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Trip report: Maldives Liveaboard Two weeks on the MV Eagle Ray



Ever since seeing pictures a few years ago with whale sharks and dozens of mantas in a single photo (from Hanifaru Bay), the Maldives quickly jumped on my dive destination list. Aside from the long flight(s) literally half way around the globe, it always seemed like a rather pricey destination (at least to me), with the sole options being a sky's-the-limit resort island, or a pricey luxury liveaboard. Having accrued enough frequent flyer miles to get there, I further looked in to options on the ground/water, and found there are indeed more reasonably priced choices. Sure, I wouldn't be staying in an isolated overwater bungalow with a personal 24/7 masseuse, chef, and butler, nor on a liveaboard with a king sized bed, room service, and a masseuse, but I'm pretty low maintenance in that respect (not that those things wouldn't be nice...). Not to mention I'd still be seeing the same sites/fish/whale sharks/mantas/etc as those pricier options. The decision to go via liveaboard (my first) was an easy one, as being so spread out, it's really the only way to see what the Maldives has to offer (at least for a diver, which is why we're all here, right?). Plus the price can be lower than staying and diving from a land based resort.

I wasn't able to go at the optimal time/season for the feeding frenzy in Hanifaru, but still had a great time this past December, the changeover time between the two monsoon seasons. As such, the currents weren't always going in the same predictable direction (from which I understand is the norm during the regular seasons - i.e. East->West or vice versa), so sometimes we weren't quite sure of current direction until we got closer to a site. Weather-wise, the first week was sort of overcast/cloudy/lightly raining 2/3 of the time (making photos a bit tricky), and sunny the other 1/3. The second week was the opposite (2/3 sunny, 1/3 light rain/overcast). Surface-wise, it was fairly calm most of the time, with some slight swell a few days, and one somewhat choppy crossing while going from South Ari atoll to South Male atoll. Water temps mostly 80*F, a few dives at 77-79*F, night dives at 76-77*F. Viz was variable, but I'm horrible at judging distance; I'd guess a few dives under 75', mostly 100+', some 125+'. Currents ranged from minimal to WAHOOOOO!!! (or AHHHHHHH!!!, depending on your view). A reef hook is definitely handy, if not a near requirement for some of the dives (never had need of gloves - though some others seemed to be using them).

The Eagle Ray accomodates up to 14 divers, but we only had 11 the first week, and 7(!) the next (there was supposed to be 13, but a group of 6 apparently had to cancel last minute due to travel issues - ouch). Plenty of space around the boat - you could always find a spot to be alone if you wanted. It might be a bit cozy with 14, but I wouldn't say it'd be crowded at all. Electrical outlets were type G British Standards sockets (that fit plugs with 3 large rectangular pins) as is standard for the country, but all/most had plug adapters (NOT transformers) provided. Most plugs were 220v, aside from a few labeled 110v in the camera area, but they didn't seem to be working when I checked (didn't bother asking, since my (and most) gadgets nowadays support either voltage). Decent counter space on the forward sides of the main common area for cameras (along with multiple electrical outlets right below the counter); 14 full dSLR rigs though would need to alternate/share counter space.

Meals varied, but for the most part were quite good. Tuna and bananas in some shape or form weren't often absent from a day's menu, and the occasional ice cream dessert was a pleasant surprise.

Rooms - I don't really have anything to compare them to (being my first liveaboard), but I found them rather comfy. I wouldn't say they're luxurious by far, but I wasn't really spending much time in there. Beds made 1-2 times a day, towels changed out mid-week, closet with some hangers to hang stuff/store luggage. If you get the bed against the hull, there's a shelf that'll fit a decent sized duffel bag.

Our dhoni (supporting dive boat if you haven't bothered doing ANY research) was a more modern/conventional boat, not a traditional style with an upwards swept bow. There was plenty of space, and you can leave all your gear in a plastic crate below your seat. Two exits are located on either side, so getting in the water is pretty quick. There's no head, but the time between a dive site and the mother ship was generally pretty short - maybe 15 minutes on the longer ones. A freshwater shower hose for rinsing yourself off is located at the back. A large clean plastic garbage can filled with fresh water is available to soak camera rigs pre/post-dive.

If you're renting gear, they rent it from a shop in Malé, which seems to have varying quality. The first week I had a fairly basic BCD, with few D-rings, no sternum strap, etc. The second week I had a better fitting, newer looking BCD with more features. I suppose it's partly luck of the draw... Weights are in kilograms, so you might wanna figure out what you need if coming from someplace using pounds.

Passengers were from all over - Australia, France, Spain, Hong Kong, Russia, South Africa, Italy. Dive experience varied from 1000+ to recently certified. Dives were generally about an hour max, which is understandable since you can drift pretty far. If someone ran low on air, they'd go up with their buddy while the rest of the group continued on. First week (with 11 guests), usually had a DM/guide and assistant DM on all dives, sometimes splitting in to two groups (mainly on the thillas/pinnacles). Second week (with 7 guests) was often just one DM.

