South Maldives atolls23 mn de lecture

An account of two weeks of sea navigation and scuba diving through the atolls of the southern Maldives. Fantastic!

Sommaire

Praise for rockets

Let’s start with an observation: the Maldives are beautiful but far away!

Fortunately, in the XXIst century, as already announced by my childish readings, we benefit today from marvellous multicoloured rockets. Which allow us to leave the grayish parisian suburbs…

And to go away for a time in the stars, for six hours of bad sleep, strapped in a narrow armchair among the rows of passengers hypnotized by their individual screens, before making a short stopover on an intermediate planet.

From there, a new trajectory for five hours of interstellar navigation and we are finally at our destination, on the other side of a night that has not been a night for a long time, all the clocks shifted – internal and external.

In the hall, the Seafari employee tells me that he is still waiting for other divers – Seafari is a French tour operator specialising in scuba diving.

Vaguely disoriented, I go out to smoke a cigarette on a pier where dozens of taxi-boats come and go on the turquoise water. On the horizon, the skyline of Malé, fogged with exhaust fumes, is floating on its coral bank.

Two hours later, the small group seems complete. We take an extraterrestrial cab.

To get around the astroport.

Then we borrow an anti-gravitation barge to join the ship.

Once on board: reunion with François, arrived since the morning – work colleague and frogmate since Marine Parks. And already the night falls in the tropical heat of this other world. Long live the rockets!

Check dive

An opportunity to check your ballast, to get back in touch with the equipment, to discover the partners of the group, etc.

Before discovering the boat in more detail, let’s make this first morning dive together. At 7 a.m. local time – that is, physiologically, at 3 a.m. in Paris – we all go into the water.

We go down on the Dhoni – the second dive boat in the dinghy, I will come back to that later.

The group is composed of Cat, Alexandra, Anne and Denis, guided by Melanie. To whom are added François and yours truly.

I’ll introduce you to this nice little world a little later. For now, let’s dive in. Splash.

Re-formation of the binomial already widely tested this summer with François.

Usually, the recovery dives are a bit dull. Here, on the other hand, what we see underwater is a good indication of what is to come.

Clouds of blue triggerfish.

Here is a closer look:

Photogenic gorgonians.

Fleshy stars that remind us of salt dough characters – or some childish comforter that fell off a boat and sank here.

First Maldivian clownfish.

Promising, isn’t it?

On the way back to the main boat, we have our first breakfast on the back deck and we get acquainted as we leave Malé.

Full South.

The boats

In the plural because there are two of them. The first one is used as a hotel. Christening name: Explorer. A whole program.

photo Cat Torres

The second one is called the Nice Weather but we more commonly call it the dhoni – Maldivian name for… boat. This is our dive boat.

photo Cat Torres

The Explorer.

We reach it by a lower deck which is most often used by the sailors to supply the buffet with fresh fish, caught by line when we are at anchor.

Or caught trolling with this funny cap, while we are sailing.

From the lower deck, we go up to the main deck, which overlooks the aft saloon: we have meals there, we chat, we contemplate – like Jozef here – the setting sun.

From this bridge, two options: either follow the gangways…

And lying on the bow, rocked by the swell – I like it.

Either enter the air-conditioned living room, with its wooded decor.

Equipped with comfortable sofas that invite you to take a nap.

We do the briefing before each dive.

We meet at the bar in the evening.

If you take the interior passageway…

We go along the lazarette and its excellent chef, of a very Maldivian kindness.

At the end, we reach the staircase that goes down under the main deck and gives access to some cabins, including ours.

This is 2. Let’s go in.

François is doing his favorite activity between two dives: shhh! Let’s not wake him up…

And let’s take a look at the bathroom. Okay. This perspective is not the most charming.

In any case, the bathtub is only used to rinse the small material which we dry then on the desk.

To wash ourselves, we prefer the shower.

Let’s go up. Above the main deck, a second deck. There is the corner of the rare smokers – except the crew, two, including me. We regularly meet there with a coffee. We look at the islands which pass by during the navigation.

From this place, we can still go up, with the ladder, to reach the third deck and its sundeck, equipped with a jacuzzi that we will not use.

On this deck there are deckchairs where some divers like to grill in the hot sun during the day. As for me, I preferred – and by far – to lie down there at night to contemplate the starry sky and the milky way, with the lights off. Let’s go back down one floor.

