Saturday, May 26, 2018

Sri Lanka's Got Talent: Checking Out Colombo's Karaoke Scene

Why not do something different when you're in Sri Lanka! Don't follow the same old well-beaten tourist trails. Check out my picks of Colombo's top karaoke joints...

You've probably seen the elephant at Gangaramaya Temple, shopped til you dropped at Paradise Road and felt the salt-spray on your skin while drinking a gin and tonic among the splendid Colonial surrounds of the Traveller's Bar at the Galle Face Hotel. So why don't you do something different while you're visiting Colombo (which is now seeing a boom in tourism and new infrastructure). I've put together the top picks for karaoke joints in the buzzing, fun city I loved living in...

Photo: Voice Lounge

Anyone who’s ever sung into their hairbrush or harboured dreams of becoming the next Susan Boyle (or should that be Carrie Underwood) will find that Colombo has plenty to offer! If you're anything like me, every once in a while you can't resist the chance to get up and sing your heart out (the Spice Girls and the Elton John/Kiki Dee duet are my guilty karaoke pleasures, although apparently I recently also belted out Total Eclipse of the Heart!). So why not give it a shot when you're in Colombo, the vibrant capital of Sri Lanka. 

Forget about wailing into a microphone in front of an audience of bored businessmen; Colombo's karaoke bars have come a long way since the old days. Like with many cities around the world, today’s karaoke venues in Colombo have been benefiting from a resurgence in popularity, thanks to televised singing contests such as American Idol and the highly-anticipated arrival in March this year of Sri Lanka's Got Talent. The most exciting karaoke bars in Colombo offer a great atmosphere, cool crowd and pretty high-tech facilities.

Photo: Voice Lounge
Without a doubt, Colombo’s flashiest karaoke bar is Voice Lounge (pictured above and left). Centrally-located, at the Burgher Recreation Club (off Havelock Road), Voice Lounge has it all - cool LED-lights on the ceiling, an extensive cocktail menu, high-tech sound system, large screens and a karaoke menu of hundreds of songs dating from the 1970s right up to the present day. 

Despite its glamorous appearance, a relaxed and friendly atmosphere helps to put even the shyest of wallflowers at ease and you can choose if you want to perform standing on the stage or sitting down with your friends. Voice Lounge also holds an American Idol-style singing competition named Voice Idol, so you can really get into the competitive spirit.

By contrast to the glitz of Voice Lounge, Sopranos in Maitland Crescent offers more of a retro-style New York vibe (as the name might suggest). With dark, stylish décor, low lighting and plush sofas, Sopranos draws its inspiration from jazz bars of the 1950s. Perhaps rather surprisingly for a karaoke bar, Sopranos has no stage. Instead, singers can test their pipes from the comfort of a sofa. The low-key, sing-a-long atmosphere appears to be a recipe for success because Sopranos has been going strong for more than a decade and still draws in large crowds every weekend.

Photo: Sopranos

The Hilton bars always attracts a rambunctious mix of guests, Sri Lankans and expats and the hotel's dedicated Stella Karaoke Bar and Lounge is still a very popular choice. It looks pretty sleek, as you may expect from a Hilton, but that certainly doesn't do anything to subdue the spirits of the singers. It's a really fun spot for parties and groups of friends, and even if you're travelling alone you can often crash. 

Photo: Stella Karaoke Bar and Lounge

Photo: Chopsticks Karaoke and Pub
A combination of good Chinese food and karaoke has been bringing a fun clientele to the more old-school style Chopsticks Karaoke and Pub in Nawala Road for years. On Friday evenings the dimly-lit bar above the restaurant comes alive with party-goers singing songs from the 80s, 90s and present day. It’s not the swankiest joint in Colombo but with a friendly atmosphere, reasonably-priced drinks, decent sound equipment and a wide choice of songs to choose from, the experience itself makes for an excellent night out. You’re sure to leave having made new friends!

These venues all offer something for everyone, now it’s time to get those pipes warmed up and get out there - it's elakiri!

