Diving the Maldives on rebreather allows this iconic destination to reveal her majesty in ways few have ever experienced. (Text by SB Monella, Images by Franco Banfi)
NOWADAYS IT’S HARD to find something truly new and unexplored; it seems that every part of our planet has already had its details revealed, from the northern pole to the southern one. Yet we still seek the unknown, the remote and untouched, and experiences that push the boundaries of the norm. Can these experiences still be had? Yes, by combining technology with a diverse and complex atoll: rebreathers and the Maldives.
A CCR CRUISE
We chose the privacy and the freedom of a liveaboard, which allowed us to go further, venturing to places not accessible to the inexperienced, and exploring less well-known sites; places where there are no boundaries between the visitor and the ocean, and the scenery stretches almost to infinity. The boat also offered expert rebreather services, including courses. Today, diving on a closed-circuit rebreather (CCR) is still a niche market and it is rare to find “rebreather-friendly” liveaboards, especially in tropical destinations. But the market is growing because CCR units allow us to enter a realm of silent and almost endless dives, and have intimate encounters that most of us can only dream about. But here in the Maldives on CCR, this is a dream that comes true. The Maldives is located in the open Indian Ocean, 600 kilometres from the nearest land mass, and swept by nutrient-rich currents. The archipelago is on the route of a vast variety of deep-sea creatures, and the reefs support extraordinary arrays of marine life, both large and small. Powerful currents run through the atolls, carrying waters rich in plankton and food. They are like oases in the desert ocean, attracting life, from the tiniest on the first rung of the food chain (the plankton), to the biggest predators at the top: sharks, tuna and fast pelagic animals. These currents also sustain the growth of both hard and soft corals, which in turn create habitat for reef fish – abundant prey for pelagic predators. But most of these animals are frightened by the noise of the exhaust bubbles of a normal, open circuit scuba setup, and they will hide in crevices, or give the water column a wide berth. Imagine being a fish, going about your business, when a group of noisy scuba divers arrive. You and your compadres would hurry to hide somewhere until the group of bubble-makers has gone and you can return to your daily affairs – and then laugh about them. But if divers use CCR units, the behaviour of the fish changes totally: They are more relaxed, more confident, and we can approach them very closely before they move away. In fact, in the Maldives, we have never observed any fish fleeing from us or anxiously looking for a hole in which to hide. Imagine having sharks and mantas cruising less than a metre above your head, completely immune to your presence!
A CURRENT AFFAIR
The atolls we visited – Malé Sud, Felidhoo, Meemu, Nilandhoo and Ari – are formed by coral islands separated by channels, the famous Maldivian passes. Within them are lagoons of exquisite beauty: sandy basins of calm water, where one finds numerous creatures. Few boats are rocking in the silence of the inner lagoons, grey gulls hover in the warm breeze and the light is so intense that it bleaches everything, even our thoughts. In the placid and shallow inland sea of lagoons, equipped only with snorkel gear or our CCR units, it wasn’t uncommon to enjoy the company of whale sharks and manta rays intent on filtering plankton, or being cleaned at the cleaning stations. Generally there are four distinctly different types of diving: the walls (inside the lagoons or outside the reefs), the thilas (pinnacles or seamounts ), the kandus (passes) and the wrecks; they are totally different and able to satisfy both beginners and skilled divers. What they have in common is the necessity of the divemaster to be able to determine the right time and way to dive any site. Along the outer reefs, the thilas or the passes, the correct strength and direction of the current determines what we can see: Weaker water movement may mean no fish and deflated soft coral; a current that is too strong can end a dive within a few minutes, or, more dangerously, cause the group to become dispersed. But the “right” current can make us suddenly forget all the dives that have come before, as the memories are washed away in an abundance of marine life – life that has no qualms about introducing itself to us in intimate and unexpected displays of acceptance.