The Ultimate Underwater Adventure
Stretches of white, powdery beaches surrounding crystalline waters, shallow sandbanks surrounded by the ocean, coral reefs perfect for snorkeling and diving… This is just a small sample of what the islands of the Maldives have to offer, making them a wonderful destination for lovers of marine life.
For decades, the Maldives has been regarded as a dream honeymoon destination, with luxury resorts and overwater bungalows on pristine lagoons opening up one after the other on remote islands.
The archipelago is indeed a great vacation choice for anyone planning to relax and spend long, lazy days lounging on the beach. But in doing so, you’d be missing out on exploring the Maldives’ wonderful biodiversity and exceptional seascapes.
Snorkeling and diving the Maldives are ideal activities for getting to know these fascinating islands, both above and below the water. Here’s a quick overview of the country, plus a highlight of the best diving and snorkeling spots travelers will visit during Zegrahm’s Ultimate Maldives: A Snorkeling and Diving Adventure, departing in March 2020.
WHERE IS THE MALDIVES?
The Maldives is an archipelago that includes over 1100 islands. It’s located in the Indian Ocean, about 610 miles southwest of Sri Lanka and Kerala, India. The archipelago extends more than 510 miles from north to south, and 80 miles from east to west.
The Maldives is widely dispersed, covering a surface area of 35,000 square miles. But it has less than 400,000 permanent inhabitants, making it one of the world’s 25 least inhabited countries.
The Maldives is made up of low-lying coral islands, which are divided into 26 different atolls. In case you’re not familiar with the term, atolls are ring-shaped island chains encircling a lagoon, either partially or completely. Atolls are the remains of extinct sea volcanoes that eroded beneath the water, and they are usually only a few feet above sea level. In order for atolls to exist, their erosion must be slower than the growth of the coral reef.
The Maldives is the world’s lowest-lying country, with an average height of just three feet above sea level. Sea levels are predicted to rise by about 59 centimeters by 2100. By then over half of the archipelago will be submerged, making the Maldives one of the countries most threatened by climate change. On top of that, increasing sea temperatures are gradually damaging the country’s coral reefs, causing increasingly extensive bleaching incidents.
However, there are still numerous locations where the Maldives reef is in excellent condition, and diverse marine life (including both reef fish and large pelagic life) make the archipelago a haven for snorkelers and divers.
EXPLORING THE MALDIVES ISLANDS
It’s a common misconception that once you’ve seen one island in the Maldives, you’ve seen them all. But in fact, no two islands in the archipelago are quite alike.
For example, the north has smaller, shallower islands, whereas the southern atolls have deeper lagoons, making it the destination of choice for serious divers. Above water, some islands are almost completely taken up by resorts, while in others you’ll find local villages and the opportunity to learn about indigenous Maldivian culture.
The Maldivian population is predominantly Muslim, and islands inhabited by locals are fairly conservative. Alcohol is banned, and modest beach attire is required when frequenting local beaches. However, if you’re cruising or staying in resort islands, these rules don’t apply.
Let’s have a look at the various Maldivian islands and atolls visited during Zegrahm’s forthcoming expedition, starting with North Male Atoll, where the voyage begins:
North Malé Atoll
Most visitors start their Maldives exploration in the North Malé Atoll, where the country’s international airport and capital city, Malé, are located.
Malé has been the center of the Maldivian government for centuries. Its name derives from the word mahal, meaning “palace island.” The city grew immensely in terms of the population during the last 100 years, going from approximately 5,000 inhabitants in the 1920s to over 50,000 today.
After literally running out of space to accommodate newcomers, the Maldivian government undertook a land reclamation project, creating the artificial island of Hulhulmalé. The latter is about six feet above sea level, meaning it’s safe from the danger of rising ocean levels for the time being.
Most visitors aim to get out of Malé as quickly as possible. Luckily, there are many options to choose from, as the North Malé Atoll includes 50 islands, 42 of which are uninhabited.
