The Republic of Maldives is a series of atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Popular with honeymooners and SCUBA divers, we fell into the latter category. Our one week liveaboard on the MV Stingray (with 17 dives, all food and drink and a double cabin) was actually a cheaper alternative to staying a week on an island resort, where we would be sure to contract ‘island fever’ after a day or two (most of the resorts can be circumnavigated within 10 minutes by foot!). We had a few days in Male before our liveaboard, and were able to check out this surreal capital literally living by the edge of the sea. Situated mere meters above sea level (the Maldives is the lowest country in the world), Male struggles to support its growing population, as overcrowding, pollution, and chaotic road conditions prove to be a challenge to this tourism dependent nation. We rather enjoyed our time in this Islamic nation, as the diving did not disappoint, with sightings of a whale shark, mantas, octopuses, sharks, and colorful reef fish kept us busily entertained.

19 May 2012: Maldives here we come! Flying in from our respective countries (UAE and Kuwait), our plan was to link up in Colombo for the onward Sri Lankan air flight to Male. However, since our layovers in Colombo were really short, Robby barely made the connection. In fact, had it not been for Becky putting up a fight and begging, pleading, cajoling and harassing the ground staff, the fully booked flight would have left without him. Luckily, the Sri Lankan staff was willing to wait just a few minutes past the scheduled departure time, and eventually, Robby came sprinting around the corner to finally check in for the flight. No surprise that his luggage (with our dive gear) didn’t make it when we landed in Male, so we filed a claim with the baggage staff, who promised that his bag would get delivered to our hotel. Good thing we planned two extra days in Male before our scheduled liveaboard! After withdrawing some funds from an airport ATM (exchange rate is about 15 Rufiyaa [Rf] to $1), we hopped on the ferry from the airport to Male (Rf15 each). Becky had already mapped out the approximate location for our hotel, Kaani Lodge, which is one of the cheapest alternatives on the island and we found it quite easily despite it being tucked away in a small alleyway. Despite the early morning hour (9:30 am), the helpful receptionist allowed us to check in early and gave us our choice of 1st or 4th floor (we chose 1st floor which was a bonus because we soon realized that the free wifi signal reached our room, and we didn’t have to join the rest of the guests in the hotel lobby for reception). After getting settled in, we figured we may as well explore the capital of the Maldives, which we had heard would not take too long. Armed with a LP walking tour, we head out towards the waterfront and made our way to the Jumhooree Maiden (main square) which is easily recognizable with the massive Maldivian flag waving over the horizon. We were warned by some helpful locals not to take a photo of the National Security Services Headquarters, which is a nondescript white building to the right of the flag post. Next on our walking tour was a brief stop at the golden domed Grand Friday Mosque, past the silver Republican Monument, and into Sultan’s Park. A small 17th Century coral stone mosque caught our interest after the park, and Robby got permission to enter the premises to take photos. Next was a glimpse of the Tomb of Mohammed Thakurufaanu, followed by a stroll down Majeedee magu (Male’s main shopping street). The midday temperature was soaring when we hit Theemuge (Presidential Palace), so we sought refuge at the covered produce market where we bought two fresh coconuts and admired the colorful tropical fruits and vegetables. Next was the fish market by the harbor front, which ended up being more fruit/vegetables for sale and dried fish. (we later realized the fresh fish market is held across the street in a yellow building). All the dried fish vendors were offering us samples of their dried tuna and inviting us over to take photos, happy to pose for our cameras. Seeing no fresh fish around, we figured it was time for a lunch break and headed over to Trends, which was recommended to us. Lunch was tasty and reasonably priced, and as soon as our bellies were full, we headed back to our hotel for a much needed nap. Around 1730, we felt rejuvenated and headed down to the waterfront near Male’s “Artificial Beach”. Late afternoon is definitely when the locals come out, and the beach area was packed. People were out socializing, playing soccer, card games, or chess, and kids were jumping on a trampoline. We laughed at a boy who looked terrified to hop around on the trampoline, and his peers were trying to shout encouragement to him over the loud music. Makeshift fishing net chairs had been erected at various sections of the artificial beach area, and we were envious of the locals who managed to snag a seat. Directly in front of the Artificial Beach, a big stage was erected with music blasting and a large group working out (Total Fitness Group). It was funny to see a large crowd gathered around to check out the groups’ beachside