by John Kinsella and Nick Lucey
The coconut palm and the yellowfin tuna, symbols of the Maldives, say a great deal about this nation of more than a thousand islands. Grouped into 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean south-southwest of India, less than 300 of the islands are inhabited. With its highest point just two metres/six feet above sea level, the Maldives is flat, with white sandy beaches…
…but it’s the abundance of marine life that really sets the Maldives apart; the atolls offer excellent reef diving, much of it done at a leisurely drift pace. The Indian Monsoon Current sweeps along the island chains, moving nutrients – and sometimes divers – along. Deep, nutrient rich water flows up along the walls, feeding the sponges and soft corals clinging to the rock sides. Inside the atoll lagoons, rock pinnacles – thila – vault up from the bottom to scratch the water’s surface. In the channels, divers explore swim-throughs, caverns and overhangs festooned with colorful sponges, invertebrates and gorgonians. At well-known cleaning stations, wrasse and shrimp service manta rays, and other large marine species.
Long frequented by the jet-setting crowd and those looking for a superior dive experience, more divers are clamoring for a glimpse at some of the planet’s most pristine reefs and the amazing cast of supporting aquatic characters, big and small. A welcoming culture and some of the finest live-aboard dive boats and luxury resorts on the globe, make for an unforgettable dive vacation.
Find a PADI Dive Center or Resort in The Maldives
HOT DIVE SITES
Dive Vaavu Atoll for mantas from May to July. During the rest of the year, grey reef and whitetip reef sharks compete for space with barracuda, snapper and trevally. Here, the largest unbroken barrier reef in the Maldives stretches for 50 kilometres/30 miles. Live-aboards are the best way to explore these unspoiled sites. Deep channels wash the reef with fast-flowing currents. Grey reef and white tip reef sharks abound, and you may encounter hammerhead sharks.
If you like your diving fast and furious, island hop over to Lhaviyani Atoll for Kuredu Express. Humans aren’t the only ones that enjoy the rush of moving water and you’ll be amazed at the diversity of species here. You can expect graceful spotted eagle rays easing into the current through crowds of sharks, snapper, bannerfish and even passing tuna. Mantas also frequently venture into scene and try to steal camera time from the eagle rays and sharks.
North Male Atoll
Get up close and personal with the small stuff at North Male Atoll. Here, the rare, strange and oddly wonderful take up residence on the atoll’s southwest corner. Psychedelic flatworms, batfish, stealthy leaf scorpionfish and nudibranchs all chill out in slow motion under clouds of fairy basslets, anthia and other tiny reef fish.
Okobe Thila – This advanced dive site consists of three main sections ranging from 10 metres/30 feet to 50 metres/165 feet in length. Because there is always some current, dives profiles normally spiral up around the reef to balance the effects. Divers often spot tuna, whitetip sharks and banner fish in addition to the healthy coral life and sometimes encounter nurse sharks and spotted stingrays among the overhangs scattered from 18-30 metres/60-100 feet of depth.
Lankanfinolhu Faru – It’s amazing how marine life simply know where to go to when they want to get rid of parasites and dead skin. But they do know and mantas obviously like the job that's done at these cleaning stations because they come in droves. The currents here run strong and force feed a healthy reef that seems to wriggle with several species of eel.
South Male Atoll
Kandooma Thila – is shaped like a 250-metre/820-foot teardrop and, with it’s dramatic scenery and prolific fish life, and is considered one of the atoll’s top dives. The west and north coasts are covered with soft corals and patrolled by schools of red bass and big-eye trevally. From the top of the reef at 20 metres/65 feet, the reef boasts some outcrops and overhangs with lush soft coral growth, but much of the excitement is off the north east end where divers can frequently meet up with grey sharks, whitetip sharks and eagle rays. Divers can offgas at the reef top while mingling with green turtles and the occasional school of batfish.
