It's finally happened...
After 20 years of glorious diving and a few hundred dives under my belt I've come back from a liveaboard feeling disappointed. I'm even rather angry with myself for feeling that way but I can't help it.
I'm also a hot blooded Italian diver, which doesn't help!
Disappointment and satisfaction go hand in hand with expectations so I guess I didn't manage my expectations well...but hey, I've been diving for so long, how did I get it so wrong this time?
So, lucky me, I was diving over Christmas in the Maldives on board Emperor Atoll, with a bunch of good friends and without breaking the bank. The trip was booked ages ago and we all had done tonnes of research regarding where to dive, visibility etc. - all very standard procedure when booking a dive trip.
The sun was shining on our arrival and we were set to have a great time. Then a little catalogues of issues started piling up and that was it, a sense disappointment set in. The problem is that once the sense of disappointment creeps in it's hard to shake it off. Any tiny, insignificant issue becomes a huge hurdle.
It started with myself & hubby being assigned one of the smallest cabins (despite booking almost a year in advance) and spending the night in an ugly harbour. The boat's interiors by the way didn't look like the photos in the internet and the head's fittings were particularly run down.
Then we had an unexpected medical emergency and a trip diversion, certainly not wanted by the poor girl who wasn't well. This resulted in swapping a day dive with an underwhelming night dive, which for some people wasn't a problem - but I'm not a big night diver.
Then the dhoni got stuck on a sand bank and the boat had an engine leak. They quickly did their best to solve both issues, with the first being rather ridiculous, considering the Maldivians should know the sea and they have technology onboard. To solve the second issue they flew in a very experienced engineer, who did a great job, but we had to spend two nights in another, ugly, semi-industrial harbour.
I knew we were going to dive inside the atolls but we were always close to some resort, giving us the impression we were almost always diving some resort's "house reef". Because liveaboards do not agree on their itinerary, dive sites were uber overcrowded and because we were between the two monsoon seasons, visibility was very poor. This wasn't what I read in various websites but then, rather honestly, our dive guide (a young marine biologist on his last trip with Emperor) told us that "everything you read about visibility in the Maldives is a lie". Yay, what a blow!
On top of this we have to add the fact that coral bleaching is a huge problem there, with many of the hard corals being beyond the level of recovery.
Towards the end of the trip the crew took us to an inhabited island for a BBQ. They worked so hard and the food was fantastic but the island quickly revealed a problem that's been affecting the oceans for years now - rubbish, rubbish, rubbish. The site of plastic and other bits of rubbish upset me so much that myself and some other divers started to do a mini beach clean up but soon we realised that it was impossible. We even found a BCD trapped on the shallow reef...a BCD!
That truly made me reflect on the impact of the diving industry on these beautiful islands.
Luckily the crew agreed to take us to some dive sites I requested and although visibility was poor, our strong video lights did the trick. Our very last dive proved to be one of the best, so at least we didn't end badly.
Our last day was spent again at the ugly harbour we started from. One entire day without nothing to do. You can't even swim there, it's not safe. The noise of the generator onboard was overwhelming and unfortunately for us the weather didn't even allow us to sunbathe. So there we are, our heads stuck onto our phones and tablets, just like we do at home.
In fairness they offered a visit to Male', the capital, which we had already toured at the beginning of our trip. Unfortunately there's not much to see & do in town and the constant flow of motorcycles on the very narrow roads makes walking around rather stressful - if not dangerous.
We had a very long layover and decided to stay at the Hulhule Hotel, close to the airport. What a joke and a very expensive one too!
They were having their New Year party and the staff couldn't wait to get rid of us. The facilities are run down and the service is shockingly bad. The Hulhule is pretty much the only option in case you have a long wait before your flight and they have no competition.
We finally boarded our plane with slightly heavy hearts...goodbye so-called paradise.
All in all, it wasn't a major issue that made me feel disappointed.
Liveaboard-ing in the Maldives was just not the above & below paradise experience that I expected. No sense of adventure, no beautiful open sea, no paradise.
It was just a standard diving trip, where guests are just churned in and out every week.
The Maldives are now a mass market holiday destination. They labelled it as "luxury" and "paradise" but the reality is that it's been totally exploited. Of course recent issues with a corrupt government, with human rights abuse and links with terrorism do not help. It's all very sad.
When I contacted the liveaboard company I got a polite but standard, defensive reply. It sounded pretty much like this: "Sorry you didn't enjoy the trip but you did your 17 dives and we didn't promise luxury cabins, smooth sailing, remote locations and good visibility... we have been going for 25 years and get so many happy guests anyway". They also said the rubbish on the beach was not their responsibility, although they try to limit the use of plastic bottles. They pretty much told me "tough luck, we did everything right".
I actually realised I hadn't booked a dive trip, I had booked a "dive dream" that the industry could not possibly deliver.
This is the problem with the diving industry.
Many operators are only interested in "churning", not worrying about giving guests an experience or at least giving them real, correct (not over-embellished and enthusiastic) information for them to be able to manage their own expectations.
Diving is also an expensive activity and operators don't realise that many of us actually have to save up to afford the experience of a liveaboard.
Many divers are lucky if they can afford a diving trip a year, often feeling full of expectations, spending a whole year looking forward to it.
When things don't go right it's a huge anti-climax and some people simply give up diving.
Thinking about liveaboard-ing in the Maldives?
I certainly don't want to put you off, they are still a dream destination.
However do ask your chosen liveaboard operator the right questions and manage your own expectations better than I did!
Let's hope the diving industry wakes up and starts taking more responsibility.