Of the 1192 coral islands across these 26 atolls, just 200 are inhabited, which becomes clear when exploring the deep south. We set sail before sunrise and see nothing for miles but the outline of a dhoni – a traditional wooden fishing boat – drifting on the horizon.
We cut through mirror-still ocean at dawn, accompanied by a pod of spinner dolphins. They leap from crested waves at the bow, each stunt outdoing the next, before their cobalt fins melt into the depths. Suddenly, there are shouts from the crew. "Manta! Manta!" We spot the odd one flapping of their wings in the distance and plunge in with our gear on, straining to see through the swell of plankton.
Miraculously, the Huvadhu atoll escaped shifting ocean patterns associated with a destructive warm current, El Niño, that bleached miles of Maldivian reef in 1998. It is a veritable sweetshop for underwater aficionados, with scores of healthy coral islets and undiscovered dive sites. It’s rare to pass another boat here, let alone spot another tourist.
Beneath the waves, staghorn coral reaches skyward alongside delicate sea fans. Silvered needlefish graze the surface and schools of neon fusilier and skittish blue-stripe snapper dart across the reef. Angelfish drift by in pairs, clownfish snuggle into anemones and lionfish guard rocky lairs. Black and white tip reef sharks patrol the shadows while spotted boxfish hover above clouds of sand thrown up by feasting parrotfish. Sea turtles circle overhead, soaking their ancient shields in equatorial sunshine.
Like the most graceful of eagles, a manta ray glides towards me, a blur of mottled skin and contracting gills. It skims the surface; scooping plankton into a gaping mouth and descending daringly close, fixing me with uncertain, rotating eyes, before disappearing silently into the abyss. Another colossal creature appears, and then another: prehistoric, belittling and majestic all at once. Spellbound, I watch five noble manta rays linger for several minutes, swooping and spiralling, before they fade into darkness.
The lack of tourists willing to make the trek south means manta ray and whale shark encounters here are both enthralling and authentic. The season for large pelagic fish tends to run between May and September, but the Maldives is a year-round dive destination. As a general rule, visibility and marine life is ideal on the western side of the atoll between May and November, and better on the eastern side between December and April.
I spend the evening aboard our vessel, reeling from the day’s dive, and the following morning the sun rises quickly, staining the skies pastel pink and casting a golden, ethereal glow upon the distant islands. A few miles off-coast, Ibrahim coaxes us into the water again. It is choppy and, very deep. I peer downwards at rays of light beaming through sapphire tones. “There's nothing here”, someone shouts indignantly. Ibrahim gives a wry smile and leans over the rungs. “Ah but there is,” he whispers, “here, we are precisely above the equator, and there is nothing but you and the Indian Ocean for miles.”
Where to dive in the Maldives
Top spots include Vadhoo Thila and Maarehaa Kandu for heart-stopping shark sightings, while Nilhandhoo Kandu and Ekefaru Kandu are frequented by ocean giants such as shimmering barracuda, big-eye trevally and mammoth jackfish. At the northernmost tip of Gaafu Alifu, a deep interior lagoon boasts astonishing macro life on scattered coral gardens and Hithaadhoo Nature Reserve shelters nesting turtles.
Liveaboards cruising the barrier islands take the seasons into account, promising varied itineraries. For the truly daring, MV Sea Queen operates a shark departure designed to spot some of 26 species dwelling in the southwesterly channels of Gaafu Dhaalu such as tigers, hammerheads and threshers. M/Y Duke of York and its sister boat M/Y Conte Max run deep south journeys that span the whole atoll, taking in channels, caves, and pinnacles.
Explore more of the Indian Ocean with the Rough Guides destinations pages, book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Original Diving offer a variety of liveaboard trips throughout the Maldives, including set departures and private charters taking in the southern atolls.