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RAYNA O’NAN

Want Exploration and Rejuvenation? Try Sailing a Spa through the Maldives.

It's the best of both worlds: relaxation and adventure aboard a floating resort.
By Sascha Zuger | Authored On December 22, 2022
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Want Exploration and Rejuvenation? Try Sailing a Spa through the Maldives.

Most divers know the best way to get to prime bubble territory is via liveaboard. But as anyone who’s traveled this way can tell you, a vacation is often needed after a vacation on a liveaboard. That up-at-dawn, tank-still-moonlight, dive, dive, dive mentality—combined with a serious sense of shame and FOMO should you ever choose to opt out of an offered dive—can end up feeling anything but relaxing. I was searching for a trip where I’d be whisked away to dive an underwater smorgasbord, but also get in some much needed relaxation and me time. Enter Scubaspa.

the hot tub on the top deck

guests enjoy the hot tub on the top deck

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Part hardcore diver nirvana, part spa aficionado hangout, this luxury liveaboard offers culinary delicacies served under the stars on the top deck, cocktails made from fresh local fruit hustled still frozen to the jacuzzi or sun loungers, beach picnics with fluffy beanbag seating, live music by bonfirelight, pickup cricket and football matches with the crew—the sum of its many, many parts equals one fabulous, well-rounded vacation. And where better to experience this type of dive travel than in one of the most idyllic dive destinations in the world: the Maldives.

First Impressions

If I had any doubts this would be a unique dive trip, landing in Male immediately put them to rest. We were whisked away by the same Scubaspa rep who would later serve us seahorse-decorated cappuccinos and fresh mint mojitos on the open-air drinks deck. He rolled our dive bags a mere 50 yards from immigration to the entrance of the airport, where we crossed a street filled with island resort shuttles and stepped directly onto the dive boat Dhoni, which trailed the liveaboard like a quite large (and compress or equipped) puppy throughout the journey.

A bartender pours post-dive cocktails

A bartender pours post-dive cocktails on the back deck of Scubaspa

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Once aboard our floating airport shuttle, we get to meeting a number of our fellow divers for the trip during the smooth 20minute ride to the main live aboard, an international crowd representing Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, the U.K., Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and the States. Among us are a family with teens, a number of couples and several solo divers, making for an eclectic mix with varying degrees of experience, from advanced through working divemaster/instructor.

The ship itself is gorgeous, with massive nap-inducing sectionals forming a major open-air shaded lounge area by the coffee and drinks bar. Inside is a generous air-conditioned dining room, with a communal table with seating for 20 flanked by individual tables for two to six people. Throughout our itinerary we found ourselves switching up the arrangement and our dining partners depending on our mood or with whom we wanted to chat about the day’s dive.

a table set for liveaboard guests to dine under the stars

A table set for liveaboard guests to dine under the stars on a private island.

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We soon make our way to one of the true highlights of the ship’s comfort offerings: the cabins. Far from a bunk bed sardine-can vibe, the light and airy rooms feature queen or king beds, en suite bathrooms with excellent showers, and plenty of wardrobe room. Wide picture windows look out onto the signature Maldivian glowing white sand and palm islets we pass on our way from atoll to atoll. As it turns out, skipping a dive and relaxing in the cabin is hardly a punishment.

An ocean view suite

A suite on the main deck with an ocean view

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No Ordinary Checkout

Once underway, we settle into a nice rhythm. Predive lattes and freshly baked pastries are noshed during sunrise dive briefings. Our gear is organized by the crew on the companion boat, which offers plenty of room to spread out even when fully booked. Divemasters keep their groups for the week, with no more than four to six per dive pro, allowing for a quick sense of ease among the divers. The divemasters themselves are almost exclusively Maldivian, and it’s rewarding to dip underwater with a local who is invested in their homeland and culture, and how it relates to the reef and sea in this new-to-me destination.

Eagle rays

Eagle rays in the current.

