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The Best of Maldives Islands Diving?

Ari Atoll

After North Male, Ari (also known as Alifu) is considered the atoll most open to tourism and this is thanks in no small part to the high quality of the diving. Many divers consider its dive sites to be the best in the Maldives and it features prominently on the itineraries of many Maldivian liveaboards.

The Ari Atoll Dive Sites: Whale shark - photo courtesy of ScubaZoo

Topographically, Ari Atoll diving differs from many others in the Maldives since it does not feature many long stretches of barrier reef. Instead, there are a lot of thilas here where submerged pinnacles both inside and outside the atoll lagoons act as sites of marine aggregation, making for wonderful diving both in and around the pinnacles and in the kandus (channels).

Diving at Ari Atoll is not famous for its coral splendour. In fact, its thilas, giris and kandus can be a little dull by comparison to many other Asian dive destinations due to the strong currents in this region. There are some exceptions to this generality but divers do not visit here to gaze at pretty corals. Rather, visitors choose the destination for the regular encounters with big marine life.

Hammerhead sharks, manta rays and other pelagic fish are more commonly encountered around Ari Atoll and even the mighty whale shark regularly puts in appearances, especially in its marine protected areas. Although there are spots elsewhere for sharks and mantas the most reliable sites for this ever popular passing trade are located here.

Maamigili's plankton rich waters at the southern tip of the atoll allow scuba divers and snorkellers the opportunity to get up close with a whale shark, or you can snorkel with them too at Gangehi Maavaru in the north west.

There are several places for frequent manta sightings when diving in the Maldives, but Ari Atoll leads the way with several cleaning station hot spots: Donkalo Thila in west Ari, Rangali Madivaru in the south west, and Kudarah Thila in the south east.

And for schooling hammerhead sharks, Hammerhead Point at Rasdhoo Atoll, north east of Ari, is the dive site often visited by Maldives liveaboards. Its proximity to deep waters lends the location the best chances of getting close to these magnificent creatures.

If not the premiere dive site in the Maldives, then Ari's Maaya Thila is one of the best. This pinnacle has a tumultuous assortment of sea life, with an amazing variety and volume of creatures. Brightly coloured nudibranchs vie for your attention with giant frogfish. Turtles can be seen happily munching on the reef, and the elusive guitar shark can be spotted by the alert diver.

Another Ari Atoll pinnacle, Fish Head is a favourite for packs of grey reef sharks that buzz past in search of food. Neverending trains of fusiliers and batfish often shoot past on the ocean highway, to further destinations at the atoll.

Dive Site Descriptions

Broken Rock - What seems an unusual name for a dive site becomes eminently clear when you first lay eyes on this reef in Ari Atoll. Normally you can expect to be dropped a short distance off the reef and you will make your way often aided by current to the large structure that features a large diagonal split down its middle, hence 'Broken Rock'. Show more

The highest point of the reef is at around 12 metres and it drops to its base at 25 metres, where the early part of your dive is likely to be. Here it is possible to dive by going around the entirety of the rock, which can be done in slack currents. However most dive guides will prefer to lead you through the canyon itself.

Obviously good buoyancy control and maintaining a safe distance from sessile life forms is the key to exploring such an area of delicate growth in conditions of current. You can enjoy an array of soft corals, gorgonian fans and sponges throughout the canyon and its smaller cracks and crevices. Marine life often spotted here includes Napoleon wrasse, turtles and moray eels. To the east of the thila is another rock formation which plateaus at around 17 metres and is worthy of investigation due to the presence of schools of blue-lined snapper and barracuda. The very fortunate may be lucky enough to spot a whale shark or two here in May and November.

Since the top of the reef is around 12 metres there are no shallows in which to do your safety stop, so in the absence of a line you will likely hang in the blue and possibly drift off the site, be sure to have your safety sausage for this dive.

Fesdu Wreck - This 30 metre long fishing trawler lies on a sandy bottom (hurrah!) in north-central Ari Atoll, having been sunk to form an artificial reef, and after a slow start it has, over the past decade or so, become fully colonized with marine life. The bow of the wreck points north and at 30 metres is slightly deeper than the stern which sits at 27 metres deep. Show more

The surface of the wreck has become encrusted with sponges as well as hard and soft corals, tubastrea and feather-stars. Look out for the variety of nudibranchs to be found here, feeding on the sponges.

