IN THE SPRING OF 1993, my life changed. I was on my first trip to the Republic of the Maldives, temporarily ensconced on the resort island of Lily Beach in south-eastern Ari Atoll.
The dive centre had organised a full day’s excursion to the distant Madivaru dive-site. I asked what we would see, and a collective giggle from the staff followed by a chorus of “mantas!” saw me reaching for a pen to sign up. Unknown to me then, madi translates to manta and a varu is a reef point.
The dhoni set sail before breakfast with a full quota of guests on board, mostly Germans who spoke little English, but I could understand them perfectly as the excitement grew when we tried to get into the water.
I say “tried” because every time we went to stride off the boat a massive shape would materialise beneath us, delaying our entry.
The dive-site was a long ridge with a rocky slope at around 18m, with a deep drop-off on one side and a gentle rise to a ridge on the other.
There were big pelagic manta rays everywhere, drifting in and out to take advantage of the numerous cleaning stations dotted along the ridge.
I held onto some rocks in the strong current, mesmerised by the sight. The plankton-eating leviathans came in close and seemed to peer in amusement into the masks of the hapless divers struggling in this alien environment.
The mantas danced and rolled as if they were on a stage, performing for their admiring audience.
I had never seen anything this big, this graceful or this bizarre before. That dive transformed everything.
My destiny lay here, in this underwater realm with all its wonders and mysteries waiting to be discovered.
I was moved to tears, and back on the dhoni had to pretend I had salt water in my eyes to save my embarrassment.
During the long journey back to our island home, I realised that I was fated to walk a path other than that of the occasional diver.
I am who I am and do what I do as a direct result of my first encounter with those black-and-white giants.
My love affair with this Indian Ocean paradise has never wavered, but even after multiple trips I have still yet to emulate that first kiss.

THE MALDIVES HAVE CHANGED since that first visit. The well-documented El Niño event of 1998 bleached the hard corals, taking with it the beautiful colours that adorned the reefs, though I’m happy to say that they continue to recover.
Uncomplicated dive-orientated islands have been “upgraded” and redeveloped into luxury resorts. Most now have water villas, constructed on stilts over the once-pristine lagoons, increasing room numbers and enabling the owners to return bigger profits.
High-end hoteliers have taken over, with diving just another holiday pastime on offer alongside jet-skis, parasailing, windsurfing and doughnut rides. Prices have risen too, with most island resorts becoming an over-expensive option, especially for those of us who just want an out-and-out diving holiday.
There is an alternative to the high-life on the luxury islands, however. European operators have become aware of the market for liveaboard diving and set their fleets to work around the various atolls.
At Easter I joined a group of British divers for a week’s concentrated diving from blue o two’s newly launched motor yacht, blue “Honors Legacy”.
Using extensive experience gained in the Red Sea, Caribbean and Asia, blue o two has used local builders to create an elegant 33.5m wooden-hulled vessel that can comfortably accommodate 18 guests.
In keeping with the modern Maldivian way of things, it has everything covered in the luxury department, with large staterooms, a comfortable and spacious saloon, state-of-the-art media installations and both inside and open-air dining areas.
A dedicated dhoni carrying nitrox and air compressors provides the local transport and dive platform at sites away from the moored mothership.
The whole experience is similar to island life but without the sand between your toes.
British guides Al and Becky Westley, who manage diving and on-board operations, are a young but experienced husband-and-wife team who learned their trade in the hustle and bustle of the Red Sea resorts.
The itinerary looked breathtaking. The Westleys wanted us to sample the best diving that Male, Ari and Rasdhoo atolls could offer, taking in sites that gave us the chance to encounter large pelagic action as well as the splendours of small but colourful Maldivian thilas.
Manta rays have become synonymous with the Maldives, with seasonal encounters almost guaranteed if you know where they’re likely to be and when.