CHARO GERTRUDIX

Our first dive is a checkout dive at the entrance of Hulhumale Lagoon. I’ll admit, having thousands of dives under my weight belt as a working divemaster and having just come from another intensive week of diving, I might have rolled my eyes—particularly when I noted how close to Male the dive would be. You can forgive my lack of enthusiasm for clearing my mask under the shadows of the bustling city’s shores. But as with everything else thus far, the Scubaspa experience does not disappoint.

We drop in off a proper giant stride, descend together down the mooring line and quickly dispense with the checkout exercises. What follows is unlike any checkout dive I have ever done. We might be practically in the city limits, but the visibility is fantastic on the gentle sloping reef nicely dotted with healthy hard and soft corals. Our divemaster Jahvid quickly sets the tone for the week by spotting a leaf scorpionfish. So engrossed are we with this charming little guy that my dive companions miss the sight of a passing family of whitetips. About 10 sharks of varying sizes from baby to healthy adult cruise past a mere 15 yards away with more important things to do than come check out our scorpionfish. I find it really unique to see such a grouping of clearly varied ages. Massive turtles swim past, unconcerned with the proximity of city life. I’ve only visited these islands once before, so all the right shapes of fish appear in various unique colorways and designs I haven’t enjoyed yet. I kick myself for not bothering to bring a camera on “just a checkout dive” even before our true score of the morning: a passing 12-foot great hammerhead.

As we surface, Jahvid calmly lifts a hand to quiet our excited chatter about what we’d seen and shares a boat philosophy akin to Vegas: What happens underwater stays underwater—at least until we make sure all the other groups have been so lucky. Depending on the day, the site could reveal tiger sharks, spinner sharks, guitarfish, ghost pipefish, frogfish or spotted eagle rays. A great guest experience is key here, and no one wants someone else to come back from their own “great dive” and then feel disappointed or let down by something fantastic they might have missed.

And We're Off

We had chosen, with pruned fingers and fin-covered toes crossed, a cruise route reported to be very successful for whale shark and manta ray sightings. However, one hardly needs such “big game” sightings to make for a fabulous experience in the Maldives, and in all honesty, after more than 3,500 dives all over the world, this was overall the most amazing consecutive seven days of diving I’d ever had. There were a number of knock-your-finsocks-off signature wildlife experiences on this trip, but every day featured a broad variety of three unique dives, each boasting its own charms.

The early morning sunrise, late morning and post-lunch dives allowed afternoons for naps, stand-up paddleboarding, beach excursions, snorkeling, kayak trips to deserted islands, body treatments and massages for those poor finned feet and tank-toting backs, or sipping cold drinks and relaxing with a game of cards. Nighttime was spent kicking back on the aft swim platform, where spinner dolphins, nurse sharks, stingrays, bottlenose dolphin, gray reef sharks and one curious spotted eagle ray would cavort and feed on plankton in the bright deck light. But mostly, we were here to dive.

Searching for Whale Sharks

It’s morning, and we’re anticipating a bucket-list-topping dive day. The night before had felt like trying to fall asleep on Christmas Eve—one more sleep till whale sharks! Of course, you know you can’t guarantee any wild animal, much less one with such a range and depth of habitat, but we’ve heard the stories and seen the photos. We are ready. Even our cappuccinos are emblazoned with smiling whale sharks this morning, which we hope will not be the extent of our view of the critter. The goal is simple: We will search— along with every other boat in the region, it seems—along the known hotspot South Ari Atoll from first light. Breaking from the usual schedule, we’ll spend the whole morning on the boat and perhaps not even don a tank. If we’re lucky enough to spot the telltale spots and stripes of a “big big” through the crystal-clear water, the captain will try to position us in its path to hop in for a snorkel.

We cruise, staring hard at the water, willing our prize to surface or appear. A rumor had spread that eating tiny sweet sugar bananas is good luck for spotting the creature, and the massive bunch strapped in the rafter of the dive area for quick snacking quickly dwindles.

