Part 6: Emperor Orion
In the final part of their fantastic series on Diving in the Maldives, Jim and Cary report on a week’s safari aboard Emperor Orion. Here’s first-hand proof of why these island’s are a diver’s dream…
We had recently visited the Maldives on a work trip in November 2016 when we inspected four island resorts, all six liveaboards in the Emperor Maldives fleet and spent a week enjoying their ‘Best of the Maldives’ safari on Emperor Voyager. Our little group enjoyed it so much that we agreed to take our next ‘time out’ holiday in the Maldives. We wanted to try a different route and settled on the ‘South Central Atolls’ on board Emperor Orion.
We’d had a short inspection of Emperor Orion in November when she was at the end of a safari but it was enough time to get an impression of her. She was a good bit larger than Emperor Voyager but not as contemporary and that little 5-minute viewing had not blown us away, however it was the lure of the diving in the central atolls and the excellent reputation of guide, Russ Cheetham, that convinced us.
In November we flew from London Heathrow via Abu Dhabi with Etihad. Etihad’s service was excellent and the ticket price was good value so we opted for the same airline. This time the boat wasn’t in Male, it was in Kandhdhoo.
Obviously adding the domestic flight increases the holiday cost and also means it takes that bit longer to get to your boat. Our group of seven keen divers felt this was a price worth paying to get away from the crowds and to dive a different underwater. (And be aware; domestic flights have a lower baggage allowance than most international flights. For example, the allowance on our flight was 20kg hold + 5kg cabin baggage.)*
Arriving at Kandhdhoo on our twin-prop ‘puddle hopper’ was a great moment; the sun was setting with a beautiful orange hue and the island looked idyllic. The airport itself was small, so grabbing our luggage and heading out took a matter of moments and right outside the door were our friendly Emperor guides, Chico and Mary. A few steps away was our dive dhoni for the short transfer to our liveaboard moored just a couple of hundred metres off the jetty and here we were greeted by Russ and Shaqeel who would be our group’s guide, plus the rest of the boat’s substantial crew.
Getting back on board Emperor Orion we got a really good first impression. The air-conditioned salon/dining room was immaculate and the tables were already set for dinner. Emperor Maldives’ reusable personal water bottles were handed out and a thorough welcome briefing was given by Russ, while our bags were moved into our cabins by the crew (nice touch.)
One of the main features of Emperor Maldives’ boats is that they are very wide. They’re locally built, with the hull shape suited to Maldivian sea conditions. Our cabin on Emperor Voyager in November was big enough to include a large double bed and big bathroom; Emperor Orion is noticeably larger and our cabin was literally the size of a small hotel room, which is extremely rare to find on a liveaboard. Two people can easily walk about the cabin, there was loads of wardrobe and shelf space, a huge bathroom with shower, toilet like at home, fancy washbasin and even a dressing table with large mirror and hairdryer.
Over the years we’ve come to expect that a liveaboard equals less comfort than a hotel and it’s been a pay-off we’ve happily accepted because it meant getting us to ‘where the good diving is’. On Emperor Orion (and even more on Emperor Maldives’ flagship, Emperor Serenity) there’s no longer that need to compromise between getting good diving and comfort levels. This boat was truly a floating hotel for divers in every sense of the word. Emperor Orion’s size alone means that the facilities included a large air-conditioned dining room, spa, upper deck with outdoor bar and Jacuzzi and a huge sundeck at the top of the boat with sunbeds and double mattresses to lounge on. Let’s not forget the dive dhoni too, with bags of room for kitting-up and where kit is stored.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with other liveaboards, I’m just saying that there’s no doubt that extra comfort, services and facilities DID make a big difference. Sitting in the Jacuzzi with a cold one, telling jokes at the end of a good day’s diving was so much fun. We also appreciated the excellent spa service provided by Emperor Orion’s professional resident therapist, Alex.
