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Why it’s time you tried diving in the Maldives – Chris Zacharia
I’m floating through the water when a boulder-sized rock beneath me begins to move.
Startled, I struggle to turn my body around in the water. As the rock continues to rise, I notice two pairs of coffee-coloured fins protruding on either side. The wizened grimace of the turtle confronts me, decides I’m not worth bothering with, and begins propelling itself towards the open ocean. Diving brings some hairy moments, but it’s safe to say that this isn’t one of them.
I’d never thought of turtles as elegant before. But watching this graceful creature gently flap its fins reminds me of a bird at soaring great height. I follow the turtle as it zig-zags up and down, first toward the seabed and then up toward the light. All I can hear is the steady, muffled exhalations of my respirator mouthpiece. My turtle swims on, totally unperturbed by my spellbound presence. He’s got better things to do.
The Maldives might be synonymous with smitten honeymooners, but I’m here to discover the archipelago’s world-class diving spots. Celebrated for its clear, pristine water and diverse marine life, the Maldives boasts near-perfect conditions for divers. Coral reefs teeming with exotically decorated fish ring many of the islands, so you’re never far from the magnificent show of the underwater world.
Our resort, OBLU, occupies an island in the North Male Atoll, whose house reef is particularly impressive. Founded by Atmosphere, OBLU specialises in giving guests unparalleled access to the waters. OBLU’s idyllic, palm tree-lined island is less than an hour from Maldives airport by speedboat. Cruising through the ocean with the wind whipping through my hair, it doesn’t take me long to conclude that it’s the best airport transfer I’ve ever experienced.
With its own diving centre and in-house instructors, OBLU is a great place for beginners to get into diving. As a first-time diver I’m especially interested in the quality of the instructors at OBLU, and I’m impressed. Simone and Davide, both experienced, both French, both tanned the colour of cafe au lait, prove to be unflappable guides.
After landing on a particularly blistering afternoon, we’re greeted with some welcome cocktails in the airy, high-ceilinged reception lounge. From here you can gaze on as the boats bobbing in the blue of the bay make their way out to sea, to catch the day’s fish or take a group of guests snorkelling on one of the nearby islands.
After an eleven-hour journey and stop-over in Dubai, I’m glad to be shown to my villa. OBLU offer over one hundred villas across four categories, spread out across the island. As a ‘lagoon’ villa, mine features a private infinity pool and steps leading directly into the ocean. At night, you can sit on your decking watching the reef sharks searching for food, patterns of light illuminating the seabed like the glamorous floor of a ballroom.
A five-minute stroll beneath the shadows of the palm-leaves brings you to Spice, the island’s main restaurant. With sand under your feet and vast ocean views on three sides of the dining room, the best qualities of the Maldives are brought directly to the tabletop.
And it’s not just the scenery. Chefs from Sri Lanka, Mongolia and of course the Maldives itself whip up some mouthwatering dishes. A dedicated fish bar invites guests to choose which freshly caught fish they’d like, before it’s fried in front of their eyes. A curry station tempts me in with its promising heaps of amber and ochre-coloured spices, the aroma of cumin drawing me near and keeps me lingering until a spicy prawn curry is ready.
A self-service buffet style helps to maintain the informal vibe, and the choice is fantastic. For breakfast, diners can choose anything from eggs and bacon to Belgian waffles, with some fragrant fish curries for those after something more authentic. And after you’ve made your last trip to the buffet, you can wander next door to Helen’s Bar. Sitting in the shade, looking out at the ocean with a drink in your hand – it’s an attractive offer, and one which we end up accepting every day after lunch.
Of course, all this relaxation and comfort is nice enough, but it’s even better after a long day of watersports. As well as offering some fantastic diving, there’s also snorkelling and parasailing. The latter is the only one that’s weather-dependent, and as luck would have it a storm blows in and rattles the island on the one afternoon we’d set aside for parasailing.
“Don’t worry” says Dhiley, our Maldivian guide. “We’ll wait until it passes. It won’t last a long time, I can tell”
As with many things on the island, Dhiley is right, and within a couple of hours we’re tearing across the newly-calm ocean, preparing to take flight. One by one, we’re fastened to the ropes and hinges of the red parachute, ready to be hoisted into the sky. Seated on the tail of the boat, parachute beginning to billow threateningly behind me, I feel a tug on my back as my feet begin to drag across the boat. I’m lifted into the sky like a rag doll, drifting away like an untethered balloon.
Parasailing looks intense, but the one thing you take away from the experience is the peacefulness. Up there in the sky, the only sound you hear is the distant whine of the speedboat as you watch the sea foaming in its wake. Suddenly I find myself spontaneously singing I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles, favourite of West Ham fans and hopeless nostalgics. I blame altitude sickness.
