Since I originally wrote this report, the dive school has changed management. I went back again in 2012, and had a much more enjoyable experience. The newer report is here.
Our flight was with Monarch. The plane was an Airbus 300 and it was pretty cramped with not a great deal of legroom. Still at least we didn't have to pay for our headphones and you did get a complimentary, if very small, bottle of wine with your meal.
We were staying at Summer Island Village on the island of Ziyaraifushi in North Male Atoll. After clearing the formalities at the airport, we waited for the boat to transfer us to the island. The brochure said that a local boat, or dhoni, would take us, but it was certainly the best dhoni I'd ever seen. It had an impressive turn of speed and we headed to the island at 24 knots. Total journey time was an hour and a half, as correctly advertised in the brochure.
We were booked on an all inclusive package, as were all the other guests on the island. This included all meals, soft drinks, bottled water, beer, wine and non-premium spirits. They also did a cocktail every day in the bar and the coffee shop provided tea, coffee and sandwiches between 4pm and 6pm. The sandwiches were the same every day, so if you didn't like tuna, cheese or egg, tough luck.
Breakfast was probably the most boring meal. Fruit, cereal, toast and freshly cooked eggs were all that was on offer. Some bacon and sausages would have been nice, but it was not to be. Lunch was a fixed menu, but if you didn't like it, they were quite prepared to do you something else. Omelette and chips was the usual suggestion, or sandwiches with a plate of chips.
Dinner was always served buffet style. They did various theme nights, so we had an Italian night, a Mongolian barbecue night, curry night and a Chinese night. The food was pretty good. It was certainly the best I've ever had in the Maldives. There was a fair amount of fish, as you'd expect, but not excessively so. Chicken and beef dishes were also served regularly. And most importantly, the food didn't cause any stomach problems, so I didn't need to bring half a chemist shop with me after all.
Next to the restaurant was the bar. It had satellite television during the day, so you could watch either BBC World or CNN. Entertainment was limited to a rather loud disco once a week. In the evenings, there was a waiter service.
The only restrictions on taking drinks away from the bar was no glassware could be taken back to the room. Opened cans of beer, bottles of soft drinks and bottles of mineral water could all be taken back. In the temperatures of the Maldives, it's important to keep yourself hydrated at all times.
The room was built in the style of a small bungalow. The bedroom had a single and a double bed in it, but only one wardrobe, which only had one shelf. Still you don't need many clothes in the Maldives. The air conditioning unit was modern, quiet, and even had a remote control and timer functions. The bathroom was partly open air. The corner of the roof over the flower bed was open to let the air in. The shower was an electric one, though the water pressure wasn't that good. A room boy cleaned the room every morning and turned the bed down every night.
We definitely had one of the better rooms, because it overlooked one of the best bits of beach. The island is triangular and gets quite narrow at one end. The rooms are all located overlooking the sea. An army of gardeners went to a lot of effort sweeping up leaves every day to keep the island neat and tidy.
As with most Maldivian islands, they were having to take measures against erosion. On one end of the island, the sea had got very close to some of the rooms, so they were doing some work building some sea defenses. They were also using a pump on one side of the island to suck some sand from the seabed to make a beach in front of some new, two storey accommodation.
At one end of the island were some new water bungalows. These are more expensive than the normal accommodation. They're also very ugly and further from the beach than the other rooms. I can't see the attraction myself, but they seem to be sprouting up at various islands.
The lagoon is about waist deep and sandy. There's very little snorkelling around the island apparently because it was only formed 300 years ago, and that's not long enough for coral gardens to develop. However, boats take snorkellers out to various spots four times a day. You can go on two boats a day for no charge. The lagoon is ideal for other sports that are available such as windsurfing and water-skiing.
There was, of course, also a diving school on the island. Their prices were as follows:
|6 days unlimited||380|
|Equipment Hire per Dive||US$|
|Try dive to 1.5m||35|
|CMAS 1* 8 Dives||490|
Beach dives were also available, but the prices weren't advertised. Although there wasn't much in the way of coral, they had organised a trail of attractions. There were a couple of sunken dhonis, some old cylinders on the sea bed, and other similar things. It was a bit like Stoney Cove in the tropics.
Medicals were required for the CMAS courses, and possibly for the PADI OW course too. It wasn't entirely clear from the notice.