workout routine. Over at the beach, we were reminded that Male remains a strictly conservative city, with all the women fully covered from head to toe to enter the water for a quick dip (tourists are advised that bikinis are prohibited in Male and the immediate islands). The boy from the trampoline that was scared to jump befriended Becky and she asked him about the fish market because we thought we went there during our afternoon walking tour, but didn’t see any fresh fish. He suggested that we head over there in the afternoon as that was the peak time to see the fishermen hauling in their load of fish. Making a mental note to check it out again tomorrow, we thanked our new friend and headed over to the tetrapod monument followed by a visit to the tsunami monument. By then, the sun had set and we were hungry, craving some Thai food for dinner tonight. So we headed off in search of the Thai Wok restaurant, but after a series of misdirects, walked around Male in circles. We did find the highly recommended Sala Thai, but it looked too ritzy for our taste. Ironically, we stumbled upon the old Friday Mosque (which was not part of our walking tour but a definite highlight to any visit to Male). After checking it out in the dark, we both agreed to dress conservatively for a repeat visit in the morning. Still hungry for dinner, we asked our hotel receptionist for a recommendation but her suggestions were way too pricey (Sala Thai and Food Bank). Luckily, we happened upon a local joint called Black Tea which was a couple of blocks up from our hotel. Dinner was actually really tasty, consisting of chili fish/rice and poppadoms (Rf60 for both of us). After dinner, we headed back to the Kaani Lodge where we learned that Robby’s bag had not yet been delivered (a vague promise of tomorrow morning was uttered). Neither one of us had any problems crashing tonight, especially with fan and A/C lulling us to sleep.

20 May: Climbing up to the rooftop of our hotel was a bit of a challenge early in the morning. If we were expecting a view of Male, it was one of a concrete city with no skyline to admire. Our breakfast (included in the cost of the hotel) consisted of juice, water, toast, eggs and hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs for breakfast. We weren’t sure if this was an anomaly or not but figured with over a week in the Maldives, we would soon find out. Our morning agenda included checking out the Old Friday Mosque (Hukuru Miskiiy), which is the country’s oldest mosque dating from 1656. Created entirely out of coral stone which is intricately carved, we were told this is one of the highlights of the island of Male. Both of us dressed as conservatively as possible, as Becky had read that entry into the mosque is up to the discretion of the caretaker who would not take kindly to any visitors not dressed appropriately. Luckily, we were both invited inside the mosque, and were able to admire (and photograph) the wooden interior. Interestingly, the mosque was built on the foundations of an earlier temple, so when worshipers wish to pray towards Mecca, they must do so at an angle, with a striped carpet lining the interior showing them which direction to face. We strolled all around the grounds and checked out the coral tombstones. Outside the mosque, a squat blue and white striped minaret tower stands, dating from 1675. Opposite the mosque complex stands official residence of the Maldivian President, so we took a few photos of the “Presidential Palace” before continuing our tour this morning. Yesterday, we had been keen on Thai food, and luckily, we stumbled across the Thai Wok which was advertising a lunch buffet for Rf120. After doing a quick mental calculation, we decided that we would stop by here for lunch, and headed over to the ferry terminal for a quick ride to Hulhumale (Rf5 each). The ferry was departing immediately, so we bought our tickets and sprinted onto the ferry before being jettisoned off to the reclaimed artificial island. Hulhumale was created because of population overgrowth on Male, and it is located on the other side of the airport, connected via a causeway. It is a 1.8 square kilometer reef that has been artificially built up. There are grand plans for resettlement to this island, and the project is supposed to be completed within several stages. Our guidebook described the island as a “Maldivian Brave New World” which began in 1997, with a goal of a population of 50,000 people living here by 2020. We opted to walk the short distance from the ferry terminal to Beach Road on the other side of the island. The locals told us to just “walk straight”, and sure enough, we reached the original settlement in no time. Complete with apartment buildings, shops, a golden domed mosque, and some inhabitants, we could easily visualize how what the island will look like a decade or two from now. Unfortunately, once we hit Beach Road and arrived to a lovely white sand beach, there were signs posted everywhere that said bikini wear was strictly forbidden. So no swimming in the ocean for us! It was a bit tortuous, so see a beautiful turquoise sea beckoning, but having to stay on the beach to avoid offending anyone with our provocative beach attire! There