Let the ocean current carry me gently along a wall with rainbow-col¬oured soft corals, then dropped to the edge of the submerged reef called Okobe Thila. My dive computer told me that I had spent 80 min-ores at 18m, but by breath jig oxygen-enrriched air nitrogen saturation time was still 30 minutes away. I, hecked my camera: only one 1 frame left. It was to be my last shot for the expedition shoot a new coffee-table book of the Maldives. One more click of the shutter and the expedition would end. I time to bid farewell to my 1.1bin in the galleon Banitheela and head home to write and edit images of the many memorable moments.
The adventure began five weeks earlier, with tow Malaysia Airlines tickets to Hulhule, the international airport island of the Maldives. This chain of 26 atoll lying 400 nautical miles southwest of India’s sourthern tip comprises 1190 islands none rising more than 3m above sea level. From the air the Maldives looks like a cluster of emerald necklaces afloat on a dark blue ocean each one linking its group of island with turquoise lagoons and white-sand cays adorned with waving palms.
A previous commission to produce a premium-quality book had involved eight trips over two years and thousands of hours under water. Normally. I would have the luxury of time to review images and perfect composition, often essential when working with marine ani¬mals. This time we were re¬stricted to just one expedition to produce a Gift of State pic¬torial almanac. For the first three weeks. as we photo¬graphed the reefs of North Male Atoll, we were privileged to use Kuda Huraa as base, an opulent island resort that blends harmoniously with the environment. However the richness of the Maldives really lies below the waves.
The Maldives was noted not just for its colourful array of coral reefs and fish, but also for the sightings of large pelagics, including a wide variety of sharks, dolphins and even killer whales
BELOW THE WAVES:
Not far from Kuda Huraa are four outstanding submerged reefs: Okobe Thila, Nassimo Thila, Banana and HP. These are the rainbow reefs of the Maldives Exuberant soft corals every conceivable colour explode like fireworks to cover these formations. Between tides, enormous flows of water through the atoll making diving a high adrenalin experience, in which you move through curtains of silvery trevally, surgeon fish, Napoleon wrasse and barracuda. Lurk¬ing amidst these reef corridors of wall-to-wall iridescent soft corals are thousands of blue-striped snapper, red coral garoupa, giant cod, sharks and scorpionfish. Eagle rays soar majestically above, unperturbed by the swift-moving water.
Day after day, I returned to these sites, each time excitement expanding my con¬sciousness, enthralled by the abundance and beauty of the marine life. On the fourth week, friends joined us on board the MSS Barutheela, a 25m replica of a 17th-century European galleon with 200sqm of rust-red sail. Navigating the atolls aboard this wooden vessel was like sailing back in time. The galleon’s appearance was deceptive: amenities included luxuriously furnished,air-conditioned cabins, a fully serviced bar and exquisite cooking by Austrian chef extraordinaire, Andreas. We indulged.
Exploring the waters
We set out to explore the waters around islands that Marco Polo called the Flower of the Indies. Mushimasmingili, Kudahhoo Etheru Faru, Maamigili, Fotteyo, Devana Kandu, Kudaraa Thila and Lhosfushi are among the many submerged reefs and chan¬nels we visited as we sailed through the atolls of Rashdhoo, Ari, Felidhoo and South and North Male. The names themselves are exotic, stirring one’s dreams, and the promise was fulfilled. The spirits of the sea were on our side too; for the entire jour¬ney the sea remained mirror-flat, visibil¬ity dissolving into the infinite blue. Our time underwater was restricted only by our nitrogen clocks.
I first read of Kudaraa Thila in Dive International, the premier British sport div¬ing magazine. The author wrote: “If this dive doesn’t impress you, it’s time to take up another sport!” These words stirred a challenge; experienced divers are a tough lot to please. I was the first to push off the boat, descending to the top of the sea mountain, or thila, to wait for Alison, Catherine and Raymond with my other camera systems. Three groups of 50 or so batfish (Platax teira) swam past, fluttering like butterflies in the blue. I picked up speed to follow them down to a plateau where we were met by a school of swirl¬ing faint-bar barracuda. Beneath me, the canyon bottomed into the shape of a sad¬dle. The large shadows of half a dozen reef sharks patrolled the channel, with layers of red gorgonian fans spilling out of the big overhangs.
Huge volumes of water rushed between the three rocks of this thila and the flow of nutrients had made the reef rich with end¬less outcrops of luscious, soft marshmal¬low coral. Clouds of blue-lined yellow snap¬per and oriental sweetlips swarmed around the reef in their thousands. Big-eyed squirrelfish stared out from beneath coral ledges and caverns, waiting for nightfall when it would be their turn to take centre stage in the canyon and play out the game of survival. Pairs of blue-and-yellow regal and emperor fish swam among an incredible pantheon of life.
We glided through the rainbow reef, even finding a hawksbill turtle standing on his head while chomping off pieces of coral, completely oblivious to the flashes of my twin Ikelite 200 strobes. All of us were deeply impressed, and we stayed for three more dives.
Related Tour Packages & Information