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Adventure in the Maldives: Exploring Four Resorts & Three Atolls


The diving dhonis
The diving dhonis

Stuart Philpott is never one to shy away from a challenge, and bouncing between four different resorts and three atolls in the Maldives in just 16 days was right up his alley. Here he kickstarts his adventure with a visit to Dhigali.

Photographs by Stuart Philpott

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Planning and Execution

Last year, with some help from Euro-Divers and tour operator Dive Worldwide, I planned an ambitious trip to the Maldives covering three resorts in just 12 days. Euro-Divers Marketing and Sales Exec Susanne Valverde arranged visits to divers’ favourite Vilamendhoo, followed by Meeru and then a new luxury five-star resort called Kagi.

Even though there were multiple seaplane and boat transfers, the whole trip ran extremely smoothly. I really can’t praise Susanne enough – she was up for the challenge and absolutely smashed it!

This year, I pushed Susanne’s efficiency to the absolute limits with plans to visit four resorts in 16 days! Just to make life even more interesting, I would be travelling to three different atolls, so logistics were, in a word, ‘complex’.

Journey to the First Resort: Dhigali


The first resort on my list was the five-star premium all-inclusive Dhigali located in the Raa Atoll. After several days I transferred by boat to a brand new five-star resort, Alila Kothaifaru. This was followed by multiple seaplane and boat transfers back to Malé and then on to the five-star LUX resort located in the South Ari Atoll. I rounded off my trip with yet another seaplane transfer and boat ride back to fivestar Kurumba, located near Velana International Airport in the North Malé Atoll.

Weather Conditions and Impact

Low season in the Maldives is between May and November. During this time there is a higher probability of experiencing cloud and rain. On previous visits this didn’t cause me any major headaches. I had a few light showers overnight but nothing substantial. On this occasion the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down, with strong winds and rough seas thrown in for good measure. But rain rarely stops play in the Maldives.

I still managed to do two or three dives most days, except of course, on travel days. Boat journeys were a little lumpy at times and heavy cloud cover meant there was less ambient light for my pictures, but in the true spirit of things, this just added to the adventure!

Dhigali: A Detailed Description

Can there be a better place to relax
Can there be a better place to relax

The rough weather was playing havoc at Malé’s seaplane terminal but eventually, after a long delay, I caught the last flight departing for Dhigali. Kate from sales and marketing greeted me at the jetty with umbrella in hand, which didn’t bode well. Dhigali five-star premium all-inclusive resort opened in June 2017, offering 116 rooms, including beach bungalows and lagoon villas.

Seaplane transfers take around 40 minutes. I was booked into a deluxe beach bungalow at the sunset end of the island. All of the rooms are a modern-looking ‘square’ design. Kate said this is more energy efficient, especially when running air con units. My room was furnished with a double bed, sofa, desk area (which I acquisitioned for camera assembly/maintenance) and an open-air bathroom. Everything was finished to a very high standard. I couldn’t find any faults.

Housekeeping were completely discrete and my room always kept clean and tidy. The seating area overlooking the secluded beachfront was the perfect spot to relax with a bottle of wine or two.

Being a premium all-inclusive, all of the mini-bar snacks and drinks are included. The sunset lagoon villas with pool are the most-exclusive category. They had the best view overlooking the beach. In the winter months, a sand bar appears and this can grow up to 100 metres long.

Kate showed me the Dhigali resort app, which had been developed by one of the employees. This provided details on daily activities, bars and restaurants, spa opening times and special events. There was even a map of the island, which I found useful for locating the restaurants, bars and the all-important dive centre.

The island is approximately 1.2km long by 200 metres wide. A regular bus service (running every 15 minutes) circumnavigates the island so if I didn’t want to walk, I could always hop onto a passing bus. Dhigali offer a buffet-style breakfast and an a la carte lunch and dinner. All of the resorts I have visited in the past served up buffet-style food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kate said that Covid times and reduced occupancy levels had brought about these changes, but they may well revert back in the future.

Scrumptious Dining Options

Breakfast is served at Capers, which unfortunately for me was located at the opposite end of the island. This didn’t give me much time for a leisurely feed before dashing back to the room and then on to the dive centre, but it kept me fit!

There is a good choice of restaurants on the island offering Indian, Asian and Mediterranean style cuisines. I could easily book a table using the app. My favourite had to be Battuta, which served up some seriously good Indian food. The restaurant is surrounded by dense trees and shrubs and the dining tables are arranged around a number of connecting Koi ponds, which just adds to the experience.

The takeaway pizza station (conveniently located close to my room) was a definite bonus, especially for a quick lunch break. Some of the guests would order and eat pizzas at the bar while downing a few beers or cocktails. This service is available from 11am to 6pm every day and is part of the all-inclusive deal.

