WHEN I FIRST TRAVELLED to the Maldives 12 years ago, I stayed in Lhaviyani Atoll. Flying in for the first time touched me in a way very few other places have – and I'm not sure why.
Perhaps it was the sparkling blues, turquoises and green of the ocean, or being able to see the reefs sloping into the blue so clearly from the air. I felt profoundly lucky to know that I would soon dive into those indigo depths.
This emotional feeling increased when I finally submerged. The beauty of the reefs astounded me. They teemed with life of all shapes, sizes and colours, such an assault on the eye that I felt I needed sunglasses.
I had never experienced anything as beautiful as those Lhaviyani reefs.
In succeeding years I travelled to many other Maldivian atolls, but nothing quite lived up to Lhaviyani. It seemed to hold some sort of magic.
Earlier this year, I was back. Would Lhaviyani disappoint, like so many first experiences revisited, or would I find the magic again
The island resort I had stayed in before had closed, so I decided to stay in the nearest resort to that location, Kuredu.
The seaplanes floats touched down on a flat-calm glistening sea with hardly a splash. We taxied up to a large island surrounded by a perfect white-sand beach. A sand-spit reaching far into the luminous turquoise ocean was just visible to the passengers.

AS WE CLIMBED OUT, the sandy bottom of the ocean, 10m below, was so clear that we could make out every fish and piece of coral below the jetty. The visibility seemed just as I remembered it.
The back of my neck tickled as the hairs rose in anticipation.
I had chosen Kuredu not only for its location but also because its dive centre, Pro Divers, had helped with Guy Stevens’ quest to track the Maldives manta ray population by running Manta Speciality courses.
Divers and snorkellers were taught about conservation and mantas, and those with underwater cameras were encouraged to take ID shots of the underbellies of any mantas seen and upload them to the Manta Trust website for matching against its database.
The patterns are, like human fingerprints, unique.
I was soon in one of the most professional-looking dive centres I have come across. It was spotlessly tidy, with plenty of helpful information displayed, a library of marine books in different languages beside some very comfortable sofas, and a fully interactive touchscreen showing not only maps of all the 50-plus local dive-sites but also accompanying images and videos taken by resident manager Ray van Eeden and dive-centre manager Darren Caple.
This proved invaluable for orientation and a great tool for underwater photographers keen to pre-select the right lens. Each site entry contained important info such as depth, skill level needed, current, wide-angle or macro, and location within the atoll.
According to my dive-guide Armin, the shape of the atoll, at a skewed angle across the archipelago rather than north-south, made current prediction difficult. The currents caused circular eddies around the bays and channels, and a lot depended on how much water was flowing, and how fast, from open ocean into the atoll, and vice versa.
Outgoing or incoming currents could last all day rather than hours. So certain dive-sites would be planned in the morning, only to be changed once we arrived and the current was checked.
This was very frustrating, not only for the guides but also for us underwater photographers, who would plan for mantas only to be faced with nudibranchs!
It was 3pm when we arrived, but my partner Mateusz was told that he could start his prebooked nitrox course that very evening, and he jumped at the chance. Nitrox is supplied free, along with a choice of 10- or 12-litre tanks (15-litre tanks costs a little extra).
His instructor, Elodie Blu, helpfully stayed late to run the course.
The next morning, course completed, we decided to take advantage of our unlimited shore-diving package and test the waters with an easy dive.
In reality you have a reasonably long walk along the jetty with your kit (though someone will take it for you if needed). If pre-arranged, your tanks will be waiting for you under a gazebo with benches. You then have to surface-swim perhaps 100m to a buoy, where you can safely descend. This allows any boat traffic to see divers at the surface, as the depth is only 3-5m.
Not expecting too much, as the site is used for training fun-divers and snorkellers, we descended. Swimming a short distance to the edge of the reef, which sloped to a sandy bottom at 23m with steps at around 10 and 15m, I was amazed to find a reef alive with fish. The number of cleaning stations put me in mind of some health spa, where cleaner wrasse and shrimps made sure that no fish went unattended. Pause for too long, and you got a spruce-up yourself!
A big honeycomb moray, relaxing halfway out of its hole, gulped lazily, unbothered by cleaners or divers. A green turtle lay on the reef, looking around but ignoring us.
Moving along the reef, a male ribbon eel, jet black apart from a bright yellow strip running the length of its spine, swayed in the very slight current, its body almost entirely out of its hide.
A large octopus moved around the reef, changing colour, pattern and shape to match its surroundings. Unicorn, surgeon, parrotfish and big dusky snappers hung overhead, displaying themselves to be cleaned.