Friday, May 25, 2018

Why Swimming With Manta Rays Should Be On Your Bucket List

If they're not already on your bucket list, put swimming with these huge, graceful, alien-looking creatures on it now!

Just look at this beauty!

Why should you swim with manta rays? Let me share the first of my many experiences with manta rays with you to explain why. (Just make sure you're responsible and don't touch them or crowd them: These colossal beauties deserve our respect and you could harm them with just a touch)...

Manta rays aren't shy!

“Manta! Manta!” The cry we had been waiting for rang out from our guide. The group I was with had been dropped off at a sandy-bottomed dive site known to be a fairly reliable place to see manta rays during the southwest monsoon and there had been some recent sightings during the days preceding my visit. We were on the eastern side of the Maldives, where the southwest monsoon season (April to November) is the best time to spot manta rays. We’d been sailing around on the traditional wooden ‘dhoni’ (boat) for less than 20 minutes before we got the signal and a surge of adrenaline instantly rushed through me. I was about to see wild manta rays for the first time!

A manta breaching the surface
Sure enough, the surface of the water was being breached by several triangular pectoral fins. The undersides of their fins flashed white as they sliced through the water and beneath them I could see the silhouettes of yet more manta rays. We had stumbled upon a group of reef mantas which although smaller and more common than oceanic mantas are still amongst the largest of any type of ray in the world, at an average of 3 to 3.5 metres wide.

Gentle Giants

Part of the sharks and rays family; mantas are gentle giants which feed upon microscopic zooplankton. Sadly they are rated as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which makes observing them in the wild even more of a privilege. Threats to mantas include pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and even illegal poaching as their gill plates are used in Chinese medicine. However all ray species are now protected in the Maldives.

"Mesmerised by the sight, I remained rooted to the spot as it passed beneath me; unable to take my eyes off it until its shape gradually faded into a blue shadow".

We were there to simply marvel at these majestic creatures, and the guide dutifully briefed us that they could easily be startled and under no circumstances may we attempt to chase or touch them as it could cause a great deal of harm. Nodding in agreement, we slid into the water one by one some metres away from where the mantas were swimming.

Watch out below! Graceful manta gliding by

I peered through the slightly-murky water to try to catch sight of the shape of a manta ray and my snorkel almost fell out of my mouth at the thrill of seeing a manta ray glide just a few metres beneath my fins! Mesmerised by the sight, I remained rooted to the spot as it passed beneath me; unable to take my eyes off it until its shape gradually faded into a blue shadow.

The underwater visibility in the Maldives is usually superb but there was a large amount of plankton in the water which made it more hazy than usual. The zooplankton was the very reason the mantas had been attracted to the spot. Although zooplankton makes your skin tingle slightly the ethereal spectacle of the manta rays made me completely forget the mild discomfort.

My initial surge of excitement barely had time to ebb when I saw the guide pointing in another direction. I turned to see two more manta rays gliding along side by side, funnelling plankton into their strange alien-like mouths with their cephalic fins. Then a third swooped down along the sandy bottom as the imposing figure of the largest manta ray swept into vision.

Just look at that alien-like face and body - amazing creatures!

Drinking in the details 

As the mantas glided past me I drank in all the details. Their strange triangular ‘wings’, white underbellies, gaping mouths and ability to effortlessly accelerate from ‘cruise’ mode to faster than any human could swim. Their gracefulness and elegance was spellbinding. At this moment I immediately understood why manta rays are on the bucket lists of so many snorkellers and divers. I dived down to about five metres with my snorkel in a vain attempt to share their perspective, wishing that just for a day I could become an aquatic creature roaming the reefs of the Maldives.

Where to spot them

Where the mantas roam varies according to the season and their migratory pattern but there are certain sites where they can be often found including cleaning stations where they go for the removal of parasites. There are countless ‘cleaning stations’ and favoured feeding grounds for mantas across the Maldives. One of the most famous sites for spotting manta rays is Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll, a Marine Protected Area and home of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (which researches and monitors the manta population). Visitors can purchase special tickets to visit Hanifaru Bay via their resort or safari boat. Visitor numbers are monitored and there are regulations in place n order to protect the Maldives’ precious manta population.

