The Maldives: diving the coral country

Mantas in Maldives
Photo: Four Seasons Resorts Maldives

The atoll-nation promises vibrant reef life and some of the best big fish action anywhere with scores of resorts and liveaboards to place you smack in the middle of it

Text by Steve White

Its appropriate that the language of the Maldives, Dhivehi, has given us the English ‘atoll’, for the country is made up of nothing else.

These tiny slivers and dots of land – the country has a combined land area smaller than that of many mid-sized cities – are grouped around vastly bigger expanses of lagoon. This  poses a challenge for map-makers. On smaller scale maps, of the World or Asia say, the Maldives often appears only as an indistinct squiggle in a slightly different shade of blue, to the southwest of the tip of India. Up closer, that squiggle resolves into almost 1,200 islands, grouped into 26 atolls, strewn in a line that runs for 800km north-south.

Tourism is a big deal here: the tranquility and postcard-worthy hues make it a favourite spot for honeymooning and spa retreats. These markets have ensured the presence of many top-end resort chains, though there are accommodation options lower down the scale, provided you are prepared to compromise on location.

On the more active side, there’s good surfing to be had in the channels, accessed by liveaboards, but the chief draw for the adventurous is undoubtedly the diving. The key decision is whether to base yourself at a resort or plump for a liveaboard.

Most major sites in a given atoll are accessible by dayboat from resorts, and if you choose this route, it’s better to go full board as everything is quite expensive, including equipment hire. That said, while there are scores of resorts to choose from, not all of them cater for divers. On those that don’t though, you should be able to dive from a neighbouring resort.

If instead you want to cherrypick from the best and most varied dive experiences the country can offer, you should opt for a liveaboard. Some resorts even have their own to allow you to have the best of both approaches.IMG_0577

Giris, thilas and kandus

Besides house reefs – which can be very good indeed here – any representative dive itinerary ought to include a sortie out to at least one of each of these types of site.

Giris are pinnacles that stop just sort of the surface and therefore work for even novice divers.

Thilas are pinnacles that lie deeper – perhaps 5m down or more. Like the giris, they offer potential for excellent coral growth and correspondingly vibrant fish life.

Kandus are channels, some of them with wicked currents requiring confidence and experience. Here you find the pelagics cruising for food, as well as caves and other formations where schools of prey species cluster and dart in a bid to stay out of reach of the big boys.

Four of the best

North Male’ Atoll

The country’s capital lies at the bottom of this atoll, with a cluster of resorts close by and within range of Manta Point, one of the most famous sites in the country. Drift-diving this large thila, you should run into schools of sweetlips and other reef species, as well as the rays after which it is named. The atoll’s northern end is far more remote in feel.

South Male’

Just across the channel of Vaadhoo Kandu from the capital, this atoll is quieter than its northern neighbour, with most resorts again found along its bottom edge. Here the action is centred on the relatively few but intense channels, flushed by immense volumes of water that have carved overhangs and caves into the atoll walls.

Ari Atoll

A full 80km long, this is one of the largest atolls in the country and a regular fixture on liveaboard itineraries. Administratively, it is split into North and South, with the latter featured on many itineraries as among the best places to see whale sharks.

North Ari also has Maaya Thila, a broadly circular pinnacle starting at about 6m. Studded with outcrops, it is packed with micro-habitats, each with their own denizens so that the whole thila seems alive at times. Circle it on a dive and don’t forget to look outwards too for the whitetip and grey reef sharks on patrol.

Baa Atoll

If you can only dive one atoll, this may be the standout choice. Even in a country as diffuse as this, Baa has an out-of-the-way feel.

Chinese coupleThe atoll is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, in large part in recognition of Hanifaru Bay on the atoll’s east side. A relatively small bay on an uninhabited island, it has become known the world over for encounters with squadrons of manta rays as well as whale sharks. Come in May-June when the upwellings turn the water soupy with nutrients for the best of the action.

Wrecks

With so many varied and completely natural sites to explore, most divers don’t consider wreck diving, but there are several standout hulks, including the Maldives Victory in North Male’ atoll, and the Kuda Giri in South Male’.

Whale sharks

The Maldives has a large and visible population of these giant fish so it’s hardly surprising that they are right at the top of many wishlists.

They are most easily spotted in the period from December to March, when the northeast monsoon pushes nutrient-rich lagoon waters against the inner western wall of atolls. The sharks glide in to feed in the shallows, allowing divers and snorkellers to get up close. Into April and May the nutrient load in the water can impair visibility, though the sharks continue to gorge away happily, along with mantas and others.

MV Leo whaleshark

Trouble in paradise

With the highest land not even the height of a palm tree above sea level, the Maldives is already losing islands to global warming. A portion of tourism revenues has been set aside to buy a new home for its 350,000 residents, with Australia earmarked for now.

The country has been an environmental pathfinder in other ways too. In 2011, Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a year later, former President Nasheed announced that the whole of the Maldives would become a marine reserve by 2017. He even famously held a cabinet meeting underwater.

That was before an enforced change of government however. Under President Yasmeen, there seems less focus on the environment. If you have the chance to go, don’t leave it too long. AA

Practicalities

When to go

You can dive all-year-round. The best visibility is from December to April: the local high season when prices are higher. The rainy season runs between May and November when the viz – and prices  – drop and the wind picks up. The temperature remains pretty constant all year, with daytimes around 30-32˚C and nights a few degrees cooler.

How to get there

The one international airport is on Hulhule island, close to the island capital, Male’. Many arriving guests are transferred direct from here to seaplanes for a short flight to their resort, while closer resorts may use a boat transfer. Liveaboards also often pick up directly from the airport.

What to take

Almost all the Maldives’ resorts have a dive shop with gear for hire. The few that don’t usually have an arrangement with a neighbouring resort. Water temperatures are typically 27-30°C so most people need no suit or just wear a shorty. Plugs are generally UK-style three-pin.

Contacts

There are various ways to set up your trip – the names below are a few starting points.Emperor Divers, www.emperormaldives.com, have a fleet of liveaboards at the ready, or if you need me-time and a massage along with your mantas, then the Four Seasons, www.fourseasons.com/maldives/, has two resorts and its own liveaboard. Euro Divers, www.euro-divers.com/scuba-diving-maldives/, run dive centres in no less than 10 resorts, while Capital Travel, http://capitaltravel.com, are an option for one-stop trip booking. Finally, if gearless enjoyment is your aim, try Freedive Maldives, www.facebook.com/hashtag/freedivemv