once were great mountains, now are small
This describes the Republic of Maldives, a haven
for divers half a world away, with more than a
thousand coral reefs and white-sand beaches on
hundreds of uninhabited islands.
The clear tropical waters and abundance of
marine life around the atolls of the Maldives make
an attractive setting for those who want to get away
from it all on a dive holiday.
Many millions of years ago most of the Earth’s
landmass was composed of the “supercontinent” of
Pangaea, which during the Jurassic period broke into
two large landmasses, Laurasia and Gondwanaland. To
the north, Laurasia contained North America, Europe
and Asia. To the south, Gondwanaland included South
America, Antarctica, Australia, India and Africa.
These two chunks of land began breaking up even
further about 130 million years ago during the
Cretaceous period into the smaller portions that
comprise our existing continents. The “continental
drift” theory (plate tectonics) suggests that
portions of the Earth’s crust (continental plates)
float on top of a liquid core and are ever so slowly
The Maldives were created from a geological
“traffic accident” between India and Africa.
India floated up and banged into Asia, resulting
in their current alignment. Africa’s plate followed
too closely and didn’t stop in time after the
India/Asia pileup. This ramming of submerged plates
caused a major “fender bender” that resulted in the
formation of a long mountain range of volcanoes
(1,250 miles [2,000 km]) rising out of the Indian
Ocean. It is called the Laccadives-Chagos Ridge.
After a long period, the cones of volcanoes
collapsed back into themselves, leaving a ring of
small islands, each called an “atoll.” This is the
only English language word that has been derived
from the Maldivian language of “Dhivehi” from the
The Maldives is made up of 26 of these atolls,
stretching 550 miles (880 km) north and south of the
equator. These atolls contain 1,196 small, flat
islands with no isle covering more than five square
miles (13 sq km) or averaging a height greater than
six feet (1.8 m) above sea level.
A Wealth of Cowries
is unclear as to the origins of the first settlers
of the Maldives. Legend states a mysterious group of
explorers called the “Redin” were the first to visit
the islands, but the first immigrants appear to have
been of Hindu and Buddhist heritages from southern
India, 275 miles (440 km) to the north, and from Sri
Lanka, 440 miles (704 km) to the northeast. Ruins of
Buddhist buildings from the second or third century
B.C. have been found on the islands, including a
stone head of Buddha on Thoddoo Island.
Local folklore says a Sinhalese prince, named
KoiMale, became the first sultan of the islands
after being shipwrecked there with his wife, the
daughter of the king of Sri Lanka. Archaeologist
Thor Heyerdahl noted that some figures discovered in
the Maldives resemble items unearthed on Easter
Island in the Pacific Ocean.
The Maldives later became an important stopover
for sailors along the trade route from Rome to
China. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy noted the
existence of “1,378 little islands west of Taproban
(Sri Lanka). Records from the Ming dynasty of China
tell about the submerged mountain chain called Liu
Shan and noted the customs of the people who lived
there. The ninth century Persian merchant/explorer
Suliman wrote, “in the Sea of Herkend there lies
1,900 islands and the ruler is a woman and their
wealth consists of cowries.”
Cowry shells (cyprea moneta) were an important
form of currency in many areas of the Middle East
and in regions of India. The Maldives was the “mint”
of the region where most of the “money” shells were
gathered. The islands were also famous for producing
the Maldive Fish. A delicacy in India, this dried
and smoked tuna was an important source of food for
long sea voyages because the ebony-colored filet
remained edible for a long time.
Arab Muslim traders began calling on the
Maldives in the eighth century and proved to have
the most influence on its people. By 1153, Islam was
adopted in the islands and it was ruled by sultans
for about 800 years until 1968 when it became a
The Portuguese military captured the Maldives in
1558 and ruled it for 15 years. A mixture of early
guerilla tactics by the islanders and logistical
supply problems by the occupational force helped the
Maldivians overthrow the Portuguese in 1573. The
islands later became a protectorate of the Dutch
when they ruled Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The British then
took over the region from the Dutch and the Maldives
became a British protectorate from 1796 to 1965. The
Maldivian Independence Day is July 26.
