Spread across a narrow chain of coral atolls in the Indian Ocean, consisting of 1,200 islands grouped into 26 atolls, the Maldives’ coastal splendour is marked by swaying coconut trees (aka Trees of Life), glistening white sand beaches, sprawling waters in 50 shades of turquoise blue, and clear (sometimes, cotton candy) skies. These islands, formed by live coral reefs and sandbars, are surrounded by azure waters under which lies a captivating and colourful realm full of interactive marine flora and fauna. Access to this magical underwater world is easy: snorkelling. All you need is a life jacket (essential for non-swimmers), snorkelling gear, and the will to jump right in!
But first, what makes Maldives’ underwater world so special?
According to the Visit Maldives website, 99 per cent of the island nation is water, and just a per cent, land. Which makes the destination perfect for water activities – be it under or over the surface of the water.
The reefs of Maldives play host to 1,100 species, including butterfly fish, blacktip reef sharks, parrotfish, angel fish, bannerfish and longnose hawkfish. You don’t need to swim far and deep for an encounter with the underwater world of the Indian Ocean. And if at all you do, then you may get to witness majestic marine creatures like whale sharks, reef sharks, and manta rays.
And the fishes are just a part of the rich biodiversity of the Maldivian waters. Be prepared to discover and admire the natural beauty of artistically shaped corals, rocks, and aquatic plants.
My tryst with fishes, corals, and other marine life
The Maldives is blessed abundantly with mesmerising underwater life, and you don’t even need to be a swimmer to discover these sceneries. The non-swimmer in me was partly elated. A lot of courage and much-needed assistance from the good folks I met in the Maldives helped me make a host of unforgettable memories.
I learned the basics of snorkelling from Shakeeb (Shakeeb – the shark, so said his Whatsapp bio) at the Sun Siyam Iru Veli. Located in the South Nilandhe Atoll, the house reef at Sun Siyam Iru Veli resort is easily accessible and boasts coral blocks that are home to innumerable colourful reef fishes including baby blacktip reef shark, blue-striped snapper, six-bar wrasse, and surgeonfish.
I must admit that it seemed daunting at first – breathing through the snorkel, not stepping on corals, and spotting marine life. After a couple of failed attempts, once I managed to use the snorkel, I was stunned! The scenes from underwater called to mind a popular quote I had read years ago by American conservationist and artist Wyland: “The ocean stirs the heart, inspires the imagination, and brings eternal joy to the soul.”
The visuals above the surface were divided into three major colours – blue, green, and brown – but as I looked below, I was welcomed by a world so much more vibrant, full of life, beauty, and stories but without any noise. Before this, my only encounter with the underwater world was through the many cases at Mumbai’s Taraporewala Aquarium. And that was nothing in comparison to what I was experiencing there in the Maldives – I felt like I was in one of those cases, only much more beautiful and bigger!
During my first successful attempt, I saw a school of tiny yellow fish chasing a couple of bright-coloured fish with beaks. In the second, I saw corals of different shapes and sizes and was totally in awe of the beauty of nature. I did all this while Shakeeb held one of my hands because I was too scared to let go. When I came back up, I told him all about it, Shakeeb, a proud Maldivian, told me: “Every time you dive, you will still see something new, the Maldivian waters have such diversity.” That line stayed with me, and I was reminded of it, during my second snorkelling session, which was at the Outrigger Maldives Maafushivaru. Oh, and a horrible tan stayed too, but who’s complaining!
One can’t underestimate the number of snorkelling opportunities this small island resort, Outrigger Maldives Maafushivaru in the South Ari Atoll, offers for beginners. There is quick access for snorkelling, from shallow to deep waters, and you can expect encounters with aquatic life such as squids, blacktip reef sharks, blue surgeon fishes, and clown fishes during your rounds.
The only regret I had after my first snorkelling session was that I couldn’t identify any fish. I corrected that before the second snorkelling session by researching briefly about commonly found fishes in the Maldives.
