>When I was there I swam down to take an upward-angled photo, and when it was time to ascend I struggled to find a spot on the surface free of human bodies or whale shark. It wasn't lost on me that I was part of the problem — as culpable and frenzied as the rest. In the end I felt bad for the whale shark, which had to deal with so much interference while simply trying to feed.
>While it is possible to enjoy a solitary encounter with a whale shark in the Maldives, in some areas their predictability attracts groups of snorkelers.
>Reliable whale-shark encounters are one of the Maldives' iconic attractions, but that day I decided that the next time I visited I would find an itinerary that was outside of the mainstream. Fortunately, in an archipelago of 1,192 islands in 26 atolls, there are plenty of options.
>Regardless of where you intend to go in the Maldives, your first stop will be the international airport in Malé. From there you'll transfer to a liveaboard or an island-based resort. With 35,000 square miles of sovereign nation but less than 115 square miles of land, a boat or seaplane will be necessary to get you where you want to go.
>At some point in the cruise most liveaboards put on a beach barbecue, complete with sand sculptures.
>This trip was a hybrid of new (to me) areas to the north and familiar dive opportunities in the south that are simply too good to ignore. Even though we boarded our liveaboard in the early afternoon and could have done our checkout dive that same day, we opted to motor north, steaming overnight while we checked into our cabins, assembled our cameras and had our first (of many) dive briefings. This was good, because it allowed us to be better educated about how the geographic diversity of these islands gave rise to distinct and unique reef structures and to learn about the challenges and opportunities each might present.
>A "faru" is a circular reef that rises from the ocean floor within a channel. Featuring ledges and overhangs where marine life congregates, farus tend to attract pelagic life because of their exposure to currents.
>A "thila" is a shallow reef within an atoll — like a small seamount that rises from a 20- or 30-foot seafloor. Because of the influence of tidal currents, significant coral and fish life may be found on thilas. Thilas and farus are relatively easy dives, mostly free of current and easily well suited to multilevel diving or prolonged ascents.
>Our first dives were at Lhaviyani Atoll. We descended on Fushifaru Kandu at slack tide, which gave us the opportunity to effortlessly navigate the shallow reef, but the water clarity was worse than it would have been in an incoming tide. No matter, the attraction here was schools of reef tropicals so massive they obscured the water.
>I was initially surprised to find such a large congregation of redtail butterflyfish (Chaetodon collare), as I'd forgotten how common they are in the Maldives. We found them pretty consistently throughout the cruising range, mostly as singles or in pairs, but on this reef they were present by the dozen. We also saw bluestripe snappers in large schools at several bommies throughout the trip; here they were comingled with schoolmaster snappers.
>Up until we dived Eriyadhoo Beyru we hadn't seen much soft coral on the northern reefs — I was actually surprised by how low-profile the decoration on the walls was. The soft coral was dense, and it made for wonderful backgrounds for fish photos, but I had the thought that if I were to photograph a diver against these soft corals and wanted to make the corals appear impressively large then I'd need to book Ant-Man as the model. That didn't diminish my appreciation of the thoroughly beautiful and productive dive, but it was one of those random thoughts that passed though my mind during the safety stop. Later I searched online for "soft coral in the Maldives" and found plenty of contemporary photos and videos of reefs draped in soft coral, so I won't project my experience on this reef to the broader Maldives underwater experience. Nor is the soft coral the only attraction here: The hard corals, particularly the staghorn variety, were vast and pristine. The contrast of the orange anthias amid the golden branching corals was particularly inspiring.
>At Noonu Atoll's Raafushi Cave, my most significant photo opportunity was with a giant moray at a cleaning station. A school of orange anthias swam close to the eel — perilously close, perhaps, but I suppose such a large eel might be pretty ponderous in pursuit of a nimble anthia. Anyway, I saw no evidence of any fish being alarmed to swim near the cavernous eel maw.
>Baa Atoll is most famous for the large aggregations of manta rays and whale sharks that frequent Hanifaru Bay between July and November each year. Being there on Valentine's Day I realized I wasn't likely to get much manta love, but I found other things of interest. The dive that most resonated with me was Horubadhoo Thila — the fish were especially friendly there.
>With five days of diving under our weight belts, we headed southward to some of the most iconic dives in the region. The first was at North Ari Atoll among the sharks of Rasdhoo Ridge. Here we dropped onto the ridge, which topped out at about 60 feet, spread out and waited for the gray reef sharks swimming in the blue to approach us. We were advised to not swim toward the sharks, as this tends to keep them away; gratefully, everyone rigidly adhered to the directive. The result was sharks that came within 6 feet of us and occasionally as close as 4 feet. There was no bait in the water, just a calm interaction with a beautiful species of shark.
>Fish Head is another marine reserve, also on North Ari Atoll. The site was named during an era when local fishermen were likely to bring nothing but a fish head onboard, so ravenous and plentiful were the sharks. While the area may not be as shark infested as in days of yore, we were still able to perch atop a rocky knoll at 60 feet and watch a half dozen gray reef sharks pass to and fro, edging ever closer as we remained motionless. A massive school of bluestripe snapper was at 90 feet, and were I not reluctant to have my bubbles disrupt the shark action, I would've loved to drop into their midst. But it was just as well — at the top of the reef in only 30 feet of water was another school. Once I'd filled the frame with 100 fish, it didn't really matter that there were 500 somewhere else.
>Maldives reprised was a great success. We hit our marks. We found the iconic mantas in the south and enjoyed our time in the north as the only liveaboard on the horizon. We didn't get a whale shark encounter, but on balance that was fine with us. I doubt the whale sharks missed us very much either.
>Temperature: Expect air temperatures of 79-86°F and water temperatures of 82-85°F year round. A 3mm wetsuit is generally sufficient, even for four dives per day.
>How To Dive It
>Seasons: The prime diving season is from November to April, although dive tourism is now a year-round attraction.
>Dhoni Diving: Most liveaboards operate in tandem with a traditional dhoni, typically a 50- to 60-foot yacht with diesel engines that houses the compressors for air and nitrox fills as well as most of the dive gear (though not cameras). Guests step from the mother ship to the stable and spacious dhoni (usually in calm water) for transport to the nearby dive site.
>Currents: Each diver should carry and know how to deploy a surface marker buoy. Also recommended are a personal air horn, mini strobe light and a radio or GPS locator. Most divers carry a reef hook as well.
>Alcohol: Alcohol is generally prohibited in the Republic of Maldives. There are no liquor stores or bars where it can be sold or consumed, and tourists may not bring alcohol into the country with them. All incoming luggage (including carry-on bags) are X-rayed, and authorities will confiscate any liquor found. There is a specific exception for licensed tourist operations catering to international clientele.
>Depth: By federal law, scuba divers may not dive deeper than 30 meters (98 feet). This tends not to be a problem because the seafloor at most dive sites is around that depth.
>See more of Stephen Frink's images from the Maldives in his bonus online photo gallery.
>© Alert Diver — Q2 Spring 2016