There is also a café offering a selection of pastries, milkshakes and cakes, so no chance of anyone going hungry! The best spot for early evening cocktails has to be the Haali sunset bar. I made myself comfortable on a large beanbag and ordered a well-deserved mojito. What a perfect way to end the day.

Experience at Euro-Divers Dive Centre

Shoals of fish add plenty of colour
Shoals of fish add plenty of colour

The Euro-Divers PADI five-star dive centre is managed by Mauro Guimacaens-Valverde. They have four dive boats comfortably carrying 12 divers each (max 16). I went out on a 16.2-metre GRP hull Dorado Barracuda. This had a shaded area, toilet and sundeck. The crew were brilliant, always helping with kit, etc. Standard cylinder size is 11 litre aluminium. There were also a number of bigger gas-guzzling 12s available. Nitrox is free of charge.

Exciting Diving Sites and Marine Life

Expect to be in the midst of huge snapper shoals
Expect to be in the midst of huge snapper shoals

Mauro has been working at Dhigali for the past four years. He has three full-time instructors on his team and offers more than 30 dive sites, of which 15 are regularly dived. There is no house reef. Mauro said his top four sites are Labyrinth Thila (which is five minutes away from Alila Resort), Miyaru Thila, Uthuru Thila and Vadhoo Thila.

Depending on the season, they visit one manta cleaning station, called Solar Corner, during West Monsoon and three cleaning stations, including Neyo Faru, during the East Monsoon. Dhigali is ideally located in the middle of the atoll, so most of the cleaning stations are accessible within a 30 minute boat ride. Euro-Divers also offer snorkelling trips to UNESCO site Hanifaru Bay, which is about an hour boat ride away. Mauro said in high season (Jan-Feb), they can see as many as 200 mantas altogether at one time.

Apparently in the distant past, the Raa Atoll was targeted by the shark-finning industry, but there didn’t seem to be a problem seeing sharks. The most-predominant shark species in this area include grey reef, nurse sharks, guitar sharks and the odd lemon shark. I got paired off with instructor/guide Tomoko Yamanaka. Tomoko turned out to be a pocket rocket. She was a great guide and being so small, made the marine life in my pictures look gigantic!

Turtles are common
Turtles are common

Personal Diving Experiences

Large manta ray
Large manta ray

At our first site, Vadhoo Thila, I mistakenly set my camera to auto exposure. Due to low light levels, the camera was defaulting to ISO6400, which in layman’s terms meant a poor quality image. Frustratingly, my underwater housing doesn’t have an external button so I couldn’t change the setting.

We saw around 20 inquisitive batfish, shoals of yellow snapper and a seabed alive with anemones and anemonefish. The only real picture loss was a close encounter with a hawksbill turtle. But I did manage to get some great video footage. On our second dive at Beriyan Kuda Thila, we saw more circling batfish, a large lionfish hunting among the sea fans and then spent most of our time exploring a number of overhangs. Bad weather meant that the afternoon dive was cancelled.

The next day we were joined on the boat by a South African family. The two young boys had just completed their PADI open water training and were looking forward to their first real dives. At Beriyan Thila, we saw a few shoals of fish and then encountered a group of five grey reef sharks patrolling the drop off. One of the sharks had a fishing line trailing from its mouth. The sharks went back and forth along the reef getting closer and closer, in fact so close that I could have grabbed hold of the fishing line. This was probably one of the closest natural shark encounters I have had in the Maldives.

On our second dive at Kottefaru Kuda Thila, I spotted a small eagle ray. Tomoko later told me that this juvenile had been seen many times before and was very relaxed around divers. I managed to get within a forearm’s-length of the ray while Tomoko followed alongside. Just as I finished taking pictures, a manta ray flew into view. We followed it to the top of the reef, where another manta joined in. I watched the South African boys and they were more interested in looking at the anemonefish than the manta rays! Tomoko and I stayed with the mantas for a good ten minutes.

They made around 10-15 passes and couldn’t get much closer. The satellite forecast predicted rain for mid-afternoon and at 3pm it absolutely hammered down.

Manta ray flypast
Manta ray flypast

Surface visibility was reduced to near-on zero, making it dangerous for navigation and so once again the afternoon dive was cancelled.

On day three we visited Labyrinth and another site called Miyaru Uthuru Thila. The canyons at Labyrinth were absolutely teeming with fish life. There were thousands upon thousands of yellow snapper. I watched the giant trevally sweeping through the shoals picking off the stragglers. Mauro found this dive site by accident. He said there were so many unexplored Thilas still waiting to be discovered.

On my final day we went back for a second helping at Kottefaru Kuda, but this time around there were no mantas. As a consolation we saw a shoal of sweetlips, giant pink sea fans and a friendly hawksbill turtle. At Kottefaru outside reef, I was planning to get some pictures of a bright red frogfish Mauro had previously found.

We searched along the wall for a good 15 minutes but couldn’t find the elusive frogfish. We saw more batfish and yellow snapper followed by more batfish and yellow snapper mixed up with another hawksbill turtle, so not a bad ending to my brief visit.