They are usually found in groups like these ones here

Ari Atoll is also another good place for sighting manta rays. But in most atolls there will be somewhere named ‘Manta Point’ or at least somewhere which is known as a regular haunt of mantas. Guests on liveaboard boats (diving cruises) stand an excellent chance of seeing manta rays during the right season; not just because they maximise their chances by doing three or four dives per day but also because the lights at the back of the yachts attract plankton which in turn attracts mantas. It’s certainly not uncommon for an exciting discovery of manta rays feeding at the back of the boat at night.

  • Most resorts in the Maldives offer manta-spotting trips (during manta season)
  • Some resorts also offer a manta-alert service, whereby guests put their names on a standby list to receive a call or text message when manta rays have been spotted
  • There are thought to be roughly 10,000 manta rays in the Maldives

A combination of factors including the abundance of food, lack of natural predators, lack of big-scale and commercial fishing and the protection of all ray species in the Maldives are just some of the reasons why the population in the Maldives is in somewhat a better state than in other regions where some populations have seen a 95 per cent decline just in the past few decades. But there’s good news for the species on an international scale. 

All manta rays and five species of shark have recently been included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It’s an international treaty that forces countries to control the trade of products of listed species. This means that if a country insists on trading in manta products they will need a permit and to provide scientific evidence that it will not be detrimental to the population, which is extremely difficult to do. 

Mantas have a pregnancy lasting nine to 12 months so they can’t reproduce fast enough to replace those mantas hunted by fisherman or dying trapped in nets. But over time, it is hoped that the impact of this new international law will be seen in the oceans around the world...

Now do you see why manta rays are so precious? Heck, I even named Manta Media after them! 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Learning to Scuba Dive (Part 3)

This is Part Three of the three articles I wrote each night after returning home during the process of learning to dive during 2012. Click here for Part One and Part Two here. Everybody says you should learn to scuba dive, but nobody else actually writes about the process - what you have to do, what you learn and how you get tested. Read on to find out about the day I qualified!

Learning to scuba dive is one of the best things I ever did. You see turtles, reef fish, sharks and rays almost every time

I can’t believe how quickly the final day of my PADI course came around! But then again, they do say time flies when you’re having fun. Day Three began today with me practically skipping down the road with excitement on my way to Into Scuba Dive School in Hulhumale in the Maldives. 

I brought with me some tea and biscuits for my Instructor Thomas Badstubner and his awesome team of staff to help to re-stock their kitchen after getting through so many during the classroom theory lessons! I left the theory part behind yesterday when I began my confined water dives. Today I was ready for two open water dives. The first dive was to involve practising a few more skills and the second was set aside just to purely enjoy the reef at one of the best dive sites in the area, Banana Reef.

Heading to Banana Reef 

We set off from the dive school just after lunch on the boat, heading for dive site number one, Small Maa Giri. A ‘giri’ is a kind of submerged island which hasn’t risen above the water level yet. This is the site which I also previously visited on Thursday as part of my training. 

Every day I’ve been feeling more and more confident thanks to the encouragement from my Instructor, Thomas. He’s been a truly awesome teacher, and hit just the balance of getting the important messages across without making it heavy going, plus he threw in some jokes for good measure which made everything even more enjoyable. Yes, he's a funny German.

This is me, looking pretty chill on a dive by this stage! (Dive buddy is trying to show me something)

I couldn’t wait to get started so we jumped into the water. We had a look around at some of the coral and reef fish before getting stuck into practising some more underwater skills. The exercises included repeating some things which I did before such as taking my mask off, replacing it and blowing air out through my nose to force all of the water back out of the mask again. We also did some navigation skills. Thomas had showed me while we were on the boat how to use the compass and now that we were underwater he asked me to follow the compass and swim in a northerly direction for a certain distance while he followed close to me, then we turned and I navigated back again due south.

