Saturday, 11 April 2009

Maldives Post Tsunami report

It wasn’t until I saw that silky swaying movement and the triangular black tipped fin break the surface, that I knew that I had arrived in the Maldives. I stood there, ankle deep in the lagoon, watching the little black tipped reef shark meander along the shore line, a backdrop of palm trees and the tepid turquoise water stretched to the lagoon edge where the water turned dark blue and the dying sun was about to bury itself there. "Paradise"- One of my dreams was being realised.
This was the resort island, Kurumba where an important press meeting was to be held with Dr. Mustafa Lutfi, Minister of Tourism, later in the evening.
Whilst the Tsunami did little physical damage to the Maldives, the images flashed across our TV screens on Boxing Day have kept the tourists away and this is having a far greater impact than the wave did. The truth is, whilst Indonesia and Thailand were hit with a big wave the geology of the Maldives would not allow for a stereotypical tidal wave to form here. What the Maldives experienced was more akin to a tidal surge, where on some lesser protected islands water rose to a depth of 4 feet over the islands and dropped back within a couple of minutes. Apart from slight damage to a jetty and part of a beach being washed away, I noted no serious damage on my travels.
I have already described topside as paradise but how have the submerged wonders faired? To say I was impressed would be an understatement.
The following morning, I teamed up with Euro Divers Kurumba and headed out to South Male Atoll and the site, Embudu Express. Sindi, the dive guide, had asked me what I would like to do. He initially offered a wreck but when he heard I would like to see sharks, a smile spread across his face and we would catch the express.
To dive the best sites in the Maldives, you have to dive in the tide and there was a fair rip running across the reef wall at Embudu. 30 metres down in crystal vis, we clung to dead coral and stared out into the blue.
A huge school of Tuna hung around. Soon the sharks appeared, firstly white tips and then grey reef sharks. None came close unfortunately, but the experience was electric. Put in a school of 15 spotted eagle rays going over the top and the 10 out of 10 score went into the log book. The dive was only half started even though the deco alarms were only seconds away on the computers.
We let go of our vantage point and let the tide catch us. Blasting past a big napoleon wrasse, we ran up the side of a thila (a pinnacle that comes to around 10 metres of the surface). The life here was stunning and the walls were heavily undercut. Schools of vivid orange fairy basslet covered the reef and gorgonians thrust out at right angles to the wall.
Massive grouper hid in the recesses as we blasted along the wall. The schools of fish were just overwhelming and will be one of my lasting memories of the Maldives. How can so many fish be supported? You will have heard that "there was more fish than water" before, but here it’s certainly true.
Soon my gas supply was at reserve and we headed up to the top of the thila, where a loan white tip shark was cruising. I was out of film by this time and could just relax and watch the shark meander away. Up here the tide really caught us and we were soon speeding along looking down on the top of the ever deepening thila. Here I spotted a monster big eye trevally.
What a dive! If I ever sprout gills I know where I’m heading.
I managed another dive from Kurumba before we headed to the next island, Laguna, situated in South Male Atoll. This island is a lot smaller than Kurumba and I fell in love with the place but could the diving live up to what had gone before?
Euro Divers had phoned ahead and set up a night dive with Herbert of Laguna Dive Centre. It wasn’t until the next day however, before my pulse was once again racing and we were back at another site at Embudu but this time, Embudu Canyon.
Herbert stated this was the best place for coral growth in the whole of the Maldives, post the 98 El Nino. He was right, as the corals were fantastic but once again the fish life stole the show. It’s just so intense!
A green turtle was resting atop of the reef and it was only partly interested in our presence. Soon Herbert gave the signal and we descended down the steep wall turning into the tide. Soon the wall just disappeared in a large overhang. Here between the main wall and a huge triangular pinnacle of rock was Embudu canyon, a beautiful narrow deep sided gully that cut right through the reef.
At the base of the wall on my left hand side, the overhang continued and this area was full of schools of oriental sweet lips and big red sabre squirrel fish. Added to that, large predatory blue finned jacks were patrolling the canyon ready to take anything that finned into their path. I took a snapshot as a posse finned by and tried to do justice to this wonderful site.
