Hanifaru & South Ari, Maldives
The Maldives is Seven Star Destination winner, specializes in tuna meat and coconuts
Where on Earth
The embodiment of honeymoon vacations, exclusive, luxury resorts, white sand beaches permanently picture-ready, Maldives significance . The archipelago is located on a vast submarine mountain range in the Indian Ocean, with 1290 islands. It consists of 26 atolls, by definition a cluster of ring shaped corals –– to me the supple circles of life –– one of the most iconic topography of the region.
Baa Atolls is 120 km north of the capital Male with Dharavandhoo as the main, biggest local island with inhabitation. South Ari Atolls are south.
P: Liquid Salt Divers
The designation of Baa Atoll as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in June 2011 was a significant achievement for the Maldives. Most known for Hanifaru Bay, which during Northeast monsoon season, the water becomes so plankton rich it attracts manta rays in insane numbers. These birds of the sea form a line moving in circular motion, a feeding action that’s never seen anywhere else, thus named a “Manta Tornado”. Whale sharks frequent the bay at this time too. It’s one of the only places you have the chance to snap both animals in one picture!
South Ari is one of the only places in the world where Whale Shark can be spotted around the year. Their movements follow the seasons. They are typically found near Mamiggili Harbor cruising up and down during dry season when the sea is calmer. While northeast monsoon brings more rain and choppier seas, the sharks tend to stay on the more sheltered, lagoon side of the island. You can swim with the gentle giants by either scuba or freediving, with below factors worth considering:
PROS of Scuba
- Most obviously longer bottom time with the shark without breathing or depth pressures
- You’ll most likely have the shark to your group only without 2 dozen snorkellers
- Given more linear swimming alongside the sharks it’s far easier to take steadier shots
CONS of Scuba
Because we’re more or less bound to dive sites, sighting of sharks is not guaranteed.
PROS of freediving
- Without massive gear or bubbles the sharks tend to be less guarded and come closer
- A good diver can move around the shark a lot faster and easier underwater
- Well, you look a lot sexier too.
CONS of freediving
Since there’s almost always multiple boats on a given shark, you’ll have to juggle anywhere from 5-50 other snorkelers kicking against one another.
The reefs in the Maldives have been under tremendous stress in the last few years, that is, global warming. After consecutive El Nino hits between 2014-16 when sea water rose up to 31 degrees celcius (29 was the average), TWO THIRDS of Maldive's corals were bleached –– in some areas up to a staggering 90%. Local environmental beureau and many resorts are working very hard to help grow/recover the reefs, but the bigger weights really falls on the rest of the world.
When to Go
Maldives is a year round diving destination. November–April is dry, also peak season, with more display of sunshine and calmer seas. May–October is rainy, Northeast monsoon season. Though mainly afternoon thunderstorms only so doesn’t affect diving much.
Baa: Between June–Oct/Nov, when current action brings more food towards the surface of the ocean. Vis becomes far worse than normal but for good reasons.
South Ari Atoll: Whale sharks stick around all year long but move around different parts of the atoll based on current action, which determines where the food is.
How to get there
Unlike the resort islands solely occupied by a single resort and accessible by water planes that also cost a fortune ($300 per way per head), both Baa and South Ari have local islands far cheaper and easier to get to. International arrivals come through Male:
To get to Baa, take Maldivian Airlines from Male – Dharavandhoo. (Flight run on an hourly basis). You can find a range of affordable accommodations on Dharavandhoo.
Dhigurah is the best land-based option for South Ari Atoll.
- You can either take a FLYME from Male – Mamiggili ($110 one way), then switch to speedboat that takes you to Dhigurah (1 hr, $25).
- If you have time, take the domestic ferry to Male City ($2, the airport is a separate island right next to it), then speedboat from Male harbor to Dhigurah ($30)
- IMPORTANT TIP: Book your domestic transfers thru your guesthouse! Most of them can help you get cheaper/local rates (esp flight) and can save you up to $100.
Where to Stay
Having stayed at both fancy resorts (yes those water bungalows that stretch into blue infinity costing half month salary a night) and half dozen local guesthouses, I certain have a few recommendations here:
$$$$: LUX* in South Ari. Luxury needs few words. More than free wine, active engagement in local ecotourism is priceless.
$$$: Reethi Beach Resort in Baa, luxury without (completely) breaking the bank. Super lush island with incredible service and food.
$$: Bliss Dhigurah. Owned by the coolest Maldivian-Dutch couple, Bliss got, hands down, the best food (from juice, salad to pizza you name it) on the island.
$$: Aveyla Manta Village in Dharavandhoo – beautiful beach front property that houses the most kick ass Liquid Salt Divers. Drone game strong, underwater photography strong. The best-of Hanifaru manta actions you've seen on the internet is probably by its owner Sidey (IG @sideytheshark)
$: TME in Dhigurah – with a range of low rise houses to choose from, whose parent company also owns Island Divers (IG @island_divers) the best dive operation on the island run by the Naushad and Arushad brothers.
Visited Dec 2015, Dec 2017, Sep 2018, land based.