I'm not entirely sure if it was Jacques Cousteau who once said that "the Maldives must be a good place to dive, since they carry the word 'dives' in their name". Well, that surely was my hope when I first boarded the MV Sting Ray in Male and I knew that I'd have an entire week of diving to find out whether or not Cousteau (and the other hundreds of scuba divers that got wet in these waters over the years) are right about the seemingly endless number of top quality options that the Indian Ocean has to offer.
And it was indeed just as expected: a great liveaboard safari, with a lot of memories to bring back home - both underwater and also while on board and during our excursions. We had dives with whitetip reef sharks and grey reef sharks as frequent encounters, an unforgettable group of 16 mobula rays on a single dive (at Bonfimolu Thila), dogtooth tunas, a morning spent snorkeling with 3 whale sharks, a cleaning station for mantas at Rangali Madivaru, and of course it wouldn't be fair not to mention the wide gorgonians that we saw at depth while diving Diga Thila and the endless clusters of wide table corals while in the shallows.
We had an evening barbeque on a deserted island, a visit of Male island ... all in all, a really good fun trip.
The first 3 days of our safari were centered on getting from Male to Ari Atoll and trying to find the way to encounter whale sharks: if not by diving, then at least by snorkeling with them.
The MV Sting Ray's week long Maldives diving safaris offer at least 17 dives, with 3 dives per day (like most of the other liveaboards in the area), including a night dive. During our trip I was also offered the chance of a second night dive, but at an extra cost.
Day 1 kicked off with the arrival of the guests on board, a boat briefing, a meal followed by an easy but enjoyable check-out dive at Back Faru, just outside Male. Just a little taste of what the diving conditions would be for the rest of the tour: warm water, great visibility, plenty of fish and colours! It was already clear into my diving mind: my underwater camera would surely be busy for the whole week.
During day 2 and 3, dives were made at South Ari, making our way to the southern end of the atoll, as we were told that on the outer reef there were the best conditions for whale shark encounters. After a day of excitement due to the sight of the majestic mantas and 3 whale sharks (while snorkeling), it was time for celebration, with a late afternoon beach volleyball game at a deserted island, followed by a tasty barbeque at sunset. A great moment for bonding closer with the boat crew and of course our dive buddies.
Day 4 and 5 saw us making our way back north, following the west side route with dives in the North Ari Atoll: Fesdu Wreck where we surprisingly found out how the wreck is now encrusted with beautiful and colourful gorgonians, and Fish Head where we had a strong current (but gratified by the sight of grey reef sharks).
Day 6 started as usual, with a fantastic sunrise and blue sky. 3 great dives again with currents drifting us nicely in search of fish subjects for our cameras. One of the dives was done at Rasdhoo Madivaru.
Day 7 started very early, being in the water by 06:00 am, outside Rashdoo Island. It was a deep dive, and the mission was to see hammerheads. Unfortunately my group didn't see any but some other divers claimed the sight of a shark deep below us all. The pictures that were taken were not clear enough to confirm the sighting. But a diver is also a dreamer! The debates were still on when we reached the fish market in Male in the afternoon, as part of a guided visit to the island offered by Sting Ray.
MV Sting Ray and MV Eagle Ray are 2 well known and the most affordable liveaboard boats in the Maldivian waters. As with the other boats, Sting Ray is always followed by its dhoni, where all the diving equipment, air compressor and storage are kept, leaving a lot of space on board of the main boat to use.
The 9 cabins (full capacity is for 18 guests on board) are all located at the lower deck. Not the most spacious cabins that I've seen on a boat (especially the ones at the bow, so make sure to book in time and choose the wider cabins), but if you are looking for super comfort, there are more expensive liveaboards on the market. The boat is still in good condition, despite having being on these waters for few years now. Only the toilets seem to need a restyle, especially the floor tiles. In my cabin, for instance, some of the tiles were broken. The aircon units also need a boost or service, as the guests agreed with me that the cabins were generally quite warm.
The main deck is mainly occupied by a wide saloon. It's here that the guests spend most of the time, either by eating meals, listening to the dive briefings, or sharing scuba experiences and getting to know each other better. The only feature lacking that I noticed is a common toilet, which would save some time (and steps!) for the laziest divers (as they will have to go back to their cabins, when nature calls). Fortunately, there is also a toilet on the dhoni that can be used when diving.