Turtle power

After this we explored Small Maa Giri some more, and came across a green turtle and a hawksbill turtle. Thomas also pointed out a scorpion fish to me which was extremely well camouflaged against the rocks. I guess that the more you dive the easier it gets to spot the wildlife! We slowly made our way to the surface to practice some more skills which included repeating the exercise of taking my weight belt off and putting it back on again, and also taking off my BCD (buoyancy control device) and then sitting on the cylinder and bobbing on the waves while I strapped it back on again.

We then headed directly to the second dive of the day, Banana Reef. The dive site is famous (not only in the Maldives but also overseas) for being particularly abundant with fish (and that’s saying a lot in the Maldives, where the underwater world is crammed with aquatic life!). It’s also noted for the beautiful hard and soft corals, overhangs and caves which all in all make it a really interesting site to explore. You may be wondering why it’s called Banana Reef, it’s because it’s shaped like a banana.  

Well, Banana Reef certainly didn’t disappoint us. There were magnificent table corals stretching away into the distance and as we went deeper there were all kinds of exciting overhangs, crevices and caves to look at, covered in coral and hiding all kinds of surprises including a particularly big puffer fish which was a beautiful bright yellow colour instead of the dull brown they more commonly are. 

We found Dory

Finding Dory 

We also saw a beautiful blue tang fish (if you don’t know what this is, think of Dory in Finding Nemo). Thomas said that this type of fish is very common in Australia but pretty rare in the Maldives. The corals were predominantly red and pink, in all kinds of beautiful shapes. I felt relaxed as we swam along taking in the scenery, but also exhilarated at the same time. This was why I wanted to learn to dive – the underwater world is truly amazing!

I'm now a certified Open Water scuba diver!

It was almost the end of my final dive – well, my final dive on my PADI course but certainly not my final dive ever! Thomas shook my hand to congratulate me and unfurled a banner for me to hold saying “Well done, you are now a PADI Open Water diver!” and I had my photo taken. What an experience. Three days of learning and fun have zoomed by. I’ve completed my PADI Open Water course and am now a certified diver!

If you’ve ever thought about learning to dive, you must do it or you’ll always regret not trying. Apart from being heaps of fun you get a newfound confidence and a real sense if achievement from it. I've been on over 100 dives since then and become a PADI Advanced Scuba Diver...Next step, Rescue Diver! 

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Learning to Scuba Dive (Part 2)

This is Part Two of the three articles I wrote each night after returning home during the process of learning to dive during 2012. Click here for Part One and here for Part Three. Everybody says you should learn to scuba dive, but nobody else actually writes about the process - what you have to do, what you learn and how you get tested. Read on to find out!

It was an 8am start for Day Two of my PADI Open Water Course in the Maldives – time to leave the textbooks behind and finally get into the water! I arrived at the dive centre in Hulhumale for a briefing from my diving instructor, Thomas Badstubner, and then we slung our equipment into the back of a truck and hopped in. The truck drove us to a sheltered beach near the Ferry Terminal, because the tide was too low on the other side of the island. It was here that we put the theory into practice.

We waddled into the sea laden with our equipment, I’d forgotten just how heavy it all feels until you get into the water! Then we started things very slowly, standing chest-deep in the warm water to start with. It was a hazy day but the water was still turquoise blue and pretty clear. Thomas wanted to see how comfortable I was breathing underwater with the regulator. Satisfied that I was relaxed enough, we then went on to run through some of the techniques I had watched yesterday in the PADI video.

The shape of water

This is the amazing house reef I've dived at Baros (house reef is the reef connected to the resort island). Photo: Baros

I’ve been on two dives before in my life. Both of them were official PADI Discover Scuba courses, one was in the French Riviera the other was at Bandos Island Resort here in the Maldives. I’ve snorkelled a lot in the Maldives and in various other beautiful locations around the world, so basically you could say that I’m confident in the water. Thomas said that gives me and anyone with similar experience to me a good grounding for starting diving, although if you’ve never dived or snorkeled before he can take you at your own pace and make sure you’re completely confident (and competent) in the water.   

So, today we started by doing exercises in very shallow water which included things like taking my regulator out of my mouth and letting go of it, then stretching my right arm behind me to swoop it up again and replacing it in my mouth. We also ran through the hand signals for being out of air and then I took the regulator out of my mouth and reached over to use Thomas’ alternate air source, he did the same with me.

