A HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN tropical islands scattered across the vast blue waters of the western Indian Ocean. Most are blessed with the kind of picture-perfect beaches found in the glossiest magazines.
A favourite playground of the rich and famous, the Seychelles has long been promoted as a luxury destination for honeymooning couples, but the islands are often overlooked as a dive destination in favour of the Indian Ocean’s more celebrated archipelago, the Maldives.
It’s 10am on the main island of Mahe, and the dive-boat is skimming the water’s surface, giving the impression that it’s flying. It’s one of those rare days out on the ocean where everything comes together.
The sea is flat-calm and has taken on a velvety, ethereal quality, with the sort of deep blue colour that only Nature can produce so magnificently.
I’m wrestling to contain the kind of excitement a child experiences on Christmas Eve. Secretly I assemble a mental wish-list of marine creatures.

WE ARRIVE AT OUR DESTINATION, and I peer over the edge of the boat as the divemaster briefs us. The sunlight penetrates deep into the clear water, illuminating the reef below and enabling me to pick out individual corals, with their iridescent damselfish residents.
I watch as a pair of inquisitive batfish rise from the reef and spiral towards our boat
in search of an early morning hand-out.
Soon realising that there is little on offer, they head back down to the reef in search of more traditional offerings.
Now it’s my turn, and I roll into the water, following the batfish into their mysterious world.
Brasare Rocks lies 30 minutes north of Mahe, and on its day is a world-class dive-site. The reef starts just below the surface, dropping to 20m. As I descend, a whitetip reef shark swims lazily by, its sinuous body propelling it effortlessly through the water.
The reef hosts a remarkable diversity of healthy coral species. Branches of delicate Acropora jut out into the water column, many with accompanying hawkfish and tiny coral crabs wearing the most intricate of patterns. Schools of anthias dart amid a cluster of soft corals, providing a dazzling display of orange and gold confetti.
Above the reef a squadron of eagle rays glides past. I give up counting at 15. They seem to move in unison, altering direction thanks to some unknown cue invisible to the human eye.
Brasare is home to an impressive number of Napoleon wrasse and bumphead parrotfish. Six bumpheads, with their bulbous foreheads, move across the reef, stopping occasionally to remove fist-sized pieces of coral with their powerful teeth. The 30m visibility is temporarily obstructed as these leviathans of the reef eject a steady stream of sand behind them.
After 55 minutes. the divemaster signals that it’s time to surface. I have no desire
to leave the water, but my gauge says otherwise. We hang at 5m, watching the spectacle continue below us.
The second dive of the day is at a site called Dragons Teeth, conveniently located less than 100m from Brasare rocks.
The topography below the water is much the same, with granite formations covered in a diversity of hard corals sloping down to a sandy bottom.

AS I REACH THE SUBSTRATE at 20m. a huge school of barracuda come into view just away from the reef. I swim towards them and the school engulfs me, spiralling into a vortex like one immense super-organism. I hover motionless, slowing my breathing so as not to disturb them with my bubbles.
My senses are heightened and I can hear my heartbeat. The column tightens around me, and I’m faced with a wall of fish until suddenly they peel off and disappear into the blue.
Back on the reef, schools of blue and yellow snapper pack tightly together. As I pass between them they part, curtain-like.
A gang of jack are hunting. They dart at lightning speed, their bodies flashing silver and gold as they repeatedly strike
like heat-seeking missiles at a school of glassfish surrounding a coral outcrop.
I watch the scene unfold, the jack bursting with energy, relentless in their attack. All the while the clouds of snapper hang in suspended animation, barely moving as a pair of whitetip reef sharks cruise past.
The two dives have left me exhausted. My eyes have over-indulged in a visual feast that had me on high alert from the moment of entry.
Next morning we head to the tiny palm-covered islet know as Lilot, to the north of Beau Vallon Bay and just off northern Mahe. The granitic reef surrounding the island is known for its soft corals.
The endless visibility of the previous day has gone but at 15m it’s still good, and the sunshine pierces deep into the blue to reveal beautiful soft corals that festoon the granite formations below.
As I descend the anchorline I am confronted by shades of orange, purple and pink, as the corals and sea whips struggle to remain upright in the passing current.
A sea cucumber of the genus Stichopus sits on the sand at the bottom of the reef. On its back a pair of emperor shrimp go about their daily routines.

