Never mind the weather, as long as you can get below the surface - and get picked up again

THE SKY WAS LEADEN GREY AND IT HAD STARTED TO RAIN. The sea was picking up and the wave crests reminded me more of a marginal-weather day in the English Channel than what was considered normal within the lagoon of a Maldives atoll. Thats the risk you take when you visit during the rainy season.
The luxurious 400hp speedboat that was ours for the day had only a narrow exit door to the sea.
We had to hold on tightly to avoid a premature plunge as we trolled around, rocking and rolling beam-on to the waves, looking for the place.
I had dived this site many times before, but this time there were only two of us diving. Alexis, my gangly guide, went for it. I followed in, head-first, with my camera, and finned furiously downwards in an attempt to beat the current and get to the right spot.
Things looked different to how I remembered them. Below us there seemed to be two massive cliffs instead of one, and one appeared to be flexing in the current.
A gang of surgeonfish chased up to investigate me in midwater. One of two huge male Napoleon wrasses nudged me with expectation. The fish were nagging me while I was still checking my camera housing for possible flooding, switching things on and unfolding my flashgun mounting arm, all the time finning down hard towards the two opposing cliffs.
A cloud of blue-lined snapper parted to give me space under an overhang as I arrived at around 38m. Once out of the ocean flow, I was able to rest and take stock.
The second cliff was not a cliff at all. It was a tightly packed bank of baitfish that pulsed and continually formed new shapes in an attempt to frighten off hordes of marauding jacks, intent on taking an opportunistic meal.
The bank was big and black. No light penetrated it. Grey reef sharks cruised out in the blue, but were mainly obscured from my vision by this big black mass of tiny fish.
Alexiss willowy figure was silhouetted in the gap between the two dark shapes, cliff and baitfish. The baitfish glinted silver as his light caught them. Once they were above me, they occluded what little light there was coming from the surface on that grey day.
Mushimashmagili, sometimes called Fish-Head, is one of the worlds most spectacular dive sites. Its different every time you visit. Its a small, submerged reef within Ari Atoll that has sloping sides but a steep cliff with overhangs at either end.
Depending on whether the strong current is coming into or out of the atoll, one of these ends faces into the current. This is where the fish congregate in their masses.
The Maldives got a bad press in 1998 when these tiny coral islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean suffered a massive coral bleach-out. It wasnt as if it was only the Maldives that was affected. The coral lost its symbiotic algae, probably due to global warming, in a broad swathe from the East African coast to the Pacific nation of Palau.
The resultant bleaching was followed by death, and most of the coral quickly turned to weed-covered rubble.
The government of the Maldives might have overplayed its hand in seeking foreign aid to build sea defences for its low-lying islands. Many foreign government officials were invited over to look for themselves. A nice trip to a tropical island paradise is always hard to turn down and, among other visiting ministers, our own John Prescott showed up and went diving. A posse of reporters spluttered in his wake.
Soon the whole world knew about the ecological disaster, but the public was led to believe that this was a problem unique to the Maldives. Bookings dropped the following year.
Suddenly it wasnt the scuba-diving Germans, happy to rough it for a bargain price, who were the dominant visitors.
Sunbathing Brits started arriving, and they brought their families, too. The resorts had to change their act and make their offerings rather less basic.
The quality of the coral reefs might have gone down, but the resorts experienced a dramatic rise in quality. Many have become as luxurious as any in the world.
Meanwhile the hard corals are growing back vigorously in places, certainly around the island of Rangali at the southern end of Ari Atoll. Its Rangali Hilton Resort & Spa could claim to be a six-star resort, if such a thing existed.
I was not surprised to find that it had won Best Resort in the Indian Ocean in the World Travel Awards and, only recently, Best Resort Worldwide with the Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Its the sort of place where the sand is whiter than you can remember. The sea is more turquoise. The palms lean over at classic angles and guests are pampered by having their own almost private sections of beach.
Its a place for gourmets. The resort is renowned for its cuisine, with no fewer than seven world-class restaurants and 10,000 bottles of fine wine waiting to be tasted in three different bars.
There is a Japanese beach grill, sunset grill and a restaurant that specialises in only the best French wines and cheeses. Dont confuse that with the separate underground wine-cellar restaurant.
There is even one restaurant built under the sea. Diners here eat beneath a plexi-glass canopy as reef-life goes on around them. You can be sure that loads of big stuff is encouraged to show up.

