Fresh back from two weeks of island hopping around the atolls of the Maldives, our resident dive instructor and holiday planner, Eleanor, has a few things to say about the most exhilarating dive expedition of her career (...so far). From mesmerising coral heads beneath overwater villas and flourishing shallow reefs dropping into epic coral-coated walls, to negative descents in heaving currents with cleaning stations besieged by schooling grey reef sharks, the Maldives delivered on every level of diving and standard of service.
The Northern Atolls
Powerful currents funnel nutrient-rich waters between these palm-lined isles, making for epic encounters with giant filter feeders. Grandest of all, the UNESCO biosphere reserve of Baa Atoll encompasses the famous snorkel site, Hanifaru Bay. Here, swirling vortexes of manta rays await beneath the surface, sometimes joined by whale sharks drifting along underwater highways for their favourite krill clouds. Elsewhere, schools of mobula rays can be glimpsed in the deep blue, leopard sharks travel over reefs blanketed in shoals of yellowtail, and iridescent fusiliers swirl around you in a coordinated dance. You can even, on occasion, catch a glimpse of the illusive ornate eagle ray sweeping past.
The Central Atolls
Strong currents persist, drawing in a vast array of life up and down the aquatic food chain. Fevers of spotted eagle rays glide by, turtles pop in and out of caves for quick breaths at the surface and white tip sharks cruise the reefs which themselves are peppered with nudibranchs, ghost pipefish and clown fish families darting about in their anemone homes. While I didn't get a chance to see manta rays (which a friend at Manta Trust says means I must be cursed), they are usually reliable on the eastern side of the atolls from May to November and on the western side from December to April. Making up for my missing mantas, the breath-taking thila (underwater seamount) dives at Helengeli and Cocoa showed off with dozens of grey reef sharks vertically suspended in the water column as cleaner fish flitted in and out of their jaws and gills.
The Southern Atolls
Dive guides can make all the difference, and up and down the Maldives they were wonderful. Made up of an international and Maldivian collection, the instructors, dive masters, captains and crew consistently exceeded my expectations and went out of their way to cross creatures off my bucket list. In the southern atolls especially they made it their mission to impress, somehow charming eagle rays into acrobatics, persuading schools of jack to swarm around the group, crawling into caves to find leopard sharks and choosing sites specifically to spot guitar sharks. Each dive was a sublime submerged scavenger hunt from start to finish.