WE ALL HAVE DREAMS AS DIVERS - some people long for the exhilaration of a shark encounter, or the discovery of treasure on an unknown wreck. Some of my top diving experiences have come from simply chilling out with the wildlife and watching it in its element.
The species topping my wishlist last year was the manta ray. I imagined swimming with a 4m-wide fish big enough to block out the sun. I had narrowly missed the chance of a filming trip with mantas a few years ago, but last October I had the chance to fulfil that dream.
Eurodivers had invited to the Maldives. This was two months before the eastern side of the Maldivean atolls was hit by the devastating Asian tsunami.
If you have yet to visit the Maldives, many of its island resorts are not only designed for divers but resemble the perfect holiday postcard - tiny, picturesque and quiet, with palm trees everywhere. No wonder the destination is so popular with honeymooners.
The Republic of the Maldives is made up of 26 atolls, comprising 1200 islands, of which only around 200 are inhabited. The archipelago stretches 500 miles north to south, and of the 116sq miles of landmass, no island is more than 5 miles long or 3 metres high.
From December to April the manta rays lurk on the west side of the atolls, moving to the east side between May and November. I know from bitter experience that when seasons change early or later than usual the movements of wildlife can be unpredictable, but we were in any case spending the first week on a liveaboard, so would be able to go where the mantas went.
Atoll Explorer covers the atolls north and south of Male on two-week cruises, and you can sign on for one week or both. There seemed to be a lot of repeat customers - always a good sign - with one lady on her fourth trip.
Captain Fulhu and his 29 crew made us feel very welcome. Facilities were spotless and generous: air-conditioned cabins, all above-deck and some with private balconies; two sundecks; and two Jacuzzis. There are berths for 40 passengers, and plenty of space. On this trip there were only nine divers aboard, so we could dive in small groups.
There is a large flat deck on which to kit up, and lots of room to wash, dry and sort kit between dives.
Nothing was too much trouble for instructors Saeed and Jacky, and every day there were different sites to dive, and good night-diving, too.
On our very first day of diving, at a site called Lankun, otherwise known as Manta Point, I was in heaven. I hadnt appreciated how co-operative manta rays could be.
Find a cleaning station and hang around for a while, and the chances are that one will come along for a little exfoliation. But Ill save my description of manta heaven for later.
I imagined that, as we had sighted mantas on the first day, they would be with us throughout our trip. But on day two Atoll Explorer moved south.
We dived some incredible sites, but there were no manta cleaning stations and I had to wait until our second week of diving, based on the island of Kurumba, for my next encounter.
The effects of El NiÃ¢â‚¬â€œo in 1998 devastated the Maldives reefs, and much of the hard coral I saw was not in great shape. But there are encouraging signs that it is growing back - and fast.
Many of the thilas, submerged offshore reefs, feature gardens of exquisitely coloured coral, with overhangs dripping with blue iridescent sponges and pink and purple soft corals, providing a stunning backdrop to some wonderful varieties of marine life.
Around the islands, many of the house reefs are exposed to storms and look a bit sad and sorry, but there are always plenty of fish and lots of other life to see. We regularly saw turtles, octopuses, wonderful nudibranchs, countless moray eels and sting and eagle rays as well as grey, whitetip and blacktip reef sharks.
Annoyingly, the sharks tend to hang out in the strong currents at the edges of the reef, so most of these encounters came about while we were holding onto dead coral and being pulled horizontal, masks reverberating in the current. The sharks would move effortlessly in the water in front of us - a reminder of how out of our element we were.
I had forgotten how easy diving can be. I do a lot of UK diving, getting cold and expending a lot of energy humping kit around. My last dive before departure had been in Falmouth, kitting up on a rocking boat in the rain; diving to a wreck and missing it, and having to get excited about a couple of edible crabs in an old car tyre and a few brittlestars!
In the Maldives not only is the water warm (though I did wear a full 3mm wetsuit, not a shortie like everyone else) and relatively clear, but the kit is carried on and off the dive boat for you, and even lifted on and off your back.
Even when you hit the water many of the dives are drifts, so you just hang there and watch the reef pass by.
I view diving trips as an excuse to shed a few pounds while eating heartily, as you tend to burn so much energy, Not on Atoll Explorer, with its three huge cooked meals a day. My only exertion was serving myself at the buffet!
The food was fantastic at Kurumba, too, with its six restaurants, but at least there was a gym there in which to work it all off.
