Maldives - Maldives on Nautilus II by Sarah Lee
This was our second trip to the Maldives, having first visited not so long ago in December 07 for a one week Christmas safari, also on board Nautilus II. For our April trip we booked a two week safari because one week just went too quickly.
There is lots of literature and information on diving the Maldives available so my report will concentrate on providing details of the boat, logistics and itinerary from the two week safari.
Our December trip was booked through Tony Backhurst and the April trip directly with the Nautilus II as it was not a Tony Backhurst week. That said Iím sure TB will be able to help with bookings on any of the itineraries offered by Nautilus if there is space.
Our flights were booked direct with Emirates for both trips as we are currently living in Cyprus. I also booked the boat and hotel in Dubai separately. For flights in December I paid £765 per person and in April £870 per person (economy). From Cyprus we flew Larnaca to Dubai then a connecting flight from Dubai to Male. The return trip involved an overnight stay in Dubai then connecting back to Larnaca early the next day. In Dubai we stayed in the Golden Sands apartments for one night paying £80 for a room (no breakfast). We have stayed there 3 times now and find the apartments very comfortable. Itís about a 20 min taxi ride from the airport which costs around £7. The closest shopping mall is the Burjaman which is about a 15 min walk from the Golden Sands or a taxi ride (which probably takes the same amount of time with the traffic congestion). There are plenty of eating places in the immediate area from restaurants to fast food outlets or if you want to self cater there is a supermarket close by and the apartments have a small cooker and fridge freezer.
The cost of the boat was £695 per person for the one week December trip and approximately £672 per person per week for the two week safari in April.
The Nautilus II itinerary starts on a Saturday with the majority of guests arriving on one of two Emirates flights from Dubai on the Saturday morning: 07.40 (direct from Dubai) or the 10.05 (via Colombo). We have done both flights and obviously the direct flight is the desirable one to cut down the travelling time but with Emirates being such a comfortable airline then the 3 extra hours going by Colombo is bearable, and you can get to watch another film on the excellent in flight entertainment system.
The safari ends on a Saturday as well so all nights are on the boat with no requirement to go into a hotel on the last night. On the last day guests are given breakfast then taken to the airport to catch their flights or go onto resorts. The new guests arrive on the incoming flights: a turn around that must be pretty challenging for all the crew.
On arrival in Male at around 10am on the Saturday we were met by the dive guides and once everyone was gathered together we boarded the dhoni to the Nautilus II which is moored about 20 mins away just off the airport.
Nautilus II is Maldivian owned in partnership with an Austrian company, details and photos of her can be found on the Tony Backhurst website or on their own website (addresses at bottom). Before Nautilus II I had only done one liveaboard before, Diamond Safaga with Tony Backhurst in the Red Sea, but I have to say this boat is seriously comfortable. Itís marketed as a luxury dive boat and I would say that other tour operators working in the Maldives must be looking at this boat as serious competition. We were diving with other guests who had done many liveaboards all over the world and the general consensus of opinion was that this was indeed a luxury boat. Itís big, wide and stable and as someone who is prone to sea sickness I was very grateful for its stability. This is a boat with lots of room to spread out and find your own space if you want to. On our December trip there was a full compliment of 24 guests but it never seemed crowded. In April we had a maximum of 15 guests so we had even more room and were thoroughly spoilt with space.
There are 12 cabins, 4 of which have one double bed and the other 8 have one double and one large single bed making them functional rooms for either a couple or 2 solo travellers. Two of the cabins are on the first floor with all the others downstairs and the crew on the next floor down. On both trips the double rooms were used for the single travellers for sole occupancy. Both times we were in the 2 bed cabins and, I think, they are what stands out about this boat. There is a generously sized wardrobe to put all those bikinis and sarongs in, a large shelf next to the bed, a good size bedside table and lots of space underneath the beds to store suitcases/bags. There are electric points (2 pins) although guests are asked to use the charging station upstairs in the saloon for safety reasons for longer charging but if you want to use your laptop/phone in your room whilst you are in it then itís not a problem. The space between the beds has not been compromised either, 2 of us could move freely around the room without bumping into each other, giving it the feel of a hotel room rather than a cabin. The downstairs cabins also have a skylight which adds to the light and airy feel. These can be opened along with the small side window and bathroom window to allow the sea breeze in. The bathrooms are great, with a separate power shower, proper flush toilet and sink with a good size surround to spread all those bathroom essentials. One thing missing was soap, there was neither a dispenser or bar so we had to use shower gel. All the rooms have air conditioning but also have a floor standing fan if you want to avoid using the air conditioning.
