A whale shark making eye contact is an unforgettable experience

It was no contest. But so long as the whale shark made no discernible attempt to propel itself through the water I could, by finning vigorously, just about keep pace. I stayed tight alongside, scrutinising its flattened head and ridged flanks for some sign of life.

After several minutes I was rewarded with the smallest of movements. The creatures diminutive eye stirred in
its socket. It had been covered by a pale membrane, leaving its owner presumably sightless. But now the wrinkled skin peeled forward, and the eye carefully swivelled round until it was looking straight back at me.

It was the second morning of a four-day cruise on the Four Seasons Explorer, one of the newest and most outrageously well-appointed Maldives liveaboards, and we were at Maamagilli Faru on the southern
tip of South Ari Atoll.

Leaving the boat in a RIB, we headed for the channel, where the whale sharks had been spotted earlier by another boat. By the time we arrived, our snorkelling group had already been in the water with
a 6m individual, and we motored carefully to a spot further up-channel, hoping to get in ahead.

Nazeer and I had been searching at 10m for several minutes when we saw the dark shadow approaching to our left. The sharks descent was straight and gently angled, and we were easily able to intersect its path. Thus we accompanied it, I near the head, Nazeer behind the dorsal fin, as it slid into the depths.

Resisting the urge to stretch over and touch the shark, I marvelled at its size and structure. Still far from full-grown, it had come to this ocean-current-swept spot to feed, but was not doing so at present. Scanning its immobile body, I saw that a portion of the upper tail fin was missing, and this was later to prove significant.

But what the creature boasted in terms of bulk it seemed to lack in personality - its blank gaze doing little to suggest that it would make stimulating long-term company. Its physical animation also continued
to be noticeable by its absence, but here I was about to be surprised.

After seven or eight minutes I gave up the effort of swimming and waited for our groups videographer to take up the escort below me at around 25m. I watched as the two forms, one almost four times as long and broad as the other, proceeded shoulder to shoulder - their silhouettes gradually darkening.

Whether Tim actually made contact or just got a bit too close was uncertain. But the sharks sudden movement belied its previous immobility. Swinging its cartilaginous tail rapidly, and with a fluidity denied to any bony fish of the sea, the shark sped away, its solid shape suddenly small and isolated against the sandy acre of visible seabed.

In the boats comfortable lounge that evening, the mood was jubilant. For many of the crew, as for myself and the other passengers, it was a first whale-shark encounter.

As we settled in front of a wide plasma screen to watch a video of the days activities, there was unexpected news. During the editing of the daily footage, the video crew had had the opportunity to study the whale shark.

In doing so, they had noticed something odd. In contrast to the diving footage, the images of the shark that accompanied the snorkelling group showed an undamaged tail fin. Our 6m shark had in fact been two different, similarly-sized, individuals cruising the same area.

A short dhoni ride away from Maamagilli, on the south-eastern corner of Ari Atoll, Kudarah Thila rises steeply to within 14m of the surface. Also known as Broken Rock, this reef is shaped like an upturned pudding out of which big chunks have been crudely hacked. Being both compact in size and swept by significant currents, it is a magnet for local fish, which pack tightly around its towering slopes.

The plan was to dive just after daybreak, hoping that the low light levels would bring plenty of predator action.

We were not disappointed. Swimming along the bottom against the current, we were soon engulfed by a swirl of agitating life. Fish clothed every surface, and we watched mesmerised as pulsating shoals of blue fusiliers and batfish swept back and forth overhead, then transmuted into a tightly-packed baitball as jacks, tuna and barracuda moved in.

Suddenly the baitball exploded with a crack as a thousand tail-fins snapped in unison in desperate manoeuvres to evade the metallic forms catapulting through.

The speed and movement of this scene was electrifying. But, as with any spectacle, the imaginative effect depended on your point of view. For the fish on the receiving end of the violence, the fear was palpable. Even as they re-assembled ready for the next assault, the water still vibrated with their terror.

After a strong swim we sought shelter close against the substrate, watching the reef inhabitants engage in their own dangerous games of hide and seek. Here a yellow trumpetfish ghosted on the shoulder of a coral cod to within striking distance of its prey; there a dusky peacock grouper lay poised in the shadow of a boulder.

Finning on, we reached a larger lee area that was also closer to the current point, where grey sharks and whitetip reef sharks could be seen hovering in twos and threes.

Slowly, two large whitetips peeled off and headed across the reef towards me. Unusually, they kept coming. I knew that whitetips dont usually pose a threat to divers, but it seemed only polite to give way. Dropping to the reef, I watched the athletic bodies pass a metre or so above my head, wondering vaguely what would have happened had I opted to stay put.

Having joined the boat following a 40-minute seaplane transfer, our leisurely 120-mile cruise would take us back to the vessels base at the Four Seasons Resort at Kuda Huraa, just north of Male. En route we would take in dive sites in South Male Atoll and the relatively undeveloped Felidhoo Atoll, as well as South Ari.

