The Maldives offer divers a huge array of aquatic life to marvel at. And a new luxury boat means an end to roughing it on a 'live-aboard', says Rory Ross

Splash-down - a cloud of white spray heralds the arrival of my de Havilland Twin Otter. Through the cabin window I glimpse the object of my 15-hour jet and seaplane odyssey via Dubai and Male'. There, blinding white in the tropical sun and rocking gently off Baa Atoll, is the world's most luxurious scuba diving boat: the Island Explorer.

Splash-down - a cloud of white spray heralds the arrival of my de Havilland Twin Otter. Through the cabin window I glimpse the object of my 15-hour jet and seaplane odyssey via Dubai and Male'. There, blinding white in the tropical sun and rocking gently off Baa Atoll, is the world's most luxurious scuba diving boat: the Island Explorer.

Where better to test it than the Maldives? Not long ago they constituted a shipping hazard - any seafarer who strayed too close to the coral ringing each island was unlikely to escape intact. But the Maldives have since evolved from marine insurance-risk to tourist hotspot. This nation, comprising 1,200 islands south-west of India, offers the most pristine, species-rich diving sites in the world. From the air the atolls resemble serene wreaths commemorating lost mariners. Below the waves garish reefs teem with life, from the tiniest sea slug to the oceanic Big Five: Manta ray, turtle, Napoleon wrasse, dolphin and shark.

Diving connoisseurs have been coming here for years, roughing it on "live-aboard" dive-boats that provide a floating base. For some, the cramped conditions and minimal après-dive are a small price to pay for the chance of floating free amid the wonders of the deep. But if your partner doesn't dive, the emotional price could be much higher.

Plunging in with a brilliant, luxurious alternative to the live-aboard is Malaysian-Chinese property tycoon Beng Seng Ong. He is the husband of Christina Ong, the fashion-franchise queen who owns more than 30 clothing stores in Singapore, the Giorgio and Emporio Armani franchises in Britain and the Metropolitan and Halkin hotels in London. The Ongs have dived the Maldives for 20 years and in 1997 built the Kuda Huraa resort on North Male' Atoll. To add finesse to their aquatic holidays the Ongs commissioned Island Explorer, the 39-metre catamaran whose 1.6-metre draft can probe the furthest-flung Maldivian dive sites in five-star comfort.

I am welcomed on board Island Explorer by beating drums, a traditional Maldivian greeting. Charlie Parker, the Ongs' cruise director, steps forward with his hand outstretched and offers to give me the full guided tour. "Socially," Parker says, flinging open doors like an estate agent, "the Maldives are limited. There aren't many bars to choose from on a Friday night. In fact, there are none at all. So we have incorporated all that sort of thing on board." The Island Explorer has 11 cabins and can accommodate a maximum of 22 passengers in elegant comfort. The dining-room, sitting-room and bar are simple and modern, while the diving-deck would have graced any of Jacques Cousteau's vessels. When full, guests outnumber crew by just one - the on-board workforce includes housekeepers, waiters, barmen and chefs. "It's a luxury hotel wrapped in a private yacht, with all the diving tackle, expertise and tuition to turn the enthusiastic novice into a certified rescue diver," concludes Parker.

If the idea of sharing with other guests is intolerable, you can always charter the yacht outright. Non-diving diversions include a dedicated massage therapist, a library, sun decks, fishing trips and island excursions.

The tour complete, it was time to acquaint myself with the scuba basics. Niyaz, the Island Explorer's dive-master, explained how to clear a flooded mask underwater, how to expel material from a mouthpiece and what to do if my air supply ran out. He also ran through the hand-signals used to communicate at depth. Weighed down with bulky equipment, some novices freak out at the "back-roll entry", which involves toppling into the water tank-first from the side of the boat. Having fallen off many bar stools, I found it a doddle.

If the Maldives are Robinson Crusoe-territory above the waves, below them they are a piscatorial metropolis in permanent rush-hour. I found myself floating among iridescent schools of blue-line snapper, gold-spot emperors, bannerfish, parrot fish and masked angel fish commuting between lobes of coral. Among them would prowl the odd black-spotted puffer fish, moray eel, turtle or parrot fish. The variety of propulsion techniques on show is vast - at a glance you'll see creatures that cruise, wriggle, flap, dart, scuttle, wheel, paddle and ooze. It's a living thesaurus of animal motion.

The facial expressions of these marine specimens present hilarious human caricatures, from the haunted lugubriousness of the moray eel to the morose stateliness of the Napoleon wrasse; the chinless wonder of the shark to the complex architecture of the 6.5-metre manta ray. The Red Sea and the Great Barrier Reef may boast more spectacular coral, but experts agree that for density of marine life these waters rival those around the Galapagos Islands.