The people of the Maldives are a mix of ethnic
backgrounds but mainly all Sunni Muslims. Many come
from Indian and Sri Lankan heritage, but there are
many also descended from Arab traders and black
slaves imported from Africa. The main language is
Dhivehi, which is a dialect of Sinhala but with a
script resembling Arabic. English is widely spoken
along with Arabic and Hindi.
Unlike other Muslim countries, women play a
prominent function in the Maldivian society with
many in civic and business leadership roles. Women
often retain their maiden names and can obtain and
keep personal property and business holdings when
married. This freedom of women in an Islamic state
has been a tradition throughout Maldivian history.
Only a little more than 200 of the islands are
populated with villages. Nearly a third of the
nation’s population lives on Male, an island that
measures only 1 mile by 1.5 miles (1.6 km by 2.4 km)
in size. Yet already more than 80 islands are home
to resorts, which bring in about 300,000 tourists a
year — roughly equal to the entire population of the
Maldives. Tourism is vital to the economy of the
Rings of Coral
All of the islands of the Maldives are circled
by protective coral reefs that defend the white
sandy shores against wave erosion. Its reef system
is the largest in the Indian Ocean with an area
exceeding 2,174 square miles (5,652 sq km).
Because of its proximity to the equator, water
around the Maldives generally stays between a
comfortable 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit (27 and 30
degrees Celsius). A light wet suit is recommended.
In these tropical waters you can find about 187
types of coral and nearly 1,100 species of marine
life. Underwater visibility ranges from 60 to 100
feet (18 to 33 m).
Plankton blooming begins in May at the start of
the rainy season, which lasts through August. This
reduces visibility, especially on the eastern sides
of the atolls, but the trade-off is worth it — whale
sharks and manta rays can be found here in large
numbers, attracted by the plankton.
We toured the northern atolls on the Manthiri
live-aboard after the rainy season and saw several
remaining manta rays, but missed the whale sharks.
Other dive boats offering excursions through the
atolls include the MV Nasruali and the Isis motor
cruiser. Many resorts have dive centers that offer
land-based dive trips.
Sloping reefs and walls are adorned with
colorful soft corals. Every nook and cranny hosts
inhabitants such as lobsters, transparent “ghost”
cleaner shrimp, or brightly marked moray eels.
Anemonefish dart in and out of large anemones,
immune to their stinging tentacles. Fish life
abounds here, including majestic Moorish idols,
stately emperor butterflyfish, and a variety of
parrots, triggers and trumpets.
Even seemingly barren sand flats will reveal
small creatures such as nudibranchs, mantis shrimp
and our favorite, the ghost pipefish, an elongated
cousin of the sea horse.
The “big stuff” — including a variety of sharks
and rays, moves in the swift currents atop seamounts
and in channels carved between the islands. Here,
thousands of schooling fusiliers, silversides or
jacks may pass in front of you on a single dive.
There are a few shipwrecks to explore throughout
the atolls. We investigated a large Japanese fishing
trawler, called the Varu, which had sunk off the
coast of the capital island of Male. This unusual
wreck was sitting nearly vertical, with its stern
resting at about 100 feet (30 m) and its bow
sticking about 33 feet (10 m) above the water’s
surface. A nice array of soft corals grew on the
belly of the ship, while schools of fish darted in
and out of its many openings.
the Dhoni Way
A nation of islands means that the general mode
of transportation is by boat and the Maldives has
its own style of sailing vessel — the “dhoni.”
Skilled carpenters using few tools and no plans make
traditional versions of these hand-crafted ships of
coconut palm wood. The skills of shipbuilding are
passed from one generation to the next. Tall, curved
bows, like scimitars raised in the air, decorate the
front of the boat while the ornate hand-held rudder
distinguishes the stern.
Dhonis range in size from large cargo ships,
called “buggalows,” which export fish and import
most of the Maldives’ staple food items and general
goods, to small water taxis. The Male International
Airport is on its own island so tourists need to be
transported to the island of Male by a dhoni taxi.