The spacious, carpeted saloon is the main hub of activity where all meals are served, where the bar is, seating area away from the tables, the charging area for torches and cameras etc and in one corner the controls from which the Captain steers the boat from.
Outside, in front of the saloon is more seating which is under cover and is very pleasant area to pass the time.
The food is good and plentiful with a high emphasis on freshly caught fish and pasta. Breakfast is generally eggs, any style including omelettes, toast and fruit. Lunch is pasta, fish, salad and fruits. Dinner is rice, curry, fish, occasionally a beef or chicken option as well as soup on some evenings. Vegetables and salad are plentiful with fruit or mousse for desert. Squash, teas and coffees are complimentary and available all day. However, you have to pay for bottled water along with any bar drinks which are put onto a running credit tab that can be paid in euros, sterling, dollars or credit card. The only remark we would make about the food is that lunch did become quite monotonous with practically the same meal being dished up each day. We didnít notice this so much on the one week safari but we did on the two week trip.
There are 2 Jacuzzis on board, one at the bow and the other on the top sun deck. The sun deck is huge with quality wooded sun beds and thick mattresses.
Nautilus II has a crew of 14 which includes 3 guides; Jo and Karin and Issey who is Maldivian. The skipper, Mohamed, who previously skippered Nautilus I, does an excellent job of getting this big boat around islands in a highly efficient manner.
Our dive guides were Karin and Jo who will be known to Tony Backhurst travellers from the Red Sea, Galapagos and Monsoon in the North Maldives, assisted by Issey on the dives.
Jo and Karin have the unenviable job of pulling the whole holiday together. They are the people that run the show above and below the water, do the dive briefs, get things sorted, deal with guest gripes, mend broken kit, offer the use of their own kit for divers to try, make the holiday video as well as a multitude of other tasks. We thoroughly enjoyed holidaying with them, they are well travelled, knowledgeable and professional and we hope to dive with them again in the future.
Dive briefs were conducted in German and English to cover the multi nationalities onboard which ranged from English, Norwegian, German Austrian and Dutch. Although on the second week all briefs reverted to English which was kind of the other guests as it would have meant just myself and Ken having our own English briefing as all the other English speakers had left from the first week.
Something to consider if you are booking outside of Tony Backhurst week is who the other guests are as I understand the Austrians are serious drinkers who party hard. They also seem to like travelling as family groups with not everyone being a diver and you may be competing for the dhoni taking the non divers to islands rather than getting in a third dive. That said, it may suit some circumstances. I emailed the Austrian company prior to making my April booking and they were happy to answer my questions on numbers and types of guests already booked on. In April we had all divers who were either solo travellers or couples. In December there were a couple of children and one or two non divers but this didnít affect the diving what so ever. Additionally it should be noted this was a two week safari with 11 of the guests doing the two weeks with four gests that were booked on for just a week (the first week). We were concerned that this may limit our itinerary in trying to get the guests back to a suitable location for their transfer back to Male at the end of the first week. In practice it all seemed to go smoothly as we had crossed back from the South Ari Atoll to the South Male Atoll so the four guests could get a transfer back to Male from a resort leaving us to continue on down to the Felidhu Atoll. The transfer cost was Ä150, in this instance it was by speed boat but could be a sea plane transfer depending on where the Nautilus is.
