SITTING IN THE AIR-TAXI DEPARTURE LOUNGE, I kicked off my shoes and put them in my backpack. They wouldn’t get worn again for two weeks.
Nor would we see a TV set, read a newspaper or listen to a radio. Following a 10-hour flight from Heathrow, we were heading for the tiny island of Athuruga, situated in the south of Ari Atoll, in the beautiful republic of the Maldives.
Transport to our final destination would be a Twin Otter seaplane, taking off from the main airport of Male, and half an hour later tying up to a floating raft (the arrivals lounge) just 200m off a caster-sugar beach.
Our home for the next two weeks would be one of the recently constructed luxury water villas set on stilts over the island’s lagoon, a far cry from Robinson Crusoe’s desert-island exploits.
The Republic of the Maldives consists of about 1200 coral islands grouped in a double chain of 26 atolls spread over almost 35,000 square miles, making this one of the most dispersed countries in the world.
The atolls are composed of live coral reefs and sandbars sitting on top of a 600-mile long submarine ridge that rises abruptly from the depths of the Indian Ocean.
The Maldives is the lowest country in the world, with a maximum natural ground level of only 2.3m, the average being only 1.5m above sea level. Over the past century, sea levels have risen about 20cm. Further rises of the ocean due to global warming could threaten the existence of the Republic, potentially leaving the whole country submerged.
Two seasons dominate the Maldives’ weather. The dry season is associated with the winter north-eastern monsoon, while the rainy season associated with the south-western monsoon brings an increase in wind and rain.
The dry north-eastern monsoon extends from January to March.
Air temperature ranges between 24-33°C. Humidity is relatively high, but the constant cool sea-breezes create a comfortable environment. Sea temperatures average 28°C throughout the year.

IN 1998, THE WATER TEMPERATURE ROSE by an average of 5°C due to the effects of El Niño, resulting in coral reefs being bleached as photo-symbiotic micro-organisms (red and green algae) were ejected. Nearly two-thirds of the hard corals were lost in this way.
But the Maldives corals have made a remarkable recovery, with about 50% of new growth covering the reefs.
The bleached coral attracts external algae growth, a food source for reef-dwelling creatures. Good news is that their numbers have risen accordingly, along with larger predatory fish who see them as lunch.
Diving deeper than 30m is not permitted in the Maldives, and dives are limited to 60 minutes. This is sound practice, because the only hospital is on the capital island of Male, along with hyperbaric facilities on the islands of Bandos, Kuramathi and Kuredu. Boat or seaplane transfers may take some time.
After settling into our water villa and taking a revitalising plunge just a few steps down from our private deck, it was time to visit the dive centre and get the show on the road. iDive is an Italian-owned and -managed operation that oozes style and efficiency in a relaxed, welcoming manner.
Because of its location, the island can offer dive trips to at least 36 sites within a short dhoni-ride, but day trips to other sites further afield are also available.
Athuruga also boasts an excellent house reef, dropping off to 35m a stone’s throw from the beach. I left my kit at the dive centre, ready for two weeks of relaxed diving.
The following morning I boarded the dhoni to head off to one of my favourite dive sites in this part of the atoll, Dega Thila. In the Maldives, thila generally refers to a small coral pinnacle that remains submerged at low tide.
The shallow reef-top enjoys an abundance of sunlight that in turn encourages rich coral growth. Dega Thila is a fine example of just how abundant this coral growth can be.

DESCENDING TO THE BASE of the reef at around 25m, I was surprised to see just how well the coral was continuing to recover in the four years since I last dived there, with new growth covering the entire pinnacle.
I found a black coral bush teeming with blue and green chromis, and with longnose hawkfish clinging to its branches. Small black-cheeked moray eels peered from crevices, and lionfish hung upside down under overhangs.
As we made our way around the base of the reef, a pair of eagle rays swam into view above us, holding themselves stationary in the current for just a few seconds before effortlessly flapping their wings and drifting off into the blue.
Slowly circling the thila, we ascended past small caverns filled to bursting point with dense shoals of glassfish. The reef top is home to a field of anemones with magenta-coloured skirts swaying in the current, adding vibrant colour to the pastels of hard coral.
Bright orange Maldivian clownfish flitting in and out of the tentacles, accompanied by black three-spot damselfish, also vying for territorial rights, create a rainbow effect against the bright bluewater backdrop.
The currents here and throughout the atolls can be strong, and although there is normally some shelter to be found on the leeward side of the reef, it’s always good practice to deploy a surface marker buoy at the safety-stop stage of the dive to ensure a problem free pick-up from your attendant dhoni.
Back on the island, it was lunchtime and a chance to enjoy a fantastic Maldivian curry at the beach restaurant.
I had decided not to join the afternoon divers, instead intending to spend some time exploring the house-reef, looking for easy photo opportunities.
The lagoon at Athuruga is home to a number of juvenile blacktip reef sharks. Seeking safety from their larger relatives, they can be found just inches from the surf-line, hunting down their own prey.
Unfortunately, as soon as they sensed my camera in the water they became extremely skittish, making the split-level shot of shark and island for which I was hoping an impossible task.

