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Coral

ISSUE 7 ARCHIVE - OCCASIONAL DIVERS

Chris Collings

That first giant stride of exquisite anticipation, and later strides of glorious expectation… the diving, the reefs, the islands. We're not in Kansas any more, Toto.

We are allergic to cold water, it causes bits to shrivel and bits to stiffen, and not in a good way; living in the UK makes diving difficult, so we're occasional divers. Huddled against the recession we considered options: Invest and let suited traders cash in for Champagne; bank the money and let the board cream it off; give ourselves a bonus and spend it on a dive holiday. Unanimous – diving.
Nautilus Lifeline
Clownfish On January evenings we hunched over the flickering computer screen searching for our destination. Cross out Malta and the Canaries, too cold in March, dally with the Red Sea and Zanzibar, but the Maldives was the winner. It was a foregone conclusion, we'd just been teasing ourselves, but picking the island, that took time.

It's more than a diving holiday, spending on shiny things could rescue the economy. We had hours of fun finding and trying new diving gear; hugs from BCDs; does my bum look big in neoprene; and just how macho is ballistic nylon! Thank you to Michelle of Mike's No 1 Dive Store who gave us style advice, "They only come in black", "No your bum doesn't look big", and "I told you that's sharp, do you heal quickly?". Of course, it's a bit sad when gauges and computer, viewed crystal clear through the mask last year, look all blurry now, but hey, prescription lenses and we're good to go. We ended up with a pyramid of gear and huge bags; try the Mares Cruise Roller, you could put your granny in it.
Chris and Jan Got the gear, the destination; all dressed up and somewhere to go. Sunscreen, aftersun, DAN insurance, ready to rock.

We left London on a chilly March evening on Sri Lankan Airways' direct flight to Male. "Thank you" Sri Lankan Airways for the extra 10kgs weight allowance that let us take the granny-weight of dive gear and plenty of fashionista stuff for the evenings. An overnight flight and we arrived at Male about lunch time, ready to be whisked to the island by speed boat and soon had sand between our toes.

Instead of a check dive we had an "orientation dive". Just like a check dive, only more polite, it's that sort of an island. Hamid oriented us to the house reef while wondering whether guiding us would be like herding cats. After the check dive where did the time go? Up at seven, breakfasted, on the boat, and wet by nine. We dived every day, two dives each on a different reef in the morning and then on the house reef or snorkelling in the afternoon. Diving the house reef had to be a timed affair as the currents could be strong. We did fit in some après-dive therapy sessions, thanks to Mick Kerry, another occasional diver visiting the island. Time for a shower, dinner and bed not long after nine, tired. Up and ready to do it again.
The Underwater Channel
Das Boot There were forty five dive sites within an hour's boat ride, giving the guides plenty to choose from and plenty more for us for future dives. The house reef is good, with Robert running a marine conservation lab and working on active coral rehabilitation since the El Niño bleaching. The marine lab also has a turtle hatchery and sanctuary on the next island, with dozens of juvenile turtles in care and waiting to be released. While we were there one of the guides, Mustho, found an Olive Ridley turtle trapped in a discarded fishing net, not often seen in the Maldives. Guessed at fifteen years old, this turtle was off the beaten track and in trouble, put into rehab and is now doing well. Teenagers! There were loads of reef fish, and just standing on the dock we saw turtle and dolphin in the daytime and black tipped reef shark in the jetty lights at night.

The dive guides were great fun, and very proud of the underwater Maldives. Zoona managed effortless dives on little more than a cup of air and three fin strokes, on her holiday from the boat, she is going on a whale shark tagging trip, how cool is that! Ali found so many sights for us, juvenile sweetlips dancing, wriggling and writhing up close, and shark in the blue. Hamid leapt from the boat enthusiastically to check current speeds, and found us a shark asleep under a ledge. Thomas had a fund of jokes above and below water. We didn't dive with Laura, but she gave the best dive briefings because, after the important bits, she told us of the secret lives of fish, and the ways of lobsters and turtles.
Chris The dive boat was very big, powerful and comfortably outfitted for sixteen divers. In response to the English on the boat, enunciating clearly, speaking loudly and telling of pie and mash, we enjoyed: smiling Japanese; Americans working the conversation in five moves from "hello" to money; French convinced that the magic of the croissant wipes out the memory of Agincourt; and Argentines demonstrating clearly the Latin gene that results in coral stamping and barging photo opportunities.