Romantic interlude
There is an over-water spa with a glass floor over the reef where guests can be pampered with different forms of massage, facials, holistic and skin-care programmes. The spa has its own healthy-eating restaurant of course.
Youll find a well-equipped gym and all the beach-type activities such as windsurfing and dinghy sailing.
Naturally, beach weddings are popular, as are honeymoons and other reasons for romantic interlude. Just one thing - if its important to you to know what all this costs, you cant afford it!
Of course, there will always be those you cant please. I heard a woman complaining that the waves under her over-water bungalow were too noisy. She had already complained that the sun was too hot and the sea too salty!
I stayed in a magnificent Japanese-style room fronting onto the white sandy beach and equipped with such things as remotely controlled blinds. That was the basic accommodation.
My under-the-stars bathroom had every conceivable luxury, including a second rabbit-style showerhead for those able to use it. I contemplated which of many activities I might engage in instead of going diving! Sad as I am, the diving always won.
The Sub-Aqua Dive Centre is the sort of place you worry about entering with wet feet. Scuba-diving is an activity that is difficult to make luxurious. For a start you have to do it yourself, although I am sure the centre would provide someone to do it for you if you so desired!
They certainly try to take the work out of the surface part for you by providing plenty of willing staff to do your bidding, a big and spacious locally built dhoni from which to dive, and plenty of dive-guides in the water so that no-one need feel insecure.
Its not outrageously expensive to dive, either. A package of unlimited diving over five days costs only US $300.
Of course, few of the typical guests ask for that. Either they want just a couple of dives with all equipment provided, or they prefer to hire their own speedboat and personal dive-guide. In that way, some of the visitors manage to spend up to $3000 on one day of diving.
Service is everything, and the type of people who stay at the Rangali Hilton Resort & Spa expect everything to be done for them.
One Japanese dive-guide even spat in my mask for me before I went into the water (I lie, but she did, unbidden, squirt it with defoggant!)
I was disappointed at having to climb the boat-ladder after the dive. I expected to be carried shoulder-high.
Getting back on the huge dhoni, I found the overwhelming attention a little oppressive at first. I didnt know whether to take the warm dry towel or the hot cup of tea, the bottle of refreshing water or a sample of the fresh fruit. All I wanted to do was to slip out of my kit and enjoy the freshwater shower.
In fact, with the help of at least three people, I managed to do all of those things, yet there was no one there to wipe the snot off my face!
Its an unusual sight to see a boatload of divers returning from a dive relaxing in white bathrobes and coolly drinking their choice of beverage. On whole-day trips the lunch is a trans-world smorgasbord of food in the style of both Europe and Japan.
I ate my fill of giant grilled prawns and sashimi, and a choice of 10 different styles of salad. Thats on the dhoni. Those who want real luxury take the private speedboat option.
What of the diving Well, Ari Atoll has, in my opinion, the best diving in the Maldives. Thats because the islands and reefs are well spaced, allowing the ocean currents to pass through freely.
These currents bring the nutrients that are so important to marine life.

Team of nymphets
Alexis Vincent, the jocular French-Canadian manager of the Sub-Aqua Dive Centre, took me to a nearby reef (called the Coral Garden, oddly enough) to see massive banks of healthy hard corals, including huge table corals growing in all the profusion for which the Maldives were famous prior to the bleaching catastrophe.
It gives the lie to the received wisdom that hard corals grow at a rate of only a few millimetres per year. These corals showed signs of revival only four or five years ago but have since grown to magnificent proportions.
By the way, Alexis says he employs female diving instructors (he calls them his team of nymphets!) because they tend to be far more attentive than young men. That is apparently what the pampered guests want. Ill second that!
The water around the Maldives has always had more than its share of fish, but these have recently been mainly in the form of algae-eaters, such as the red-toothed triggerfish. Now the colourful coral-browsers, the angelfish, are starting to make a comeback.
At Kuda Rah Thila I saw a bouillabaise of fish, just as I did at Mandoo Corner and also around the wreck of the Kudimaa, a small freighter sunk by Sub-Aqua at Machafushi for divers benefit.
Jacks and large grouper at each of these sites preyed on great shimmering silver clouds of baitfish. At times they obscured my buddy from view. The hold of the wreck was full of schooling batfish that gathered round me, as curious about me as I was about them.
At every dive site I saw flourishing coral in both hard and colourful soft varieties, and masses of fishes of all types. There were so many that at times the surface simply disappeared from view.
Ali Thila has teams of batfish, numerous grey reef sharks and a current that feeds a swathe of large gorgonians. Maalhos Thila is thick with blue soft corals and has a nice swim-through. Koba Thila (it means Where is the thila) is hard to find, but has it all.
Everywhere I went, I witnessed unprecedented clouds of baitfish. All the marine life of the Maldives appears to have recovered with a vengeance!

When the rain has stopped, what could be more agreeable
The size of these table corals illustrates the degree of recovery from El Niño in this part of the Maldives
No takers for the underwater restaurant on this occasion - but there are plenty of other options.
An inquisitive super-male Napoleon wrasse.
Surrounded by baitfish and the Maldives signature fish, blue-lined snapper.
The Kudimaa freighter wreck provides an artificial reef for divers at Rangali.
Batfish patrol the wreck.


GETTING THERE: Qatar Airways flies daily from London to Male via Dohar (with quick transfer). Emirates flies regularly from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Male via Dubai. Transfer from Male (Hulhule) to Rangali in Ari Atoll is by seaplane. The Rangali Hilton has its own luxurious terminal facilities at the Hulhule Seaplane airport.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Rangali Hilton Resort and Spa is built on two islands connected by a bridge and has seven restaurants, three bars, 1.7 miles of beaches, 52 villas of different types and two spa resorts within the resort, worldwideresorts. Diving is with Sub-Aqua Dive Centre, WHEN TO GO: Any time, but December to May has calmer weather and less chance of rain.
MONEY: US dollars/major credit cards. Prices: At the Rangali Hilton, from $200-3590 per night including breakfast. Diving costs from $300 for five days diving to $3000 per day for private speedboat with crew, dive-guide and gourmet lunch.