After a hard swim to the edge of the drop-off, we are able to catch our breaths, and peer cautiously over a small coral ridge into the blue ocean water. There, as promised by our dive guide Carl, we see a school of 12 spotted eagle rays gliding gracefully to and fro along the reef wall and, further out, a group of about five grey reef sharks.

Among the greys is a darker-coloured shark with brilliant white trailing edges to its fins - the first silvertip I have seen. I shake my head in admiration. Carl had promised me this sight as well. Does he have some spooky control over the marine life My reverie is broken, as we are now pushing towards deco and have to ascend. A large barracuda swims past.

We are picked up by the dive dhoni, our support boat, and transferred to the Sea Queen, our liveaboard for the week. The weather is taking a turn for the worse, with heavy winds and a building sea. Diving from the dhoni will be difficult and lunches will be lost, so the decision is taken to motor across to the other side of the atoll and find shelter for the afternoons diving.

The crossing is a bit lumpy but a couple of hours later we arrive in an area that is completely calm, and are able to dive again straight away. It is an illustration of the great advantage of a liveaboard over the shore-based diving available in the Maldives. Not only do you have access to a larger number of dive sites, but if local conditions deteriorate or certain desired animals are absent, in a couple of hours you can be in a sheltered area or in another atoll altogether.

The eagle ray and shark dive was in Rasfari Kandu in North Male Atoll. A kandu is a channel where tidal water enters and leaves the atoll, and these sites provide the most exciting diving in the Maldives, as the currents are at their strongest and the waters particularly nutrient-rich.

These nutrients feed plankton, which attracts mantas, whale sharks and huge schools of small plankton-feeding fish such as fusiliers and red-toothed triggers. These small fish are preyed on by bluefin and giant jacks, dogtooth tuna, rainbow runners and, of course, sharks, including greys and numerous whitetips.

Another of the kandus we visited on this trip was Guraidhoo in South Male Atoll. This site is well known for the large pod of about 100 spinner dolphins that make their way out of the atoll every evening to hunt fish and squid in the open ocean.

We heard their squeaks and whistles under water on several of our dives there and were delighted to have them bow-ride the dhoni as we returned to the Sea Queen one evening. In the failing light a sailfish leaped clean out of the water. You never knew what you were going to see there.

Maldivian diving is more than current-ripping, adrenaline-pumping kandu-diving. Its the sheer variety of sites that makes the place so special. An example was our dive at Occaboli Thila in North Male Atoll, not far from the airport. A thila is a round or oval coral structure within an atoll that almost breaks the surface of the sea. It has a covering of coral heads and small caves and overhangs in its walls.

As we descended to the top of Occaboli, we found ourselves swimming in fish soup. Several different species of fusiliers formed a school so thick that we could barely see through it at times. Now and again they were scattered by hunting jacks and small tuna, and we could see a school of large black and red snapper hanging off the reef in blue water.
A shape loomed from behind us and materialised into the largest napoleon wrasse I have ever seen, a real dump-truck of a fish. He examined every diver closely with his piggy eyes before flapping off unhurriedly to patrol elsewhere.

As we followed his departure, we picked up another common Maldivian reef denizen coming the other way - a hawksbill turtle. As it passed us, it spotted something of interest under a coral head and started excavating the reef enthusiastically.

Closer inspection revealed its chosen food item to be some yellow sponge growing on dead coral. Picking up a discarded piece, I proffered it. The turtle eyed my offering, came over and took a speculative nibble. No good, evidently, as it then returned to its excavations.

Time was marching on and I took the opportunity to investigate the smaller animals living on the surface of the thila. I soon found a mantis shrimp in a small hollow, and then a beautiful brown-and-cream-coloured nudibranch, Chromodoris gleniei, looking more like a fancy confection than a sea beast.

I turned over a large black sea cucumber. Nestling among the tube feet was a tiny flattened scaleworm and two minute brown shrimps with white stripes down their backs. The shrimp (Periclimenes soror) and the scaleworm are commensal species that spend their lives being carried slowly around the reef by their echinoderm host - an example of the multitude of symbiotic relationships that can be found in the Maldives.

Pleased by my invertebrate hunting skills, I looked at the coral heads growing on top of the thila and was gratified to see plenty of them in a healthy condition. Unfortunately, this was not the case at all the dive sites we visited on this trip.

I had been to the Maldives on another liveaboard in 1997, a year before the severe coral bleaching event in 1998, and had been impressed then by the stands of staghorn coral in shallow water, with attendant schools of chromis. Now most of the reef-top coral was dead and covered with algae. The chromis were gone and I saw fewer butterflyfish.

Still, there were many encouraging signs of recovery. I found many small coral colonies growing on dead areas, and new staghorn branches several centimetres high.

After talking to several people and doing some homework later, I was surprised to find that a similar bleaching event had happened in the Maldives in 1987, and that all the reef-top table coral and staghorn I had admired in 97 had been less than 10 years old. Given no further major disruption, coral in the shallow areas should soon be back to its full glory and the already excellent Maldivian diving will get even better.

You will be hard-pressed to get better tropical diving for your money than on a Maldivian liveaboard. And I didnt even mention the eight manta rays we watched being cleaned together at Sunlight Thila. Youll love it.

Divernet
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A favourite of divers in the Maldives, a giant manta ray
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a romantic sunset can usually be relied upon
reef
reef shark sighting
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youll just want to go on getting wet

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: You can now fly direct to Male with SriLankan Airlines (0208 538 2001) or with Emirates via Dubai.
DIVING AND ACCOMMODATION: Cris Little stayed on Sea Queen. His trip was organised by Maldives Scuba Tours, 01449 780220, but check out other operators on ad pages.
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Wettest period from May to November, but it can rain at any time.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 27-30°C, some strong thermoclines so bring a 3mm suit.
MONEY: US $, credit cards.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All, but best dives are current-related.
FOR NON DIVERS: Sun and sea only on a liveaboard.
COST: A seven-night trip on Sea Queen costs £1350-£1400 and 12 nights £1975-£2000.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Maldives Tourism Promotional Board 00 960 32 3224, www.visitmaldives.com