really isn’t much else to do on Hulhumale, so we decided to head back to Male for lunch. Hopping on a return ferry took no time at all, and the Thai Wok was exactly what we both were craving. Tasty and plentiful Thai food, with unlimited portions…it was perfect. After eating to our hearts’ content, we headed back to Kaani Lodge for an afternoon siesta, and tried again to track down Robby’s SCUBA bag. Promised that it would be delivered at 4 pm, we headed over to the afternoon fish market to check out the scene. There were quite a few fishermen hauling in their bundles, and we noticed that the tunas were the most coveted fish, with each tuna carefully measured and weighed. After taking a few photos of the wharf and fish market scene, we strolled back to the Main Square where children were feeding the pigeons, which were swarming them from all directions. After returning to the hotel at 5:30 pm, we weren’t surprised to see that Robby’s bag had still not yet been delivered. Perhaps it’s the island time mentality but it necessitated yet another phone call to the airport baggage claim staff, who promised that the bag would be delivered by 8 pm. However, they also gave us a direct contact number for a Sri Lanka airline representative, who promised that the next staff member arriving to Male from the airport would hand carry our bag over to our hotel for us. After much back and forth, we were quite relieved when the bag was finally delivered at 6:45 pm, with all of our SCUBA gear intact. Word to the wise: if you are going on a Maldives liveaboard, do yourself a favor a factor in at least an extra day to get your bag there on time! We would have been royally screwed if we hadn’t budgeted for a few extra days in Male prior to our liveaboard. For dinner, we decided to revisit the local joint “Black Tea” again for dinner. Our waiter was really excited to see us, and we laughed when we realized that every other local customer was using the free wifi from the ice-cream shop across the street from the comfort of the Black Tea shack. We were perhaps the only ones there for the food, which was simple, delicious and very cheap. After two days in Male, we were ready for our liveaboard, so we headed back to the hotel to crash and prepare for our week long stay aboard the MV Stingray.

21 May: Neither one of us could sleep in today so we were up by 7 am playing with our dive computers, trying to get a crash course on the settings so that we would be familiar with them before boarding our boat. Breakfast was an exact replica of yesterday’s, complete with hot dogs yet again. After returning to our room, we packed up all our gear and were standing by for the boat crew to pick us up between 10 – 11 am as previously coordinated. However, at 10 am, we received a call asking us to link up with the rest of the dive group at the airport ferry terminal on Male. We hopped onto a ferry over to the airport, and were met with a sudden downpour as we pulled up next to the airport. Most members of our dive group had already landed, so brief introductions were made and we found out that a large contingent of divers hailed from Israel. Throw in a few Brits, a German and another American and our group was quite a mixture. After waiting out the rain under the protective awning of the airport, our dive boat’s dhoni finally arrived, so we loaded up and had a short ride to where the MV Sting Ray was anchored (in the harbor of Hulhumale). We were given a welcome drink and paperwork to fill out, which was matched against our dive cards. After the brief in processing, we were directed to the bow of the boat to organize our dive gear into individual baskets, after which we were given our respective cabins to move into. Even though we had seen photos of the cabin online, both of us were surprised at how spacious the cabins appeared to be. Up to 3 people could be housed in the cabin, as it was arranged as a bunk bed style arrangement, with a double bed below and a single berth above. We unpacked and checked out the rest of the Sting Ray before our first briefing of the day, where we met the three dive guides, Mif, Deko and Dhaos. We were informed that we had to wait for some other guests to arrive later in the afternoon and evening, so our first checkout dive would not be until tomorrow. Not too perturbed by this news, we decided to spend our afternoon on the upper deck to recline on a lounger, armed with our kindles, sunscreen and some drinks. But first, lunch was served (rice, veggies, tuna chunks with veggies and sauce, veggie curry, coleslaw and poppadoms). It was delicious and a preview of our meals to come. After lunch we went up on the top deck for some sun but there were heavy clouds overcast with sporadic rain, so we rotated beneath shelter when required. It was a blissful afternoon, and we lazed around until the dinner bell sounded at 7 pm. Dinner was a spread of spaghetti, baked chicken, coleslaw, green beans, potatoes and papaya for desert, and we quickly realized we would not go hungry on this trip. One of the guides briefed us on the plan for the next few days, and gave us a general idea of how the 6 day circuit would be organized. After sitting and chatting with our group for a bit, we got to