IT WAS LITTLE MORE THAN a bleak sandy channel, fringed on each side with high coral reef walls. Some way in from the ocean stood a lonely coral boulder, a solitary feature in what looked like a sandy runway. This was the place.
Reminiscent of an airfield, the underwater aircraft lined up in turn to come in from the ocean and approach this single servicing point, where tiny technicians set about cleaning the fuselage of each one.
As soon as one was satisfied, it would return back down the channel to the ocean, only to be replaced by the next waiting in line.
A handful of us divers clung to the coral rubble at the edge of the channel, watching the seemingly endless show like so many plane-spotters gathered at Heathrow.
I flattened myself and slid slowly across the sand towards the coral boulder, in the hope of getting a close-up of an underside as it passed over but was soon pulled back by airfield security, in the form of one of our dive-guides.
I chose instead to head out alone down the channel to get my close-ups as these magnificent creatures headed in.
Reef mantas. There are many places in the Maldives where the rays come to get cleaned by small reef fish, and this was just one of them. The mantas allow access to their mouths and gills, and the little cleanerfish get a free meal in exchange for their efforts.
The channel seemed ideal for the mantas to manoeuvre. They didn’t need to negotiate any coral obstructions until they got to the maintenance bay that was the boulder lying alone on the sand.
At the same time, the rather straight channel became a highway that allowed me to anticipate their route both in from and out to the ocean.
I found a handy outcrop on the coral wall that they would often pass over, and behind which I could conceal myself. Ambush-hunting is the best philosophy when attempting to photograph animals that can swim a lot faster than you can.
The visibility was less than clear. After all, mantas love plankton-loaded water, even if underwater photographers do not. It’s what they feed on. To encounter a spa after a meal was a bonus as far as these gentle giant elasmobranchs were concerned.
I was able to photograph several rays without disturbing their relaxed approach, wings flapping in a leisurely manner, to their regular morning treat after a night of ocean roaming.
It was a treat for me to be one of so few divers present.
A small liveaboard is initially less seductive when booking a trip than some of the more exotic vessels around.
On board, there’s little you can do to escape the other passengers if you need your own space.
The upside is that with only eight other divers in the water, you have the ocean very much to yourself once you’re immersed in it.
Sea Queen is a small liveaboard by today’s standards, sleeping a maximum of 12 passengers. It’s based on a traditional Maldivian dhoni and has a smaller dhoni that is used as a diving tender.
All the diving paraphernalia is kept on the diving dhoni, including the compressor and nitrox-mixing installation, which makes more use of space on the main vessel.
All the facilities one takes for granted, such as endless fresh water, en suite bathroom and air-conditioning, are available, though the cabins are a little more cramped than on bigger vessels.
Three or four dives are the order of the day, and I soon found that I could be left to my own devices.
The main group would follow the dive guides, and as soon as I paused to make a photograph, I found myself very much on my own.
That suited me. A good surface-marker device meant that I was always spotted and picked up when I needed to be.

I HAD FLOWN DOWN with a group of other divers to join Sea Queen in one of the most southerly atolls, Huvadhoo, just north of the Equator.
Our route meandered northwards through Laamu, Thaa, Meemu, Vattura and Vaavu atolls, until we finally disembarked at Male airport 12 days later.
We rarely spotted another dive-boat during the journey, and saw no other divers under water at any time. It was a relatively long journey, but very little of it was done in the open sea, most of the crossings being within the calm waters of the various lagoons.
The atolls form a chain that stretches both north and south of Male, the capital island. All the other islands fulfil the specification for a dream palm-fringed tropical paradise.
Of course, because the larger animals found under water around these atolls rarely get to see divers, unlike the animals in the often-visited Ari atoll and the two Male atolls, they tend to be a little skittish. Approaching a roosting turtle had to be done with extreme patience to get a picture before they made a mad dash for the open sea.
It was the same whether they were hawksbill or green turtles.
Occasionally a less-experienced hawksbill turtle would get confused, think my camera’s glass dome port was a jellyfish and try to bite it, giving me the chance for the close-up, but these occurrences were few and far between.
Sadly, we saw evidence that turtles were still being hunted by the locals when we went ashore on a local island.
There were plenty of grey reef and whitetip reef sharks out in the blue, but always at the periphery of visibility and never close enough to photograph properly. The same could be said of the marlin and other sailfish that we observed. They were “sightings” rather than true encounters,
However, it was great to see virgin coral reefs that were as extensive, varied, profuse and vibrant as all the Maldives reefs had been before the awful coral-bleaching incident back in 1998.
If it was schooling fish that interested us, there were plenty. Besides the Maldives’ signature fish, great clouds of yellow blue-line and aggregating red snapper, there were spirals of barracuda and schools of silvery jacks to tantalise.
I was especially pleased to get a close-up of a school of humpback snapper with their pretty red fins. It’s a species of fish that is particularly reticent about getting its picture taken.
If leaf-fish float your boat, our dive-guides found at least one on every dive, and teams of juvenile batfish would head in from open water to take a closer look at us. I like animals that are bigger than me, and a pair of feathertail rays in two different colour schemes, lying together on the reef, got me excited.
At Vattara atoll, the solitary ring formed by a defunct volcano between Meemu and Vaavu atolls, we came across a lonely leopard shark that was kind enough to lie lethargically in one place while everyone recorded video and took pictures of it.
When it finally swam off it didn’t go very far, and I was able to follow it and get my shot once it had settled down in a new spot on the reef.
In fact most of our dives fell into the lethargic category. Although the channels or kandus of the Maldives are notorious for the powerful currents driven by the ocean squeezing in and out of the lagoons, and I had come equipped to cope with the strongest flows, we were lucky in that we experienced little of this.
The most frenetic dive was towards the end of our trip at Alimatha Island. The local resort had got into a routine of feeding the sharks every night for the benefit of its guests sitting high and dry on the jetty.
We hijacked the event by diving nearby. Our dive-guides put in a large tin-canful of fish scraps on the seabed, and these attracted the feeding frenzy over to where we were.

SOON WE WERE SURROUNDED by walls of fully grown nurse sharks, piled up in the darkness all around us while a few of the braver ones made forays in to get at the bait.
Assorted large rays, marble, whip-tail and feather-tail, were cluttering up the seabed as large silver trevallies excitedly flitted in and out of our lamp beams in the gloom. At last we had some large animal encounters that were worth writing home about.
It required a steady nerve combined with perfect buoyancy control in the darkness to ensure that one didn’t accidentally lie on a ray, because everything rushed in and out of the pool of light provided by the lamp.
The black water seemed to be churning with large animals, and several of the divers in our group momentarily found themselves closer to sharks and rays than they might have planned.
The whole dive was at a maximum depth of 14m and lasted for a very hectic hour.
Everything was moving far too quickly for me to attempt to compose a picture, so I just clicked away, hoping to catch magic moments.
These odysseys up through the less-visited southern atolls give you the opportunity to add a few new names of dive-sites to your logbook – all the while enjoying tropical weather.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Fly with BA, Sri Lankan, Emirates or Oman Air to Male and connect via local carrier.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Sea Queen, www.scubascuba.com
WHEN TO GO The driest part of the year is January to June.
CURRENCY US dollars and credit cards.
HEALTH No malaria in evidence. Hyperbaric treatment only in North Male atoll.
PRICES Scuba Tours Worldwide offers various packages aboard its own vessels Sea Queen and Sea Spirit, in addition to island-based diving holidays. A typical 12-night liveaboard trip that takes in Huvadhoo and Gan costs around £3290, including flights from London. Nitrox is around £5 per fill extra.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmaldives.com