Nawaz, the guest service associate at Outrigger Maldives Maafushivaru Resort, offered to take me to deeper waters near the arrival port of the island. My first snorkelling attempt there and I said to myself: why on God’s green earth was I wasting my time in the shallow waters? But then I quickly remembered the scaredy cat that I am and the fact that I can’t swim. Never mind, but this time, I saw a combination of big and small fishes, marine algae, plants, and even pockets of coral plantations created by the island resort’s management.
It was an idyllic setting, we spotted a parrotfish hiding behind a white-orange coral, a cornetfish, which scared the daylights out of me because I mistook it for a sea snake, and a pinkish-purple coral, 1/4th the size of a football. Nawaz held my hand to give me a quick tour of the coral plants in fairly deeper waters, where we saw a triggerfish, which he warned me against.
As we swam through the azure waters, I saw fishes in almost every colour of the rainbow. While most floated lazily around us, some ran or hid at the sight of us. I saw awe-inspiring visuals in all directions, some filled with fishes, others with seemingly never-ending stretches of corals (just FYI, the island nation is home to almost 200 species of hard corals). The longer you stare at these corals, the more you get to witness their intricacies.
We even saw a couple of oysters and a few colourful shells scattered on the ocean bed. The highlight, however, was when I chanced upon a clownfish (anemone fish). It was Nemo, I was sure of it! A few minutes later, Nawaz pointed towards a group of powder-blue fish and the ‘Finding Nemo’ movie fan in me went: “Oh my god! I found Dory too!”. I couldn’t wait to get on the surface and tell him all about it!
During this guided snorkelling trip, I also got to see unicornfish, steephead parrotfish, and a few tiny fishes, which none of us could name. Once back on the shore, I told my fellow snorkelers about my achievement of finding Nemo and Dory. A few minutes of celebration later, Nawaz informed me that the little orange and white fish, peeking out an aquatic plant, may have been the clownfish that inspired Nemo, but the powder-blue fish I saw was a surgeonfish that many mistake for a royal blue tang.
Nevertheless, I was happy, because I had not only learned an activity that helped me make memories for life but also helped me discover a magical world. It’s a world that will fuel my creativity and teach me profound life lessons – to be strong yet calm, steady but yielding.
It also taught me how important it is to respect Mother Nature and all its wonders. If you’re motivated to explore the underwater world, there are a few important pointers to ensure your safety as well as Mother Nature’s. Scroll down to read.
Dos and don’ts of snorkelling in the Maldives – non-swimmer edition
1. Snorkelling gear
For snorkelling, you need a snorkel mask, which sits perfectly around your eyes and seals the sides to ensure water doesn’t seep in. You may also need a pair of full-foot fins (snuggly but not too tight), depending on the area you are snorkelling in and the current you are up against.
2. Life vest
A life vest is a necessity for non-swimmers since it makes it easier and safer to keep the body balanced and makes it float on water.
3. Use reef-friendly sunscreen!
When entering the water, it is advised to use reef-safe sunscreen. This type of sunscreen, which is mineral-based containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, proves effective in use and doesn’t harm the creatures under the ocean. Sunscreens that contain ingredients such as oxybenzone may disrupt coral reproduction and damage coral DNA.
4. Stand on the sand, not corals
The thumb rule of snorkelling is to keep your hands to yourself, do not touch anything while you are in the waters. Curious about fish? Follow them but maintain a safe distance. Want to rest your legs? Make sure you stand on a rock or sand, and not corals, fish, or any other feature.
5. Clean your mask
You don’t want to compromise your view, so if the mist is filling up the lens, take the mask off (above water) and rinse it in the ocean water before putting it on again.
6. Take deep breaths
Before you enter deeper waters, practice relaxed, deep breathing. Get comfortable with the snorkelling gear and ensure you don’t hyperventilate. If at all, water gets into your snorkel, simply take it out of your mouth and drain out the water.
7. Have a snorkelling buddy
An extra pair of eyes is always helpful when snorkelling – from spotting interesting flora and fauna to assisting with snorkel, fins, etc.
8. Listen to the guide/instructors!
The guides and instructors know the waters around much better than you. Listen to the guide carefully and seek advice before entering the ocean.