Many of these islands are resorts, including Bandos Island, one of the earliest islands to be settled in ancient times by Tamil people from India. Bandos later housed an orphanage before becoming the second resort island in the Maldives in 1972. Bandos is an easy boat ride from Malé, making it a popular day trip destination. It’s surrounded by shallow waters, where reef sharks are often sighted.
Most of the islands in the North Malé Atoll are ideal for novice snorkelers, thanks to their shallow waters and absence of strong currents (which are common in the Maldives). The islands of Kuda Bandos (a nature reserve), Barosm, and Kuredhigadu also offer good snorkeling opportunities within day trip distance from Malé.
Did you know you can visit the remains of an ancient Buddhist monastery in the Maldives? Kaashidhoo Island is best known as home to the largest pre-Islamic archaeological site in the country.
The Kuruhinna Tharaagandu monastery dates back to the 8th century AD when Buddhism was still relatively widespread in the archipelago. The monastery was constructed out of coral stone, but these days not much remains besides the bases of some stupas (dome-shaped shrines) and stone walls.
It’s also interesting to note that evidence of ritual sacrifice has been found here, including the remains of Aldabra giant tortoises. This tortoise species (which is endemic to Seychelles) is now extinct in the Maldives, but the remains suggest that they once roamed the region.
There are numerous good spots near Kaashidhoo for snorkeling, especially for beginners, and dolphin sightings are fairly common. This is the northernmost spot we’ll reach during our voyage before heading southwest to Rasdhoo.
One of the reasons why the Maldives is regularly featured on the bucket lists of snorkeling and diving lovers is the incredible variety of marine life, including not only reef fish but also larger species like whale sharks, reef sharks, and manta rays.
The island of Rasdhoo is inhabited by a community of about 1,500 people. The locals are welcoming and eager to share their traditions, but remember to be respectful and refrain from sunbathing in a bikini away from the designated bikini beach.
Underwater, Rasdhoo is a real marvel, with frequent manta ray and reef shark sightings in several different dive sites. The island is also well known by shark lovers because it’s fairly easy to see hammerhead sharks here all year round.
Dives take place in the early morning in a site known as Hammerhead Point, which is located about 10 minutes from Rasdhoo Island. An advanced diving certificate is required, as the dive reaches depths of 30+ meters.
Located in the western part of the archipelago, Ari Atoll is one of the largest in the Maldives. It includes 100 islands, 20 of which are completely dedicated to tourism development.
Yet Ari really only shows its best once you jump into the ocean. Ask any diver about the best diving locations in the Maldives, and more than likely the answer will be Ari Atoll.
The atoll is a pelagic paradise. Unlike elsewhere in the Maldives, where most snorkeling and dive sites are protected by a reef, Ari is known for its thilas (submerged pinnacles), both inside and outside the central atoll lagoon, acting as an aggregation site for plenty of marine life.
Thilas are connected by kandus (channels) that are perfect for drift diving. However, the currents there are often strong, making these dive sites less suitable to beginning divers.
The opportunity to swim with whale sharks is one of the highlights for divers and snorkelers visiting Ari Atoll. These gentle giants visit the area year round. The best-known sighting location is Dhigurah, a local island, but they’re also known to visit Sun Island and Maamingili. Mantas are also common around Ari Atoll, and it is possible for snorkelers to see them as they float gracefully through sandy lagoons.
Vaavu is the smallest atoll in the Maldives and includes two different atolls, Vattaru and Felidhu Atoll. The latter has 19 islands, five of which are inhabited, and two resorts.
Vattaru Atoll is a great option for those looking for a true “castaway” experience in the Maldives. The entire area is uninhabited—it only includes a small, bushy islet and a few sandbanks—and was declared a protected nature reserve. This is the ideal place to spend some time with your toes in the sand, surrounded by the vast Indian Ocean.
The warm waters surrounding Vaavu offer great snorkeling, with colorful schools of reef fish seen floating around soft corals, and larger species like barracuda and reef sharks often making an appearance. In terms of diving, Vaavu is perfect to learn drift diving, but strong currents may make it challenging for inexperienced beginners.
South Malé Atoll
South Malé Atoll, which is also known as Kaafu, is made up of 30 islands, 17 of which are occupied by resorts. Three of the remaining islands are inhabited, including the district capital of Maafushi, and 10 are uninhabited.