Euro-Divers offer a two-tank morning dive, return for lunch, and then go out again in the afternoon for a single tank dive. This works well for divers with families as they can go diving in the morning and then spend the afternoon relaxing or vice versa. Most of the dive sites are between 15-45 minutes boat journey.

The dives sites are mainly Thilas (underwater pinnacles) with giant sea fans and overhangs to explore. Marine life sightings are usually sharks, turtles, dolphins and shoals of fish with the possibility of passing manta, eagle, mobula rays and whalesharks. There is a local dive centre facebook group where everyone shares daily sightings.

Reflecting on the Stay at Dhigali

The Euro-Divers Dhigali team
The Euro-Divers team

My time at Dhigali resort had absolutely flown by and I was sad to be leaving. I thought the all-inclusive set up worked extremely well for divers, especially the late-afternoon après dive pizzas and beers! Euro-Divers provided a faultless service as usual. The only slight negative was the weather, but that is out of everyone’s control.

The Raa Atoll is fast becoming ‘the’ place for manta encounters. It was a shame I had visited during low season when there were fewer sightings, but I still got to see two while diving and another five at a local snorkelling site. I can’t imagine what it must be like during high season when mantas are virtually guaranteed on every dive.

Snapper and batfish on the reef
Snapper and batfish on the reef

Preview for the Next Adventure

My 20-minute boat ride over to neighbouring Alila Kothaifaru turned out to be quite eventful, but this will be covered in the next part of my story… Tune in next issue!

The Next Location: Alila Kothaifaru

Stuart Philpott’s adventure continues with a visit to Alila Kothaifaru.

A Rough Transfer to Alila Kothaifaru

After four days I left Dhigali bound for neighbouring resort island, Alila Kothaifaru. I was looking forward to seeing dolphins during my 20-minute speedboat transfer but hadn’t accounted for the unpredictable weather at this time of year. We sped towards a dark unsettled sky and moments later hit the incoming squall.

Heavy rain reduced surface visibility to near-on zero and the smooth sea instantaneously whipped up into giant rollers. It really was one of those ‘glad to be back on land’ moments as I stepped onto the jetty.

Exploring the Alila Kothaifaru Resort

Alila Kothaifar

Alila Kothaifaru five-star resort opened in May 2022. They offer 80 rooms all with private pools on a half- and full-board basis. Seaplane transfers from Malé take around 45 minutes each way. I met up with Swiss GM Alex and he explained that they had tried to keep the island as natural as possible and ‘merged’ the resort into the surroundings. Alex is very keen on promoting environmental sustainability.

Experiencing the Butler Service

Dhoni dive boat
Dhoni dive boat

I was booked into a sunset water villa located ten minute’s walk from the main reception area. Alila operate what they call a ‘butler’ service whereby a member of staff plus buggy is assigned to each room for the duration. This was a new experience for me as I am usually left to wander the resort at my own devices. If I needed to be picked up, had any questions about the resort, even checking out and paying the bill, Alla via Whatsapp was my first point of contact. I didn’t visit reception at all during my stay.

The View and Accommodation at Alila

Alla drove me through the dense undergrowth to the water villas located on the opposite side of the island. I have to concede my room had the most-spectacular view. Through the double-width full-size glass windows I could see waves breaking over the shallow reef on the lefthand side, an uninhabited palm-fringed island directly in front of me and Alila’s white sandy beach stretching out on the right-hand side. This really was a picture-perfect view to die for.

The villa came equipped with a plunge pool and wooden deck area complete with sofa and sun loungers. There was also a set of steps leading down to the sea for swimming or snorkelling. Alla said the rooms had only recently been finished so I was one of the very first guests to take it for a ‘test drive’. I did find a few minor issues with the fixtures and fittings, but they were quickly resolved by the attentive staff. On my last day there was a power cut and I got moved to a beach villa. Even though the room spec was very similar, I can honestly say the view didn’t have the same ‘wow’ factor.

The Dining Experience at Alila

Gorgonian Seafan
Gorgonian Seafan

Alila has two on-site restaurants and two bars. Seasalt is the main restaurant which serves a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner. I spoke to the F & B Manager and they may change to a buffet-style breakfast sometime in the future.

There was already an area set aside in the restaurant, I think they were just waiting for occupancy numbers to increase. Outside the restaurant is a huge Olympic-length swimming pool surrounded by loungers and sun shades. This looks out onto a small uninhabited island which is used for afternoon picnic excursions.

Umami located on the other side of the island served up Japanese cuisine. The Yakitori bar sits right next door. This was the go-to bar for pre-dinner drinks. I discovered an exciting selection of sake-based cocktails on the menu. It was a tough job but I managed to work my way through a good number during my stay! Every day between 3-4pm, the Pibati café serves up a unique tea-making/tasting experience. I got to pick a number of different ingredients from the trolley and make my own special brew.

