I’VE BEEN TO THE MALDIVES, and I wouldn’t give you tuppence for the diving. There are huge seas and powerful currents. I hated it!”
“We loved diving in the Maldives.
We loved the tropical waters and the colourful fishes.”
“I was very disappointed with the diving in the Maldives. All the corals seemed dead.”
“We had some of the best diving in our lives while in the Maldives. Loads of sharks and rays, and every dive was very high-voltage.”
“I loved the macro-life and got to see a lot of animals that I thought were quite rare.”
These are just a few samples of feedback I have had from people after a diving trip to one of the most popular diving areas in the world among Europeans. Impressions may be conflicting, but they’re not necessarily inaccurate. Why is this?
Conditions for diving around the Maldives can vary hugely according to both topography and season. It’s important to understand how this can affect the diving when considering your holiday options.
The island-nation forms a narrow archipelago that stretches more than 500 miles across the Indian Ocean, north from just below the Equator.
At its widest point the Maldives is less than 80 miles across. Some 1200 islands are grouped between 26 atolls.
The word “atoll” in the native Dhivehi language means “administrative district”, but it has been adopted into English to mean a group of coral islands that has formed around the rim of a sunken prehistoric volcano. The Maldives comprises numerous rings of islands, surrounded by very deep water. The central part of each atoll is called a lagoon, and these lagoons vary in depth.
As they are isolated outposts in the middle of the ocean, the water in and around the atolls is subject to currents. These in turn are influenced by the seasonal winds, or “monsoons”.
There are two monsoon seasons – the dry monsoon that blows from the north-east, and a wet monsoon that crosses the ocean from the south-west. The wet season normally lasts from May to November.
Water pushes past the islands and through any channels there might be into and out of the lagoons.
You hear dive guides in the Maldives talking about “in-currents” and “out-currents”, and these are seasonal rather than simply tidal.
In-currents force their way through channels into the atolls, while out-currents go the other way.
These currents do not simply pass from east to west. They may come in at the east and pass out to the south of an atoll. This depends on the topography within the lagoon.
The high-voltage diving in the Maldives is about negotiating these channels (kandus) and the small, submerged reefs (thilas) found in the middle of them.
When the water passes through a channel out of an atoll, it is rich in the nutrients that encourage plankton-feeders such as whale sharks and manta rays. When the currents flow from the open ocean into the atoll, currents tend to be very strong, but the visibility is as clear as anywhere in the world.
You will still marvel as mantas come in from the ocean, but rather than feeding they queue up at cleaning stations, where small fish trade a manicure for a meal of the parasites they cull.
If you prefer a more sedate style of diving, dive sites within the atolls may be more suitable than the channels.
Many of the massive and spectacular coral banks that were a feature before the world coral-bleaching episode of 1998 have gone but, more than a decade later, a lot of the reefs are making steady progress towards regeneration.
These reefs, or giris, may be small but they’re good for diving. Faros are ring-shaped reefs that have grown up within the atoll, and their condition depends very much on the nature of the surrounding ring of islands. If there are many channels and a good supply of fresh open-ocean water is forthcoming they can be interesting, but if an atoll
is very closed, with few channels, the lagoon side may not be worth diving.
Confusion arises about what makes an atoll and what makes a faro, because both tend to be circular.
Atolls have grown up from extinct volcanoes rising from the ocean floor, whereas faros are coral structures that have grown up from the seabed within the lagoon. It isn’t just a matter of size – the largest faros can be bigger than the smallest atolls.
Ari Atoll is distinguished in that it has a great many kandus or channels leading into it, which leads to some spectacular dive sites sheltered from the prevailing wind. Maaya Thila, where whitetip reef sharks and marble rays can be seen hunting at night, and Musimashmagili (often known as Fish Head) with its famous resident Napoleon wrasse and hawksbill turtles, come to mind.
Lhayviyani Atoll, on the other hand, is quite closed off in terms of channels, so the best dive sites tend to be out on the ocean side of the reefs, and so depend far more on wind and sea state.
If you are going to be island-based, your choice of dive sites will be limited to those within range of a diving dhoni (locally built boat). Some extremely good diving is to be had, but be careful to pick a resort island that is well placed to enjoy the conditions you prefer, or you might find yourself severely limited.
Similarly, some islands have exceptionally good house reefs, whereas others have such a large fringing reef that shore-diving is impractical because there is no access.
Consider whether you want to dive in the calm conditions in the lee of a prevailing current, or whether you prefer to experience the exciting marine life drawn in from the open ocean, but with the sea conditions that go with that.