Once again however, the dive was far from over as I finned to the end of the gully. The far side of the pinnacle came into view and the most gorgeous coral gardens were on show, all further enhanced by the swarming schools of orange and yellow tail fairy basslet, clown fish nestling in their anemones, blue surgeon fish and those ever present swarms of red mouthed trigger fish. It was stunning and I took so long taking in the site that the rest of the group had moved on ahead to the rear of the pinnacle and dropped into a overhang, where out in the blue 3 white tip reef sharks were cruising about. Now at this point I surprised myself because I live and breath sharks but with 3 performing nearby, I was more interested in the overhang and its creatures. Perhaps Embudu Express had provided my quota of shark watching, I still cant believe it though.
A big grouper filled the viewfinder for the last frame of film. Its at these moments when exceptional things happen and on this occasion, an immense school of thousands of red striped fusilier engulfed me. These fish are amazing. They are like neon tetras in your tropical aquarium but they are 20 cm long bars of vivid blue and red, and in their thousands in the sunlight water they make an amazing spectacle.
It was another 10 out of 10 dive and Laguna went on to produce a number of exceptional dives such as Wadu Caves where we had an amazing encounter with a big green turtle.
On returning from this dive and entering Laguna lagoon, I noted a surface marker buoy marking the position of a couple of my friends completing a refresher dive. I ditched the aqualung and snorkelled out to get some images of them. What I found was the buoy tied off and a massive school of horse eyed jack swarming around a coral outcrop.
It was back for the aqualung and another role of film to try and do the scene justice. Reasonably ecstatic, I left the water only for Herbert to point out a stingray in the shallows. Another role of film was required. 2 very shallow dives with 2 very rewarding subjects but shame I missed my friends though!
I had got very settled to Laguna life and was sad to say goodbye as we boarded a speedboat for the hour long trip to island number 3, Meeru. This island was far larger than the others and it lies right on the east side of North Male Atoll. The walk from the jetty to the reception area must only have been a 10 minute walk but in the heat and lugging the camera gear, I felt exhausted and collapsed into the seat. I gratefully accepted the bottle of water and coconut drink, in the nut of course.
My accommodation here was a sumptuous water bungalow full of the most modern equipment. Stairways led down into the lagoon and there was a sun deck which supported a powerful light, which illuminated the water in front of the bungalow.
At night I sat and watched stingray, black tipped reef sharks and 1 larger shark. The staff at Ocean Pro Dive Centre, Meeru confirmed that they had seen lemon sharks in the lagoon recently so it could have been that or a nurse shark. The only problem I had now was that my bungalow was at exactly the opposite end of the island from the dive centre.
Chief executive of the island, David Feinberg, helped out immensely providing me with a driver to cart all the heavy gear to and from the dive centre and my thanks go out to him and Shadi, the driver, who helped me immensely.
The first dive here was a night dive on West Rock. I was all set up with close up gear when the guide mentioned a small wreck. I thought nothing much of it until I arrived at the side of a sizeable freighter. Had I put on the wrong lens for this dive!
After a few minutes on the wreck, we headed out along the reef which was a bit of a disappointment. Back onboard I couldn’t help talking about that wreck. It had it all with brass portholes, running lights and massive grouper’s sleeping in their own compartments. I spoke to Ocean Pro, wishing to organise the dive for the following evening and this time I would be there with the wide angle lens. David came through again and organised the boat and I enjoyed a stunning dive with the wreck shrouded in fish life. If you dive here dont bother leaving the wreck. The reef cant touch it.
The next morning, we headed off from the jetty to the site known as the Colosseum, which was a nice dive with a score of around 8 out of 10. The highlights were a huge black saddle coral grouper being cleaned by cleaning wrasse and indian banner fish and a wonderful green turtle being cleaned by a blue faced angelfish. Also a leaf fish was found.
On surfacing, a small section of Tsunami tree was floating on the surface, perhaps from Sumatra or Thailand. Underneath it were some tiny pilot fish being harassed by an unknown fish which was defending his tree from one and all. It took turns in hiding in our regulator hoses before darting back to its den in the tree.
I found the diving around Meeru to be less exciting to that supplied in Kurumba and Laguna but this may have been due to the fact that this island was far more busy and most of the first choice trips such as diving with Mantas on westerly facing Atolls were already full.
Diving aside, Meeru was a wonderful authentic island with sand floor’s in the bars and restaurants and thatched roof on the buildings. It was wonderful, and that room of mine was the most luxurious of the whole trip. After the previous night’s shark watching from my balcony, I decided in my lunch break to once again lug my camera across the island to get a shark shot. I had a quick snorkel and under the bungalows there were loads of fish keeping in the shade but no sharks. Back up the stairs, I rinsed off the camera and dried myself off. Now looking over the balcony the black tip decided now was the time to saunter bye.Typical!