From the smoking area, you can sort out your photos, take some notes…

Or, more prosaically, meditate in front of the drying laundry.

You can also take a passageway identical to the one on the main deck, at the end of which, past the pilothouse, you reach another garden lounge. Often exposed to the wind and spray during navigation but peaceful when at anchor.

The Dhoni

Our boat only dedicated to diving. Less fun than the Egyptian zodiac, but perfect for getting equipped and jumping into the water.

It is accessed from the Explorer by an accommodation ladder.

We find the tanks lined up on either side of the doors without doors through which we launch ourselves once ready.

Before that, however, we equip ourselves.

All to the joy of putting on the wet suits which do not have time to dry between dives. We check that we have not forgotten anything…

The captain takes us to the drop spots.

Thereupon, the monitors inspect the current – incoming, outgoing, strong or weak.

And we jump into the blue.

Particularities of the Maldivian diving

There are two of them: the passes and the current that goes with them. In the Maldives, we dive almost exclusively in the passes, these openings of the atolls on the ocean.

Passes

The image is self-evident: the channel forms a corridor between the reef walls, which leads to the ocean. The open edge of the pass breaks into successive steps, here at 30, 35 and 40 meters, then plunging to inaccessible depths. These steps form lookouts that allow you to admire the passage of predators: sharks, tunas, jacks, etc.

The current

Depending on the ebb and flow, the omnipresent current can be “incoming” – which is ideal for shark watching – or “outgoing”, which considerably blurs the visibility but also allows to observe manta rays.

Incoming current :

Outgoing current :

The strength of the incoming current

When the ocean enters the atoll through the pass, the current can be incredibly strong. Therefore, we start the dives by letting ourselves sink to the edge of the pass, between 25 and 30 meters.

There, we fix ourselves to the coral with hooks. We inflate the buoyancy jacket and we enjoy the view.

photo Cat Torres

Sometimes, the current is so strong that it makes the mask vibrate. We will note for example below the horizontality of the bubbles which says a lot about the juice, as well as the haircut of the author, furiously eighties…

We are rewarded by the tireless passage of sharks, in fascinating quantity, so elegant in their element.

One last thing about the current. When it is strong and we unhook, it carries us away, floating fetus. The reef goes by at high speed and we go weightless like astronauts in perdition. It is an absolutely extraordinary sensation of sliding! It usually ends up in the atoll, on white sandy beaches where the flow slows down while continuing to make us drift in a fantastic dream of flight.

photo Cat Torres

I love that!

Melanie's team

I have already briefly presented the group brilliantly guided by Melanie, who is also the dive director on board. Let’s detail the portraits, on the surface and underwater, starting of course with Melanie herself. She deserved it.

François then, whom we already know:

photo Cat Torres

On my right on the dhoni bench: Cat, who kindly lent me the pictures that bear her signature.

Then, still in the order of the bench, Alexandra, youngest of the group.

photo Cat Torres

To Alexandra’s right, Anne: who laughed so hard underwater at my clowning that I once thought she was going to drown in her own bubbles.

And Denis, finally, of whom I realize that I have no underwater portrait, except the one I put here, where he appears in company of Anne, in a christic pose – involuntary 😉 ?

Great group. This doesn’t mean that we didn’t exchange or sympathize with other divers among the 22 passengers – especially with Jozef, Dominique and Alain, three very nice people from Palaiseau – but three dives a day together forged additional links and allowed some good laughs.

The rest of the passengers :

Missing from the photo are a couple from Zurich and a young girl from Hong Kong, all three of whom left the day before. Cat and Alexandra too, who took a later domestic flight.

Inside the aquarium

Before going to see the sharks, which everyone is waiting for with impatience, let’s cultivate the suspense and linger for a moment on the main colourful varieties encountered underwater, vertebrate or not.

Anemones and clowns

So photogenic. Hidden among the venomous tentacles of the anemones, against which they are naturally protected and which in turn shelter them from predators.

We meet the endemic clown of the Maldives, already crossed at the beginning of the article.

But also the yellow-tailed clown, here on a Clark’s anemone.

Or as here, this tandem hidden in an actinia.

As well as a juvenile, who even seemed to me to be the one of the above couple, by anthropomorphism – because the notion of couple is a bit more complex in clowns than in homo sapiens. Although sometimes, in homo sapiens… Let’s not get lost.

It’s Nemo, of course – like the eponymous cartoon character from the Pixar motion picture.