The Euro-Divers Dive Centre

Egor Sidorov manages the Euro-Divers Dive Centre. I briefly met Egor at Vilamendhoo last year. This was his first commission as dive centre manager. As well as being a top rate PADI instructor, Egor is a true film buff and knows everything there is to know about movies. The main dive centre is located on the beach and there’s an equipment storage area with dunk tanks, etc, on the jetty. The dive boat is a classic-looking Dhoni and can comfortably carry 12 divers. Egor said they also have two speedboats that can be used for private hire.

Exploring the Dive Sites

Crinoid on the vibrant reef
Crinoid on the vibrant reef

There are around 30 dive sites on offer. Boat journey times are between ten minutes and an hour. As standard they use 11-litre aluminium cylinders. Nitrox is free of charge. Special sites include Lundufushi Thila for leopard shark encounters and Vadhoo Corner for green turtles. There is also a world-famous manta cleaning station called Solar Corner ten minutes boat ride away. The resort doesn’t have a proper house reef but they do offer regular snorkelling trips, including visits to UNESCO site Hanifaru Bay for manta encounters.

The brand-new dive centre was still finding its feet during my visit, but Egor said they would soon have a resident marine biologist/instructor offering courses on coral reconstruction, mantas and marine life in general. They would also be giving presentations at the resort during the evening.

It was great to see Jennifer Foo helping out at the dive centre. I met Jenny on my three-resort extravaganza last year. She is usually based on Meeru and looks after media operations for Euro-Divers Maldives. Jenny had brought along her famous white suit, BCD and fins and just to add to the effect, we fired up the SUEX scooters for a day which also happened to be white! Put Jenny’s long dark hair into the mix ae well and I had the makings of some greatlooking underwater pictures.

The brand-new dive centre was still finding its feet during my visit, but Egor said they would soon have a resident marine biologist/instructor offering courses on coral reconstruction, mantas and marine life in general. They would also be giving presentations at the resort during the evening. It was great to see Jennifer Foo helping out at the dive centre. I met Jenny on my three-resort extravaganza last year.

She is usually based on Meeru and looks after media operations for Euro-Divers Maldives. Jenny had brought along her famous white suit, BCD and fins and just to add to the effect, we fired up the SUEX scooters for a day which also happened to be white! Put Jenny’s long dark hair into the mix ae well and I had the makings of some greatlooking underwater pictures.

First Dives and Adventures

expect to be enveloped by fish
expect to be enveloped by fish

On our first outing we were joined by a couple from New York who had booked onto a PADI Advanced course. Egor took us to a site called Goboshi, which was about 30 minute’s boat ride from the jetty. This may have been a good spot for navigation exercises but not for photography. We finned along the reef for an hour and saw a few solitary sweetlips, snapper and a passing turtle, but not much else to write home about.

There was an absolute ripping current at the second site, Miyaru Giri. Again, not so good for photography as I was hanging on for dear life most of the time. We finned into the current for as long as possible and then drifted back. We managed to duck into a few overhangs that were occupied by grouper, snapper, sweetlips and a moray eel. Ironically the best spot happened to be back where we entered the water at the beginning of the dive. We found some deep gullies at 20m full of yellow snapper and a number of patrolling reef sharks.

The Secret Place and Solar Corner

massive shoal of snapper
massive shoal of snapper

The Raa Atoll still has many undiscovered Thilas. Egor said that during an exploratory expedition with Alex, the GM, he had found an untouched Thila at a max depth of around 30m. He named this site ‘the secret place’. We quite often encountered strong currents on our dives so negative entries and fast descents are a necessity otherwise there’s a chance of drifting past the dive site. When we reached the Thila I could see plenty of marine life action, including sharks, eagle rays and turtles. There were so many schooling fish and the seabed was alive with vibrantly coloured soft corals.

Even though it wasn’t manta season, Egor suggested a visit to the local cleaning station Solar Corner, just so I could see how spectacular the site looked. I thought this was a little sadistic to taunt me with one of the best-known cleaning stations and have a near-on zero percent chance of seeing mantas, but went along with his plan. Both Jenny and I were using the SUEX scooters. They are a little tricky to use when holding a camera but the benefits definitely outweigh the pain.

I came up behind a turtle and I’m sure it did a double take when it realised I was still following. We sped off towards the corner and on the plateau, where the mantas would normally be cleaned, there were thousands upon thousands of blue stripped snapper and goatfish circling. We stayed here for at least 15 minutes sweeping in and out of the shoals. In front of the plateau at around 30m, I found around 40 or more sweetlips. They were a little agitated by the scooters, so I had to approach using fin power alone. I must confess Egor was right, watching the mantas flying over the shoaling fish must be an amazing sight.