The ouchy bit

This is how you clear your mask of water when underwater
The part which Thomas said I was going to hate him for making me do (filling up my mask with water while underwater, taking it off completely and then putting it on again and clearing it) was actually alright. If it’s OK to go a bit girly for a moment I’d like to say this: Ladies, if you’ve ever got mascara in your eye you’ll know exactly what eye pain is, and I’m happy to say that seawater is absolutely nothing compared to mascara-in-eye-agony. So don’t worry about it. Things look a bit blurry, your eyes are a bit stingy, but it’s nothing too horrendous. You also need to take your mask off underwater for a few others tests including breathing underwater for a minute while not wearing a mask.

As well as this, I practised taking the weights, scuba unit and fins off and putting it back on again while in water too deep to stand in, amongst other things. With Thomas satisfied that I’d checked all the boxes and was comfortable enough in the confined water dive, we headed back for lunch. In the afternoon it was time to hop on a boat to Small Maa Giri – an excellent dive spot for rays but also according to Thomas, one of the most perfect natural underwater classrooms he’s ever seen. I had a one-on-one session with Thomas while some fun PADI-qualified American pilots who had signed up with Into Scuba for an afternoon diving trip had some fun checking out the area with the dive masters and other staff.

Maa Giri reef is amazing, check out these oriental sweetlips with a friendly batfish! Photo: ProDivers Maldives

The site consists of a sandy area just three or four metres below the surface which gently slopes away into a channel. The shallower sandy area was ideal for going through some more of the techniques I need to know, including making a simulation of a controlled emergency swimming ascent for nine metres while continuously exhaling and making an “ahhh” sound. We then had a chance to float down the slope to take a look around us and see some pretty reef fish at a depth of about 12 metres before our 46 minutes was up.

I had some minor problems with my mask. It seems that I was doing it the proper way but the shape must have been wrong for my face because no matter how hard I blew through my nose to push the water out, a small well of water stayed on either side of my face. I must have a weird-shaped face. Or a kid-size face. Or both. 

Thomas swapped my mask for his, but I still had the same problem. However, I stayed calm as I knew that nothing bad was going to happen even if I felt like my nose was full of salty water all the time. Thomas later reassured me that you can’t make a mask for everybody’s face shape, so I’ll probably bring my own snorkel mask for the final day of my PADI course.

We saw bottlenose dolphins en route! They're very common in the Maldives and love chasing boat wakes

We all hopped back onto the boat and headed off directly for Back Faru, a very pretty reef close to Sheraton Full Moon Maldives and Hulhumale. On the way we were treated to a spectacular appearance from a large pod of dolphins leaping out of the water. The boat changed its course and slowly followed the dolphins. They seemed to take a fancy to us because they came within just a couple of metres of the boat, surfing the waves made from the prow. Everyone on board cheered and peered over the side, wishing our arms were just another metre longer so we could touch them! We couldn’t have asked for a more uplifting experience (or excellent photo opportunity) before our final dive of the day. A storm was on the horizon so we had to crack on…

 There was a strong current and so our last dive today was also a drift dive. Luckily there were no more drills for the rest of the day, just fun! “You have to remember to make it fun because that’s why people want to learn to dive”, said Thomas. And we weren’t disappointed. Right at the start of the 12 metre dive, we saw a white tip reef shark and then as we floated along in the current we saw some fantastic creatures amongst the beautiful table corals. There were two large hawksbill turtles and at least five large green turtles, none of which seemed in any particular hurry to get away from us. In fact, one of them let me get within a metre of him, he barely seemed to notice that I was captivated by the sight!
We saw a white tip reef shark too. They look a little more 'sharky' than black tips, but don't get them confused with oceanic white tips, these ones are pretty small!

As well as this, there were honeycomb moray eels and giant black moray eels peering out of holes in the reef, a large pufferfish, pretty anemone fish and many other brightly coloured reef fish.
Just under an hour later we emerged smiling from the incredible experience of seeing so much marine life to discover half a rainbow hanging in the sky and some dramatic-looking storm clouds. It was a beautiful end to an amazing day. I floated on the surface for a few moments with a smile on my face. Yes, diving sure is fun!