Let’s admire the anemones in passing. A sublime ultramarine blue without lighting.

And which turn into a marshmallow purple under the lamp. We would eat them.

Other colourful species

Of course, you can also see all the fish you see in the Red Sea: red soldiers with round eyes, squirrels, yellow butterflies, ray scorpion fish, antennae or simply flying scorpion fish, angels and coachmen, paddle snappers, lutjans, platax, I forget. But here in an incredible proportion: the reefs are literally teeming with life. It is difficult to choose among the species. Let’s keep the most successful photos:

The one of this blue surgeon, for example, with sharp scalpels near the tail, to which it owes its french vernacular name.

Or this lovely pair of butterflies with very long beaks,

Or this group of common tick fish whose complementary colours to the blue form an ideal contrast.

Not forgetting the scorpion fish, with its red beard collar, which reminded me, go figure, of a dwarf from an Irish tale.

Among the species encountered, some are more remarkable than others.

Such as the clown triggerfish, which looks like it is made of painted wood.

Or balloon fish: the “star balloon fish”… 

PS: I have a difficulty with the vernacular names of fish: I translate the French by tracing it, but I’m not sure that the resulting English names correspond to the real names in everyday English. I’ll deal with that later. I’ll deal with that later… Translation is a real job.

And a black-spotted cousin, who looks like a Chihuahua.

We also meet the oriental diagram, in a rugby player’s jersey, which was passing by here with a few fellow creatures in the middle of a school of white-collared butterflies.

And then lobsters…

And turtles.

Moray eels

I love moray eels. I don’t know why. Among non-divers, they are most often the victims of a misunderstanding, probably because of their serpentine body and their indented mouth, which they only open to breathe. I find them eminently likeable: curious, fearful. Except for the masked moray eel – that aggressive bugger, but after all: it’s at home, let’s leave it alone. All are prodigiously elegant. Like the beautiful Javanese one who comes to see what’s going on at the window of her hole.

Or that little leopard moray that makes mines.

And what about this panther moray, diva of the rocks?

In addition to the above qualities, the moray eel is also extremely tolerant. The proof: here is a panther paired with a Javanese. Marriage for all.

Pour finir, ma préférée, une murène à tâches noires, si expressive.

Cabinet of curiosities

In the aquarium, we also come across some strange creatures.

Boxer shrimp, for example, with their enormous mandible gloves, hence their nickname.

This coral lachrymalis, beautiful as an enamelled brooch from the end of the 19th century.

A peacock tail shrimp, fascinating.

A spondyle, ready for Halloween…

A nodding star, in his child’s pyjamas.

An extraordinary, magmatic flatworm on the catwalk.

On the sandbanks, when you are lying motionless waiting for the manta rays to come, you can also have fun observing the garden eels – also known as heterocongers. They stand up out of the sand, with black dotted stalks and a round eye, and retract at the slightest movement, only to emerge again once the danger has passed. Funny.

Comatulas can also be seen, fascinating animals whose small clawed bodies have what appear to be huge feathers that they roll up into wicker sculptures at rest.

There are nudibranchs, of course, like this tiny tricoloured phyllis.

And then, finally, you can meet these incredible ghost fish, whose mimicry is a perfect imitation of posidonia leaves. They are real camouflage experts, stealthy and flying in a squadron.

Incredible, isn’t it?

The elusive long-billed hawk.

 

The worst is when the hawk poses outside its usual environment. Like this one, which gave me a string of enthusiastic bubbles when Melanie showed it to me:

Everything was there: the contrast in colour, the coral branch as a jewellery display, the hawk nonchalantly perched on it, motionless for once. The photo of the century? Well, no! Once on board, on the computer screen, big disappointment: the autofocus got stuck I don’t know where, probably on a dust stuck to the porthole lens, and the picture is obviously a failure. Very blurry. Hell.

So, on the following dives, while we were going along the crevices of the reef after our stations on the edge of the channel, I stalked my falcon. And not just a little. To find him again, a few days later, in the shelter of a rocky overhang. Without the porthole lens, to leave nothing to chance.

And I got it! Sharp at last. With even a nice overall movement that makes the shot dynamic.

However, it still didn’t suit me. As the group lingered a little further on, I took my time: apnea again, no bubble, petrified, patient. And bang.

I had my expressive portrait. Victory! I was happy – I don’t need much.

About navigation

Of course, a cruise – even one dedicated to diving – is not just about the pleasure of three dives a day.