The island is close to Male, the busy capital, and while you might imagine that the diving would be less good than around the further-flung islands, it seemed that one of the best manta sites was here. The guides choose the site each day according to local currents and divers requests and experience. One day Mohammed jumped in first, as usual, but surfaced to announce that the currents were too strong.
Where did we want to go instead We voted 8:6 to go to Lankun.
On our way, we spotted a few dolphins porpoising, and the urge to get in the water grew. This time Mohammed surfaced from his check-dive with a big smile: I can smell the mantas! he said.
We started to kit up, and out of the corner of my eye I saw something enormous launch itself into the air. Turning to see what it was, I just caught sight of a huge manta as it belly-flopped.
Mohammed grinned again: Ive only seen that happen twice, ever! The mantas breach to see how many divers are on the boat! I hoped the manta ray felt that our numbers were acceptable, and grabbed my reg.
Cruising along the reef with the current, I turned back to check if the cameraman, Malcolm Schuyl, was OK. Behind him, I saw this enormous white mouth coming out of the gloom.
I squealed, grabbed my tank pinger and alerted the group. We watched in awe as our first manta glided by, closely followed by another two. There had tobe a cleaning station up ahead.
The trio disappeared into the distance before we got a shot.
As mantas feed on plankton, you usually find them in water where the viz is less than perfect, so how photographers get those wonderful gin-clear shots of these creatures Ill never know. Close-up shots were easy but wide angles in poor viz were more of a challenge for Malcolm.
We drifted on, past the two resident octopuses and a three-legged turtle - good score already. But up ahead was nirvana, the station where cleanerfish gather to pick parasites off the mantas as they glide overhead.
For fish it must be the equivalent of an all-over body massage, as the mantas seem so reluctant to leave. Our destination was clearly marked by a huge manta dancing gracefully in circles. On the sand and dead coral we sat back, as if in a cinema, to watch the panoramic performance in front of us.
Better than any 3D IMAX, we could feel the power of these creatures as they cruised above us. The single, dark-backed male seemed oblivious of the increasing number of divers blowing a circle of bubbles around him. All he wanted was a good scrub.
After my adrenalin rush died down, I started to tune into his movements. Images of Dracula came to mind - I wasnt thinking blood and horror, but the shape of those velvety wings conjured up images of a dark-caped vampire ready to envelop a victim with each downstroke.
His cephalic lobes, which hung down on either side of his mouth to funnel the plankton, were corkscrewed into neat, forward-projecting appendages for more streamlined cruising. They resembled fangs. These curled fins were once thought to resemble a devils horns, hence the old name devil ray. Manta is Spanish for cloak.
I would happily have spent all day watching this graceful beast flying through the water in front of me, as would Malcolm. We lost track of time as each pass seemed closer than the one before, giving us wonderful close-up views of gills and the white belly to which remoras attach themselves.
The male was joined by the two others who passed us earlier, both smaller and one with a patterned back. There was a sudden change in the energy as they approached - was it a tussle or some sort of a greeting Then they started to circle as a trio in a beautifully orchestrated ballet.
For a few minutes all was calm, then the pace changed and they started to dart and flick. In the distance, they lined up in a row with lobes down, like Stealth bombers coming in to land, and came straight towards me.
Within a metre or so they flicked their wings and banked, displaying their white bellies as they carried on past.
I have never felt like draining my tank of air as much as I did on that dive, but eventually my gauge told me it was time to go. Others in the group had already started to surface.
I felt like a child being dragged away from the best ride at the funfair.
Kurumba was one of the first islands to be developed as a resort and has recently been tastefully refurbished - all mod cons and luxurious facilities. If youre looking for a retreat with huts on stilts and few other people around, its probably not for you, but it does make a great diving base.
The house reef looked a bit dead from constant exposure to the elements, fishing boats and training divers, but every day (sometimes twice a day) we dived there. Hundreds of moray of various sizes and colours huddled together in coral crevices. All the fish were pretty bolshie and not freaked out by the presence of divers.
Every evening, like clockwork, hungry sting rays would appear as the fishermen hauled their catch up onto the jetty beside the dive centre, decapitated the fish and threw the heads into the water.
I cant remember how many night dives we did there but it was always exhilarating, even though in only a few metres of water - how easy is that The diving from Kurumba was excellent, but generally in much larger groups, which Im not keen on, especially for photo-graphy. However, as most outings are drift dives, you can always either push to the front or lag behind to take pictures.
The dive boats were well equipped and the briefings comprehensive.I was very impressed by the emphasis on safety - and on relaxation. This was summed up for me by the fresh green towels and sliced pineapple to greet us after each dive. Pure luxury!