Well, I now have one more day left of my PADI Open Water Course. I have the day off tomorrow but the day after that we’ll be running through some more techniques and enjoying the incredible underwater world, after which time I’ll hopefully be a certified diver! Read all about my final day of learning to dive in the Maldive here!

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Learning to Scuba Dive (Part 1)

This is Part One of the three articles I first wrote each night after returning home during the process of learning to dive. It took just under three days to get my PADI Open Water diving certificate, which is the first diving licence you can get. (Yes, I got my diving licence before I got my driving licence - #priorities!). The PADI Open Water certificate teaches you diving skills and theory; you also learn about the equipment and the science that keeps you alive while you dive. The bonus is the OW allows you to dive to depths of 18m, which you can't do on a 'fun dive' day excursion (as it limits you to only 12m deep).

Here, I'll explain to you what the process of learning to dive is really like!

I realised that although there are a million articles and blogs on why diving is so great and why you should learn to dive, there was almost nothing on the internet about what the actual process is like: What happens when you learn to dive? How much classroom time and how much diving time is involved in getting your PADI Open Water certificate? And what is learning to dive like? I learned to dive in the Maldives but this applies to learning in almost any place. I hope I can answer some of your questions and shed some light on the process below...

Have you ever thought about diving in the Maldives? Professionals rate it as one of the best places in the world to dive due to the beautiful clear water and mind-boggling array of aquatic life. But if you’ve never learned to dive before, what sort of experience can you expect? Well, I’m not a certified diver either but today I took my first steps towards becoming a PADI Open Water Diver. Over the next few days I’ll be updating you with all the info on the process and basically giving you the lowdown on the day-to-day experience of taking a PADI Open Water Course in the Maldives.

Signing up with PADI 

I’ve signed up for a PADI Open Water course with a well-reputed PADI dive school based in Hulhumale, Maldives (now relocated to Maafushi), which is around 5 minutes by speedboat from Male’. I popped in to sign a medical questionnaire which basically checks I’m not hiding any serious conditions or at least that I have nothing for the instructors to worry about. You don’t have to be super fit but being in general good health is helpful and being a non-smoker is definitely an advantage. With that out of the way, I’m ready to start learning to dive!

Day One

This is what a typical classroom at a dive centre looks like. Photo: Dolphindiversathens

Diving doesn’t happen in the classroom, but it certainly started there for me today. I arrived at Into Scuba at 8.30am (I’ll admit a little bit bleary-eyed) and was welcomed by my German Instructor friend, Thomas Badstubner with a big cup of tea in a Munchees biscuits mug with ‘Bite me’ written on it. I’m not thinking about sharks. Why did I just think about sharks? 

Learning to dive begins with books, not boats

Don't worry about sharks

But no, joking apart, sharks aren’t really anything to worry about in the Maldives. There hasn’t been a single shark attack recorded since the late 1970s, people say it’s due to the huge quantities of yummy fish around here which taste a lot nicer than people. Also you mostly see reef sharks here which aren’t a problem. I’ve been snorkelling here every week for two and a half years so I’m pretty happy with that explanation.

If you're still worried, I'll let reggae shark explain further why you shouldn't worry about sharks, below, maybe in a slightly NSFW way...

Moving on from tea and toothy things, Thomas then told me that I was going to get all of the theory out of the way in one day so that I could get out of the classroom and start diving as soon as possible. Sounded good to me, assuming that I passed! Thomas went on to say that 10 year olds pass the same tests, so he was pretty confident that I would be able to. (Maybe after a cup of tea).

Keep your eyes on the prize: This is Banana Reef, North Male' Atoll, Maldives. Photo: Wikipedia

So, I was issued with three shiny new books, “PADI OpenWater Diver Manual”, “How to Use and Choose Dive Computers” and my “Dive Logbook”, and was told that I’d be watching a series of chapters from a PADI video then we’d have a test between each chapter. There were five chapters and after each chapter Thomas would chat with me about theory, sometimes using a whiteboard to explain, then I did the tests.

