The flight to Male, the capital of the Maldives, is quite a long one. It took something like 9 hours to Abu Dhabi, 1 hour to walk round duty free, followed by a further 4 hours. Still at least, they'd almost finished the new airport building, so it was a lot better than last year. They might even switch the air conditioning on next year too.
We were going to Fesdu, which is more or less in the middle of the Ari Atoll. It's about an hour and a half by speedboat or 30 mins by seaplane. We took the seaplane, which wasn't as quick as it could've been, as we had to wait an hour and threequarters whilst they ferried people to other islands.
Eventually, we did get to Fesdu though. Fesdu is a small island, you can walk round it in 10 minutes and the accomodation consists of about 50 huts, mostly within about 20 yards of the waterfront. The huts had just been ungraded to have air conditioning and hot, albeit a bit intermittant, water. They'd also managed to put the mixer tap on round the wrong way in the shower. There's also a dining room and a bar, but that's it for the entertainment. The paths around the island are sandy, so there's no real reason to wear shoes for the entire holiday. Most people, including me, don't bother.
We were on an all-inclusive package, as all British and German guests are, which included soft drinks, wine, beer, most spirits and a range of cocktails. If you actually have to pay for your drinks, it's expensive, because everything is imported. The prices we would've paid are as follows:
1.5 Litre bottle of mineral water US$3.50
Can of Carlsberg US$3.00
Bottle of Coke US$2.00
Black Russian Cocktail US$7.00
It certainly wouldn't take long to run up a huge bar bill. And don't think of bring in duty free drinks from Abu Dhabi, because it's illegal and they X-ray most baggage on entry. The Maldives is an islamic state, and alcohol is only available on the tourist islands, which are all separate from the native islands. Alcohol isn't available on liveaboards, so they call occasionally at the tourist islands.
So onto the diving. There's obviously only one dive school, with 2 PADI instructors, on the island and the prices are fairly high. A 10-dive package with weights and a tank was US$245. It wasn't much more expensive with all equipment, US$295, and the equipment looked pretty new and was well known brands (US Divers, Seaquest, Mares etc). This doesn't include boat exits which vary between US$6-10, mostly 10. A night dive was US$31, which didn't include a torch, which was another US$7.
They do 2 boat dives a day. One at 8.15am and one at 2.15pm. I only made the 8.15 one once. You could also dive the housereef if you were sufficiently qualified and had a buddy.
So anyway, we showed them our certification (PADI AOW & CMAS 1*), though they never looked at our logbooks, and filled the standard waivers. Then we had to do a check-out dive with one of the instructors on the housereef. So after a rather half hearted mask clear on my part, well I do have contact lenses, and a regulator recovery, we went off on a nice introductory dive to 28m. Just to break us in, so to speak. It was a pretty good dive and we managed to see plenty of life including lion fish and a reef shark.
After that we were allowed to buddy dive. without having to follow a DM. They pretty much let us do as we liked. They'd give a dive brief before entry and then you'd be off.
Most of the diving is done from a boat called a dhoni, which is a traditional boat, with cover from the sun and a diesel motor. The air temperature was 30 degrees everyday and the water temperature varied between 28 and 29. It did rain a couple of time we were there, including quite a heavy thunderstorm, but this was unusual because February is normally very dry. I wore a T-shirt and shorts and didn't have a problem feeling cold. Some people did wear wetsuits and gloves, but I think it was pretty unnecessary. The visibility wasn't that great, certainly not as good as last year, because it was quite windy while we were there. It was never worse than 8m though, and on some dives it was close to 20m. The dive sites were basically of two types: farus and tillas.
A faru is a coral wall, usually in a large circle, which rises up from anywhere between 40-20m at the bottom to just above or below the surface. For these, the usual dive brief was to keep the wall to whichever side they specified and just swim along it. The boat would follow the bubbles and them pick people up as they surfaced. No-one used SMBs, the surface of the sea was always pretty calm, so spotting divers on the surface wasn't difficult. The bigger fish tend to hang out in the 20m+ region, so it was well worth starting the dive off quite deep then gradually rising up the wall as you went along. Since the reef went practically to the surface, you could more or less suck the tank dry if you so wished. There were no restrictions on having to leave the water with 50bar. I think computers really are essential for this sort of diving. You could hire them, but it was expensive. They appeared to be Scubapro bottom of the range computers and were very conservative. In plan mode, they gave you 11 mins at 30m, which is almost half what a Suunto will give you.
A tilla is a smaller formation that rises up from the bottom like a small hill. They don't reach the surface and are often as deep as 8m to the top of the reef. We could usually swim round the tillas we dived at least once on a dive, often almost twice.
There's also a couple of wrecks. One near Fesdu, which I saw last time I went there, and it's really not worth the bother. The other one is called the Halaveli wreck. We went there twice, though it's probably only worth a look once. The wreck itself isn't that outstanding, though there is quite a lot of life there, but the main attraction are the stringrays. You can see up to 3 of them, but you're practically guaranteed to see one, and it's very friendly. In fact some would say over-friendly as it likes to rub itself up against you. This can be quite disconcerting if it does it when you're not looking. The current at the wreck can be quite strong, it was the second time we went, so they did restrict this dive to people who had a reasonable amount of logged dives. You also have to be fairly careful about hanging onto the ship rails, because there's quite a lot of fire coral about. I managed to get bitten by a fish, which objected to where I'd put my hand. It was all of 2 inches long, though incredibly agressive. When I didn't move it had several attempts to bite me again.
So what were the highlights? Well I managed to see white tip reef sharks, normal reef sharks, some turtles, stingrays, eagle rays, stonefish, scorpionfish, lion fish and lots of others that I don't know the names of. The night dives were very good and on a nearby reef called Fesdu Top. This has a number of shallow caves in the coral wall, so there's always plenty of things to see spending the night in there, such as puffer fish and lobsters. There was one cave which had about 8 lobster in it. Their eyes glow very brightly in your torch light making for a rather eerie experience. The soft corals also come out at night so the walls are a riot of bright orange.
Another great dive was Hoholla Faru. This faru had a number of shallow caves big enough to swim into. The ceiling and walls were very honeycombed, which allowed fish to swim in and out of a variety of hiding places. The ceiling also seemed to be covered in long dead, and coral encrusted clam shells.
I would thoroughly recommend the Maldives, but you should be aware that diving there is not entirely suited for beginners. The currents can be strong. We did one dive on the housereef which consisted on 15 mins against the current and about 5 mins back with it. In fact some days you could actually see the water flowing past the island. This did mean we had some fairly effortless drift dives on farus, but when diving a tilla, you were swimming againt the current for a substantial part of the dive. It's also possible to get quite deep. The bottom drops away to 40+m, so bouyancy control is essential. One of the good things about the Maldives is that the sheer number of dive sites, means that there's rarely a problem with sites becoming overcrowded. The only site at which we saw another boat was the Halaveli wreck, although this may not be true in atolls other than the Ari one, which has fewer resort islands.
We booked through the Travel Collection, who are a part of Kuoni Travel. The price for a fortnight starting 18th February was £1299 all-inclusive plus insurance. Prices drop later in the year to under £1000 during the wet season. The Germans, who outnumbered the British, especially on the dive boat, were booked through a company called Tui. The resort itself is owned by Universal Resorts.