"Life vests are located under your seats," our barefoot pilot says from the front of the tiny seaplane. "Trust me, you won't need them, but landing on water can be a little bumpy." He guns the throttle and we skip across the clear Indian Ocean and into a cloudless sky.
This is our fourth, and final, flight from Montreal. This one is a relatively short hop from the Maldivian capital of Male to our piece of paradise, one of more than 1,000 islands scattered across an area of turquoise ocean roughly the size of Maine. On the surface, the archipelago is a tranquil and relaxing paradise that lures honeymooners from around the world. But beneath the waves, it is a hive of activity where colourful reef fish dart between delicate branching corals. It is these extremes that have brought us a third of the way around the world to Vilamendhoo – our chosen crescent of sand – for the next 10 days.
Vilamendhoo is tiny: You could probably throw a coconut from one side to the other. Its elevation is barely one metre above sea level, and it takes 20 minutes to walk around the whole island, which is exactly how long it takes to consume a pina colada. As we stroll along the beach in the fading light of our first sunset, we can see the outline of the fringing reef tracking the edge of the island several metres from shore.
It is this ease of access that makes diving and snorkelling in the Maldives so special: The house reef can be explored by simply walking down the beach and into the water. We are itching to get wet.
The next morning, we complete our checkout dive, which involves testing our skills and equipment familiarity with a local instructor in order to get the all-clear to dive independently. "As long as you follow the rules, the house reef is yours to explore," he says. And the rules are simple: Always go in pairs, indicate the route you plan to take, stay shallower than 30 metres and keep your dive under one hour. That's it. No groups, no boat rides, no delays, no fuss – in short, complete diving freedom.
We enter the ocean at one of the island's 10 marked access points, where natural sand channels provide access to the seaward edge of the reef. As we hit the water we are surrounded by several sleek black-tip reef sharks. They are only pups, less than a metre in length, but they generate even more excitement at what wonders await. We slip beneath the surface as we reach the reef wall, which plummets dozens of metres.
This part of the reef has the highest biodiversity. We descend through a school of colourful damsels and fusiliers – beautiful fish that spend the day feeding on plankton just above the reef – and drift along weightlessly, letting the gentle current do the work. Angelfish, butterflyfish, and triggerfish dart between the dense tangles of branching coral and anemonefish and morays watch us from the shelter of the reef. We explore coral overhangs that provide shade to wary snappers and grunts, including the wonderfully named oriental sweetlips that has both zebra stripes and leopard spots. As we look closer we notice the "cryptics" – tiny creatures, such as crabs, shrimps and seahorses that blend almost seamlessly into their habitat. The water is crystal clear and the sun shimmers across the reef. It's a good day to be underwater. But it is about to get even better.
It can be a mistake, while diving, to stay focused on the reef and ignore the expanse of open-ocean behind you. Large marine animals such as sharks, dolphins, turtles and rays may pass unnoticed if you don't glance over your shoulder once in a while. If you are really lucky, you may even see a whale shark. We are that lucky. An impossibly large shadow appears out of nowhere. It is moving much faster through the water than its slow and gentle body movements suggest. My partner and I turn to each other; eyes widen and pulses quicken. In 20 years of diving, I have never seen a creature this huge – think larger than your average city bus. Underwater high-fives are shared … and this is only the first dive of the trip.
It is clear we have hit upon an extraordinary place to dive and snorkel. Fortunately, Maldivians are intent on keeping it that way in the face of increasing global threats to coral reefs: overfishing, coastal development, pollution and climate change. In 2011, the 75 islands of Baa Atoll were officially designated a United Nations biosphere reserve, and if the government follows through on its plan, the entire country will be protected by 2017, becoming the single largest marine reserve in the world. That's about as much as any single nation can do.
As we sit on the beach enjoying a sun-down drink, we contemplate the more immediate future: tomorrow. We do not know what the next dive will bring, but we know for certain it will be special.
IF YOU GO
Getting to the Maldives usually means taking at least two flights. The most common routes from Canada involve passing through Doha, in Qatar, or Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. You can also fly through London, Beijing or Seoul. Once in Male, the Maldivian capital, it's a boat or seaplane transfer to resorts.
What to do:
For certified divers who want independence, exceptional reefs and biodiversity, few places in the world offer the freedom found in the Maldives. But for those that want supervision, or just someone to act as a guide, it's easy to find dive masters and instructors. The Maldives has more than 2,000 distinct coral reefs according to a recent study, so you don't have to travel far to find somewhere new to explore.
Where to stay: Vilamendoo stands out because of the pristine nature and accessibility of its coral reefs, but other resorts offer comparable underwater experiences. The all-inclusive beach villas at Villamendoo start at about $500 (funds in U.S.) per night per couple, depending on the season. vilamendhooisland.com
For those who want to experience the beauty of Maldives coral reefs without getting wet, the Huvafen Fushi resort (rooms from $1,690; huvafenfushi.peraquum.com) has an underwater spa, while the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island has an underwater restaurant (rooms from $1,800; conradhotels.com).
Velaa Private Island (velaaprivateisland.com), arguably the most exclusive resort in the Maldives – with a nightly rate of more than $10,000 for the most expensive accommodation – has its own submarine that provides guests with personal tours of the adjacent reef. Rooms from $1,500. Book through villagetravelgroup.com or onelovehoneymoons.com.