know our fellow passengers. Jane and Sharon both hail from the UK and were both expats living in United Arab Emirates at one point. Sharon was visiting from Italy, and decided at the very last minute to join Jane on the liveaboard, so they both were on a one week holiday. Mathew & Anja were newlyweds from the UK & Germany respectively, and they were honeymooning in the Maldives (one week liveaboard and one week on an island resort). Sitting at the other table were the other guests, Steve and Andrew (from Israel and USA respectively), Amir & Yarden (a couple from Israel), Gil (friendly guy from Israel), Shai and Ido (father and son from Israel), Alex (guy from Israel who ended up being Becky’s tank buddy on the dive boat), and Roy (in the Israeli army as an officer who had the misfortune of having his dive gear miss a tight connecting flight, so he had to rent his gear for the entire week). We were still missing 4 members of our dive group, but as they were set to arrive later that night, we would meet them tomorrow. We finally headed back to our cabin for the night, where Robby discovered to his dismay that SDHC cards do not work in his archaic underwater camera so he had to select the smallest/lowest photo quality and size so that some photos would fit on his camera’s internal memory. Several members of our group decided to watch a movie, and we soon discovered that the entertainment system is located directly above our room. The walls and floor/ceiling are paper thin, so it felt like the action/adventure movie was occurring live in our cabin! We heard every sound and felt every movement for the next few hours, until we eventually fell asleep. Apparently, the last four guests must have arrived up until midnight because we awoke to hear movement around the ship as they got settled in for the night. We also found out that our AC unit was only pushing out slightly cool air, thus making it difficult to fall asleep. We both sweltered all night long and definitely did not need a sleep sheet tonight.

22 May: We were awake early because of other guests shuffling about. Since our dive brief was at 7 am, we went upstairs to stock up on some tea/coffee and pre-breakfast snacks. Everyone seemed surprise to learn our first “checkout” dive was in reality just a regular dive…fine by us! After hopping on the dhoni to the dive site, we were teamed up into a group of six (the four latecomers, Andi and Helen from the UK and Alexei and Anna (a Russian/Mexican couple) along with divemaster Deko. Our first dive was OK, with sightings of lionfish, moray eels, lots of starfish, and lots of other reef fish. We were more keen on our how new dive equipment would fare, and everything seemed to work as advertised, with the exception of Becky’s dive suit, whose Velcro strap did a lot of damage to the suit itself, transforming a brand new suit to one looking raggedy and threadbare after just a few dives. Upon returning to the MV Stingray, a breakfast spread of toast, hot dogs, cheese, fruit, juice and tea/coffee was laid out. What is up with the Maldives and hot dogs for breakfast? We had been told that our first dive site (Lankan Faru at North Male atoll) was our best bet for spotting manta rays, so our second dive would be at the same location to increase our chances at spotting them. In between our dives, we had a quick lunch of rice, noodles, beef with veggies, tomato & cucumber salad, coleslaw with corn, and mixed veggies for lunch. On our second dive at the same location we saw a manta ray, turtles, moray eel, lobster and lots of reef fish. Lankan Faru did live up to its reputation as a manta ray point! Afterwards, we headed towards Male to drop of one of the MV Stingray staff (our barman) because his brother was killed in an accident on Male yesterday..what horrible news! In the afternoon, we headed over towards the last dive site, Kudagiri wreck dive (South Male Atoll). Enroute, we saw dolphins playing, jumping out of the water, and flipping in the air…very cool. Luckily for Robby, Jane had brought along a 128 MB SD card which she let him borrow for his underwater camera, so now he didn’t have to ration his underwater photo shots. For our last dive, Robby spotted an octopus straight away. At the wreck itself, we saw a Napoleon fish (humphead wrasse), frog fish and moray eel. The end of our dive was along a reef wall where we encountered a turtle, lionfish, and lots of reef fish. The pace of our daily dives (3 per day) was perfect, and we quickly became spoilt by the MV Stingray dive staff who refilled our tanks and organized our gear without any of the divers having to lift a finger. Awesome service! After the short dhoni ride back to our boat, we chilled until the dinner bell rang, and then we filled ourselves up on pasta salad, rice, fries, coleslaw and fresh fish, followed by chocolate pudding for dessert. Anja found a 1 GB SD card for Robby to borrow, so he returned Jane’s 128 MB card and thanked Anja for hooking him up. Our room tonight felt a bit warmer than it did last night, so we weren’t keen on another night of sweltering in our sleep. Movie time started again around 10 pm, but we were soon lulled to sleep and the noisy entertainment didn’t bother us as much tonight.

