Searching For Manta Rays & Whale Sharks
On a cold January day in the dive centre I received an email that led to me sitting where I am typing this – balancing my laptop on my knees on a beanbag on the sun deck of the quite glorious Blue Voyager liveaboard, whilst she sails around the idyllic paradise atolls of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
The email was from Blue O Two – the best dive holiday company in the world, in my opinion. They were writing to let me know that I was invited on a familiarisation trip aboard one of their boats – where there would be diving in the day and presentations on the extensive Blue O Two fleet in the evenings. It took me all of 2 minutes to check childcare arrangements and book my flights!
So, in early October, following a manic summer season at the dive centre, I threw my new Scubapro Hydros lightweight BCD in a bag, along with most of my kit (I admit I forgot some things because I was rushing!) and headed off to Heathrow. The Emirates flight to Dubai was a delight and I managed to watch two films, including Finding Dory, which really put me in the mood for some warm water diving. The Dubai – Male flight was a bit more crowed but I managed a couple of hours sleep before arriving at the airport and being picked up by our guide for the week Gabriel – a truly enigmatic man from Argentina who seemed genuinely as excited about all the diving as we did!
The liveaboard was luxury personified – spacious cabins, decadent lounges and this sun deck, furnished with sofas, bean bags, sun beds, and the essential (?) hot tub! After a false start in cabin 8 with a poorly roomie with the lurgy, I settled in cabin 2 with a delightful northern gentleman who put up with this southern lass’s snoring and pretended he never heard it.
The diving began that very first day with a check dive at “Fish Head” – not the most salubrious of names for a dive site but oh my goodness did it deliver! The place was overrun with huge sting rays (I lost count around 9) and the cute award went to the squillions of baby blue triggerfish mooching around in the shallows. On the way back in the Dhoni (I’ll explain that in a minute) we were even treated to the company of dolphins. Possibly the best check dive in the world!
So, the Dhoni. Our cute wooden, traditional Maldivian Dhoni follows the main boat when we pootle along and it is essentially a separate dive deck. All our gear is neatly lined up on spacious benches, with a crate underneath for smaller bits and pieces. Between dives, the crew refill our cylinders whilst we enjoy a cold drink on the main vessel – and the best bit – they sail the Dhoni off to a distance where we can’t even hear the compressor – a welcome break to us all as we are all dive centre owners from around the UK who spend a large part of our time at work listening to the drone of a compressor!
The food on board is incredible. The Sri Lankan chefs knocks up some true culinary delights from his small galley kitchen – ranging from Lasagne to Chinese to our and seemingly his favourite, curry. Not just any curry, but 8 difference dishes of meat / fish / vegetable / daals and so on. Quite spectacular! Every time we return from a dive we are presented with a welcome ice cold drink and a home-made goodie of some description. In case we got the chance to get hungry (we don’t) there is a whole branch of bananas hanging at the back of the boat ripening in the sunshine. They really have thought of everything.
So back to the diving. Our first full day landed us two very special encounters with the majestic manta rays. In daylight hours, we stationed ourselves next to a cleaning station and watched these gorgeous creatures cruise in for a spruce up courtesy of the little wrasse. By night we turned on the super strength lights at the back of the boat and “cooked” for the mantas, whipping up extraordinary quantities of plankton and krill and it wasn’t long before they sniffed it out and began to feed at the back of the boat, in their typical swirling round and round doing somersaults manner. Of course, we were not content just watching from the back of the boat, so we kitted up, with torches and cameras at the ready, and headed down to the sandy bottom. We all stuck our torches into the sand, pointing upwards in some strange light-sabre-like ritual, but the plankton and krill obliged and came in their drones, so thick at times that I was put in mind of the Wraysbury viz! However, what happened next sadly never happens at Wraysbury – a manta swooped within centimetres of my head and expertly gobbled up a ton of goodies from the light beams. It treated us to a show of three loops around the whole group before heading off – only to come back again about ten minutes later when there was more to eat again. It was truly magical and I confess it brought a tear of pure gratitude and joy to my eye! Turned out this wouldn’t be the first time…
Cruising around the South Ari Atoll the following day we had one thing in mind – searching for the gentle giant of the ocean, the Whale Shark. We systematically worked our way up and down the ocean side of the far south hoping for an encounter when suddenly the crew spotted something in the water. We all rushed to the Dhoni which sped off whilst we kitted up. Divers threw themselves into the water, but unfortunately my buddy was having a problem with her fin strap and we were last to enter the water. However, this turned out to be an absolute stroke of genius. She giant strided (strode?) into the water, negatively buoyant as per usual, and as her head sunk below the surface and I was about to follow, the crew shouted “whale shark” and pointed in the opposite direction to where everyone went. I jumped in and immediately grabbed her and pointed the opposite way and then there, looming out of the blue, came the most glorious sight – an enormous, graceful giant of the deep, a whale shark. He allowed us to swim alongside him for at least 5 minutes, and it is something I will never, ever forget, and yes, there was another tear! As if that weren’t enough we saw a turtle and a second whale shark fleetingly towards the end of the dive.
The rest of the dives during the week were equally beautiful and chilled – and we were treated to a spectacular array of hard and soft corals, beautiful reef fish, black and white tipped reef sharks, turtles, nudibranchs, eels of all shapes, sizes and colours, eagle rays, sting rays and manta rays.
All in all, it was an epic journey full of incredible experiences and I can’t wait to offer this trip to all of our divers in 2017!