OF THE MANY DIVE DESTINATIONS I’ve enjoyed over the years, the Maldives remains a firm favourite. I have visited the country many times, and worked there for a brief period as a dive guide. It never fails to impress with both its beauty and its abundance of marine life.
When considering a trip there, however, it’s worth remembering that a certain payoff has to be made when choosing an island.
Many of the newer resorts have less eroded beaches and more up-to-date facilities, but their house reefs can suffer during the construction process and can take some years to regain their eco-librium and splendour.
The slightly older resorts may not have the most polished facilities, but often have groyne walls jutting out from their beaches to protect the island from further erosion, and may also have the best house reefs.
With this in mind, I chose to revisit Reethi Beach in Baa Atoll. Recently added to UNESCO’s biosphere list, this atoll is high on the list for divers in search of whale sharks and manta rays.

ARRIVING BY SEAPLANE, you touch down in the lagoon a few hundred metres from the island and, once settled in your room, take off your shoes. You don’t put them back on until your day of departure.
My last visit here was 10 years before, just over two years after Reethi Beach opened, and it has since undergone a major refurbishment. Among its facilities is a refitted dive school, now offering free nitrox fills. It still has one of the Maldives’ most beautiful beaches.
It was manta season, and with my buddy anxious to get his first sighting in his logbook, we were eager to get into the water. Our check-dive on the house reef showed a much healthier and vibrant reef than on my last visit, and a relaxing dive eased us into our two-week stay.
Much to my buddy’s delight, that first manta sighting came on our second day, as we made our way to Daravandhoo, one of my favourite sites.
Our guide Mufeed had, as I would soon discover, the eyes of a hawk. He stopped the boat and got us into the water with our snorkels.
Moments later, three large manta rays were flying about at our feet, gliding back and forth over a shallow cleaning station and pleasantly unfazed by our presence above them.
We finally dragged ourselves from the water some half an hour later.
This pre-dive snorkel became a regular feature of our dives, as we often spotted three or four mantas at a time. The action continued under water, allowing us a closer view of the rays’ compelling majesty.
Appearing to be more mouth than fish, and almost big enough to swallow you whole, nothing quite compares to the first time one of these animals comes towards you.
That first experience fills you with a flutter of both excitement and nerves, but as the rays spin and turn on an impossible axis, all this turns to childlike wonder.
On one dive, as we held onto a current-strewn reef, one manta swam towards us and somersaulted just a few feet clear of our heads, its massive wingspan stretching out in excess of the space taken up by four crouched divers.
Then we looked up to see a turtle playing in our bubble-stream. It stayed with us for a while as we drifted along the reef, before eventually heading to the surface for more breathable air.
That day turned out to be one of the most memorable I’ve spent in the Maldives. Shortly before arriving at the site, Mufeed spotted something in the water. He had the dhoni, the traditional Maldivian dive-boat, turn to investigate, and we soon discovered three turtles tangled among a drift of netting. Mufeed and the other guide jumped into the water and set about cutting them free.
Clearly tired and panicked, the turtles looked as if they had been there for some time. Struggling against their rescuers, they flapped about on the surface, tangling themselves further in the netting and making the job of freeing them all the more fraught and delicate.
We waited on tenterhooks as the guides wrestled with the three frightened turtles. After some skilful knife-work, and much to everyone’s relief, they were freed. At the moment of release, each turtle burst with energy and darted for the safety of the reef.
No sooner had we waved goodbye than a small pod of dolphins appeared. They followed us for much of the way to our second dive, Miraku Vahdee, and then, typically, vanished before
we managed to get into the water.
Mufeed told us rather cryptically that Miraku Vahdee was a special site.
As soon as we were in the water, I realised that understatement was another of his many talents.
Giant table corals, metres across, parasoled out over the reef; great mounds of pavonas and favites clumped together next to whole forests of tubastrae, while the lower reef was utterly covered in staghorn corals, their spiny, razor-sharp interiors host to the teeming fry of countless species.
Everywhere you looked, the landscape seemed alive with the healthiest of hard corals.