THE HOUSE REEF SHOWED SIGNS of coral damage around the entry/exit points but, as I ventured further along, it became pristine, with healthy hard coral growth and the usual marine life.
It’s best to snorkel or dive here during a rising tide; sand wash-off as the tide recedes can drastically reduce visibility.
Another day’s dive trip was to one of the top 10 rated dive sites in the republic; Mushimasmigili, thankfully also known as Fish Head, or Shark Thila.
Once famous for the resident grey reef sharks that made regular appearances due to hand-feeding by over-enthusiastic dive guides, the site is now designated as a protected marine park, the practice is illegal and sightings are less reliable.
Shark Thila is only 45 minutes by dhoni from Athuruga, and well worth the trip. As we descended through clear water, the reef top at 10m was clearly visible, enveloped by red-tooth triggerfish, vast shoals of blue-lined snapper and fusiliers.
The reef is quite sparse in terms of hard corals, but boasts large black-coral bushes and gorgonian fans, along with caves and overhangs. The fish life here is prolific, with marauding jack and trevally hunting down the baitfish.
The reef-top hosts lots of anemones, and scorpionfish and stonefish are common, with moray eels of all sizes finding shelter in the cracks and crevices.
We also encountered a pair of large loggerhead turtles grazing lazily on the algae-rich reef plateau. Along with the resident Napoleon wrasse, these provide great photo opportunities.
The dive guides were keen to share their favourite site with me, so Mamagiri was our next destination, and I can see why they rate this area so highly.
Hard corals were prolific and healthy. Staghorn and table corals were everywhere, surrounded by fields of lattice coral adorning the reef slopes.
Shoals of fusiliers and snappers cruised the plankton-rich water washed over the reef by the current.
This site is a good illustration of how well the coral eco-system has recovered. The battering Nature had dished out in the form of El Niño and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami was not evident here.
The currents that flow through the atoll passes and reefs provide excellent conditions for drift dives. Moofushi Kandu is an ideal location in which to enjoy the relaxed underwater drifts for which the Maldives are renowned.
A rich coral slope rises from the white-sand seabed at around 45m and terminates above the surface, extending for nearly two miles. Overhangs and caverns offer respite from the current.
Leopard and whitetip reef sharks are common sightings as they sleep on the seabed, and spotted eagle rays are almost guaranteed to be seen while they hang mid-water in the current.
Bright red and orange whip corals curl like pigs’ tails and vibrate in the flow; glassfish can be found tightly shoaled
in the small caverns, along with big-eye squirrelfish and coral grouper. This is Maldives drift diving at its best.

WE RESURFACED AFTER AN HOUR alongside the resort island of Moofushi that gives the site its name. A long line of water-villas extending along the lagoon was the back-drop as our dhoni driver and crew helped us back on board.
We visited and dived a further 19 sites over our two-week trip, enjoying the pristine reefs and rich marine life this area of the Indian Ocean has on offer.
Manta ray encounters are common in this part of Ari Atoll, along with the occasional whale shark, but we were here at the wrong time of year for these majestic creatures. December through to April is the best time to see them.
As demand from tourism grows, the resort islands are being further developed. Space is at a premium, so to increase room numbers the trend is to build water-villas on stilts over the shallow lagoons. Connected by jetties, they offer privacy and luxury.
The water-villas we called home during our stay at Athuruga were an example of this solution, and were of a very high standard.
An a la carte restaurant exclusively for use by the villas’ residents provides breakfast delivered to your private deck, an excellent way to prepare for a day’s diving, or a day relaxing with a book, recharging the bio-batteries in the sun.
Just kick off those shoes and expect no news – after all, this is the Maldives!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Nigel Wade flew with Sri Lankan Airlines from London Heathrow direct to Male International Airport, and transferred from Male to Athuruga via Maldivian Air Taxi, www.maldivianairtaxi.com. Excess baggage charges apply above 20kg for hold baggage.
DIVING: Idive Diving Centre, Athuruga, www.idive.it
ACCOMMODATION: Diamonds Athuruga Beach & Water Villas, www.kuoni.co.uk
WHEN TO GO: Year-round.
MONEY: Euros and US dollars are widely accepted.
PRICES: Seven nights’ all-inclusive accommodation including flights and seaplane transfers at Athuruga Island resort costs from £2470 per person (two sharing) for a beach bungalow, £3140 for a water villa. A 10-dive package at Idive costs 550 euros. Nitrox is available at extra cost for suitably qualified divers.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com