The trip was pitched firmly at the top end of the liveaboard market, and such commodious surroundings dont come cheap. I was therefore interested to find out whether the extra expense was worth it.

My general experience of diving holidays is that you dont always get what you pay for. Excellent diving at moderate prices can be had in places such as the Red Sea and the Far East. But it is easy to pay a great deal more for a trip, liveaboard or otherwise, and get a distinctly average experience.

On this occasion, however, it was difficult to find fault. From the sumptuous accommodation and exquisitely prepared meals (taken in the air-conditioned dining room or al fresco), to the well-stocked library of CDs, books and DVDs, and the daily talks by the resident marine biologist, the experience was world-class.

Equipped with four RIBs and a Boston whaler plus the dhoni, the liveaboard gave convenient access to dive sites well chosen for their variety and suitability to a range of experience levels. Of particular note was the service - on the liveaboard, the diving dhoni, and back at Kuda Huraa Resort. It was memorable for its charm and informality, combined with attention to detail.

After a couple of days, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to be greeted, after every dive, with a fresh towel, a bottle of mineral water, a cool flannel and a selection of tropical fruits.

The Four Seasons Explorer is especially attractive for divers with non-diving partners and those with other family members (over the age of 10) who dive or snorkel. It is less suited to those wanting to be in the water for more than the maximum three dives a day.

Also on the itinerary was a night dive; dives with squadrons of spotted eagle rays, hawksbill and green turtles, Napoleon wrasse, iridescent nudibranchs, free-swimming yellow-margin morays; and dives on overhangs where trains of blue-striped snapper drifted.

At one site we found a sprawling short-tentacled anemone that was home to a bustling colony of black-and-white striped anemonefish. As well as a dozen or so adults and scores of perfectly formed and coloured juveniles the size of 10p coins, there were countless miniature versions no bigger than shirt buttons.

Which was the most memorable experience of the trip The one that stood out came during a dawn dive at Hurahu Kandu, in the secluded waters of Felidhoo Atoll. We were scanning out in the blue, looking for the dusky shapes of sharks, tuna and other predators that might be taking advantage of the weak early light.

I knew that the thrill of the hunt would be as much about what we imagined in the shadowy distance as what we found, but nothing prepared me for that morning.

I had dived in blue water many times before, but on this occasion the depth - perhaps 12m - combined with the haziness of the early sun and the slight murkiness of the water to make the natural light so diffuse that it appeared to be entirely without source. Ahead, behind, to left and right - even, it seemed, above and below - there was an evenness of illumination which, in a spellbinding effect, removed all sense of distance, colour and direction.

After a while we turned and headed back towards the reef wall. We had seen precisely nothing but for several long minutes had been suspended in a space that looked and felt like none that I had ever visited or could have conceived of. Sometimes its true: less is more.

A
A jack among the snappers
Nigel
Nigel Eaton prepares for yet another electrifying experience
No
No one has to rough it on the Four Seasons Explorer
Oriental
Oriental sweetlips on the reef


FACTFILE


GETTING THERE: Scheduled and charter flights from the UK to Male are available with carriers including Emirates, BA and Air Lanka from around £600. Nigel Eatons scheduled flight with Austrian Airlines via Vienna and Sri Lanka cost £650. Kuda Huraa Resort is a half-hour boat ride from Male.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : The four-night cruise was part of a seven-night package, including three nights on Kuda Huraa. Other cruise options include a five-night package with three nights on the liveaboard. Packages include airport speedboat transfers, one-way seaplane transfer (resort to vessel or vice-versa), plus full-board meals, hot drinks, watersports and recreational activities, and any necessary diving gear, on the liveaboard. Contact Four Seasons on Kuda Huraa (00960 444 888, www.fourseasons.com)
WHEN TO GO : Year-round. Water temperature is 26-28°C.
COST : Seven- and five-night Four Seasons packages start at US $2360 and $1810 per person respectively. Four Seasons Explorer is available for private charter at a cost of around $9000 per day.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com


The Four Seasons Explorer

As well as the restaurant and lounge, this 128ft catamaran built by Image Marine of Perth, Australia, features a well-stocked bar and two sundecks with Jacuzzi. The separate large diving deck is equipped with a full range of latest gear and includes nitrox facilities.

Cruise Director Michael Clarke is able to call on a crew of 23 to look after the needs of a maximum of 22 passengers. Each guest is accommodated in one of 11 air-conditioned suites with large twin or double beds, TV, CD/DVD, and ensuite facilities including bath, shower and non-marine head.

Non-divers are catered for with snorkelling, sea kayaking, water-skiing, fishing, beach activities on private sandbars, and visits to cultural centres on islands inhabited only by the local Maldivians.

Amando Kraenzlin, the General Manager at Kuda Huraa Resort and a major force in the Explorer project, is a passionate diver, and his enthusiasm is reflected by the staff at the resort, at the on-site PADI dive centre, and of course aboard the boat.

Several staff told me independently that many of the guests who had tried the Explorer in the past year had immediately booked to come back, some chartering the entire vessel. It is not difficult to understand why.