NUDIBRANCHS ARE PLENTIFUL HERE, and I find a Nembrotha feeding on an encrusting red sponge. A Chromodoris gleniei, endemic to the Indian Ocean, slowly crawls along a granite wall, its delicate rhinophores testing the water for the presence of other members of
its species.
Lilot is not all about macro, however, and as I make my way around the islet I begin to realise that this is a site that demands to be dived again.
Schools of soldierfish sway in the current, while a large inquisitive marble ray swims close by, hugging the substrate as it passes. A 2m nurse shark is lying in a cave facing the current, its mouth slowly opening and closing as it forces oxygen-rich water over its gills.
The surface interval is spent in Beau Vallon Bay, where the second dive takes place. Coral Gardens is a shallow reef, around 14m at its deepest point, and offers a more relaxing experience.
The reef is healthy with fantastic coral cover and fish are plentiful but small, with brightly coloured butterflyfish and angelfish a common sight.
There is no current and I can take my time, moving slowly above the substrate, stopping to observe a white-mouthed moray with its head raised above the reef.
A pair of blue-streak cleaner wrasse are busy picking parasites and dead skin from its body, confident in the mutual understanding characteristic of symbiotic relationships on all coral reefs.
On my final day of diving we make a 15-minute journey under blue skies to Grouper Point, named after the large fish that inhabit the caves and overhangs created by the granite formations.
Huge boulders are stacked up under the water, each one covered in an assortment of hard corals and sponges. A large mixed school of black snapper and chub swim high in the water column above the reef.
At 12m I make my way along a canyon and around a granite boulder the size of
a double-decker bus. As I turn the corner I come face to face with a large Napoleon wrasse. At 1.7m long, this individual is likely to be more than 20 years old.
An intricate golden maze of patterns on its face contrast vividly with the bright blue-green wash of its cheeks.
For what seems like an eternity, though probably only seconds, we lock into some kind of submarine staring contest. Then the Napoleon shakes off its somnolence, turns and disappears into the blue.
I descend to a sandy bottom in 20m. A white leaf-fish sways gently in the current, while a peacock mantis shrimp peers from its burrow. Groups of oriental sweetlips in their gaudy pyjama-like stripes hide in the shadows under the boulders.

AFTER 50 MINUTES, we make our safety stop just as a couple of devil rays glide past. Grouper Point may have failed to live up to its name this time but it had plenty of other attractions to keep us happy.
My final dive is within the Baie Ternay Marine Park, next to Grouper Point. This beautiful bay is surrounded on three sides by lush green vegetation, interspersed with small sandy beaches.
The shallows provide excellent snorkelling over healthy coral bommies, and an impressive array of reef fish.
We tie up to a mooring buoy and drop to the bottom of a sloping wall. The diversity of hard coral is incredible. As you might expect of a marine park, not only are there more fish here, but they seem supersized.
Every coral outcrop boasts a pair of redmouth or peacock grouper, and I’m pleased to see a hawksbill turtle as we climb up the slope. Busy eating a clump of soft coral, it barely acknowledges our presence. Beneath an overhang a pair of whitetip reef sharks rest top to tail, neither one more than a foot long.
The reef flattens out at 5m, the substrate hidden beneath a lush carpet of hard coral. I spot another turtle, this time a green. It is resting on a leather coral, and allows us to approach without showing concern.
An eagle ray flies past, desperately trying to lose a passenger it has picked up – a remora. This exquisite reef is one of the healthiest I have seen in a long time.
The Seychelles may lack the large manta aggregations that the Maldives can boast but it does have excellent diving to cater for most tastes. Dive sites around Mahe are easily accessible, and often you will find that yours is the only boat diving a site.
Diving can be done year round, though the best time for calm seas and good visibility is March to June and October/ November. Between August and November whale sharks congregate around the island and snorkelling trips can be organised through a local NGO.
With more than 50 dive sites around Mahe alone and many other islands to explore, there is no shortage of possibilities for a holidaying diver.

GETTING THERE: Emirates Airways, Qatar and Etihad fly from the UK to Victoria on Mahe via Dubai. No visa is needed.
DIVING: Blue Sea Divers (www.bluesea divers.com), Big Blue Divers (www.bigbluedivers.net), the Underwater Centre (www.diveseychelles.com.sc)
ACCOMODATION: Everything from luxury hotels to self-catering. The Beau Vallon area has a number of affordable self-catering options and is close to the dive centres.
WHEN TO GO Year-round diving, but the calmest months are April and October.
MONEY: Seychelles rupee, but sterling and euros accepted.
PRICES: UK tour operator Original Diving can offer full packages at a range of prices. From £2010pp it will arrange seven nights at Berjaya Beau Vallon Bay Resort on Mahe in
a standard room on a half-board basis with international flights, transfers and 10 dives with the Underwater Centre, www.originaldiving.com
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.seychelles.travel