Bryon Conroy got his first taste of diving in the Maldives ten years ago, and it set him on a path to working in the diving industry. Now he returns and heads for the Deep South in search of sharks.
Photographs by Byron Conroy
Almost ten years ago to the date I was working and living in the UK, working a 9-to-5 job and following a very traditional career path. I was 28 years old and had recently achieved a career goal that I had been working towards for the last few years. Upon achieving that goal, I had a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of ‘what next?' I had achieved what I had set out to, but the job itself gave me no satisfaction.
My Scuba Diving Experience in the Maldives
So I decided to take a vacation. Little did I know that would be one of the most affirming moments of my life and one of the best decisions I ever took. The whole point of this trip was to try scuba diving – for many years, I had been interested in marine life, keeping aquariums at home. But now after many years of hard work to achieve my career goal, I thought it was time to go and see all of these colourful marine species in their natural environment. My destination of choice was the Maldives, and my first dive in the clear, calm blue waters of the Maldives really did change my life. The experience was so overwhelming it bought things into perspective, there really was more to life than cold, damp mornings in the UK and monotonous meetings repeatedly discussing the same things.
Upon returning to the UK, I handed my notice in from my job, sold all of my possessions, and planned to leave the UK to become a professional diver. The journey took me all over the world, living in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and now to my new home in Iceland, where I moved six years ago to work in diving. I have dived all over the planet over the last ten years, but much of that I owed to that very first dive in the Maldives.
Diving in the Maldives
The Maldives are a small island chain in the Indian Ocean, they are world famous for their beautiful islands and incredible diving. There are many different island resorts all offering stunning over-water villas and relaxing spas. These make for fantastic honeymoon-style holidays with a few dives thrown in here and there. However, if you really are going to get the most out of the diving in the Maldives, by far, the best option is a liveaboard. A liveaboard will take you over a much bigger area as you don’t need to return to the same place each evening.
My home for my seven-day trip would to be Blue Force 1, a luxurious 42-metre vessel that offers ten cabins, all of which are to a very high standard and come with ensuite bathrooms. The boat won ‘Best Maldivian Liveaboard’ in 2018 and from looking at the pictures before I went, it is easy to see why. The objective of the company was to compete with the resorts, offering you the very best in luxury while also offering the best diving.
After some research and having been to the Maldives several times since my first dive experience ten years ago, there was one itinerary I had always wanted to try – ‘Deep South’ during the months of February and March. The Maldives is not famous for its reefs, but for its pelagic encounters. Google ‘Maldives diving’, and you will see a plethora of different images of manta rays, whalesharks and different types of reef sharks.
Exploring The Best, Deep South diving
The Deep South itinerary, though, is extra special. For two months of the year, the conditions are perfect. Visibility is increased in the channels, and weather makes for calmer surface conditions, making these challenging dives primed and ready for advanced divers. The diving is channel diving, with big currents and is for experienced divers only. Conditions are tricky, but the rewards are rich, with walls of sharks to be found on the outside of the channels.
Flying to the Maldives is usually a relatively easy affair, even during the COVID pandemic. From most of the world you can fly into Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Qatar quite easily, then you are only a short four-hour flight from the islands, and there are multiple flights from each destination daily. Upon arrival in Male, the international airport, we then needed to take a domestic flight about one-hour south to the island of Khoodoo, where we were greeted by some of the boat crew and whisked off to our home for the next week.
Warm Welcome Aboard Blue Force 1
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived on the vessel, and after the usual drinks and welcome from the dive team and boat crew, we were able to set up equipment and prepare for the first dives of the day.
We also met our guide for the week, who was also the long-standing boat supervisor David. David brings relaxed confidence both as a guide and a dive supervisor. With 25 years of diving under his belt and many certifications from different training agencies, he has a natural affinity for diving and for his clients.
David’s briefings were among the most amusing I have ever encountered on a liveaboard. Usually, briefings can be a formal affair that results in not much attention being paid by the guests. However, David’s jokes and also his interaction with the clients during the briefings made them a stand out point of the trip – it’s not often guests are excited about the briefing, but they certainly were on this occasion.
Anyone who regularly dives liveaboards will be used to the dive equipment being kept on the back deck of the main vessel and some tenders being used to ferry divers around. In the Maldives, it’s a little different – and for the better. A separate dive boat called a Dhoni is used, this is a very spacious separate boat that is only used for diving and nothing else. All equipment is kept on the vessel for the duration of the trip, this makes both the diving better as small tenders are not needed, and also gives the main vessel a much-more-luxurious feeling with a nice open back deck not cluttered with equipment. It also means that the traditional dive deck area can be used as a lovely outdoor space for dining.
