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Posted 14 July 2015   |   3317 views   |   Sport Divers have become accustomed to Maldives resorts having a small island all to themselves, run by imported staff. NIGEL WADE, ever keen to try something different, goes to dive where the Maldivians themselves live and work

Dust lifted as we drove past dense palm-tree plantations along the Roman-straight road. There had been no rain for more than a week, and everything was as dry as a bone.

A single motorbike with its rider trying desperately to avoid the cloud of fine particles passed us on the bumpy highway. Through the haze, a large tree loomed. Growing in the centre of the roadway, it was a potential trap for unwary visitors, but our driver knew it was there and skirted it safely.
We passed local industrial premises. One, a fish processing plant, indicated the island’s main business. The Indian Ocean gently lapped the shore either side of us as we made our way to our final destination. Little avenues branched left and right off the highway, terminating at a white coral-sand beach.
We saw the odd-looking skeletal remains of tsunami-wrecked boats, left high and dry after the 2003 Boxing Day disaster.

Immaculately dressed children were skipping home from school in small groups, their mothers in traditional garb supervising their short journey.

I had just arrived in the Republic of the Maldives. This was the “other” Maldives, the alternative to the extravagant islands dotted around the republic’s mainly northern atolls – tiny, white-fringed green jewels with water villas reaching out onto azure-blue lagoons, modern-day destinations for honeymooners, celebrities and those with larger budgets.

The Maldives has changed over the years, and the classic dive islands are no longer the only option. Even as the republic continues to develop as a luxury resort destination, forward-thinking local business-owners have recognised the market for cost-conscious travellers wishing to visit and dive one of the world’s most amazing underwater realms.

Gan, situated in the deep south of the republic on the eastern side of Laamu Atoll, is an island inhabited, unlike the resort islands, by Maldivians.
Connected to the domestic airport on Kadhdhoo island by a man-made causeway, Gan is long and narrow and the biggest island in the archipelago, with five miles of white-sand beach on each side.

Maldivians have lived on Gan for more than 1000 years. The island has a number of unique features not usually associated with the Maldives, including
a freshwater lake, its waters stained red by decaying foliage dropped over the millennia from surrounding trees, and the remains of a Buddhist temple, buried by an early Muslim population.

My home for a week was Reveries Diving Village, a guesthouse with just 26 air-conditioned rooms that, despite its designation, was surprisingly luxurious in most respects.
Endemic blackfoot clownfish occupy magnificent anemones.
Divers have a choice of house reef or boat excursions using local boats and crews, and these are low-key relaxed affairs typical of the local way of life.

Laamu Dive Club is located on site and offers equipment rental, guided trips, courses and Discover Scuba programmes. It’s owned and run by Maldivians with a mixture of local and European staff.

The boat dock is just 100m away, providing a portal to open-ocean dive-sites reachable only by boat. Reveries’ own beautifully manicured private beach opposite the dive centre provides access to the shallow house reef.

Our first dive was to  Boduga Falhu, just 35 minutes away on the local dhoni dive boat. Situated between Gan and the uninhabited Bokkafushi island, the channel funnels nutrient-rich water, promoting healthy coral growth and a seasonal concentration of plankton that in turn attracts numerous manta rays.
The sun’s rays danced around as we descended through the clear water. The lack of plankton meant that we were unlikely to encounter big pelagic wanderers. Instead a shoal of large unicornfish joined in the fun, playing in our bubbles like excited children as we made our way to the reef below.
Coral bommies rose from the sand on the edge of the reef like gates directing and welcoming visitors to the main attraction.

The shallow reef was awash with life. Out of the blue water three remoras swam boldly towards us and, after establishing that it was safe to do so, one confidently latched onto my buddy’s leg like the hitchhiker it was.

We looked around, wondering if their long-term hosts were large sharks. Might they follow, looking for their friends?

Disappointment set in as we realised that they were more likely to have been separated from passing mantas, long gone on their endless quest for planktonic soup.

Remoras have a distinctive first dorsal fin modified to form an oval pad. Inside this are slat-like structures that open and close to create suction. They take a firm hold on the skin of their hosts (in this instance the leg of my buddy Ruth) and by sliding backwards the fish can increase the suction, while by swimming forward it can release itself.