The first bad news was when we were told that the diving school didn't take credit cards. In fact they only take cash, Eurocheques or travellers' cheques and only in US dollars or German marks. The brochure had assured us that major credit cards were widely accepted as they have been on the other islands I've visited. It was possible to pay by credit card via the hotel, but they then slapped a 6% surcharge on top.
Only divers who were qualified to CMAS 2* level and had 25 dives were allowed to buddy dive. Everyone else had to dive with a guide and there was an extra US$4 charge per dive for this.
You had to carry your own kit to the boat. No trolley was provided. The tanks were already on the boat, but there was a compulsory "tip" of US$0.50 for each tank. Admittedly, it wasn't much, and I usually tip the boat crew more than that anyway, but the fact it was compulsory, rankled. No drinks were available on the boat, even though everyone on the island was on an all-inclusive package, and they didn't even come round with the customary post-dive pieces of coconut. All you got for more than US$30 was a boat trip, a briefing, a tank and some lead weights.
So at 9.30am on our first full day, I went along to the dive school. I filled in the usual forms and handed them in. Then I was told to come back in about half an hour because everyone else was German, and they were going to get their briefing first. So half an hour later I went back and eventually got the briefing. Having dived plenty of times in the Maldives before, none of it came as a great surprise.
I was told that I was allowed to dive for as long as 75 minutes, though since the tanks were only 10 litres and only filled to 200 bar (about 70 cu ft), it didn't seem likely my dives would last that long. You had to be back on the boat with 30 bar and the depth limit was 30m. Neither of these were ever checked.
The first dive was a checkout dive, but it was explained that they didn't make you do mask clearing or other exercises, they just wanted to check your buoyancy. What wasn't clear, was that this counted as a guided dive so you had to pay an extra US$4. Considering that I'm a qualified PADI Divemaster, I'd done over 230 dives, including 60 in the Maldives, and I'd dived two weeks before, I thought making me do a checkout dive was bad enough. Charging me extra for the privilege is really taking the piss.
Anyway that afternoon I did my first dive. It was at a place called Ery Beru Deh. As often happened, I was the only English person on the boat. I was given a briefing but it was a lot shorter than the one given to the German divers. On the dive boat they insisted on everyone kitting up whilst the boat was still moving. I quickly learnt to kit up as slowly as possible, because we always spent at least 10 mins waiting uncomfortably with all our kit on. Then they would shout some order in German and, those divers who were diving unsupervised would have to jump in immediately, and then the guided groups would get in.
The dive site was an outer reef wall and I got my first chance to see how bad the damage to the coral was. In May 1998, the sea temperatures had reached 32C even at depth because of El Nino. This had caused extensive coral bleaching.
The coral was no longer bleached, but an awful lot of it was dead. All the table coral seemed to have died. The skeletons were still intact, but they were brown and all the polyps were dead. Other organisms had been quick to take advantage. Small sponges shaped like tulip flower heads were attached to the dead corals. Another type of hard coral had also started to grow on the old table coral. It was predominately a lilac colour, though some was a greyish blue colour.
The brain coral had also been badly affected. About 60-70% seemed to have died back. There were big bare patches scarred with the marks of parrotfish beaks on the mounds where the colonies lived. What was remaining did look healthy and so it should recover relatively quickly.
Still it wasn't all bad news. The fish seemed to be relatively unaffected, though some of the anemones had also died back, and some anemone fish were now bigger than the anemone they were living in. It did look like the anemones were slowly recovering.
The first dive went OK. We went down to 27m and the total dive time was 53 minutes. There were the usual clouds of fish. After about 20 mins, our guide signalled to my buddy and me that we could got off on our own, so we were able to get away from the crowd a bit.
The next couple of dives were also outer reef dives. Having done my checkout dive, I was allowed the luxury of diving with just a buddy. When you got on the boat, they would assign you a buddy in a manner which really implied you didn't have a lot of choice in the decision. The coral was much the same as on my first dive, and I saw morays, including one with white spots, a Napolean wrasse, several lionfish and a white tip reef shark.
On my fourth dive, the dive marshal announced we were going to a site where a whale shark had been seen by another dive school that morning. Having never seen a whale shark, I was quite hopeful. When we arrived at the site, which was an outside wall again, the sea was a bit churned up. I did comment that there seemed to be a fair bit of current. Every other dive school I've used in the Maldives always gets someone to go in to check the current before the dive. This particular DM had obviously decided that that sort of thing was beneath her, because she never checked the current on any of 10 dives she was marshalling. Some of the other staff, including the owner, did.
