I worked as a diving instructor in the Maldives for a few seasons, and I had the privilege of living there for a couple of years. Maldives is a phenomenal place for diving: the water is warm, the sea is flat, and the marine life is stunning.
The Maldives is one of those places where diving is “comfortable”. I mean, it may be challenging underwater because of strong currents and the dive site formations, but overall, it’s convenient, warm, and easy to dive.
Guides take excellent care of your equipment (from washing it to filling your tank on the boat), and you’ll be touring on old wooden dive boats called “Dhoni”where you can sunbathe before and after the dive while they move slowly around the reefs. Staffers provide drinks and some light snacks (usually fruit) on the boat, and they always pamper you like a king or queen.
Most dive operators target high-end clients and will take you out in small groups of no more than 4 people, all of whom more or less match your experience level.
As you can tell, the experience is very easy going: start time is not too early, you’re not out on an uncomfortable rubber boat, don’t have to keep a dry suit on, the seas are not choppy, and the water and weather are not cold. Really, it’s an easy life, just the way a vacation should be.
For these reasons and because underwater life in the Maldives is amazing, I love diving there.
I’ve spent four seasons in the Maldives for a total of about a year and a half diving the central part (Ari Atoll). I’ve had a chance to really explore all the dive sites in the area and discover almost every inch of the sea floor. Here are the 5 places I’ve enjoyed diving the most, where the sea life is unique and exciting every time and every dive there brings a new surprise.
1. Warren Thila
Warren Thila is a “secret” dive site: Every time I went out there, there were no other dive centers in the vicinity. This is hands down the best dive spot in Ari Atoll and one of the top sites I’ve been to worldwide.
At this spot, you’ll find a “thila” inside of a “kandu” (thilas are underwater island-type formations, and a kandu is a channel that forms a wall drift drive.This articleexplains in detail what thilas and kandus are in the Maldives. To be more precise, it is two thilas that meet inside a kandu and form a sort of ridge between them.
The ridge where these two thilas, “Emmas” (which means “Manta” in Dahvi), and “Warren”, meet, is “v”-shaped and creates a funnel where the current picks up and the water cycles inside and outside of the atoll.
Because of its shape, this dive site has a substantially stronger current then other sites in the area, and the dive is extremely beautiful for both the incoming and outgoing currents.
For outgoing currents, I love jumping in at the end of Warren, getting pulled around its corner, reaching the ridge between the two thilas, and simply waiting there until it’s time to move to shallow areas. You’ll want to hold onto some rocks at around 30 meters when you reach the ridge to avoid getting pulled out of the ridge.
By the way, if you can dive with nitrox be sure to do so to get some more time at that depth, because that is where the magic happens. From the deep blue, 60 to 100 grey reef sharks might approach and check you out. Along with the sharks, you’ll see mantas, eagle rays, mobula rays, barracudas, and turtles.
On the sandy bottom, you’ll likely find one or two sting rays resting. As soon as your computer starts beeping and it’s time to head back up, let go of the rock and drift toward Emmas. Hanging at around 15 meters, you can usually see mantas and eagle rays flying above you. When your air is low, simply let go again and make your way to the safety stop outside this Indian Ocean atoll.
As mentioned previously, this dive is also quite nice with the incoming current. In that case, I usually skip Emmas, jump in the blue between the two thilas, dive straight down to 30 meters at the ridge to catch the sharks, and when the computer tells me it’s time to go, I get pulled toward the external part of Warren. There, you’ll find groups of eagle and mobula rays, huge tunas, and, on the top of the thila (which is around a depth of 16 meters), large schools of big eye trevally.
2. Thudufushi Thila
My second-favorite spot is Thudufushi Thila, which is situated in the channel right next to Thudufushi Island. This is another beautiful location to dive during both incoming and outgoing currents.
With the incoming current, start outside the atoll and drop to 30 meters where you’ll enter the channel. This is a great place to spot huge tunas, napoleon fish, some grey reef sharks, and other big pelagic fish. I like to stay deep on this dive, as the wall is made of overhangs with colorful soft coral. There are also big stones to explore on the bottom (around 30 to 35 meters deep), and schools of jack fish welcome you inside the atoll.
Outgoing currents make for great sightings of mantas. I usually stay a bit shallower at the beginning (around 20 to 25 meters) with the overhangs and reef fish. In the middle of the dive, I suggest moving to shallower waters (around 16 to 18 meters), where two beautiful canyons are located. There, you can start to look over the thila, where you are likely to see huge manta rays eating and cleaning. The top of the thila also hosts sting rays and feeding turtles.
3. Panettone Reef
Panettone is situated near Thudufushi Thila. The name comes from a tiny white sand bank without palm trees that rises above the water and looks like a Panettone, a traditional Italian sweet bread.
The dive site is a kandu, so a wall extends from the surface to the end of the atoll.