AROUND 200M ALONG the reef, we came across an intact trawler, sitting bow-up in 8m, its stern at 23m. It seemed to breathe with the amount of movement on it.
A school of batfish hung off the wheelhouse, curious and bold, and came close enough to touch my dome-port.
A huge old sweetlips commandeered a small pocket under the bow where the reef fell away, constantly being cleaned. A lazy yellow-brown star pufferfish lay like a balloon on the reef – not inflated, just really fat!
Sunlight illuminated the wreck, streaming through the wheelhouse and cabin. Turning back, we decided to move along the top of the reef where it met the sand at 5-8m.
Clouds of orange anthias wafted around, there were even more cleaning stations, and pale triggerfish patrolled and tidied their nests in the sand.
We came across a buoyancy circuit – squares and circles suspended in mid-water to help divers hone their skills. Passing one of the buoyancy rings, Mateusz signalled to me. Under one of the concrete blocks that secured the
ring, he had spotted a peacock mantis shrimp poking out from a small space in the sand.
Surfacing back at the buoy, I was smiling, and then I saw Mateusz’s grin – he had felt it too.
Over the next two weeks we dived many sites. We spent one day in search of mantas in the channels and corners surrounding the atoll, but because of the unpredictable currents we didnt spot any, though we did see several while snorkelling during our surface intervals.
Pro Divers never dives on an outgoing current because you could get pushed down over the lip of the reef into the blue, sometimes with a down-current into the bargain. Also, safety stops in the open ocean are not an option, as the current could take you in any direction.
ProDivers impressive equipment includes a three-person decompression chamber, one of only three working chambers in the Maldives and the only one in the northern atolls.
Manned by a specialist doctor, it is used, on average 10-12 times a year.

WE SAW PLENTY OF SHARKS on every dive – blacktip, whitetip, nurse, juvenile silvertip and grey reef. It was encouraging to see so many. Divers on another ProDivers boat even told us they had seen a tiger shark at a site we had dived just minutes before them.
Sadly, the beautiful colourful soft corals I had experienced on my last trip to Lhaviyani Atoll had disappeared. What had replaced them, however, were massive hard-coral beds, layering up the reef and supporting a huge variety of fish life. Signs of regrowth of the soft corals among them looked promising.
One day we were offered the chance of a full-day, three-tank boat dive in the next atoll north, Noon. The sea between the northern atolls is normally relatively shallow at around 300m, but the 1600m depth between Lhaviyani and Noon meant more nutrients being brought up.
We left at 6.30am on the two-and-a-half-hour journey north and were warned that it could get quite rough in the open sea, but we encountered little more than gentle swells.
Watching the sun rise over the picturesque vista was heart-warming.
Our first dive was at Dhatha Faru, a faru being a circular reef the top of which reaches the surface. Along its walls, caves, overhangs and cut-outs were crowded with fish life and corals. Visibility was in excess of 30m.

IT WAS POSSIBLE TO PENETRATE quite deeply into the cut-outs. In one, a dolphins skeleton could be seen on the bottom. Only one diver could usually go into a cut-out at a time, as they narrow significantly the further back you go.
A thila is a submerged pinnacle where the top reaches to within 4-15m of the surface, and at Orimas Thila we found a shark-cleaning station.
We were to be dropped on top of the thila at 15m before making our way to the edge to hang out. The thila sloped down to 28m, then dropped off to a sandy bottom at 35m.
A slow-to-medium current had been predicted, but we soon found ourselves being swept away from the middle of the thila. Finning firmly against the strong current, heads down for streamlining, we fought our way to the edge.
Mateusz and I had our current hooks and hooked in as others in our group frantically tried to scrabble towards the edge and stay there – impossible in the oncoming current.
Managing only a few seconds, they were quickly swept back over the reef.
We stayed for five minutes, watching a multitude of blacktip, whitetip and grey reef sharks and a school of barracuda hanging over the cleaning station. Then, air depleted from our initial swim into the current, we unhooked ourselves and started our backwards journey. That was when I spotted a group of eagle rays approaching the cleaning station.
Throwing my hook into a crevice, I halted my journey long enough to snap off a couple of shots before going with the current. We ascended to around 20m and enjoyed the ride. A big grey reef shark, swimming effortlessly against the current, passed us only metres away.
Further over the thila the current slackened and we eventually caught up with the others, who had found a protected area.
Our final dive-site, Easa Faru, should be renamed Fish Rush-Hour! I have never seen so many fish in one place. Layer upon layer filled the blue water above the reef – redtooth triggerfish rained down around us, rainbow runners and fusiliers shot through like arrows, blue-stripe, yellow-stripe and yellow-spot snapper fought for space and trevallies and jack hunted.
Dizzy with trying to focus on so many fish, we surfaced. Noon Atoll had lived up to expectations!