Visitors to remote resorts are often transported by
seaplane or helicopter.
The Manthiri is actually a two-boat operation.
The large live-aboard houses the guest and crew, but
divers transfer to a dhoni that takes them to the
actual dive sites.
The main use for a dhoni on the islands is as a
fishing vessel since the majority of Maldivians are
employed as fishermen.
Maldives are home to many posh tropical resorts that
mostly cater to Europeans. Some have international
telephone and Internet service, as well as satellite
television service for those that don’t want to be
too far out of contact with the world.
On a typical Maldivian island, a “Katheeb” or
island chief is in charge of the day-to-day affairs
of the island. This chief then reports to the
“atholhuverin” or atoll chief who acts as the
governor of that atoll’s islands. The nation’s
government appoints both chiefs. The republic is
composed of a 50-member Citizens Council that has
two representatives from each populated atoll, two
from Male and eight appointed by the president. The
president is nominated by the council and is elected
by a popular vote to a five-year term.
Tourists arriving by boat need to first get
permission from the Katheeb to look around the
village. Often visitors are welcomed to be guests
that evening of the “boduberu,” a traditional
community gathering of music and dance with African
Dress in the Maldives is casual with T-shirts
and cotton clothing the most suitable for the
climate. Since the country is an Islamic state,
women should wear modest clothing without baring too
An Eye on the Climate
Even though the Maldives are situated away from
typhoon or cyclone areas the threat of the entire
landmass of the nation disappearing below the waves
is increasing. Most of the islands are only 5-6 feet
(1.5-1.8 m) above sea level with 80 percent being
only about 3 feet (1 m). The highest point is on
Wilingili Island in the Addu Atoll with a height of
only 8 feet (2.4 m).
The threat of global warming raising sea levels
would be catastrophic for the islands and force its
residents to become refugees. Coral mining (for
building materials and souvenirs), sand dredging and
solid waste pollution have also taken a toll on the
islands’ ability to defend itself from the elements.
In April 1987, high tides swept over Male and nearby
islands after much of the natural reef was removed.
Already the increase in surface temperatures
from El Niño has resulted in large-scale coral
bleaching in shallow areas that used to be vibrant
and healthy. The government has now taken a keen
interest in monitoring climate changes.
The world will keep changing, but for now the
Maldives offers a diverse underwater world for
divers to explore and many island retreats where you
can truly get away from it all and enjoy a bit of
Facts & Figures
The Republic of Maldives is about 275 miles
(440 km) south of India in the Indian Ocean
and about 440 miles (704 km) southwest of Sri
Language: Dhivehi, but English is widely spoken.
So is Arabic and Hindi.
Climate & Temperature: The climate changes very
little throughout the year because of the Maldives’
proximity to the equator.
Both water and air temperatures range from 76 to
86 degrees Fahrenheit (24 to 30 degrees Celsius)
throughout the year.
Time: The Maldives is five hours ahead of
Greenwich Mean Time. When it is noon in the
Maldives, it is 2 a.m. in New York.
Medical: No special vaccinations are required.
A recompression chamber is located at Bandos
Currency: The main currency is the Maldivian
Rufiyaa that contains 100 larees. The exchange rate
is about Rf.12.80 per U.S. dollar.
The U.S. dollar is the main foreign currency in
the Maldives. It is easy to convert dollars to
Rufiyaa, but may be more difficult
to exchange back. Major credit cards are
accepted in many locations but surcharges may be
Normal banking hours are 9 a.m. to
1 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 9-11 a.m. on
Saturdays. Fridays are holidays.
Electricity: The electric system is 220-240V,
but many resorts and live-aboards offer 110V outlets
Getting There: Male International Airport is the
only public airport in the country. Since the
country is almost on the other side of the world, travelers from the United States can either fly
west to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to make
connections to Male, or fly east through Europe and the Middle East
to reach the islands.
Maldives Tourism Promotion Board