I'd seen people mention liveaboards are just dive-eat-sleep, but I didn't realize that's literally how it is (at least for the day). Get up, briefing (crackers available if you want), dive, breakfast, nap, briefing, dive, lunch, nap, briefing, dive, nap, dinner, sleep, repeat. Granted, you don't have to nap all the time, but quite a few did. We took different routes each week, with a bit of overlap - it really depends on the conditions, but nothing's really set in stone. We only saw other dive groups underwater a handful of times, and even then, usually only in passing.

The crew and dive guides were all great - friendly and helpful. Though during a briefing, one guide did neglect to mention a wreck at one of the sites (we were moseying along a wall, then "WTF is that over there?" - a good sized wreck), which we jokingly ribbed him about the rest of the trip.

On to the diving. I haven't been to a whole lot of places, so I guess I'll have to use Palau as a reference (granted I went to Palau shortly after getting certified, so I might've overlooked some things there). There's a good variety in the Maldives, with various types of dives (drifts, pinnacles/thillas, channels/kandus, wrecks, Blue Corner like hook dives [I'm not sure what they're called], walls, etc). It seemed to me to have a fair amount of biodiversity, probably not as much as Indonesia/the Coral Triangle area, but Palau seemed to for the most part be primarily about the sharks (not that that's anything to complain about). While sharks weren't uncommon here, I don't think we saw them every single dive. Admittedly, there were a few rather meh dives, but I'd chalk those up to being inbetween seasons. Much of the coral was wonderful, and looked to be in great condition, while other areas were rather rubble-y - maybe from the tsunami damage a few years back, maybe from other damage.

Dives of particular note: A manta cleaning station had 6+ mantas dancing about for over an hour. Seeing a whale shark, albeit briefly, during a dive was amazing. Hooking in at the edge of a thilla/pinnacle while gray reef sharks swam back and forth 7' in front of us reminded me of Blue Corner in Palau (on a smaller scale, with fewer fish/sharks, but they got a LOT closer). Dropping in on a school of hundreds(?) of remoras, which stayed with us the whole dive; I didn't even know they schooled. Hooking in at the edge of a channel in strong current, flying like a kite in the wind, then unhooking and effortlessly flying over the terrain at a decent clip; one of my favorite dives ever - though another diver did find it rather uh, nerve wracking. A few times my smaller exhaust bubbles would seem to stay even at eye level (and my depth gauge didn't say I was ascending/descending) - not sure what was going on there, just sort of weird. The blue bioluminescent plankton(?) was a first for me, and personally found fascinating. Snorkeling with a whale shark along with 7+ other boats worth of people (some dive boats, some tour boats from nearby resorts) was uh, quite the circus - I felt sorry for the poor shark with all the people thrashing about on the surface. I think the particular area has about 6 whale sharks that frequent the area regularly - thus the concentration of boats once one's sighted.

Other stuff seen: reef fish, sting rays, schools of eagle rays, crown jellyfish, giant clams, tuna, barracuda, lobsters, an octopus or two, mantis shrimp, bunch of titan triggerfish, porcelain crabs, occasional turtle, only noticed one species of nudibranch the whole time, some (not much) soft coral, honeycomb morays, various sea cucumbers (including some climbing walls), large (giant?) jacks, gorgonians, various anemones. Not a ton of huge schools of fish, though we did see some. Sharks seen: white tips, gray reefs, zebras, whalesharks, and a school of 60+ nurse sharks was quite the sight.

More pics here.
Video of my trip here. (I'm still new at video, and realize some of it should probably be edited down more)

Tips:

- If flying from the Pacific, and you have a lengthy layover in Singapore, the in
-airport hotel is TOTALLY worth it. A few hours nap and a shower does wonders after 12+ hours of transit. Obviously just make sure you're able to wake up on time to make your connecting flight.
- It's nice to learn a few phrases of Dhivehi (the local language), if nothing else "Thank you" is appreciated. A few phrases here
- If you need to stay a night before/after your trip, Hulhumalé is a lot more laid back than the hustle and bustle of Malé.
- You can sometimes get a (not free) wifi signal from a nearby island when the boat anchors for the night. Dhiraagu is one of the local cell services that also handles some of the public wifi spots. To use the wifi, you'll need to get a local SIM card (they have an office/store just outside the arrivals area of the airport), and basically you txt to get a code good for x amount of wifi time, which is charged against your account balance; enter that code in the browser login page on your laptop/smartphone/etc, and you're good to go (there's full instructions at the portal page). Refill cards for the SIM's are readily available on most local islands. I doubt video conferencing would work well, but for your basic browsing/email/etc, it's fine.

Gear you'll need:

- computer (available for rent with prior notice), required by law - SMB with string (for deploying on your safety stop - my 100' spool was a bit overkill)

Additional gear I'd suggest bringing: 

- a reef hook (They/you can pick one up in Malé, but it's probably cheaper back home/online.
I'm not sure why they don't just have them to loan out as standard, as was my experience in Palau)
- a dive light (they have a few mediocre ones to loan)
- a tank marker light (to more easily differentiate yourself on a night dive, which can have more than one boat at the same site)

Would I go back? In a heartbeat.

Note: Very special thanks to Tobze(BSOD), giving the permission to repost the report & pictures on our maldivestraveller.com.