DECIDING THAT WE NEEDED to be able to keep up with the sharks, as there were so many about and the currents could be quite strong, we took the two-day PADI DPV (diver-propelled vehicle) course.
A combination of theory and two dives, it proved to be the most fun-packed course I have done – and also the most useful, if keeping up with the marine life is a priority.
We took the DPVs for a further spin at KFFC in Lhaviyani Atoll, a corner of a channel. A shark-cleaning station at the furthest reaches of the site was rarely seen because divers air had usually run out before they reached it.
Zooming along at 3-5 knots, however, we soon reached our goal.
The edge of the reef at 35m dropped to around 300m, and I felt as if I was flying over an abyss. Appearing out of the gloom ahead, I lost count of the number of sharks swarming around an unseen cleaning station, far below.
Feeling quite disconcerted, as if I would fall off the edge and tumble into the depths, I backed off until I was over the edge of the reef again, at 28m or so.
With deco limits approaching, we had to leave the sharks to it, and ascended and backtracked to find the others, still trying to reach the cleaning station.
When they saw us they put their hands up and turned around, defeated once again. Mateusz and I secretly exchanged a high five.
On our way back a huge Napoleon wrasse came to check us out. Being able to overtake and turn to look at it again and again was enjoyable.
We also took advantage of an offered fluo dive. Using yellow filters that fit over your mask, and blue filters that fit over a torch, it’s possible to see the amazing spectacle of the reef and its marine life fluorescing at night.
The dive was offered as a two-tank option, whereby you do an orientation dive in the afternoon followed by the night dive once the sun is down.
Anemone Thila was one of my favourite sites, carpeted in beautiful multi-coloured anemones. Small enough to swim around several times at different depths, you wouldn’t miss too much.
Wondering if I could cobble together a filter to go over my camera lens and strobe, I asked our dive instructor Alexis if he had any spare filters I could try. Very helpfully, he came back with the required filters and a roll of duck tape.
Minutes later, with the oddest-looking camera set-up I have used, we jumped in and descended to the top of the thila. The torches with filters fitted made the water much darker than on a normal night dive.

CAREFUL TO KEEP A SAFE distance from the reef, we viewed the amazing sight, still not understood by scientists, of certain corals and fishlife fluorescing while others didnt. And my Heath Robinson camera set-up (sort of) did the trick.
Between all these dives we visited the house reef again and again, at different times of the day and night. Every dive was different, but always as special as the last. The night dives in particular amazed me every time.
The reef, a haven for cleaning in day-time, became a haven for hunting by night. Morays, trevallies and even tuna would dart about hungrily.
Huge fish would try to squeeze themselves into nooks and crannies on the wreck. A turquoise Napoleon wrasse seemingly sucked all the air from its body to fit into the small square opening of a hold. A bumphead parrotfish, too big to fit in anywhere, hung at the tip of the bow, trying to look inconspicuous.
Moray eels poked their heads into the tiniest holes in search of food, and the wreck was alive with crabs and shrimps.
On our final day, nitrogen seeping gently from our bodies before our long flight home, I said to Mateusz that, although the soft coral had disappeared, Lhaviyani still held its magic, and my return had surpassed any expectations I had. I could see from his eyes that it had shared its magic with him, too.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE BA Flies direct three times a week, while Emirates and Etihad fly via Dubai or Doha daily. Sri Lankan flies in via Sri Lanka daily.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION ProDivers, www.prodivers.com at Kuredu Island Resort, www.kuredu.com. ProDivers also operates at Vakarufalhi Island Resort in South Ari Atoll, and Komandoo Island Resort in Lhaviyani Atoll.
WHEN TO GO Year-round. The Maldives have two monsoon seasons, north-east from December-April, when there is minimal rainfall and the seas are calm, and south-west (May-November), when there is slightly more rainfall and the seas are a bit rougher. Average temperatures are 26-30°C, and the sun is very strong.
CURRENCY Rufiah, but US dollars and euros are accepted at all resorts and liveaboards, as are credit cards.
PRICES Scuba Travel can provide a package from £1995pp, flying with Sri Lankan from London to Male, with seaplane transfers to Kuredu Resort, seven nights’ all-inclusive in a garden bungalow (two sharing) and six boat-dives and a shore check-dive, www.scubatravel.com
FURTHER INFORMATION www.visitmaldives.com