I love Manta rays!
Manta rays are some of the most amazing creatures to encounter underwater and I look forward to every chance I get to dive with them, so when I was told I was going to a hotspot for all things Manta, the Maldives, I knew I was in for a great time! I had heard plenty about the place and seen all the awesome photos and videos people had taken there but actually diving it myself was something sorely missing from my logbook.
I would be spending a week with Emperor Maldives on board their newest ship, the Emperor Serenity, doing the Best of the Maldives itinerary hoping to see all sorts of shark and ray action. It had been many years since my last encounters with manta rays and whale sharks so it would be great see them again.
Flying with Qatar Airways via Doha, the flights were very comfortable and easy. I last flew with Qatar around 6 years ago and it’s good to see that the quality of their service is still very high. The seats had plenty of room, enough that my 6ft frame could stretch out quite comfortably and the food service on board was top notch. I’m not sure if I like the external camera during take-off and landing but it’s an interesting addition for sure!
Upon landing in Male I was met by one of Emperor Maldives representatives who escorted me to the dock where Serenity’s dhoni was ready to meet us. The dhoni is where we would be doing all dive related activities from, leaving more room on board the main boat and ours, called Leaf, is a fantastic, huge and well laid out diving platform. There was plenty of space for all of us to kit up throughout the week without being on top of each other and all in all made for a fantastically easy diving experience.
The Emperor Serenity itself really is a sight to behold! Finished towards the end of 2016, she is one of the newest boats in the Maldives. The largest boat in the fleet, yet still only holding at maximum 26 people, the rooms are super spacious and stunningly appointed. Most of the rooms are doubles with a single bed as well, as mine was, all of which are possibly the most comfortable rooms I’ve ever had on a liveaboard. The bathroom was bigger than my bathroom at home! The majority of the cabins are on the lower deck, with the main deck housing the spacious dining and saloon areas, as well as two cabins. The upper deck is where you can find one of the sun decks, the wheelhouse and the last three cabins. Topping off the ship is another sun decks at the very top for those amongst us keen to get tanned (of which I am not one!). Everything about the vessel says luxury and comfort, I often found it hard to peel myself out of the comfortable sofas to go out for a dive! Finally, the food was delicious, varied and in no short supply. Every meal was simply excellent, a thought shared by my fellow divers, so if you fancy getting a taste of the Maldives while you are at sea then the Serenity is the place to do it. Not only this, evening meals are served with a glass of wine, red or white, which is a great little extra.
We were also introduced to our three guides for the week; Yaqui and Nuria, two Spanish ex-pats who were a great laugh and made every briefing both fun and interesting, and Muaz, a local Maldivian with a wicked sense of humour. They helped us with setting up our kit and got us pumped for the week ahead telling us about all the things to expect on our trip. ‘Shark Action’ was promised many times, I sure hoped they could deliver. After dinner and some more information about the diving, we hit the hay excited about the week ahead.
We started early. At 5:45 there was a knock at the door summoning us to the first dive of the trip. After some much-needed coffee, the briefing began. The site was called the Fish Factory, so named because of a tuna processing and canning factory just above us on the shore. We were told that while the reef wasn’t much to look at, the fish life was there in abundance due to fish remains being thrown into the sea. After kitting up and jumping in, we were not disappointed. Huge shoals of fish were there to greet us from the minute we entered the water. Massive shoals of barracuda, fusiliers and snappers swam around above us, with more surgeonfish and triggerfish than you could count nibbling away at the fish remains. We slowly made our way along the reef, enjoying the fish shoals when Yaqui started to point out the eels. There were moray eels of every size, shape and species in every hole, nook and cranny that was available. Some holes had upwards of six to eight eels crammed in all fighting for space. I have never seen anything like it! One other thing to add, at this site there were huge shoals of remora, or suckerfish, the kind you usually see stuck to the bottom of a large shark or turtle. As there is food in abundance here, they do not need to stick to anything and so they just cruise around by themselves! I have a soft spot for remoras so seeing them just chilling out as a group made me grin.
