Day 1: Dread
I have always thought that Maldives is the most beautiful place on earth. The kind of place that makes me want to slow down and savor every experience with the same exhilaration I felt when I first saw the ocean as a child. But this trip was going to be different. We’ve (Alisha & I – the Lonely Planet Magazine team) signed up to be onboard the Blue Force One for six nights and seven days. Boats make me sick. We went straight to our ‘check dive’ almost as soon as we arrived. I was given a brand new Mares, 3mm, full length, wetsuit and the SCUBA gear was all propped up and ready. I had little to complain about. But I have always maintained that the crew and your dive buddy greatly affects your diving experience. Not everybody keeps an eye out for you. Nor does everybody enjoy the same kind of marine life. And very very few people have the patience to hang out with a photographer underwater. Right then, all we had to do was just jump into the ocean. Only, I wasn’t sinking. Anybody from the crew would have told me that a new full-length wetsuit demands additional weights than what I normally use. But of course, the arrogant me, wasn’t asking.
The rest of the divers had already disappeared into the depths. The currents were strong and every passing second was pushing me away from the group and from the dive site. The sea was rough with waves crashing over my head every 5 seconds. Not my idyllic Maldivian dive experience so far. Just then, Thithily, my fellow diver, appeared out of the blue, bearing the weights that would eventually let me sink and re-unite with the group. The reef was swarming with fish- Bigeye Yellow Snappers, Gobies, Butterflies, Blue & Yellow Fusiliers… they were all there. In my mind, Maldives, had redeemed itself as the most beautiful place on earth. However, my throat was parched and I had a headache that afternoon when we returned. As the boat rocked, I wondered if indeed I was experiencing seismic activity. I have plugged in all my hope into those tiny tablets that’s supposed to keep sea-sickness at bay.
Day 2 – A long day at sea
The rain came last night. And the water is cold. I suppose my body is in hyper drive when it comes to body heat conduction (water conducts body heat faster than air, so one feels cold even at 28C). The full length wetsuit helps, but I sorely miss the sun. We’ve been clocking a good 60mnts on an average and I don’t go beyond 21m (max depth). But that’s the great thing about Maldives. You don’t need to dive too deep to see marine life. There’s been a lot of talk about Mantas. I have started taking my gopro with me in anticipation. My meds are keeping sea sickness at bay. The prospect of diving 2-3 times a day helps too. I’m not yet ready to bring out the monster though (have you seen my underwater photography gear?). Fernando is giving illustrated dive briefs which I find is extremely helpful to understand the topography. The dives today were somewhat, uneventful, save the one-off sting ray that we saw. I remember my dives in Maldives from a few years ago. The density of life in the reefs were higher than what you’d see in the Singapore Aquarium. Where have all the fish gone?
Day 3 – A meeting with God
Our group of nine divers were kneeling down on the sea bed; fighting the current that was pushing us back, eyes glued to the majestic creature that rose above us. I couldn’t help but think, that we, mere mortals, were his devotees, and this Manta here, was God himself. At one juncture, he even seemed to smile benevolently at us. Today we had descended at Lily Beach; also known as the Mahibadhoo Manta Point, near Dhangetti. We would go to 15m, move towards a rocky pinnacle (which is a cleaning station for mantas) and then swim around the reef that surrounds it. That was the plan. Barely five minutes into the dive, we saw two mantas gliding past us. The currents were strong. But we didn’t care. We could already hear our dive guide Xille, tap insistently on his tank to signal the arrival of the biggest Manta that we were yet to see. Astute as he was, Xille brought me to a vantage point (the rock blocked the current, so it was a good idea to kneel in front of it rather than outside its periphery) and pointed to its ‘wings’. Looked like a nasty shark had taken a good bite out of our God’s pectoral fin. He was obviously a survivor and he wasn’t about to run away from a bunch of trigger happy mortals. He stayed with us a good ten minutes before he yawned and glided away. And then, as if this dive hadn’t already charted to the top of our all-time bests, just as we were preparing to ascent, another Manta came up from behind and swam around to face Raoul, the luckiest diver if there ever was one! I have often scoffed when people describe their experiences as ‘spiritual’. But that sight of the Manta in silent communion with Raoul, surrounded by the infinite blue, could only be described as such. I came back from that dive feeling privileged. Unfortunately for me, in my excitement post-the-divine-manta-experience, I had