes or so with an instructor. There were two important differences from the other islands. The orientation dive was free, and it wasn't compulsory if you'd dived recently. I chose not to do it and signed up for the afternoon dive on the following day.

I was given a bit of a tour and sorted out the paperwork. They had 4 other instructors, one from England, one from Argentina, one from Switzerland and one from Japan. So they could cater for quite a large range of languages. They also had 32% nitrox, which was supplied by a membrane system. I was told that I could have it for free, an offer I took up.

They run two dives a day, one at 9am and one at 2.15pm. About once a week they also do a night dive, and there's a weekly full day trip to some sites further away. They also do their “Crazy Trip”, which involves getting up at 3.30am for a 4am departure for Rasdhoo Atoll. You then dive at dawn and hopefully see the resident hammerheads coming up from the deep. I didn't do the trip. The English couple that arrived with us did, and only saw one hammerhead. There is also a housereef which you can dive when you like. The prices are on the website and as is often the case in the Maldives, don't include the boat. The boats are owned by the hotel and it cost an extra $10 a dive. The hotel had someone standing by the jetty to make you sign before you got aboard, which seemed a little over the top.

Kit is loaded onto the boats for you. They then unload it, so that you can wash it and hang it up. If you want to do a shore dive, it's done from the main jetty. They have a trolley which they use to deliver and collect your kit for you. Any effort to help unload your kit usually resulted in Tom telling you off for doing his job when you're supposed to be on holiday.

The first dive was to a place called Kuda Faru Thila. The dive site was a couple of thilas, or deep reefs. There was minimal current for a change, so it was quite easy. There were the usual clouds of redtooth or blue trigger fish everywhere. There were the two common types of anemone fish, Clark's and the black-foot or Maldives anemone fish. Other highlights included a bridled parrotfish, titan trigger fish, oriental sweetlips, a big nudibranch and some pillow stars. My maximum depth was 21.5m and the dive time was 40 minutes. The viz was around the 15m mark and there was a fair bit of plankton in the water. The water was its usual 28ºC.

Duck, here comes a porcupine fish
The next day was Xmas day. I signed up for the afternoon dive again, which was the only dive of the day as they were shut in the morning. This one was Gangehi Kandu. Kandu means channel in Dhiveli, and we had a current going out. There was a nice overhang at 20m at the start. This then opened out into lots of ledges as we got nearer to the outer atoll wall. There were loads of soft corals, pufferfish, harlequin sweetlips, clouds of basslets and two white tip reef sharks. This was also the first time I was trying out my new MX10 camera. I almost collided with a porcupine fish. Swimming around just looking through the viewfinder has its drawbacks. The viz was a bit worse this time at about 10m. The depth was 22.5m and the dive time was 47 minutes. It was one of the most pleasant ways I've found of passing some time on Xmas day.

On the third day, I still hadn't managed to psyche myself up for the morning dive, so we were off to Gemburuga West in the afternoon. It's a reef inside the atoll and is a wall dive. There were caves full of glass fish, three morays including a zebra moray, the usual clouds of fusiliers and blue-lined snapper, porcupine fish, lion fish, starry rabbit fish and some really big grey sweetlips. The plankton made the water quite bitty and reduced the viz down to around 10m, but with all those fish about, it didn't really matter.

I finally made a morning dive on the 27th. We went to a place called Nika Point, which is a small reef with a lot of fish life. There are also a couple of reasonable swimthroughs. This time I saw a napolean wrasse, flowery grouper, more sweetlips and a load of blue fined trevally. The depth was around 28m and it only comes up to 15m, so the dive time was a relatively short 36 minutes.

The afternoon, after a 4½ hour surface interval, we went to Hafza Thila. Before entry, we were warned about the surgeon fish. I've only seen the behaviour in the Maldives, but they've discovered that they like to swim in your bubbles. At Hafza Thila, they had got a bit more aggressive and sometime try to bite your hair. Like gentleman, they apparently prefer blondes. They only hang around in the shallows, so I did a feet first descent and they left me alone. I'm also probably not blond enough for them. There were more snapper, fusiliers, a big tuna, trevally, emperors and the first bat fish I'd seen this holiday. In the shallows on the top of the reef, there was a nurse shark under a rock. One of its shark suckers had swum off and decided to hang onto a large parrotfish. The parrotfish wasn't very happy about this and was charging around trying to dislodge it. It was very amusing and reminded me of my similar experience when diving out of Airlie Beach, Australia.

The following afternoon, we went out the Galla Giri South. In Dhiveli, a giri is a reef which is shallower than a thila, but doesn't become uncovered at low tide, unlike a faru. The site itself was a wall which bottomed out at around 25m. There was the usual stuff and a big shoal of blue-lined snapper, some morays and the first turtle of the trip. As I stuck to 19m depth, I managed to get a 61 minute dive in, which is a minute longer than I was supposed to, but they didn't tell me off. The viz wasn't that good though at around 10m.