"Oh, but you long for a school of sharks to vacuum them up," sighs a jaded diving hand afterwards. "There are only so many 'goldfish' you can look at." I'm sure the Maldives' apex predators, which include 26 species of shark, are doing their best. Niyaz the dive-master enthuses about the thrill of grey reef sharks and elusive encounters with schooling hammerheads, the biggest knockout in the ocean. The most prized encounter is with the harmless (unless you're plankton) 18-metre whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean. "It has only happened to me five times in 12 years," Niyaz purrs.

The Maldives are part of a volcanic ridge that soars 3,000m from the sea-bed, cutting into the cross-currents of the Indian Ocean. The ridge is crowned by a double row of live coral reefs, sand bars, atolls and islands, some of which barely break the surface. Were it not for the coconut palms, they'd be almost invisible to ships. Their appeal to a fashionista like Christina Ong is obvious: they were minimalist before minimalism was invented, and are available in several sizes. Unfortunately they only come in one colour - sandy-beige - but I guess you can't have everything. Some of the smaller islands also come and go with the seasons. Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer who studied the Maldives, claimed to have seen three islands emerge after a storm in 1955.

When calm tropical waters meet plankton-rich ocean currents, the resulting biodiversity makes for epic diving. The best time to visit the Maldives is during the dry season from November to April when the water can reach 29 degrees and sub-surface visibility is up to 30 metres.

After my first dip, Alex, the Island Explorer's Essex-born marine biologist, gave me a crash-course in ocean ecology. He explained how sharks are really sensitive, cuddly, misunderstood creatures, and how you can train octopuses to open boxes. Apparently, if you get caught by a giant clam you will drown before it releases you, and a single coral-feeding parrot fish excretes one tonne of sand each year. He also warned of impending ecological doom caused by irresponsible tourism, climate change, over-fishing, snorkellers and chemical pollution, and described how the popularity of shark-fin soup and plastic carrier bags are threatening marine ecosystems.

Thankfully, the Maldivians are, by nature, a conservative lot. While the Costa del Sol and the Côte d'Azur were buried under tons of concrete during the Sixties and Seventies, the Maldivians sat on their atolls, watched, and learnt from the mistakes of others. More by luck than judgement they are now reaping the rewards. The government has issued numerous preservation orders and sanctioned minimal development. No more than one hotel is permitted on each island, and never on islands already inhabited. You won't find any architectural eyesores, skyscrapers, traffic jams or international shipping, while the waters, despite their treacherous reputation, have not been properly charted since a Captain Moresby had a go in 1835.

Our main cultural stopover was Kendhoo, one of the larger islands (population 927), where Abu'l-baraka introduced Islam in 1153. Local planning laws forbid building higher than the highest coconut palm, and Maldivians look up to their coconuts in every sense - they drink their milk, eat their flesh, burn their dried husks, build boats and houses from their wood and use their oil for shampoo. They make for great statistics too: falling coconuts kill 300 people each year. The only items on Kendhoo not made from coconuts are the David Beckham football shirts and satellite TV dishes.

I ask Parker what visitors to the Maldives like about the islands. "Pristine beaches," he shrugs. "Only 200 islands are inhabited. You can have one all to yourself. And the people here are friendlier than in the Caribbean."

If you want to experience Maldivian life you'll have to hurry. According to Alex, climate change means the Maldives may not be around long enough to become comprehensively trashed. "A one-degree rise in temperature kills coral polyps which are highly sensitive to salinity, light and heat," he explains. "No coral, no reef. No reef means the islands are exposed to the ocean. Because the highest point in the Maldives is just eight feet above sea level, the Maldives won't exist in 100 years."

By then they'll just be another shipping hazard.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The only direct flights to the Maldives are on SriLankan Airlines (020-8538 2001; www.srilankan.lk) from Heathrow to the capital, Male'. Most visitors travel to the Maldives on an inclusive package holiday.

The writer travelled with Roxton Bailey Robinson (01488 689700, www.rbrww.com) which offers three nights at the Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa, North Male' Atoll (00 960 444 888, www.fourseasons.com) on a bed and breakfast basis and four nights aboard the Island Explorer on a full-board basis, including three dives per day for £2,795 including flights and transfers.

EATING AND DRINKING

Hotels exist exclusively on islands previously uninhabited. Therefore, unless your base is Male', you will be eating and drinking in your hotel. Alcohol is prohibited outside hotel resorts. Locals quench their thirst instead with sweet black tea, or "sai", which can be bought in the profusion of tea shops.

INFORMATION

Maldives Tourism Promotion Board (00 960 323 228, www.visitmaldives.com).

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