Manu Nair felt like he was in a different world. For a while, it was all blue; a dark, surreal blue. He could see nothing else and everything happened in slow motion. Then the translucent beings emerged from this deep-blue darkness — slow-moving whale sharks, dancing Manta rays, small fish schools, varicoloured coral reefs.
“It was…” pauses Nair, searching for the right word, before settling on “magical”.
An aspiring astronaut, he is among the few people selected for Project PoSSUM, a NASA-supported suborbital research programme to study global climate. It requires the participants to have scuba-diving experience. What he shares with me is from the Maldives — in Maaya Thila, considered one of the world’s best dive sites. The sea is like the sky in some ways, he explains, adding, “Most of my training would be underwater because it simulates the microgravity environment. When you are on land, you know nothing can harm you. But it’s not the case under the ocean; you surrender to it and what you see is something surreal”.
The Maldives, one of the world’s best diving destinations, has of late been luring scores of Indians to its shores. According to the Indian High Commission in Maldives, 62,905 Indian tourists holidayed there in 2020. It accounted for 11.3% of the island country’s total tourism market share — the most by any country.
The air travel bubble (enabling the free flow of international flights) that India shares with Maldives, the three-hour flight time, and the tourist visa on arrival are some of its attractions.
- Laamu Atoll: If you like diving, visit this spot. If you are a Star Wars fan and you like diving, definitely visit this spot. For, some of the scenes from Rogue One were reportedly shot here. Also, the strong currents here attract sharks, rays, jacks and tuna to hunt for the smaller and abundant reef fish. So, there are plenty of fish for you to see.
- Huvadhoo Atoll: Splendid sea caves, steep drop-offs, pristine reefs... the topography of the ocean floor here is quite diverse. In the south-west region, you can find hammerheads, tiger and leopard sharks. Big, vibrant schools of yellow boxfish and bigeye trevally are quite common too.
- Addu Atoll: During the Second World War, this was the site of a secret British naval base. Apart from spotting sharks, turtles and mantas, if you dive in a little deeper, you get to see the wreckage of the The British Loyalty, a 5000-tonne oil tanker that was torpedoed in the ‘40s.
“Maldives has not decimated its fish population. There are no large waves and the clarity [under water] is very good. Because you are in an atoll [a ring-shaped reef], you are not hit by the ocean,” explains Nitish Chengappa. He first visited archipelagic state in 2002 along with his brother, TV host Nikhil Chinapa. In 2015, they set up Fleetfoot Adventures in Bengaluru, which organises diving trips to the Maldives and Egypt among other locations, adding that they have taken over 250 clients every year to the Maldives since then. 2020, however, was a different story due to the pandemic. There were no trips from March to November but things are slowly picking up, says Chengappa, who has made four trips since November and gets several hundred enquiries every month.
“The Maldives spoils you. In other locations, you might not get to see the magnificent creatures like the sharks, mantas and eagle rays. But here you see them all the time,” says beverage expert Karina Aggarwal (@Gigglewater411) who made her second liveaboard trip there with a group of 10 people last month. A regular diver for the last six years with 120 dives across several spots, including in the Andamans, Thailand, and Philippines, hers was a 40m liveaboard vessel with air-conditioned suites and open-air dining.
The liveaboard diving trips — you stay on a vessel for one or more nights, going from one dive site to another — are best suited for serious divers, says another regular, Anees Adenwala, the director of Mumbai-based Orca Dive Club. Typically, they are a week long and comprise three dives a day. “You can even sail from Malé to the southernmost island called Gan, discover the entire chain of dive sites and atolls. Or you can just be in a resort with great food and a bit of diving and other water sports,” he says.
- on age restrictions: “Age does not matter,” says Reddy, adding, “As long as you are healthy, you can dive. But you need to complete the open-water diving certification if you want to do a liveaboard trip.”
- if you are a beginner: “The Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) allows you to do it if you are an open-water diver. But do at least 15-20 dives before you do a liveaboard,” advises Chengappa.
- the schedule: Typically seven days with about 17-20 dives across different spots.
- cost: A weeklong liveaboard diving trip, which includes food and accommodation, would cost between ₹75,000 and ₹3,00,000, estimates Reddy
- pandemic safety: “You have to do the RT-PCR test before you start and before your return. Once you step out of the airport, you go straight to your boat. And all the people in the boat are tested, including the staff,” says Reddy.
You will, however, have to do an open water diver’s course, which lasts four or five days. The course, costing about ₹30,000, comprises three parts: knowledge development (wherein you learn dive safety), confined water dives (wherein you practice in a pool) and open water dives (wherein you dive at a local site).
Since the boats have a capacity of 20 passengers, Chengappa reckons liveaboard trips are best enjoyed when you go with a familiar group. “It is very important that you put together a socially compatible bunch. Because you’re going to be spending six nights together,” he says.
Budgets for all seasons
Can’t afford a luxury resort? There are guest houses run by the locals. “You can spend $2,000 a night. Or just $80 a night with bed and breakfast,” explains another regular, Adenwala. Diving is also cheaper if you know your way around. “An open-water diver’s course costs $800 at a resort, whereas it is about $450 on a local island,” says Madhava Reddy whose Planet Scuba India in Bengaluru offers diving courses. He recently visited the Maldives with a contingent of 20 divers. And one of the divers was Project PoSSUM’s Nair.