23 May: We had an early wake up (6 am) for our morning dive brief at 6:30 am. Today’s first dive was at Kandooma Kandu (South Male Atoll). The current was strong so we were swimming hard for the first half of the dive and drifted for most of the second half. Since we dove with dozens of sharks in Tahiti/Fiji, neither one of us gets real excited by sharks, but everyone else seemed thrilled to spot white tip gray sharks on this dive. Breakfast was at 8:30 am, and consisted of toast, flatbread, tuna-coconut (seriously yum), fruit, hot dogs, cheese, omelet, juice and tea/coffee. We had a few hours to relax as the MV Stingray crossed from South Male to South Ari atoll, and once we arrived to South Ari, our first dive there was at Omadhoo Thila South. Here, we saw moray eels, mantis shrimp, lots of colorful coral and reef fish, a white tip shark, a napoleon, sweet lips, tuna, and lots of opportunities to swim through some small archways. This dive was better than our first dive of the day with hardly any swimming required plus a slow drift to enjoy our underwater surroundings. After the short dhoni ride back to our boat, we had a lunch of rice, saucy chicken, okra in curry, fruit and salad. Becky opted for an afternoon snooze on the sundeck and misjudged the power of the sun, getting a little bit sunburned, despite the cool winds keeping the temperature at bay. Our last dive of the day was Vilamandhoo Thila (South Ari atoll) where we saw a sting ray, small reef shark, moray eels, stone fish and lots of colorful reef fish. After a short break on the MV Stingray, we took a short dhoni ride to Dhigurah Thila (a tiny island in the South Ari Atoll), which is inhabited by locals but does receive tourists. We had some free time to explore, so we wandered around at our leisure, stopping to take photos. The outer edge of the island has nice beaches and the port area is modern and well built. The compact island does have electric street lights outside, which we found interesting. Almost all of the houses are basic buildings built from coral, with most of them covered over with plaster and painted in bright colors forming a small village in the center of the island. Dhigurah had lots of souvenir shops but there was no pressure from the shop owners to buy anything, and the hassle free environment was quite nice. Some of the island residents had rabbit and chicken cages in their yards, obviously supplementing their fish diet with other sources of protein. The MV Stingray boat crew was sitting at a local café enjoying snacks and beetle nut, offering some to Robby who stated it is definitely an acquired taste. Adjacent to the café, Becky spotted a palm leaf woven whale shark, so she finally got to touch one! Some young Maldivian boys were catching a stray rabbit that had escaped its cage, and they let Robby hold it for a while. The visit to Dhigurah was a pleasant break from our routine of diving, and we enjoyed our short time here. Back on the MV Stingray, it was time for dinner, and we feasted on spaghetti with meat sauce, beef with pineapple, mash potatoes, coleslaw, green beans, and mixed fruit with creamy pudding for dessert. Our conversation topic over dinner was the bewildering phenomenon of countries (main culprits located in the Middle East) that don’t understand the damage of plastic bags, litter, and garbage strewn everywhere and how the residents believe it is someone else’s duty to pick up after them. Jane had some interesting observations based on her years living in UAE and we just shook our heads at the thought process of people who have no qualms throwing their trash on the ground everywhere. It was a quiet night tonight (no movie night) as the early wake ups must have been taking their toll. We retired to our room to check out some of our photos from the trip thus far.