Itinerary and Diving
Diving, like other Maldivian liveaboards, is conducted from a dhoni where all the kit remain for the duration of the trip. BCDs stay on the cylinders and are refilled in situ from the compressor on the main ship. Kit is stored in plastic boxes under the bench. Nitrox 32% is free with proof of qualifications and we chose to dive on it for the 2 weeks.
Our only observation was that, pleasant as the dhoni crew were, they didnít go out of their way to be overly helpful Ė leaning down to collect fins from the divers in the water would be helpful. That said one of our fellow guests had a problem with a DSMB on a 6m stop and was forced to let it go, the dhoni crew picked it up, unravelled it, put it back together and dropped it back down into the water virtually into the hands of the very surprised diver still doing his 3 minute stop - impressive !
Over the two weeks we did 36 dives, which was every dive offered, this included 2 night dives. Dives are limited to 60 mins, no decompression and you must have 30 bar when you are on the surface. There is a 30m depth limit by law in the Maldives. Generally we did 3 dives a day except when a long crossing between atolls was involved and we did 2 dives.
Over the two weeks we visited 2 inhabited islands where we got the chance to buy some souvenirs, wander around and see real Maldivian life, eat ice cream and watch the huge fruit bats swooping in the trees. We spent a couple of hours looking for whale sharks off in the south of the South Ari Atoll, unfortunately without any luck. We also landed on an uninhabited island which was more like a sand dune in the ocean with a couple of shrubs. It could be wiped out with one big wave highlighting how fragile and precious this environment is.
Wake up time was 06.30 every morning with diving at roughly 07.15, 11.15 and 15.15 depending on the number of dives.
In December we concentrated on the dive sites on the South Male Atoll on the eastern side which made for some really exhilarating drift and thila diving. Embudhoo and Guraidhoo Kandu's being exceptionally fast and furious with great fish and shark action. We didnít however see mantas but thatís nature. The weather was pretty much clear skies and powerfully hot sunny days most days and the water a constant 29.
In April the route was; Male across to the North Ari Atoll, down to the South Ari Atoll across to the South Male Atoll, down to the Felidhe Atoll to Fotteyo then back up the Felidhe Atoll, along the eastern side of South Male Atoll and back up onto the eastern side of the North Male Atoll.
There was an early seasonal change in April from the northeast monsoon to the southwest monsoon which isnít suppose to happen until May. The result was some dramatic tropical down pours but in general it was hot and sunny with the water temperature at either 28 or 29 degrees. The early change in the season also resulted in a lack of current on some dives so towards the end of the two weeks the itinerary was altered slightly (with guest agreement) to get back to the North Male Atoll to try to pick up some current dives there. It was a good move with Nassimo Thila producing a mask pulling current with fabulous fish life, two manta rays on Lankanfinolhu and spinner dolphins putting on a show for us at the end of the day.
So, back to the beginning of the trip: the first day (Saturday) after all the usual welcomes, boat briefings and unpacking we had our first dive (Maa Giri) after lunch, followed by dinner and an early night. We stayed around Male on the Sunday morning diving Lankanfinolhu as there was one more guest arriving in the morning after which the anchor was lifted and we moved off across to the North Ari Atoll
Maaya Thila was our last dive of the day and first dive the next day; recognised as one of the best dives in the Maldives and also a protected zone it was certainly worthy of 2 dives with exceptional fish life. Fish head followed where we were met by the resident (and well fed but not by us) Napoleon wrasse and the last dive of the day was on the lovely Fesdu Wreck. This is a small, coral covered wreck and was the location of our first ever sighting of a manta ray. It flew lazily over our heads just off the bow of the wreck and disappeared into the gloom. It may have been quick but it was exciting. We were to have 3 more manta encounters over the two weeks.
As we moved further south down towards the South Ari Atoll the dive boats lessened to just us bobbing around in the Indian ocean - lovely. Day 4 was Maalhoss Thila with beautiful coral overhangs, followed by Donkalo Thila and Dega Thila last in the South Ari Atoll.
