It is estimated that nearly half the guests on holiday in the Maldives arrive with the intention of snorkelling or diving or, as soon as they see the crystal clear waters of an island’s lagoon and the colourful fish and corals, can’t resist giving it a try. Snorkelling is open to everyone who can swim and even children as young as ten can learn how to scuba dive. It’s easy in the Maldives.
Resort dive centres run courses to help the beginner learn how to snorkel and the instructors will advise on where best to observe the colourful world underwater. To avoid sunburn while gently floating in the lagoon, wearing a T-shirt is advisable and even if you are a strong swimmer it is better to wear a life jacket when snorkelling far from the shore, as currents can carry away the unwary. Beginners at snorkelling should practise to gain confidence in shallow lagoons first and will find it remarkable how many fascinating fish are to be seen close to the beach in less than a metre of water. Reef edges are simply stunning for fish and glowing corals, so resorts with a house reef close to the shore are great for beginners. Many resorts and guesthouses organise trips by boat (a dhoni) to take snorkellers beyond an island’s lagoon to deeper waters and reefs. To ensure safety during snorkelling, swimmers should determine where to enter and where to leave the water, check the tides and watch the current, always inform friends about your snorkel route and never snorkel alone. It is also important to drink enough water to avoid dehydration. When in the water close to a resort, watch out for motorboats, check your position from time to time and leave the sea before sunset. Remember that although the ocean looks shallow because the water is so clear, this could be misleading, so take care. Also, help preserve the environment by not touching or taking corals and shells or feeding fish. Snorkelling is a good and inexpensive introduction to the glorious colours to be seen underwater. Unlike the fish you’re watching, you’ll soon be hooked.
All dive centres offer an introductory lesson to help guests decide if they feel confident enough to proceed with training. The most popular course is the PADI Open Water Diver Course and a certificate is awarded at the successful completion of the course certifying that the holder can take part in scuba diving excursions. (PADI is an acronym for Professional Association of Diving Instructors and there are several other associations operating in the Maldives including SSI, Scuba School International.) For those who haven’t the time to take the complete course, some dive centres offer an introductory course (theoretical and practical) of four lessons including training in shallow water (sometimes in the resort’s swimming pool) and a supervised fun dive at the resort’s house reef. To earn a PADI Open Water Diver certificate (or similar) a course of nine practical and three theoretical sessions and an examination is involved and takes from six to nine days to allow for sufficient dives and theory classes. Before signing up for a scuba diving course, you should have a medical examination to make sure you’re fit for diving. Chronic conditions such as heart disease or diabetes rule out diving. Every diver must be prepared to follow the orders of the diving instructor and must never dive alone, under the influence of medicine or alcohol, or within 24 hours of a flight. The maximum number of dives permitted per day is three. Travel insurance that covers diving is essential. All diving has to be supervised by a licensed diving instructor and every diver must dive with a buddy. Dive boats are equipped with adequate facilities and have workable arrangements for obtaining quick medical attention.
Scuba diving over the years has introduced thousands of visitors to the amazing underwater world of the Maldives. In response to its popularity many resorts have added options to heighten a guest’s diving experience. It begins with a Refresher Dive, recommended for divers who have not dived for over a year. The primary purpose is to help certified divers not only to regain their confidence but also to update their dive knowledge and skills, especially after a long period of diving inactivity. Escorted diving to reefs or wrecks is the main activity either by boat from a resort or from a LiveAboard safari vessel. LiveAboards are popular with groups of divers who seek a new diving destination and lots of dives every day. Diving from resorts is restricted to sites within a one- or two-hour radius by dhoni so diving while cruising on a LiveAboard vessel adds a greater variety of sites to be dived during a holiday. Scuba diving has been enhanced with the introduction of Nitrox Diving. This involves the replacement with oxygen of some of the nitrogen in the air breathed underwater. Another popular diving option is Night Diving. Corals open up at night and extend their colourful flower-like tentacles while lionfish, lobster, shrimps and other nocturnal species leave their holes to look for food. The Maldivian waters come alive and phosphorescent plankton lights up the ocean with their blue bioluminescent effect. A variation is Fluo Night Diving using special diving lights designed to generate the maximum amount of bio-fluorescence. This creates a spellbinding experience as certain marine life absorbs it and emits a different colour light in return. The effect is called fluorescence and reveals incredible colours.
Any time of the year is a good time to dive. For the enthusiastic, knowledgeable diver wishing to get the maximum from a holiday devoted to diving, the best time is from January to April when skies and sea are clearer. Plankton is more abundant in October to November and this makes the sea murkier but that’s when bigger fish are more active and more easily seen.