A whale shark spotted at Maamigili

A whale shark spotted at Maamigili, an island in South Ari Atoll

STEVE JONES

An hour or more passes, and not only have we had no luck, but the other boats pacing back and forth along the edge of the atoll seem equally dispirited as one by one they give up and head back to their resorts. We’d been warned this could happen, and that if the worst case came to pass, we would then go ahead and put on our dive gear and go for a dive along the bank. One of the divemasters mentioned that divers on the trip the week prior had been surprised by a late arrival briefly joining the dive. With hearts filled with hope, and bellies with bananas, we hop in for the blandest dive of the trip, most likely due to the fact we universally ignore the coral wall with its inhabitants and stare intently into the blue depths the entire dive.

Lunch is quiet. We shrug it off, pretending we aren’t gutted, and prep for a noted nearby wreck dive. A couple of divers decide to take the afternoon off and lounge by the jacuzzi. We trudge back onto the boat, where we’re surprised with the news that the crew had decided—no guarantees or expectations, please—that they think it’s worth giving it one more shot if we’re game. It will mean skipping the wreck as well as a fairly long trip from Dhigurah, where the ship is stationed in anticipation of an afternoon beach and kayak day, out to Lux. We are also warned it might cut into our leisure time. Not one of us cares.

The afternoon boat brigade has a smaller crowd, but higher intensity. Captains zip back and forth. Any disturbance of the water could set off a full-throttle race to that spot. The radio crackles as partner resorts try to leverage their multiple positions and sight lines. After a tense 40 minutes, the opposite end of the Lux Beyru (outer Lux wall) springs to life. Telltale splashes of snorkelers flinging themselves into the water tip off our captain to how unlikely it is that we’ll get any face time with the creature in a sea of swimmers. As he turns toward the distant activity, a new plan is formed. We’ll guess the animal’s path and drop in fully tanked up. We might hop in after it dives, or behind where it chooses to go, and not even get a glimpse, but maybe we’ll be able to spot it outside of the swarm of snorkelers.

Although it might not look it to an outside observer, we feel like a well-oiled team with Navy SEAL-like precision, hopping into the sea and immediately dropping down. It takes mere seconds. What might be a teenage 24-foot whale shark seems to be growing weary of the chaos of snorkelers diving down to try and get a look and has turned—and it’s turned toward us!

a private island barbecue by Scuba spa crew

A manta drawn in the sand by Scuba spa crew complements a private island barbecue.

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What follows is 20 minutes of underwater connection with a gentle giant that not only tolerates our presence as we swim along the wall but seems to enjoy the interaction to the point that a poignant thought strikes me: This amazing creature is all but alone out here in the depths of the ocean and seemingly simply wants to connect. He glides along the entire time, close enough to touch, at one point going vertical before slowly sinking back to join us at around 80 feet.

He makes no move to evade or dive, seeming to slow his pace so all the strange bubbling entities can keep up. Soon, one by one, our cursed deco alarms start beeping. It’s unclear who is more disappointed as we reluctantly turn back and rise to make the first of several safety stops. As we start peeling away, the shark slows more and turns to watch us go, before dipping his head and with one strong thrust of his tail disappearing down into the depths.

Cleaning Time

I’ve done the signature nighttime manta dives on the Big Island of Hawaii, laid back in the sand as a group of five zoomed overhead in the Bora Bora lagoon, and was fortunate enough to be joined by giant oceanic manta rays on the back wall of Maui’s Molokini a time or two, but I don’t know what to expect from the Maldives’ manta ray cleaning stations. As we settle in at South Ari Atoll’s Mahibadhoo Rock, I’m skeptical. The chunk of rock we circled was only about 15 feet across, and it seems unlikely to be such a draw as to tempt the graceful ballerinas of the sea to—I don’t have time to complete the thought before the first manta swoops in, grazing my head.

Kudhimaa wreck

The Kudhimaa wreck at South Ari Atoll.

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Unlike the mantas I’ve seen in the past, these aren’t mere drive-by zooms. This is an actual working cleaning station, as busy and as populated as the systems one sees turtles or even sharks enjoy. Much like those cleaning stations, the mantas lurk outside the area, lined up like planes on a runway, or swoop in and around to make a second pass, which offers incredible viewing and photography opportunities.

