The Maldives, September 4-12 2016

We had a smooth rendezvous with Tim in Male, the capital city of the Maldives. Tim had a ten-hour layover in Hong Kong en route, which he most certainly didn't squander: He rented a "30 pound beater of a road bike" to huff up the extremely steep Tai Mo Shan mountain, at 3000 feet the highest peak in Hong Kong.

The Maldives is a collection of small islands and atolls, with only 116 square miles of land over an area of 35,000 square miles, and a maximum elevation of less than eight feet. (It's widely recognized that due to rising sea levels the country could nearly disappear underwater within a century. In 2009 a parliament meeting was held underwater to highlight the urgency.) The Maldives is an odd mix: (1) 100% Muslim population -- for example, there's no alcohol to be found in the city of Male or anywhere else that locals reside. (2) Over a hundred very high-end resorts
attached to the various atolls with over-water bungalows, many catering to honeymooners, and all serving alcohol! (3) Scuba divers arriving from all over the world to embark on 7-10 day "liveaboard" dive boat safaris.

We spent a morning looking around Male before boarding our dive boat. The city houses one-third of the country's population (about 100,000 people) on one madcap rush of a tiny island that's more densely packed than Hong Kong (photo 1). Many tourists say there's no reason to visit Male on the way to one's resort or dive boat, but we enjoyed walking around the streets and markets (photo 2), sampling some local food, and getting at least a small glimpse of the true Maldives.

Numerous liveaboard dive boats cruise the atolls, so with plenty of competition the boats are very comfortable at a reasonable price. The Carpe Vita (photo 3) is by far the nicest and most spacious liveaboard we've been on, and we've been on a lot of them over the last 25+ years! We picked it primarily because it offers four dives a day instead of the standard three, and its dates matched perfectly our availability between Sri Lanka and other plans. We would pick the same boat again in a heartbeat. It featured four levels, a dining area with a view (photo 4), plenty of places to relax inside or out, ridiculously spacious cabins by dive boat standards, delicious food, a flawless operation, and friendly crew. Even with all that space on the main boat, diving was done from a separate dedicated "dhoni" that was as big as some entire liveaboards we've been on. It helped that our week had only 12 passengers when a full complement would be 20, but even with 20 it would have been plenty roomy.

Of course the main reason we came to the Maldives was for the diving itself. We'd been warned by our long-time trusty dive travel agent Ksenia at Dive and Cruise that since we've been to many of the best diving spots on the globe, it will be hard to top or even match some of them. Furthermore, the Maldives is seeing some coral die-off (like many places), and unlike our recent dive trips to Komodo, Socorro, or Papua New Guinea, the Maldives is a fairly mainstream destination with lots of divers. Still, Ksenia thought it would be well worth a week of diving, and she was right. Photos 5-11 are just a sample of what we saw, which included terrific manta ray and whale shark encounters, a wreck dive, a night dive with swarms of nurse sharks and stingrays, still healthy colorful reefs in some places, reef sharks, turtles, and excellent fish life all around. Lest you notice a difference in quality between photos 5-7 and 8-11, sadly Jennifer's snapshot camera had a "waterproof housing failure" on the third day (user error no doubt), so after that only Tim's more artsy underwater photos and Jennifer's phone camera were on hand to capture the rest of the trip.

It's always touch and go what one's fellow passengers will be like on a dive boat, especially with such a small group. Including us there were six Americans (two couples plus Tim and another single guy), a British couple, a Swiss couple, a German guy whose wife doesn't like to come on dive trips, and a Russian with so little English that we never learned much about him. Everyone was an experienced diver. Poor Tim was the only passenger under 30, and the average age was probably into the 50's. But we became quite friendly with several of the other passengers and certainly enjoyed the social aspects overall (photo 12).

On the return trip home, with all of us together, we had another long-ish layover in Hong Kong -- just enough time to walk the city in blistering heat and pay a visit to the pleasant botanical gardens.

Next: With just 1.5 days turnover we're off for a Sierras backpacking trip before the Stanford school year begins for Alex and Tim, and Jennifer resumes her instructional odyssey.

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