By Stuart Forster
Excellent underwater visibility, colourful corals and a wealth of marine wildlife make the Maldives an outstanding destination for diving and snorkelling holidays. Newcomers to scuba can learn and build confidence in the calm waters of island resorts in the company of experienced instructors. Meanwhile, seasoned divers can look forward to the thrill of drift and night dives in waters offering frequent sightings of the world’s largest living fishes – whale sharks.
The relative warmth of the Indian Ocean around the Maldives makes it pleasant to spend time in seawater off the 1,192 islands. Water temperatures tend to fluctuate around 28°C throughout the year, facilitating lengthy dives and snorkelling sessions even without the protection and insulation of a wetsuit.
Simply swimming by a beach in a pair of goggles is likely to result in sightings of darting fish and, occasionally, creatures such as hawksbill turtles. Guided snorkelling tours of resort reefs introduce local marine life and increase the likelihood of spotting camouflaged creatures such as stonefish and scorpionfish on the underside of rocks and semi-hidden among sand.
From north to south, the country’s 26 atolls are distributed across more than 500 miles. Inevitably, that broad geographic spread means variations in local water conditions plus pockets of diversity in marine flora and fauna.
Underwater visibility approaches its crystal best in time for late-December holidays and continues into April. That coincides with the northeast monsoon – the Maldives’ driest season.
By contrast, visibility dips due to the southwest monsoon’s rainwater flushing sand and other particles into the sea. The rains tend to be heaviest in July and August, particularly in southerly atolls such as Addu, Fuvahmulah and Huvadhoo, whose density of marine life accounts for their popularity among keen divers. Travellers are likely to find favourable accommodation deals at this time of year yet may experience only passing, intermittent rain, leaving water conditions fine, except after the heaviest of downpours.
Liveaboard vessels prove popular with scuba aficionados, facilitating access to leading dive sites and varied itineraries. Floating resorts such as Scubaspa Ying and Scubaspa Yang offer spa treatments and sunrise yoga sessions, providing alternatives to non-diving partners who prefer not to participate in training to acquire the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) certification that opens access to the world below the water’s surface.
Channels plummeting to depths of up to 1,000 feet run between Maldivian atolls, allowing deep oceanic currents rich with nutrients to flow. Known locally as kandu, the channels funnel creatures accustomed to the deep sea towards the comparatively shallow water of lagoons and prove popular sites for drift dives. Frequently spotted ocean dwelling species include barracuda, swordfish and wahoo – whose name sounds like a cry of joy prompted by viewing majestic sea creatures in their natural habitat. Sightings of hammerhead sharks are common from December into April.
It’s 10 years since UNESCO inscribed Baa Atoll as a Biosphere Reserve because of the global significance of its biodiversity. As many as 62 of the atoll’s 75 islands remain uninhabited. They are dotted with mangroves, beds of sea grass and coral reefs providing habitat to around 1,200 fish species, five of the planet’s seven sea turtles plus 250 types of coral. Pocked with underwater caves, the Golden Wall on Kihavah Huravalhi Island is a dive site that wows visitors with the colours of swaying corals, shoals of reef fish plus sightings of earnest-looking humphead wrasses – often referred to as Napoleon fish.
From June until November plankton washes into Baa Atoll’s Hanifaru Bay meaning it acts like an enormous, sun-kissed feeding bowl for whale sharks and manta rays. For conservation reasons, diving is no longer permitted in the bay but snorkelling, regulated by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rangers, brings opportunities to see dozens of the world’s largest population of manta rays congregating for food. Their varied habits include visually impressive mass spiralling known as cyclone feeding.
Along with biodiversity, visibility of up to 120 feet makes the Maldives a rewarding location for underwater photography. Holidaymakers have the option of submitting images and information about their encounters with manta rays to IDtheManta. That database has helped identify around 5,000 individual rays and a significant amount about the creature’s behaviour since the Manta Trust’s Maldivian Manta Ray Project was established in 2005.
The Maldives hosts around five per cent of the world’s corals. A spike in sea temperatures during an El Niño phenomenon in 2016 resulted in widespread bleaching. Coral restoration projects are practised on several islands to safeguard and replenish reef ecosystems. One example is the reef care project at Shangri-La’s Villingili Resort and Spa, where guests can participate in activities coordinated by the Eco Centre.
As concern for the welfare of oceans increases, EPA regulations and increasingly widespread sustainable tourism practices aim to ensure that people can swim with the fishes in the Maldives long into the future.