It was now time to depart to our final island of the trip. Coco Palm was billed as a luxury resort and it was wonderful. A seaplane journey of 30 minutes from Male was required to get us here. It was a very exciting trip, one I soon began to really enjoy rather than being apprehensive about. Meeru Island had phoned ahead, so when I arrived at Coco Palm it wasn't long before I was introduced to Catherine and Greg, base leaders for Ocean Pro Diving of Coco Palm.
I was lucky to be in their hands, as they bent over backwards to get me out on some great dives before I had to worry about flights etc. I was in luck. The island being less busy and boats being available, I was up for an afternoon dive and a night dive. I just had time to get some spicy noodles inside me and put the camera gear together, before perhaps the best dives of the trip were undertaken.
Muthafushi Thila was our dive site and Catherine explained that it was one of her personal favourites, especially for coral formations. The site certainly did not disappoint and corals in varying shades of yellow were stunning.
At around 15 metres, we just hung in the tide at the edge of the thila, watching underwater life go on. I’m sorry to say but I saw nemo buying it as a big blue finned jack swooped down and left, chomping on the little clown fish.
Out further into the blue, a solitary white tip shark cruised about. This had Catherine excited and I learnt later that in Baa Atoll, sharks have almost been wiped out, so its a treat to see one here. Descending down the thila walls, the life was amazing with beautiful trees of black coral as well as yellow gorgonians. More anemones and their clown fish were noted, and in a ledge 3 big lobsters vied for space. All the time the big jack and tuna cruised around overhead, biding their time or sometimes forcing the issue, sending the silvesides into a panic, the school darting everywhere, their silver scales dazzling in the sunlight.
This was a wonderful dive and it fits with my impression of what a coral reef should be. Just out of film, I looked to my left and thought I saw a massive shark but this turned out to be a dolphin. It hung about for a bit and then a mother and calf appeared on the edge of the vis. This was certainly a 10 out of 10 dive. Its always good when your dive guide leaves the water happy too. Our boat ride home was escorted by bow riding dolphins.
The night dive with Greg followed shortly after at the site, Rangali Faru and it was another fantastic dive with big stingray and moray eels. At the back of one of the soft coral shrouded overhangs, a monster of a black saddle coral grouper was dozing. I moved in for some close up shots.
Soon though, film was out and time was up and the boat made its way back to Coco Palm and for the first time on the trip I was hungry and looking forward to my meal which was fantastic. A pleasant evening was had under the stars and the fruit bats, talking about all the events of a very exciting day.
Tomorrow however, was the big one and it was billed as a 50/50 chance. This was a trip to Fhun Faru, a West facing Atoll, which at this time of year is Manta Territory. Would my last dive in the Maldives on this trip offer the opportunity to dive with these majestic creatures?. I certainly hoped so as I headed out in the glorious sunlight morning with around 16 other divers.
At this dive, a line is dropped down onto the Faru and 1 minute after reaching the top of the Faru at 16 metres, the first manta swooped in. It was enormous. We all moved into the current and soon 7 big mantas were feeding and getting cleaned all around us. They stayed around for the whole 55 minutes of bottom time on the dive which was a real treat. Some even soared right over my head, which was not a good time for my strobe to malfunction but the image still turned out very satisfying. They would hang motionless in the tide, feeding, occasionally banking off and coming up behind the divers.
The Mantas were being cleaned here and I saw one loop the loop when a little cleaner wrasse must have nipped a sensitive bit around the big mantas eye. Other spectacles were when two of the big rays were on collision course and had to bank away port to port. It was 10 out of 10 of course.
All the dive centres were exceptionally well run with safety and enjoyment being the main concern. All the locations apart from Laguna, could offer nitrox mixes of 32% and 36%.
Tsunami affects.
I have briefly mentioned the topside affects of the Tsunami on the Maldives. Underwater I noted no damage. The reefs are healthy and coral formations are intact. As already stated, the geology and Atoll reefs etc. protected the islands. With no long shelving foreshores the typical tidal wave could not form here. There was therefore no chance for the destructive force to build.