The science bit

The PADI videos were….well, I have to admit, a bit cheesy (lots of high fives) but they were clear and easy to understand, so they definitely got the point across. They gave me the grounding that I wanted and needed, basically the science behind diving and what all the bits of equipment are called! 

Let’s go into more detail: buoyancy, pressure, dive equipment and how it works, the Buddy System, how being underwater affects your body, hand signals and communication, safety, underwater environments and aquatic life (nearly all injuries from aquatic life result from the animal/plant trying to protect itself). The things that stick the most in my mind? “The most important rule is to keep breathing!” and “You’re far more likely to suffer from an unpleasant encounter with an unaggressive organism [than an animal] such as puncture wounds from sea urchins, a sting from a jellyfish and their relatives or cuts and scrapes from barnacles or coral.”

Mas'huni roshi is a yummy Maldivian meal

Lunch break

With a few chapters out of the way, it was already time for lunch. Thomas and I strolled around the corner for a fish curry with roshi (local bread) in a café. It was good to get out of the classroom to reflect on the morning. I had enjoyed learning about what happens to your body when you dive, and all of the bits of equipment now had proper names in my head. This made me feel much more confident about what I’m going to be doing tomorrow. Thomas said that I seemed to be doing OK so we were going to zoom through the rest of the chapters today. So it was back to class!

Over the next few hours we continued in the same pattern of watching videos, Thomas explaining a few things and me taking tests. They were mostly multiple choice and “fill in the missing word” type questions. We got into the nitty-gritty of Dive Planning and problem management, including how to deal with your own problems as well as your dive buddy’s and basic first aid. This included (in detail) possible hazards relating to breathing air at depth, how to prevent problems from arising and what to do if you do have problems.

This is not my hairy arm. But this is what a standard-issue dive computer looks like. A big clunky watch. (Pricier ones look cooler, but this is the type that dive centre usually dish out)

Finally, we covered dive tables, dive computers and the “How to Use and Choose Dive Computers” book. “Whaaaaat?” You may be asking yourself. Dive computers are basically a fancy watch/calculator which tell you things like how deep you are, how long you’ve been underwater for and your no decompression limit (the maximum allowable no-stop time at a given depth). They certainly seem to help to make life easier, and are also useful because they can calculate how long you can stay underwater for before reaching your no decompression limit if you’re doing one of several dives (repetitive dives), because it changes. 

With all of the theory out of the way, it was time for the exam! Now the word “exam” scared me a bit but I was relieved to see that it was nothing like a university essay, or even GCSEs come to think of it! I think Thomas must have seen the look on my face because he reminded me again, “It’s OK, ten year old kids do this!” I was relieved to see that it was another multiple choice/fill in the blanks page of about 40 questions this time and thankfully, yes I passed!

Standard diving gear for tropical waters (Wikicommons)

I passed the first hurdle!

We finished the day with a little bit of preparation for tomorrow. I finally got my hands on my diving equipment, which I shall henceforth no longer refer to as “the bits”, as I now know that I assembled my oxygen cylinder with the regulator first stage, linked up the low pressure inflator and threaded it through the buoyancy control device and tested the pressure with the submersible pressure gauge, followed by inflating the buoyancy control device and checking the primary regulator second stage and the alternate air source second stage. And if that all sounded like mumbo-jumbo to you, I’m pretty confident that after an enlightening and anything-but-boring day in the classroom it’ll suddenly make sense to you too!

The next step!

Tomorrow…I’m leaving the classroom behind me and will finally be getting into the water! I can’t wait. I hope you enjoyed reading this and that it gave you an insight into learning to dive. I’m of for a “sensible” early night, and will be posting an update on tomorrow’s adventures tomorrow! Click here for Part Two and here for Part Three. 

For more information on diving in the Maldives check out

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Loama Resort Maldives: From History to Whale Sharks!

Hooray! A Maldives resort that genuinely showcases the cultural heritage of the country in a way that's interesting to guests! What's more, Loama Maldives Resort at Maamigili has something else up it's sleeve and the clue is in the name: Maamigili is one of the top spots in the country for observing whale sharks. 