24 May: After our 6 am wake up and 6:30 am dive brief, we were in the water at Kudara Thila (South Ari atoll). The current was fairly strong so we had to do some hard swimming before we could drift. On this dive, we spotted several moray eels, mantis shrimp, lots of colorful coral, big coral ledges, and archways. Deko allowed us to split from our group towards the end of the dive as we still had plenty of air so we made a loop around the pinnacle before surfacing. Since we had been advised that today’s itinerary would be our best bet to spot a whale shark (around the South Ari Atoll), we grabbed our snorkel gear off the dhoni onto the MV Stingray so that it would be handy once we spotted Mr. Big. Breakfast of toast, pancakes, fruit, hot dogs, omelets, guava juice and tea/coffee went down easy, and after that, everyone scanned the horizon for whale sharks. None were spotted on our way to Holiday Beru (Long Reef) despite our best efforts. On our second dive of the day, we saw several octopi, mantis shrimp, a stingray, a few white tip sharks, moray eels, and lots of other reef fish. No whale shark…sigh. After a lunch of tuna steaks, coleslaw, curry veggies, and steamed veggies, we had a brief break before our last dive of the day. An afternoon rainstorm hit, and the rain pelted us with a fury, combined with loud claps of thunder. Once that relented, we had our last dive brief before our quest for a whale shark sighting at Ari Beach Beru (South Ari atoll). None of us were optimistic that this was going to be a good dive. However, to our surprise, the dive was full of sightings of octopi, turtles, moray eels, a school of mackerel, white tip sharks, several manta rays and towards the end of the dive, a coveted whale shark! Whoohooo…what an awesome dive! Today was Anja’s birthday and Becky had promised her a sighting of both a manta ray and a whale shark (neither of which Anja had seen before) and sure enough, her words proved prophetic. Morale was high for all of us who had spotted the whale shark (half the group went after the mantas), and we talked excitedly on the return trip back to the MV Stingray. Even the dive crew cheered in celebration, and we were surprised they seemed as happy as we were at spotting so much diverse marine life on this last dive. After getting settled in on the MV Stingray, Matthew had a birthday muffin prepared for Anja, and we all sang Happy Birthday to the ecstatic birthday girl who was still reeling at the sight of a manta/whale shark combo. Some celebratory birthday drinks were in order, and we hung out chatting with our dinner mates until the dinner bell rang. Tonight we enjoyed lemongrass pasta, rice, fries, shredded carrots, cucumbers, and baked chicken..yum! The chef was definitely ensuring no one went hungry after one of his meals. The MV Stingray staff had a birthday surprise for Anja and after dinner, they brought out a heart shaped birthday cake. Another chorus of happy birthday was sung, and everyone split the cake which was quite rich. Overall, a fantastic day.

25 May: After our 6:30 am dive brief, we hopped on the dhoni for a short ride out to Kudhima Wreck (South Ari atoll). On the way, we spotted three manta rays from the surface..awesome. The wreck is right off a small island that has a really posh looking resort that extends out across the water (complete with swimming pool and a gym on the waterfront). The dive was really nice and we enjoyed it, spotting leaf fish, frogfish, and stonefish on the wreck itself, as well as curious batfish that followed our every move. There were also lionfish, octopi, lots of beautiful coral and reef fish…great dive. We were jealous of the vacationers who were staying at this resort as they truly have a pristine reef to enjoy. Back on the boat, we filled up on chocolate pancakes, hot dogs, fruit, toast, omelet, juice, and tea/coffee. The MV Stingray slowly made its way to our next dive site, while we relaxed on the upper deck. When we finally arrived at our destination, we had a short dive brief before visiting Angaga Thila (South Ari atoll), which was memorable for a manta ray with several dozen remora hitchhikers swimming along furiously try to keep up with the manta. There were also lots of octopi (we have seen more octopus in the Maldives than anywhere else in the world), mantis shrimps, two juvenile white tip sharks nestled beneath a rock, and lots of nice coral and reef fish. Another great dive, with the highlight definitely the manta ray. After heading back to the MV Stingray, we ate lunch while the boat relocated to our next dive site. Boy we are going to gain weight with all this good food! Our last dive of the day was at Dhigaa Thila (South Ari atoll) where we had remoras chasing us around (possibly looking for a new host to attach to?), sightings of white tip sharks, tuna, lobster, stingray, and lots of various reef fish and really nice corals. Today was a deviation from the norm, as we had an island visit and BBQ planned for dinner. After our last dive, we got ready for a visit to Raidhiga Island, which is a tiny, compact island that can be fully encircled in less than 10 minutes. The sand was pristine, white and very soft. Another boat (MV Orion) was also planning on having its guests visit the island, and their crew was busy setting up a dinner area. We were surprised at the time and effort they were putting in for their BBQ, even taking the time to carve out and decorate a whale shark from sand. Meanwhile, our MV Stingray staff was busy playing volley ball on the beach. The Israelis were piling sand on top of Ido, so we helped join in to build up a merman. Of course, for the obligatory photos, the girls posed all nice and pretty, but the boys decided to moon poor Ido, with Matt dangling his butt cheeks mere inches away from Ido’s head! The water around this pristine island was inviting, and we hung out until our boat crew grew tired of their volleyball game and decided to shuttle us back to the MV Stingray. After a quick shower and change, we were ready for our transport back to the island for our BBQ dinner, but it started pouring cats and dogs, so dinner was moved back onto the boat so we wouldn’t get drenched out in the open. Our BBQ feast tonight included a massive broiled fish, chicken, shish kebabs, hot dogs (of course), lasagna, rice, baked potatoes, salad, coleslaw, bread with filling and mixed fruit…huge yum! It was delicious and everyone ate until fully stuffed. We received a nightly briefing that tomorrow we would try for a night dive (weather dependent), for a total of 4 dives tomorrow, yay! After hitting the sack, we were kept up with dialogue from The Other Guys with Will Ferrell and Mark Walberg, and eventually managed to fall asleep.

