Diving, resort enthusiasts at home in the Maldives

It's safe to say that unless you are a diver, the Maldives didn't cross your mind, at least until Dec. 26, when the little nation of about 1,200 islands was smacked by the tsunami that ran over parts of southeast Asia.

The Maldives? (That's MALL-deevz, although lots of people also say the second syllable like the English word "dives," which makes sense, given the country's spectacular diving sites.) Where are they?

They're in the Indian Ocean, to the west and south of Sri Lanka, an isolated nation of about 280,000 people. They are far from North America - about 8,000 miles and 10 time zones from the Eastern Seaboard, which is one reason Americans have been few among the tourists. Last year, about 6,000 vacationers came from the United States and 2,000 from Canada, a small part of the record-breaking 600,000 vacationing visitors.

The nation still suffers from the trauma of the tsunami and its damage to some islands, and from the fear of travelers who do not want to come to a place in physical and social crisis. But that does not describe the Maldives - even with damage still to be repaired. Of its 87 resorts, 67 are fully operating, on beautiful islands under sunny skies, surrounded by coral reefs and magnificent blue lagoons. The water temperature hovers at 84 degrees.

Coral is the building block of the islands; you can crush little dead coral pieces on the beach and with little effort, they turn into the fine sands that ring each island. The 1,200 islands - about 900 are uninhabited, and the others are their own towns or resorts - pop up in atolls. These are groupings of islands, usually circular or oval; these atolls, taken all together, form a large oval that is the shape of the Maldives.

Maldivians have been careful, since tourism began with the opening of the first resort in 1972, to enact environmental laws to safeguard the enormous amount of sea life that delights divers and snorkelers around the islands. Fishing is second to tourism as the nation's major industry, and much of the canned tuna we eat comes from the Maldives; by law, people who make their living fishing do so with lines, not nets. And the coral reefs are fully protected.

But not against nature. In 1997, the El Nino weather pattern that warmed the ocean killed most of the beautiful coral surrounding the Maldives, and some people thought the tourist days would die with it. But the sea life quickly adapted - and stayed - and the corals began immediately to grow again. Divers and snorkelers see signs of the new life everywhere underwater, along with endless schools and swarms of fish in all colors of the spectrum.

Maldives vacations are based in resorts - one resort permitted per island.

The resorts are self-sustaining, generating their electricity and desalinating their water. They offer diving and snorkeling trips on their own dhonis - the traditional boats that ply the Maldivian waters like a bobbing transit system in the middle of the ocean. Most people staying at resorts take all their meals there, except for excursion trips to Male', the 1.3-square-mile island that is the nation's capital, or to special dinners the resorts serve on uninhabited islands.

People come to the Maldives to enjoy the basics - the sun, the sea and the comfort of a personal villa, which most high-end and midlevel resorts offer, often with a thatched roof overlaying a sturdier structure, and with sumptuous villa bathrooms attached to the bedroom, but outdoors, the way Maldivians like them.

You can also take "cruiser ships" around the atolls; these craft generally have up to a dozen staterooms and are basically boats that go from dive site to dive site, some stopping on inhabited isles for a look-see. The one high-end cruise, run by the Four Seasons, tours the islands on a catamaran called Explorer, also with divers and snorkelers - and honeymooners or romantic couples - in mind.