Last Dive and Reflections on the Stay

The reefs teem with life
The reefs teem with life

For my last dive we planned a return visit to Labyrinth. Unfortunately, Jennifer had fallen ill so I had to make do with Egor in my pictures. The current was really racing so I was glad we were using the scooters again. We did a full 360-degree circumnavigation of the Thila and then cut through the steep-sided canyons colonised with sea fans and soft corals. Schools of snapper hugged the reef top while a huge ball of fusiliers was being picked off by a number of fast-moving trevally. We found 20 or more batfish taking refuge behind a coral head. While Egor was whizzing backwards and forwards, I managed to get a few close up pictures and some video footage.

Preparing for the Journey Ahead

giant sea turtle
giant sea turtle

Throughout my brief stay at Alila I was constantly dodging rain showers so didn’t feel as though I had experienced its true potential. Everything looks much better in the sunshine and this had unfortunately been in very short supply. The Hyatt-owned resort had only been open a month so there were still a few finishing touches on the go as well as some minor repair work. The Euro-Divers Dive Centre was up to the brand’s usual high standard. Having a manta station just ten minutes boat ride away was a massive attraction and there were so many underwater Thilas still waiting to be discovered. I was extremely impressed with what I did see during my brief stay.

I packed my bags and prepared for the journey ahead. Finally, the weather forecast was looking more favourable. Fingers crossed my visit to the LUX resort in the South Ari Atoll would yield better results. I might even get a suntan! 

Prepping the DPVs
Prepping the DPVs

Next up: LUX Resort on Dhidhoofinolhu Island

Stuart Philpott continues his adventure with a visit to LUX Resort on Dhidhoofinolhu Island.

Arrival and First Impressions

The sun was setting when I touched down at Dhidhoofinolhu Island aka the LUX Resort, South Ari Atoll. There was no time for a shower or a change of clothes. I literally jumped off the seaplane and ran straight to the teppanyaki station at Umami Japanese restaurant.

A Memorable Teppanyaki Evening

the path to the water villas
the path to the water villas

I had pre-booked the early evening session, which was as much about the chef’s knife skills as it was about the food. After downing a rather large saké (there are more than 30 varieties to choose from), I felt far more relaxed and began enjoying the show.

On my right side I was joined by a pair of fitness trainers from Manchester who had got married in Venice, Italy, and then flew to the Maldives for a further two weeks R&R. And on my left by more newlyweds who had flown all the way from Seattle in the US. Both couples had searched the internet for the best Maldives honeymoon destination – and the LUX had come out on top. We spent the next few hours eating a variety of delicious dishes. My favourites had to be the toothfish with bok choy, lotus roots and miso caramel, and the Wagyu beef with elephant garlic, yam and sugar snap peas.

LUX Resort: The Paradise Reborn

An enticing place to relax
An enticing place to relax

The five-star LUX Resort re-opened after a complete refurbishment in September 2016. There are 181 rooms and eight different room categories offering half-board, fullboard and all-inclusive basis. Seaplane transfers from Malé take around 30 minutes. My thatched roof beach villa was surrounded by palm trees and looked out over the sparkling blue sea. The bedroom door led out onto a decked area with table, chairs and sofa.

The Resort’s Facilities: A Blend of Luxury and Comfort

When I had a few moments of downtime, this was ‘the’ place to sit and relax with a glass of wine or two. There was an open-air shower/bath as well as indoor his/her basins with another shower room. I managed to take a peek inside the water villas and they looked very classy. The bathroom overlooking the sea was a very nice touch. The decked area had all the usual trimmings, including table, chairs and sun loungers, and there were steps leading down into the sea for swimming and snorkelling.

Exploring Dhidhoofinolhu Island

The beach villa
The beach villa

Dhidhoofinolhu Island is approximately 1.8km long by 500 metres at its widest point. My room was a good ten minutes’ walk from the dive centre, so I would often use the bus service which passed by roughly every 15 minutes. If I had been feeling particularly energetic, I could have rented one of the peddle bikes. I did see some snazzy-looking electric bikes, but unfortunately they were for staff-use only.

Variety of Dining Options at the LUX

The LUX offers a total of eight restaurants and five bars, so plenty of variety. Trust me, all palates are catered for, from authentic pizzas and curries to more refined lobster and steak. There are two buffet breakfast areas; one is better suited for Asian tastes while the other caters more for Europeans. I much preferred the Asian-style restaurant as it was located over water and I could sit and watch the shoaling fish while tucking into my scrambled eggs.

Activities: From Wine Tasting to Treasure Hunting

Diver and sea turtle
Diver and sea turtle

The LUX offers a wealth of activities so there’s absolutely no chance of getting bored, from wine tasting to treasure hunting! There are two swimming pools but they were quite busy with children during the day, so the spa dunk pool was suggested as an ‘adults only’ alternative.

This had a nice decked area with sunloungers looking out at the over-water spa treatment rooms. With this in mind, I would say the LUX is a popular choice for families, although I did see a fair amount of couples during my stay and there was a wide spread of nationalities.