26 May: Happy Birthday to Andi celebrating his big 5-0. We had a bit of a sleep in with a 7:15 am dive brief, and had our first dive at Kuburu Thila (North Ari atoll). Yup, we had relocated from South Ari atoll to North Ari during the night. A few folks were feeling under the weather, so our dive group today consisted of Andi, Alexei, and Deko (plus the two of us). For our first dive, we spotted white tip sharks, moray eels, stone fish, lionfish, mantis shrimp, tuna, large schools of blue fish and lots of other reef fish. After returning to the MV Stingray, we had a breakfast of hot dogs, fruit, french toast, juice and tea/coffee. For our second dive site, we headed over to Hafusa Thila (North Ari atoll), where again we saw lots of white tip sharks, schools of blue fish, lion fish, moral eels, mantis shrimp, octopus, stone fish, and various coral and other reef fish. Helen still wasn’t feeling 100% so she didn’t join us on this dive, and Andi dove alone. Back on the boat, we had lunch and relaxed until our third dive at Maaya Thila (North Ari atoll). Visibility was a bit limited at first, with a strong current, and we managed to see octopi, white tip sharks, lion fish and lots of other reef fish. Back on the boat, the staff had put out tuna sandwiches as a midafternoon snack, and we relaxed and watched Friends while waiting for the night dive. At 6 pm, we were given our night dive brief, and loaded onto the dhoni shortly thereafter. Tonight’s night dive was at one of the approved sites in the Maldives (North Ari atoll’s Maaya Thila), so we had been advised that several other dive boats would crowding us on the exact same dive. Luckily for us, there was only one other boat when we got there, so it wasn’t too disconcerting trying to follow Deko around in the dark. We had to rent our torches, which thankfully worked quite well. The night dive was actually surprisingly good, as we got to see the marine critters out and taking care of their nocturnal business. During our dive brief, we had been advised that the white tip sharks in this area had adapted their hunting practices to hunt by the light of our torches. So, we were not to feel alarmed when sharks circled around us suddenly or darted in between us and their prey that night. It took a little getting used to when the sharks appeared suddenly, but they were focused strictly on their prey, so we quickly felt comfortable around them. A massive red snapper kept following us around, so perhaps it had adapted its hunting techniques as well? Towards the end of the dive, we spotted a shrimp, moral eel and lionfish all sharing the same space, which made for a picturesque photo but several other divers with better cameras pushed their way into the scene, so that signaled the end of the dive for us. Overall, great dive which we enjoyed immensely. Back at the MV Stingray, we were surprised to see two manta rays attracted by the lights, and performing backflips just off the rear of the boat. The staff laughed and told us not to freak out…the mantas were regular visitors at this night dive spot. Urged to eat dinner first and swim with the mantas later, we followed their advice and had a delicious spread of salad, coleslaw, fish, fish curry, rice, stir fried veggies, curry chicken, tuna coconut, noodles, flat bread, and fruit. The chef had baked a cake for Andi’s 50th birthday, which was split between all of us after his birthday song. Andi was prepared for this occasion, changing into his “birthday suit” which was a black t-shirt that said “Grump Old Git” (apparently a British expression). After dinner, we changed and got our snorkel gear to swim with the manta rays. Roy cautioned everyone from free diving with the mantas after 4 dives today, and got irritated when his advice was ignored. He was pretty shocked that the staff was encouraging the behavior, and reiterated how dangerous it was to dive after the mantas, especially after all the SCUBA dives we had today. Eventually, his advice was heeded (albeit reluctantly) and we sat on the edge of the boat admiring the manta rays as they did flips and loops for our entertainment. By 9:30 pm, we were tuckered out, so we headed back to the room for a shower and sleep.

