In this edition of the Islandchief, we sat with Shafraz Naeem from the Ocean Six Fifty Foundation to listen to his deep passion below the ocean. We watched his videos where he made his way down ramps, as the light of the day faded. He continued to make his way deeper and deeper, until he picks his jaw up from the floor to see a giant manta ray gliding above him. He smiles and tells us whether it's in the ocean, a lake or an abandoned flooded mine, it is where he finds his solace and his own element.
Q1. Please introduce yourself to the readers, about how you ventured into diving and became a full-fledged certified divemaster and instructor trainer?
I have always been interested in the underwater world ever since I was a child. My dad had a few books by Captain Jacques Cousteau and that was when I first saw photos of sharks and other marine life and became curious. Then I saw an episode of "Secrets of the Sea" by Captain Cousteau that was shown on TVM and that got me hooked.
Soon after my Secondary education in 1994, I was drafted to join the Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF). I was working with the Coast Guard when I was shifted to the specialized Dive Unit in the military. I trained and completed my PADI Divemaster course and filled the roles of Navy Clearance Diver and Military Dive Instructor over 14 years. I became a PADI Instructor in 2003 and managed the dive centre at Ranveli Resort for a while and then from 2005 to the end of 2007 I managed the dive centre at Dive Bandos Island Resort. And in 2011, I crossed over to SSI and became an Instructor Trainer. While I was in the military, I trained the Coast Guard divers, Marine Corp divers and the Special Forces in diving as well.
Q2. What significance does diving hold for you with how long you have been involved in the act?
I did my first dive in 1988-1989 in Alimatha Maldives Resort and after that I have been diving since 1993. Diving and being underwater, whether it's in the ocean, a lake or an abandoned flooded mine, it is where I find my own solace and my own element. Whenever I feel stressed or need to be on my own, I go for a dive. It means everything to me. There was a time in my life that I could not even sleep without diving!
Q3. As a recognized underwater photographer, you have taken some of the most captivating shots underwater. How did your interest begin in the field and what was your initial aim in documenting the marine organisms and what was your biggest achievement?
My interest began while I was with the dive unit in MNDF. We used to document the search and recovery dives and it sparked my interest to explore further in marine photography. When I first started taking underwater photos, I used film cameras. I got into digital underwater photography in 2004. Today besides diving, I have been fortunate to showcase some of my underwater photography internationally and in local publications. I also had the opportunity to work with cinematography teams globally.
I have been proud to achieve the awards for First and Second in Underwater category and Best of Show; in the photography contest held by the Maldives Tourism Promotion Board in 2007.
Q4. In 2021, you established the first 50hrs underwater dive, to advocate and raise awareness for sustainable solutions to marine environment-related issues such as plastic pollution, climate change and threatened/endangered species. What impact did this have on your life and what was the community response to the initiative?
The 50-hour dive has taught me a lot of things, especially about people. The dive was mentally very challenging and exhausting, but I managed to do it. And I had a good team of support divers who helped me achieve it. Since then, the news about that dive made it to many international dive media, it's amazing to see how much support I have received from divers around the world.
Q5. You have been a VIP speaker at the Tek Dive Conference held in Singapore, several times. In your skillset as a professional diver, how important is diversity for Tek Diving which is not very common in the Maldives?
Yes, I have been invited almost every year to speak at the Tek Dive Conference at ADEX Singapore since 2016. It's a great honor to be included amongst the best technical divers in the world.
Technical diving has got a lot of scope in the Maldives. I have been doing these extreme deep dives since 2000 in the Maldives when I was part of the MNDF Dive Unit. There are so many deep cave systems across the Maldives and only a few have been explored. And Maldives needs to allow technical deep diving, so more and more people can do it.
Q6. Having explored deep cave systems of the Maldives and around the world, with even more to discover, can you recommend any good dive sites/destinations from your experiences?
For me, since I love diving deeper than 30 or 40m, my favorite dive sites now are in Vaavu atoll and in Huvadhoo. And also, the mines in Finland; which are very cold and require special training to be able to dive. I would love to take Maldivian divers to Finland and do some cave/mine dives with me one day. Plura cave in Norway and the caves in Florida and Mexico are currently on my bucket list.
Q7. Who is your go-to dive buddy?
There are quite a few of them to be honest. My go-to dive buddies are my wife, Michelle, then close friends Azim Musthaq and world-renowned technical diver Ben Reymenants. Then there are a few of my buddies from the MNDF Dive Unit who I used to always dive with back in the day.
Q8. What is your most memorable dive encounter and craziest thing you’ve seen underwater?
I love all marine life. So far, the most memorable marine life encounter has to be being in the water with a Humpback Whale and her calf. The craziest things I have seen underwater would be on the search and recovery dives that I used to do in the military. It’s best not to mention what they were.
Q9. What is your pre-dive ritual like, in preparing for a long deep dive? Any favorite dive snacks before/after a dive?
If I’m doing a long deep dive, I always do a workout or a run the night before the dive and mentally prepare myself. Sometimes, I just listen to music and read. I have a power bar or a protein bar before the dive. And after a dive, it's usually a cup of coffee and a sandwich.
Q10. What’s your proudest diving achievement and what are your future goals involving the emerging divers of the Maldives?
I guess the highlight would be to achieve the 50-hour dive as there were so many people in the dive industry who were looking forward to seeing me fail. Other than that, being recognized amongst a team of extreme divers from around the world.
Q11. What can we expect next from you? Are there any projects or initiatives you have planned that we should keep an eye out for?
Well, I have got a book in the pipeline, and we are in the process of finishing the setup of the Ocean Six Fifty Foundation to help make the underprivileged youth of Maldives achieve their dreams of becoming dive professionals, and create awareness about the fragile marine environment we have in Maldives. Then there's the podcast that I'm starting soon. And maybe another extreme dive event might happen as well. Who knows!
Q12. What would be your message to the young divers and others in the industry who wish to build a career in the Maldives?
The dive industry in Maldives is growing at a rapid pace. There will always be a need for divemasters or instructors. Will be an advantage to learn and be fluent in another language other than English as well. Don’t rush through your dive courses. Take your time and dive as much as you can. Build up your experience and reputation. There are no shortcuts. Don’t become a zero to hero dive professional.
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