Diving, however, demands far more concentration. Something inside of you rebels at the thought of stuffing your feet into oversized, unwieldy flippers and jumping into the sea with surprisingly heavy tank on your back. Even once you find yourself miraculously breathing underwater, your body struggles instinctively toward the surface,
“Relax” Davide the instructor soothes me. “If you’re breathing so fast, in out in out, you will not enjoy it. Scuba is all about breathing. If you get the breathing right, everything else will go perfectly”
A few deep breaths later, of the calm-down-everything’s-going-to-be-okay sort, and I’m settling into it. Look: a school of clownfish inspects a rock. Look: an eel peers menacingly through the coral. Look: a reef shark swims innocuously past. There’s so much to see. Every glance reveals something new.
After practising underwater signalling and how to use our masks properly, we descend deeper into the ocean. The light doesn’t penetrate as far, and the water feels colder and thicker somehow. Luminous, brain-shaped mounds of coral mask ungainly, otherworldly creatures. You get the sense that down here, little has changed in hundreds of years.
With a military-esque swish of his pointed fingers, Davide indicates that we should follow him. We drift along to the restful sounds of our ponderous breaths, each one tinged with relief that I’m not choking on saltwater. We drift past shoals of silvery trout, their movements in sync as though they were individual scales of one enormous fish.
Davide drifts towards a rock, and points to a dark patch beneath it. We peer within. Two long antennae rise from the blackness. A monstrous lobster slowly peers back at us.. Every breath sounds like a drawn-out gasp when you’re diving, but this is a breathtaking sight. Soon the antennae disappear again, as though they were never there at all. I turn and leave him in peace.
Swallowing to prevent the painful pressure from building in my ear, I swim through a torrent of multicoloured fish. My limbs brush against their bright fins as I swim past, the fish totally unafraid of these odd interlopers. A crab passes silently underfoot, its movements careful and tentative, as though it suspected the ground to crumble beneath from beneath it at any moment.
Although the OBLU island is small, day trips and excursions to neighbouring islets give you a sense of the spaciousness of the Indian Ocean: the whole island archipelago is spread over 35,000 square miles. On the midweek morning of our sojourn to an uninhabited atoll, I’m excited to see a wooden ship, reminiscent of a Greek trireme, pull its pointy brow into OBLU’s harbour. Within minutes we’re skipping along the waves, as passengers gaze across the ocean and sun themselves on the boat’s top deck.
The island we visit could have been lifted straight from the imagination. Palm-lined corridors of shade open out to pristine beaches of white sand, disturbed only by the tentative pilgrimages of crabs and the lapping of the waves. Beneath the forest canopy which shelters the centre of the island, our Maldivian guides light a barbecue: the day’s catch is waiting to be grilled. Meanwhile Dhiley and I kick a football around. Dhiley’s a keen Man United fan who rarely misses a game, and his tricks put mine to shame. After a stray kick sends the ball bouncing away into the bushes, we’re summoned to a barbecue beneath the trees. Running about in the heat, even as ineffectually as I was, makes you hungry.
With the days spent beneath the glittering water and the nights spent lingering over island cuisine beside the ocean, a week goes by very quickly in the Maldives. Our final evening is spent at Just Grill, the island’s a-la-carte restaurant. With tables scattered between a sandy beach and a thatched roof outpost at the tip of a pier, every diner is treated to magnificent views.
At night, the candlelight illuminates the grilled silver skin of fresh fish and green bursts of salad. You could quite happily visit OBLU and dine every day in the inclusive Spice buffet, but the delicious seclusion of Just Grill is an unmissable experience. Over traditional island fare of dorado, shrimp and chicken, we say a final goodbye to the moonlit beach, and raise a toast to the islanders – and, of course, to the cast of creatures beneath the water who make the diving so special.
Why it’s time you tried diving in the Maldives – Chris Zacharia
OBLU by Atmosphere is a four star diving resort on newly refurbished Helengeli Island, located on the North Malé Atoll in the Maldives.
Visit www.oblu-helengeli.com for more information.
Seven nights’ all-inclusive accommodation at OBLU by Atmosphere starts from £1,859 per person based on two adults staying in a Beach Villa. This prices includes all-inclusive accommodation, speedboat transfers from Malé International Airport, two excursions to nearby islands, three non-motorized water sports, all meals and unlimited beverages for bookings between 31 May and 31 October 2016. Visit www.oblu-helengeli.com to book.
Return economy flights from London Gatwick to Malé International Airport (via Dubai International Airport) start from £809 per person, return business fares start from £3,407 per person. Visit www.emirates.com to book.
Return economy flights from London Heathrow to Malé International Airport (via Dubai International Airport) start from £852 per person, return business fares start from £3,439 per person. Visit www.emirates.com to book.