We have been to the Maldives three times before but always staying in resorts. The appeal of being pampered has always outweighed the limitations on diving. However in April 2017, encouraged by our friends the Days, we book a week on the Emperor Virgo so that we can explore further afield and get the most of this amazing marine environment. Despite coral bleaching and fishing there are still an abundance of shark, rays, big fish and smaller reef fish and on some dives we also find stunning soft and hard coral.
We do the "Best of the Maldives" trip, 17 dives over six days and cover a square, starting at Male and then crossing to Rasdhoo atoll then Ari (Alifu Alifu) atoll where we work our way south. After diving with pelagics at South Ari we cross again to Vaavu Atoll before heading back, via South Male atoll to base. The diving is not intensive - three dives on most days with two night dives and one early dive on the last day. However we have a wide variety with pinnacles (Thila), channels and walls. We visit several manta cleaning stations. Currents ranged from light to quite strong and our reef hooks came in useful on quite a few dives.
The Virgo is a relatively new member of the Emperor Diving fleet. It takes 18 divers but on our trip there are only 14 which makes for smaller groups with our three dive guides. Our fellow divers are a friendly, international bunch: as well as Brits, we have Russians, Bulgarians, Swiss and Irish so with our Maldivian and Taiwanese dive guides and crew we are a real United Nations. The routine is the liveaboard norm of "dive, eat, sleep". Wake up is between 5:30 - 7:00 and breakfast, lunch and dinner served in the spacious main lounge. We congregate around the bar on the upper rear deck in the evenings where barman Chandana mixes great cocktails.
Our diving group is pretty experienced and we dive quite deep and in quite a lot of current. On several dives we hooked on and watched sharks and mantas in 27-30m. However there is plenty to see in shallower water although many of the thilas we dived on had tops at around 9-12m meaning we had to do safety stops in the blue. The viz was mostly average with a lot of plankton in the water - only two dives had really clear visibility. The plus side is that this attracts more mantas. Dive times are typically 60 mins although we range from 51-70! On the latter we stopped to watch a manta in the shallows at the end of the dive.
The beauty of liveaboards in the Maldives is that you can get to the cleaning stations and channel mouths that you might not reach from a resort - although nearly all dive sites had a resort nearby. We see sharks on most dives - usually white or black tipped reef sharks but also grey and nurse sharks. As well as the mantas we spot many beautiful eagle rays and several types of stingray including the quite agressive marbled ray. Other large fish include some huge tuna, giant trevally, napoleon wrasse and large sweetlips. A dive in the blue at Rasdhoo channel fails to find hammerheads although we (and a million resort snorkellers) find a young whale shark near the airport at South Ari.
Our night dives are two of the most extraordinary I have ever done. On the first, at Maya Thila in North Ari Atoll dive guide Jacky tells us about the "local mafia"; small white tip shark, giant trevally, moray eels and marbled ray are all cruising the reef looking for prey - and will use our lights to find it. At times there are frantic chases as some poor fish is chased by several predators at once. On the second, at the jetty at Alimatha resort in Vaavu atoll we are surrounded by hunting nurse shark (above). As well as swimming right past us there are sometimes 20 or 30 passing above us. Our old friends the giant trevally and marbled rays are here too looking for their dinner. I have never seen such active nurse shark - one in a big group bites another's tail - the start of a mating ritual - the next minute they are writhing together on the sand. "A bonkers dive" says Jacky.
Although a lot of our time is looking at the big stuff, some of the scenery and smaller reef life is pretty good too. The Tritos Chromodoris nudibranch is widespread here, we see loads of octopus, and soft coral is spectacular, particularly at Maalhoss Thila (Blue Caves). We find pretty coral bommies at Alimatha Kandu and a number of the reef tops are also very colourful.
Soon the week is almost over and we are cruising back towards Male. Most of the guests are flying home tomorrow but we are spoiling ourselves in the wonderful Soneva Fushi resort. Just need to get through tonight's cocktails and singsong and hope we can find out how to make our connection in the morning! Check out the links above for more photos of the trip as well as Vicky's blog.