The Maldives. The name of this country alone conjures up images that make most dive enthusiasts float away on a SCUBA daydream. These isolated atolls in the middle of the immense Indian Ocean have sat firmly among the top five tropical dive locations worldwide for decades. This is the place to go for big and plentiful marine life and a top-side view of picture-perfect deserted islands, their white sandy knolls rising only a meter or two from the lapping waves, dotted with swaying palm trees.
Within the Maldives, the Central Atolls preside over the country’s dive scene. This area’s underwater treasures were the first-discovered and remain some of the best-loved. You can find everything here- whale sharks, reef sharks, mantas, coral, swarms of fish, and macro-critters- and it’s all within spitting distance of the international airport on Male. There’s hardly anywhere else in the world where you can step off your plane and plunge into world-class diving so easily.
Where to go
North Male Atoll: North Male diving goes back to the beginnings of the Maldives dive scene, but its dive sites are well-preserved. Coral cover here is better than South Male and Ari. Perhaps its most famous dive site is Manta Point, a cleaning station for the winged giants that receives so many visits you might actually lose count! Manta-viewing opportunities like this owe their thanks to the tiny blue cleaner wrasse, a roughly 10 centimeters long fish which eats parasites living on mantas’ skin and in their mouths, a service so beneficial to the mantas’ health that they virtually wait in line to get it. For coral in North Male, Banana Reef is a long-time favorite, which thickets of healthy branching coral. Other great dive sites include the pinnacle Girifushi Thila and the Victory Wreck, a shipwreck which has grown into a blooming artificial reef.
South Male Atoll: South Male built the Maldives’ reputation for big fish… and fast currents. This is the earliest explored dive area with kandus, channels that connect the interior of the atoll with the open ocean. The water in kandus moves quickly, so if you’ve never done drift diving before, prepare yourself! But the rewards outweigh any nervousness you might feel, because strong currents (which are full of animal and plant plankton that nourishes the reef’s food chain) means lots and lots and lots of fish.
Embudhoo Kandu is the best channel for loads of white-tip and gray reef sharks. Guraidhoo Kandu South actually encompasses more than just a channel, with additional topographies of reef flats and walls. The two thilas (pinnacles) of the sites Cocoa Thila and Kandooma Thila are swarmed by fish life when the current is right. Between these four incredible dive sites, you’re likely to see Napoleon Wrasse, huge groupers, jacks, and other reef fish like sweetlips and snapper.
Vaavu Atoll: For a Central Atolls location with an undeveloped, pristine atmosphere, look no farther than Vaavu (also called Felidhoo) Atoll, where the Fotteyo Barrier Reef stretches for 50 kilometers along the open ocean. This collection of 19 islands has a kandu scene which is just as good as South Male’s. As usual with kandu diving, sharks are plentiful. Fotteyo Kandu and Miyaru Kandu are two famous channel sites where white-tip and gray reef sharks, rays, and plenty of other fish can be seen. There’s also a much-loved night dive at Alimataa Jetty with nurse sharks and stingrays. Vaavu Atoll is also notable for manta sightings, and for it’s photogenic, varied topography of caves and overhangs which dot the kandu walls- you’ll be especially glad for these features when you want to shelter from the current.
Ari Atoll: This atoll along the western edge of the Maldives archipelago has what you’ve all been waiting for… whale sharks and manta rays. Ari cannot be missed on a Central Atolls liveaboard tour. It’s the large pelagics capital of the Central Atolls; the coral isn’t as good as North Male, and the reef sharks don’t gather in swarms like in South Male, but you won’t mind when you get to hang out with the giants of the tropical ocean.
<b>Maaya Thila</b> is perhaps the most famous pinnacle in Ari, with a good diversity of reef life. Multiple other thilas provide manta viewing, such as Donkalo, Kudarah, and Ukulhas. Manta viewing at Ari is best from August through November. For whale sharks, Maamgili delivers in abundance. There’s reef shark action at Rahdhigga Thila and the Fish Head marine sanctuary, and a good couple wrecks where huge fantail stingrays and tiny ghost pipefish live side by side.
Rasdhoo Atoll: Just northeast of Ari Atoll lies one of the Maldives’ most renowned underwater treasures- Rasdhoo Atoll. What makes it famous, and a reliable favorite of Maldives divers? Scalloped Hammerhead sharks. Around six o’ clock in the morning, at a site called Hammerhead Point, these denizens of the deep rise from the inky blackness to glide along an ocean-fronting ridge of Madivaru Island. There are probably fewer than ten dive locations worldwide where you can witness this incredible sight.
But Rasdhoo doesn’t only offer hammerheads. Its topography is quite varied, with a fun mix of thilas, kandus, and walls, and the local marine life includes mantas, eagle rays, Napoleon wrasse, a wide variety of reef sharks, and tuna. Crossing from island to island and hopping from thila to thila underwater makes for diving where the topography is just as interesting as the fish life- look forward to Rasdhoo Channel and North Channel.
Baa Atoll: You’re in for a treat when you visit Baa Atoll. You’ll leave some of the crowds behind, and you’ll be treated to an explosion of colorful soft corals, an interactive topography of swim-throughs and caves, and a fish biomass which might be the most plentiful throughout the entire Maldives. What else does Baa offer? Hanifaru Bay. This protected area is one of the best places in the world to see mantas and whale sharks right near the surface, between the months of May and December. The giants are drawn here by the seasonal plankton bloom, and it seems that the abundance of their favorite food makes them want to party! Be prepared for rollicking and rolling behavior from the usually sedate animals. Only snorkeling is permitted here, which suits the situation perfectly, given the shallow depth at which the action takes place.
Maavaru Kandu is the most famous Baa Atoll site for brilliant carpets of swaying soft corals. There, and at Dhonfanu Thila and Dhigali Haa, the abundance of reef fish and fun swim-throughs and overhangs will keep you and your camera enthralled.
When to go
The Maldives can be dived all year-round. From December to April, the sea is at its calmest, with the best visibility. However, May through November carries the best chance of whale shark and manta sightings, so you won’t be disappointed whenever you travel.
One of the best ways to see the Maldives is from the 43-meter Carpe Novo yacht, the newest addition to the luxury Explorer Ventures fleet which runs classic Maldives cruises year-round. Each of its 12 cabins has TV/HD, AC, and storage space. The common areas offer plenty of indoor and outdoor options, and sunny and shady places to relax and dine, as well as a library and large flat screen TV. To access your dive sites, you’ll hop on the Carpe Novo’s 18-meter dive dhoni, which has plenty of space for storing your gear and kitting up.
If you had to choose only one liveaboard, the Maldives Central Atolls would be an excellent way to go. Every marine life-loving SCUBA diver gets wowed by this archipelago’s underwater residents. Kit up and enjoy the ride because it’s bound to be spectacular!