Within the wreck you can spot a vast array of life including huge, dense clouds of glassfish in the wheelhouse as well as anthias, butterflyfish and slow-moving lionfish. There are also more substantial residents in what is quite a large wreck so look out for moray eels, red-mouthed groupers and blue-fin trevally.

Most dive guides will recommend against penetration since the passages are very narrow and there are a limited number of exits. Most dives consist of a full circle of the wreck and an exploration of its shallowest sections before then moving over in a westerly direction to a nearby thila. You will probably explore around this pinnacle until you arrive at its shallowest section at around 12 metres, before then ascending to your safety stop.

Fish Head (also known as Shark Point or Mushimasmingili Thila) - It is unsurprising that people generally use the more bit-size English version of this dive site's name rather than the Maldivian mouthful. Due to its marine protected area status, this site often appears in the top 10 lists of Maldives dive spots, given that is one of the best places for seeing sharks. It's also one of those sites when you are grateful you are on-the-spot on a liveaboard rather than having to suffer a long boat journey to get there since it is located in the mid-eastern section of Ari Atoll. Show more

The reef is in fact a small pinnacle which reaches from around 10 metres at its shallowest point down to a depth of 35 metres, featuring a series of caves and overhangs in between where you can see thousands of blue-line snappers against a backdrop of black coral bushes and large gorgonians.

Grey reef sharks are the main players in this parade of life - they were fed here in the past. They often gather in large numbers (estimated at 16 residents) and the sight of so many of them, sometimes darting around at speed can be thrilling, if not a little unsettling!

In addition to the sharks you are likely to sight humphead wrasse, schools of batfish and vast schools of fusiliers, or mushimasmingili. This is where the current can be strong and might necessitate staying in the lee. Spotted eagle rays are also common visitors to Fish Head amongst other pelagics.

Since the current can be unpredictable here your diving guide might suggest a descent/ascent line, since open water safety stops can see you finally break the surface some distance from the boat.

Five Rocks - This site consists of 5 rocky outcrops lying roughly in a circle and featuring a series of fissures, caverns and overhangs. The dive begins by dropping down onto the 5 rocks to the floor at about 25 to 30m. In the channels between the rocks and dropping down the reef slope, there are a lot of pink gorgonian fans. The reef also features a lot of tubastrea coral, sponges, anemones and encrusting algae, all adding up to a very colourful scene. Show more

You should pay close attention to the holes and cracks in the reef where you could spot mantis shrimp scurrying around or honeycomb moray eels with their unmistakable camouflage-style skin wafting water over their gills by opening and closing their jaws. Away from the reef you can see the occasional shark, grunts, trevallies and Napolean wrasse.

This is a fun diving site with a lot of opportunities for swimthroughs, particularly beneath low overhangs. Excellent buoyancy is needed in the narrower passages, to avoid the gorgonians growing from the floor, and not to come too close to the ceiling. There are lots of little orange damsels in these caverns swimming upside down, orientating themselves to the ceiling rather than the floor.

After fully exploring the 5 rocks, you will proceed to then fin across a channel about 20m wide. Here the rocky substrate rises to about 7m so it is a good place for the later part of the dive. There is an incredible array of red-toothed triggerfish at this site. Possibly more than anywhere else in the Maldives, the sea is black with them. Also looks out for an enormous school of bannerfish that seem to often be here in the shallows. Marvelling at them is a nice way to run down your few minutes of safety stop.

Hafusa Thila - Another great dive site that northern Ari Atoll has to offer. It's a classic Maldivian thila (pinnacle) with a very small and rounded top at around 10-15m, getting wider and wider as you get deeper (like a volcano shape). Show more

The sandy bottom is at around 30-35m. It's usually the first dive of the day and the site needs current in order to show its best as it's a resting place for white-tip reef sharks (especially on the sand). If the current is too strong, it's better to start the dive from the top of the pinnacle (it's also possible to use a reef hook) as otherwise it's very easy to go with the current and lose sight of the pinnacle (since it is so small).

Once at the top, the action in the blue won't bore any scuba diver: there are grey reef sharks feeding on reef fish, octopi and crustaceans. The sharks usually gather together in schools during the day so it's not uncommon to see a few of them swimming together. They seem to be enemies with white tip reef sharks and this is probably the reason why the white tips prefer the sandy bottom (at least at daytime).

Eagle rays are also common on this area, swimming gracefully in front of divers, being cleaned by cleaner wrasse. Be aware of scorpionfish, lionfish (stonefish have also been spotted, but they are rare) while staring at the blue, especially if you are hooked to the reef as if they are below you, your dive could take a nasty turn.

