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Asia » Maldives » Ari Atoll
May 20th 2013
Published: May 20th 2013
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On arrival at Male International Airport which is situated on one of the islands of the Maldives, we were smoothly transferred to a nearby seaplane port for our 30 minute flight to Vilamendhoo Island. There were a number of 18-seater DeHavilland Twin Otter Seaplanes waiting at the port but ours was delayed so we had a little wait before we boarded. It had also started to rain heavily whilst we waited to board but luckily it eased off before we took off. Once on board the seaplane quickly glided across the ocean and we had tremendous views of numerous little islands, as well as a clear view of the capital town of Male. We were lucky as the seaplane transfer gave us an amazing perspective on the atolls, islands, reefs and lagoons as we flew low over the water. We came in close to one and soon landed smoothly on the water near to a small jetty where a couple of boats were waiting to take us to Vilamendhoo, our home for the next couple of weeks. There were several islands visible and we joined another couple going to Vilamendhoo whilst a couple of others got on a boat to go to another nearby island.





We got our first glimpse of Vilamendhoo Island a few minutes later as we moored up. The island was surrounded by an amazing house reef and the colour of the sea where the sea bed tips off into deeper waters was just incredible and so vivid. A beautiful turquoise lagoon edged the reef with long stretches of pure white sand dotted with palm trees - a true paradise.





We were greeted with a welcome drink by Sabrina who informed us that we had been upgraded to a Water Bungalow for a couple of nights. This was basically a wooden house on the water, well equipped with private jacuzzi, an outdoor bathroom and a sun deck overlooking the sea. Off the sun deck there was a ladder down into the water where you could snorkel and watch the amazing underwater life without moving too far.





Yes it was tranquil but on the second night we had a really bad thunder storm and being the first bungalow at the tip of the island we got the full force of the tropical winds. The whole bungalow shook and creaked most of the night - it felt like it was about to take off so we had a very sleepless night. In the morning the sun came out and all was still again but not sure whether I would want another night like that.........Later that day we were moved to a Beachside Jacuzzi Room which was just as good as the water bungalow, plus we had access directly on to the reef across the white sand. An even bigger plus was that it was sheltered from the wind!!!!





The islands that make up the Maldives archipelago are basically coral islands. They have an unusual topography, made up of a coral shelf surrounded by shallow lagoons. At a certain distance from the shore, those shelves drop off precipitously into the deeper ocean waters. The house reef is the area close to the vertical drop off where the coral begins to aggregate in a kind of beautiful coral garden which is teeming with colourful reef fish of varying sizes but also a nursery for younger fish. The vertical drop associated with the Vilamendhoo Island house reef occurs pretty close to the beach which usually means that currents can be particularly strong along the house reef, particularly on the north side of the island where we were. We however found that the reef was easily accessible via a number of marked access points marked with buoys. Some were rather further out but the one outside our room was the closest and we could be on the reef with just a few strokes. We did not have any problem with the current and although at times it was noticeable it was never a struggle to get where you wanted to go with a flick of your fins.





We spent our days lazing, eating, drinking (good happy hour) and snorkelling. We managed to snorkel all the way around the island via the ten exit points on to the reef. Most sections had really beautiful coral formations as well as an abundance of tropical reef fish including groupers, oriental sweet lips, surgeon fish, wrasses, angelfish, parrot fish, Indian orangespine unicornfish and plenty of maldives anemonefish (nemos) darting in amongst the soft corals. A shoal of fish congregated by the jetty most days and several black tipped Reef Sharks would swim amongst them trying to separate the group! Stingrays swam along the shore line coming in really close to the edge. One day we watched one of several resident Grey Herons catch a little fish and quickly flew away with it before several reef sharks arrived to try and snatch away its catch. The herons did not go hungry here and most days they were happy to walk around the edge of the swimming pool, rather that look for fish on the sea shore.