MANY ISLANDS BOAST A DIVE SITE suffixed “Express”. At both Kuredu Express in Lhayviyani and Embudhu Express in South Male Atoll, a channel passing out into the ocean stops abruptly and drops off to many hundreds of metres’ depth.
Here the in-current picks up powerfully as it squeezes up over the submarine lip of the atoll and into the channel.
Conditions can be very difficult at times, yet if you can make it across the channel at this lip you will be rewarded with close encounters with the gamut of ocean life, including the opportunistic reef sharks that hunt there.
It’s not always essential to do this. Many divers are happy to head on down to a corner of the reef, and settle in using a current hook to watch the show.
In the Maldives, the range of sea conditions in which divers might find themselves varies as much as the choice of resorts and the seasons. The currents are at their strongest, and some would say the diving is at its best, in January and February.
On the other hand, the build-up of plankton in October and November, combined with weak out-currents, has encouraged the aggregations of mantas and whale sharks at places like Hanifaru in Baa Atoll.
These have been discovered fairly recently, because while the diving operators were right in thinking that the visibility would be poor, they were wrong to think that the diving would be of no interest because of this.
The southern atolls too have recently been opened up for tourism, and new dive sites and marine-life encounters are being discovered every day.
Whether it’s current or still-water dives that do it for you, a liveaboard is most likely to be able to find the prevailing conditions needed to suit any particular group of passengers, and a greater variety of sites than island-based divers can expect.
You will get the option to go ashore from time to time, but otherwise you will spend a lot of time on the boat. This is no longer the classic palm-fringed, tropical-island holiday that some prefer.
Most liveaboards in the Maldives are used as floating hotels, moved around to be near appropriate dive sites.
Each works in conjunction with a dhoni equipped for diving, just like those the island resorts use.
Some new operators are starting to experiment with more conventional and bigger liveaboard vessels with fast inflatable pick-up boats. Time will tell how successful this system will be.

THE MALDIVES IS A MOSLEM-DOMINATED nation where most of the people make their livelihood from fishing. There was a time when the population was segregated from tourists by keeping the two groups on their dedicated islands or, in the case of divers, liveaboards. This allowed Western excesses to be confined to the tourist resorts while keeping the locals untainted by Western ways.
A new philosophy of openness, cultivated by the recently elected democratic government headed by an enlightened and youthful president, has changed things here, too.
Now it is possible to travel independently to the Maldives and, if you can find transport, stay with the indigenous people by making use of the bed and breakfast facilities they are now allowed to provide, given certain restrictions. We await news of the success of this initiative.
As previously, boats and resorts can, limited by individual sets of conditions, be licensed to serve alcohol.
The islands sit astride one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Vessels plying their routes between Suez and the Far East, or between the Gulf and Japan, have to pass nearby.
There are quite a few wrecks to dive in the Maldives, though most have been placed on purpose by the resort dive centres. Big ships do not attempt to pass through the narrow and reef-strewn channels into the atoll lagoons, so any that are lost due to faulty navigation normally go down in very deep water.
One exception is the wreck of the small freighter Maldives Victory, which sank in relatively shallow water close to Hulhule (Male Airport) island. And a pair of tuna-fishing boats, Skipjack and Gaafaru, sank next to each other at the Graveyard, a dive site near Kuredu. Powerful currents tend to sweep both of these sites.
The advantage of diving the artificial wrecks is that most are placed where the diving is easy. “Real” wrecks or not, they make fine reefs, with a lot of marine life using them as a safe haven from marauding predators.
The Maldives are strewn with fabulous dive sites. Colourful HP Reef and Banana Reef in North Male Atoll; Cocoa Thila and Guraidhoo Kandu in South Mali Atoll; Dhiggiri Kandu in Felidhoo Atoll; Rangali’s Madivaru and Donkhalu with their spectacular and graceful manta ballet schools; the tiny atoll of Rasdhoo, with the chance to see schooling hammerheads – these are all names that put diving in the Maldives on the map. With the opening up of the territory, new iconic dive sites are being added regularly to this list.

CHOOSE YOUR DATES CAREFULLY. In the first half of the year it will be dry and very sunny. After July it will be warm and humid, with lots of rain. It’s not the best time for a beach holiday.
Travel between the capital Male and the islands is usually by boat or small seaplane, so don’t expect to see a lot of the Maldives during one visit, either.
If you choose a particular island, that is pretty much where you stay, though you may be able to get a speedboat to another island close by.
The Maldives range over 35,000sq miles, from Haa Alif in the north to Seenu in the south. So unless you have your own boat and plenty of time to spare, you need to choose the destination within the archipelago to suit your expectations.
If you haven’t been, it really is time you went!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly direct with British Airways and SriLankan Airlines or via Dubai with Emirates.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: To suit.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, wet season nominally June to November..
MONEY: Maldivian rupiah.
PRICES: From new economically priced to skys-the-limit
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com