Blue-lined snapper are everywhere
The next day, I was booked onto the full day trip. The boat costs $30 instead of the usual $10 per trip. Lunch is provided, but drinks aren't. You have to pay for them, even if you're on an all-inclusive basis, so I took a bottle of water with me. The first site was Mahlos Thila. This reef is in the middle of the channel to the outer reef, so it gets a fair bit of current. There wasn't much when we dived it, so we were able to go all around the reef. The colours were amazing. There were overhangs everywhere covered in soft corals in blues, whites, yellows and oranges. There were loads of blue-lined snapper, bit gorgonians and a white tip reef shark. The top of the thila was covered in hard corals, with row upon row of table coral. It had obviously never been affected by the coral bleaching a few years ago. Depth was 28m and the dive time was 42 minutes.

After the dive, we went over to Malhos, the nearby island. It was Saturday, so the kids weren't at school and we seemed to provide the afternoon's amusement. We did have the option of going ashore, but it meant a swim, so we didn't bother. Lunch was spaghetti, bread, chicken, fish and some baked potatoes. However, it hadn't been kept cool, so both the fish and the chicken had been sitting in 30ºC heat for at least 3 hours, probably longer. As it turned out, I suffered no ill-effects, but it is asking for trouble.

The second dive was Fesdu wreck. This is a fishing boat which was sank deliberately for dives. I'd last dived it in 1995, when I hadn't been too impressed. In the following years, it's been colonised by lots of life and is now really colourful. There were lots of glassfish under the rails on the deck. Every now and then a blue fin trevally would barrel straight through the middle of them at high speed. The wreck itself is now covered in gorgonians and trees of black coral. There is a small cargo hold, which didn't have anything much in it other than a few soldierfish. There is another open hatch which shows the prop shaft. As we were told not to penetrate the wreck, I didn't go down there. It looked very tight and I only had a shorty wetsuit, so my knees weren't protected. After going around the wreck a couple of times, we moved off onto the nearby thila to finish our dive. Depth was 29m and the dive time was 42 minutes.

The next afternoon, we went to Gaagandhu Faru. This was a wall dive and we went along with the moderate current. At one place, there's a small bay in the wall. Here there were blue-lined, yellow tail and black tail snapper. There was also a white tip reef shark hanging around and two giant grouper. There were also three morays, a spiny lobster in a small cave and lots of three spot angelfish. There were also loads of Clark's anemonefish and the anemones they were living in were a deep shade of red. They were about the same colour as a blood orange. My maximum depth was 28m and my dive time was 47 minutes.

Turtle
The following morning was New Year's Eve.The dive site was Dinolhu Gaadhu Thila, otherwise known as manta point. It was a reasonable reef with lots of overhangs full of soft, blue coral. I saw a big tuna but didn't see any mantas. One pair said they saw one, but the rest of us were unlucky. On the way back, the captain suddenly changed direction over towards a nearby island. He's spotted some mantas near the surface. We went over and jumped in to go snorkelling with them. There were about 8, in two groups of 4. I got really close to them. At one point one swam underneath me so close that I could have touched it. The water was full of plankton including things that stung. As I'd jumped in without my wetsuit, I got a few stings. They didn't hurt much, but they did itch for a couple of days.

The afternoon dive was called Fushi Faru and was another wall dive in strong current. The tides were getting closer to springs, so the current seemed to be increasing in the afternoons. The wall went down to about 25m where it flattened out. There were redtooth trigger fish everywhere, loads and loads of them. I also found 5 morays, a scribbled pufferfish, and a big tuna swam over to us for a closer look. For once a stonefish was easy to find too and it was a red colour against a sandy background. Depth was 25m and the dive time was 52 minutes. It was a nice way of finishing off the year's diving.

I didn't dive on New Year's Day mainly because my stomach was playing up. The following morning, we went down to Maaya Thila. This is a famous dive and it was busy. Up until this point we'd had most dive sites to ourselves. Only once had there been another boat at a site and they only had a couple of divers. This time, there were four other boats including a liveaboard. The dive guide thought that all the sharks would have disappeared by now, but I saw a white tip as soon as I hit the water. There were a couple of grey reef sharks, loads of fusiliers and some really big, thin fish. I think they were crocodile needlefish as they're the only thing that can grow up to a metre long. My maximum depth was 26.6m and I almost made the hour with 58 minutes dive time.

That afternoon, we went to Kuda Faru. It was another drift along a wall. There was one bommie in particular that had loads of glassfish in and around it. I saw my second turtle, several lion fish, morays, schools of black tailed snapper, some sailfin surgeons and a group of brightly coloured power blue surgeons. I also got bitten by a fish. It was an imposter blenny. They're only little and attack larger fish's fins and scales. It did a hit and run job on me. My maximum depth was 21m and dive time was an hour. The viz was around 12m.