Our diving began with a nice reef dive with a small amount of current; we followed David along the edge of a wall at around 18m in depth and drifted slightly. As we came to the corner of the site, the current picked up a little, and David spotted some sharks in the distance. Due to the excellent visibility and conditions, I was able to drift over the small group of sharks and fire off a few shots before they sank into deeper water. A very nice calm, and relaxed dive to open the proceedings.
Experiencing The Thrill of Channel Diving
After a leisurely breakfast, David gathered us around for the Channel dive briefing. Channel diving is what this trip is all about, and while we were diving in the Northern end of the Deep South, it would be two channel dives each morning before a more-relaxed dive in the afternoons.
Channel diving is when the current is pushing in from the open ocean into an island or atoll. At some points, there are deeper channels in-between islands where the current can flow into the channel. In order to dive in this way, you get dropped off by the dive Dhoni in the blue water, maybe 90 metres from the island, you then descend down in the open blue water to around 24m, the current will be gently pushing you towards the islands. As you get pushed closer to the wall, the channel bottom will begin to appear in the distance, and the current will intensify. This is when the guide will make the sign to ‘hook in’. Using reef hooks is relatively simple, you hook one end into a rock or dead area on the reef wall and then attach the other end to the BCD.
You can then add a little air into the jacket, and you can float up two metres from the reef and relax in the current. When hooked in, you will be on the edge of the wall at around 30m, with the vertical drop-off in front of you and the islands behind. At the end of the dive, you unhook and allow yourself to travel over the top of the channel and relax in a crazy high-speed ride over the reef.
Our first channel dive was on Mareeha Kandu. Following our expert guide David we jumped off the Dhoni and sank into the blue. It’s quite a surreal feeling drifting aimlessly in the blue water, you can’t feel the current, but you just relax and let it do its work. Only once you get a visual reference on the top of the wall do you start to feel the current as you can see yourself moving faster and faster towards it.
We quickly hooked in at 30m and let nature begin the show. I can best describe channel diving as being at the cinema. You basically go down, find yourself a nice area to watch the show, hook in and relax and then wait for the curtains to rise and the show to begin.
After a few minutes of settling down, everyone begins to relax into a nice comfortable position and gets used to the raging current pushing against your face. Then slowly but surely, the sharks begin to rise from the deep water and over the top of the wall. It starts with one, then two, and before you know it, there can be 10 to 15. The excitement in the group was palpable, everyone was so amazed to be feeling at one with these sharks as they effortlessly sat in the raging current going about their business while the audience viewed their behaviour.
After the dive, we discussed what a fabulous dive it had been with David, he agreed it had been great but told us there would be much more to come! For our second dive of the day, we headed again to the same channel and became increasingly comfortable with the channel diving before completing a nice shallow reef dive in the afternoon.
Getting Up Close With Whalesharks
In the Northern edge of the Deep South over recent years, many whalesharks have been spotted on the back of boats. They are attracted to the plankton that, in turn, is attracted to the lights shining from the back decks of the boats. As a result of this, dive operators have been putting increasingly bigger lights over the back deck of the boats to try and attract these gentle giants for night time feeding.
At around 8pm after dinner, we heard the scream from the back deck –‘whaleshark’! Everyone peered from over the side of the outdoor dining area to the back, where low and behold, a whaleshark was gracefully swimming around the lit area. After allowing it to get comfortable, out came the snorkels to get in with the largest fish in the ocean.
I had never had a great encounter with a whaleshark before, so getting to spend an hour in close proximity to such an incredible animal was amazing. The light from the back of the boat was just enough to see everything nice and clear, but the act of snorkelling at night time made it extra special. When it’s dark all around you, then you are only thinking about what you can see and not distracted by other things, and in this case, that was a whaleshark.
After a night dreaming of whalesharks, it was soon time for the early morning wake-up call and on to another day of channel diving. The channel of choice today was VilingilliKandu. We were now in the groove with daily boat life and the ways of channel diving and feeling pretty relaxed going into the dive. We all jumped off the Dhoni together and began our descent into the blue water, visibility was exceptional at 40 metres, and the water was a rich dark blue as the dive was very early in the morning and the sun was not fully up yet.
We reached the top of the reef wall, and while there was current, it did not have its usual punch, making for an easy hook-in. As we kicked back, the show began, the usual routine, one, two, ten sharks… then 20, 30. At this point, I looked over to David, who was visibly excited – our usual cool and calm dive guide knew the game was on, and this time we had tickets for the Hollywood blockbuster.
The shark numbers continued to rise, 40, 50…, and after ten minutes or so, there were more sharks than you could even count. They were moving effortlessly in the current and emerging from over the reef wall and into the light blue water above. The sun continued to rise and became a backlight for the wall of sharks we were engulfed in.