It is first of all the movement of the swell, when you are lucky enough not to be seasick. It is also the contemplation of the islands that we see passing by.

Phosphorescent atolls.

Lost paradises.

Concentration hells for tourists that we are relieved to see disappear on the horizon.

Sublime skies of the open sea.

Enchanting sunsets.

Clouds of tiny fish attracted by the powerful lighthouse, which the crew fishes with nets and where small sharks come to gobble, drunk with all this frying.

Starry nights contemplated lying down, from the extinguished upper deck, observing the constellations without being able to name them, through ignorance.

Finally, sailing is the joy of sleeping at sea, lulled by the movement of the boat. It is even the silent satisfaction of being alone on deck, contemplating the mercurial night in the gentle sea air, when insomnia sometimes plagues your sleep.

Let's visit an island for a change

Because as you come across them, you inevitably think that it would be interesting to go and have a look. To see. This one, for example, which the rainbow points out to us.

One blow of the dhoni later and we are already walking through the sandy streets.

At the other end, a vast square bordered by the turquoise sea.

Young people play volleyball there.

The older ones laze around in the shade. The streets are clean but the waterfront is littered with rubbish.

I’m chatting in English with a bunch of kids: where are you from? From France. Are you a Muslim? No. Do you know Killian M’Bapé? Of course I know him! Hey, kids, you want to take a picture? Let’s do it.

Fishing boats in the tiny harbour.

Sand docks.

Other streets.

People who speak to me in a language I don’t understand and to whom I respond with a smile.

There are few shops on this island, but a colourful kindergarten and a Klein blue school, whose walls are decorated with moral precepts written in English. I don’t know what the inhabitants live on, probably fishing and various services.

The Shark Show

Back in the current, firmly attached to the edge of the channel, it’s time for the fantasia.

There are a few, aren’t there? Sometimes so many, in fact, that even before you get hooked, you don’t know where to point with your index finger.

They parade by, silver fuselages, impassive.

Come closer, curious about our bubbles.

In a way…

Then another.

During the cruise we will see mainly grey dagsit, fine coral sharks and a few large white tips, similar to dagsit but punctuated with light spots – hence their name. No tiger sharks this time, although there are some.

Once we drifted into the blue in search of hammerheads, but in vain.

We will only see one individual, which will pass above us, recognizable among all, a curious solitary who has come to see what we look like before going further. I didn’t take a picture of it: it would have been a mediocre shot and I preferred to watch it swim, fascinated.

The remoras

A little anecdotal digression about these strange flat-headed parasitic fish, which stick to the large pelagic fish and are nonchalantly dragged along, enjoying the crumbs: Alexandra was very amused one day to see one of them vainly trying to lean on François or Denis. Without knowing, of course, that she herself had been chosen by one of them.

photo Cat Torres

Another variety

Sometimes observed in isolation, resting under a large rock: the nurse shark. Nocturnal, it hides during the day under a coral spur, and snoozes, hence its other nickname of sleeper shark. Here is one, caught at siesta time. In the foreground, blue commas striped with light, these are the little cleaner wrasses that brazenly enter the gills of the big ones to rid them of their parasites.

This shark will be the surprising star of the only night dive – but what a dive! – that we will make in…

Alimata

We launch at dusk, at 15 metres, not far from an island hotel which used to throw its waste into the sea. Nurse sharks used to come and gobble there as soon as the sun went down. Today, fortunately, the island has found another way of managing its waste; the sharks, however, continue to come there, driven by some ancient memory. They come in small groups at first, then, as night falls, they form more and more dense schools that move around in the darkness, lit by the headlights of the divers, and brush against us, sometimes even pushing us. It is truly “stupéfiant” – in the hallucinatory sense of the french adjective.

 PS : in french, the adjective “stupéfiant” – which could be translated in “amazing” – also refers to drugs. For example, the french DEA is called “Brigade des stupéfiants”. I play here on the two senses of the word – as if the real scene was driven by some kind of strong psycho-stuff… Which actually I don’t need at all : diving is enough!

At night, we hook ourselves on bits of dead coral, right on the sand, and we don’t know where to put the lamp. They come from everywhere.