We then made the crossing over to North Ari Atoll for our next two dives. The first was Bathala Maaga Kantila, a fun dive looking for sharks and other big stuff. As we entered the current was fairly weak and the viz was rather bad, perfect for mantas and whale sharks! While both of those proved to be elusive on this dive, we were instead met by six or seven big grey reef sharks that swam around us as we went along the channel. We also saw a huge octopus, so big it only half fit in its hideaway, and a hawksbill turtle, using a rock to scrape off some barnacles. We finished the dive hovering close to the edge with the sharks hanging around checking us out. I reckon there must have been ten in total, some whitetip reef sharks and some grey reef sharks, but it was hard to tell.
The final dive of the day was the night dive on Maaya Thila. A thila is a pinnacle type atoll which a boat can drive over without risking grounding. We were told to begin with that this would be a really active dive with plenty going on, I was not prepared at all! As soon as we hit the water and descended, nothing in our torchlight was safe from the mob of giant trevallies and whitetip reef sharks that were following us along! Even if there were no fish in the light (something I tried to maintain as I didn’t fancy helping them wipe out everything!) the gang would fly in and search the area for morsels to eat. Along the way, we were also lucky enough to see a pair of small eagle rays, a Spanish dancer and a few more awesome turtles. What a cracker! As a little bonus for me, I waited for everyone else to enter the dhoni before I did, giving me plenty of time to watch the bioluminescent algae and critters that were close to the surface. A wave of my hand would leave a stunning blue-green trail of sparks that was the perfect end to an awesome first day.
Day two started at a slightly more relaxed 06:00, something I was very grateful for! After some coffee in the tank, we were briefed about the morning’s dive. Taking place at a site called Fish Head, a Marine Protected Area so called because before fishing was stopped at the island, fishermen would pull in just fishes heads due to the high numbers of sharks in the area. We were met by a slight current as we made our way down to circle the coral and immediately our guide Yaqui started pointing out sharks to us. Mostly whitetip reef sharks with the occasional grey reef, I was pleased to see whitetip reef sharks as active as they were as most of my experience with them has consisted of them sitting on the bottom and vanishing as I get close. Alongside this were massive shoals of bannerfish and plenty of small triggerfish, everywhere you looked there were small fish. A chilled out hawksbill turtle munching away on the top of the coral was a great way to end the dive.
Our second dive, however, was the one I was most looking forward to. Heading to Moofushi, we were going to wait at a manta cleaning station to see what came along. With it being nearly 15 years since my last manta ray sighting, it was about time to set the record straight. Heading down, slightly murky viz and a slight current meant the signs were good! Making our way to the bottom and towards the cleaning station, a few whitetips reef sharks sat on the bottom as if waiting for something. It didn’t take long to find our first one. Sure enough, a massive black flying saucer started to appear in the distance before quickly swimming past us. That wouldn’t do at all I thought and we made our way quickly to the cleaning station where one hell of a sight greeted us. Six manta rays slowly swimming around each other, taking it in turns to hover over the cleaning station before swooping away and around again. Deciding not to use the reef hook as the current was very slight, I hovered near the end of the cleaning station and watched the show unfold. Not only do mantas use the site to clean, it is a very important social location for them and these interactions were on full display. Swimming towards each other before swimming up belly to belly. Circling each other, curling and uncurling their cephalic lobes. One or two decided to come check me out and I was treated to some very close swim bys. I needed to keep my head on a swivel as they were swimming behind me as much as they were in front. As a final little treat for me, a small shoal of spotted eagle rays joined in the cleaning, darting around the mantas like tiny sparrows around aircraft. Soon enough however dive time ran out and we had to leave them to it, but what a dive to remember!