Shark Highways

The atolls of the Maldives have a uniquegeological structure, creating distinct currents that pass through the rings of islets. The currents are not as predictable as a tidal schedule, and often necessitate a peek at the water or even an experienced divemaster popping in to see if 10 feet below the surface the current might tell a different story. For the sake of safety, and enjoyment, we bring drift hooks with us to our dives at Vaavu Atoll’s Miyaru Kandu Channel and Rasdhoo Madivaru near North Ari Atoll. We attach ourselves without doing damage to the underside of a solid chunk of reef, and float like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons as the sea life zooms past.

At first glance, we see them start to swim past, glowing whitetips or bulky bodies of grays cruising by on a mission far more interesting than even acknowledging the presence of a couple dozen bubbling diver balloons suspended in one spot. As our eyes adjust, we start to make out layers upon layers of finned shapes of all sizes and markings, like a CGI army created solely for our amazement. The Maldives’ “shark highways” are a sight to behold. The experienced divemasters occasionally reposition their charges like puppies on a leash to keep us safe, with as close a view as possible for both digital and mental images we will keep forever.

 nurse sharks on a night dive at Alimatha Faru

Dozens of nurse sharks on a night dive at Alimatha Faru.

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Rendezvous After Dark

My first 60 or so dives were night dives at Maui’s Black Rock, thanks to a dive instructor boyfriend who had free rein at his shop after 5 p.m. and could sneak an extra set of gear in the van for his “assistant.” It is always a treat, and I find the sense of your entire world only extending to the reach of your light somehow comforting. So I was excited for the popular night dive at Alimatha Resort’s house reef on Vaavu Atoll, but we were kept in the dark, so to speak, about the details. Perhaps this was to enhance the surprise, or perhaps it was because there weren’t really words to describe the experience we were about to have. Regardless, another underwater delight awaited.

leaf scorpionfish

A leaf scorpionfish.

STEVE JONES

This easy, shallow dive seemed to be overhyped based on the traffic dropping divers at the end of a pier leading to the nicely appointed island resort. The dock is a daytime home to fishing boats that clean their catch in the water, which only partially explains the fact that somehow, despite the crowds, divers are far outnumbered by extremely friendly nurse sharks and some impressively massive giant stingrays.

We submerge, and dive groups take turns in the prime spots, forming a semicircle of divers belly-down on the soft sand. This gives the swirling shark-nado plenty of space to land and allows the animals to comfortably interact. One small nurse shark nuzzles against my buddy’s side; another larger one settles down for a rest across the back of his legs while he admires a passing stingray in the circle, and my buddy blindly swats back assuming it’s me playing games. The light-flashing octopus, whitetip reef sharks and endless other sea creatures are mere bonuses to this bizarre and memorable experience.

As our weeklong itinerary comes to a close, I realize no part of me wants this trip to come to an end. The world-class treatment aboard this floating resort has me feeling refreshed despite the constant thrills of nonstop diving in some of the healthiest, most biodiverse sites in the world. Turns out I do want another vacation after my vacation—and I want it on Scubaspa.


NEED TO KNOW

When to Go Prime whale shark and manta season is in late summer/early fall, during the tail end of monsoon season. The best visibility for walls and reef dives is in the dry and sunny winter months.

Conditions Water temps hover around 82 to 86 degrees year-round. The water is very clear, and visibility is excellent but can be affected by tide or weather.

What to Bring A dive skin is helpful even in warm months to avoid annoying stinging cells sometimes experienced inside atolls. Drift hooks are also useful and sometimes necessary on sites with current.

Trip Tips The Maldives is a Muslim country, so dress conservatively, particularly when not in the resort private islands and atolls. In fact, public beaches in Male and main islands might not allow bathing suits, so ask the hotel desk for advice so as not to offend. Although Male has a lively cobblestone pedestrian street lined with cafes and restaurants, it is truly a “dry” destination so there will only be juices, sodas or specialty coffees (which are done well) on offer. This goes for the city’s tourist hotels as well. Liveaboards are an excellent option as they can reach multiple atolls for a broad variety of dives. But most resort islands also offer shore dives or very close (10 minutes or less) dive sites.

Operator Scubaspa Maldives