The wheelhouse is on the upper deck, a deck that also features a wide shaded area, popular among the guests during my safari trip as the saloon is only provided with fan ventilation and tends to become very warm during the day. Sun lovers can use the sun beds and plastic chairs that are provided. Towels are provided. The highest point of the boat is of course the sundeck which unfortunately doesn't feature chairs but pads are provided. It's also the best place to watch unforgettable sunsets.
The boat crew is all Maldivian: 3 dive masters with one of them also being an instructor: my dive buddy was able to complete the PADI nitrox course during the cruise.
The first hot coffee and tea of the day, served with biscuits, are usually taken at around 06:30 in the main saloon, while the divemasters brief about the first dive of the day. The 'real' breakfast comes after the dive though: it's always a choice between omelets, fried eggs or scrambled eggs, then toast/jam, sausages, sometimes pancakes or cakes, always fresh fruit is available, fruit juice and hot drinks. It fills all the divers up pretty well.
The second dive of the day is then followed by lunch, served buffet style, with at least 5 different displayed dishes to choose from. Fresh vegetables and rice are always part of the choices, then meat or fish dishes. I enjoyed the variety of different ways to cook the meals, a mixture of Indian and Maldivian cuisine, bearing in mind to offer a level of spiciness enjoyable by western customers as well. The curries we had on board were indeed really tasty.
Water bottles and dispensers are always available, making sure that guests don't run the risk of dehydratation. Several Italian dishes were served over the week (including pizza and of course a lot of pasta as an alternative to boiled rice) which were always most welcomed by the guests and of course by myself. The proportions served were abundant and I never felt shy to refill my plate more than once, I admit! Diving makes me hungry ...
Dinner was served in a similar way, but most of the nights it started with a soup - always most welcome, especially after a night dive. Desserts were always served after each meal: it could have been a selection of fresh fruits, a pudding, or ice cream. We also had a special BBQ on a small deserted island once, after a game of beach volleyball with the Sting Ray crew. We all agreed that it was one of the highlights of the whole liveaboard safari, especially the well grilled fish that we all enjoyed so much, accompanied by garlic breads and baked potatoes.
Soft drinks and alcohol are not included in the trip price, but available at an extra cost. For draught beer lovers, Tiger Beer is also on sale in pints.
In my opinion, the dhonis are one of the best diving inventions, in terms of convenience and, of course, clever use of space. The Sting Ray's dhoni provides a wide dive deck and gearing up has never been easier. It keeps away from the main boat the noises generated by the process of refilling the tanks in between dives. Sting Ray also offers nitrox fills (at an extra cost) but unfortunately the membrane system broke down during my trip and therefore we were unable to use the mixture for the dives. Hopefully it will be replaced soon, as for some of the dives you do wish that you would have more no deco time.
There were 3 groups of divers and 3 guides. We all jumped in the water pretty much at the same time, but I didn't find the dive sites particularly crowded. The guides did a good job on trying to keep the groups separate, once underwater. The water seems to be a critical issue though, as I didn't see any fresh water tanks for cameras installed on board (there's one, but is at the back of the Sting Ray liveaboard, a bit useless there) and also the water hose.
All the cabins are on the lower deck, on the same level as the engine room, meaning they can be a bit noisy, when the engine runs but also when people walk on the main deck. Luckily, the boat never moved at night, so we all managed to sleep pretty well. The rooms closer to the stern seem to be the coolest (the aircon unit is probably placed at the back of the boat), unfortunately the noisiest, but also the widest. Choose wisely when you book. The toilets have hot water, but no toiletries are provided. Fresh towels are given every 2 days, and the rooms get cleaned while guests are out diving.
While sitting on the sundeck watching the sunset, I was trying to find the right words to describe yet another week of amazing diving. Memories of unforgettable dives with mantas, whale sharks and the abundance of fish still linger in my mind.
A diving safari in the Maldives (any itinerary) is definitely highly recommend to anyone that is looking for easy but fulfilling dives, and of course all the benefits from being spoiled for a week on board of a liveaboard, such as the Sting Ray - a very affordable boat that offers what is expected and perhaps more. An ideal choice for beginners and also more experienced divers that are not looking for extreme comfort, knowing that every penny saved today can be used for the next scuba adventure.
Written by Enrico, April 2013
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