The Republic of Maldives is a sovereign archipelagic nation in the Indian Ocean, around 417 miles south-west of Sri Lanka. It is composed of 1,190 coral islets that form 26 natural atolls stretching over an area of 35,200 square miles, and around 200 islands are inhabited. There are channels of varying sizes that run between the atolls and are used for navigation and the Maldives is located in a strategic area that provides access to major international sea routes in the Indian Ocean. The islands of the Maldives are surrounded by a lagoon of crystal clear water. The reef structure protects the islands and provides a habitat for the most exclusive and impressive underwater life. The archipelago is unique in terms of its geography and topography, and its sits on top of a vast underwater mountain range.
While the Maldives is famous for its spectacular beaches and amazing coral reefs, the islands are threatened by climate change and the shrinking polar ice caps that will cause sea levels to rise as none of the islands of the archipelago are more than six feet above sea level. Already there are many islands that have disappeared due to environmental impacts and the Maldives are also particularly vulnerable to natural disasters as evidenced by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that left many islands devastated and caused them to be abandoned.
The people of the Maldives are known for their hospitality and friendliness towards visitors. The islanders share a common heritage, ancestry, history, language and religion and generally speaking live in harmony. Maldivians can trace their roots back to the Sinhala’s of Sri Lanka and the Marathi’s and Guajarati’s of India, as well as Arabs, Malays and North Africans. This diversity has created a rich culture and history in the archipelago. Currently Maldivians follow the Sunni School of Islam and religion plays an important role in society and many famous landmarks are influenced by Islamic architecture. Prior to 1153 AC, Maldivians practiced Buddhism and ancient paganism, and Buddhist ruins are found on several islands and antique Buddhist artefacts are on display in the National Museum in Malé.
Tourism is now the largest industry in the Maldives and since 2010 has been opened up to inhabited islands so Maldivians can open guest houses that provide a more affordable alternative to the luxury hotels and resorts that occupy around 80 islands in the archipelago. Travellers can also choose a liveaboard vessel that provides the opportunity to dive at a variety of sites, as well as an alternative mode of accommodation that often has luxury amenities like a spa.
Things to See and Do in the Maldives
There are estimates that over half of the visitors to the Maldives travel to enjoy the water sports, in particular snorkelling and diving, and with its marine location there are many more water based activities to enjoy, including surfing and dolphin watching. There are a range of other activities to enjoy, including island hopping and heritage attractions.
Snorkelling is an excellent and inexpensive introduction to the magnificent colours to be seen in the crystal clear waters of the Maldives. Many resort dive centres run courses to help beginners learn how to snorkel and instructors will advise on the best locations to observe the colourful underwater world. Beginners should practice in shallow lagoons first and will find it extraordinary just how many fascinating fish there are to be seen close to the beach in less than a metre of water. The reef edges are simply spectacular for fish and glowing corals, and resorts with a house reef close to the shore are particularly good for beginners. Many resorts and guest houses will organise trips by boat (a dhoni) to take snorkelers beyond the lagoon into deeper waters and reefs. Remember to help preserve the environment by not touching or taking corals and shells or feeding fish.
Scuba diving over the years has introduced thousands of visitors to the remarkable underwater world of the Maldives. Many resorts have dive centres that offer introductory lessons for beginners, to complete courses that include theory training where the diver will be certified to take part in scuba diving excursions. Those who are certified but have not dived in over a year can also take part in a refresher dive course. The most popular diving activity is escorted diving to reefs or wrecks, by boat from a resort of from a liveaboard vessel. When diving from a resort boat you are restricted to sites that are within a one to two hour radius, whereas diving while cruising on a Liveaboard vessel will allow greater variety. Night diving is also growing in popularity. At night the corals open up and Lionfish, Shrimp, Lobster and other nocturnal species leave their habitats in search of food. The Maldivian ocean comes alive at night and phosphorescent plankton lights up the seas with their blue bioluminescent effect. Night diving is a mesmerizing experience not to be missed.