Embudhu Express – Advanced divers with good drift diving skills frequently start their dives off the reef and drift across to the thila. Use the drop off as a reference point while drifting with the current. Divers are nearly guaranteed to see whitetip sharks, grey reef sharks, big eye trevally, barracuda and tuna. Reaching the thila doesn’t mean the dive is over – there’s plenty to see, including giant sea fans and prolific butterfly fish and oriental sweet lips. To get the full rush of the Embudhu Express, take the ride on a strong ingoing current.
The Ari Atoll has been a household name among savvy divers for a long time and its big marine life just keeps on coming. Ari Atoll’s headliners – schooling hammerheads, mantas and reef sharks – frequently manage to steal the show, but keep an eye out for the giant frogfish. Also, look out for humphead wrasse, schooling sweetlips and groupers.
South Ari Atoll
Kudarah Thila – The most famous dive site off South Ari Atoll is a valuable one, as evidenced by its 1995 designation as a protected marine area. This delightful, petite reef has the expected soft corals and abundant fish life, but be sure you bring a dive light as the arch on the west side and a pair of large overhangs on the east make the dive unique.
Depth: From sun-soaked shallow reefs to deep walls, there are a variety of dive profiles to keep just about anyone happy.
Visibility: Ranges from 20 metres/65 feet to well beyond – most of the time it is very, very good. Soupy visibility is usually a good thing; it’s usually plankton which can bring in the whale sharks.
Currents: Range from slow to surprisingly strong. They can be especially strong in the atoll passes, but this is what brings in the big stuff. Bring a surface signaling device.
Water Temperature: Water temperatures range from 26-30° C/80-86° F year-round.
Dive Season: The diving is good all year long, but bear in mind that the southwest monsoon brings significant rain between April and October, especially June to August.
Weather: Tropical, hot and humid with loads of sunshine and temperatures around 24-33° C/75-91° F year-round. Dry, northeast monsoon (November to March); rainy, southwest monsoon (June to August)
Access: You'll often reach dive sites by traditional dhoni and travel times range from five to 50 minutes, depending upon the reef destination and departure resort. Some dive centers offer special full-day, speedboat dive excursions while others offer house reef dives from a jetty or beach access. Live-aboards are also a popular option.
Skill Level: There’s something for every diver here, from beginner to intermediate to seasoned veteran.
Scuba Gear: Most dive operators provide gear rentals. It’s always good to pack your own mask, fins and snorkel – and as much personal gear as you can – so you can be ready to snorkel at any time.
Length of stay: Seven nights will let you sample the diving nearest your resort and atoll but 10 days to two weeks is recommended. If you really want to sample the best that this nation has to offer, a live-aboard dive boat is the way to go.
Featured Creatures: In the open ocean near the reefs, pelagic animals – including manta rays, eagle rays, tuna and a variety of sharks (including whale sharks) – frequent the Maldives. On shallow dives, the clear, bright water hosts a massive amount of sweet lips, parrotfish, groupers, snappers as well as frequent turtles and moray eels. It’s an ideal dive environment, especially for underwater photographers.
Language: The official language is Dhivehi (related to Sinhalese, with a script derived from Arabic), but English is also widely spoken, especially in tourist areas and at resorts.
Currency: The Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR).
Major Airports: Ibrahim Nasir International Airport – also known as Malé International Airport (MLE).
Transportation: In this island nation, getting around takes two primary forms – sea and air. Dhoni, speedboats or seaplanes are frequently used.
Airport Entry/Exit fees: Departure taxes are usually included in the cost of your ticket.
Documents: Providing you have a valid passport, a return or onward ticket and proof of sufficient funds or a confirmed resort reservation, you’ll be issued a free 30-day visa upon arrival. There are a number of items that you can’t bring into the country – you can find a complete list at the Customs Service website.
Tipping: Tipping is not mandatory (a 10 percent service charge is added to every bill), but you’ll definitely want tip your divemasters and live-aboard crews.
Religion: Sunni Muslim.
Electricity: 220-240v at 50Hz. There are several different socket types in use throughout the nation (the Europlug Type C, British Type D and Type G are among the most common). Check with your destination.