If you're looking for desert islands bedecked with luxurious living and fringed with world-class diving, then a trip to explore the Maldives could be on the cards for your next holiday. The best diving in the Maldives ranks alongside the best diving anywhere on the planet: whale sharks, manta rays, hammerheads and tiger sharks cruise the blue, as turtles, octopuses and leaf scorpionfish hang loose on the house reefs. But with 26 atolls and a little over 1,000 islands, picking your ideal Maldivian destination can be like a rather extravagant game of pin the tail on the donkey for the uninitiated. Whether your dream is to watch barrel-rolling mantas, photograph imperious tiger sharks, meander through pristine coral gardens, or finally put an end to that whale shark curse, when you know where to head (hint: we do), the Maldives can make those dreams come true...

Whale Shark

Best Whale Shark Diving

The big, spotty fellas are among the Maldives' most loyal patrons; they just keep coming back, year after year. The chances of spotting a whale shark in the Maldives are pretty high, as they can be seen throughout the archipelago, but there are a few whale shark hotspots that can tilt the odds even further in your favour, with South Ari Atoll and North Male Atoll being particularly fruitful locations.

South Ari and North Male atolls are in the central region of the Maldives and are short transfers away from Male Airport. Whale shark aggregations occur during the months of May and June in and around North Male Atoll, while South Ari Atoll seems to be blessed with year-round whale shark sightings. If you have a whale shark curse that needs lifting, then these two central atolls should be at the top of your Maldivian destination list.

Manta Rays

Best Manta Ray Diving

If your idea of the best diving in the Maldives features countless manta rays performing loop-the-loops as they hoover up microscopic plankton, then you should check out the country's northern atolls. While mantas can be seen gliding past the reefs throughout the Maldives, arguably the world's best manta ray hotspot and some of the best diving in the Maldives can be found at Hanifaru Bay, in Baa Atoll.

Between May and December each year, during the south-west monsoon, high tides around the full moon push vast amounts of plankton into the bay. This dense concentration of plankton serves as an all-you-can-eat buffet for the mantas, and they turn up in their hundreds to feast until their hearts are content. With a few rogue whale sharks muscling in on the free-for-all food, you can spend your safety stops playing a unique Where's Wally-style game of spot the whale shark among the crowds of mantas!

Blacktip Sharks

Best Shark Diving

One of the Maldives' southern atolls, Huvadhoo Atoll, is the second largest in the Maldives and the atoll with the most islands in the world. Thresher sharks, black-tipped reef sharks, white-tipped reef sharks, nurse sharks, guitar sharks, whale sharks, tiger sharks, grey reef sharks and hammerheads have all been spotted loitering in and around the atoll's numerous channels. And with sailfish, barracuda and tuna also showing up regularly, Huvadhoo Atoll has to be among the best diving in the Maldives for shark lovers.

With the added bonus of the chance of a beautifully-patterned ornate eagle ray conducting a fly-by during the safety stop, the shark-infused waters surrounding Huvadhoo Atoll seldom disappoint. The sharks enjoy the currents, and with so many islands in the area, you'll have plenty of channels to drift through in the company of several species of sharks.

House Reef and Island

Best House Reef Diving

If you prefer the smaller things in life, you can find plenty of cool macro critters hiding on the house reefs throughout the Maldives. And though you're never too far from a house reef, if you're looking for one that can be considered among the best diving in the Maldives, the island of Hadahaa may just be able to deliver.

The barefoot paradise sits on the eastern side of Huvadhoo Atoll, and in addition to keeping macro enthusiasts happy with leaf scorpionfish, ornate ghostpipefish, hawkfish and colourful nudis, the sandy patches within the house reef provide resting places for white-tipped reef sharks, porcupine rays and marble rays. With over-the-water bungalows allowing you to sleep mere feet from the reef, Hadahaa Island is the perfect retreat for getting away from it all and enjoying leisurely house-reef diving away from the madding crowds.