Rather than move on for our third dive, our group wanted to stay and see if we could get some more awesome encounters with the mantas. Our guides agreed and we hit the water hungry for more. Finding the site again quickly, we were met by another manta as we approached which I took for a good sign. As we were the only group on the cleaning station, we had the pick of the places to observe from. Four mantas were there to greet us, I’m not sure how many were from earlier but they were happily wheeling around the site letting us take pictures. Yaqui had mentioned before we got in about this site also being home to the green Leaf fish, a critter I had yet to see in the flesh so I was eager to check it out. A short way from the cleaning station was a rocky crevice with the fish inside. Looking just like a dead leaf, the fish is perfectly camouflaged as it waits for prey to swim past, much like a frogfish would. I took a couple of shots before heading back to see the mantas. Our little friends the eagle rays were still there which was great to see, darting into the cleaning station as soon as the much bigger mantas vacated it. Another great dive ticked off.
That evening, rather than our usual meal on board the boat, we were treated to a beach barbeque on an uninhabited island. I didn’t go snorkelling as I get very easily sunburnt but it was awesome to see the sunset and the food was amazing! Tomorrow, Whale shark hunting!
We started the next day eager to repeat our luck with the sightings. Our first dive site was Rangali Madivaru, another manta cleaning station with the difference here being that the entire reef edge was a cleaning station, rather than just one place. We didn’t have long to wait! We were quickly met by a group of five or six mantas, slowly wheeling around and interacting with one another. We stopped to watch them but they moved away after a few minutes, leaving the site empty. A little dejected, we moved on along the reef to see if we would have more luck elsewhere. Yaqui was quick to point out small reef sharks and napoleon wrasse as they swam past but I had my eyes on bigger game. The gamble paid off as just down the reef, two mantas swam overhead, passing within an inch of us. We continued on and came across another group of mantas spiralling around each other, with this group much happier to have us look on. We were there for just over an hour and we didn’t notice the time go by!
For our second dive, we were going to be looking for a whale shark. We would be searching for a while using the dhoni before hopefully jumping in with one, failing that we would head for a dive and be on the lookout. After 30 mins or so, we decided to jump in and go diving to see what was around. The current was fairly strong on this dive so we had a great fast cruise along, spotting plenty of reef sharks, marble rays, moray eels and a friendly turtle swam along with me towards the end. Also in the water, much to my surprise, was a guy I had met on the trip to Jordan I went on last year! The world really is a tiny place sometimes!
After lunch the weather turned cloudy, making whale sharks spotting much more difficult. The group decided to move to a different site so we went over to Machafushi to dive the wreck off the coast of the resort. Sat in 30m of water, the ship stands upright and has a decent amount of life growing on it, despite only having been in the water for around 20 years. We toured around the bottom, made our way inside the cargo, cruised along the deck and had a look inside the wheelhouse before spiralling up the mast to do our safety stop. Along the way we were met by an assortment of different fish, from nurse sharks sleeping under the bow to mating octopus hiding on the deck. There was also a plethora of different nudibranchs and other critters to spot on the top as well as a pair of fantastically camouflaged stonefish.
For our evening meal the crew did something a little different. Asking us to return to our cabins, we were summoned to find the dining area had been decorated with loads of bright flowers and Maldivian designs. The chefs had prepared lots of Maldivian cuisines to give us a chance to try the different sorts of things the locals eat in the Maldives. Lots of curried dishes and spicy meat and fish, everything was absolutely delicious, I will have to try and find a Maldivian cookbook when I get home. We also got a chance to meet all the different members of the crew, which was great as there were a few that I had never even seen during my time aboard. A wonderful evening to end a cracking day.