Surronded by schools of travallies, blue fish and batfish, you can fin your way down the pinnacle, using the pinnacle as a shelter from the current (if any is present), as it's possible to encounter giant morays, groupers and even nudibranchs in between the corals.

Keep in mind your no-deco time and your air consumption as it's a deep dive that requires a good plan and concentration from alert divers. At the end of the dive, the current might require you to fin away from the pinnacle, and therefore a safety stop in blue water is necessary. Make sure to use a marker buoy before you surface as there might be few boats in the area waiting for other divers to ascend.

Halaveli Wreck - Since the sinking in 1990 of this 33 metre long freighter, the Halaveli Wreck has grown in popularity into what is now one of the Maldives' premier dive sites. Show more

The wreck sits at a depth of 28 metres about 50 metres away from the main reef. You will most likely drop down the line from the marker buoy attached to the wreck and sink down to the main deck which lies at around 20 metres deep.

In and around the wreck you can see red-mouthed groupers, batfish, moray eels and lionfish who seem to just love the sheltered conditions that wrecks provide.

The wreck itself is well covered in a colourful array of soft corals but it is best known for the numerous blotched fantail rays that call it home. Some of these rays are big boys (their size no doubt helped by the feedings they have had by the local Ari Atoll dive operators). Because they are present in such numbers you should be careful not to do anything that could appear to be threatening to them. Remember they have a dangerous spine in their tails. Crikey!

This site is best visited in the afternoon after lunch when the stingrays are most likely to be there and active. Night dives are also great fun here providing contrast between investigating the nooks and crannies of the wreck to the arresting sight of a huge ray filling your torch beam.

Hammerhead Point, Rasdhoo Atoll (also known as Madivaru Corner) - This site is in fact located at Rasdhoo Atoll, a short hop north east of Ari, and is often dived by liveaboards travelling between South Male and Ari atolls. However it is certainly more than a stop-gap dive site and is in fact often considered to be the highlight of many Maldives liveaboard trips. Show more

You will probably find yourself kitting up for this dive in the early morning but it is one that will certainly clear the sleep from your eyes. The reason is in the name, since it is often referred to as Hammerhead Point. Scalloped weaving heads often appear in the morning on the channel's outside corner just offshore from the island of Madivaru, and the schools can be very impressive in size.

The reef features a ridge that rises up to about 10 metres below which you can explore a number of overhangs and caverns between a depth of 25 and 30 metres. Keep an eye out for sightings of dog-toothed tuna, dolphinfish, schools of black snapper, and even an occasional sailfish.

There may be 1 or 2 sections on this dive where you have to work a little against the current but the rewards can be great. After witnessing the parade of hammerhead sharks as well as other meaty pelagic fish, not to mention the smaller activity on the reef wall, you will return the boat full of excitement and looking forward to the excited breakfast chatter.

Kudarah Thila - Situated within an atoll lagoon where you would normally expect shelter, this pinnacle sits directly in line with a channel opening to the ocean, and is therefore swept by incoming currents. Kudarah Thila is another marine protected area where the numbers of fish are testimony to the effectiveness of these programmes in the Maldives. Show more

This is in fact a relatively small reef but offers plenty of variety both in terms of fish and topography. Starting at about 12 metres and dropping to 40 metres, the pinnacle features 4 coral heads that enjoy fabulous coral growth, particularly in the shallower sections. You can see large gorgonians and black coral bushes in cavern walls and ceilings. There are soft corals of pink and orange, and yellow daisy corals and gorgonians proliferate in the overhangs.

Your dive guide may wish to swim around the entire perimeter of the pinnacle which is around 100 metres in diameter. However it is more likely that you will cover less than the full pinnacle, particularly if there is current present. Then you will likely spend more time on the lee-side.

In the gaps between the 4 thrusting heads you can check out the enormous numbers of blue-lined snappers that tend to linger here and you can expect to see large numbers of sweetlips, batfish and groupers as well as much smaller specimens in and around the wall like longnose dartfish and decorated gobies. Off the walls, you will often encounter whitetips, grey reef sharks, turtles and Maori wrasse, joining in the lengthy role call at one of the Maldives more spectacular sites.

