LOLI, WERNER LAU’S SWISS DIVE CENTRE MANAGER, asks me if I will buddy up with a young German woman. She looks fit and competent, but I point out that, as a photographer, I am not a good buddy when it comes to keeping an eye on someone else.
We drop into the water, and I hurry down to the reef’s end where the current strikes the thila, and find myself a lee so that I can get my act together, unfolding the flash-arms and turning on the power to my camera.
This is the point on a reef where all the big fish hang out, and I get busy taking pictures. Here I find a cluster of unusually pure silver sweetlips. It is something worth taking the trouble to capture as an image.
To get round the end of the reef requires me to get my head down and go for it, finning as powerfully as I can until I reach calm water again. It’s the last time I see my buddy before I get back on the boat. She has joined up with a group more likely to give her the attention she wants.
In the early part of the year, the Indian Ocean flows through the atolls of the Maldives and can be irrepressible where it meets obstructions under water – like the reefs or thilas that have formed mid-channel between the major reef formations.
It speeds up just like the air passing over the wing of a plane. This can make for challenging diving, but the wise diver looks for the areas where he can shelter from the underwater wind, dodging from spot to spot.

MOST OF THE MALDIVIAN THILAS have steep overhangs. It’s a good place to hover around in calm conditions, and it’s not only divers that are aware of this. You can meet the whole gamut of Maldivian and Indian Ocean life taking respite from the moving water.
It’s also a place where cleanerfish set up shop to ply their trade.
Surgeonfish seductively change colour in turn. They swap from their normal black to cream and a pale blue under the matching blue soft corals clinging to the ceiling of the overhangs.
This signals to the manicurists, the little electric-blue cleaner wrasse, that they are ready for their appointment.
Pointy-faced emperorfish hover placidly, awaiting their turn. They all make easy subjects for my camera.
Even the normally pugnacious titan triggerfish allows me to get close – but not as close as the big brown moray eel allows the little blue cleaners.
They pass in through its mouth and out through its gills in a display of total ignorance of their possible fate – or is it mere bravado
Grand marble rays relax on the sandy floor after a hard night’s searching for molluscs in the seabed. If I’m lucky, I’ll come across a nurse shark doing the same thing.
Ubiquitous blue-line snapper, the yellow keynote fish of the Maldives, pile up in heaps like commuters attempting to crowd into an already overfilled railway carriage, so desperate are they to stay within the shelter of the overhang.
I take more photographs, while hearing the echo of my wife’s voice asking how many more pictures of these yellow fish do I need
It’s fascinating. They always form up in a different arrangement, so that every picture taken of them is unique.
Hawksbill turtles find comfort too under the overhangs, and I find one taking a brief nap before heading back out onto the reeftop to feast on its favourite sponges.
I spend time with this one, as it is prepared to tolerate me rather than make a dash for it out into the ocean’s flow. Another turtle can be seen above us, making heavy weather of swimming back to the haven of still water in which we’re passing the time.
Meanwhile, a large group of oriental sweetlips is disturbed by my approach. They were neatly lined up like a stripy flotilla of submarines, but now they are flustered and don’t know quite where to put themselves.
I capture their chaos against a background of flourishingly dramatic red and purple soft corals. Some of them head reluctantly into open water.
These red and purple soft corals are fast growers and opportunistic feeders. When the water flows over them, they become bloated and emboldened.
I come across some that have colonised a clam, that has itself climbed aboard a piece of dead hard coral.
Not so flustered, a spiny puffer regards me with its large doe-like eyes.
It can’t swim fast, but it obviously plans for a contingency in case it decides that I pose a threat. It will inflate itself only as a last resort. Spiny puffers are intelligent as fish go, and this one gives me a thoughtful appraisal.
Out in the ocean, a posse of batfish pass by. They stick closely together. There’s obvious safety in numbers, and they’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. One straggler chases up the rear.
A couple of marauding jacks turn to bright flashes of silver as they harass and harvest a school of glassfish that thought they’d be safe in a crowd.
The Maldives offers the perfect destination for that paradise-island holiday, but of the 600 or so islands from which you can choose, it’s important to select one that suits you.
Some resorts offer the height of luxury but at a price. Choosing an island where you find everything is too expensive for your tastes can be a disaster.
Luckily, there is something for everyone. The island of Bathala offers slightly less luxurious facilities for those on more modest budgets, although it is within sight of what is probably one of the most expensive and therefore exclusive island resorts in Ari Atoll.

BATHALA HAS BASIC thatched bungalows of coral stone positioned in the shade within a few metres of the palm-fringed beach, but they have plenty of room inside and en-suite bathroom facilities.
The restaurant serves buffet food that comes in a wide variety, and because the capacity for guests is relatively small, you soon get to know everyone on the island.
The dive centre is staffed by a multi-national crew that included people from Switzerland, Germany, Finland and South Africa when I was there, and it is the only two-storey building on the island.
There are two jetties that are only a short walk away, and the one used each day for boarding the diving dhoni is dependent on the wind direction.
There is a choice of standard aluminium cylinders of around 12 litres, or 15 litre steel tanks. Nitrox is free on demand.
The house reef is directly accessible from the shore, and there is the usual Werner Lau rope system that indicates the entry and exit points. When you return from a dive, you simply leave your tank on the palm-fringed beach by the exit, and it magically gets transported back to the dive centre for refilling.
Dive sites visited by dhoni include all the popular ones in the northern reaches of Ari Atoll, including Fish Head, Maya Thila, the Halaveli wreck, Madivaru at Rasdhoo and Donkalu.
Ari Atoll offers some of the best lagoon diving in the Maldives, simply because there are lots of gaps in the island rim that form channels to allow through a flow of ocean water.
This brings clean water when there are “in” currents, giving that famous Maldivian underwater visibility.
It also provides plenty of nutrients, in the form of plankton that has bloomed in the warm sunshine, and this flows from the channels when the currents are outward-bound.
The result is a proliferation of corals both hard and soft, and masses of well-satisfied marine life.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Thomson Airways now flies direct to Male from the UK.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Dive Centre Bathala, www.wernerlau.com
WHEN TO GO: US dollars.
MONEY: US dollars.
PRICES: Regaldive can arrange packages to Bathala. Seven nights’ all-inclusive with flights, speedboat transfers costs from £1599pp (two sharing), www.regaldive.co.uk. Six house-reef dives cost £207.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com