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LUX* Underwater Festival

LUX* Underwater Festival

Deborah Dickson-Smith finds that at LUX* South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, bare foot luxury, five-star dining and whale sharks are guaranteed.

The Maldives’ LUX* Resort South Ari Atoll recently celebrated its rather special underwater world with the first ever Underwater Festival, a celebration of the region’s unique marine life and local conservation efforts.

The Festival is a fantastic line up of snorkelling, diving, marine encounters, workshops and seminars, taking place in of one of the Maldives’ largest and most luxurious resorts.

This place really is special, showcasing luxury in every sense of the word: from the exquisitely decorated, over-water bungalows, each with private plunge pool and birds’ nest hanging chairs overlooking a turquoise lagoon; to five-star service from the moment you step off the float plane on arrival; to cocktails at your choice of beach clubs as the sun sets, and dinner at one of five gourmet restaurants on site.

But for lovers of the underwater world, that’s just the icing on the cake. This island is located in a fully protected marine reserve, with thriving marine life: huge schools of fish, healthy coral reefs, a large population of sea turtles and … a large resident population of whale sharks.

LUX* South Ari Atoll Maldives Underwater Festival

Celebrating the underwater world

In an effort to showcase the region’s underwater world and highlight local conservation efforts, LUX* invited the global heads of PADI, the world’s largest scuba diving training organisation; technology start-up, iBubble, inventors of a cutting-edge new underwater drone; and dive-specialist media from France, the UK and Australia.

With over 25 million PADI-qualified divers around the world, PADI is now changing its focus from developing safe and responsible divers to nurturing an army of ocean advocates: “champions of the water planet,” according to President and CEO, Dr Drew Richardson. We’re treated to a presentation of Richardson’s vision at the opening event and on our first day in the field (so to speak); he joins us in our first exploration of South Ari Atoll’s very special marine environment.

On our first day, we meet resident marine biologist, Mark McMillan, who gives us a briefing on the types of coral we’re likely to see while diving, and then we head underwater. Our first dive is a large coral bommie with enormous sea fans around the base, abundant soft corals decorating the overhangs and a dip in the middle that plays host to about a billion blue stripe snapper – a photographer’s dream come true.

Back at the resort, a local artist is celebrating the underwater world in a rather unique way, painting canvas (in oils) underwater. The painting, purchased by PADI, will be auctioned at DEMA, with proceeds going to Project Aware.

Maldives Underwater Festival artist_3302

Underwater toys for big boys (and girls)

On our next underwater excursion, we get to play with some serious toys. First up, iBubble, an innovative new underwater drone. Using cutting-edge technology, this bright yellow drone can follow hand signal instructions to shoot whatever you want it to – or simply follow you around and film your dive, leaving you to simply enjoy it.

We’re also given an opportunity to dive with an underwater scooter, with PADI on hand to take us through a Diver Propulsion Vehicle specialty certification. The scooters are easy to handle and, I imagine, quite useful in current. We use them to fly around a wreck inside the lagoon and do a few loop-the-loops.

Whale sharks

LUX* South Ari Atoll is located in a rather special part of the Maldives. Its back reef, which drops off a few hundred metres out from a row of over-water bungalows, plays permanent residence to a large population of whale sharks. The Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), located on nearby Dhigurah Island has identified 388 individuals, so chances of a whale shark encounter here are fairly high. In fact, the dive shop manager tells us we’d have to be “pretty unlucky” not to see one at least once during the week (famous last words).

Before our dive, we’re briefed on whale shark etiquette: the proximity allowed by swimmers, divers and boats; what to do and, more importantly, what not to do. Our first encounter is on snorkel. After patrolling the reef wall for a while, a whale shark is spotted and we all go crazy, grabbing masks, fins, cameras, before jumping in to join the melee.

As soon as my head’s underwater, I spot him. Somehow, I’m lucky enough to land in the water right beside him. And he’s moving very slowly. It’s not too hard to swim alongside, make eye contact and just watch this gorgeous giant as he glides through the water. An incredible thrill. I find out later his name is Jonah.

LUX* South Ari Atoll Maldives Underwater Festival whale sharks

Image: Eurodivers

My next encounter is on scuba. As we swim along the reef wall, he glides gracefully by, slowly enough for us to swim alongside and take a few photos before he disappears into the blue. He has a few tell-tale scars on his back which make him easy to identify: Naococco. Naococco made headlines a few years back, sustaining the worst boat-strike injuries researchers at the MWSRP had ever seen; three years on, the scars are still visible.

In the evening, we’re treated to a presentation by the MWSRP Infield Coordinator, Abdul Basith Mohamed, who shares some insights into what we know about whale sharks – which, it turns out, is very little. But the MWSRP has established that this site is a secondary nursery, and the statistics they gather highlight the site’s importance as a tourism attraction and help convince government to maintain its protection.

Anyone can contribute to the MWSRP research by sharing photos with the team via their mobile app. The whale shark you encounter will be identified, or better, if they can’t find a match then you can name it yourself.

LUX* South Ari Atoll Maldives Underwater Festival

Turtles…

From one endangered species to another, the next day we find out about the Maldives’ sea turtles and, specifically, the plight of the Olive Ridley from turtle vet Clare Petros. Clare manages the Maldives’ Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu Resort in Baa Atoll, part of the Olive Ridley Project (ORP).

Being pelagic creatures, Olive Ridley turtles are the most susceptible to ghost net entanglement; they are rarely found nesting in the Maldives, yet they are the turtle species most frequently found entangled in ghost gear. Between 2011 and 2018 the ORP recorded 528 entangled Olive Ridley turtles, representing 87.9% of all entangled turtles reported.

The Centre provides veterinary care and rehabilitation to injured sea turtles rescued across the Maldives. Other programs managed by ORP include the removal of ghost gear from the ocean, education and outreach programs, sea turtle monitoring, and they’re even looking at ways to reuse or repurpose ghost nets. The project has enlisted the help of Trans Maldivian Airways, to help transport injured turtles to the sanctuary, and aims sometime soon to have a turtle biologist on every atoll.

We join Clare for a dive after the presentation and are joined along the way by three turtles: two green turtles and a little hawksbill, who ignores us completely as he nibbles at sponges on the reef.

LUX* South Ari Atoll Maldives Underwater Festival turtle diving

That’s a wrap

It’s been an inspiring week, celebrating the underwater world in so many different ways, from underwater painting to marine conservation and new technology. I’ve learnt more about whale sharks in a week than I knew in my lifetime beforehand and come face to face with two of these gorgeous, gentle giants in as many days.

Our week ends with a beachside barbecue, watching images and video of our underwater adventures projected on a giant outdoor screen; but not before I’ve managed to fall asleep on the massage table at the resort’s beautiful overwater spa.

What a week it has been. We all emerge invigorated and inspired: invigorated by incredible marine encounters, and inspired by the presentations given each day by passionate ocean advocates.

LUX* South Ari Atoll Maldives Underwater Festival overwater bungalows villas

If you go…

We dived with Euro Divers Maldives and stayed at LUX* South Ari Atoll, Maldives.

Deborah Dickson-Smith is a travel writer, passionate scuba diver and co-founder of Diveplanit.com, a dive-specialist travel agency and online guide to the best diving around the world. Contact Diveplanit for information about dive/stay holiday packages at LUX* South Ari Atoll and other luxury dive resorts around the world. Email: info@diveplanit.com