The Maldives claims to be the place where “even the sharks are friendly”. I’m not too sure I’d want to meet a ‘friendly’ shark, I’d settle for ‘indifferent’. In my experience, the sharks in the Maldives are definitely that, I’ve seen several dozen and they’ve never shown the slightest interest in me. That’s not the only reason why the Maldives is a fantastic place to dive, though it certainly helps. If you’re thinking of going there for a diving holiday, I can recommend it.
I’ve visited four islands on diving holidays, some of them two or three times. I learned to dive with Sea Explorer, at Reethi Beach (Baa atoll), back in 2000. I’ve dived at Machafushi (Ari atoll), where they have an impressive wreck, deliberately sunk on the house reef. I’ve also dived with Ocean-pro dive-team, at Coco Palm (Baa atoll) and Mirihi (Ari atoll).
It has to be said, none of the websites for the islands or their dive-schools do them justice. They are very pretty to look at, but don’t really give any idea of what it’s like to dive in those places. Hopefully, I can go some small way to filling that gap, with this and future articles.
The Maldives is a great place to learn. Shallow lagoons make for easy first lessons, and warm waters mean no messing around with thick wetsuits. The resorts all have a large variety of dive-sites to choose from, normally with a good range for all levels of ability and all interests, from beginner to expert diver. Many (if not all) of the resorts are PADI dive-centres, though I believe they also accept most other internationally recognised certificates. Your tour-operator can probably check for you if you are in any doubt.
Although PADI certify divers to 40 metres (120 feet) (with the Deep Diver certification), the Maldives imposes its own limit of 30 metres (90 feet). Diving below that is not permitted in order to limit disturbance to the environment. That’s not really a handicap, there’s plenty to see in that 30 metres. That said, it’s true that the scenery does change with the depth, and if you are limited to shallower depths by your certification, you might want to consider taking an extra course while you’re there, to get the full value from your dives.
You can dive on the house-reef of your resort, but most of the diving happens from boats. Depending on your resort, there may be one or two boats in the morning, and one or two in the afternoon. Reethi Beach, for example, run two boats in the morning, one which leaves early and does two dives (with an hour’s rest between them) and one which leaves later, doing only one dive. That lets you choose the pace you want for your holiday.
You have to sign up for the boat you want the day before, so they know how many people to expect. Places are limited on each boat, and some popular dive-sites get fully subscribed quickly, so depending on how fanatical your fellow holiday-makers are, you may have to be quick! If you miss out on a site you wanted to visit, just ask the dive-centre. They’ll be willing to re-schedule it soon enough, after giving a day or two to avoid over-diving at the same site, and you’ll get your chance.
Some resorts, Coco Palm is one of them, also organise all-day trips. The boat leaves Coco Palm early in the morning and takes in three dive-sites. You eat lunch on board, and because it’s a longer trip, you get to go to some of the farther sites, places that you might otherwise not get to. It can be quite tiring, but it’s great fun!
House reefs can also be a lot of fun. If you want a rest from the boats, a house-reef is a more leisurely dive. In fact, the house reef at Machafushi is the place I’ve dived at most in the Maldives. The ship sunk there attracts a great deal of life, and it was always a pleasure to dive there.
For first-time divers, there are a couple of specific tips I can think of. These apply anywhere, not just to the Maldives. First, if you’re hiring equipment from the dive-centre, check the pockets of your BCD when you collect it, in case there are extra weights in them. It’s quite possible that the previous user had bouyancy problems, in which case his or her instructor may well have put an extra kilo of weight in the pockets to help them. If they forgot to remove that weight, it could upset your own diving.
Second, if you’re assigned an instructor or divemaster to follow, make sure you know what they look like. That sounds trivial, but if you’re on your first open water dive, it’s quite possible to forget that, for example, your instructor is bald, and discover that the person you are following is not. Yes, I did that! Some instructors make a point of having mis-matched fins, one blue and one yellow, for example. This makes them easy to identify underwater.
Such mistakes are probably very rare, and you should not be put off from diving because I mention them. For divers of all levels, the Maldives has a lot to offer. There’s the big stuff, sharks, mantas, morays, fish and corals, which are always fun to see. But there’s also a lot of small stuff hidden away, and it’s a great incentive to improve your diving. Many of the smaller creatures live in small holes or under ledges, and you need good bouyancy control to be able to approach them without disturbing them or damaging the reef. I personally prefer looking for the smaller creatures, and find that diving slowly and close to the reef is more relaxing than swimming hard to cover a lot of ground.
The Maldives is a place where strong currents can occur, and some of the best diving is to be had where the current runs fast. Small fish come out from the reef to feed, big fish come to feed on the small fish, and corals will sometimes open, even during the day. Fighting against a current is hard work, so unless you know how to stay close to the reef and minimise your exertions you may soon find you are using up your air too quickly, or that you have reached the end of the reef early.
Either way, your dive will be over, and you will be back on the boat while other people are still enjoying their dives. Of course, if you’re going to stay close to the reef, you need to be very careful not to damage it, so you need to know what you are doing. The dive-centre staff will be happy to give you tips (thank you Robert Schneider!), and you should take every opportunity to talk to them and learn from them.
Even if you are certified to dive on your own, you may want to follow the divemaster or instructor, at least for a few dives. They will know the best places to look for small creatures and interesting things, which can help you learn how to find things for yourself. If you are more confident, heading out on your own away from other divers (but always with your buddy!) means there will be less people near you disturbing the animals you are looking for, which may make them easier to find.
One thing you really must try, even if you are a beginner, is a night-dive. The boat will leave around sunset, and you enter the water as twilight descends. You can still see where you are going and get your bearings, so there’s no difficulty in orienting yourself. Soon, the light disappears, and you and your buddy are left with your torches to explore a reef that looks very different to its daytime appearance. I once dived on the reef at Thiladhoo, in Baa atoll, in the afternoon and night of the same day. They could have been two completely distinct reefs, things were so different. Oh yes, I thoroughly recommend night-dives!
If you are planning to visit the Maldives in winter, you should consider getting flu vaccinations well before you fly. The last thing you want is to be paying 5-star rates to stay in bed with a cold, and you certainly can’t dive with a congested nose.
For a diving holiday, you will need at least two weeks, one week is just too short. You need a day to get over the jet-lag of getting there, and you can’t dive for 24 hours before your return flight, so a week just wouldn’t give enough time to dive.
More importantly, once you’ve dived in the Maldives, you’ll want to do it again. Even as you board the plane to come home, you’ll be trying to figure out when you can come back again. Take my word for it. Or better yet, don’t take my word, go there and find out for yourself!