Saturday, June 9, 2012

I Found Love on The Maldives Aggressor

No, I did not meet someone. My love is for this beautiful boat, called the MY Grandezza by her owners but franchised to the Aggressor Fleet. "MY" stands for "motorized yacht": La Grandezza is a 37 meter motor sailor that was designed for the Maldives and is certified by the Italian government for open ocean travel. She can carry a month's worth of fuel and provisions, and therefore is capable of making round-the-world trips. There are 10 passenger cabins, roomy by scuba dive boat standards, all with private bathrooms. The bathrooms are big enough to be used as a dressing room if you don't know your cabin mate well enough to change in front of him or her. Each cabin has a decent amount of storage, air conditioning, and a fan. In a place where the average temperature is 88 and the humidity is high enough to bring on near daily rain showers, the in-cabin air conditioning can barely keep up -- but the truth is after a couple days of diving I was permanently chilled so this did not present a problem.

The main salon is very roomy, and is cooled down to refridgerator temperatures. There is a sun deck with cushioned teak loungers, and a shaded deck with a camera table and device charging stations. We had our diving briefs here, and I also lounged here when I wanted to be outside but out of the sun. (I will post pictures later.)

I was so enchanted by the boat that I undertook some research about her via Google. (Side note: I had nearly continuous 3G data connectivity on this trip due to purchasing a local SIM card upon arrival at Malé airport). Our group was also lucky to have Segio, the boat's Operations Manager, on board for our week. Sergio has been involved with La Grandezza from the beginning, and knows everything about her and the Maldives.

Between Google, Sergio, and talking to Captain Hossan I learned that La Grandeeza was built in Turkey at a cost of about $4mil USD, and was completed in 2009. On her initial trip to the Maldives in April 2009 she passed through the Suez Canal and down the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aden to the Indian Ocean. In the Gulf of Aden she was approached by Somali pirates armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The captain (an Italian, not the man who commands her in the Maldives) issued a mayday call and tried to evade the pirates. Their boat came alongside and they put a ladder up to try to board, but the captain's girlfriend, like something out of a movie, knocked the ladder over and the boarding pirate fell into the sea. Sergio explained that, due to incoming military response to mayday calls, the pirates don't tend to stick around very long. If they can't get on board and get control of the ship in about five or ten minutes, they leave so the military doesn't get them. So, after pulling their compatriot who fell off the ladder out of the drink, they took off. The captain changed course and went very far north and east toward India to avoid the pirate zone, making their trip from Turkey much longer than originally planned. However, La Grandezza got to her new home port just fine, and has been cruising the immense chain of atolls that is the Maldives ever since. The current captain told me he's sailed her to the far southern end of the Maldives chain and back, a trip of 40 days. He's also taken her the 400 or so miles to India.

I loved sitting on deck and listening to the boat's sounds, staring up at the rigging, and daydreaming that she was all mine. It was as lovely and relaxing as being in my favorite spot in Hawaii.

La Grandezza is accompanied by a staff of nine from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh: three divemasters, the chef, assistant chef, two stewards, and two boatmen. There was also Captain Hossan, and the captain of our dhoni. A dhoni is a traditional Maldivan boat made for transporting goods and people between the islands. We used ours as the dive boat. The dohni is highly manouverable and has a much shallower draft than the big yacht, so it is perfect for taking divers out. All our dive gear stayed on the dhoni for the week. They would tie up to the yacht between dives and do in-place air and Nitrox fills, which means we never had to move gear or tanks around.

The diving itself was memorable, and a bit challenging at this time of year. We arrived at the very start of the Southwest monsoon season, so the weather patterns were very unsettled. Currents did not always flow in the expected directions, and were often not the expected speed. Sometimes the dhoni captain or divemaster would cancel a dive and move us to another spot due to conditions. We were happy to leave things up to their judgement, and experienced a series of interesting dives in North Malé Atoll, South Malé Atoll, South Ari Atoll, and North Ari Atoll.

Although I came to the Maldives with no expectations, I did very much want to see big things. On our third day, off Holiday Isle at the southern end of South Ari Atoll, we went looking for whale sharks. They are often found there at this time of year, cruising just off the reef. We piled into the boat and headed west, and soon after the boatmen shouted that they could see whale sharks! The boatmen know exactly what they're looking for, and have amazing eyesight to boot. The dhoni got ahead of the whale shark, and we jumped into the water in our snorkeling gear. And there it was, a youngster of the world's biggest fish species! I'd seen some in an aquarium in Okinawa, but this was the real deal. I was so excited that I forgot to turn my camera on, and once I got it on I pushed all the wrong buttons! But I had a good swim, following the whale shark for a few minutes until it gracefully dove over the reef drop-off and sank out of sight. The dhoni picked up the snorkelers, and we continued along the coast. In a very few minutes another whale shark was spotted, and once again we all jumped in. We repeated this four or five times. Once I was the only person to jump in. I had a nice long swim with yet another juvenile, and this time I managed to get a snippet of video (will post later). These creatures are really big, with tall powerful tails and beautiful dappled brown and cream coloring. The juveniles were about 12 feet long, and the biggest one we saw was twice that.

Finally we donned our scuba gear and once again dropped in near a whale shark. This one was the biggest yet. After following him for a while he pulled away faster than
we could swim, so we explored the reef hoping another whale shark would venture by. My group didn't see one, but some other divers from our dhoni did--a huge one according to their fish tales. One of the dive masters later said that not only was that the fastest they'd ever found whale sharks when heading out for the day (we were only looking for about 15 minutes), but that we saw eight in all -- the most they've ever found on a single trip.

We beheld many other thrilling sights over the course of the week: a school of sixteen Mobula (Devil Rays) flew by in perfect formation. A dozen reef sharks cruised around in the current while we used hooks to hang on to the reef and watch. A lone manta ray surprised me along a wall--and just after that a turtle swam right up to me. A Napolean wrasse the size of a sheepdog cruised by a foot from my head. Considering how poor the visibility was all week (40-70 feet, when it's usually more than twice that), we saw a LOT of cool marine life.

Aside from the whale shark encounter, my other favorite experience came on the very last day. I had a 9:10am flight on Sunday, so I couldn't go on the second dive on Saturday or else I'd violate my dive computer's 24-hour "no fly" rule. I went out on the dhoni anyway, basically so I could get started breaking down my gear. The dhoni captain offered to take me snorkeling after he put the divers in the water. Once again, the boatmen's power of marine observation amazed me. They could see Manta Rays just below the surface, so they took me over and I jumped in the water to find two just below me! I watched them and followed them for quite some time, and even saw some of my scuba friends watching them from forty feet below. The dhoni picked me up after the Mantas swam away, and then dropped me in another spot, but I couldn't see the rays the boatmen were pointing at. Then they took me over to a reef where I happily swam around for a while. There I noticed three 7"-long bright screaming yellow fish acting aggressively. I was curious to know what was going on, and was about to dive down for a closer look when I noticed they were harassing a mid-sized octopus! Octopusses are very retiring and don't usually come out during the day, but this one was trying to get away from the yellow fish. I watched him swim from coral head to coral head, and when he settled I dove for a better look. He was deep burgundy, with a big pale blue eye. I dove to look at him a couple more times. After a while I started thinking I should go back to the boat so the dhoni could track the scuba divers rather than me.

Many more lovely things happened over the course of the week, really too many to tell! The food was great and included Maldivan and Sri Lankan specialties. My roommate was very sweet and a good dive buddy. The service on board was attentive and caring. Really, if I could have found away to fold La Grandeeza up and bring her home, I would have! I really love that boat.

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