So we entered the water. I was diving in a 3 with a German couple. As soon as we started to go down, it was obvious current was something like 3 knots. They hung onto some of the dead coral, so I was forced to do the same. Then we waited for the DM to enter the water. She also hung on and for the next 5 mins we crawled along the top of the reef against the current for a reason I still can't fathom. It was probably just as well the coral was mostly dead, otherwise I'd have felt quite guilty. Then we aborted the dive. The DM explained the current was too strong. Personally I've dived in stronger. When we got to the surface, the boat was a long way away, because the boatmen knew full well there was a strong current. But no-one had bothered to ask them.
As we all had about 150 bar left, it was decided that we would do the Hembadhoo wreck. Hembadhoo is also known as the Taj Coral Resort. It's a small island with water bungalows around about half of it. I think it's one of the more expensive resorts. It's certainly one of the ugliest. So we pulled up almost to their jetty and jumped in the water. The wreck was some sort of cargo ship and it lay in about 24m. Underneath the hull was the one of the biggest grouper I've seen. It was also possible to get inside a couple of the holds and the bridge. There were glassfish inside and a big moray. After having a good poke about the wreck, we went along the house reef. The coral was better here than the outer reefs. There were signs of the harder corals starting to re-establish themselves.
The next dive was at a place called Kuda Kan. It was a fairly typical dive and I saw a couple of whitetip sharks, 2 Napoleans and 2 turtles, as well as the usual array. The dive after that was the night dive. It leaves at 5.30 and is always at the same place, Madi Gaa. The site is on the outer wall between Ziyaraifushi and Reethi Rah in a place where there's a small bay. It takes about 20 mins to get there, and of course it doesn't get dark until after 6.30, so there was an awful lot of waiting around on the boat. When we finally got to do the dive, it was quite good. There were spiny lobsters everywhere. I must have seen at least 20. There were also groupers out hunting and parrotfish hiding in the corals for the night.
My next dive was along a channel reef. I was assigned, with no explanation, to dive in a foursome with 3 Germans. I ended up leading the dive, with the 3 following me. They were OK, though their air consumption wasn't that great. I sent the worst two of them up together and dived a little longer with the third one. We saw another whitetip shark, 3 Napoleans and a turtle.
When we got back to the dive school, one of the staff mentioned that they might go to a good site in the morning called Blue Canyon. They wouldn't guarantee it, though they still expected me to sign up for the dive anyway, which I decided to do. It was the first morning dive I'd done, so I was relieved to see that we were going to go there when I arrived the next morning.
The dive site was in a channel between the outer reef, so there was quite a bit of current. One of the staff checked which way this was going before we all got in. We were going to dive along a ridge which had a number of holes and overhangs in it. In the briefing we were told the depth was 27-30m.
After a free ascent, we all sat on the sand on the bottom whilst the instructor checked we were OK. Then I was allowed to go off on my own with my buddy. As we came to the first overhang, I could feel slightly narked. I checked my depth gauge and wasn't surprised to see that we were in fact at 34m. In fact very little of the dive was above 30m, so our bottom time was quite limited. I saw some big sea fans, groupers in the overhangs and shoals of sweetlips. There was also some very nice soft corals, mostly blue, though some were yellow. At the end of the ridge was just sand, so we started our ascent. I still had a couple of minutes no-deco. My buddy managed to get a minute of deco, probably from ascending too fast as his Air-X beeped a bit. It was definitely one of the best dives and well worth doing if you're experienced enough.
That afternoon was another typical outer reef dive with my 3 German buddies back at the site of my first dive, Funu Findu Faru. This time I managed to see the Napolean that lives there and it was huge. Definitely the biggest one I've seen.
The next day I arrived at the dive school and was called over by my least favourite divemaster. She explained that they had a problem. There was no-one else on the boat who was diving unsupervised, so I would have to dive with her group. I wasn't too happy because I knew that the group contained 4 people who had only finished their OW the previous day, but I reluctantly agreed. Then she explained that I would have to pay the extra US$4 for a guided dive. In the circumstances, I think I was very restrained. I just told her that if that was the case, I wouldn't do the dive. She said "OK, as long as you're not angry." Bloody furious would have been nearer the truth. So I checked whether I'd be able to dive tomorrow in the afternoon. They said that would be OK because John was diving then, and I could buddy him.
So I walked off, amazed that they would be willing to lose about $35 for the sake of an extra $4, only to find John coming the other way with his kit under his arm. He'd obviously filled him name in after 5.00pm and booked the wrong day, so I went back with him and I actually got to go diving in the end.
