Unless you are a dedicated sun worshipper or on honeymoon, the coral reefs and associated marine life are the number one attraction of holidays in Maldives.
Snorkelling and scuba are excellent all year with water temperatures between 25C (68F) to 30C (86F). Visibility is usually at least 15 metres (45ft) and can be up to 40 metres (120ft).
The best time for scuba diving is January-April, with sunshine, calm seas and good visibility. The May-October wet season brings some cloud, wind and rough seas to the party, especially June-August. Maldives weather.
Between January and June there is a lot of plankton in the water on the western side, whereas between July and November the eastern side gets more of these marine organisms that attract fish but detract visibility. Of course, reduced visibility is off-set by the increased probability of pelagic action such as manta rays feeding, so it is a toss up which side to visit.
The least expensive way to scuba dive at good locations is in a Maldives liveaboard but not one of the fancy ones like the motor yacht below, more like a large dhoni. See more on Diving Holidays below.
A typical Maldives liveaboard dive boat (Red Sea type). Not cheap.
15 important dive sites were established as marine protected areas in 1996 and another 10 protected areas were declared in 1999, in addition to three islands.
A number of marine species and birds are protected and various destructive fishing methods are banned but regrettably, some shark fishing (for ‘finning’) still occurs.
Diving is officially regulated: for example, on any dive the maximum permitted depth is 25 metres and the maximum time allowed in water is 60 minutes. However, the rules are not always enforced as evidenced by the number of snorkelers and divers at times in the water with manta rays in small lagoons.
Maldives Island Resorts usually have a ‘house reef’, where the reef flat (‘faru’) drops into deeper water.
Resorts without a house reef are likely to run a couple of boat trips a day to a nearby snorkelling site but this is a lot less convenient.
Reef slopes are the best areas for snorkelling as they are easily accessible and can have interesting topography – small walls, caves and so on, a variety of coral and marine flora, many small fish and critters, as well as occasional visits from larger pelagic animals coming to feed. The house reef is also a good place to do your check out dive.
Maldives Diving Holidays
The better Maldive dive boats come with their own filling stations.
For more varied diving and snorkelling some sort of a boat is required – either a day trip or a dive safari (aka liveaboard). Liveaboards offer the possibility not only of a lot of diving but also of visiting a variety of sites and there are dozens of different diving safari boats to choose from.
Red Sea type liveaboards, which use Zodiac boats (RIBs) to get to the dive sites or beach are the most stable and best designed platforms for both diving and relaxing.
Large dhonis are much more widely available and cheaper but can be rather basic with a small communal area, cramped cabins, shared shower and a toilet hanging off the stern. The term ‘up close and personal’ comes to mind. If the sea is choppy the dhonis dance around as their relatively flat-bottomed hulls get tossed in the swell. You pays your money…
A scuba diver and a huge manta ray in Maldives Islands, Indian Ocean.
There are hundreds of established dive sites in the Maldives which can be categorised as reef dives, wrecks, dives on coral formations and channel dives, but note that the area is known for strong currents, especially where the large beasts roam.
Inner reef dives, which are more protected, are the easiest – surf and currents can make the outer reef quite demanding.
Wrecks, some deliberately sunk, are mainly within the atolls and are more interesting for their marine life than for their history.
Coral formations, which rise from the atoll floor, are divided into two groups – ‘giris’ reach close to the surface (they are too shallow for Maldivian boats to cross and the top surface may be too shallow to dive) whilst ‘thilas’ are deeper (so traditional boats can cross). Both share similar features in terms of reef fish and coral.
‘Kandus’ are channels between islands, reefs and atolls that are subject to strong currents, providing a lot of nutrients not only for soft corals but also for large animals. Graphic of Maldives island coral structure
Dive sites in the Maldives cover all levels from Novice to Advanced, sometimes in the same location.
Whilst diving conditions are mostly benign with warm water and good visibility, strong, unpredictable currents can be experienced especially on channel dives.
Negative entry (diving straight down to the site rather than gathering on the surface) is recommended if there is a challenging current; remember to vent all the air from your BCD first.
Once on the dive site use the topography – coral outcrops, caverns etc. – when possible to find some shelter and ensure you don’t get out of breath when swimming against the current, which is usually weaker closer to the bottom.
Bear in mind that the current can change and sometimes divide during a dive; for example the flow will accelerate in front of and behind a thila but generally be slower on top.
On the other hand, strong currents can make for an exhilarating dive such as the adrenaline rush on the ‘Kuredu Express’.
Carrying signalling devices – audible and visual – is prudent in case you surface far from the boat, with at least one safety sausage for each buddy pair, and you should of course stick together.
Some divers prefer flags with extendable poles because their height gives greater visibility. Bobbing by yourself in the middle of the Indian Ocean is not much fun.
Given the maximum permitted depth, diving on air is normally fine but Nitrox can be a better option on sites where decompression limits may come into play, for instance, on some shark dives.
A rock (aka reef) hook is a great tool if you wish to hang off the reef, watching sharks or whatever go by. Just be careful where you put it.
Whatever the site, there’s plenty to see in the Maldives. The reef formations are stunning and seem to have largely recovered from both the coral bleaching that hit the country hard in the 1990’s and the mini El Niño effect of 2009. Soft corals, such as the blue and yellow (Swedish), are gorgeous. On protected sites, where you can hang out, the micro life is spectacular: anemones and their denizens; porcelain crabs; decorated ghost pipefish; flatworms; nudibranchs; long nosed hawkfish; bristleworms; mantis shrimp and the like, it’s a regular nightmare of weirdos.
Other reef life is abundant: bat fish; parrot fish; fusiliers; Napoleon wrasse; jacks; moray eels; oriental sweet lips; snappers; turtles; lobster; lion fish; scorpion fish; puffer fish and trigger fish with attitude.
And then there are the larger visitors: grey reef sharks; white tip sharks; blotched fantail rays; leopard whip rays; manta rays (photo above) and if you are lucky, the big boys, whale sharks.
If you’re fortunate to be near an underwater cleaning station do get out of the way or the beasts won’t come in and, if you’re watching mantas feed with their backward rolls and graceful Star Wars like swoops, avoid yo-yoing in the water column.
Lastly, topside there is always the option of celebrity spotting. In 2010 Michael Schumacher and his sons were seen on a break between two Formula 1 races at Hani Faru, one of the renowned manta snorkelling/diving sites.
Daniel Nash II
Graphic of the reef structure of most Maldive islands.