MEGA
MALDIVES
TOUR
Stuart Philpott is never one to shy away from a challenge, and bouncing between four different resorts and three atolls in the Maldives in just 16 days was right up his alley. Here he kickstarts his adventure with a visit to Dhigali
Photographs by Stuart PhilpottLast year, with some help from Euro-Divers and tour operator Dive Worldwide, I planned an ambitious trip to the Maldives covering three resorts in just 12 days. Euro-Divers Marketing and Sales Exec Susanne Valverde arranged visits to divers’ favourite Vilamendhoo, followed by Meeru and then a new luxury five-star resort called Kagi.
Even though there were multiple seaplane and boat transfers, the whole trip ran extremely smoothly. I really can’t praise Susanne enough - she was up for the challenge and absolutely smashed it!

This year, I pushed Susanne’s efficiency to the absolute limits with plans to visit four resorts in 16 days! Just to make life even more interesting, I would be travelling to three different atolls, so logistics were, in a word, ‘complex’.

The first resort on my list was the five-star premium all-inclusive Dhigali located in the Raa Atoll. After several days I transferred by boat to a brand new five-star resort, Alila Kothaifaru. This was followed by multiple seaplane and boat transfers back to Malé and then on to the five-star LUX resort located in the South Ari Atoll. I rounded off my trip with yet another seaplane transfer and boat ride back to fivestar Kurumba, located near Velana International Airport in the North Malé Atoll.

Low season in the Maldives is between May and November. During this time there is a higher probability of experiencing cloud and rain. On previous visits this didn’t cause me any major headaches. I had a few light showers overnight but nothing substantial. On this occasion the heavens opened and it absolutely bucketed down, with strong winds and rough seas thrown in for good measure. But rain rarely stops play in the Maldives.

I still managed to do two or three dives most days, except of course, on travel days. Boat journeys were a little lumpy at times and heavy cloud cover meant there was less ambient light for my pictures, but in the true spirit of things, this just added to the adventure!
Did you know?Manta rays in the Maldives are present from November to April on the western side of the atolls and from May to October on the eastern side of the atolls." Mauro said in high season (Jan-Feb), they can see as many as 200 mantas altogether at one time"Dhigali – Thila-tastic! The rough weather was playing havoc at Malé’s seaplane terminal but eventually, after a long delay, I caught the last flight departing for Dhigali. Kate from sales and marketing greeted me at the jetty with umbrella in hand, which didn’t bode well. Dhigali five-star premium all-inclusive resort opened in June 2017, offering 116 rooms, including beach bungalows and lagoon villas.

Seaplane transfers take around 40 minutes. I was booked into a deluxe beach bungalow at the sunset end of the island. All of the rooms are a modern-looking ‘square’ design. Kate said this is more energy efficient, especially when running air con units. My room was furnished with a double bed, sofa, desk area (which I acquisitioned for camera assembly/maintenance) and an open-air bathroom. Everything was finished to a very high standard. I couldn’t find any faults. Housekeeping were completely discrete and my room always kept clean and tidy. The seating area overlooking the secluded beachfront was the perfect spot to relax with a bottle of wine or two.

Being a premium all-inclusive, all of the mini-bar snacks and drinks are included. The sunset lagoon villas with pool are the most-exclusive category. They had the best view overlooking the beach. In the winter months, a sand bar appears and this can grow up to 100 metres long.

Kate showed me the Dhigali resort app, which had been developed by one of the employees. This provided details on daily activities, bars and restaurants, spa opening times and special events. There was even a map of the island, which I found useful for locating the restaurants, bars and the all-important dive centre. The island is approximately 1.2km long by 200 metres wide. A regular bus service (running every 15 minutes) circumnavigates the island so if I didn’t want to walk, I could always hop onto a passing bus. Dhigali offer a buffet-style breakfast and an a la carte lunch and dinner. All of the resorts I have visited in the past served up buffet-style food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kate said that Covid times and reduced occupancy levels had brought about these changes, but they may well revert back in the future.

Breakfast is served at Capers, which unfortunately for me was located at the opposite end of the island. This didn’t give me much time for a leisurely feed before dashing back to the room and then on to the dive centre, but it kept me fit!

There is a good choice of restaurants on the island offering Indian, Asian and Mediterranean style cuisines. I could easily book a table using the app. My favourite had to be Battuta, which served up some seriously good Indian food. The restaurant is surrounded by dense trees and shrubs and the dining tables are arranged around a number of connecting Koi ponds, which just adds to the experience.

The takeaway pizza station (conveniently located close to my room) was a definite bonus, especially for a quick lunch break. Some of the guests would order and eat pizzas at the bar while downing a few beers or cocktails. This service is available from 11am to 6pm every day and is part of the all-inclusive deal. There is also a café offering a selection of pastries, milkshakes and cakes, so no chance of anyone going hungry! The best spot for early evening cocktails has to be the Haali sunset bar. I made myself comfortable on a large beanbag and ordered a well-deserved mojito. What a perfect way to end the day.

Turtles are commonManta ray flypast

The Euro-Divers PADI five-star dive centre is managed by Mauro Guimacaens-Valverde. They have four dive boats comfortably carrying 12 divers each (max 16). I went out on a 16.2-metre GRP hull Dorado Barracuda. This had a shaded area, toilet and sundeck. The crew were brilliant, always helping with kit, etc. Standard cylinder size is 11 litre aluminium. There were also a number of bigger gas-guzzling 12s available. Nitrox is free of charge.

