The Maldives is synonymous with images of azure waters, picture-perfect beaches and luxurious resorts. However, the twenty-six atolls and nearly twelve hundred islands that comprise the Maldives are a perfect recipe for great diving, and predictably the Maldives has established itself as one of the premier dive destinations in the world. Because the Maldives straddle the equator in the Indian Ocean diving in the Maldives features an abundance of marine life.
Text: Nishan Perera. Images: Mohamed Shafraz Naeem (‘Shaff’)
While the reefs themselves abound with both hard and soft coral the fish life in the Maldives sets it apart from many other dive destinations. Schools of snappers, fusiliers, sweetlips and parrotfish are seen on many sites along with large napoleon wrasse, barracuda, trevally and turtles. There is no shortage of pelagics either with sharks, tuna, eagle and manta rays being seen in large numbers. Strong currents flowing through the narrow atoll channels transport nutrients and drive the food chain that accounts for the vast numbers of fish.
In 1998 and 2010 the Maldives suffered extensive coral bleaching that affected many of its shallow reefs. However, deeper sections of the reefs were unaffected and many reefs are showing good signs of recovery. Importantly, the fish life has not dwindled and pelagic sightings remain as consistent as before.
Channel dives, referred to locally as ‘Kandus’ offer exhilarating drift dives where divers can drift past overhangs and caves while watching larger fish such as sharks and giant trevally pick off schooling fish in the current. Inside the atolls are numerous islands and submerged reefs. Most islands have fringing reefs that slope down to the atoll plate at around 40m. These reefs are generally prone to milder currents and offer easy diving as well as excellent snorkeling.
Submerged reefs are referred to by many names depending on their size, structure and location. The most commonly dived are ‘Thilas’, which are pinnacles rising from the atoll floor and ‘Giris’, which are similar to thilas but smaller and often shallower at their highest point. Hard corals and gardens of anemones with clownfish can be seen covering the top of many thilas while the sides of the reef slope away steeply and are punctuated by overhangs, arches and caves. Soft coral and large sponges can be found in areas prone to currents while large sea fans proliferate in deeper areas. Grey reef sharks patrol the edges of the reef while there is always a chance to spot a passing manta ray or squadron of eagle rays gracefully swimming past.
Another highlight of diving in the Maldives is the many cleaning stations where larger fish arrive to be “serviced” by cleaner wrasses and shrimps. Many of these cleaning stations attract large manta rays and provide excellent opportunities to observe these magnificent animals at close range.
Wreck divers will also not be disappointed with several excellent wrecks. The most famous are the ‘Maldives Victory’ close to Male’ and the WWII ‘British Loyalty’ wreck in Addu Atoll.
The Central Atolls comprising North Male’, South Male’ and Ari Atolls form the bulk of Maldivian dive itineraries. In addition to being easily accessible the Central Atolls provide a variety of sites and good chances of spotting everything the Maldives is famous for. North and South Male’ Atolls were the first areas to open up to tourism and are home to well-known dive sites such as Nassimo Thila, Banana Reef, Embudhoo Express and Cocoa Thila where you can expect breathtaking topography with steep drop-offs, caves and precipitous overhangs with prolific marine life including sharks, manta rays, giant trevally, black snappers, Napoleon wrasse and schooling bannerfish.
Ari Atoll is probably the most popular destination for liveaboards as it offers some of the most reliable encounters with pelagics and big schools of fish. The best diving in Ari Atoll is also centered on thilas making it more suitable for less experienced divers. Popular sites such as Fish Head, Maaya Thila, Hafsa Thila, Kudarah Thila and Broken Rock epitomize the Maldives’ benchmark of excellent fish life. Aggregations of blue-lined snappers and oriental sweetlips congregate around current-swept pinnacles while stingrays and turtles are regularly seen along with dogtooth tuna and occasional eagle rays. Grey reef, blacktip and white tip reef sharks frequent most dive sites. Whale sharks and manta rays frequent the southern area around Maamigili.