Day 5 - Panettone with beautiful table corals and one of many obliging hawksbill turtles unperturbed by being photographed and filmed, followed by Radhdiggaa Thila with white tip reef sharks and the slightly bigger grey reef sharks, Rangali Reef was our third dive and a night dive.
Day 6 Ė Madivaru Kandu, followed by looking for whale shark with the last dive on Kuda RahThila another protected site producing great fish life with hunting tuna and shoals of yellow striped snapped and more hawksbill turtles.
Day 7 Ė last dive on South Ari Atoll, Dhigurah Thila, great views of sting rays and more white tip reef sharks. Crossed over to South Male Atoll for dive 2, Guraidhoo Corner with its underwater viewing platform to watch the sharks before letting go into the current and drifting until the dive ends along a reef.
Day 8 Ė Cocoa Corner which was not the best of reefs before moving down to the Felidhe Atoll for Medhu Faru with honeycomb and green eels tucked in holes together. The third dive was near the island of Fulidhoo where the crew had seen mantas swimming in the channels. Sure enough there they were and we managed to see one whilst diving then went snorkelling and saw another one. These were all exciting encounters but tantalisingly brief.
Day 9 Ė Ihigga deep wall dive followed by Alimathaa Miyaru Kandu another dive with a fabulous underwater viewing gallery to watch the sharks and the cutest baby grey reef sharks in the channel, dive 3 was Fotteyo with beautiful coral overhands and tuna and jacks going about their business.
Day 10 Ė Fotteyo, well worth a second dive, Golden Wall with three monster potato cod resting in the channel with final dive on Dhiggiri Kandu.
Day 11 - Alimathaa Miyaru Kandu more great views of white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, napoleon wrasse and turtles. Crossed back to the South Male Atoll for Kandooma Thila fast becoming our favourite dive with a great viewing gallery for sharks and excellent thila. A face to face encounter with a massive manta ray appearing out of the gloom in front of me topped the dive - totally awesome. Excellent night dive to end the day on Labyrinth Giri.
Day 12 Ė Guriadhoo Corner another very good dive with sharks in abundance on this dive plus a great view of an eagle ray. Kuda Giri wreck is a photogenic wreck, and is easy to penetrate with a number of exit points. The wreck lies next to a vibrant reef that can be dived afterwards. Embudhoo Express another great dive to watch the big fish and shark action but at 30m the times goes too quickly. Yet another close encounter with a beautiful eagle ray hunting for food on the sea bed,
Day 13 Ė Embudhoo Express Ė its got to be done again, followed by the Maldives Victory wreck in Male with a ripping current over it but an excellent wreck if you get the chance to do it. This is a large wreck with plenty of areas to penetrate. It was followed by a dive on Okobe Thila, a very busy (marine life) thila.
Day 14 Ė sadly the last day of diving comes all too quickly and as described earlier, Nassimo Thila and Manta Rays.
Friday afternoon was spent washing kit followed by an afternoon trip into Male to look around the fish and vegetable markets, souvenir shops and ice cream eating. Male is well worth the visit, like the inhabited islands, to see the real Maldives and put some money directly into the local economy.
We couldnít wait to get back to the Maldives after our first trip in December and this second visit didnít disappoint us. We found the two week safari far more relaxing than a one week safari although some mornings were harder to get up than others even on Nitrox.
Nautilus II is a truly lovely boat and is a pleasure to travel on her with her crew and we wouldnít hesitate to go back on her again. She will now be my baseline against which to measure all other liveaboards Ė I just hope I havenít been too spoilt !
The diving we have done has really been excellent with superb marine action and three wrecks canít be bad either for a place renowned for its fish and coral life !
Next tripÖ..Monsoon through Tony Backhurst, visiting the remote Atolls of the North Maldives. She too looks like a stunning boat and apparently the food is first rate.
Sarah Lee Ė Dive Leader, 300+ dives
Ken Scott Ė AI, 400 + dives