Apart from the fact that I’ve had autofocus problems since the beginning, my headlight, which is very effective during the day, is useless at night. It diffuses too widely and illuminates the particles on which the focus is fixed. Blurred photos. Cat’s lighting is more efficient, so I borrowed the following shots from her.

photo Cat Torres
photo Cat Torres

This incredible dance of the nurse sharks had a strange musical effect on me: I felt as if I were listening to a symphony, the intensity of which was rising in ever-increasing waves, until this sabbath exploded everywhere in explosions of brass and cymbals. I don’t know how else to describe it. Berlioz on acid!

The unintentional blur has the capacity to make this impression extraordinary.

Crazy. Literally.

Stingrays

The leopard ray is commonly encountered, isolated as here along the drop off.

Or in groups in the blue, similar to clouds of bats. In schools, you can also see mobula rays. There are also the fan-shaped stingrays, with skin so beautiful that you have the irrepressible urge to caress them.

The stingrays sometimes come to be cleaned by the wrasses on cleaning stations – coral spuds that the stingrays somehow spot. No “car wash” sign on the horizon, of course.

Special guest star: the manta ray.

When the current is outgoing, full of edible particles, we land on the sand at the bottom of the passes, near these cleaning stations, and wait.

The manta rays arrive and spin around, majestic, immense. Sometimes alone…

Or in pairs.

We contemplate them, flying with the heavy beat of their vast wings.

photo Cat Torres

We photograph them. We film them.

And then, if you’re lucky, you get a shot that stands out.

Nice double. The photographer’s face is delighted and he grumbles his satisfaction while chuckling in the bubbles of the regulator.

End of dive

When we have only 50 bars of pressure left in the tank, or when we have reached 60 minutes of immersion, it is time to move away from the reef and take out the signal parachute.

There, you wait three minutes to make a safety stop.

Below the surface, between five and three metres, we kill time. We take pictures of ourselves.

Cat immortalizes Melanie…

Then she photographs me framing Anne and Denis…

photo Cat Torres

Or Alexandra.

Or François…

… who asks me for my camera and shoots me in turn, and the circle is complete: reverence.

photo Cat Torres

Then all we have to do is slowly break the surface, in the morning sun, the more zenithal midday sun or the golden evening sun.

From there, we wait for the dhoni which comes towards us, guided by the parachute. We hang on to its sides with the help of some ropes put there on purpose, we take off the fins and we go up the ladder. Easy when there is no swell, more technical when it’s rough. Anne remembers that, with her fins off, she unscrewed from the ladder and immediately started drifting while gurgling before François and I caught her by the wrist.

Since we are talking about jolting ascents, we had a special one halfway through the cruise. Just by looking at the surface, we realised that the perspective was unusual.

A downpour! The drops were so strong that they shot through the surface like bullets.

You don’t always want to go back up in these conditions, even if you are already wet. It’s strange, when you think about it, this feeling under water of being sheltered from the rain…

Upstairs, it’s still fun. First of all, we laugh about it.

Then a little less as the storm intensifies.

And when the swell gets involved, you feel as if you have swapped the Maldives for the North Sea.

The ride back on board was a bit bumpy that day, but François and I were hilarious, tossed around on the sides of the dhoni, delighted with this impromptu ride. Kids!

Terminus Laamu

But already the end of the stay is approaching.

We look back at the journey to the end of the world.

Mélanie brings out the ephemeral shop.

Gala dinner, an opportunity to photograph and thank the crews of both boats.

Then, the next day, after a last magnificent dive, to proceed to the meticulous drying of the stuff.

Which is gradually colonising all the bridges.

We spend the last night on board.

Then, in the early morning, we board the dhoni.

For a quick trip to the small airport on Laamu Atoll.

Time for a last group photo of the four monitors – from left to right, Bebey, Mélanie, Hussan and Ibrahim.

We talk – about diving, of course. Here, with Jozef and Dominique.

Thereupon, we pile into a twin-engine propeller on the tarmac of this small tropical airfield.

And we repeat the journey in the opposite direction, this time from the air.

Inevitably, I think of the Bateau Ivre, Rimbaud’s poem: “I have seen sideral archipelagos! and islands / whose delirious skies are open to sailors”.

In Malé, as our rockets only take off in the evening, we allow ourselves a day of postcard waiting in a hotel that is obviously only used for that. Or almost.

Finally, after a last tribute to the local altars which remind us that India is not far away…

We return to the starting point, the Malé astroport where we had ended up ten days earlier.

With, in mind, the certainty of a future return. Because we are not finished with the Maldives. Oh no, we’re not.

photo Cat Torres

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