DECEMBER THROUGH TO MARCH usually sees the Maldives manta rays and whale sharks turn up in large numbers in the centre of Ari Atoll.
The currents change at this time of year and flow forcibly into the atoll, pushing through the passes and channels carrying plankton-rich water that accumulates in the relative slacks created by the underwater topography.
The ocean-going pelagic species that rely on this food source follow suit. We were there in January, and intended to do the same.
Pea soup is the best way to describe the water we had just entered; thick with countless tiny animals suspended in the current, forming a blanket from the surface to around 25m. We drifted through it, sharing our journey with redtooth trigger fish in their thousands, feeding mercilessly on the hapless critters forming this saltwater broth.
Dense shoals of bright orange anthias, expanding and contracting around coral outcrops, resembled smokeless bonfires. The little orange and yellow fish seemed to flicker as they joined in the bonanza.
These conditions were hardly conducive to good wide-angle photography, yet there I was with my camera fitted with a dome-port and super wide fish-eye lens.
We were hoping to get some shots of mantas as they fed or visited cleaning stations, though they hadn’t arrived in the hefty numbers in which they are normally encountered by divers at this time of year.
It was a long wait. We’d been drifting with the current for more than an hour before we saw a ray glide over the reef – a huge specimen. Thrilled, I got into a position to which I hoped this leviathan would come close enough for some decent images. It did, and I snapped a couple of shots before it vanished into the murk to continue its lunch.
I had only 50bar left, so dismissed any idea of waiting to see if it would return.
Flicking through the images I had taken I was disappointed to find only 15, back-scatter making at least half of them unusable; I just hadn’t found the right conditions for the fisheye to work its usual magic. This was a very unproductive dive in photographic terms. I needed to up my game and come back from the next one with a full memory card, but to do so meant altering my expectations, target species and technique.

OUR TEMPORARY HOME was at the Diamonds Resort on the island of Thudufushi, recently refurbished with the addition of 25 luxury water bungalows stretching out over the shallow lagoon.
The island is in the centre of Ari Atoll and puts the area’s best dive-sites within a maximum of an hour’s boat-ride away. Every day we saw a flotilla of safari boats moored nearby with their attendant dive dhonis delivering their guests to the local reefs.
Some liveaboards stayed for days on end, a clear indication of just how many decent sites there were. The Manta site at Panettone, 10 minutes from the jetty, was almost the island’s house-reef.
iDive is owned by Italian dive-centre veteran Franco Ceno who, like me, was enjoying a break from the bleak European winter. His centres on Thudufushi and its sister island Athuruga are run with typical Italian style and flair by European staff whose enthusiasm is infectious.
Guides Stefano, Fabio and Jessie were keen to show me their favourite sites and find suitable photographic subjects, and we all concluded that smaller species would be ideal in the reduced visibility.
I changed my camera set-up to a macro configuration, hoping that the next dive wouldn’t find me among a bevy of mantas and whale sharks.
It’s amazing how much gets missed when you glide over a reef armed with a wide-angle camera. Your mind is set on searching for large animals, vistas or groups of fish – change to a macro set-up and your focus inevitably shifts to the little stuff. You tend to search an area more thoroughly and, when interesting critters are found, study their form and behaviour before pressing the shutter.
At Miri Gili Thila, accompanied by Franco and away from the main group, we took our time exploring just three small areas. The first was under an overhang, stuffed with red squirrelfish, soldierfish and a few bannerfish all competing for space and cover.
In small alcoves tiny cleaner wrasse and shrimps waited for their customers to arrive for a daily wash and brush-up. Moray eels were tucked away in crevices, looking menacing but showing no interest in feeding, and they allowed me to invade their personal space and grab a few shots.
At the base of a small coral outcrop was an anemone with some resident Clark’s clownfish, one of them busy removing coral debris from its nesting hole. Tirelessly it would grab a piece in its mouth, swim out and drop it, over and over again. The housework needs doing wherever you are.

A COMMON SIGHT on these reefs are mantis shrimps, their bright colouring and crazy eyes putting them on nearly everyone’s list of favourite critters.
We found one scurrying across the reef, stopping to pose only for seconds before disappearing down its burrow.
Small holes left in the coral by departed tubeworms make ideal homes for blennies and gobies, and a careful search will normally find one or two in residence. We discovered a tiny fang blenny in one – its orange, yellow and neon blue-striped livery and comical smile made a great subject.
Now knowing what to look for, we found more and more of different species and hues, some even confident enough to venture outside their refuges.
The reef top was next, as our nitrox was becoming depleted. It was a garden of hard corals, full of shoaling fish.
Scorpion and stonefish are ambush predators that stay put when approached, making them a popular choice for the photographer, though their bland camouflage and reef floor location can be challenging.
I spent time trying to find an angle that would show them in all their glory, but the results were disappointing. Still, the switch to macro was working and my memory card bursting with images.
Dega Thila, one of my all-time favourite sites, comprises three pinnacles connected by a saddle, the tallest rising to within 5m of the surface. The sides are covered in rich hard coral growth with small caverns full of soft corals, whips and gorgonians.
For me the reef top is the draw, with lots of bright purple anemones and an abundance of small fish life, including schools of brightly coloured fusiliers. Glassfish and golden sweepers can be found between the pinnacles.
Predatory jack, barracuda and big tuna are constantly on the prowl, forcing the baitfish to shoal up in tight groups; the hunters get confused trying to pick out individuals.
I shared their dilemma, frustration setting in as I tried to pick out single fish to capture on camera, and was soon searching with the guides for easier subjects. We found three Oriental sweetlips patiently waiting to be seen by a busy group of cleaner wrasse.
Cleaning stations are always a good bet for the photographer, as the fish are relaxed and torpid in apparent ecstasy as the cleaners go about their business.