A Small World in Euro-Divers Dive Centre

Mohammed Rabie manages the Euro- Divers Ddive Centre. Talk about small world, I met Rabie at Taba Heights in Egypt many, many moons ago. I used to take photos of the Discover Scuba divers at the Radisson Hotel where Rabie was employed as a Divemaster. Rabie left Egypt in 2013 and worked for several dive operations in the Maldives, including liveaboards, before landing a position with Euro-Divers. Even though Rabie is the Manager, he still dives every day.

A Diving Expedition with Euro-Divers

The dive centre has two dhonis carrying a max of 18 divers each. Group sizes are usually six to one guide and dives are a maximum of 60 minutes duration. The map on the wall showed more than 50 dive sites. Boat journeys are between 15 minutes and one hour. During high season, it’s possible to see ‘everything’ in one dive from whalesharks and manta rays to turtles, reef sharks and more. As with all Euro- Divers Maldives centres, nitrox is free of charge. Cylinder size is mainly 11- and 12-litre aluminium with DIN fittings. Rabie’s top three dive sites include Reethi Thila, Huddu Thila and Vakarufahli Thila. Unlike neighbouring resort island, Vilamendhoo, the LUX is not such a dedicated diver’s resort, meaning snorkelling trips are also very popular.

Mesmerizing Diving Sites

Rabie paired me up with instructor/guide Yuan Zhang, from of all places, Wuhan in China! Yuan was a great guide and good company. Our first dive site was the Kudhimaa wreck, which had been sunk at Machafushi Island as a diver attraction in 1999. The 52-metre-long cargo ship now sits upright at a maximum depth of 25m. Visibility could have been better but there was plenty of life on show, including nurse sharks, barracuda, moray, anthias and pufferfish. I recommend booking a night dive at this site. The orange cup corals covering the deck look absolutely amazing under torchlight.

The Magic of Whalesharks and Mantas

Snorkelling with manta rays
Snorkelling with manta rays

At South Ari Atoll, it’s possible to see whalesharks and mantas any time of the year. We always kept a look out for mantas on our way out and back from the dive sites. Whenever I saw a boat dropping snorkellers into the water, I knew something big had been sighted. I managed to jump in and see a few mantas, but they wouldn’t come very close and didn’t stick around for very long. On my last day, we spotted a manta on the way back from our morning dives and there were no other boats in the area. I spent the next magical 45 minutes duck diving with Yuan and the manta. It was making passes with its mouth wide open so presumably feeding. On a few occasions the manta came in so close my camera dome got wing slapped! A second manta joined us for a short while and then they were gone. Rabie said in high season mantas are often seen around the LUX jetty.

Kuda Rah Thila is one of the most popular dive sites at South Ari. I was blown away by the sheer quantity of yellow snapper. Thousands upon thousands congregated in one gigantic shoal. Even though the current was relatively strong I managed to duck inside the overhangs and get some colourful pictures of Yuan plus giant sea fans surrounded by snapper. I spotted a number of sharks patrolling the reef edge, but they would always keep their distance.

From May to November the best area for whaleshark sightings is less than 20 minutes boat ride from the LUX resort. Ironically when I turned up Rabie said they hadn’t seen any whalesharks for two weeks, which was extremely unusual, even in low-season. All of the snorkelling and diving boats share information on sightings and disappointingly during my stay they didn’t spot a single dorsal fin. Sea conditions were absolutely mirror calm so if there had been a whaleshark around it wouldn’t have gone un-noticed.

A few days after I left Rabie posted on Facebook that he had not only seen a whaleshark but it was new to the area, so he gets to name it! Every whaleshark has a unique set of markings so each one is photographed, given a name and recorded on a database.

Encounters With the Other Marine Life

Giant gorgonian seafan
Giant gorgonian seafan

Although we didn’t see any whalesharks we did encounter pretty much everything else. At LUX Back Reef, we found a very relaxed hawksbill turtle which was more interested in chomping on the coral than being worried about my camera dome. I managed to get some very nice close up shots as well as video footage. We finned along the reef admiring the shoals of goatfish, snapper and sweetlips. Underwater visibility ranged between 20-30 metres.

Blue Drop was even more eventful with two eagle rays appearing as we jumped in and then a squadron of five more turning up a few minutes later. They were also really relaxed and allowed me to get within two metres for a wide angle shot. But the highlight had to be 15 mobula rays. I tried to get close several times, but they would effortlessly fly off and then come back and tease me again.

Long Reef turned out to be quite a scary affair. I spotted another hawksbill turtle and lined up a shot with Yuan in the background. Yuan’s eyes suddenly grew wider. When I looked behind, a huge four-metre-plus hammerhead shark was literally staring me in the face. It swerved past my head and then disappeared back into the blue.

