"LOOK AT ALL THIS HARD CORAL." John Bantin travelled to the Maldives via Dubai with Emirates Airlines.
"It's amazing how quickly the hard corals can grow if the conditions are right."
"These soft corals are so beautiful."
"That's post-El Niño coral."
These are some of the notes scribbled onto my slate and thrust into my hand by Sam Harwood during dives buddied up with her in the Maldives earlier this year. She persistently made her case. I got the message.
The corals of the Maldives might have taken a battering from global warming in 1998 but they're coming back.
Not that I ever felt the diving really suffered. The big animals remained, but many operators in other parts of the Indian Ocean and Far East made great capital out of it at the time, to draw business away from this popular archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean south-west of Sri Lanka.
The sweeping ocean currents and nutrient-rich water certainly aid recovery, even if it makes some dives rather challenging and at other times the visibility is less than gin-clear.
Sam is a great fan of the Maldives but, unlike most fans, she has demonstrated a total commitment to her passion.
In 1989 she fell in love with Rob Bryning, then diving officer of London No 1 branch of the BSAC. They occupied adjoining flats in a house in Wandsworth, London, and she had called round to borrow some coffee. You know the rest of that story.
He worked for Singapore Airlines, which had recently opened a route to Male, the Maldivian capital. Sam wanted to start her own business and briefly considered snail-farming before looking at running an inn located in Glen Uig, western Scotland. But the idea of a liveaboard dive boat in the Maldives won out.
How many of us dream of giving up life in Britain for one as a dive-guide in some tropical destination? It's a dream few of us have the nerve to pursue. Setting up a liveaboard operation takes even more courage, but Sam and Rob went for it.
The Maldives are now firmly established as the second most popular diving destination for Europeans after the Red Sea, but in those days few of us had even heard of the place. The couple took a business plan to their bank and chartered a Maldivian boat that they thought would do the job, the mv Keema.
Rob continued at Singapore Airlines for the first eight months, moonlighting as sales and UK agent for their boat, leaving Sam to get the operation up and running in the islands.
She was only 25, and it could have been very difficult for such a young woman to kick-start the business at that time in what is a strictly Muslim country.
"I expected that for a lone woman I might have had some problems but I recruited a crew who were fiercely protective of me," she says. "They were marvellous.
"They took a lot of responsibility. In fact it was quite difficult for Rob to take over control later, because he was a man and they tended to abdicate all that responsibility to him."
Did she ever have any fears?
"I was much more reserved than maybe I am now. I had far greater problems dealing with the passengers than with the crew. I remember on one occasion a fist-fight broke out between a group on the aft deck. I didn't know what to do. I looked on in petrified amazement. Oh, maybe you'd better not mention that. They have become well-loved and loyal clients since and return year in, year out!
"It's all about group dynamics. I really enjoyed the company of all the guests, people come from such diverse backgrounds. I enjoyed finding out about their lives back home. And that's what so often forms your own inspirations and ambitions."
Then again, the passengers often relied on Sam. "When established groups came on board, they brought with them inter-relationships that can alter once they are off their territory. This can bring issues that need to be dealt with.
"I often took on the role of either mother, wife, nurse or psychiatrist, and sometimes even found myself acting as marriage-guidance counsellor. Funny things happen when people are far from home."
How had Sam discovered the dive sites? "There were plenty of known sites because the diving in the Maldives is mainly all about the channels, the kandus, and the sunken reefs, the thilas. Our crew were quickly able to identify them and I tried them.
"Later, when Rob came on board, he was much more adventurous than I was and nothing went unexplored. Then again, our more recent crews continue to discover new places. One is the manta cleaning station at Dhonkalu, Ari Atoll, where we normally expect to see 20 or 30 mantas at one time."
Had rivalry on the part of local diving operations caused any serious problems for Sam?
"There were plenty of diving operations out here then but the few established liveaboards were less than basic. They were just normal dhonis like we use as diving support vessels now. They had no facilities. Often people slept at night on the beaches of uninhabited islands. No-one seemed to worry about us offering something a bit better and, of course, we were chartering the boat then from a local owner."
I asked Sam about her own diving skills. "I was very inexperienced. I was a BSAC club diver with typically only a few dives under my belt. We would never hire anyone now as inexperienced as I was then to do the job I did. However, I did discover myself. I went from virtually no experience to diving several times a day every day. It was fantastic. But I was very naive, and my dive-briefings were basic, to say the least!"
Twelve years ago a friend of mine, John Plant, a veteran member then of Hampstead BSAC branch, had told me it had seemed quite ground-breaking to see this beautiful young girl with flowing, sun-bleached hair, leading visiting divers on sometimes quite demanding dives. We take that sort of thing for granted now.