This is another great dive for both incoming and outgoing currents. The external part of Panettone, which is at a depth of around 12 to 16 meters, is a famous manta site, and you’re very likely to see mantas feeding outside the atoll during an outgoing current.
During incoming currents, on the ridge of the atoll, you’ll see what I call “shark city” and dozens of big grey reef sharks. Then, the internal part of the dive is full of beautiful overhangs, and huge stones create a massive canyon between the overhangs. Stones can be found even deeper (around 30–35 meters) with more overhangs and caves to explore. During the dive, you can spot big napoleon fish, white tip sharks, barracudas, eagle rays, manta rays, and turtles.
However, the current in Panettone can be quite strong, and unfortunately, the dive site is not parallel to the current. In particular, with the outgoing current, there is a part in the middle of the dive after the canyon where you have to swim perpendicular to the current in the dive to avoid getting pushed out to sea. Then, because it is located in the middle of the channel, it can be quite challenging to get back to the wall in a strong current, so if you’re not diving with an experienced group of divers, you risk drifting out into the middle of nowhere and having to cancel the dive.
4. Himandhoo Thila
On the same side of the atoll as Panettone Reef and just a bit north is the fisherman island of Himandhoo and another beautiful thila inside a kandu.
Diving Himandhoo Thila is best when the current is outgoing. Start in the covered area at the end of the thila, then progress to the outside wall and drop down to 30 meters where you’ll find five or six massive rocks covered with colorful soft coral. Snappers and angel fish swim through these rocks, and this is where you’ll want to spent 10–15 minutes zig-zagging around the rocks and spotting small marine life like leaf fish. Always keep an eye on the open water, because that’s where the big pelagic fish pass by to enter or exit the atoll.
Once you return to the wall, explore the overhangs briefly and then slip into the canyon. The entrance here is hidden, and it almost looks like you’re at the entrance to an abandoned castle. Then, start your ascent to around 16 meters. At this point, you’ve reached the end of the thila but not the end of the dive.
In this area, you’ll find small overhangs that protect you from the current while you sit perpendicular to it. Keep your eyes out over the thila, because that’s another great spot to see mantas eating over the thila or swimming under it and in front of the dropoff. Turtles and whitetip sharks can also be seen swimming around the dropoff.
5. Shark Thila
Shark Thila is the only thila in this list inside the atoll and not between the kandu. Here, the direction of the current doesn’t matter, but there needs to be some current to see the spectacles of this dive.
Situated in the middle of Ari Atoll, this rectangular thila emerges from a 40–45 meter sandy bottom. The top of the thila is about 6–8 meters deep, and there are overhangs all around that start from the top and drop to 18–20 meters. This thila is fairly small, and you can circle it once or maybe even twice if the current is soft.
We always drop into the thila and move in the direction of the current for an easy dive. Hit the thila on its exposed side and wait on the bottom for the first 10–15 minutes. There, you’ll find hundreds of bluetooth triggerfish, fusiliers, and jackfish swimming around, blocking the sunlight, and putting on a show of survival as they avoid the massive trevally and tuna in their feeding frenzy.
Big grey reef sharks and some silvertip sharks also show up to enjoy the meal, so you can really see the food chain in action. If you go deeper, you may spot some guitar sharks or massive sting rays swimming and resting along the sandy bottom.
The entire thila is covered by a type of algae that turtles love, so you will likely see two to three of them in the area. Stick your hand in a hole and you’ll risk getting bitten by a moray eel, and a couple of napoleon fish also call this place home.
This is the dive spot where I’ve also seen the most dolphins, and it’s a great place to see barracudas and take great picture of the friendly batfish.
Circling the thila is fun, but holding onto the rock and seeing the predator and prey show is even more enjoyable. It’s a very spiritual experience, and I definitely recommend it.
6. Donkolo Thila (bonus)
I wanted to briefly mention Donkolo as one of the past top sites that can no longer be dived.
Donkolo used to be the best manta point in the atoll. It’s a 20-meter sandy dive site where you can grab onto one of the few rocks on the bottom and spend 60 minutes just sitting there. Then, 20 to 30 mantas swim so close they’ll touch you on the head with their wings. This was a dream manta cleaning station, where you had to do nothing but relax and enjoy the show. Mantas like to play with the bubbles from your regulator, so they would swim so close to you that you can’t see the sky. The experience was breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the mantas have been completely gone for the past 2 years, and it’s quite unfortunate how it went from being one of the best sites in the area to the worst. It’s difficult to say whether there were current changes that moved them out of the area or they were fished to extinction, but it’s not a good spot anymore.
There are many more fantastic dive sites like Maalhos Thila, Maaya Thila, and a couple of other spots with sharks inside the Atoll. But after exploring the entire Ari Atoll back to front, the 5 I listed here are a must-see for any diver visiting the Maldives.