Dolphin watching & Whale Submarine
There are said to be 21 species of whale and dolphin in Maldivian waters that are frequently sighted as they cross in the channels from one side of an atoll to another. Many resorts organise cruises to the sea-lanes used by dolphins regularly, and independent dolphin watching cruises by dhoni can also be arranged by your accommodation provider. A Whale submarine operates out of Malé, offering the opportunity to glimpse the underwater world without getting wet! The tour takes three hours and while you may not see Whales, on most dives, passengers will see common lionfish, schools of blue or yellow-striped snappers, yellow box fish and sometimes turtles. Depending on various factors, the submarine may dive at some historical sites such as a shipwreck or even at a shark feeding area. The Whale submarine is an unforgettable experience.
Glass Bottom Boat Trips
A great way to observe the underwater world of the Maldivian waters in the placid lagoon of a resort is through the transparent deck of a piloted glass bottom boat. Passengers sit on seats that run the length of the fibreglass boat and peer into a well in the centre of the boat that has a glass bottom and exposes everything the boat is cruising over. This is an amazing experience for those who do not dive or snorkel to glimpse the multi-coloured fish and gardens of coral and also to see the dramatic plummeting of a reef into the dark depths of the ocean.
The Maldives is great for surfing between April and October when three good swells come each month that last a couple of days. The waves are commonly two metres high and some of them have been interestingly named, like ‘Jail Break’, also known as Himafushi, and ‘Honkys’ and ‘Sultans’, also known as Thamburudhoo left and right. In the far south, the swells generated by a weather phenomenon created in the far south of the Indian Ocean known as the ‘roaring forties’ hits the islands of the Laamu and Gaafu Alifu/Gaafu Dhaalu Atolls, creating the best waves in the country. The best time to visit here is during the north-east monsoon, from January to March, when the swell is most consistent. Many resorts close to surfer hotspots cater to surfers with boats for hire and there are tour agents in Malé that organise surfing packages.
There are 1,190 islands in the Maldives to explore, and island hopping is a great way to learn how Maldivians really live, as well as discover uninhabited islands. Since 2010 when inhabited islands were opened up to tourism, there are more frequent ferry boats services between them and the capital Malé. The easiest way to island hop is on a resort tour, and often this will include guided tours of uninhabited islands with the opportunity to swim in deserted lagoons or have a picnic on a secluded beach. For islands further away from Malé, it may be easier to take a domestic flight to one of the 10 domestic airports and charter a boat to the island you want to visit. For groups that wish to visit several islands, chartering a liveaboard boat may be the best option, taking a few days to visit several islands, allowing you to explore islands that are off the usual tourist trail.
The majority of heritage sites are found in the capital Malé. Within walking distance of the landing jetty is the defunct minaret, the Munnaaru that is over 340 years old but stands amidst modern buildings and swirling traffic. There are several monuments in the capital, including ancient coral stone and timber mosques, with their magnificent carvings and grand designs. There is also the Hukuru Miskiiy, known as the Friday Mosque that dates back to 1656 and is surrounded by coral stone tombs of nobles. It features ancient latticework, and intricately carved panels with inscriptions in Arabic and the old Maldivian script, Dhives Akuru.
The National Museum of the Maldives in Malé provides an introduction to the history and identity of this island nation. There are exhibits from ancient Maldives, in the Pre-Islamic period that includes Buddhist relics, as well as copperplates from 12th century, known as “Loamaafaanu”, that details events from the early to late Islamic period. The museum also displays objects depicting the Maldivian life up to the contemporary period.
There are also interesting heritage sites on the outer islands, such as the Buddhist ‘stupas’ found on numerous atolls, including Alif Alif, Noonu, Alifu Dhaalu, Thaa and Laamu. The stupas are ruins of Buddhist temples of varying sizes, that have been buried and now form great mounds, and some have not yet been excavated while others have been discovered and preserved.
Another interesting heritage site is the home of Sultan Mohamed Thakurufaanu on
Utheemu, one of the islands of the Haa Alif Atoll. Thakurufaanu and his allies fought the war against the Portuguese invaders who occupied the Maldives from 1558 to 1573. His home, deemed a ‘palace’ of wood, is well preserved and travellers to the island can take guided tours to explore the captivating 500-year-old wooden interiors, that includes swing beds used to keep cool in the heat, and intricate wooden carvings.