Part 6: Emperor Orion
In the final part of their fantastic series on Diving in the Maldives, Jim and Cary report on a week’s safari aboard Emperor Orion. Here’s first-hand proof of why these island’s are a diver’s dream…
We had recently visited the Maldives on a work trip in November 2016 when we inspected four island resorts, all six liveaboards in the Emperor Maldives fleet and spent a week enjoying their ‘Best of the Maldives’ safari on Emperor Voyager. Our little group enjoyed it so much that we agreed to take our next ‘time out’ holiday in the Maldives. We wanted to try a different route and settled on the ‘South Central Atolls’ on board Emperor Orion.
We’d had a short inspection of Emperor Orion in November when she was at the end of a safari but it was enough time to get an impression of her. She was a good bit larger than Emperor Voyager but not as contemporary and that little 5-minute viewing had not blown us away, however it was the lure of the diving in the central atolls and the excellent reputation of guide, Russ Cheetham, that convinced us.
In November we flew from London Heathrow via Abu Dhabi with Etihad. Etihad’s service was excellent and the ticket price was good value so we opted for the same airline. This time the boat wasn’t in Male, it was in Kandhdhoo.
Obviously adding the domestic flight increases the holiday cost and also means it takes that bit longer to get to your boat. Our group of seven keen divers felt this was a price worth paying to get away from the crowds and to dive a different underwater. (And be aware; domestic flights have a lower baggage allowance than most international flights. For example, the allowance on our flight was 20kg hold + 5kg cabin baggage.)*
Arriving at Kandhdhoo on our twin-prop ‘puddle hopper’ was a great moment; the sun was setting with a beautiful orange hue and the island looked idyllic. The airport itself was small, so grabbing our luggage and heading out took a matter of moments and right outside the door were our friendly Emperor guides, Chico and Mary. A few steps away was our dive dhoni for the short transfer to our liveaboard moored just a couple of hundred metres off the jetty and here we were greeted by Russ and Shaqeel who would be our group’s guide, plus the rest of the boat’s substantial crew.
Getting back on board Emperor Orion we got a really good first impression. The air-conditioned salon/dining room was immaculate and the tables were already set for dinner. Emperor Maldives’ reusable personal water bottles were handed out and a thorough welcome briefing was given by Russ, while our bags were moved into our cabins by the crew (nice touch.)
One of the main features of Emperor Maldives’ boats is that they are very wide. They’re locally built, with the hull shape suited to Maldivian sea conditions. Our cabin on Emperor Voyager in November was big enough to include a large double bed and big bathroom; Emperor Orion is noticeably larger and our cabin was literally the size of a small hotel room, which is extremely rare to find on a liveaboard. Two people can easily walk about the cabin, there was loads of wardrobe and shelf space, a huge bathroom with shower, toilet like at home, fancy washbasin and even a dressing table with large mirror and hairdryer.
Over the years we’ve come to expect that a liveaboard equals less comfort than a hotel and it’s been a pay-off we’ve happily accepted because it meant getting us to ‘where the good diving is’. On Emperor Orion (and even more on Emperor Maldives’ flagship, Emperor Serenity) there’s no longer that need to compromise between getting good diving and comfort levels. This boat was truly a floating hotel for divers in every sense of the word. Emperor Orion’s size alone means that the facilities included a large air-conditioned dining room, spa, upper deck with outdoor bar and Jacuzzi and a huge sundeck at the top of the boat with sunbeds and double mattresses to lounge on. Let’s not forget the dive dhoni too, with bags of room for kitting-up and where kit is stored.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with other liveaboards, I’m just saying that there’s no doubt that extra comfort, services and facilities DID make a big difference. Sitting in the Jacuzzi with a cold one, telling jokes at the end of a good day’s diving was so much fun. We also appreciated the excellent spa service provided by Emperor Orion’s professional resident therapist, Alex.
To summarise, Emperor Orion was brilliant. Russ gave excellent, comprehensive dive briefings, dives were organised in the safe and professional manner we’d expect from an Emperor-run boat with all details covered down to logging every Nitrox fill (Nitrox is free!). The food was delicious and plentiful. The cabins were immaculate and made up after we returned from each morning dive. There was literally not one complaint about the boat, which in my experience is very rare on a dive liveaboard.
Finally, I want to report on the main reason we went back to the Maldives – the DIVING!
The South Central Atolls description is what attracted us. It promises beautiful pinnacles, grey reef sharks, eagle rays, a wreck, channels with pelagics, mantas, hammerheads, whale shark, dolphins and a night dive with nurse sharks. Also its relative remoteness and that all divers would be experienced (min. 100 dives to join). Your question is, “Did Emperor deliver all that?” Well, “no”. We didn’t dive the wreck nor did we see any hammerheads (not for want of trying). You see, like any good liveaboard operator, Emperor Maldives adjusts itineraries in ‘real time’ according to the actual conditions in order to deliver the best dive experience they can.
Therefore, this means that the actual route is sometimes slightly different to the advertised route. For example, during our week we visited four atolls, not seven, so we missed the wreck. As for missing the hammerheads, they took us to the hammerhead dive site but alas, they were not to be seen. I can’t complain about that, it’s just nature – nothing can be guaranteed, which is what makes it so exciting when you’re in the right place at the right time. For me, so long as the dive operator is seen to be trying to deliver you can’t ask for more than that and this was certainly the case with the Emperor Orion crew.
Having said that, in the interest of objectivity I must add that my friends and I are quite spoilt when it comes to diving. Our whole group have dived extensively around the world over the years and been privileged enough to enjoy some amazing times underwater. So our bar is set very high when it comes to expectations and it takes quite a lot to wow us these days. Keep in mind that it’s not possible to have a top-drawer dive each time and manage your expectations in order to be fair to the dive operator.
So what did we see underwater? Well, everything else Emperor had promised! We had some incredible dives, as anyone who has dived the Maldives would understand. Any one of our experiences is enough to call it a memorable holiday: we sat on the sandy bottom next to a small pinnacle and watched as two large manta glided in to be cleaned, each coming within a foot of our bubbles.
We snorkelled at night just off our boat’s platform with two massive whale sharks while three dolphins careered between them and us. We watched around twenty five nurse sharks woven into one spiral of bodies in a mating dance during our twilight/night dive at the famous Alamata Jetty.
On our last morning, in a noticeably stronger current, we hooked into the reef and watched while over twenty large grey reefs did a continuous circuit just feet from our viewing gallery, in awe at how they were able to head into such a current without visibly moving a muscle. And who was sat right in the middle of this group of impressive predators? A baby eagle ray, no more than a foot from wing tip to wing tip and as cute as can be.
If I had to pick one stand-out moment this was it. I’m always blown away by how underwater animals allow us human invaders to, well, just be. The sharks came so close, looked us right in the eye and swam on by. As for that tiny eagle ray, I can only describe my feelings as one of the most special moments I’ve had in my life, where I witness the pure innocence and lack of malice that only animals and baby humans can have. I know this all sounds pretty cheesy – but it’s the truth. At the end of the day, it’s why I dive, because animals and nature are simply amazing.
I can happily report that Underwater Maldives delivered in droves once again. It was a brilliant holiday, made all the better by the pampering we received topside. Guess what? We’re going back next year on Emperor Orion for a repeat of the ‘Best of the Maldives’ safari. The Maldives is like a bus – up to last year I’d been waiting to get there my whole life and now three trips have come along all at once! And we will keep catching those buses for a long time to come.
Jim and Cary own and run UK-based tour operator Diverse Travel. To find out more about the Maldivian itineraries that Diverse Travel offer, visit www.diversetravel.co.uk/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!!