The Maldives, an island nation of twenty-six atolls comprising 1192 islands surrounded by coral reefs, sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The economy of the Maldives is based mostly on scuba diving, with almost all the resorts and tourist services focused in that direction. The sites for scuba diving are the shallow waters over the reefs or channels where you can ride the strong currents.
Diving Options and Requirements
All scuba divers must have a dive computer, available for rent everywhere on the islands. Safety standards for scuba diving are very high and there is strict adherence to diving protocol. You can stay at an island resort or you may get a better deal with a liveaboard, where you stay on board a ship that roams the waters around the Maldives.
Liveaboard Versus Day Diving
A liveaboard places you at more sites at the best times for maximum viewing of marine life. One requirement is that you must have at least twenty logged dives on your own before checking in. Prices are all-inclusive and itineraries depend on the weather and the season. Vessels can be either sail, power or both, with luxury accommodations that include air conditioned cabins, private hot showers and TV/DVD players.
Day diving while staying at an island resort should be your choice if you want to explore a certain reef and do other activities besides scuba diving. Or you can do both and spend one week at a resort, one week on a liveaboard.
General Choices for Diving
There are three choices for the type of scuba diving you can do: outside the atolls, inside the atolls and in the channels. Outside the atolls, you’ll be more in the ocean than you’d be inside the atolls, where you’ll be diving in calm lagoons. The channels are the passages between the lagoons and the ocean. That’s where the currents will be the strongest and where you’ll find the greatest number of fish. Filter feeders of all types, from shrimp to sponges line the walls of the channels to gather in all the food debris floating by. The food chain continues on up from there, with wrasse, eels, parrotfish, snappers and groupers all feeding on the smaller prey below them on the chain.
Within the lagoons of the atolls, schools of colourful fish swarm over the reefs in shallow water dappled by the sun. The colourful reefs form a majestic backdrop for this constant parade of marine life. Photography is a great adjunct to scuba diving and you’ll get plenty of chances to take fantastic pictures as you drift along the reefs. Inside the lagoons of the atolls, you’ll find ‘thilas’ thrusting up from the sea floor almost to the surface, with upward sea currents along their sides. These underwater rocky pinnacles are covered with soft corals and sponges among which swim fish and crustaceans of all types.
On the reefs outside the atolls, schools of sweetlips, fusiliers and unicornfish roam, along with snappers, barracudas, rays and sharks. Huge whale sharks and an occasional whale may cruise by out in the ocean.
Sites for Diving
The first site to visit is the Banana Reef off the east coast of the North Male’ Atoll. It was the very first dive site in the Maldives and is still very popular for finding schools of oriental sweetlips, squirrelfish and bannerfish. The coral there is abundant and varied. The currents are strong and constant, perfect for drift diving.
Maaya Thila is 4 kms north of the island of Mayafushi and is about 80 metres in diameter. Protected from ocean currents, this site is open for both day and night diving at depths ranging from 6 to 30 metres. You’ll see intricate growths of coral, many schools of fish, an octopus or two, moray eels, stonefish and many sharks. For the largest concentration of sharks, though, go to Cocoa Thila near the Male’ Atoll and to nearby Kandomma Thila.
One site that serves double-duty is the Emboodhoo Express, a water channel that enters the area of the South Male’ Atoll near the island resort there. When the current is running fast during the winter monsoons, a scuba diver can ride the Express along the reef and observe eagle rays and schools of tuna and fusiliers. When the current runs more slowly, a diver can take the time to explore the forests of soft coral near the mouth of the channel.
The next two sites are for experienced scuba divers only. Broken Rock, named for the formation at the center of the area, has strong currents and divers must take care not to be pushed against the coral reefs. Moray eels, trigger fish and puffer fish can be found there. The other advanced diving site is Gangehi Kandu near the Ari Atoll. Again, currents must be watched and the right moment be chosen for the dive. Leopard sharks and reef sharks abound, as do mantis shrimp and schools of triggerfish.
A different type of site is the wreck of the Maldives Victory on the sandy ocean floor off the west coast of the island of Hulhule. The freighter rammed the island in 1981 at full speed, sinking in 35 metres (115 feet) of clear water parallel to a reef. No one died in the accident and the 110 metre (360 ft) upright wreck is now a popular diving site.
Best Time of Year to Dive
The wet season in the Maldives runs from May to August and means reduced visibility underwater and fewer accessible dive sites. The hottest time of the year there is April through June, which can make the stay on land uncomfortable. The coolest and driest time of the year with the clearest water is December through March, making that period the perfect time to come for scuba diving. However, early May is the time of an annual plankton bloom that attracts large numbers of manta rays and whale sharks; the downside is that the bloom reduces visibility.