I didn’t even get a chance to take a picture! Yuan said she hadn’t seen a hammerhead at South Ari for several years so this had been a very rare encounter. It had obviously been curious and come in for a closer look. I just wish it had stayed longer. On my last day I went back to Kuda Rah Thila for another dive with the yellow snapper and finished off at Reethi Rah Thila taking pictures of a wall swathed in purple sea fans.

Prop smothered in marine growth
Prop smothered in marine growth

A Parting Note

The Euro-Divers team
The Euro-Divers team

My stay at the LUX had flown by so quickly, I wasn’t ready to leave. I hadn’t got the chance to properly explore the resort or check out the long list of activities, let alone visit all the bars and restaurants! For divers with non-diving partners or families, this resort is sure to keep everybody happy. Rabie insisted I stay on for at least another week, so he could show me more of the dive sites. He said I had only seen a fraction of what was on offer and I hadn’t even seen a whaleshark! I didn’t need persuading, South Ari’s marine life encounters combined with Euro-Divers hospitality and the LUX’s swish food and accommodation has to be the ultimate Maldives land-based diving package.

The Journey Ahead

For the third and last time, I packed my bags, waved goodbye and climbed on board the seaplane transfer. My final destination was Kurumba five-star resort located on Vihamanaafushi Island near the capital Malé. But would I actually find any fish in the city?

Adventure at The Kurumba Resort

Turtles are a common sight
Turtles are a common sight

Sadly, my brief stay at the five-star LUX Resort, South Ari Atoll, had come to an end. I thought all of the dive sites had been exceptional. I didn’t get to see a whaleshark, but I did encounter just about everything else the Indian Ocean has to offer. I said my farewells to Euro-Divers and the resort staff before boarding the seaplane returning to the capital, Malé.

Transition to Kurumba Resort

award-winning Thila restaurant
Award-winning Thila restaurant

At Velana International airport, a speedboat was waiting to take me to five-star Kurumba resort, my fourth and final port of call. During the journey I got chatting to Valentina Kuzmina, who was joining Euro-Divers as a new guide/ instructor. Little did she know that her first job would be modelling for the visiting Scuba Diver photographer! Ten minutes later we were moored up at the jetty and I was flip-flopping towards the reception desk.

The Rich History and Scenic Beauty of Kurumba

Stingray flypast
Stingray flypast

Kurumba was the very first resort island to open in the Maldives. Last year was actually their 50th anniversary. The resort offers 180 rooms on a half-board, full-board and all-inclusive basis. I had booked into a beach bungalow, which was an excellent standard apart from the fact that there was no sea view, more sea glimpses. Most of the rooms are arranged in a number of semi circles rather than just being built parallel to the beach front.

My room came with an open-air bathroom, which is pretty much standard practice in the Maldives. Unfortunately, there were no surrounding trees offering any shade, so in the late afternoon/early evening it became hot as an oven. The lush gardens were probably the best I have seen anywhere in the Maldives. There was also an orchid nursery with a huge variety of colours on show.

It took me about 20 minutes to walk around the small roughly circular 500 metre by 250 metre island locally known as Vihamanaafushi. There are eight restaurants to choose from serving up a variety of different cuisines. The main restaurant Vihamanhaa is buffet style whereas the others are all a la carte.

Dining and Nightlife at Kurumba

Idyllic shore scene
Idyllic shore scene

The award-winning Thila restaurant is a popular venue. The best tables are set up along the seafront. I sat and watched the twinkling city lights across the water. A cool breeze made a welcome change from air conditioning. The main bar, Kandu, is a great spot for après-dive cocktails. Watching the planes arriving and departing from the nearby airports certainly added a novelty factor.

Engaging with Locals and Frequent Visitors

The resort doubled up as a weekend getaway for expats and locals living in the capital city, Malé. It was also a popular choice for flight crews stopping over for a few days. I spoke with Captain George, who worked for German airline Eurowings, and he said it was much better than being accommodated on the main island. George was also a keen diver and knew all the local sites extremely well.

The Diving Experiences at Euro-Divers Centre

School of sweetlips
School of sweetlips

The Euro-Divers dive centre was currently being managed by Maldivian Abdula Ahmed. Normally there are at least three full-time members of staff taking turns to guide or run courses. The 20-metre GRP-hulled dive boat has a max capacity of 18 divers and includes a shaded area and toilet. Abdula said there are usually no more than six to 10 people on board even during peak season. There are around 30 dive sites on offer, including two manta cleaning stations, which depending on monsoons, are either 20 minutes or one hour 30 minutes boat ride away.

Abdula’s favourite sites are HP Reef and Embedhoo Express. For wreck lovers, the 80-metre-long Victory sits at a max depth of 40m right next to the harbour wall. The cargo ship sank in 1981 while carrying supplies to the nearby resort islands. I was keen to get some pictures, but unfortunately the weather conditions weren’t suitable on the day. Standard cylinder size is 11-litre aluminium and there are also some bigger 12s available. Nitrox is free of charge. The house reef is a superb spot for snorkelling or diver training with blacktips, sting rays and eagle rays regularly sighted.

