Not surprisingly, snorkeling and diving are among the top things to do in the Maldives. The nation consists of 22 atolls and almost 1,200 coral islands, making its captivating underwater world naturally spectacular. All resorts offer snorkeling. However, if you choose one that has an accessible house reef, you'll be able to go directly from the beach rather than on a prearranged boat trip. If you're traveling on a budget, stay on a local inhabited island at a guesthouse or hotel that specializes in scuba diving. You'll save a bundle on accommodations but be taken to the same dive sites as resort guests. Read on to discover where to snorkel and dive in the Maldives, and find out the best time to visit the Maldives.
North Male Atoll
North Male Atoll, which encompasses capital city Male, has the most extensive coral reefs and oldest scuba diving sites in the Maldives. Curve-shaped Banana Reef (also known as Gaathugiri) was the first one to be discovered and remains very popular. Its shallow and deep zones are suited to divers of all levels, plus snorkelers. The topography is dramatic with cliffs, caves, vivid coral, and an abundance of diverse marine life. The reef is easily accessible by boat from Hulhumale Island, and many companies, such as Dive Club Maldives, conduct day trips. Nearby resort islands with superb house reefs for snorkeling and marine life are Kurumba and Bandos. Lankan Manta Point is another notable dive site in the vicinity, where Manta rays come to get their skin cleaned by small fish from May to November.
Prolific marine life also exists at Helengeli Thila, an underwater peak in the far northeast corner of North Male Atoll.
Also, North Male Atoll has fascinating shipwrecks that you don't have to go far to reach. The Victory wreck is a cargo ship that sunk in 1981. It lies on the southwestern side of Hulhule Airport Island between Male and Hulhumale. The extraordinary house reef at Angsana Ihuru, north of Baros (which also has an excellent house reef for snorkeling), has its own wreck too. Called the Rannamaari, it's an obsolete sand-dredging ship that was deliberately submerged there in 1999 to facilitate wreck diving.
South Male Atoll
Quieter South Male Atoll's challenging topography is exhilarating for divers. Sizeable marine life, including many types of sharks, thrives in the many caves and six main thilas (channels) there. The top dive spot is Cocoa Thila (also known as Cocoa Corner), a towering deep-water pinnacle with many ravines in the middle of the Kandooma channel. Guraidhoo Kandu South (sometimes called Guraidhoo Corner) is also famous for its mixed topography, while Vadhoo Caves houses an assembly of marine life that's sheltering from the strong current. Beginner divers can explore Kuda Giri shipwreck, between Maafushi and Dhigufinolhu islands.
Maafushi, a touristy local inhabited island, is an ideal base for scuba diving if you're traveling on a budget. The accommodations are inexpensive, and numerous dive centers conduct trips to the various sites. Guesthouses also organize snorkeling trips to places such as Maafushi Corner.
Alternatively, snorkelers will be impressed by the house reef at the value-for-money Fihalhohi Island Resort, on the last island in South Male Atoll. It runs for almost two thirds the way around the island and has attractive coral and marine life, sharks and rays included.
North Ari Atoll (Alifu Alifu Atoll)
Scenic and central Ari Atoll (also known as Alif or Alifu Atoll) lies west of Male. It's a dream destination for divers and snorkelers, as it's both accessible and has a vast number of sites packed with big pelagic species. The atoll's topography features thilas rather than long stretches of coral barrier reef.
The dive sites in North Ari Atoll tend to be more technically demanding than South Ari Atoll. Iconic Maaya Thila, northwest of Ukulhas Island, is the most celebrated spot there. It offers one of the world's best night dives and a marvelous opportunity to swim with sharks. The Fish Head area, in the southeastern corner of Mushimasmingili Thila, is another spectacular dive site with diverse marine life. Advanced deep divers can also see elusive Hammerhead Sharks at Hammerhead Point.
For snorkelers, the house reef at Kandolhu Island Resort is rated among the finest in the Maldives. It encircles this tiny island and is actually twice the island's size! Sandies Bathala Island has a fabulous house reef with several channels and coral as well.
South Ari Atoll (Alifu Dhaalu Atoll)
Is swimming with whale sharks—the largest fish in the sea—on your bucket list? South Ari Atoll is one of the best places in the world to do so! These unexpectedly peaceful creatures can be found year-round on the outer reef, particularly in the Maamigili Marine Protected Area at the southern tip of the atoll. However, they frequent Dhidhdhoo Beyru Feru more than any other site from May to November. Sun Island's house reef is ideal for spotting whale sharks because of its shallow plateau. Snorkelers can get in on the action there too.
Intact Kudhimaa wreck, which lies close to Machchafushi Island (home to Centara Grand Island Resort & Spa), is the pick of the shipwrecks in Ari Atoll. Manta rays are another draw for divers in South Ari Atoll. Madivaru Manta Point, on the south side of Rangali Kandu, is the place to see them getting cleaned by small feeder fish during the northeast monsoon from December to May.
The northern atolls include Baa, Lhaviyani, Noonu, and Raa. Hanifaru Bay in Baa Atoll is one of the main attractions in this region. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it's the largest known manta ray-feeding aggregation site in the world. Multitudes of mantas and whale sharks gather there to eat plankton during the southwestern monsoon from May to November. Diving is no longer allowed, so it's snorkeling only! Reethi Beach Resort and Vakkaru Resort have decent house reefs in Baa Atoll.
Noonu Atoll is famed for its resident grey reef sharks, and Orimas Thila is the top spot to swim with them there.
Scuba divers of all levels should head to Lhaviyani Atoll for a variety of 50-odd dive sites comprising wrecks, channels, and colorful reef-covered wall. The landmark Shipyard site has two shipwrecks, one with its bow protruding above the water. It's situated close to Kuredu Island Resort.
Far Northern Atolls
A 45-minute domestic flight to reach the far northern atolls will reward you with pristine reefs, gorgeous coral, submerged boulders, shallow and deep channels, shipwrecks, lots of marine life, and very few people. Haa Alifu Atoll and Haa Dhaalu Atoll have the primary diving and snorkeling sites in this isolated region. There's a smattering of guesthouses on local inhabited islands and luxury private resorts for all budgets.
Laamu, Meemu, Thaa and Vaavu atolls in the south also have many untouched locations for diving and snorkeling, with well-preserved coral reefs and exciting marine life. Most of the 66 islands in Thaa Atoll are undeveloped, with COMO Maalifushi being the only resort in this area. Enchanting Vaavu Atoll has the longest unbroken reef (Fotteyo Falhu) in the Maldives and is renowned for its incredible channel dives where you're likely to encounter masses of sharks. Alimathaa Night Dive and Miyaru Kandu are popular, and Fulidhoo Dive Center is close to these spots.
Far Southern Atolls
The far-flung deep south atolls, near the equator, remain mostly unmapped in terms of dive sites. They're one of the best-kept secrets in the Maldives! It's worth making your way to Addu, Huvadhoo (Gaafu), and Foahmulah atolls for thrilling shark action, including less-common species. Addu Atoll also has a Manta Point, where giant rays visit the cleaning station. It's the top dive site in the area. The British Loyalty Wreck is noteworthy there too. A torpedo sunk this oil tanker at the end of World War II, and it's now covered in coral.
Sprawling Huvadhoo (Gaafu) Atoll is a globally-reputed diving destination, with a central lagoon and more than 200 islands. Night snorkeling with whale sharks is possible. The Park Hyatt Hadahaa and Robinson Club have accessible and arresting house reefs in this region.