I FIRST VISITED THE MALDIVES six months before the devastating El Niño of 1998. It was a heartbreaking sight that greeted me on my return a year later, when an estimated 75% of the hard coral had died, with several species thought to have gone forever.
Miraku Vadhee, however, showed no signs of this harsh culling. It had none of the ashen, dead coral that remains a familiar sight on some Maldivian reefs.
I never thought I’d see this profusion of healthy hard corals in the Maldives again. In all my years of diving, it was one of the most heart-warming sights to behold.
Still on a high from the day’s diving, next morning we discovered the water to be thick with small jellyfish. Despite my buddy’s trepidation, I eagerly jumped in; I’m at my happiest
when turtles are about, and jellyfish are a dietary favourite of theirs.
Wearing a full wetsuit left me largely protected, though my buddy in his shortie was suffering considerable discomfort. Before descending into clearer, less painful waters, we watched for as long as my buddy could bear as four turtles darted about, gobbling down jellyfish.
Below us, the reef appeared to be aggressively bleached, though I suspect my disappointment was largely due to being spoiled by such spectacular corals the previous day. But as is often the case with Mother Nature, she takes with one hand and gives with the other.
Turtle shells are perfectly camouflaged for this grey and brown topography, and once our eyes had adjusted to the reef we could see that it was dotted with turtles, several crashing about with their customary lack of grace. By the end of the dive we had stopped pointing them out; by the time you caught your buddy’s eye, another had appeared.
Not to miss at Reethi is a night dive on its house reef. Moments after you enter the water, you’re surrounded by sting rays. Dozens greet you like eager, curious puppies, often coming so close that they push you out of the way and brush against your camera lens.
The rest of the dive is likewise alive with activity. The beady eyes of lobsters poke out from everywhere, and every available cranny is stuffed with sleeping triggers and parrotfish. Hunting morays swim about in search of octopuses, and countless cleaner shrimps queue up to offer a quick manicure.
Sea-Explorer, a PADI 5* dive centre, visits so many great dive sites, but try not to miss Daravnandhoo, Dhegaa Thila, Millaidhoo or Kuda Giri.
The first is truly beautiful, rich in soft corals and anemones. It’s a nudibranch paradise, with the added possibility of everything from mantas and mantis shrimps to rays and turtles.
Dhegaa Thila is a spectacular dive for lovers of fish soup. The day we went, the reef was teeming with dense shoals of vibrant fusiliers, triggers, jack, anthias and oriental sweetlips. I’m sure we missed almost as much as we saw.
For Millaidhoo, take your torch; its great overhangs and caves come to life with a bit of extra light.
In one of these caves we discovered two giant octopuses. We had thought they were part of the cave wall, but as they moved together we could see that their heads were the size of medicine balls.
Feeling as if I’d only scratched the surface, I’d love to have had the chance to dive the site a few more times.
Kuda Giri was my buddy’s favourite dive. Situated in a neighbouring atoll, it is done only as part of a full day’s trip, but is well worth requesting.
Even the most experienced divers sounded like awestruck novices after the dive, as everyone raved about the vibrancy of colours.

THE SHALLOW PART OF THIS REEF was a Fauvist display of corals and activity, and for most of the dive we found ourselves grinning through our regulators like excited children in Santa’s grotto.
From the beautiful beaches, the sands of which light up your footprints at night with bioluminescent plankton, to the fabulous snorkelling and diving, I could see why many of the divers we met were repeat visitors.
Having stayed on other islands, once they discovered Reethi it had become their destination of choice. For many this was their third or even fourth trip there.
I suspect that Sea Explorer’s slick and professional operation plays a great part in the island’s popularity. It had added many more dive sites to its repertoire since my previous visit, and doesn’t rest on its laurels.
It offers a range of courses, so while there my buddy did his peak performance buoyancy; something I would recommend to everyone.
Apart from a marked improvement to his buoyancy, it provided him with a 20-30bar reduction in his air consumption.
One thing I did notice, sadly, was how rare sightings of sharks and Napoleon wrasse had become. With numbers down post-Tsunami, and greatly reduced because of illegal fishing, the only time we saw sharks was while snorkelling on the house reef.
A couple of leopard sharks regularly patrol the shallower waters, and close encounters with them were quite common during an afternoon’s snorkel.
Also seen regularly were guitar sharks, turtles, sting rays, the odd manta and even some dolphins on our last day.
Only on four days of our fortnight did we fail to see mantas. By September and October, some sites boast dozens of them, and the occasional whale shark.
Unfortunately, despite my best efforts and almost 1000 dives in my logbook, the whale shark still eludes me!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly with Emirates via Dubai or Sri Lankan via Colombo.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Sea-Explorer (www.sea-explorer.net) at Reethi Beach Resort, www.reethibeach.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but check with it’s worth checking with your chosen dive centre in the Maldives on the seasonal movements of marine creatures.
MONEY: US dollars. Maldivian rufiyaa.
LANGUAGE: Dhivehi, but English widely spoken at resort.
PRICES: Dive Worldwide offers seven nights with breakfast at Reethi Beach Resort (two sharing) with flights from the UK, transfers and a dive package from £1685, www.diveworldwide.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com