Maamigili Beru - This is a long drift dive along a thin fringing reef that extends a long way connecting 'Holiday Island' to 'Sun Island' along the southern edge of Ari Atoll. The reef is a gentle slope down to a sandy floor at 30m. When the current is incoming the reef will be on your right shoulder; if outgoing, on your left shoulder. Either way this is one of those dives where you can cover a long distance from entry to exit with minimal finning required. Show more

The reef itself is not incredible. There can be a few things on the reef slope to keep you entertained such as moray eels, fire dartfish and anemones and the occasional white tip reef shark. Schools of blue-stripe snapper can be seen facing the current, while Napolean wrasses, turtles and even the occasional manta ray can be seen here.

However, you will probably have only one thing on your mind during this dive. At the surface you were likely to have been on the hunt, together with other liveaboard boats, looking out for any tell-tale signs that there is a whale shark in the area. It is a popular area for this headlining creature and it is common to see or be part of a big group of people snorkelling with a whale shark for as long as it stays near the surface. If you are in luck you might witness one when on scuba during your drift dive, leaving you will visual images to last long in the memory.

Maaya Thila - This site is regularly singled out as the Number One site in the Maldives and features many of the qualities that typify Ari Atoll diving, most notably an inspiring profusion of life. Show more

You will most likely begin this dive dropping down a line from a reef-top mooring, to which you will return if the conditions allow. In little or no current Maaya Thila can be suitable for all diver levels, but the current is very changeable so the experience and discretion of the crew are important.

The pinnacle starts at about 6 metres, sloping gently to 12 metres and then plummeting down to below 30 metres. All around the shallow section keep an eye out for nudibranchs, flatworms, frogfish and honeycomb and zebra morays, as well as the occasional octopus eyeballing you with suspicion.

Dropping down further you can enjoy the caves and overhangs and even a swim-through, while marvelling at the vibrant colours of the soft coral coverage and the tubastrea corals. Off the reef you can view at your leisure an almost endless list of marine life. Expect a few turtles, schools of teira batfish, blue-faced angelfish, Vleming's unicornfish, soldierfish, and clown triggerfish. Marvel at the sometimes vast numbers of sharks here; whitetips and grey reef sharks often numbering into the teens and sometimes beyond.

If you are fortunate a flying formation of spotted eagle rays will also swoop by and if very fortunate you could even spot a guitar shark in the deeper sections of the reef. The parade of beautiful sea creatures may well leave you slack-jawed with awe.

Depending on conditions you will either make your way back up to the line in calm waters or, if there is a sufficient current to make the line inaccessible, you may, after sheltering from it where possible end your dive with a gentle drift.

If there is a slack current, Maaya Thila is also a superb location for a night dive. After sunset, vast numbers of fusiliers arrive onto the pinnacle crown to feed. This awakens the hunger lust of the whitetip reef sharks that constantly buzz the reef in search of them. Bigeye trevally also stalk the reef and ignite the scene with lightening bursts of speed at their prey. Black-blotched sting rays and moray eels are also often seen on the prowl to partake in this most absorbing fest.

Omadhoo South - Another one of the several dive sites in southern Ari Atoll, the main features are the west and east pinnacles. The latter is slightly wider and it's where the dive begins, with a negative entry that brings scuba divers down to the sandy bottom at a depth of 30-35m. Show more

Then the current will decide the direction you take going around the pinnacle. Marble rays rest on the sandy bottom, while white tip reef sharks swim around, seemingly unaware of divers. The current helps the sightings as it brings the small fish closer to the hard coral in search of repair, attracting the hunters, such as school of barracudas, giant trevallies, tunas.

The current then gets stronger when you cross between the 2 pinnacles into a channel that is only interrupted by the presence of 2 other small pinnacles. It's only possible to explore the top of these as the depth here is around 20m and you are likely already into the dive for a while by now.

Drifting with the current is a good way to save some energy and air, but you risk missing the unexplored eastern pinnacle, which is the best part to end the dive. Divers can slowly ascend to its top at 6m and do their safety stop while enjoying the beauty of the corals that have been formed over hundreds of years, now home to anthias, butterflyfish and snappers, but also green turtles that seem to prefer staying in shallow water, away from stronger currents and close to the surface where they can breath.