To summarise, Emperor Orion was brilliant. Russ gave excellent, comprehensive dive briefings, dives were organised in the safe and professional manner we’d expect from an Emperor-run boat with all details covered down to logging every Nitrox fill (Nitrox is free!). The food was delicious and plentiful. The cabins were immaculate and made up after we returned from each morning dive. There was literally not one complaint about the boat, which in my experience is very rare on a dive liveaboard.
Finally, I want to report on the main reason we went back to the Maldives – the DIVING!
The South Central Atolls description is what attracted us. It promises beautiful pinnacles, grey reef sharks, eagle rays, a wreck, channels with pelagics, mantas, hammerheads, whale shark, dolphins and a night dive with nurse sharks. Also its relative remoteness and that all divers would be experienced (min. 100 dives to join). Your question is, “Did Emperor deliver all that?” Well, “no”. We didn’t dive the wreck nor did we see any hammerheads (not for want of trying). You see, like any good liveaboard operator, Emperor Maldives adjusts itineraries in ‘real time’ according to the actual conditions in order to deliver the best dive experience they can.
Therefore, this means that the actual route is sometimes slightly different to the advertised route. For example, during our week we visited four atolls, not seven, so we missed the wreck. As for missing the hammerheads, they took us to the hammerhead dive site but alas, they were not to be seen. I can’t complain about that, it’s just nature – nothing can be guaranteed, which is what makes it so exciting when you’re in the right place at the right time. For me, so long as the dive operator is seen to be trying to deliver you can’t ask for more than that and this was certainly the case with the Emperor Orion crew.
Having said that, in the interest of objectivity I must add that my friends and I are quite spoilt when it comes to diving. Our whole group have dived extensively around the world over the years and been privileged enough to enjoy some amazing times underwater. So our bar is set very high when it comes to expectations and it takes quite a lot to wow us these days. Keep in mind that it’s not possible to have a top-drawer dive each time and manage your expectations in order to be fair to the dive operator.
So what did we see underwater? Well, everything else Emperor had promised! We had some incredible dives, as anyone who has dived the Maldives would understand. Any one of our experiences is enough to call it a memorable holiday: we sat on the sandy bottom next to a small pinnacle and watched as two large manta glided in to be cleaned, each coming within a foot of our bubbles.
We snorkelled at night just off our boat’s platform with two massive whale sharks while three dolphins careered between them and us. We watched around twenty five nurse sharks woven into one spiral of bodies in a mating dance during our twilight/night dive at the famous Alamata Jetty.
On our last morning, in a noticeably stronger current, we hooked into the reef and watched while over twenty large grey reefs did a continuous circuit just feet from our viewing gallery, in awe at how they were able to head into such a current without visibly moving a muscle. And who was sat right in the middle of this group of impressive predators? A baby eagle ray, no more than a foot from wing tip to wing tip and as cute as can be.
If I had to pick one stand-out moment this was it. I’m always blown away by how underwater animals allow us human invaders to, well, just be. The sharks came so close, looked us right in the eye and swam on by. As for that tiny eagle ray, I can only describe my feelings as one of the most special moments I’ve had in my life, where I witness the pure innocence and lack of malice that only animals and baby humans can have. I know this all sounds pretty cheesy – but it’s the truth. At the end of the day, it’s why I dive, because animals and nature are simply amazing.
I can happily report that Underwater Maldives delivered in droves once again. It was a brilliant holiday, made all the better by the pampering we received topside. Guess what? We’re going back next year on Emperor Orion for a repeat of the ‘Best of the Maldives’ safari. The Maldives is like a bus – up to last year I’d been waiting to get there my whole life and now three trips have come along all at once! And we will keep catching those buses for a long time to come.
Jim and Cary own and run UK-based tour operator Diverse Travel. To find out more about the Maldivian itineraries that Diverse Travel offer, visit www.diversetravel.co.uk/maldives.
* We strongly recommend having travel insurance (on all holidays). If our international flight had been delayed there was a possibility of missing our connection. We didn’t.. but if we had missed the flight for any reason the domestic airline would not have offered us a refund and we would have had to arrange and pay for a new booking, subject to availability. Therefore travel insurance is essential, especially on more complex itineraries with multiple flights.