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
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
Moray eel protruding from the reef
Divers with cameras at the ready
The ‘Best of the Maldives’ route includes a tropical island sunset BBQ