First Dive Days at Kurumba

Sweetlips make fine subjects
Sweetlips make fine subjects

On my first days diving, acting manager Abdula Ahmed was on leave, so Morgan Bianchi showed me around some of the local attractions. We were just coming onto full moon, so the currents were racing. Morgan suggested we take a trip over to Aquarium, which was about a 45-minute boat ride away. This happened to be one of the sites I visited last year during my stay on Meeru, so I had a reasonable idea what to expect. Most of the action happens at the point where the currents converge. Valentina was keen to help. I couldn’t help but notice the massively long AAS hose strapped to her side. It certainly stood out in my pictures!

We followed the reef around to the point. There were whitetips sleeping on the seabed but every time I tried to get close they would swim off. We got some great shots of the snapper and the sweetlips and I even managed to sneak up on a sleeping green turtle for a few close ups. We came across another green turtle, but just as I was lining up for a picture, Captain George suddenly appeared in the frame. I guess George wanted a picture with the turtle! Valentina had nowhere to go, so I just kept on snapping away with George in the spotlight.

At Banana Reef I paired up with Valentina again while Captain George went off with Morgan. Even though we were very close to Malé, the capital city it didn’t seem to affect the marine life sightings. At the beginning of the wall there wasn’t much to see but about 20 minutes into the dive, I was taking pictures of snapper, cave sweeper, triggers and bannerfish hiding underneath the overhangs. The visibility was slightly murky but otherwise I really enjoyed the dive. I spoke with Valentina several months later and she said they had encountered hammerheads and even a tiger shark patrolling the reef wall.

Last Diving Days and Marine Sightings

Massive shoal of snapper
Massive shoal of snapper

On my second day Abdula was back in the driving seat so we visited a site called Embedhoo Express, which was a good hour’s boat journey away. Abdula said that marine life activity at the site was very different depending on whether we were diving with an in or an out current. Fortunately, we hit it just as the current was building. The highlight had to be the swirling mass of jacks. Thousands congregated over the reef. I spent a good five minutes trying to get a picture of the shoal. By now the current was really pumping hard. There was so much action, including sweetlips, eagle rays, turtles and sharks being ‘cleaned’ which I have never seen before. The sharks were in a trance, mouths agape, revealing an impressive set of teeth. This has to be one of the best dive sites in the area, a definite must do for visiting divers.

Just to round of my trip we went over to Chicken Island, aka the Tuna Factory. When the tuna fish have been processed, all the fish scraps are thrown into the water, which provokes the waiting marine life into a feeding frenzy. Although some might argue this is an artificial reaction, it provides a wealth of close-up possibilities for photographers. But Abdula said the factory had recently closed down. So with no free food available, would there still be any marine life around? As we descended, I immediately caught sight of the monster-sized morays – the honeycomb morays are the biggest I have ever seen – but the huge shoal of bannerfish had gone. A number of giant stingrays appeared and this increased to around 12 when a snorkelling boat arrived. They didn’t seem to be bothered by my presence and would do multiple fly-by’s.

I had really enjoyed my stay at Kurumba. The resort might only be a ten-minute boat ride from Velana international airport, but this does have its advantages. There are no seaplane transfers to worry about (or costs) and no time wasted travelling to and from the international airport to the seaplane terminal. And as I discovered, if the weather deteriorates, I could still guarantee getting to the airport without worrying about seaplane delays or cancellations. The buffet food was all in all very good and the accommodation – apart from the slightly obstructed view – was an excellent standard. At the beginning I had reservations about the marine life sightings but to my surprise there was a really good variety of dive sites on offer and most of the time they delivered.

Reflecting on the Maldives Adventure

The Euro-Divers team
The Euro-Divers team

My mega Maldives trip had been a rollercoaster adventure from start to finish. All praise to Susanne Valverde from Euro-Divers, as the logistics had yet again worked out perfectly (apart from one or two unforeseen flight delays). All four resorts had provided a very high standard of food and accommodation throughout, so absolutely no complaints from me. I thought each resort had its own distinct character. Some offered a wealth of activities and were probably more family orientated, while others were much quieter and better suited for amorous couples – something for everyone. A special thanks to the fantastic four dive guides, Tomako, Jenny, Yuan and Valentina (not forgetting substitute Egor) for helping me with my pictures.

As expected, all of the Euro-Divers dive centres provided the same high standard of service. The only slight dampener had been the weather. I arrived in a torrential downpour and 16 days later left the same way, holding an umbrella and splashing through puddles! 

These articles were originally published in Scuba Diver UK #67, Scuba Diver UK #68, Scuba Diver UK #69, Scuba Diver UK #70.

Subscribe digitally and read more great stories like this from anywhere in the world in a mobile-friendly format. Link to article 1, Link to article 2, Link to article 3, Link to article 4.

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