That man Har­ri­son again, this time wax­ing lyri­cal about his manta-tas­tic time aboard the Em­peror Orion live­aboard.

WILL HAR­RI­SON boards Em­peror Mal­dives’ MV Orion for a ‘Best of the Mal­dives’ itin­er­ary and isn’t dis­ap­pointed

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by WILL HAR­RI­SON

No­body was quite sure whether the free-swim­ming gi­ant mo­ray or the black­tip shark made the kill, the ac­tion sim­ply too fast and fu­ri­ous. My per­sonal view was in­ter­rupted by the dis­tract­ing sight of a trevally try­ing to get in on the ac­tion, its blurry form steal­ing my at­ten­tion as it finned by at speed. Small clouds of sand mush­roomed from the seabed along with clumps of del­i­cate coral as the hunters in­ces­santly went about their smash-and-grabs. Smaller fishes darted about the reef look­ing for nooks and cran­nies in which to hide, doubt­less liv­ing in fear the rib­bons of light from a dozen torches above would give their lo­ca­tion away. With each hasty fight for food - scenes rem­i­nis­cent of those mad rushes we all likely ex­pe­ri­enced at the school lunch queue, where el­bows and shoul­der barges ruled - we all tried our best to as­cer­tain which crea­ture was claim­ing each mouth­ful. The re­sults, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, were in­con­clu­sive, though I’d bet there were a few emp­tier mo­ray and black­tip bel­lies come the end of that par­tic­u­lar night - the treval­lies’ su­pe­rior speed seemed, from what I saw, to serve them well. Re­gard­less, the hour-long sun­set-to-night dive at Maaya Thila was a thriller, an ocean of black tran­quil­lity punc­tured by mo­ments of in­tense ac­tiv­ity. Upon sur­fac­ing along­side the dive dhoni, I saw count­less moon­lit grins - it is, af­ter all, not ev­ery day you see mo­ray eels and sharks go head-to-head.

That fre­netic night dive was a fit­ting fin­ish to what had been a fan­tas­tic and ab­sorb­ing first day. Af­ter the ini­tial check dive at Ku­rumba House Reef - a pretty reef wall that drops from 3m to about 20m and boasted morays, grouper and a shoal of bat­fish - we dived a site called Lankan Manta Point. Any diver who vis­its the Mal­dives hopes for some manta ac­tion and those of us on this par­tic­u­lar trip - a ‘Best of the Mal­dives’ itin­er­ary aboard Em­peror Mal­dives’ MV Orion - were kept wait­ing for ap­prox­i­mately one dive and ten min­utes… Nat­u­rally, when briefed on ar­rival by Orion’s man­ager and chief guide, Russ Cheetham, we were told that while manta ray sight­ings had been ex­cel­lent so far that sea­son, there were no guar­an­tees they’d make an ap­pear­ance for us - even (or per­haps es­pe­cially) at sites called Manta Point. Ev­ery diver in­vari­ably wor­ries they’ve boarded that once-in-a-sea­son cursed ves­sel that embarks on a rou­tinely manta-filled trip and doesn’t see a sin­gle ray… Re­lief all round then when, af­ter lit­tle more than ten min­utes of dive two had elapsed, a steady stream of man­tas glided into view, as grace­ful and serene as ever. There is per­haps no species I pre­fer spend­ing time with un­der­wa­ter than manta rays. There’s an in­evitable calm­ness to the en­coun­ters - hyp­notic, med­i­ta­tive.

I’m not sure whether it was the seren­ity of that sec­ond dive or the adrenaline of the third - or per­haps even the few leisurely even­ing drinks com­bined with a

16-hour flight from Lon­don - but, what­ever it was, I slept like a fish on an un-hunted patch of reef that even­ing. And just as well, for day two took off where day one had ended…

It was a happy re­turn to Bathala Maaga Kan Thila where, sev­eral years ago, I had en­joyed my first-ever shark en­counter. Grey reefs and black­tips were both out in num­bers on our morn­ing dive - a sump­tu­ous pre-break­fast ap­pe­tiser.

The dive of the day once again turned out to be the third. Af­ter a gor­geous dive at Mushi Mas Mingili Thila, where sev­eral tur­tles were en­coun­tered among huge shoals of blue-striped snap­per and sol­dier­fish, we vis­ited the beau­ti­ful Fesdu Wreck. This sim­ple fish­ing boat was sunk in the 1980s and sits at a max­i­mum depth of 30m, its high­est point at around the 23m-mark. What it lacks in size and his­tory it makes up for in colour and life - it is ab­so­lutely smoth­ered in corals and sponge growth and there are plenty of fish species that call it home too. It would be a lovely dive site in its own right, par­tic­u­larly for those with a macro lens, but what makes the Fesdu Wreck dive re­ally spe­cial is the small thila that it sits along­side. The top of the thila, which sits at about 12m and makes for an ex­cel­lent place to fin­ish the dive, is cov­ered in bright pur­ple and green anemones and thou­sands of at­ten­dant clown­fish. It’s a scene that ri­vals El Qu­seir’s The Rock. From wreck to reef, it is a dive that has colour at its core.