Culture and sun-worshipping don't usually go hand in hand!

I don't know about you but just those two facts alone were enough to get me excited about Loama. And it gets better...

This is teardrop-shaped island lying in Raa Atoll, a 45-minute seaplane ride from the international airport. It's 100 hectares of a delightful paradise. The island tapers off into a stunning sandbank you can stroll along. If you're looking for a balance between luxury and culture, look no further.

The resort has all usual the trappings of an entry-level five star Maldives resort. By saying 'entry-level' I don't intend to sound condescending, what I mean is it has a high level of amenities and service but in the Maldives there can be a great deal of disparity between five stars, this is the country where you can pay $200 a night or $50,000 a night for a five star resort.

The colours really are this amazing in reality...
So, at Loama you can find luxurious beach and water villas, excellent service and superb cuisine, just like one might expect at any five-star resort. However, Loama offers a cultural experience currently unlike anything else in the Maldives, which is excellent for anyone wanting to see a new side of the Maldives.

Starting at the beginning...Accommodation

Very attractive interiors
The water villas fan out across the water, each with private direct access into the sea, while the beach villas are nestled on the powdery white sand, surrounded by lush tropical foliage. All of the villas are beautifully furnished with contemporary amenities, local artwork and the modern facilities including Nespresso machines, flatscreen TVs and DVD players. A few of the features, such as the room decor and main dining pavilion, seem to have been inspired by the villas at Four Seasons (in my mind anyway) and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. One of the nice features of the water villas is a hammock slung over the water.

The range of restaurants include a spectacular poolside dining venue, Iru Café, all-day beachside dining with flavours from around the world at Fazaa and the gorgeous fine dining restaurant, Thundi, featuring authentic Thai cuisine accompanied by wines from the adjacent wine cellar...

The juicy bit...History!

Loama Resort is the only place outside of the capital city with a licence from the government for a museum, packed full of fascinating artefacts discovered on the island and surrounding area, from 17th Century Chinese pottery brought by ancient traders; traditional clothing and even drinking tankards used by the Portuguese during their time governing the Maldives. 

One of the highlights is the archaeological remains of two traditional Buddhist ceremonial baths dating back to before the 11th Century (which was when the country converted to Islam). There are very few surviving Buddhist relics in the Maldives so this is really unique and rare. 

A traditional Maldivian home with carved wooden wall panels and a coconut thatch roof has been recreated to give guests a taste of how islands used to look centuries ago. There are also fascinating cultural tours to neighbouring islands where guests can discover about the way of life in Maldivian communities, and the Loama Art Gallery featuring work by talented local artists.

A lot of thought and care was put into all of these cultural offerings (unlike some other resorts which merely pay lipservice to them), so it's refreshing and exciting to see that Loama is unlike any others. 

The ancient bath from the Maldives' Buddhist days...

Back to the usual resort stuff...

For a change of pace, check out the Watersports Centre which offers a host of exciting watersports including jet-skiing, windsurfing, kayaking and snorkelling. The attractive house reef is home to all kinds of colourful tropical fish, with the occasional stingray or baby shark gliding through from time to time. 

Adjacent to the Watersports Centre is the TGI Dive Centre, offering a five star diving service. Guests can book full day or half-day scuba diving excursions or learn to dive in the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon. The beautiful infinity-edge swimming pool provides further entertainment for water-lovers.

The Sunset Champagne Cruise
Other excursions available include fishing trips and a romantic sunset dolphin cruise, accompanied by glasses of champagne and canapés. I checked this one out and it was really fantastic. Romantics will also enjoy the private dining option, where a private meal for two can be set up on the sandbank under the stars (although all resorts offer this).

For the ultimate in relaxation, experience the Loama Spa. The skilful spa therapists are on hand to offer relaxing and revitalising massages, scrubs and other treatments using essential oils and natural plant extracts. They really do know their stuff and there's nothing like ended a day with a massage...

Days always end with stunning sunsets but this one was even better than normal