LUX* Resort South Ari Atoll recently held its first ever Underwater Festival, a celebration of the region’s unique marine life, local conservation efforts and some rather special locals: whale sharks.The Festival is a fantastic line up of snorkelling, diving, marine encounters, workshops, seminars, taking place in of one of the Maldives’ most luxurious resorts.Celebrating the Underwater WorldWe’re joined at the event by the global heads of PADI, the world’s largest scuba diving training organisation, technology start-up iBubble, inventors of a cutting-edge new underwater drone, and dive-specialist media from France, the UK and Australia.With over 25 million PADI-qualified divers around the world, PADI is now changing its focus from developing safe and responsible divers, to nurturing an army of ocean advocates; “champions of the water planet” according to President and CEO, Dr Drew Richardson.PADI’s Richard Somerset, Matt Wenger, Dr Drew Richardson and Mark Spiers.We’re treated to a presentation of Richardson’s vision at the opening event and on our first day in the field (so to speak), he joins us in our first exploration of South Ari Atoll’s very special marine environment.Our first dive is a large coral bommie with enormous sea fans around the base, abundant soft corals decorating the overhangs and a dip in the middle that plays host about a billion blue stripe snapper – a photographer’s dream come true.Abundant marine life in South Ari Atoll’s marine reserve.Back at the resort, a local artist is celebrating the underwater world in a rather unique way, painting canvas (in oils) underwater. The painting, purchased by PADI, will be auctioned at DEMA, with proceeds going to Project Aware.Underwater artist Hussain Ihfal with the finished work.Underwater toys for big boys (and girls)On our next underwater excursion, we get to play with some serious toys. First up, iBubble, an innovative new underwater drone. Using cutting-edge technology, this bright yellow drone can follow hand-signal instructions to shoot whatever you want it to – or simply follow you around and film your dive, leaving you to simply enjoy it.iBubble the world’s first autonomous underwater drone.We’re also given an opportunity to dive with an underwater scooter, with PADI on hand to take us through a Diver Propulsion Vehicle specialty certification.The author trying out an underwater scooter.Whale sharksLUX* South Ari Atoll is located in a rather special part of the Maldives. Its back reef, which drops off a few hundred metres out from a row of over-water bungalows, plays permanent residence to a large population of whale sharks.The Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), located on nearby Dhigurah Island has identified 388 individuals, so chances of a whale shark encounter here are fairly high.Our first encounter is on snorkel. After patrolling the reef wall for a while, a whale shark is spotted and we all go crazy, grabbing masks, fins, cameras, before jumping in to join the melee.As soon as my head’s underwater I spot him. Somehow, I’m lucky enough to land in the water right beside him. And he’s moving very slowly. It’s not too hard to swim alongside and watch this gorgeous giant as he glides through the water.<span data-mce-type=”bookmark” style=”display: inline-block; width: 0px; overflow: hidden; line-height: 0;” class=”mce_SELRES_start”></span>My next encounter is on scuba. As we swim along the reef wall, he glides gracefully by, slowly enough for us to swim alongside and take a few photos before he disappears into the blue.In the evening, we’re treated to a presentation by the MWSRP Infield Coordinator; Abdul Basith Mohamed, who shares some insights into what little we know about whale sharks. It has been established that this site is a secondary nursery, and the statistics gathered here highlight the site’s importance as a tourism attraction and help convince government to maintain its protection.Anyone can contribute to the MWSRP research by sharing photos with the team via their mobile App. The whale shark you encounter will be identified, and if they can’t find a match – you get to name it!Turtles…From one endangered species to another, the next day we find out about the Maldives’ sea turtles, and specifically, the plight of the Olive Ridley, from turtle vet Claire Petros. Claire manages the Maldives’ Marine Turtle Rescue Centre in Coco Palm Dhuni Kolhu Resort in Baa Atoll, part of the Olive Ridley Project (ORP).Sea turtle vet Dr Claire Petros explains the plight of Olive Ridley turtles.Being opportunistic feeders, Olive Ridley turtles are the most susceptible to ghost net entanglement. Between 2011 and 2018 the ORP recorded 528 entangled Olive Ridley turtles, 87.9% of all entangled turtles reported.The Centre provides veterinary care and rehabilitation to injured sea turtles rescued across the Maldives. Other programs managed by ORP include the removal of ghost gear from the ocean, education and outreach programs, sea turtle monitoring, they’re even looking at ways to re-use or re-purpose ghost nets.Trans Maldivian Airways have agreed to airlift injured sea turtles to the hospital and sanctuary run by Dr Petros.The project has enlisted the help of Trans Maldivian Airways, to help transport injured turtles to the sanctuary, and aims sometime soon to have a turtle biologist on every atoll.We join Claire for a dive after this presentation and are joined along the way by three turtles, two green turtles and a little hawksbill who ignores us completely as he nibbles at sponges on the reef.That’s a wrap.It’s been an inspiring week, celebrating the underwater world in so many different ways, from underwater painting to marine conservation and new technology. I’ve learnt more about whale sharks in a week than I knew in my lifetime beforehand and come face to face with two of these gorgeous gentle giants in as many days.Our week ends with a beach-side BBQ, watching images and video of our underwater adventures projected on a giant outdoor screen. We all emerge invigorated and inspired. Invigorated by incredible marine encounters, and inspired by the presentations given each day by passionate ocean advocates.The author with Dr Drew Richardson, CEO and President of PADI Worldwide and Founder of Project AWARE.We dived with: Euro Divers Maldives.Where: LUX* South Ari Atoll, Maldives.Contact Diveplanit about dive/stay holiday packages at LUX* South Ari Atoll.