Anybody who has dived in the Maldives will be able to tell you that all the diving is tidal, especially the more exciting sites. I doubt the tidal surge caused by the wave was any more severe here than on any other day. The water just came up a bit higher.
I spoke to many dive guides and people who had experienced the event and the story was always the same on all the islands we visited. A rising of the water around 1.5 metres above normal which managed to flood into some islands, before draining quickly away taking sand with it. This sand was then quickly blasted away by the strong tidal streams which surround all the islands and the vis very quickly returned to the usual 30 metres plus, after a day of very unpredictable tides.
I was amazed by the capacity for the Maldavian people to overcome the Tsunami event. On Kurumba the island was fully operational within 4 hours. Meeru took a bit longer, at 4 weeks but this island lay at the east side of the Atoll, with no protecting reef on that side. It was therefore affected more heavily by the 1.5 metre flood but this subsided after a few minutes.
The wave has had an negative impact on the islands economy. Images of the Tsunami affecting Thailand and Indonesia have made people assume that the Maldives would be worse hit because they only lie a few metres above sea level. This has simply not been the case and If you travel there, you will note no damage at all. It must have been a frightening event but definitely not the terror of the tidal wave we witnessed on our TV’s happening in Thailand and Indonesia.
Mike Clark

Get Charter - The Clutha
By Mike Clark
The Clyde Estuary is one of Scotland's favourite wreck-diving spots. Mike Clark checks out a boat which has been purpose-built for diving the area
SKIPPER: Elaine Watt
The Clutha(Pic: Mike Clark)
Back in 2001, Clyde Diving said goodbye to its faithful old dive vessel Westering Home and ushered in the purpose-built dive vessel MV Clutha (which means 'spirit of the Clyde' in Gaelic). The Clutha sails from Inverkip Marina and is owned and skippered by Elaine Watt, who started the family business in 1996.Elaine has been a qualified RYA/DOT skipper for 21 years. She has cruised the Clyde Estuary all this time and her knowledge of the area is comprehensive. Elaine and crew member Neil are also both active divers with the Scottish Sub-Aqua Club, so there is a genuinely diver-orientated service provided. The pre-dive briefings are excellent, with good underwater drawings of all the wrecks. Elaine points out exactly where the shot will be dropped and features that can be identified. This is crucial information when diving wrecks such as the Wallachia, with its varied points of interest.Technically a 10m-long trawler, the Clutha has been fitted by divers for divers. What would have been the fish hold has been designed to house the 18cfm compressor. Oxygen is also stored down here. The deck space of the Clutha has been developed with seating and storage benches for 12 divers, all under sheltered decking. It's very user-friendly - once you are helped up the excellent ladder by Neil, it's just a short distance to your bench, where you can sit down to de-kit. Bungy loops store your cylinders securely, while long hoses are attached to the compressor so there is no need to move cylinders about: they can all be filled in situ on the benches. It really is ideal and all the bags and clutter can be stowed nicely away under the bench, maximising space.The wheelhouse is fitted with all modern navigation equipment, which easily locates the wrecks the area is noted for. Forward of the wheelhouse is the galley where the hot tea and coffee or - if you're lucky - Elaine's home-made soup is dished up to warm up the cold diver.The back of the boat is open to the elements, so when the weather permits divers can drink their refreshments here and savour the majestic scenery of the Clyde Estuary, always keeping a lookout for seals and porpoises. There is a standard marine head in a spacious toilet area.Finding points to criticise is tricky with such a diver-friendly boat, apart from a noisy compressor when the hatch is open and a smelly corner near the diesel hatch, which can be quite unpleasant.The Clutha is available to charter all year long. The moderate cruising speed of 9 knots is suitable for the sheltered waters of the Clyde, where the key wrecks are located close to each other. On my last trip we dived the wreck of the Beagle and the Akka.What we likedExcellent seating and stowage. Protection from the elements. Long whips on compressor eliminate need to lift cylinders about.What we didn't likeSmelly corner near diesel hatch. Noisy compressor when hatch is open.Boat: purpose-built for divers, modelled on a trawlerMoored: Inverkip MarinaEngine: Daewoo MD136TCruising speed: 9 knotsHead: one standard marine headMax passengers: 12, smaller parties welcomeCompressor: 18cfm onboard compressorRates: £24 per person per day. Air is £3 per fill and nitrox is available at nearby Largs Marina.

Bookings: 01475 522930