The plan for the next day was two final dives on Ari Atoll before making the long crossing over to Vaavu Atoll on the right side of the Maldives. Starting early to maximise the time we had, we made our way over to Kudarah Thila for the first dive of the day. However, on our approach, we noticed six or seven other dhonis on the site. The guides told us that this would spoil our experience, so we changed the plan and headed over to our second dive site, 7th Heaven, instead of where there would only be us. We jumped in and were met by a fairly strong current but nice, clear water. The coral cover was amazing and there were large shoals of fish wherever you looked. It was a very enjoyable dive but the best was saved until last. Just as we were heading off to do our surface interval, the guides started tapping like crazy. I looked out into the blue, thinking I really needed to get my eyes tested as I couldn’t see anything… until I looked up. There, cruising happily above us, were five huge sailfish! I have never seen anything like them before so this was a big moment for me. They swept back and forth, reflecting the sunlight off their silvery sides and sail-like dorsal fins, teasing me to come closer. A few seconds later, with a flick of their tails, they were gone as silently as they had arrived, leaving me happy to tick another awesome encounter off the list.
Once the surface interval had been done and breakfast was eaten, we hit the water for dive two. Heading to our first choice dive site, now cleared of other divers, we got to enjoy an amazing dive. Kudarah Thila is a circular thila, allowing us plenty of time to slowly circle our way all around it and enjoy it at our leisure. Plenty of soft coral was there to see but big shoals of fish were the order of the day. Masses of blue-striped snapper and fusiliers were great fun to swim through, with larger trevallies and tunas swooping in to prey on the smaller fish. I also got the chance to see the endemic (meaning found only here) Maldivian clownfish, easy to tell from the others with its bright orange body but dark black pectoral fins. Ending off the dive was a super chilled-out turtle who let me swim along with her as she looked for tasty sponges to eat.
Ahead of us was the long transfer to Vaavu atoll, which I spent asleep, before gearing up for the last dive of the day. Miyaru Kandu, a channel dive, was set to be full of ‘shark action’ (a new favourite term in our group as used by guide Yaqui during most briefings!) so once we entered the water and saw the clear water, I was immediately looking forward to filming some sharks. It didn’t take long for our first sightings to come along, grey reef sharks and silvertips were cruising around hunting the small fish with whitetip reef sharks patrolling further up the reef. The current wasn’t as strong as we were expecting so the reef hooks weren’t necessary, much to my relief, so I hovered and watched the tunas and trevallies hunting fusiliers. Completing a trifecta of awesome encounters, a couple of large spotted eagle rays swooped in the see what was up before heading back into the blue, only to return every 10 mins or so, just when I thought they’d gone.
During dinner (which was fantastic as usual) we were informed that the next morning’s dive would be a great hammerhead hunt, but only if we wanted to get up at 5:30. Sign me up!
5:30 came around much sooner than I thought it would. Still dark outside, I dragged myself up to grab a coffee and prepare for the dive. As we had done our briefing for the dive the night before so we could be the first on the dive site, we made our way out to the dhoni to hit the water just as the sun was rising. I have never had good luck with hammerhead dives, either seeing nothing or nothing clear enough to say either way so I was dubious but excited none the less. Dropping down in the blue to around 30m, we drifted towards the reef with each of us looking in a different direction. Just before we reached the reef, for just a few seconds, there they were! Two Scalloped Hammerheads, swimming towards us before turning and disappearing into the blue, I didn’t have time to get any footage of them. This is proving to be a trip of firsts for me, but I’ll still wait until I’ve had a proper encounter before ticking this one off! We continued our drift in towards the reef and once there we were all amazed by the amount vivid, golden yellow soft coral there was hanging from all of the overhangs. Due to our depth, the colour really stood out from the surrounding blue-green hues. Big shoals of fish were there in abundance, however a fairly strong down current made keeping depth a challenge. It was amusing to watch your bubbles being carried down deeper rather than rising with you. Before long we had all used up our air and bottom time so we ascended for some much-needed breakfast.
Our second dive on Fushi Kandu was going to be another channel dive, with ‘shark action’ on the cards! A fairly strong current meant that there would be a good chance for plenty to see and when we saw eagle rays from the surface we knew it was going to be good. Hooking on in the mouth of the channel, dozens and dozens of grey reef and silvertip sharks of all sizes appeared out of nowhere and started swimming in and out of the shoals of smaller fish, trying to grab a sneaky morsel. Most of the sharks were juveniles, which was great to see that the population is growing, but there were a few larger individuals as well. Slowly working and hooking my way up the wall to get the most out of my bottom time, we were also treated to a shoal of six spotted eagles rays flying formation overhead as well as one ornate eagle ray cruising alone past us into to blue. A great dive had by all!