27 May: Our final dive of the trip was at North Ari atoll’s Kan Thila. With our dive brief at 7 am, we were in the water shortly thereafter, facing a pretty strong current. That meant a lot of sharks and we saw lots of gray reef sharks and white tip sharks, two napoleons, lionfish, moray eels, and a quite a few other reef fish. There wasn’t a lot of coral, but just enough to be nice. Becky almost lost her weight belt about halfway through the dive but luckily caught it just before it slipped away. After the dive we disassembled all our gear so it could be brought to the ship and washed. Amazingly, the dive crew volunteered for this duty, as they had a system down on how to wash, rinse and dry our gear in the most time efficient manner.

Back on the MV Stingray, we showered, washed our swim suits and hung them out to dry before heading to breakfast (fruit, hot dogs, cheese, toast, omelets, guava juice and tea/coffee). After breakfast we started exchanging photos with the group as the ship was making its way back towards Male. We spent the journey sorting through our photos and identifying marine life. We were back in Male by lunchtime, so we feasted before our afternoon excursion in the city. We were given the option of a guided tour, but since we had already spent 2 full days here, decided to skip out and do our own thing. Andi, Helen, Jane, Sharon, Matt & Anja followed us to the fish market then we hit a few souvenir stores. Afterwards, our group split up, and Matt & Anja joined us on a return trip to the old coral stone mosque. There, we witnessed a highly irate caretaker screaming at a female tourist who was not dressed appropriately, driving her to tears. Not sure what she was thinking, as all the guidebooks had forewarned us not to even approach the mosque if not dressed conservatively. After our visit to the mosque, we hung out at a café and had drinks as we waited for the boat to pick us up at 5:30 pm. At some point in our conversation, we realized there was a chance we could try and take an earlier flight tomorrow, so Robby headed off to the nearby Sri Lankan airlines office to check with a travel representative. Just a few minutes before the boat was to leave, Robby still wasn’t back yet, so after settling the bill, Anja and Matt headed back to the dhoni to stall for time, while Becky wandered Male in search of Robby. Amazingly, despite not having a copy of our tickets or passports, the helpful Sri Lanka staff was willing to change our tickets on the spot for no fee, booking us onto a new flight tomorrow morning at 9:25 am. Score! Luckily, the dhoni (and our fellow passengers) were patiently waiting for our return, and we had a short ride back to the MV Stingray, where we chatted and hung out watching the spectacular sunset. At dusk, we collected our SCUBA gear and started packing until dinner, which consisted of spaghetti with meat sauce, rice, fries, baked chicken, coleslaw, and fruit. After dinner we completed questionnaire forms on our impression of the dive boat and crew. Of course, we had few complaints…it had been a really good value trip which we had enjoyed immensely. There were 2 shuttles departing for the airport tomorrow, and we signed up for the first departure in order to make our early flight. After dinner, we had time for one last group photo where everyone struck silly poses. We quickly reflected that this had turned out to be a great liveaboard, despite being the most budget of the Maldives liveaboard options. We felt rather lucky with the great crew, easygoing fellow divers, and chance spotting of the whale shark and manta rays earlier in the week. Since we still had a bit of packing up to do, we didn’t hang out socializing after our photo session, and headed back to our room to get organized for part II of our trip (Sri Lanka).

28 May: Our final breakfast! No surprise that we were faced with a serving of hot dogs for our last meal (in addition to fruit, toast, and an omelet with juice, tea/coffee.) After wrapping up our last minute packing, we brought up our bags and bid the Israeli entourage a quick goodbye, before boarding the dhoni to the airport. From there, our dive group finally split for good and we said our goodbyes to everyone as we made our separate ways. Checking in for our flight was easy, and it was a breeze passing through the security checks. Robby had his water bottles seized, but Becky was able to keep both of her empties, which was fortunate as we wanted to land in humid Sri Lanka with water on hand. After a short wait, we boarded our plane and had window seats, which gave us a wonderful view over the island resorts as we took off. Goodbye beautiful Maldives. We really enjoyed your underwater sights!

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