Out on the reef we had several nice close encounters with a young Hawksbill Turtle who we watched for ages on the bottom of the reef trying to break open some coral. It was strange to watch it bringing its front flippers together to try and hold a piece of coral so that it could break it open with its sharp beak..... it looked like it was clapping............When it was tired it would come up to the surface and take a breath right next to us before descending straight down again to have another feed in the same spot. We also saw a number of weird looking Octopus perched on the corals and even saw one swimming off before landing back on some coral and changing colour to match its surroundings. One day we followed an Eagle Ray before it disappeared into the deep and this was how we spent most of our days. At night the Fruit Bats would fly off to other islands across the ocean and in the day they would return to feed in the palm trees, hanging upside down and staring you straight in the face - such a weird animal but quite enchanting....





We took a cruise to hopefully swim with some Whale Sharks which can be found year round in the Maldives, primarily on the outer reef of the South Ari Atoll where we were and unlike Australia where they visit each season. We had swam with them in April in Western Australia and were still in awe of these huge fish - so lucky to be able to swim with them again . The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest of all fish species alive today. It is a distinctive gentle fish, dark in colour with white spotted patterns on its back which are unique to each fish, in fact very much like a finger print of a human so can be used to identify each shark. It is a filter feeder, feeding mainly on plankton and can grow to lengths of 40 feet - so very large indeed. The whale shark's mouth can reach an amazing five feet in width, and contains hundreds of rows of tiny teeth. We were lucky again today and manage to get in and swim with two and nothing can compare than swimming above these huge animals as they glide along beneath you.





Due to Vilamendhoo routinely overbooking - not really sure why, we were offered, if we gave up our room, an all inclusive two day sailing trip that provided excursions to snorkelling sites around the atolls all free of charge - we thought why not, its free and could be a good experience - should have thought twice though!!! We boarded a lovely looking two masted schooner called Gomafulhu, with three other couples and set off on our adventure........... We had a small cabin but were pleasantly surprised that it was ‘sort of’ en-suite and all was looking good, the sun was shining but it was a little windy. After sailing for about twenty minutes, we pulled up to a stunning coral reef to snorkel - it looked idillic. The crew were attempting to anchor the boat so that we could snorkel and guess what, the winch malfunctioned and we were stuck.





We though ‘oh no not again’..... but yes it was - a nightmare, as they could not raise the anchor or maneuver the boat - we were not going anywhere soon.......... The weather quickly changed as it can do at this time of year and a storm came in over the sea within minutes, you could not see in front of you and all the little islands disappeared as well as the reef. Some of our fellow guest quickly became sea sick as the boat started to rock uncontrollably. It was so like our experience on the Barrier Reef - we could not believe it - we must be jinxed!!! We all got soaked as the rain and wind thrashed the boat and my seat started to move over the side, but thankfully I managed to hold on to the table. As it started to calm a little the cook appeared and asked whether we wanted to eat inside or out - silly question, as the food would have been soaked, if it managed to stay on the table that is........





We managed to get back inside the cabin which was not easy as the railings around the boat were extremely low and in parts there were none. The cook served lunch, consisting of 20 different dishes on the table, but of course no-one was hungry and the food only just managed to stay on the plates and the table!!! A few of us took a little to eat but we asked them to clear it away quickly as we did not fancy having hot food sprayed all over us. It was just as well we did for a huge wave caught the boat and the table moved right across the cabin, chairs went flying and we could hear glass shattering. Luckily no-one was hurt but it was not a very pleasant experience. The crew were brilliant though and they were all outside, soaked to the skin, trying to sort out the problem. Unable to rectify the emergency they called for help to our resort who said they would send an engineer. A little while later the resort speed boat turned up and tried to pull up along side, but the waves were huge and after several attempts to try and get the engineer on board they had to give up. We looked on as the speedboat appeared in front of us before disappearing, it was quite bizarre like being in the middle of a film set. It looked at one point as though the speedboat would crash into Gomafulhu - as here was no way they could get the engineer on board in this huge swell the boat returned to Vilamendhoo.





