A Guest Blog by Jaidev Karunakaran with images by Tunjay Sadikoglu.
I knew I was going to have a special trip when I saw the dolphins. Not just one or two, but a whole pod of them: racing ahead of the boat, slicing in and out and exploding out of the water, spinning and twirling and crashing back in. It was like they’d spent years performing in a water park show, had escaped, and were now putting on a performance just for fun, exulting in their freedom.
I knew I was going to have a special trip when I went snorkelling and saw four hawksbill turtles. One was close enough to touch, lying in a sandy clearing surrounded by coral.
But all these good omens did little to prepare me for what I saw when I went diving.
I was in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll in the Maldives, to see for myself the good things I’d heard about diving in this southern part of the country. The area around Male atoll, in the central part of the country, is the most developed resort wise, and as a result what most people see when they dive. Though it provides rewarding experiences and one sees a lot of fish, it has suffered due to development, pollution and coral bleaching. One gets the feeling of decay and forlornness in many dive sites, as though one is looking at a once-great civilisation, now in terminal decline.
This is not the case in Gaafu Dhaalu, as I was soon to discover.
My dive buddy is Tuncay Sadikoglu, a grizzled Turkish Cypriot former paratrooper who’s swapped jumping out of helicopters to jumping out of boats and now runs a dive school called Dive Kingdom at Ayada Maldives, the best resort in Gaafu Dhaalu. The first dive site he took me to, called ‘Coral Garden 2’ was just that: a vast, undulating garden of corals in colours and shapes and sizes I’d never seen before, even on TV. This was no city in decline, this was a thriving metropolis teeming with the most colourful residents in every size from giant pelagics a few metres off the reef to tiny beautiful luminescent, incandescent fish darting in and out of ridges in the corals. We spent forty- five minutes floating over this beauty, like drones over some strange city, forgetting we were underwater. Finally, I could feel myself rising, the dive ending, the surface nearing, the surface being breached.
As we waited to clamber onto the boat, I began to wax effusive and rain superlatives on what I’d just seen. Tuncay just looked smug and said, “Wait until you see Fanka Thila. It’s like fireworks exploding everywhere.”
‘Thila’ means ‘underwater island’ in Dhivehi, the local language. It being low tide, Fanka Thila was just 12-13 metres below sea level and I knew Tuncay was right with my first glimpses of the place.
A white-tip reef shark was the first to greet us, then quickly scamper away. But it was the fish and coral that caught my attention. If Coral Garden 2 was a kind of semi-orderly informal garden, Fanka Thila was a tropical rainforest of outrageous exuberance, a multicoloured canopy mobbed by fish, with broad branches of red fan coral jutting out everywhere.
We saw many large clumps of sea anemones, waving wildly, and weaving in and out- beautiful yellow- and- white anemone fish, forever curious, forever timid. The largest lobster I’ve ever seen got out of a hole to shake its antennae at us, then backed off as we got closer. And everywhere the fish, in a profusion I didn’t think possible, in colours so bright and fluorescent, a literal explosion of fireworks in our eyes.
We were soon surrounded by a ball of glassfish so large that they blotted out the water around us and for a few moments we felt like we were in a shimmering, pulsing, darting black cloud. Then we were out and drifting over a slope of coral different from anything else I’d seen before- short, knobby, shiny brown ridges stretching out to the edge of the reef, reminiscent of grassland.
Tuncay uses this place as a marker to end his dives in Fanka Thila, so we started our slow descent to the top, me looking back to try and catch my last glimpses of the place.
All I could do the rest of the day was sing paens of Fanka Thila, and urge everyone I met to dive there at once.
Fanka Thila is not a place to see big fish like mantas or whale sharks. The biggest animals you see here are white tip reef sharks and turtles. But Fanka Thila is a place where the little guys, the corals and anemones and pretty fish, take the big stage and put on a great show. And, as audience, all we have to do is applaud and look back in wonder.
Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll is easily accessible from Kaadedhdhoo Airport, which is about an hour’s flight by Maldivian from Male Domestic Airport.
Kaadedhdhoo airport is one hour by speedboat from Ayada. Flights also land thrice a week at Maavarulu airport, which is twenty minutes from Ayada by speedboat.
While Ayada is the best place to stay, there are other more affordable resorts in the vicinity. One can also stay in a guest house at Thinadoo, a short ferry ride from Kaadhedhoo.
Jaidev Karunakaran worked in Male’ for four years, where he learnt to dive. He has dived in Male, Baa, Raa, Ari, Gaafu Dhaalu and Addu atolls and seen mantas, reef sharks and whale sharks. He has also dived the British Loyalty, the biggest wreck in the Maldives.
Scuba Bucket List Maldives Vlog – Fuvamulah: Island of Sharks
First in a three part vlog from Jake Davies (JDScuba) & Giovana Braia on their recent trip to the Maldives…
With countries opening their borders after almost two years of lockdown it was time to head to a destination which we had high on our list for a few years which was the Maldives. Whilst planning the trip we wanted to make sure we got to experience the Maldives, from its local islands to one of the many resorts that can be found around the archipelago. Whilst also ticking off the many shark and ray species that can be seen.