The breeze kept us cool as the boat captain got us to sites in thirty or forty minutes and the boat was always close when we surfaced. Some days dolphin escorted us out and back, joyfully beating the bow wave of the boat without real effort. There was guilty pleasure in getting used to the boat crew setting our gear up before we boarded, only leaving us the nitrox check, and then giving valet service for strapping in and finning up.
Dive Worldwide
Jan That first giant stride of exquisite anticipation, those later strides of glorious anticipation, I managed them all without a single face forward flop into the water; a personal best. Jan had an equalisation problem one day, but a couple minutes wait sorted that out. On each dive we had plenty of time in the deeper water, wound our way up the reef slopes and walls and the safety stops were often trips across the reef tops. Jan ended the early dives with loads more of pressure left than I had, so I upgraded to a 15 litre cylinder: problem solved. Reef fish; easy to say that but doesn't even half describe the variety and density of fish on the reefs; some places we had to push fish aside just to get into the water. There were shoals of banner fish, carpets of anthias and flash mobs of red tooth trigger fish. Some areas were positively Victorian with damsels, convicts, fusiliers and surgeons. Visibility was mostly twenty or thirty metres, the only patches of reduced visibility were from goat fish stirring up the sand and parrot fish pooing out chomped coral. Of course, we can't leave out the anemone fish, those guys were born to be photographed, "Ready for my close-up?". Now, oriental sweetlips, can you believe a yellow and black, stripes and spots combo? There's enough design there for two more fish. There were trigger fish, both clown and Tyson, and lots of moray. The guides worked hard, took us to great reefs and pointed out big stuff passing in the blue and smaller stuff, lobsters and shrimps in the reef, even a moray out of a hole and asleep upside down entwined in soft coral. After a bit we were spotting our own lion fish, but we wouldn't have seen the colour camouflaged octopus without the guides. We were lucky and had big prizes every dive, swimming turtle and turtle sleeping in a coral hideaway next to a moray, watched by a frogfish; we saw passing shark, shark asleep under ledges and shark sleeping on the sand that awoke and eased away from us; there were sting ray in the sand, eagle ray taking a fly-past and towards the end we saw manta – wow!
The guys at home were never going to believe what we saw, what we did, without evidence. Some of us have been known to exaggerate, tell the odd porkie. To back up the tall tales we treated ourselves to case and camera. The empty case didn't leak on the check dive, which was a result, so we loaded up and took it down for the dives. Digital memory, take loads of photos and delete the failures; they travel to a parallel universe where they look good alongside MPs' expense claims and England football managers. During the first couple of dives we snapped everything that moved and lots of reef that didn't. We got more selective as days passed and ended up with a thousand photos, we culled eighty percent to the parallel universe.

Here's the kitstop. Fourth Element Thermocline instead of wetsuits (light, packed well and just right for the 30o C water temperature). There was a certain amount of unravelling went on in the early dives, cue overkill use of the dive knife to clear away trailing threads. The Aqualung Mikron regulator and octopus sets were great and breathed lightly through comfortable mouthpieces. For her, the Oceanic Hera BCD was just right, looked cute and fitted very nicely. The tank trim weights worked well and the integral weight pockets had internal velcro stops to prevent weights shifting forward in the pockets. For him, the SeaQuest Pro XLT BCD travelled well, and did the business, but needed a couple of flannels hi-jacked from the room to wedge the small weights at the back of the pockets. The one rogue piece of kit were the dive boots from hell, bought outside the M25, made by a scuba professional supplier but with a centre back seam that ground out painful heel blisters, both sides, until they were abandoned.

We had a great time. Can't wait for the next occasional dive, without the boots.

Editor recommendation
Get yourself some Fourth Element Finsocks to keep those feet happy and blister free from booties.

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Bandos Island
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