After several frantic telephone calls between the crew and the island they decided the only solution left was to try and release the anchor into the sea. It took them about an hour to free it, all this time we were rocking around out in the middle of the ocean.........I had visions of us having to be winched off the boat..................... They finally managed to detach the anchor and drop it to the sea bed, marking the point with buoys so that they could return for it. The engine started and we set off to shelter between two island where the sea was much calmer. The crew wanted to put us on to a small three star island but one of our group had heard that the island was really poor so we said we would not go there and that they would have to put us on a five star island equivalent to the one we had left..........





A few telephone calls later a Dhoni arrived to rescue us but we still had to cross between the two boats ourselves, which was not easy, but we all managed to get across in one piece during breaks in the waves. We motored to a nearby island called Vakarufalhi where we were greeting by a pleasant girl who booked us into four rooms for the night - very nice rooms indeed and what a relief to be off the boat. She said that the island’s time was one hour difference than Male and the other islands - because they want to give their guests, an extra hour of daylight!!! Later that evening we had a drink in the bar joined by a couple of our fellow guest, Andy and Jackie, who came from Truro, Cornwall. The company, free drinks and food was excellent - I had steak and pizza, a strange combination but was very pleasant together with a few glasses of white wine - well deserved after such a disastrous day..............



The next morning as we lazed on the beach we were all surprised to see Gomafulhu returning to collect us! The crew had managed to retrieve the anchor from the seabed during a lull in the weather before returning to Vilamendhoo where the winch had been welded together. We were asked what we wanted to do, although returning to Vilamendhoo was not an option as our rooms had been allocated to someone else. We held a quick meeting, all agreeing that we did not want a repeat performance of the day before, particularly as the weather still looked changeable. We were happy to go on a day trip but wanted to return to our ‘five star temporary island’ for the night. After a couple of telephone calls this was agreed and we set of on Gomafulhu looking for Manta Rays off Manta Ray Point (where else would you look!). It was a shame as although we cruised up and down between the islands where they are usually spotted at ‘cleaning stations’ we did not get a sighting. The ‘eagle eyed’ Captain though spotted a huge Whale-shark so the seven dived in and were lucky to follow the shark for a while before it disappeared into the deep. We had a snorkel off one of the reefs and lunch on board before cruising back to Vakarufalhi - so it turned out quite a nice day although the weather could have been better. It was just as well we did not stay on the boat though as during the night the weather deteriorated again.........





Gomafulhu arrived early for us in the morning and we set off looking for Mantas and Whale-sharks again but the weather was against us. We managed to snorkel with a couple of turtles along the reef edge and a whale-shark was spotted but it had dived before we got there. The sea was choppy and the sea was cloudy so it was not that good and we were happy for the crew to take us back to Vilamendhoo where we disembarked in a rain storm and said goodbye to the crew who all had been fantastic under the circumstances. We were allocated new rooms of the same standard as we had left and I must admit it was good to be back on solid ground. The weather was not good for the rest of the day but it was nice to be back on the island safe and sound. I think the monsoon have started to arrive, the crew said we should come in February or March as this was the best time for the weather (no rain) and the Whale-sharks, although we have been lucky on the whole with the weather and sea-life. All in all the cruise was a bit of a disaster, but the weather would not have been any different if we stayed on the island so I suppose we should look on it as a ‘bit of an adventure’ and perhaps we should steer clear of any boating trips in the future..............The hotel also gave us a refund on our room and offered us spa treatments but we said we would rather have the cash - which in fact was good as this paid for our bar bill and other incidentals..........





We had one more day on the island and the sun was out so we spent most of the time snorkelling on the reef. Early the next morning we were transported out to the pontoon where our Seaplane Taxi was waiting and we set off for Male. We have had a very restful time (apart from the boat trip) in the Maldives with so many good experiences on this stunning island but it’s the end of this journey for us as we head for Dubai. We are due back in the UK late June to visit family and friends which we are really looking forward to and hopefully will catch up with you all there.





You will probably not be surprised to know that we will be continuing our travels in August to explore some of the countries of Southern Africa - hopefully we may see you there.


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