There was one island in particular that we wanted to visit, an island that’s become more and more popular over the last couple of years and that is the incredible island of Fuvamlulah. However, it wasn’t long after arriving into the Maldives that we realised that the bag that had the underwater housing and some dive kit hadn’t got on the flight in Dubai. Not the start we had expected but we weren’t going to let this ruin the incredible trip that we had planned.
Situated in the deep south of the archipelago, skipping over the equator is Fuvamulah Island, an hour and a half flight from Male airport. The island offers one of the most unique shark encounters in the Maldives: diving with Tiger Sharks. The number of Tiger Sharks found around Fuvamulah has made the island an ever increasing important area for these sharks. Around the island the water drops off to hundreds of meters, where the water can upwell from the depths bringing cold nutrient rich water to the surface. This provides for even more exciting encounters that can occur within the blue and around the plateau cleaning station with species such as Thresher Sharks, Great and Scalloped Hammerheads, Oceanic Mantas and Whale Sharks. Tiger Sharks are guaranteed at the island, whether they are seen out in the blue or at the famous ‘Tiger Zoo’ which is located at the mouth of the harbour.
We booked our diving and accommodation with Fuvamulah Dive School, as part of the ‘one day look‘ package. As part of the package, they organise the flights, transportation whilst on the island and a place to stay at the Fuvamulah Inn which is only a 5 min journey to the dive centre situated at the island’s harbour.
We had two days diving booked where there were three dives a day which included a dive at ‘Tiger Zoo’ each day. This dive was planned for the end of the day as the sharks follow the fishers out when they head out in the morning and then follow them back where they then stay around for the offcuts.
Heading out on the first day of diving we went out to the plateau to take a look at the cleaning station in case any Threshers were around as well as the possibility of some pelagics. Jumping into the 29 degree water was definitely a change from the colder waters off the Welsh coast and the visibility was incredible. We headed down, taking the time to keep an eye out for any shadows in the blue, before reaching the plateau. A few small White-tip Reef Sharks were seen patrolling the ledges along with a large female Tiger Shark cruising below in the depths. After 40mins and no sign of Threshers it was time to head back, where the 6m safety stop was accompanied by another large female Tiger but sadly no pelagics.
Following a surface interval we then headed to the next site, just a short steam out of the harbour to where the beach drops off to depth creating an almost wall-like dive. The dive provided plenty of coral including some huge fan coral at the deeper depths. The large amount of coral also provides for some encounters with Hawksbill Turtles.
For the last dive of the day we went to the famous Tiger Zoo. Swimming over to the shallow ledge, we set up in a line whilst the dive school divers hid fish offcuts around the site to bring in the Tiger Sharks. In position, holding on as there was a swell running, we saw a glimpse of the the first Tiger Shark emerging from the distance. The Tigers found in the area are mainly large female sharks, growing over 4m in length and in some cases over 5m. As they came close it was incredible to look at these amazing Apex predators in their eyes and how graceful they glide past. In total, five sharks appeared, providing some close up encounters. During the second day and another visit at Tiger Zoo, a total of seven sharks were encountered, all providing the same close up curious experience. During the the dives the Fuvamulah Dive school team were incredibly professional and ensured that the dives were carried out in a safe and enjoyable manner.
Surfacing after Tiger Zoo saw the end of the two days diving at Fuvamulah – two incredible and unforgettable days of diving where encounters in the blue alongside those at Tiger Zoo will never be forgotten. It’s a diving location that’s definitely recommended but also a spot that should be continuously monitored to better understand the population of the many species that are found around the island. Fuvamulah surely is the ‘Island of Sharks’.
A 2am start beckoned for the beginning of our next journey, a flight back north to Male airport to then head to Dhigurah for a few days to explore another local island, this time on the lookout for Whale Sharks. Whilst also continuing to hope that our missing suitcase would finally arrive with us.
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Back with a bang!! (Part 2 of 2)
Sean Chinn reports from The Maldives…
Hopefully you have read part 1 of my “Back with a bang” blog series – reading about how epic day 1 of diving back in the Maldives with The Scuba Place onboard Sachika really was. If you haven’t then check it out HERE. You may now be thinking how can the rest of the week compete with that kind of adrenalin-fuelled awesomeness of day 1. Thankfully for me and the rest of the group the week continued to deliver some truly memorable moments underwater with amazing marine life interactions. Life onboard the boat also added to what was one of the best dive trips of my life.
MANTAstic adventures continued in day 2 as we enjoyed another memorable encounter with one of the oceans most graceful animals. Dive 2 saw us at ‘Camel Rock’ dive site, a stunning cleaning station full of colourful fish waiting for their client to glide in. The current was slight but still required the group to get close to the sand and wait in hope for a manta to turn up. As I waited I noticed a nice space on the sand behind the cleaning station, sheltered from the current it was a more peaceful place to wait and then my movements were rewarded massively. As it happened I moved to the perfect location where the manta would first enter the cleaning station and I screamed with delight to alert the others. 20 minutes were then spent with this beauty as it spent time hovering getting cleaned and then circled the group and back in to the station numerous times. One of the best feelings is when a manta hovers directly above you allowing a special connection between species.