EVERY ATOLL HAS A NUMBER of Manta Points. Some are cleaning stations where the rays visit to enjoy a wash-and-brush-up from the symbiotic cleaner wrasse that ply their trade on the reef slopes.
Others are rich feeding grounds where plankton is concentrated by the swift currents through passes and channels created by the seabed topography. These sites attract the rays in varying numbers, possibly only for a few months each year.
It was on our third full day’s diving that we arrived late in the day at Rangali Madivaru. “It’s a manta cleaning station,” explained Al Westley in another of his humorous but comprehensive briefings. “They might be here or, then again, they might not.”
My appetite whetted, anything other than a manta sighting would, I knew, leave me disappointed.
Under water the reef formed a long ridge, with a sheer drop-off into dark unwelcoming water on one side and a gentle slope rising from 18m to its peak at around 5m. Seems familiar
I thought so too.
I started to see what appeared to be remembered landmarks, and then realisation dawned. I was back where it had all started – at the same Madivaru to which I had dreamt of returning.
Would it still provide the goods, or would I be left disappointed
I pushed such thoughts to the back of my mind and concentrated on the dive. I drifted over a perpendicular overhang that cut through the slope like a giant’s sword-slash.
On the top edge, a pincushion starfish was being attacked mercilessly by a big midnight snapper, and my attention was momentarily diverted from mantas as I finned against the current to stay and watch the spectacle.
Eventually drifting further along the ridge, I came across a small white-skirted anemone. It had closed into a ball, as is common when the bright sunlight starts to fade, and its resident clownfish, struggling to find enough tentacles to provide protection, instead lay on top. It was a photo opportunity.
I set up and positioned myself for the shot. Through my viewfinder I had the anemone perfectly composed when I noticed a huge shape moving through the frame. When I looked up, it was apparent that I was being “photo-bombed” by a big manta.
The ray hovered motionless in the current, posing perfectly for a few shots before gliding over me. Then, with a flick of its wings, it somersaulted, completing a full 360° and disappearing into the deeps below the drop-off.

I REVIEWED THE IMAGES on the camera – yes, it had really happened.
It was the start of another prolonged encounter at this amazing dive-site.
The mantas appeared in ones and twos, nothing like the numbers of the past, but this time I was able to get close for the shots I’d been craving.
All too soon my air pressure dictated that I reluctantly leave the action, as the pelagic wanderers continued to visit the few remaining divers.
We would return after breakfast the next day, and the excitement was palpable as we boarded the dhoni to kit up. Unlike our solitary evening arrival, however, this time there were another three liveaboards moored nearby.
We quickly gathered at a cleaning station. If the rays didn’t materialise, we could always move further down the ridge for more stations and chances of an encounter.
The current was a lot stronger this morning, calling for current hooks to keep us in position. The first manta soon appeared, gliding in slowly over our group and tipping its wings and head, seemingly to make eye contact with its star-struck audience.
Everything was going to plan when another group of divers started to parachute in on our position, landing haphazardly among us.
Then it all went crazy. A diver in full yellow wetsuit with yellow mask and fins pushed in beside one of our fellow-photographers, who at the time had his camera firmly pushed against his mask and was unaware of the interloper.
That was, until Bananaman grabbed his regulator by the hose and deliberately pulled so hard that it was forced out of his mouth. The shock was clear for all to see, and a tug-of-war ensued between the two men.
Everyone froze as Bananaman’s guide shot over to defuse the situation. Our man was left holding his breath and searching for his alternative supply.
It was only a few seconds before the stupidity was over and he could breathe easy – the experience had marred what should have been the perfect dive.