Sharks and shoals were once again the or­der of the day on day three. Hi­mand­hoo Thila and Moo­fushi Beru pro­vided a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of fish, in­clud­ing school­ing bar­racuda and a huge va­ri­ety of anemone­fish and reef fishes. Sadly, at the spots where grey reef shark en­coun­ters were an­tic­i­pated (or hoped for, at least), we drew a blank. On the up­side, the cur­rent was strong enough to be enough fun all on its own and the ab­sence of sharks was barely no­ticed, such was the ride af­forded us on that par­tic­u­lar day.

Day four was Manta Day. Sure, we’d al­ready seen a few cour­tesy of those early en­coun­ters on our very first day. But that was noth­ing com­pared with what we wit­nessed at Camel Rock and Dhi­garuh Kandu. The qual­ity and close­ness of the in­ter­ac­tion on these two dives - par­tic­u­larly Camel Rock - was breath­tak­ing. Sadly, as can be the case with world­class dives, they get rather pop­u­lar and this means rules - hit the sandy deck and keep your dis­tance. It makes sense: with a cou­ple of boats send­ing divers down, you can’t have peo­ple swarm­ing the clean­ing sta­tion. I had to ex­er­cise ex­treme self-res­traint in not mov­ing in for that killer pho­to­graph and was even­tu­ally re­warded with a fly-by or two away from the main sta­tion. Both of these dives were spent al­most en­tirely at the clean­ing points, each diver find­ing a com­fort­able spot in the sand from which to watch the ac­tion. The pop­u­lar­ity of the dive can be irk­some if other boats are around, but ul­ti­mately the scene is one of beauty, with

“De­spite Russ’s warn­ings that the ac­tion would likely be ex­tremely close, the shiver of gor­geous nurses came out of nowhere and took me en­tirely by sur­prise”

“Grey reefs and black­tips were both out in num­bers on our morn­ing dive - a sump­tu­ous pre-break­fast ap­pe­tiser”

man­tas loop­ing and twist­ing around one an­other as they ma­noeu­vre for their next scrub.

Dur­ing the re­main­ing dive days there were two dives that rounded out a won­der­fully var­ied week. The first was a site called Five Rocks, which pre­sum­ably was once a sin­gle thila that’s since been eroded into five sep­a­rate reef-tops, each separated by a gully through which divers can now fin. It’s a fun dive with plenty of topo­graph­i­cal in­ter­est as well as colour and life - gul­lies and over­hangs never stay empty for long. The sec­ond was a night dive at Ali­matha House Reef, a leg­endary site in the Mal­dives and eas­ily one of the most fun night dives I’ve ever done. De­spite Russ’s warn­ings that the ac­tion would likely be ex­tremely close, the shiver of gor­geous nurses came out of nowhere and took me en­tirely by sur­prise. I got bumped on sev­eral oc­ca­sions, so blasé were the sharks to our pres­ence. We’d been promised a spec­ta­cle be­fore drop­ping into the wa­ter from our dive dhoni, but this re­ally was some­thing else. As one nurse shark slid be­yond the lim­its of my torch beam, an­other ap­peared. And if it wasn’t a nurse shark, it was a stingray or a trevally (those treval­lies are al­ways muscling in on the ac­tion…). With most of the dive spent at around the 10m-mark and just a short dis­tance from the is­land’s jetty (this used to be a re­sort feed dive, hence the con­cen­tra­tion of sharks and timid rays) it’s about as easy a dive as you’re ever likely to do, but the ac­tiv­ity around you re­ally is a thrill - nurse sharks may be harm­less, but at sev­eral me­tres in length and with a spoon-fed con­fi­dence that per­mits them to barge you like a play­ground bully, there’s plenty to keep you oc­cu­pied.

Best of the Mal­dives is a bold claim. And, just like the nam­ing of sites such as Manta Point and Shark Al­ley, it runs the risk of be­ing a bit of a let­down. But Em­peror Divers (www.em­per­ormal­dives.com) have got it spot-on in this in­stance, serv­ing up an itin­er­ary that pro­vides tran­quil­lity and ex­cite­ment, macro and pelagic, reefs and a lovely wreck (there aren’t many in the Mal­dives). But it’s not just about what lies be­neath the wa­ter­line. The MV Orion of­fers su­perb Mal­di­vian hospi­tal­ity top­side and makes for a fan­tas­tic base for a week of div­ing. The boat is spa­cious, the cab­ins and main rooms are well ap­pointed and the crew is fab­u­lous. Ev­ery sin­gle diver I spoke with en­joyed a trip to re­mem­ber, and while the man­tas and the sharks played a sig­nif­i­cant role in that, Russ and his team were a big part of it too. Sim­ply put, Orion was a bel­ter.

Manta ray glides over­head

Cur­rents were of­ten punchy enough to send bub­bles side­ways

Grouper

Mo­ray eel pro­trud­ing from the reef

Divers with cam­eras at the ready

The ‘Best of the Mal­dives’ route in­cludes a trop­i­cal is­land sun­set BBQ

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