Panettone Thila - Also known as 'Kalhahandi Huraa' and one of 2 'Manta Point's in the area, this site on the east coast of Ari Atoll is a gently sloping reef which is a great place to see manta rays, particularly during February and March. However, there is more to Panettone than manta rays. Show more

In the flatter sections of the reef there are some channels which cut into the reef approximately a metre or so below the level of the reef and about 2 or 3 metres wide. If you have good control you can use these channels to shield yourself from the current. In doing so you will be sinking into a trough where many fish are also seeking a little respite in the shelter. This means you will have a wall of fluttering damsels to the left and right of you during the dive while blue-dash fusiliers and countless dottybacks, fairy basslets and other small brightly coloured reef fish fill your field of vision.

Further along the reef is where the mantas are most often sighted. Looking into the blue, you will be entertained by schools of rainbow runners, the occasional solitary dog-toothed tuna, big-nosed unicornfish, starry rabbitfish and midnight snapper. The undisputed stars of the show will be the large graceful mantas that are often see to swoop this way and that, sometimes barrelling to the delight of the watching divers.

Rahdigaa Thila - Topped by an expanse of table coral in the shallows at around 5 to 7m, this is a beautiful thila. Its walls feature many caverns and overhangs. The surfaces are positively bedecked with soft corals, sponges and encrusting algae all over the walls. Like an artist's tableau, the colour is riotous and stunning - pink, orange, white, blue, yellow, green and lilac. Show more

Watch for further splashes of bright colour in the form of nudibranchs and flatworms, crawling over this living gem. Scorpionfish camouflage well in this environment so be careful where you put your fingers. In the blue look out for fusiliers, big nosed unicornfish, trevally and maybe a shark or two resting on sandy bottom at 30m. Bird wrasses, fire dartfish and burrowed blennies will come into view as you cruise your way over the walls.

You will come across caverns and overhangs that you can glide into to see the marine life sheltering in the calm waters, such as shadowfin soldierfish and black pyramid butterflyfish. You will end the dive in an impressive field of table corals atop what is one of the most beautiful thilas in the Maldives.

Ukulhas Thila - On Ari Atoll's northern rim, this pinnacle faces the open ocean and is considered possibly the best site for manta ray encounters. However the dive site is worthy of a visit all year round, and not only during the time when mantas are most likely to be around (December to March). Show more

Your dive will most likely start up-current where you can drop in and descend, allowing yourself to be transported to the pinnacle by the prevailing current. The pinnacle itself is only around 30 metres in width but is home to moray eels, large schools of snappers and a vast ball of glassfish in the overhangs where there is no shortage of soft coral decoration.

This pinnacle is in fact set quite deep with a tip at around 16 metres, with steep, deep drop-offs, so keep an eye on your depth when checking out the white-tips, grey reef sharks and tuna that lurk in the deeper sections.

However, it is in the middle depth range where the main action takes place. Hovering above the porite corals, you can check out the goings on at the manta cleaning station where one after another of the sleek graceful mantas rest almost motionless in the water column, ridding themselves of parasites - a beautiful scene.

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How to Dive Ari Atoll

Dive Ari Atoll, Maldives: Schooling hammerhead sharks - photo courtesy of ScubaZoo

Being over 40 kilometres long, Ari is the second largest atoll in the Maldives. Due to the long distances between the best sites, a liveaboard cruise is really the only way to see more than just a few of these excellent sites. The dive sites for big marine life are scattered across the atoll and, with 105 small islands, there are many great spots throughout.

Liveaboards in the Maldives become fully booked well in advance so we recommend that, to avoid disappointment or having to settle for a sub-standard liveaboard, you plan to book your trip at least 6 months prior to your proposed dates of travel.

Diving Season

Diving in Ari Atoll is all the year round but the recommended months for confirmed liveaboard departures are from December to May, when the seas are at their calmest. If you wish to come outside of these months then the seas are unpredictable and it may be more difficult to find a departure date that suits you. Water temperatures are fairly constant at 26-29°C and visibility is consistent at 15-30m, but varies from site to site depending on which side of the atoll you dive in which season.

Whale sharks, hammerheads and other sharks are present throughout the year. Mantas are here in large numbers year round too but the peak time to see them is August to November.

Reef Summary

Good for: Large animals, underwater photography and wrecks
Not so good for: Small animals, non-diving activities
Depth: 5 - >40m
Visibility: 10 - 30m
Currents: Can be strong
Surface conditions: Usually calm but can be choppy in southwest monsoon
Water temperature: 26 - 29°C
Experience level: Intermediate - advanced
Number of dive sites: >50
Distance: ~35 km south west of North Male
Access: Maldives liveaboard
Recommended length of stay: 1 - 2 weeks

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