We went to Maa Giri, where I'd done my night dive. It turned out to be a good dive. There were 3 whitetips on the sand at the bottom. The DM had taken her group of recently qualified OW divers, who didn't have a depth gauge between them, down to the sharks at about 26m. Not something I'd been willing to do. There was also a big, black pufferfish by the sharks and a big stingray half buried in the sand. Further up the reef we spotted a couple of octopus and an eagle ray. On the top of the reef there was definite signs of new brain coral starting to grow back.
My next dive was the following afternoon and, as John was coming, I didn't have a problem finding a buddy. The site was an outer wall and we were told to swim a couple of minutes in the opposite direction at the beginning of the dive to find a drop off and some overhangs. The top overhang was in about 30m, and the next one was about 35m. So we decided we'd go a bit deep and see if there was anything in the 35m one. As it turned out, there wasn't much to see apart from some Horseface unicorn fish. There was also some of the soft, blue coral at that depth. The other higlights of the dive were some whitetip sharks and some barracuda.
The next day I dived in the morning as I thought there would be more available buddies. I ended up diving in a group of four with the 3 Germans, which was OK. We dived in a channel and the reef did seem to be a bit more healthy there. There were even some alive table corals and the brain coral was reasonable.
That afternoon I went back to see about booking another dive. One of the owners was in the shop and I asked her if there would be anyone for me to dive with, because I didn't want to pay the extra for the guided dive. She told me that if there was no-one for me to dive with, I could always dive with Udo, one of the assistants. She said that it wasn't my fault if there was no available buddy and that I wouldn't have to pay extra for a guided dive. So what I'd been told previously was incorrect, though at the time both of the staff on duty had confirmed it, and I almost missed out on a dive for no reason.
My final dive was to a place called Deh Giri, which was an inner reef. The coral was probably the best I'd seen all holiday. New table coral growth was evident, and there was a far greater variety of corals than you see on the outer walls, where the wave action is pretty tough on corals. We didn't see as many big fish, but it was still a nice dive and it made me wonder why we didn't do more inner reefs. At 21m it was also a bit shallower than usual, and it was only 10 mins boat ride away.
So in the end I did 13 dives, which cost just under $494, including the credit card surcharge. I think that's fairly expensive especially for the level of service provided which bordered on the unfriendly. An incident on my penultimate day just summed up everything perfectly:
There were a couple of hours a day when you could settle up your bill. I thought I'd better go along and remind them to take my bill across to the hotel for the credit card payment. I also had to take back the lead weights I'd hired. So I turned up about 10.45, thinking that the time to pay was 10-11, but it was actually 11-12. As it didn't seem much point in going back, I thought I'd hang around. One of the staff was there and talking to some German people before going snorkelling. So I took the weights off my belt, folded up my BCD and got my kit together in full view of this woman. Then I walked over to the counter with the weights in my hand and stood to wait. It was now about 11.00am. Without even bothering to ask me if I wanted anything, she left with her students. Truly customer service at its worst. After 5 mins waiting, I decided I had better things to do on my last full day of holiday.
When I went back later, there was someone there, and they did take the weights back. I was also asked in a very accusing tone what I had done with the weightbelt. When I explained I had my own, all they did was tut loudly and correct the card that they'd filled in incorrectly.
On the last night in the bar, I got talking to another English guy who had done a few dives, though he was never on the boat at the same time as me. He was definitely in their bad books as he had committed the almost hanging offence of not being on the boat at 2.25 pm for a 2.30 pm departure. Mind you, he had turned up at the dive shop in good time at 2.15, but he needed to hire kit, and they were far too busy having a conversation behind the counter to sort him out for 5 mins.
I thought Summer Island Village was one of the best resorts I've been to in the Maldives. The holiday cost about £1250 including travel insurance, which I thought was pretty reasonable. The hotel staff were very friendly and helpful. The one negative point about the hotel was the 6% credit card surcharge. Cosmos didn't warn you about this. In fact their brochures all said that credit card were widely accepted. If we had been properly warned, I would have taken travellers cheques.
The diving wasn't as good as it used to be in the Maldives. It was still enjoyable, and hopefully it will recover quickly. Apparently it isn't the first time that the coral has died back. I've heard that it happened back in the 1970s and it also happened about 50 years ago. I probably won't be going to the Maldives in 2000. There are plenty of other places I want to try and I think I'll give it a couple of years for the coral to recover.