Mauro has been working at Dhigali for the past four years. He has three full-time instructors on his team and offers more than 30 dive sites, of which 15 are regularly dived. There is no house reef. Mauro said his top four sites are Labyrinth Thila (which is five minutes away from Alila Resort), Miyaru Thila, Uthuru Thila and Vadhoo Thila. Depending on the season, they visit one manta cleaning station, called Solar Corner, during West Monsoon and three cleaning stations, including Neyo Faru, during the East Monsoon. Dhigali is ideally located in the middle of the atoll, so most of the cleaning stations are accessible within a 30 minute boat ride. Euro-Divers also offer snorkelling trips to UNESCO site Hanifaru Bay, which is about an hour boat ride away. Mauro said in high season (Jan-Feb), they can see as many as 200 mantas altogether at one time.

“ " The best spot for early evening cocktails has to be the Haali sunset bar" Can there be a better place to relaxDid you know?Around 400,000 people call the Maldives home – that’s a population roughly the same size as Cardiff.Snapper and batfish on the reefShoals of fish add plenty of colourApparently in the distant past, the Raa Atoll was targeted by the shark-finning industry, but there didn’t seem to be a problem seeing sharks. The most-predominant shark species in this area include grey reef, nurse sharks, guitar sharks and the odd lemon shark. I got paired off with instructor/guide Tomoko Yamanaka. Tomoko turned out to be a pocket rocket. She was a great guide and being so small, made the marine life in my pictures look gigantic! At our first site, Vadhoo Thila, I mistakenly set my camera to auto exposure. Due to low light levels, the camera was defaulting to ISO6400, which in layman’s terms meant a poor quality image. Frustratingly, my underwater housing doesn’t have an external button so I couldn’t change the setting.

We saw around 20 inquisitive batfish, shoals of yellow snapper and a seabed alive with anemones and anemonefish. The only real picture loss was a close encounter with a hawksbill turtle. But I did manage to get some great video footage. On our second dive at Beriyan Kuda Thila, we saw more circling batfish, a large lionfish hunting among the sea fans and then spent most of our time exploring a number of overhangs. Bad weather meant that the afternoon dive was cancelled.

The next day we were joined on the boat by a South African family. The two young boys had just completed their PADI open water training and were looking forward to their first real dives. At Beriyan Thila, we saw a few shoals of fish and then encountered a group of five grey reef sharks patrolling the drop off. One of the sharks had a fishing line trailing from its mouth. The sharks went back and forth along the reef getting closer and closer, in fact so close that I could have grabbed hold of the fishing line. This was probably one of the closest natural shark encounters I have had in the Maldives.

On our second dive at Kottefaru Kuda Thila, I spotted a small eagle ray. Tomoko later told me that this juvenile had been seen many times before and was very relaxed around divers. I managed to get within a forearm’s-length of the ray while Tomoko followed alongside. Just as I finished taking pictures, a manta ray flew into view. We followed it to the top of the reef, where another manta joined in. I watched the South African boys and they were more interested in looking at the anemonefish than the manta rays! Tomoko and I stayed with the mantas for a good ten minutes.

The Euro-Divers Dhigali team Expect to be in the midst of huge snapper shoals“ " Marine life sightings are usually sharks, turtles, dolphins and shoals of fish with the possibility of passing manta, eagle, mobula rays and whalesharks" They made around 10-15 passes and couldn’t get much closer. The satellite forecast predicted rain for mid-afternoon and at 3pm it absolutely hammered down.

Surface visibility was reduced to near-on zero, making it dangerous for navigation and so once again the afternoon dive was cancelled.

On day three we visited Labyrinth and another site called Miyaru Uthuru Thila. The canyons at Labyrinth were absolutely teeming with fish life. There were thousands upon thousands of yellow snapper. I watched the giant trevally sweeping through the shoals picking off the stragglers. Mauro found this dive site by accident. He said there were so many unexplored Thilas still waiting to be discovered.

On my final day we went back for a second helping at Kottefaru Kuda, but this time around there were no mantas. As a consolation we saw a shoal of sweetlips, giant pink sea fans and a friendly hawksbill turtle. At Kottefaru outside reef, I was planning to get some pictures of a bright red frogfish Mauro had previously found. We searched along the wall for a good 15 minutes but couldn’t find the elusive frogfish. We saw more batfish and yellow snapper followed by more batfish and yellow snapper mixed up with another hawksbill turtle, so not a bad ending to my brief visit.

Euro-Divers offer a two-tank morning dive, return for lunch, and then go out again in the afternoon for a single tank dive. This works well for divers with families as they can go diving in the morning and then spend the afternoon relaxing or vice versa. Most of the dive sites are between 15-45 minutes boat journey.

The dives sites are mainly Thilas (underwater pinnacles) with giant sea fans and overhangs to explore. Marine life sightings are usually sharks, turtles, dolphins and shoals of fish with the possibility of passing manta, eagle, mobula rays and whalesharks. There is a local dive centre facebook group where everyone shares daily sightings.

Conclusion

My time at Dhigali resort had absolutely flown by and I was sad to be leaving. I thought the all-inclusive set up worked extremely well for divers, especially the late-afternoon après dive pizzas and beers! Euro-Divers provided a faultless service as usual. The only slight negative was the weather, but that is out of everyone’s control.

The Raa Atoll is fast becoming ‘the’ place for manta encounters. It was a shame I had visited during low season when there were fewer sightings, but I still got to see two while diving and another five at a local snorkelling site. I can’t imagine what it must be like during high season when mantas are virtually guaranteed on every dive.

My 20-minute boat ride over to neighbouring Alila Kothaifaru turned out to be quite eventful, but this will be covered in the next part of my story… Tune in next issue!