The island nation of Indonesia straddles the equator between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and lies at the heart of the ‘Coral Triangle’ - the epicentre of the world’s marine biodiversity. Nowhere on earth can visitors experience such a range of spectacular diving - from encounters with huge whale sharks and oceanic manta rays, to muck dives with beautiful Rhinopias and the exceedingly rare psychedelic frogfish.
With whale shark and manta ray sightings almost guaranteed, South Ari Atoll is a spectacular destination for divers and snorkelers alike. With shallower and easier dive sites compared to those in the north, the atoll caters for beginners as well as more experienced divers, and has become a key region for diving liveaboards on their central atoll itineraries. Add into the mix the atoll’s many beautiful islands, ringed by picture-postcard, white sand beaches, and sand bars surrounded by limpid azure waters, and you have some of the most spectacular - and instagram-worthy - scenery in the Maldives.
- Swim alongside whale sharks in the Maamigili Marine Protected Area
- Dive Machchafushi wreck adorned with coral and fish
- Relax and enjoy the atoll’s stunning powder-soft beaches and sand bars
As one of the Maldives’ largest atolls, South Ari has a fantastic mix of channels, thilas and reefs with a diverse offering of diving experiences. From the whale sharks that come in to feed along the famous stretch of Maamigili reef at the southern tip of the atoll, to current-driven drift dives through channels and one of the finest wreck dives in the Maldives at the wonderfully named Machachafushi wreck, divers have plenty to keep them occupied.
Whale sharks are the highlight of any visit to South Ari Atoll and these gentle giants can be seen year round. For the best chance to see a whale shark, head out on a tour organised by your resort – the guides will know where any been seen recently and guests can enjoy the tropical beauty of the Maldives whilst keeping a close lookout for the distinctive shadow or fin breaking the surface of one these huge animals. Once spotted, guests can snorkel alongside one of these wonderful creatures as they cruise and feed along the reef top. Manta rays are also seen in South Ari, particularly at Madivaru - also aptly known as Manta point. This marine protected area lies on the south side of Rangali Kandu, a channel that funnels waters in and out of the central lagoon which in turn attracts the manta rays. The best chance to see them is during the northeast monsoon from December to May but in the absence of the manta rays, divers still have the opportunity to encounter the site’s abundant marine life.
The Machachafushi wreck - also known as the Kudhimaa wreck - was purposefully sunk in 1998 and the intact wreck now sits upright on the sea bed. The wreck is now host of to huge amounts of reef life including batfish, frogfish, ghostpipefish and moray eels, and is perfect for photographers who can explore the large propeller, prominent wheelhouse, crane structure and plenty of doorways and ports.
As well as the famous manta and whale shark spots, South Ari’s reefs are also famous for plenty of dynamic dive sites, interesting reef structures that invite exploration and prolific marine life. In general the dives around South Ari are a little easier and less dominated by strong currents compared to in the north of the atoll, but there are still some exhilarating dives. Other highlights include Broken Rock - a small thila that has split in two - as well as Dhigurah Arches, a 300m drift dive.
The vast majority of South Ari’s resort islands have some great snorkeling right on the house reef, but it is the whale sharks, great marine life and the Machachafushi wreck that draw snorkelers to the atoll. The shallowest part of the wreck lies just over 10 from the surface, so can easily be seen by snorkelers, and the nearby reef is filled with marine life. The whale sharks at Maamagili are also easily seen by snorkelers as they cruise along the reef.
Lying south-west of Malé, Alifu atoll is 80km long and divided into two administrative areas, with the southern region -Alifu Dhaal - commonly known as South Ari Atoll. With a long association with tourism, South Ari now has 17 resort islands, making it the third most developed atoll in terms of resorts, just behind North and South Malé Atolls. The number of resorts is testament to both the ease of access from the international airport, as well as the incredible natural beauty that this atoll is famous for, both above and below the surface of the sea. And with almost year-round whale sharks and manta ray sightings, it is easy to understand why South Ari is such a draw for divers from around the world.
South Ari’s reefs, thilas and channels are justifiably famous for their beautiful underwater topography - dramatic overhangs and canyons draped with colourful soft corals are the norm here - along with the abundant and spectacular marine life, including possibilities for some exciting encounters with large pelagic. Unfortunately, some of the reefs have been effected by the ongoing impacts of climate change and the recent El Nino event of 2016, but the latest reports have show that the reefs are slowly recovering and sightings of the iconic species remain reliable. The atoll is well protected by several important conservation groups that are supported by the resorts, giving the reefs of this truly beautiful destination a very real chance of making a full recovery.
