Motor yacht Golden Compass anchors off a sand bar in the Maldives
Malé, capital of the Republic of Maldives, sits in a tiny coral atoll barely poking above the surface of the Indian Ocean. It’s half a world away from the start of Golden Compass’s globe-encircling trek, which began 16 months earlier in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
This Maldives leg of the trip is all about diving – 20 per cent of all the country’s visitors make the long journey to this far-away string of islands for its world-class diving.
Within minutes of touching down at Malé International Airport, located on Hulhulé Island, Golden Compass’s Nautica tender is speeding across the warm, colourful Maldivian waters, whisking us to the mothership anchored a couple of miles away off the private resort island of Kurumba, one of 80 such resorts islands dotting the Maldivian archipelago.
In the late afternoon we tender over to the Kurumba Maldives island resort for a sunset drink on the beach. Standing on powder-soft sand, knee deep in the calm tropical sea, we discuss the plan for the week over fruit-laden rum drinks from the beach bar and watch the sun hit the surface and melt into a red glow while distant lights appear all around.
In the morning we are off to explore Malé on one of Golden Compass’s two tenders. Dozens of water taxis, ferries, fishing and cargo boats motor past my lens – coming and going in all directions. Truly a ‘water world’, everything moves by boat in the Maldives.
Malé is the centre of the Maldivian universe. Although English is widely spoken, the official language is Dhivehi, which is closely related to Arabic and has been influenced by French, Persian, Portuguese and English. Comprising 1,190 coral islands, the Muslim nation of the Maldives is home to a population of approximately 395,000, of which 136,000 squeeze into the five square kilometres of Malé. The demand for housing and commerce has driven development to the very edges of the island, which is blanketed from shore to shore with buildings rising as high as 10 stories. The nation’s remaining population is spread out over 200 islands.
We hop off the tender at the town dock adjacent to the market. It is packed with local wooden boats unloading crates of mangos, bunches of green bananas, tubs of fish, household appliances and building materials. The entry port at Malé is the clearinghouse for food and materials bound for the outer islands. There are no farms or factories – everything but fish is imported. On the dock there was no shortage of fresh fruit. Looking at a huge tub of fresh mango, Captain Luis asks, ‘How much?’ The reply, ‘Free mango today,’ is hard to beat.
Exploring Malé doesn’t take very long. Malé proper doesn’t contain much in the way of tourist attractions – most visitors never set foot on the island. After making our way through the incredible fish market and narrow streets, we hail a cab and tour the island’s perimeter.
By the time we finish our exploration and arrive back at the dock, the captain has completed negotiations with a PADI-certified divemaster, Niyaz (pronounced knee-oz) Mohamed. Niyaz hails from Laamu Atoll, south of Malé and near the equator. Back aboard Golden Compass, Captain Luis plots the course to several special dive sites with the aid of our dive guide’s extensive local knowledge.
The next day begins with another colourful sunrise opening another beautiful day. Golden Compass weighs anchor bound for Rasdhoo Atoll by way of Bodu Hithi island and the Kithi Kandu passage at the west edge of Malé Atoll, two hours’ steaming time from Malé. Somewhere in between, we stop to snorkel with manta rays. Sharing this spot of ocean with these majestic beasts is surreal. They glide solo and in formation a few feet from the surface and turn, their gigantic mouths gaping, as they swoop through the plankton. Unbothered by our presence, they circle and come within inches of us, their huge wing tips flapping up and down in slow motion. This incredible scene goes on for half an hour and is the highlight of my underwater experiences to date.
Back underway, we pick our way through much reef and drop anchor at sunset off a pristine sandbar that seems to stretch to the horizon.
Next morning, we pull on wet suits for a dive in the blue channel between Kuramathi and Rasdhoo islands. Loaded into the Nautica tender, we head out with Niyaz in the pre-dawn glow for a reef dive rendezvous with some hammerhead sharks. As it turns out, the hammerheads are otherwise engaged this morning – some grey sharks and a big tuna are the only encounters.