The next day we went to Kuda Giri. I was diving with a Japanese woman. Her husband wasn't diving because he didn't feel very well. We didn't have a language in common at all, but then, it doesn't really matter underwater. We went along a wall with the current until about two thirds of the way through when the current turned and we changed direction. It was a reasonable dive with shoals of blue-lined and black tail snapper. I found an octopus as he dived back into his hole. Depth was 23.5m, dive time was an hour.

The beach with water bungalows in the distance
The next morning, we were going to Nika Point again. As the site is so small, it's quite hard to find, particularly in 12m viz. There weren't many of us, so we were on the smaller dhoni. Tom had brought his GPS with him. We all jumped in together and went down quickly. And it was the wrong reef. It was fairly unexceptional with not that much coral life. However, an unexceptional dive in the Maldives, is still pretty good. There were big shoals of yellow back fusiliers and a couple of spiny lobsters in a small hole. I've paid for a lot worse dives in other parts of the world. Back on the surface, and Tom was very apologetic and said he wouldn't charge us for the dive. We still had to pay the $10 for the boat, because that money goes to the hotel, but that was it. I think the couple who saw a group of 5 white tip reef sharks got a really good deal on that dive.

That afternoon and it was back to Gaagandhu Faru. The current was strong and the viz was a pretty rotten 7m. Even so, it was a dive on which I saw shoals of black tail and yellow tail snappers, a couple of napoleans, a white tip reef shark and another octopus. You don't really need great viz was there are fish everywhere. Maximum depth was 21m and we stayed down for the hour.

On my last diving day, we went out to Nika Point again. Tom had sacked himself from the job. Rather than relying on European amateurs and technology, we had an all local crew as Leela was leading the dive. We also had the more experienced skipper and the bigger boat. It still took them a while to find it, and quite how they did it, I don't know. It's hard to see what transit points they could have used, but find it, they did. I was pretty glad about that, because it turned out to be a great dive. There were fish everywhere, big shoals of fusiliers and jacks, with big tuna prowling around. There was a white tip reef shark, lots of grouper and rock cods, and two napoleans. One of them was probably the biggest I've ever seen. It was huge. It was certainly a high point on which to finish off the diving.

In all, I did 17 dives, which is the most I've done on a single holiday in the Maldives. This was despite the fact that I didn't dive on New Year's day. It wasn't cheap. The whole lot, including boat trips worked out at just under $600. The dives were good though. The viz wasn't the greatest as there is a lot of plankton around at that time of year, but if there's no plankton, you don't see the mantas. Mahlos Thila, Maaya Thila, Nika Point and Fesdu wreck were probably the highlights. Snorkelling with the mantas was also good.

The end of another stressful day
What was really good to see was how well the coral is recovering. I've been out regularly since the bleaching occurred. In the shallows, there is still quite a lot of dead stuff, though there were healthy patches of staghorn, complete with resident humbugs, in the lagoon around the island in a couple of inches of water. The coral near the jetty, which is where most people snorkel didn't look that great, but that may have had more to do with people kicking it. On the dives, below 10m, it looked fine. Some of the shallow tops of the reefs still look a bit bare, but it's hard to know if that's all down to the bleaching. When I first dived there in 1995, there were reef tops that were quite bare. In some places the currents and the wave action are too strong to allow significant coral growth.

As ever, the fish life was prolific. On just about every dive, there were big shoals of triggerfish, fusiliers and snapper. It's hard to capture just how many different types of fish you see in the dive reports. On arrival at the airport, I bought a Photo Guide to Fishes of the Maldives (ISBN 187641018-3). As this only has Maldivian fish in it, it made identification easier.

The Monarch flight home left a bit late because people had missed their seaplane transfers. Then we had to wait for a couple of other planes because there is only one runway and one taxiway. Sleep was once again impossible and my comfort wasn't really helped by the woman behind who dug her knees in my back most of the way home. I hope someone does the same to her on her next flight. I think I might look at paying the extra for premium cabin next time. 28” of legroom just isn't enough.

Euro Divers on Velidhu are highly recommended. Nothing was too much trouble. When I wasn't feeling that good, they gave me some tablets for free. It's the first island I've been to where they hand around chunks of fresh pineapple after the dive. It's great for getting the salt out of your mouth and a definite improvement on the usual bits of coconut, which always make me cough.

Would I got back to the island, though? I think the answer has to be no. The bar staff were very friendly and helpful. The management were annoying with their pressure selling, but the real reason has to be the food. The variety was reasonable but I don't expect to be served part-raw poultry anywhere, let alone in a 4* hotel.

The Maldives is definitely a good place to spend Xmas. The rain stops mid-December and we had great weather every day. Daytime temperatures were around 31ºC every day. It was a bit windy on a few days, but it never really affected the diving. The only day it rained was the last day and it started just as we entered the airport building. Arriving back at a freezing cold Gatwick airport was a bit depressing though.