Roughly 100km south-west of Malé, South Ari Atoll is normally reached by seaplane. The 20-minute flights run regularly throughout the day and there is also an option of a night flight with Flyme to Maamigili airport in the south of the atoll. Flights are roughly US$170 each way. Once in South Ari a speedboat transfer will take guests to their resort. Hotel representatives will normally meet guests you at Malé airport and help with any logistics or transfers. The local islands of Maafushi, Guraidhoo and Guilhi are accessible by local ferries or chartered speedboats.
All international flights to the Maldives use Malé’s International Airport, located on a separate island, Hulhule, about 2km east of Male’ island. Domestic flights and seaplane transfers to resorts also use this airport, although the seaplane terminal is on the far side of the island and necessitates a free, five-minute bus transfer around the runway.
If you have a late flight arrival or if the transfer to your final destination is not available immediately, there are a number of accommodation options in Male itself. Alternatively, Hulhumale next to the airport is a good option, with affordable accommodation and hotel bars serving alcohol which is prohibited in the capital or on local non-resort islands.
For detailed information about getting to the Maldives, as well as navigating between atolls, check out our Maldives Travel Advice page.
With a long history of tourism in the atoll, South Ari has a number of resorts spread throughout the area - especially on the islands of the outer reef. The are also a number of resort islands inside the central lagoon. With the recent changes in tourism laws in the Maldives, a number of local islands now have smaller resorts, dive centres and homestays that make a great alternative to the big resorts. Although spread out across the large atoll, all of the dive sites in South Ari are accessible from any of the resorts.
The Maldives experiences a tropical monsoonal climate, with two distinct seasons; the northeast monsoon (dry season) and southwest monsoon (wet season). Temperatures can range from 25-31°C, with an average year-round temperature around 27°C. Water temperatures are also relatively constant throughout the year at 26-29°C.
Like most places in the world, with the ever-increasing impact of climate change, the seasons and transitions in the Maldives have become less predictable in recent years and more prone to shifting slightly, however the two monsoons still follow similar patterns whenever they arrive:
Northeast monsoon (January – April)
The dry season usually brings blue skies and calm winds - perfect weather a topical holiday. The season runs from January to April with the transition shoulder periods arriving earlier in December or continuing into May. The change to the wet season is usually signified by a wet spell of three or more consecutive days of rainfall along with a shift in wind direction.
Southwest monsoon (May – November)
The wet southwest season generally means more cloudy skies, stronger winds and a greater chance of rough seas. However, you would be unlucky if you had to endure anything other than a few hours of dramatic rain, as most of the storms are relatively short lived and soon blow themselves out.
As is the way in the tropics, rain can occur with little warning however the resorts are normally very good at providing sufficient warning and planning any alternative activities or events accordingly.
From a diver’s perspective, the monsoons dictate the migrations of the large pelagics such as manta rays and whale sharks. With tidal strength and wind direction affecting the movement of plankton, filter-feeders naturally follow the food, so at certain times of the year you are more likely to encounter these animals in specific locations.
We have accounted for these changes in our search tool, but feel free to contact us directly for further insight and assistance in arranging your perfect Maldivian experience at the best locations and at the best time of year.
The Maamigili Marine Protected Area was gazetted by the Maldivian government in June 2009 as a globally-significant aggregation site for whalesharks. Maamigili is the largest protected area in the Maldives encompassing 42km² of coral reef habitat. The MPA boundary extends 1 km into the sea from the reef at the southern end of Ari Atoll, extending to the tip of Dhigurah Island to the northeast and down to the tip of the reef of Rangali Island in the northwest. Whale sharks are present almost every day of the year, with large congregations occurring during the mass coral spawning events during th full moon of the north-east monsoon.
The Maldivian Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP), together with a consortium of the local communities and resorts has undertaken management of this protected area. Chief of Dhigurah, Ahmed Faiz Rasheed, says the local community supports the Maamigili MPA as “it is very much connected to the people of the Maldives, especially the fishermen.” An assessment of the local fishing industry discovered that whale sharks are not a significant source of income for the fishermen and thus the implementation of the ban on shark fishing will not detract from the local fishermen's income whilst at the same time, bringing in tourists whose spending can contribute to the overall income of the area.