At first glance, the Maldives islands may seem like a uniform atmosphere with the tropical lagoons, palm-fringed shorelines, and flat scattered islands popping up to the surface.
Actually, the topography of the Maldives, especially below water level, varies from atoll to atoll. This variation makes for great diving adventures that surprise divers with drop offs from 300-2000m depths, unique pinnacles, caves, overhangs, ledges and barrier reefs broken up by numerous channels.
Male and Ari Atolls are both central and quite large such that they are divided into North and South atolls for administrative reasons and even by physical barriers like a channel, in the case of Male Atoll. Ari Atoll lies on the western side of the country while Male runs along the east.
In Ari Atoll as a whole, only about 1 in 4 islands are inhabited by the local population. More than 1 in 3 are resort islands, leaving the rest as deserted, uninhabited islands of all different sizes. There is a total of about 70 islands in North and South Ari atolls.
North Ari Atoll
North Ari is famous for its thilas or pinnacle reefs with the west side having developed hard corals as a result of the turbulent sea activity and the east side with more fragile formations. This atoll boasts some of the world’s top dive sites, such as Fish Head, aka Mushi Mas Mingilli. As a protected marine area this sought-after site has an abundance of marine life for divers to interact with, since sustainability of the ecosystem has been prioritized over fishing.
Rasdhoo, a popular diving destination, is the capital of Ari and is connected by a submerged plateau at an average of 200m deep.
Maaya Thila is another renowned North Ari hot spot. The star of the show at Maaya Thila are the white-tip reef sharks that comb the strong currents along with some grey reef sharks and great barracuda. That is just the “tip of the fin” though when it comes to fish divers will encounter at this place teeming with life. Day and night, Maaya Thila will impress. Night dives are the best time to explore the caves and crevices where turtles, cleaner shrimp, ghost pipe fish and moray eels like to hide. Octopus can be seen if you take your time and watch as their camouflage skills could trick you into swimming right by without realizing.
South Ari Atoll
South Ari is known for sharks but one famous site doesn’t fit this stereotype. Rengali Madivaru in the north east monsoon season is manta ray central. It becomes a manta ray cleaning station that mesmerizes divers and shows the symbiotic relationships between marine creatures.
When it comes to reef formations, Kudarah Thila dive site has some cool features on its northern fringe – numerous sea fans that together make for an awesome sight. Gatherings of sea fans are a rare and awe-inspiring sight, found here, tucked away on a reef in South Ari Atoll of the Maldives.
Advanced divers have the opportunity to experience another of South Ari’s top dive sites, known as Broken Rock. This site boasts a beautiful canyon and soft corals, along with tiny invertebrates like leaf fish and nudibranchs that prefer the hard coral of the top reef.
All of these superb sites, and the many others unmentioned, are a great argument for Ari Atoll as the best reef diving in the Maldives. However, Male Atoll is famous for more than holding the island capital – it has diving to compete with Ari, as we will see.
North Male Atoll
Comparable in number of islands to South Ari Atoll, North Male atoll is much denser in population with the capital, Male, the most densely populated of all the islands. There are less deserted islands as well with 80% of the atoll’s islands either used as resorts or privately leased. Only 8 of the islands are home to the local population.
Increased boat traffic is a deterrent for many divers on the southern edge of North Male atoll. In the north of North Male atoll is where more isolated stretches of islands and reefs can be found.
Think tropical fruit when you think great diving in North Male Atoll. Banana Reef is one of the longest known dive sites with some of the most stunning underwater topography – soft coral and marine life fill the caves, gutters and overhangs. Brilliant table coral and sponges make this reef a sight to see, along with the sharks that enjoy the currents around the ledges. The massive humphead wrasse are known to this dive site, which is also known as Gaathugiri.
If all that wasn’t enough, there are Nassimo Thila’s elusive caves where nurse sharks like to stay hidden. Scattered around this site are random pinnacles as well as massive porite corals, some grown to a whopping 5 meters in diameter.
Another advanced dive can be found at Kuda Haa where steep ledges attract schools of fish and a cave that holds beautiful coral displays.
South Male Atoll
Separated from North Male Atoll by the Vaadhoo kandu channel, South Male boasts The capital of South Male Atoll is the well-known Maafushi, where several guesthouses have popped up in recent years that have attracted tourists to see another side to the Maldives. Only 3 of the 30 islands in the atoll are inhabited with the majority being resort islands.
Many of the dive sites in the atoll are for advanced divers due to the strong currents pushing through the region. Embudhoo and Guraidhoo dive sites are suitable for novice divers when the currents are right.
Again, caves, sponges and soft coral make the dive sites of the South Male region a sight to see. The sharks, eagle rays, and other pelagic species that enjoy the strong currents keep divers on their toes with wide eyes and cameras in position.
All in all, it’s difficult to compare the two regions because each has such well-known dive sites. Taking a liveaboard tour that covers both atolls is ideal so that as many of the top attractions can be visited in one tour. Then, you can really judge from first-hand experience which atoll takes the prize.
Liveaboards such as Emperor Atoll try to touch on the best of these atolls in their custom itineraries. Check out the introductory offer from Emperor Atoll on this fall: click here to get your offer.