Maldivian coral reefs are home to the richest diversity in the region and are the seventh largest on the globe, accounting for 5% of the world’s reef area. The islands have become one of the most famous diving locations with unique coral reef formations and a great diversity of marine species with visibility throughout the year. There are incredible dive sites in all the atolls with more being discovered as islands open up to tourism. While some divers maintain the best diving is to be enjoyed from resorts recently opened in atolls far away from Male’, others maintain that there are great dive sites close to the centre, such as the 35 recognised sites in North Male’ Atoll and the 25 sites in South Male’ Atoll. Ari Atoll offers a great variety of dive sites and fish-sightings. The southern atolls are renowned for coral and lots of channels for spotting sharks and barracudas. The northern atolls have interesting reefs in shallower waters. There are six major underwater sites within easy reach of Male’ (which has a number of dive centres that provide equipment and dive vessels to explore them). Many are close to resorts north of the airport, such as H P Reef, 100m long with outcrops of coral, caves and crevices. Okobe (Barracuda) Thila consists of three reefs with a great variety of marine life. For manta fans, Manta Point is the place to dive. Furana Thila has caves frequented by sharks, and Banana Reef supports a colourful fish population. South of the airport is the Maldive Victory, a sunken ship that is a popular wreck dive. The best areas for divers are the reef edges, the kandus where currents attract big fish; the thilas where wave actions and currents attract a multitude of fish; and the wrecks dotted around where seafarers suffered misfortune or which have been deliberately sunk to create attractive dive sites. A popular wreck, where divers can explore the interior, is close to Maafushi, an inhabited island that has three separate dive centres. There are dozens of dive sites within an hour or so by boat from Male’. Colosseum, 15 minutes by boat, is near Thulusdhoo Island with a reef gently sloping down to 25m; home to schools of blue stripe snapper, red and midnight snapper, eagle ray, whitetip reef shark, leopard shark, batfish and sometimes manta ray and whale shark. It’s 15 minutes to Chicken Island corner dive site to see moray eel, tuna, red snapper, blue fin and big eye Trevally, and whitetip reef shark. Prisca Head north of Meeru Channel is good for grey reef shark, whitetip reef shark, schools of sergeant fish, black jack fish and moray eel. Inside Dhifushi Channel there’s a deep dive for advanced divers with overhangs to see fan coral, soft coral, schools of blue stripe snapper, hump head red snapper, sweet lips, moray eel, mantis shrimp, red snapper, blue fin Trevally, and Napoleon wrasses. Kuda Wreck is located near Dhifushi Island and is home to small glassfish, cleaning shrimp, trumpet fish, and sweet lips. Asdhoo Rock near Asdhoo Island is composed of small pinnacles on its northeast side and is home to Napoleon wrasse, schools of hump head snapper and blue stripe snapper, turtles, red snapper and big schools of fusilier. To the east side of the pinnacle are live corals.
Every diving centre is operated under strict regulations in order to maintain the Maldives as a safe dive destination. According to the Maldivian Dive Regulations the first dive during a holiday, even for certified divers, has to be a guided orientation one. This is not a test, but a dive to give the diver the opportunity to regain confidence in skills, including mask removal and alternative air source breathing. Certified divers should bring their dive certification and logbook. The maximum depth per dive is limited to 30m; diving with a computer and an alternative air-source is mandatory, and it is prohibited to dive alone or do decompression dives. The use of harpoons or spears is prohibited and it is forbidden to remove corals, dead or alive, or any other sea animals, including fish. Fishing by net or rod and line in resort lagoons is also prohibited. Guests are urged to respect the reef and to refrain from breaking off, or even pressing, any pieces of coral. In the Maldives, it is illegal to collect any coral, shells or other souvenirs from the ocean. Having souvenirs made of turtle shell is also illegal and such souvenirs could be confiscated at the airport and incur a fine. The export of protected species and its products are also prohibited.
There are decompression chambers at the following island resorts: Bandos, Kandoludhoo, Kuramathi, Kuredu, Shangri-la Villingili and Sun Island.
In 2011,UNESCO designated an area of land and sea totaling 139,714 hectares, as The Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve. North of Male’ this Reserve comprises 75 islands, 13 of which are inhabited (by a population of approximately 12,000 people) and ten of which are holiday resorts. The water depth varies considerably and includes lagoons with depths ranging from 30m to 80m, opening into the Indian Ocean, while channels running through the atoll are up to 250-300m in depth. The lagoons enclose a variety of reef structures including faros, micro-atolls, patch reefs and knolls. The main habitat types found in the reserve are coral reefs, islands, sea grass beds and mangroves. Coral reefs are the most important habitat type in terms of area as well as biodiversity. The coral reefs support a high diversity of reef animals, including approximately 250 species of corals (stony and soft corals) and 1,200 reef and reef-associated fish species, a population of marine turtles, manta rays, whale sharks and seabirds. Of the seven species of marine turtles in the world, five species have been recorded in the Maldives: the green turtle, hawksbill turtle, olive ridley turtle, loggerhead turtle and leatherback turtle. Baa Atoll is the best place to see them, with the most frequent sightings being of hawksbill turtles.
The fragile coral reefs of the Maldives are some of the most spectacular in the world, drawing thousands of visitors each year for snorkelling and diving. Yet they are much more than just a tourist attraction, they are the foundation of the whole country, both literally and in terms of sustaining the industries on which the Maldives depends. Both tourism and fishing would cease if the coral reefs were destroyed. Some resort dive centres, concerned that the value and fragility of coral reefs should be understood because of their importance to the islands’ natural eco system, as well as their fascination for snorkellers and divers, have introduced “Coral Gardening” programmes. These enable guests to assist in creating new coral outcrops, thereby contributing to reef preservation. Corals are tiny animals that live in colonies and reproduce sexually during a few nights a year by releasing their eggs into the water. During the remainder of the year, they simply separate and create clones of themselves. By copying that method, divers can assist in planting coral by hand to save natural stocks from depletion due to damage and global warming. Broken, but still living, coral fragments are collected from the seabed and transplanted to create coral nursery areas. By selectively breeding heat-tolerant species over more susceptible ones, marine biologists aim to produce coral stocks that are armed to fight against rising seawater temperatures. The nurseries aim not only to reproduce corals, but also to establish homes for various fishes and invertebrates thus enhancing a resort’s marine life. The diving centres in many resorts also organise reef-cleaning campaigns where staff and guests get together to remove accumulated detritus from the ocean bed.