I’d never dived the Maldives before so I thought it might be wise to find out what was needed. I wasn’t entirely sure what I expected the manager of the dive boat to say, perhaps he would advise about the thickness of wetsuit or what factor sunscreen we would need but when he said “a bright light, oh and a reef hook, you’ll need a reef hook”, I merely thanked him for his time and told him how much the boys and girls were looking forward to the trip.
Well, if I didn’t know what a reef hook was before I went, I certainly know what one is now and so do the rest of the them. ‘Them’ being the 12 Officers and soldiers, drawn from across 2 Medical Brigade, who took part in EX NEPTUNE SERPENT16, a live aboard diving expedition to the Maldives.
Apparently, we had arrived just after the phase of ‘The New Moon’ when the magnetic pull of the moon is at it’s strongest and………………………….I wont bore you with the detail; what it meant was that we would encounter some very strong currents and if we were to avoid being literally ‘swept away’ we would need to be able to hold onto the reef, hence the hook!
With the strong currents come the big fish, drawn by the tiny microscopic plankton that they feed on and if you want to see the biggest fish, you need a reef hook.
Shortly after arriving in Male, the capital pf the Maldives, we were transferred from the airport to the waiting MV Emperor Atoll, the dive boat that was to be home for the week. She was accompanied by a smaller boat, a dhoni (dough-nee) used to transport us to dive sites inaccessible to Atoll and from where we would conduct all diving operations.
To the cynic, diving has always been seen as the ‘playboy’ sport, not truly an adventurous activity; such a pity that the cynics don’t dive!
I can honestly say that I don’t recall ever diving in such strong currents and the ability to deploy a reef hook was one of the quickest skills I have ever mastered or needed to master.
While the water looked crystal clear from the surface, in parts the visibility in the plankton-rich ocean was as restricted as some of the UK sites and although the warm water made the diving more enjoyable, the currents made it challenging, very challenging. At one particular site we were to find out just how challenging.
Having completed the dive and ascended to the ‘safety stop’, we were beckoned to follow the guide as he finned up and over a protruding ledge at the end of the reef wall. Up until then the current hadn’t been particularly difficult but, for whatever reason, as we went over the edge of the reef we were literally ‘blown away’, sideways by the current.
It was pointless trying to grab hold of anything or to even attempt to deploy a hook; all you could do was to make sure the surge didn’t force you to the surface. After a couple of really uncomfortable minutes, we followed the dive guide’s lead and let the current push us across the top of the reef, eventually subsiding enough to allow us to surface properly.
Back on-board Atoll and over a cup of tea, the talk turned to the last dive and the laughter was all around the boat and tales of who did what, went where and how they went, were clearly the causes of the merriment but it underlined just how unpredictable and how forceful Mother Nature can be. Just as well everybody had their wits about them or the laughter might not have been so loud.
With more experiences of the strong currents at least we reaped the rewards and, as challenging as the diving was, so was the majesty of the sightings. Giant manta rays, whale sharks and more ‘ordinary’ sharks than you could hope to see. EXERCISE NEPTUNE SERPENT was planned as a challenging, progressive, diving expedition and it certainly met, if not exceeded, everybody’s expectations.
I will leave the final words to Sgt Steve Cambridge who sent me an email after we returned home; “I have been involved in a lot of exercises but this experience was by far the highlight of my military career and some of the best diving I have ever undertaken, thank you”
Thank you Ulysses Trust for helping to make it possible.