Indian celebrities may be flooding social media with selfies from the island nation’s luxury resorts, but here’s what you need to know about the more affordable diving trips and guest houses
Manu Nair felt like he was in a different world. For a while, it was all blue; a dark, surreal blue. He could see nothing else and everything happened in slow motion. Then the translucent beings emerged from this deep-blue darkness — slow-moving whale sharks, dancing Manta rays, small fish schools, varicoloured coral reefs.
“It was…” pauses Nair, searching for the right word, before settling on “magical”.
An aspiring astronaut, he is among the few people selected for Project PoSSUM, a NASA-supported suborbital research programme to study global climate. It requires the participants to have scuba-diving experience. What he shares with me is from the Maldives — in Maaya Thila, considered one of the world’s best dive sites. The sea is like the sky in some ways, he explains, adding, “Most of my training would be underwater because it simulates the microgravity environment. When you are on land, you know nothing can harm you. But it’s not the case under the ocean; you surrender to it and what you see is something surreal”.
The Maldives, one of the world’s best diving destinations, has of late been luring scores of Indians to its shores. According to the Indian High Commission in Maldives, 62,905 Indian tourists holidayed there in 2020. It accounted for 11.3% of the island country’s total tourism market share — the most by any country.
The air travel bubble (enabling the free flow of international flights) that India shares with Maldives, the three-hour flight time, and the tourist visa on arrival are some of its attractions.
“Maldives has not decimated its fish population. There are no large waves and the clarity [under water] is very good. Because you are in an atoll [a ring-shaped reef], you are not hit by the ocean,” explains Nitish Chengappa. He first visited archipelagic state in 2002 along with his brother, TV host Nikhil Chinapa. In 2015, they set up Fleetfoot Adventures in Bengaluru, which organises diving trips to the Maldives and Egypt among other locations, adding that they have taken over 250 clients every year to the Maldives since then. 2020, however, was a different story due to the pandemic. There were no trips from March to November but things are slowly picking up, says Chengappa, who has made four trips since November and gets several hundred enquiries every month.
“The Maldives spoils you. In other locations, you might not get to see the magnificent creatures like the sharks, mantas and eagle rays. But here you see them all the time,” says beverage expert Karina Aggarwal (@Gigglewater411) who made her second liveaboard trip there with a group of 10 people last month. A regular diver for the last six years with 120 dives across several spots, including in the Andamans, Thailand, and Philippines, hers was a 40m liveaboard vessel with air-conditioned suites and open-air dining.
For serious divers
The liveaboard diving trips — you stay on a vessel for one or more nights, going from one dive site to another — are best suited for serious divers, says another regular, Anees Adenwala, the director of Mumbai-based Orca Dive Club. Typically, they are a week long and comprise three dives a day. “You can even sail from Malé to the southernmost island called Gan, discover the entire chain of dive sites and atolls. Or you can just be in a resort with great food and a bit of diving and other water sports,” he says.
Since the boats have a capacity of 20 passengers, Chengappa reckons liveaboard trips are best enjoyed when you go with a familiar group. “It is very important that you put together a socially compatible bunch. Because you’re going to be spending six nights together,” he says.
Budgets for all seasons
Can’t afford a luxury resort? There are guest houses run by the locals. “You can spend $2,000 a night. Or just $80 a night with bed and breakfast,” explains another regular, Adenwala. Diving is also cheaper if you know your way around. “An open-water diver’s course costs $800 at a resort, whereas it is about $450 on a local island,” says Madhava Reddy whose Planet Scuba India in Bengaluru offers diving courses. He recently visited the Maldives with a contingent of 20 divers. And one of the divers was Project PoSSUM’s Nair.