Next, we tender over to Veligandu Island Resort, a picture-perfect Maldivian hideaway where the reception lobby has a floor of beach sand and the thatched-roofed guest quarters on stilts stretch out into the lagoon like a string of pearls. Returning to Golden Compass we spot another group of manta rays to swim with in the Kuramathi channel.
Kuramathi island, home to the Kuramathi Island Resort, is five miles long and positioned across the channel from Madivaru, a small island with a sandbar that goes on for kilometres at the reef’s edge. The afternoon dive in the channel has us down to 27 metres, then slowly working our way up along a ridge. The abundance of sea life on the reef is startling. We find ourselves surrounded by all kinds of tropical fish – many I have seen before but never so large or plentiful. A big leopard moray eel (a first for me) keeps a close watch as we pass its den.
Another amazing day on and under the Indian Ocean and I’m getting quite used to living in a wet suit. Up on the sun deck with a glass of vintage red, I gaze into the clear night sky with stars so bright they have that reach-out-and-touch-them feeling.
The sun is just edging over the horizon the next morning as Captain Luis, Niyaz and I are rolling off the Nautica and dropping down along the reef wall to a depth of 31 metres. Drifting with the current, moving along with the mass of tropical sea life is effortless. With the sun slowly rising, its rays beginning to penetrate the depths, we spot a couple of dogtooth tuna and grey reef sharks. Later, on the return run from Kuramathi, we head around the reef and glimpse Golden Compass riding at anchor in the clear, turquoise water while a couple of our group take the opportunity to explore the sandbar at midday. It should be noted that Maldivian sand is some of the finest in the world, as soft and smooth as it gets.
By 2.30pm Golden Compass is on the move again, heading for North Ari Atoll. Careful navigation and lookout are essential in this area due to so much reef reaching up to the surface, ready to snag the unwary. With the highest elevation in the Maldives only two metres above sea level, navigation here is based pretty much on what you don’t see. A great amount of the beauty of this place is underwater. We arrive at North Ari Atoll in the afternoon to drop the hook between two horseshoe-shaped reefs. With nine metres of water under the keel we are seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but Niyaz knows exactly where we’re going.
The next day dawns clear and calm with no wind. Today we are treated to a dive at an unnamed rock in the middle of the deep blue Indian Ocean that the locals call Hafsaa; it’s unmarked on the charts, so we find it by GPS coordinates. We dive around the rock down to about 30 metres; the sea life is plentiful: grey reef sharks, dogtooth tuna, sting rays, eagle rays, bat fish, grouper, snapper and walls of sardines.
Following the dive, Golden Compass moves a couple of miles to anchor off a sandbar right out of central casting. The local rule for naming islets is ‘no trees, no name’. There is no green growth of any kind on this tiny pristine beach that barely breaks the surface. With few beachcombers passing this way, the sand is littered with beautiful bits of coral brought in by the tide and bleached white by the sun; it’s as though a delivery of coral gems bound for an upscale gift shop was deposited on the beach for us to discover.
At midday, we’re off in the tender to nearby Bathala Island Resort to refill the dive tanks and take a stroll. A belt of beautiful sand encircles Bathala with little waterfront huts placed just off the beach in the shade of coconut palm trees. We walk around the entire island at a slow pace in just 20 minutes. A very quiet and relaxed place, Bathala has more guests asleep on their loungers than engaged in upright activities. Waiting for the dive tank refill, we enjoy a round of drinks served in the resort’s open-air lounge.
On a final afternoon dive Niyaz leads us through even more submerged natural beauty. We add turtles and lionfish to our sighting list.
The sun drops lower and we are delivered ashore by tender and jet ski to a snow-white sand spit that curves away and disappears into the reef. The crew have been busy setting up tables and chairs while the chef prepares another fabulous meal, this time a barbecue featuring scallops with basil tagliatelle followed by grilled chicken breast with parmesan risotto and carrots, ending with white chocolate mousse. The glow of tiki torches leads the way up the beach to the dining table. We’re miles from anywhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean under a ceiling of stars and a full moon, with vintage wine, great company and, riding at anchor 90 metres away, a glowing kumatage across the water, Golden Compass – the means to this incredible end.