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Maldives: Into the deep

I’m several metres below the surface when a manta ray ghosts past, almost brushing the mask off my face. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t hear it coming. And even if humans could hear meaningfully underwater, I’m pretty sure it would have spooked me anyway.

Maldives: Into the deep
Diving with manta rays, Maldives. Image: Eye Ubiquitous/SuperStock.

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I’m an occasional diver, finning my way along a supermarket shelf of coral reef. The manta is a creature in its element, passing in side profile. I wonder if I’m seeing things. Is it a sailfish? A freediver? Batman? It doesn’t swim so much as glide, like a bird.

This alone is worth the ‘price of admission’ to the Maldives — well over a grand, and more than a 10-hour flight. As it emerges from the ether, I see its tail, its creamy white belly, its radiator-like gills. Its mouth is a gaping, rectangular cavity straining threads of plankton from the water.

And then, just as mysteriously, it’s gone. Swallowed whole by the Big Blue.

I look at my dive instructor. She has taken me out from the dive centre at Olhuveli Beach & Spa Resort, on the tip of South Male atoll, for a dip at short notice. I’m sure she’s privy to epiphanies like these all the time. But still, her eyes are the size of dinner plates.

She gestures — ‘look behind you!’

I spin around, as gracefully as a fly in syrup, just in time to catch an eagle ray.

It’s a smaller creature, maybe a metre-and-a-half in wingspan, but even more beautiful. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Finding Nemo, the eagle ray is the schoolteacher who takes the clownfish and his chums for a ride around the reef… with pointillist dots on its skin. After the rays, there’s a lionfish. It’s a stunning creature, beset with poisonous spines, like a freeze-frame of an explosion. I give it a wide berth.

It’s a dream dive. And Olhuveli is just one of 1,200 islands on this magnificent archipelago. I arrived by seaplane. I will depart by speedboat. Sure, I’ve had my doubts about the lack of culture, shopping and nightlife in this Indian Ocean oasis. But beneath the waves, this colourful world offers all the excitement I need.

A diver can pretty much do anything here — explore remote reefs on liveaboard yachts, drift with nutrient-rich currents, investigate caves and wrecks, or take basic PADI courses. The average visibility is over 65ft. The average facial expression is a blissed-out gawp. Get lucky, and you could even see whale shark.

But even these aren’t the most exotic species. Back in 2009, then-President Mohamed Nasheed held a cabinet meeting underwater in a publicity stunt highlighting the threat of rising sea levels to an archipelago whose tallest point is shorter than a street lamp.

I wonder what my manta ray would have made of that?

Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)