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The Best Marine Habitat

Asiaweek Pictures.

Marco Polo referred to the Maldives as the Flower of the Indies. It's an apt description. In fact, some enthusiasts go so far as to advise scuba novices: Make it one of the later sites you try because few other marine habitats in Asia bear comparison.

The Maldives comprises 1,192 tiny islands southwest of India, none of which are much more than three meters above sea level. With crystal-clear waters, the archipelago forms an ecosystem that hosts an exceptional marine community, from hard coral to fantastically patterned nudibranches. Dolphins and manta rays regularly patrol its waters. Even the odd killer whale or two. Its beaches are an important nesting site for five of the world's seven species of green sea turtles. "You can pretty much see anything you've ever wanted to see underwater at the Maldives," says Steve White of Action Asia magazine. "It has really got it all — drift dives, ocean walls and tons of fish, sharks and other marine life."

The locals are very protective of their natural environment. In 1995, officials banned the fishing of turtles; and three years later, they restricted shark fishing in tourist zones. After all, the lively underwater activity and psychedelic gardens attract visitors from around the globe, some 60% of whom come exclusively to dive. (Besides banning destructive practices as cyanide fishing, the authories regularly organize clean-up operations and educational campaigns.)

In the past couple of years, rising ocean temperatures, exacerbated by severe El NiNo effects, have produced flows of water too warm for the sensitive reefs. This led to widespread "bleaching," which occurs when stressed coral lose the symbiotic algae that are the source of their color. The reefs have largely bounced back — for now. Global warming could inflict permanent damage.

Rated one of the top 10 marine habitats in the world (the only one within Asia) by CyberDiver, the Maldives is still an embarrassment of riches. Under the category "best dive sites," the archipelago is described with the telling phrase, "too many to list." Let's keep it that way.

—By Maria Cheng

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