Friday, May 29, 2009

Maldives: An ocean full of catwalk colour

Nobody goes to the Maldives for culture. Nor do they go for hills, lakes or rivers – there aren't any. But for people who love water, there is no place on earth quite like it. You wake to the hypnotic sound of oceanic waves. When you step into the water, it is like being in your own private aquarium. Imagine a designer like Kenzo or Missoni being let loose on fish: those ravishing catwalk colours and patterns are exactly what you see when you look under the waters of the Indian Ocean.

The curious mixture of honeymooners and scuba divers drawn to this island nation stay in luxurious water villas built over lagoons and connected to the land by narrow jetties. So compelling is the ocean that it is very difficult to get anything done. Isolated in your own little slice of hotel heaven, you can either retreat into blissful, self-imposed purdah, gazing for hours at the ocean, or spy, Rear Window-style, on other guests. Normally this kind of undercover people-watching is one of the quiet joys of hotel life, but here it is the fish that are the greatest distraction. Who wants to look at love-struck couples downing margaritas in the hotel bar when you could be swimming with the fishes in a warm, deserted lagoon with no jet skis or speedboats to spoil things?

Of the 87 resort islands, I picked Baros as my first stop because it has a tiny diving school that offers one-to-one tuition for novices. Off-season (July), there were so few guests that I felt as though I had the place to myself. There was no danger of bumping into anyone I knew. And I was comforted by the size of the island: it is so small that in only half an hour you can swim around it – and that's without flippers.

On my second day, I looked out at a sea so calm and benevolent it would have been a crime not to go underwater. Of course I could have gone snorkelling, but I had always wanted to learn to dive in a beautiful, sunlit place, free from other people and the municipal misery of a public pool in Britain. Until now I had always been too scared to try, even when foreign holidays offered the opportunity. It wasn't fear of sharks but of all the technical things that could go wrong. What if my goggles leaked, or my tank ran out of oxygen?

After breakfast, I grabbed my swimsuit and went in search of the island's diving instructors, Derk and Margreet Molenaar, a free-spirited Dutch couple who operate from a timber-roofed hut at the end of a jetty. Could they teach me one to one? It was early in the morning and none of the other guests had surfaced. Margreet took me under her wing.

After she ran me through the rudiments and taught me a few signals – an "o" with my fingers to indicate I'm OK, a fluttering of one hand to show there's a problem – she helped me into a light wetsuit, cut off at the knee and elbow. "Baros is a very good island for beginners because of the house reef and lagoon," she said, as we walked along a beach shaped like a crescent moon.

At the water's edge, a small tank was hoisted onto my back and an astonishingly hefty belt tied at my waist. "Any sharks?" I asked, nerves in shreds, as I lowered myself into the water, wondering if I would drown under all that weight. "Yes, there are white- and blacktip reef sharks in the lagoon, but they don't go after humans unless you provoke or tease them," she said, tightening my belt. "There must be a reason."

So that's OK, then, I told myself. So long as I behave, they will. Not quite the reassurance I had hoped for, but I was quickly distracted by what was going on below me. One moment I was snorkelling merrily, hearing the splash of my flippers and the encouraging cries of my friends on the beach; the next I was plunged into a mesmerising underwater world, clutching Margreet's hand as I swam through shafts of sunlight, the only noise the rasp of my breathing.

As we circled and swooped, she pointed out shoals of stripy Oriental sweetlips, spotted eagle rays and red-tailed butterfly fish. All these deceptively Disney-like creatures were going about their business with supreme indifference to us, and it was strangely reassuring. Slowly we swam deeper until we could see parrot fish nibbling on the coral and sea cucumbers coiled like snakes on the waterbed. When we eventually came up, it was in slow stages. We had been underwater for almost an hour, but it felt like only 10 minutes.

Back at the diving centre, as I peeled off my wetsuit, Margreet told me about Kuda Haa, a reef known locally as "fish soup", which is heaving with turtles, reef sharks, Napoleon fish and moray eels. All I needed to go there was to pass my PADI certificate – just four more days of training. As I headed back to my water villa, barefoot, wet-haired and giddy with joy, I suddenly understood why diving was so addictive. Before I saw the islands for myself, I had always dismissed the Maldives as the default choice of honeymooners with lots of cash and no imagination. Now, having explored a teeming underwater world fraught with perils yet oddly soothing, my visit felt like the adventure of a lifetime.


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