forgotten to apply the venerated Tiger balm and my nose was, naturally, blocked. To descend into the depths of the ocean, one needs to negotiate the pressure exerted by the weight of the water column above you (i.e., if you don’t want to pop those ear drums). Divers usually do that by blowing air through their ears. It’s called ‘equalizing’. Now when your nose is blocked by unsightly fluids, this equalization doesn’t happen very easily. Your ears hurt as though someone had jammed a ear bud into it in hopes of breaking your ear drum. So this is what happened to me during the second dive today. Once again, we were at Lily Beach, hoping to get lucky a second time. I couldn’t for the life of me, equalize and the rest of the group had already descended. Even though I managed to get to the bottom, the currents were fierce, making it impossible to swim against it and very soon I had developed a migraine. “It’s the carbon monoxide intake induced by short inhalations and undue stress exerted by your muscles,” Arnav would tell me later. I didn’t wait to find out. I gestured to Ali, my dive guide, to ascend. The ocean has a way of bringing into sharp focus, people who until then, were a blur in the background. Refraction, it’s called. Any high school student would tell you that. But combine that with the experiences that the ocean throws at you, and the people who come to your rescue at sea, however minor that situation may be, makes an indelible imprint in your mind. That is how I came to be friends with the crew of Blue Force One. They had come to my rescue, when I was too weak to swim and my head too muddled to think straight. And had made sure that I recuperated soon enough to be up and celebrating with the rest of the divers. To Bhaadhey and the rest of the young crew of Blue Force One, I would always be grateful.
Day 4 – The Upside Down
Splitting headaches and sea sickness notwithstanding, I have gotten into a nice rhythmic routine on board. The rainy days and the air conditioned luxury boat doesn’t make me thirsty these days. But I drink gallons of water (actually, 2ltrs before a dive, 1 ltr during surface interval and 2ltrs again, after the dive – seasoned diver Smitha’s advice), eat like I’ve never had a morsel of rice before (I was slapped on my wrist for diving into the food before Ahmed-the-Hitler-onboard rang the food bell), listen to stories from the rest of the group and then retire for the day to watch Stranger Things with Alisha. I’ve started to take the monster out to document our version of the Upside Down. We saw three white tipped sharks today and hung out with a hawk bill turtle. Mr Afro , our guide, makes us laugh all the time. He showed us a yellow coral garden today. The small lives in this Upside Down are simply, delightful. I could spend my entire dive time just watching a clown fish interact with a sea anemone or watch a puffer sulk over a clam that’s refusing to open. Luckily, all my dive buddies are equally entertained by the drama. I only wish Alisha and the others jumps into the water soon.
Day 5 – Where are the sharks?
We are at Dighurah Beru. This is “THE” spot to catch sight of whale sharks, we were told. First dive – No sharks. Second dive – Again, no whale sharks. A handsome Leopard Moray Eel contemplating life from his den soon made me forget about my shark-sized disappointment. Or maybe he was just figuring out my position on the food chain. Either way, there were too many fish in the sea to not be distracted by other colorful members of society. I moved on to Surgeons and Angels. Over the course of our dives, we’ve been following Xille’s example in picking up trash from the sea bed whenever we see it. I made a mental note to further reduce my consumption of plastic so that more trash doesn’t kill these beloved creatures. Xille showed us the vicious blue starfish which moves over the corals and slowly sucks the life out of its host. They multiply quickly, Xille told us. Even then, the worst pest of the Upside Down, can’t be worse than the human garbage, I thought. Third dive – The open water divers have clocked in their first dives. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious. Alisha has missed the Manta despite looking in that direction (I have pictures to prove it). Why am I not surprised?! 😀
Day 6&7 – I dreamed a dream
The last two days were uneventful as far as big fish is concerned. But the sun kept us warm and happy. There was this little island ahead of us, near Meeru Fenfushi. It looked like a dream. Looking back, every morning on this boat has been special. Because I woke up every day feeling a curious mix of foreboding and excitement about the marvels that the day might hold. It’s a little like being at sea on a boat in the company of dreamers. All of us know that it is risky to plunge into the deep unknown. But we jump nevertheless. Because, in our own little ways, we have pushed the ante of living, a single notch higher.
PS : An edited version of this article appeared in the India edition of Lonely Planet Magazine.