It would be tough to beat that last dive third site, Golden Wall, did it’s best to impress right out of the gate. Drifting towards the dive site, keeping an eye on the blue for anything passing by, we reached a gentle slope heading towards a vertical wall. I saw a group of four massive groupers, either potato groupers or goliaths, either way, they were huge! Before I was able to get a positive ID all four shot into some holes in the coral and that was the last I saw of them. A short drift later and I reached the Golden Wall. Reaching around 10m in height and as long as I had air to explore, the entire surface of the wall was covered in vibrant, neon soft coral. It was a bizarre change as most of the dive so far had been hard coral with sandy patches between it and dotted at fairly regular intervals were small cleaning stations being used by shoals of surgeonfish. Keeping close to the wall, I very much enjoyed scanning the wall for small critters or enjoying the mad coloured coral. A swooping eagle ray finished us off as we ascended, another unique dive ticked off.
Our final dive for the day was to a dusk dive at Alimatha, famous for its nurse shark encounters due to the resort feeding them in the past. While this doesn’t happen anymore, the nurse sharks still turn up in huge numbers to see what they can grab in the lights of divers torches once the sun sets. It had been a while since I had last seen a nurse shark doing anything other than laying on the bottom under something so I can looking forward to some interaction with these dopey puppy dogs. We entered the water and made our way to a sandy patch to wait for the show. Everything was quiet, no fish were around, and it was quite eerie… as if they knew something we didn’t. Just as the sun started to set, however, the first one arrived. A big male, he circled us before head-butting the sand to scratch an itch. I must say, I did laugh into my regulator like a child. While I was watching him, I didn’t see the others appear as when I turned back there were three more with a few huge stingrays as well. We must have spent 30 minutes watching these clowns spin around us, by which time it was well and truly dark. With dive time running out we made our way back up the reef to begin our safety stop, spotting two large reef octopus hanging amongst the rocks. On an aside note, even though I know that they were nurse sharks, there is something a little disconcerting about doing a safety stop in 6m of black water with large shapes looming all around you. I guess you can’t turn off the animal part of your brain after all. Anyway, another great dive and a great way to spend the evening.
Our final dive of the trip was at Devana Kandu, another channel dive offering one last dose of ‘shark action’! Entering the water and making our way to the edge of the channel mouth, it didn’t take long for the sharks to arrive. Dozens of them, from large adults to small youngsters, all appeared and started feeding on the small fish gathered around the channel. It was fantastic to watch the show and see the youngsters learning the best way to hunt from the old hands. Also, all around us, were huge fields of garden eels numbering in the hundreds. It was great to watch them bobbing away feeding before shooting into the sand in a wave as I approached. What a great way to finish to trip!
So, you’ve made it this far… congratulations! This was a big report but it was such an amazing trip, it was difficult to condense everything we saw into a few lines.
I suppose all that’s left is to say whether or not I’d recommend the trip. Absolutely! If you have never been to the Maldives before I cannot think of a better way to see the very best that this unique part of the world has to offer. Some of the dives can have quite strong currents so it is worth getting a few dives under your belt before you think about the Maldives but if you are comfortable in the water, give us a shout and let us get you out there. The Serenity has felt like a home away from home and the guides and crew have done everything they can to make my stay the very best it could be. Chatting with other guests at dinner they all say they would not only come again but book the Serenity for its comfort and its crew. Yaqui, Nuria and Muaz are a credit to Emperor Maldives and I’m sure they would make your trip special as well, with plenty of ‘shark action’ to boot!
Give us a call and let us help you book an amazing trip on board Emperor Serenity in the Maldives!