MY BUDDY AND I DECIDED to move on, getting as far from the madman as we could and hoping to find a cleaning station further down the reef, but we finished the dive almost empty-handed.
Did the guy think this an acceptable way of getting a better position on the reef, or was he just a psychopath intent on doing our man harm Who knows, but if we ever meet him again…
After the excitement at Madivaru, we visited the Khudi Maa. This 52m Japanese-built cargo ship sunk for divers off the Machchafushi Island resort house reef sits upright on a sandy seabed at 31m, and is totally accessible.
Batfish and glassfish occupy the superstructure along with large morays, lionfish and the occasional frogfish.
The adjacent reef is full of delicate staghorn and branching hard corals with colourful grouper and bignose unicornfish, the males sporting their blue mating livery.
Maldivian signature species such as oriental sweetlips and squirrelfish, large surgeonfish and schooling bannerfish can be found on most reefs, and some sites have thick shoals of blue-striped snapper hugging the submerged rock and coral formations.
Purple anemones with bright orange blackfoot Maldivian clownfish are seen on the reef-tops and slopes. There are, however, species that are a rarity, even in this rich marine environment, such as a find at Dega Thila, one of my favourite sites in the north of Ari Atoll.
The top of the reef is normally the draw for me, with dense schools of anthias, chromis and redtooth triggerfish pulsing over a rich carpet of anemones and colourful soft corals.
A resident shoal of spadefish can be found between the two pinnacles that form a double thila, and shoals of silversides form tight, glistening balls
of life. On the reef walls are soft coral bushes, with longnose hawkfish sometimes clinging to the fronds.
We enjoyed the added bonus of an extremely beautiful yet rarely seen ghost pipefish. It was nestled in its hiding place perfectly mimicking the soft coral and difficult to spot – until Becky pointed it out. There is always some surprise in store.
A night dive at Maya Thila is a must-do in this part of North Ari Atoll. Dusk signals a multitude of predators to wake from their daytime slumber and go hunting for supper. Whitetip reef sharks and moray eels were out from their lairs in search of sleeping fish species such as parrot- and triggerfish.
We witnessed attack after attack as the sharks plundered this rich larder. Giant trevally joined the hunt, storming in and out of our torch-beams, and the usually generous vis was compromised as the predators forced sand and coral debris into our sightlines.
This was full-on, high-action stuff, but watching a brightly coloured parrotfish meet its end through the double-jawed attack of a large moray was at once mesmerising and horrific.

OUR LAST DAY SAW US at the famous Rasdhoo Atoll diving on its own Madivaru, another site with a ridge extending across the seabed with a deep drop-off on one side and a sandy plateau on the other.
We weren’t expecting mantas in this season, but the Westleys mentioned a good possibility of numbers of large grey reef sharks in deeper water, and eagle rays patrolling the slopes.
We did see lots of sharks, but getting a useable shot proved challenging, so I searched instead for eagle rays.
My heart-rate climbs as I see them gliding effortlessly in strong currents, but they always seem to flip their wings and scoot out of photographic range.
This time was no different. I slowly approached a pair at the end of the dive only to watch them drift away, possibly laughing at me as they went.
I keep telling myself that it’s the bubbles and not me – until I’m back on deck and have to put on a brave smile as I admire stunning images of these wondrous spotted cartilaginous fish on everyone else’s cameras.

THIS WAS MY 20TH TRIP to the Maldives. I thought I’d seen it all, only for a ghost pipefish to put in a surprise appearance, to be photo-bombed by mantas and to witness a man dressed like a banana perform an unprovoked attack on a fellow-diver.
I had returned to the centre of my diving universe, and relived those first emotions. Your first love always holds a place in your heart, and for me the best way to discover the wonders of the Maldives is from a liveaboard.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Nigel Wade flew with Qatar Airways from London Heathrow to Male via Doha, www.qatarairways.com
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION blue “Honors Legacy” offers various itineraries, workshops and projects. The itinerary featured here is Magical Maldives, www.blueotwo.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, Mantas can be found in Ari Atoll from December-April. The climate is typically tropical with an average daytime air temperature of 30°C but expect rain showers at any time of year but especially from June to September. Water temperatures average 28°C.
MONEY US dollars, euros and credit cards.
HEALTH Use high-factor sunscreen at all times. Hyperbaric facilities on Bandos (North Male) and Kuramathi (Rasdhoo).
PRICES The Magical Maldives itinerary costs £1945 including flights.
TOURIST INFORMATION www.visitmaldives.com