The resorts in South Malé Atoll are popular with visitors wanting to enjoy beach life in unspoiled surroundings, but without having to travel too far from the capital. All of these islands can be reached by speedboat or dhoni, traditional Maldivian boats, with no need for domestic flights.
The islands in the South Malé Atoll are perfect for easy diving and snorkeling, with wide, sheltered lagoons and reef or wall diving. In some cases, such as in the island of Eboodhoofinolhu, boats have been sunk on purpose to create artificial reef sites.
SNORKELING & DIVING THE MALDIVES
As the world’s largest marine reserve, the Maldives is an exceptional destination for scuba diving and snorkeling thanks to the broad variety of difficulty levels, underwater landscapes, and marine life encountered all around the archipelago.
The combination of reefs, sheltered lagoons, and drift diving has been attracting divers to the Maldives for decades. In terms of species, you may expect to spot marine life of all shapes and sizes, from tiny nudibranch to huge hammerhead sharks.
During Zegrahm’s small-ship cruise, we’ll start off with some introductory snorkeling or scuba diving outings in shallow waters, just to get accustomed with equipment and Maldivian underwater life.
Coral gardens are home to an impressive variety of fish species: You’ll see clownfish flittering around their anemone homes, slender butterflyfish, parrotfish, lionfish and many more. The first couple of days at North Malé Atoll and Kaashidhoo island will be spent on shallow, sheltered dives, before moving on to more challenging conditions.
At Rasdhoo, we’ll have our first encounter with larger marine life. One of the best-known dive sites here is Madivaru, where manta ray sightings are pretty much guaranteed. Madi means manta ray in Dhivehi, the Maldivian language. Large numbers of rays visit the site every day to get clean, and even snorkelers can get great sightings at the cleaning stations near the shore. Besides manta rays, reef sharks are also frequently spotted here.
After leaving Rasdhoo, we’ll reach Ari Atoll, the unofficial scuba diving capital of the Maldives. There, we’ll have three full days to explore the best dive sites around the atoll, floating between channels and pinnacles on scenic drift dives.
It’s hard to predict exactly which specific dive sites we’ll visit, as the itinerary depends largely on weather and tide conditions. The dive site known as Maamigili Beyru is one of the best in the country for encounters with pelagic species, with abundant numbers of eagle and manta rays, as well as reef sharks, tuna and barracuda.
What makes Maamigili Beyru really special is the high chance to spot whale sharks, which are rarely seen during dives elsewhere in the world. Another stunning site that will please novice and advanced divers alike is Rangali Madivaru, where mantas can be seen even at shallow depths.
Shark lovers will be amazed when diving Rahdhiga Thila, an underwater pinnacle with overhangs and swim-throughs, where dozens of reef sharks gather at depths of 100 feet. A great site for drift dive lovers is Kudarah Thila, a protected marine reserve with both pinnacles and coral reefs, attracting a variety of small and large marine life.
After Ari, we’ll move on to Vattaru, one of the most remote diving destinations in the Maldives. You can choose to spend your day relaxing on a sandbank if you wish or check out two wonderful dive sites. Rakheedhoo Corner is a channel with coral caves and overhangs where you may be able to spot hammerhead and reef sharks, while Vaataru Kandu’s main highlight is its intricate coral formations.
Before heading back to Malé, we’ll spend a couple of days around Vaavu, the least commercialized atoll in the Maldives. The best-known dive site in the area is Fotteyo Kandu, a channel dive with overheads and swim throughs. It also has an incredible array of marine life, including eagle rays, titan triggerfish, groupers, grey reef sharks, swordfish, turtles, and more (including hammerhead sharks, if you’re lucky).
Our adventure will end with a final relaxing snorkel around South Malé Atoll, where you’ll admire more vibrant coral gardens while reflecting on all the underwater explorations over the course of your journey. It’s a truly deep encounter with a fragile paradise, which may soon be disappearing under the world’s rising oceans. –Margherita Ragg
BIO: Margherita is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.