The next couple of dives allowed me to shoot some macro for the first time in two years. I was a little rusty and unlike parts of South East Asia, The Maldives is not full of unique macro subjects. However, there’s still plenty to get the practice in and enjoy looking deep into the reefs. A leaf scorpion fish was the highlight of the macro subjects, although a sneaky black cheek moray eel that was initially hiding came out and gave me a little nip as I hovered taking photos of the leaf scorpion fish. Luckily it only gives a graze but I think it was time to move along and look elsewhere.
After a couple of macro adventures it was now time to go BIG and it doesn’t get much bigger than the biggest fish in the ocean. We were off to find whale sharks and it wasn’t long before we were on what felt like a navy mission snorkel. All lined up on the edge of the Dhoni ready to “Dive, Dive, Dive.” I was a little nervous plummeting into the water with all my camera gear in hand but that was alleviated once I saw the whale shark coming as the mayhem began. A free-for-all of snorkelers competing for the whale sharks attention. After three visits to the Maldives it was my first time seeing one here, albeit in crazy circumstances to start with. It was slightly humorous seeing flailing arms and legs swinging wildly trying to keep up with this beautiful beast gently swimming along. Thankfully everyone respected the distance and the whale shark didn’t seem too bothered by all the attention and stayed around as we got back on the boat to kit up and dive.
The dive itself was incredible. We dropped in front of the whale shark and watched it pass and swim off into the distance. The reef then delivered some great encounters with a hawksbill turtle in initially. Then some male whitetip reef sharks persistently pursuing a female in their attempt to mate with her. They continued to circle close by and I was really hoping to capture some amazing behaviour but the female wasn’t in the mood this time around and gave them the run around before disappearing.
A sleeping nurse shark and scorpionfish added to the unique life on the dive but it was the safety stop that will stay with me forever. My greatest ever safety stop as I asked dive guide Big Ali to blow bubble rings and pose for a photo he was suddenly photo bombed by a whale shark. Yes! As I looked at the display composing the shot of Ali I couldn’t believe my eyes as a big shadow passed behind him. I screamed in delight (I do this often underwater) as I swam towards Ali to get his attention to the shark before proceeding to take some photos and enjoy what felt like a solitary moment with the shark after the madness at the start of the dive with the first whale shark.
I really could keep delving deep into my explanations of each dive on this trip as they all delivered incredible moments but I should start to condense it a little now before I take too much space. Grey reef sharks would become the stars of the show towards the end of the week as I finally was able to get some nice shots of them after two previous trips not delivering. Better visibility and close passes meant I could really work on my grey reef shark portfolio and was ecstatic with the interactions, especially at one of my favourite dive sites of the trip – ‘Fish Head’. We watched as they patrolled the outer edges of the reef with the occasional burst as they hunted. The mass of fish life including beautiful schooling bannerfish added a splash of colour to the scene for two incredible dives there.
We were also super lucky to introduce a new manta ID to The Manta Trust with our visitor at Fesdhoo Lagoon on the night. With the light at the back of the boat attracting the plankton we had to wait until around 10.30pm for its arrival. I was pretty much the last person left waiting at the back of the boat with one guest coming back up from his room to check. As we were speaking I caught a white ghostly figure in the corner of my eye. It was a little deeper than previous years but I knew straight away what it was as I shouted MANTAAAA!! I quickly got my camera and snorkelling gear on and spent the next couple of hours with this new beauty. I called out to get others to let everyone else know it was here and suddenly the whole boat was at the back of the boat or in the water to marvel at the beauty as it barrel rolled at the back of the boat. Fairplay to dive guide Little Ali also, as he offered to take people diving even at 11.30pm. I decided to stay snorkelling but some had fun diving as well.
Every dive was amazing with truly wonderful moments to talk about. Maiya Thila night dive was again incredible. Marbled rays were an ever present on the dive hunting along with whitetip reef sharks, moray eels, giant trevally and octopus. Hawksbill turtle were a hit on a number of dives with not a care in the world as they swam within inches of you and on one occasion one even lay on my leg as I was photographing an octopus. Charismatic and charming they were there to the end and delivered the best moments on the very last dive. Time spent on deserted islands also added to the charm of this trip with a beach BBQ under the stars providing a welcome escape from the boat in paradise. The dancing on the beach almost as good as the final nights party onboard, but the less said about that the better.
Our parting gift underwater was snorkelling at the famous “Fish Tank” dive site. Unfortunately due to our flight time the next day we were unable to dive but those familiar with the site will know it’s easily accessible by snorkel. With stingrays visiting knee deep water around the tuna factory. It was mayhem!! The current was ripping and suddenly hoards of snorkelers entered the water not familiar with currents. It was a crazy 45 minutes in the water with an array of stingrays and people but it didn’t take away from what a spectacular week we had and I always look at it as an adventure. I’m looking forward to the day I’ll be back onboard Sachika in the Maldives as I’ll be back for sure!!