Something from the wildest dreams of George Lucas combined with a touch of Bram Stoker; an outer-galaxy traveller, a caped and mega-mouthed devil, an inner spaceship, an extra-terrestrial - the manta ray hovered above us, taken aback by our unscheduled presence on the reef.
It took a moment to consider the consequences, then proceeded to amaze and delight us with a sub-aquatic ballet of slow body-rolls. Manta comes from the Spanish word for cloak, and no animal was ever more appropriately named. Almost elephantine with its twin probosci and large, intelligent eyes, it alternated between curling the forward lobes into tight horn-like protuberances or dropping them down to shovel plankton into its cavernous maw.
Soon it was joined by another, equally spectacular specimen, then another and another, until the water seemed full of these gentle giants, carefully undulating their wings.
What brought them to this particular spot where we had waited so patiently They gathered here to enjoy the ministrations of a troupe of cleaning wrasse which darted through their gills and around their mouths without any risk of being swallowed. Some say the most exciting experience they have ever had is a close encounter with a manta ray on a cleaning station. There is nowhere better to do it than at one of the many sites known to be frequented by mantas in the Maldives.

Map The Maldives, that sprinkling of a thousand islands dotting the Indian Ocean south of Sri Lanka, have had some bad publicity in 1999. Britains Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott visited and drew the worlds attention to the fact that most of those magnificent coral reefs on which these islands were founded had died.
Naturally, the focus of the worlds media was then on the Maldives, and most journalists missed the point. It was not a problem specific to the Maldives, although the nation itself survives only a couple of feet above sea-level and may well be in jeopardy once the coral barrier against the south-west monsoon has withered. It is a problem worldwide, and divers have witnessed similar phenomena as far apart as Kenya and Palau in Micronesia.
Dont discount the Maldives for diving just because all its glorious reefs are reduced to a sombre testimony to global warming. It is the same nearly everywhere else, which still leaves this destination high in the league of world-class diving destinations.
The islands are part of true atolls - they sit around the rim of ancient extinct and submerged volcanoes. A small number of these atolls are open for tourism and in these nearly every island hosts a hotel and dive centre.
Some resorts, such as Reethi Beach, are comprehensive and offer every watersport and other facilities such as tennis courts and gymnasiums. Some, such as Ellaidhoo, are purely adapted to serve divers, while others still, Ihuru being an example, offer little more than sun-bathing.
Paradise for some is hell for others, so it is important to base yourself where you will get exactly what you need. Transport between Male Airport and the islands is either by boat or by Twin-Otter float-plane.

Water flows, depending on the state of the ocean currents, either in or out of the atolls through the channels or kandus between the islands. When the water flows out it is warm but often turbid. When there are in-currents, these can be strong, the water colder but gin-clear, and the kandus and thilas (isolated deep reefs that squeeze the water from below) attract the pelagic animals that enjoy the effect of the water being forced through such topographical constrictions.
Often an atoll might have only one of these channels in which spectacular action diving is possible, so if you stay on an island you may have to be content with what is within range of the dive centres dhoni (a local style of boat which is not normally very quick). It can be better to stay on a live-aboard dive-boat, visit a choice of different channels and go to more than one atoll.
Live-aboards in the Maldives tend to be accompanied by smaller dhonis which are used to transport all the diving equipment and for the actual diving. Sea Queen is a good example of this genre. It is not a very sleek-looking vessel but it seems to be the perfect tool for the job, and it comes with all the comforts of home.
North and South Male atolls, Felidhoo, Lhaviyani, Addoo, Baa and Ari atolls are the best-known for diving and I suggest you head for Ari, where dive-sites such as Madivaru and Maamagili provide the best chance to see mantas.

Mushimashmingili (Fish Head) is famed for diver encounters with a healthy population of grey reef sharks. Maaya Thila is where great marble rays compete for space with a busy population of whitetip reef sharks, and it makes for the worlds most frenetic night dive. The Halaveli wreck is another experience not to be missed, with its equally large and unusually friendly handfed marble rays.
Pelagic animals are never predictable but they are drawn to the points where currents flow. There is nothing like the instant gratification of jumping in to find, as the bubbles clear, that a gargantuan whale shark is sheltering in the shadow of your boat, or a posse of eagle rays is gliding by.
Rasdhoo-Madivaru is a lone and tiny atoll just north of Ari atoll. It has become a favourite place for those who enjoy deep diving to go looking for an elusive school of hammerhead sharks. It means getting up at first light if you want to be lucky.
Some resorts have taken the initiative and introduced new features to their dive sites. At Machchafuchi in South Ari atoll, they have sunk the wreck of the Kudhima, a 64m-long steam cargo ship. Its hatches are open and there is a crane on its deck. This is a shore dive for any time of day or night.
Other wrecks, including the Skipjack, lie at a site known as the Shipyard in Felivaru Kandu in Lhaviyani atoll and the wreck of the Maldive Victory is next to Hulule near Male.
South of South Male atoll, three atolls, South and North Nilandhoo and Mulaku Atoll have been recently opened for tourism and as such are almost virgin diving territory.
The most southern of all the Maldivian atolls, the equatorial Addoo atoll, once home to the British military base on Gan, is known for the wreck of the British Loyalty at 33m.
Currents in the Maldivian kandus might be strong but they are predictable - if youre a local. Sri Lankans call Maldivians sea-people; they always seem to know where to look for divers!

GETTING THERE: Emirates Airlines via Dubai or Air Maldives Airbus direct from Gatwick twice a week (10 hours). Charter flights with Caledonian and Britannia. Transport between the islands is by native dhoni, speedboat or floatplane.
DIVING DETAILS: Dive centres on all islands. Live-aboards include mv Sea Queen, Keema and Davidoo. Many insist on DAN medical insurance. Contact Maldives Scuba Tours (01449 780 220); Regal Diving (01353 778 096); Hayes & Jarvis (0870 8928 280); Harlequin (01708 850 330); The Barefoot Traveller (0181 741 4319); XXL Encounters (0800 0287542).
ACCOMMODATION: Refer to travel agent.
LANGUAGE: European languages widely spoken.
MONEY: US dollars accepted in most places.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Sun and watersports.
HAZARDS: Tropical sunshine and normal marine hazards plus often-strong currents. A safety sausage is essential.
BEST TIME TO GO: June to October and December to March.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All, depending on site and tides.
COST: Typical 14-day itinerary from £1800 (all-inclusive live-aboard) or island-based from £700 (B&B). John Bantin travelled with Maldives Scuba Tours (014497 80220). A 14-night trip on board my Sea Queen costs £1895, including flights, meals, accommodation and diving.
PROS: Great diving with diverse animal life. A long-haul destination that gets closer as international flight schedules improve. Tropical sunshine outside the monsoon season.
CONS: The best diving tends to be advanced due to strong currents. Its important to choose the right island or book on a live-aboard.