Ruth and the remora quickly bonded (literally) and remained inseparable for most of our dive.

Staghorn and branching hard corals are normally the most fragile structures on tropical reefs, and seeing pristine examples in areas with a lot of diver activity is becoming rare.

The many dive-sites situated within easy reach of the popular resort islands in the Maldives’ northern atolls have swathes of this delicate slow-growing coral, much of which has been broken as a result of a combination of heavy diver traffic and natural environmental events such as the El Ni?o climate event in the late 1990s, and the 2003 tsunami.

Our second dive-site had an abundance of this species, and it looked untouched, healthy and pristine, growing in enclaves between pillars of brain, table and lettuce-leaf corals.

The branches formed a safe haven for the smaller fish species that darted out of harm’s way as we approached. Communities of black-and-white-striped humbug damsels shared their immaculate real estate with orange anthias and thousands of the ever-present blue chromis.

This dive-site was one of the best examples of unspoiled reef I’ve seen on my many visits to the Maldives.
Jack trevally hunt in packs inside the overhangs and reef slopes.
The following evening we watched the sun setting in the west from Reveries beach. Sitting on the castor-sugar sand watching the white glowing orb change colour as it sank to the horizon, I could have wished for a cold beer to celebrate the event, but had to be content to sip a glass of soda as we listened to the sea washing the sand, palm fronds rattling in the mild breeze, and crows cackling to each other.

Over loudspeakers in the distance the muezzin’s soft melodic voice called the village residents to prayer at the local mosque, a reminder that this was a community that didn’t allow alcohol to be drunk or served to visitors.

We were joined by a local family. The mother and young children kept their distance as their grandfather asked us if we were here for the diving.
He went on to tell us that he was a commercial diver in his youth and during the late 1970s had made a modest living harvesting black coral from the nearby reefs to make jewellery .

This industry has thankfully become redundant in a relatively short time, with eco-tourism and fishing now providing the main income for most of Gan’s inhabitants.

Fishing is done by rod and line only – industrial-scale trawling with sonar and nets is banned in all Maldivian waters.

Next on the list of dive-sites was Fushi Kandu, a gorge between two islands. The current rushes in as the tide rises, so we would time the dive at the tidal peak with reasonably slack water.

The south side of the gorge is a steep wall with overhangs and gullies, the wall packed with colourful sponges and hard coral growth. Shoaling fish are resident in numbers, from patrols of jack trevally to marauding unicorn and surgeonfish.

The current supplies plankton-rich water when it flows through these channels, and mantas are a common sight, but today we were out of luck.

We dropped into one of the many overhangs, groups of jack darting in and out purposefully as they teamed up into a formidable hunting team. Large bright orange gorgonians spread out at the entrance. Their perfectly formed fronds looked untouched as they filtered edible morsels from the rich water.

Lambada Thila is a small circular reef rising from a sandy seabed at around 30m. The sides have prolific soft and whip-coral growth, with small caverns forming overhangs.

The reeftop at 10m is the draw here, with numerous anemones providing host to uncountable blackfoot clownfish, a species found only in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Here, the anemones’ stinging tentacles provide protection for other species too, with two-spot damsels and small moon wrasse sharing the limited habitat.

At sites that see a regular procession of scuba enthusiasts, the clownfish are usually bold and confident, allowing a close approach, However the sites in Laamu Atoll are rarely visited and the residents are warier, darting away from the noisy air-breathing interlopers.

Pink, purple, blue, orange and white-skirted magnificent anemones share the same small coral bommies, providing a kaleidoscope of living colour along with the bright colours of the fish set against an azure sea.

Reveries’ house reef is a short walk from the dive centre. The shallow sand beach gives way to fringing coral as vibrant as its offshore cousins.
At the drop-off the reef forms a small wall with large hard-coral gardens hosting Maldivian signature species such as bigeye soldierfish, oriental sweetlips and the ubiquitous lionfish. Large pelagic visitors are seen here, I was told, with dogtooth tuna and reef sharks common sightings. It’s best to dive here on an incoming tide, as this brings clearer water and better vis.

Ask most people to describe the Maldives and their answer will involve romantic Robinson Crusoe islands with immaculately manicured gardens, a beach that’s swept twice a day, luxury accommodation with attentive staf

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