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Feb 10, 2019

Male (Maldives) Feb 10: LUXURY IS A STRANGE THING. I've never left a liveaboard disappointed by the standard of food or the service. However, the Four Seasons Explorer is a different beast altogether.
Whether it's being presented with a morning espresso while the dive-team change over the tanks, or lunch menus of lobster and wagyu beef, you quickly become accustomed to a level of service that previously might have made you uncomfortable.
The Explorer is a beamy catamaran capable of carrying up to 22 divers. This design allows it to be speedy (it's claimed to be the fastest liveaboard in the Maldives). But it also has more subtle advantages, because all the cabins are well above the waterline, with large panoramic windows.
The diving takes place from the familiarity of a traditional dhoni. Rest assured, this is not a gin palace and has a fully featured dive-deck with nitrox compressor, an essential feature for the deep repetitive dives of the Maldives.
Key of course was also the excellent all-Maldivian dive-team made up of Haleem, the onboard videographer, and dive-guides Moose and H2. H2 does appear on his official name badge, so Hassan's trendy mononym has clearly stuck.
The itinerary starts at the Four Seasons resort at Kuda Huraa, a 20-minute speedboat ride from Male, moving north to Baa Atoll, collecting or dropping off guests at the Four Seasons second resort at Landaa Giraavaru, then heading into Rasdhoo and Ari Atoll before returning to Kuda Huraa in North Male Atoll. On offer is a full seven-day cruise, or three- or four-night cruises between the two resorts.
Our check dive was at Helengeli, a traditional Maldivian dive with a steep sloping reef down to a sandy bottom at 30-40m. We were greeted by a pair of shy whitetip sharks and a large Napoleon wrasse.
The reef life was vibrant but the coral was still clearly in the phase of regeneration after the last mass bleaching in 2016.
AFTER A MORNING DIVE we began our transit towards Baa Atoll. I had discussed the weather with numerous people before departing and had been assured that the south-west monsoon would result in only slightly more rain and occasional heavy seas. But with this transit crossing the main deepwater channel that roughly bisects the Maldives, we were met by a charcoal-black sky and 35 knots of wind on the beam.
The Explorer coped with it admirably for the five-hour crossing. Although I have a decent set of sea legs, there's not much else to do, and I'm not sure how all the Explorer's glassware survived.
Our first dive-site within Baa was Dhonfan Thila, a small reef that allowed us to start at its base at around 30m and slowly circle the pinnacle as we ascended.
Unicornfish on top of Dhonfan Thila.
There were fleeting glimpses of large pelagics out in the blue, with grey reef sharks and dogtooth tuna flirting on the edge of visibility.
The reef very much comes alive when you reach its flat top at approximately 15m, with an extraordinary amount of fish life. Huge shoals of herring and blue-striped snapper intermingle with the flamboyant colours of the occasional oriental sweetlips and bignose unicornfish.
As we moved though Ari Atoll our thila-bagging continued, and Broken Rock hit many of the usual notes. A steep-sided seamount with cracks and canyons adorning its peak, most were wide enough for two divers abreast, and the walls were covered with the best hard corals I had seen in the Maldives.
The mount was just shallow enough, and the sky just clear enough, to allow the beautiful pastel shades of the gorgonians to come out.
Two hawksbill turtles swam around lethargically on top of the reef above our heads as we enjoyed the swimthroughs.
Kandooma Thila gave us one of those small chance encounters that instantly make a dive memorable. As we descended through the water column we were whipped by a strong current, and when the group had all eventually made the thila we began to organise ourselves before continuing with the dive.
As usual I was the last to notice two juvenile eagle rays hovering, apparently motionless, in the strong current above our heads. They were both perhaps only a foot across tip-to-tip, and seemed totally unconcerned by the group of unwieldy divers below them.
So uninterested were they in us that we were allowed more than 10 minutes with them, as they remained nearly frozen.
Their spotted tops are their most recognisable feature but it was fascinating to get a close inspection of their bizarre shovel mouths and impossibly long tails.
source: Divernet