I WATCHED AS A PAIR of tiny wrasse wriggled their way into the flared gills and out through the open mouth of a large sweetlips, picking off parasites and dead scales on their way. The fish were so engrossed in their activity that they allowed me to get close.
I love anemonefish and never tire of watching them scurry around their hosts. I noticed small moon wrasse and two-spot damselfish sharing in the activity, apparently immune from the stinging tentacles; surprisingly the clownfish seemed happy to share their real estate with the interlopers.
With so many fish crowded into such a small area, living space appeared to be at a premium.
A bumpy 15-minute speedboat ride next morning saw Franco and I at Athuruga for breakfast with the resort’s iDive staff; we were there to join them on a trip to Shark Thila, about an hour north by dhoni. Dive guide Mara Restelli volunteered to be my buddy and model for the day.
I’d been assured that the water was less plankton-rich in this part of the atoll, so I’d changed my rig back to wide angle. Turtles would be readily found, said Mara, with a number of residents bound to show up.
She was right. We joined a small loggerhead going about its business within seconds of reaching the reef, and managed to grab some portrait shots before it moved on.
Further down the thila, Mara posed in front of a large anemone bursting with damsels and black-footed clownfish, and suddenly I just wanted to be spending the whole dive here with my macro set-up, and felt we were squandering valuable time finning around the reef in search of nice panoramas. Shark Thila is a world-class site full of marine life and fantastic scenery; but the past few days had been great fun, and now I was missing the thrill of a critter hunt!

SOME SITES VISITED by the iDive team are known only to them. They don’t want the areas besieged by safari-boats, so they guard the GPS locations closely.
Himandu Kandu and Warren Thila provide examples. Exclusive to guests at Thudufushi and Athuruga and about equidistant from both islands, they’re highly regarded by all who visit them.
“We found this area about 15 years ago and have been enjoying shark and manta encounters here ever since, Franco told me. “We try not to let anyone else know about them to reduce the pressure by divers on the sharks, which will hopefully continue to show up for a long time.
“There’s also an overhang frequented by large numbers of bannerfish at 30m and an area that’s home to a huge shoal of trevally,” said Franco. “This depth should put us below the plankton bloom, providing better visibility.”
Franco was right about the overhang; it was stuffed with yellow bannerfish just hanging in the slack water, a deep purple gorgonian rising from the sand and orange soft corals covering the roof to create a colourful frame to the scene.
We slowly made our way to the back of the opening, trying to line up the fish with the blue water as a backdrop. As one, the fish moved out.
No problem, I knew that if we stayed still and quiet long enough they’d come back and carry on doing their thing. I was right, and we were soon encircled.
We then moved shallower, joining the plankton and going with the flow. Drift dives are synonymous with the Maldives – the water speeds up as open-ocean currents get squeezed through the channels.
Flying with the current was great fun, eagle rays and a pair of mantas joining us for a short while. Caverns offered a welcome respite from the current, so we flew from one to another on our way.
Over an hour under water, and with our gas and no-deco times diminishing, we arrived at the point where the sharks normally show themselves.
There they were, a mixture of a dozen whitetip and larger grey reef sharks circling 10m below us. Reluctantly we had to finish the dive without spending any quality time with the guys in the grey suits.
Back on the dhoni the rest of the group excitedly shared tales of mantas and sharks. Most were saying they’d enjoyed the dive of a lifetime.
The Maldives tourist islands have changed dramatically since my first trip more than 20 years ago. What were once rough and ready (but affordable) dive islands with a Robinson Crusoe feel have been upgraded, restructured and turned into luxury resorts.

JUST LIKE THE REEFS, space is at a premium, so it’s not surprising that water villas built on stilts over the lagoons have appeared on most islands, increasing the room numbers and providing privacy and exclusivity.
This has proved popular at the Diamonds resorts as they’re fully booked throughout the high seasons, with repeat guests outnumbering newcomers by around two to one. With nearly a third of guests over the water, the island never seems to feel busy.
Even this idyllic republic isn’t immune from political unrest; last year saw the resignation of the Maldives’ first democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed, who stood down in the wake of riots on the streets in the capital Malé, amid reports of a widespread police mutiny that left his four-year presidency untenable.
The old pre-democracy order promptly resumed power under Mohammed Waheed Hassan and the rumbling dispute as to who has the right to govern has not yet ceased. But unrest has hardly been noticed by tourists visiting the country, as the airport is on a separate island to the capital and the resort islands are “an ocean away”.
The islands and politics may have changed, but under water the Maldives remains the same. The only decisions you should need to make are which wine to have with your dinner and which lens to put on the camera.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Nigel Wade flew with BA from London Gatwick to Male and transferred to Thudufushi via Maldivian Air Taxi, though note that this has only a 20kg hold baggage allowance, www.maldivianairtaxi.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION iDive Diving Centre, www.idive.it. Diamonds Thudufushi Beach & Water Villas, www.thudufushibeach.diamonds-resorts.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round. Mantas can be found in this part of Ari Atoll from December to March.
CURRENCY US dollars and euros, credit cards accepted everywhere.
HEALTH No malaria in evidence. Hyperbaric treatment only in North Male atoll.
PRICES Seven nights all-inclusive accommodation including flights and seaplane transfers at Diamonds Thudufushi Island resort costs from £3254 per person (two sharing) for a beach bungalow, www.kuoni.co.uk. A 10-dive package from iDive costs £515 including tax and service charges. Nitrox is free for suitably qualified divers.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmaldives.co