1. A dense school of bluestripe snappers. 2. A humphead wrasse indigenous to the Indo-Pacific region. 3. Twilight at the Hilton Maldives Resort & Spa on Rangali Island. 4. Sabre squirrelfish in a Maldives grotto.

It wasn't until 1972 that the first dive operation appeared in the Maldives, an equatorial nation of some 26 coral atolls.

Since then, the world has gotten the message that, if your idea of a dream vacation is to do frontier-level diving in an area profuse with colorful marine life, you can't do better than the Maldives. And we're inclined to agree.

Photographer Michael Aw described the waters around the Maldives as "a rainbow sea." More than 500 miles by 80 miles in area, the nation has only about 116 square miles of dry land, so there is no lack of places to dive here. While some atolls are closed to visitors to shield local Muslim inhabitants from Western influences, there is still enough


AVERAGE WATER TEMP: 84°F WHAT TO WEAR: Dive skin in summer; 3 mm in winter. AVERAGE VIZ: 100+ feet WHEN TO GO: Year-round. WHAT TO EXPECT:

Diving from dhonis (local boats) in waters that have beautiful reefs and a staggering number of colorful fish. ELECTRICITY: Generally 220-240V, 50 cycle, often generated by your resort. Ask ahead and bring the appropriate convertor. LANGUAGE: Dhivehi, but English is ubiquitous. TAXES: 6 percent VAT; 10 percent service charge customary. TIME ZONE: Officially GMT +5; some resorts adjust the clock by an hour or two to take maximum advantage of daylight.

pristine underwater territory to keep entire legions of explorers busy for years.

Exotic but accessible (all Maldivians learn English as part of their basic education), the Maldives have been lauded as one of the world's greatest destinations for photographers. Most diving here is done in current-swept kandus between ocean and lagoon, where marine life can get nutrients and visitors can enjoy thrilling drift dives. Wrecks and pinnacles round out the diving possibilities, and many resorts have "house reefs" that can keep macro photographers busy for as long as their air holds out. Live-aboards have also operated here practically since diving operations began, adding another element to this frontier-diving destination.

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