Other divers obviously found Sam quite personable too. Early on, one gentleman booked a single berth for a week and stayed for six. Sam claims it was because the diving was so good.
I can recall on my first trip on mv Keema waiting one time with Rob on the diving dhoni while passengers were in the water. He had looked quite stressed, and I knew that he was wondering when and where the divers might surface in the strong currents. The job carries a lot of responsibility.
The boat was still basic compared to what we now expect and what the couple offer in their latest vessels.
There was always a shortage of water. With no water-maker on board, fresh water had to be taken on from the islands and was usually somewhat brackish.
I remember having to decide whether to drink a bottle of mineral water, wash with it, or clean my underwater cameras. Today, the two vessels Sam and Rob own and operate have endless water supplies delivered via en-suite facilities in spacious twin and double cabins. You don't know you're born!
Had the relationship between Sam and Rob suffered when one was in England and the other in mid-Indian Ocean?
"There was no such luxury as mobile phones. Every conversation we had was on very public telephones in hotel receptions on resort islands. It was very hard. We missed each other terribly.
"On the other hand, my life became simply limited to life on the boat. It became my whole world," continued Sam.
"For example, when the 1991 Gulf War happened, I was blissfully unaware of it, apart from the fact that it made it that much harder to attract new clients to our embryonic business."
Did anything go seriously wrong while she was so far from home?"Nothing ever went wrong. I felt I was always lucky, but then, it's up to you to make the best of your luck."
After some years Sam and Rob bought a 42ft sloop to sail to Europe. They wanted to start a family, and it was time to hand over the day-to-day running of the liveaboard to hired hands.
Their journey across the Indian Ocean was eventful. At one point they became becalmed for so long that things looked bleak. They contacted a passing freighter by radio and the captain agreed to drop some plastic containers of diesel for them at a given point. Amazingly they located them. It was thick industrial fuel but they diluted it with what they had and, luckily, it worked.
Sam also mentioned that the two of them had spent three weeks totally naked. She tells how Rob loves to recount the story of how, when they were approached by a Yemeni fishing boat, he urgently sent Sam below to put some clothes on. She denies his account that she reappeared back on deck wearing the briefest of bikinis!
I had travelled out this time to visit Sea Queen and Sea Spirit, to learn more about Sam, now a mother of two, and to dive with her in the Maldives.
"I just want to be an ordinary passenger this week," she told me. "It's quite difficult to be on your own boat. When you've hired good people it's important to sit back and let them do their jobs. We now make it a policy to hire couples to do the job I did and we're really lucky to attract conscientious and loyal staff."
It must have been a big step from chartering one vessel to owning two. "When you charter you never really have proper control. The crew work for the owner, who is in charge of maintenance. With changing times we needed to upgrade our product and the only way to do that was to have complete control. It was a bit nerve-wracking but we've done it."
How did she feel about seeing so many liveaboard operations in the Maldives now?
"All the other dive boats have as much right to be here as us Ð so long as they behave correctly and do nothing to damage the reputation of the Maldives. For example, you saw that when a large group of divers joined us under water at the manta cleaning station at Dhonkalu, they had obviously been briefed properly and behaved impeccably. The mantas remained undisturbed. I have no problem with that.
"What upsets me is when a visitor has a bad experience, whether it be a badly run boat or simply being put in the water in the wrong places. I don't like to hear of anyone having a bad experience as I feel that it reflects on the Maldives as a whole."
So what did she feel when she saw mv Keema run by someone else? She admitted to having an emotional attachment Ð like seeing an old lover in the arms of another.
"But it's no longer what it was. The crew is different. Everything is different but they benefit from the reputation that we earned for it."
Now Sam runs the business from Suffolk. She thinks that is now what she is really good at. Doesn't she miss being a dive-guide?
"That part of my life is now over but it went towards making me the person I am now. We learnt a lot from being in the Maldives and from our experiences of other dive boats all over the world. We like to think we have taken the best ideas and incorporated them into what we do here."
Most women will admit that Sam Harwood has something of an aura. Guys will feel that this "country squire's daughter" comes over as haughty but naughty. She has never lost her sense of humour and she remains an excellent diver, with a perfect technique to put any old sea-lion to shame. If I had to sum her up as a diver, I would call her an elegant sea spirit.
Sam with oriental sweetlips, bannerfish and squirrelfish
Sam Harwood with the mushimas that give the popular dive site at Mushimasmigili its name
The new boats Sea Queen and Sea Spirit
Action at the manta-cleaning station