We stayed deep on the wall for around 30 minutes, mesmerised by what we were seeing. With dive computers rapidly reaching their NDL limit, we reluctantly unhooked and drifted away from the sharks.
When we returned to the boat, the screaming of guests and the shouting about how many sharks they had seen was infectious, groups were comparing notes and pictures between them, and everyone was claiming their group had seen the most. The reality was that everyone had been lucky enough to see one of the greatest wildlife encounters left in nature. After cranking up my laptop, I studied the photos – in one frame, I was able to count over 65 sharks.
The success of the shark population is down to a complete ban on shark fishing in 2010, a decision that has seen the shark population raise and rises over the last ten years. There are few locations on Earth where the population is doing so well. Most shark populations around the world have been decimated by a variety of pressures, including overfishing, climate change, pollution, bycatch and food shortages. It was fantastic to see for your own eyes how nature can be if only we just leave it to fend for itself and stop harvesting at unsustainable rates.
Channel dives continued for the next days, along with other afternoon and evening activities. Blue Force offers kayaks, SUPs and also some shore time. Every trip, one afternoon is spent on a desert island. My favourite excursion was the island BBQ, being on dry land was nice after being on a boat for the week. The local staff put on a real show, made sculptures in the sand and prepared a whole host of different foods.
After channel diving, it was time to head a little further South, and a four-hour ride during the evening allowed us to wake up at Fuvamulah. Over recent years a local shore-based dive operator has been arranging shark feed dives here, with the main star being tiger sharks.
Our boat explained that we would not be feeding the sharks, as this, over time, has altered the natural behaviour of the sharks. The dive itself is relatively simple, the front of the island provides a wall, we descended around 40 metres away from the wall to 9m and then swam towards it, then we dropped to 15m or so and followed the wall, keeping it on our right shoulder.
As we reached the area where the harbour of the island is, we dropped a little deeper to around 20m. Then they came, out of the blue, climbing from the deep they appeared. We were lucky enough to spend 20 minutes or so with two tiger sharks – given the voracious nature of these sharks and the reputation they have, it was a surprisingly calm experience. The sharks were not aggressive and remained calm throughout the dive. There are only two places on Earth where you can reliably see tiger sharks in the wild – Tiger Beach in the Bahamas, and now here in Fuvamulah.
Overnight we headed to the deep South end of the Maldives. So far, we have seen everything you can expect from the Maldives – whalesharks, tiger sharks and walls of reef sharks. We had, however, not seen manta rays, but this is not a manta trip, and the Deep South is not famous for that, but the guides knew of a local cleaning station called Maa Kandu, where mantas could be spotted around 50 percent of the time.
The dive was a simple affair, drop down, drift until the cleaning station came into view and then hook in and see if they showed up. We hooked into the reef at 20m and sat for 25 minutes or so, waiting for the mantas to arrive. For us, unfortunately, they did not show, but for me, something else of much more significance was seen on the dive.
The Maldives is not famous for good corals, the area has really been impacted by global warming and climate change. In 2016, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of all corals suffered from a mass bleaching event and corals in the North and central atolls have really been impacted by this. In the Far South, though, things were different. This has more flow of open ocean water and, as a result, has managed to maintain slightly lower and more consistent water temperatures. As a result, the coral reefs are wonderfully healthy, and the quality and diversity of corals are truly outstanding when compared to the rest of the island chain. For me, this was a great thing to see – when I first came to the Maldives ten years ago, I had come to see the corals, and now in the Deep South, I had found the best corals in the Maldives.
Paying Tribute To HMS Loyalty
Our final dive of the trip was on a shipwreck, the Loyalty, a former British oil tanker that was sunk in the harbour area of Addu in 1946. The wreck is sitting on its side, and the whole of the top is now covered in a wonderful selection of healthy hard corals, and fusiliers and blue jacks dance above the wreck in a constant cat and mouse fight. The prop of the wreck is really the key area though, the old handrails are covered in coral whips, and there are many lionfish hiding inside, ready to ambush any passing smaller fish.
After the final dive came the final dinner, always a bittersweet end to any trip. Liveaboards are all about getting a high diversity of diving in a short period and also about bonding with and meeting new people. Our final dinner was with our new friends Sergei and Ekaterina, and it gave us the chance to reflect on all we had seen.
Tiger sharks, walls of reef sharks, shipwrecks, whalesharks and healthy coral reefs all within seven days. I have moved far and wide over the whole world and seen for myself the devastating effects of overfishing on shark populations. It was a real pleasure to dive into the deep South and see how no shark fishing for ten years has resulted in such a large and diverse shark population – just how nature had intended.