Deep channels, strong currents and good pelagic encounters are the feature of diving in Vaavu Atoll. Sites such as Miyaru Kandu, Devana Kandu and Fotteyo Kandu are well known for shark sightings including the occasional hammerhead shark. Many dive sites are characterized by steep walls with coral encrusted swim-throughs, caves and overhangs as well as teeming marine life. Night diving at Alimatha has become extremely popular due to the presence of large numbers of nurse sharks, giant trevally and stingrays that have become accustomed to and come very close to divers.
The last decade has also seen an expansion of tourism and diving into the more northern and southern atolls. With lower diver numbers these atolls provide a chance to get off the beaten path and explore diving in the Maldives as it was before mass tourism took off. Rarely visited by divers the extreme northern atolls of Haa Alifu and Haa Dhaalu provide diving that is different from the rest of the Maldives. Here the diving tends to be shallower around submerged boulders. Reef sharks including large packs of grey reef sharks can be seen on a regular basis, while species that are uncommon further south such as leopard sharks and guitar sharks are also seen with more regularity here. Schools of barracuda and sweetlips as well as mantas are features of diving in this area. Divers with a keen eye can also find good macro opportunities here with nudibranchs, ghost pipefish and frogfish. Other northern atolls such as Baa, Noonu and Lhaviyani have also built reputations for excellent diving. Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll is famous for its feeding aggregations of more than a hundred mantas and numerous whale sharks that come to feed here during the south-west monsoon.
Meemu and Laamu Atolls in the south provide excellent diving in current-swept channels and colorful thilas. Like elsewhere, pelagics such as reef sharks, eagle rays and dogtooth tuna abound. The hard coral is also in good condition and has more diversity than the northern and central atolls. Huvadhoo and Addu in the extreme south provide the other frontier for diving in the Maldives.
Huvadhoo in particular is famous for its deep channels and shark sightings and large numbers of grey reef sharks can be seen on incoming tides. The coral is also more prolific in the south with vibrant coral gardens crowning the tops of most reefs. Huvadhoo provides an opportunity to see some of the bigger sharks as well. Whale sharks are regular visitors to this area and divers may also catch a glimpse of tiger, bull and silvertip sharks. Just north of Huvadhoo is the tiny Foamulah Atoll, the smallest atoll in the Maldives. In the short time that it has been dived by liveaboards, Foamulah has built a reputation as a Mecca for pelagics with sightings of thresher, tiger, silvertip sharks and even the occasional oceanic white tip. Diving this region requires calm seas due to its exposed location and long ocean crossings so is ideally done from January to March when the conditions are best.
Weather and Seasons
Although diving is possible year-round the north-east monsoon season from November to May is probably the best time to visit the Maldives due to calm seas and mostly dry weather. During this time the currents flow through the atoll channels from east to west and bring clear ocean water to the eastern side of lagoons with slightly lower visibility on the western side. June to October is the south-west monsoon and the opposite of the north-east monsoon. This period tends to have much higher rainfall and strong winds may prevail at times, especially around July and August. Water temperature is fairly constant throughout the year at around 29°C, although it may drop as low as 24°C in the extreme south during the north-east monsoon. Visibility averages around 20-25m but is better on flood tides with highs of up 40m+ while it may drop to less than 10m during plankton blooms.
Sightings of mantas, whale sharks, turtles and reef sharks are possible all year round. Sharks tend to congregate on the exposed side of the atolls with clear water and strong currents. In contrast the sheltered side of the atoll attracts mantas as plankton flows out of the channels. Manta sightings are particularly good during the south-west monsoon due to plankton blooms.
The best way to truly experience the Maldives is on a liveaboard and there are now a vast variety of boats to suit all budget ranges. Most boats cover the central atolls with a focus on Ari Atoll. However an increasing number of boats offer scheduled trips to the northern and southern atolls.
The Maldives provides diving for all levels of experience. However, some of the channel dives, especially in the south are more suited for experienced divers due to steep walls and strong currents. Snorkelers will also enjoy shallow coral gardens with good fish life.