Snorkelling in The Maldives is something which until last year was new to me. Although I had been to the islands several times previously, due to a medical condition I was not able to participate with the family on those occasions.
So what follows is a beginner’s guide to what I feel to be the most salient points to bear in mind if you are a novice. Many people who have never snorkelled before, and have no intention to do so, find themselves drawn to the possibility when they witness the vast underwater world these islands have to offer.
My first piece of advice is to begin to plan before you go. This is important if you are a novice because there are two types of islands on offer in The Maldives. The former have what is called a house reef, which means that they have a bank of coral within easy swimming distance around the island. This coral provides feeding opportunities and hiding places for many underwater creatures, and so they venture in to the islands more closely, and on these islands not only will the snorkelling opportunities be excellent, but also a simple paddle will often afford endless opportunities to see almost all varieties of marine life, as they really do come right into the shore. The second group of islands have no house reef, but will often provide boat trips out to neighbouring reefs, these are not suitable for beginners, and I would not recommend them if you have no experience, as they involve lowering yourself over the side of boats into deep water, which for novices can be too challenging. So check carefully the islands you are planning to visit to identify if they have a house reef.
Secondly I would advice purchasing a good quality snorkel before you go which fits well. Many all inclusive holidays allow you to borrow equipment, and although this can save money it is not advisable as a snorkel mask which fits poorly will let in water. This will cause the mask to mist up, reducing visibility, and can cause panic in the inexperienced. This will also cause disappointment as clarity of vision is imperative to the enjoyment of snorkelling. Also purchase some reef shoes. These are waterproof shoes which you can use to wade out to the swimming areas. Without these you risk cutting your feet on sharp coral which may have outcrops in towards the shore.
Thirdly when you arrive don’t be tempted to try snorkelling on the first day. Many flights arrive there overnight and you will be jet lagged. It simply isn’t safe to swim on no sleep! On the first evening all islands will have a welcome talk, which will give safety details about the places to snorkel and the entrance points onto the reef. I think this is vital and it has been of a high standard on all the islands I have visited. They will explain about currents and what is safe and not, as well as how important it is not to stand on the coral as it will damage it.
Most importantly I feel is to make sure you take an old t shirt as snorkelling exposes your back to the sun’s rays, and you will burn in a few minutes without realising it. Take factor 50 sun cream and apply it in case your t shirt rides up, and pay special attention to the back of your neck. Also make sure you tell another person where you are going and your proposed route. I think this is vital as there are no life guards or suitably positioned rescue boats waiting to pick you up should you get into difficulties.
Many people think of the Maldives as being calm islands with gentle waves, but in the afternoons especially the currents can quickly whip up, and towards the end of this review I will describe my experience of this, which highlights the importance of not taking on too much too quickly.
So having got all the advice and information you are then ready to snorkel for the first time. My advice is to practise in the shallows until you get the hang of the breathing and the technique, which if you are patient will come within half an hour or so. Then choose an exit point which is close to the shore and go with a buddy who can watch you. Plan your route to the next exit point and then you know exactly what you are going to do and this builds confidence. Don’t get tempted to take on too much and swim parallel to the shore.
If your mask does steam up take it off and spit into it and rinse with sea water, as this soon clears it.
The rewards that await you are absolutely incredible. Not only will you see so many varieties of fish, but you will be able to hear them. I was amazed to discern the sound of fish nibbling on the coral and the sound of a turtle calling. The colours are incredible, especially in the morning when you will see turquoise fish in abundance. Patience rewards you as you drift along the reef, you can see shoals and shoals of fish and it is like being in an aquarium. Also really stunning is the view over the edge of the reef as it extends down into the deep, and crevices reveal moray eels dozing in the depths. These can be scary as they will sometimes set off without warning.
The only dangers to you as a swimmer are presented by a breed of fish called the "Titan Trigger Fish" which you will be learn to recognise and keep clear of. They have been known to be aggressive and to nibble one or two swimmers over the years.
The most important piece of advice I would give to a novice is to know your limitations, and to only swim when it is calm. I would avoid the afternoons if the sea is choppy for two reasons. Firstly a choppy sea reduces visibility, and it can be disappointing. Secondly though it is dangerous, as I found out to my cost on Biyadhoo last summer. Having been delighted to swim with a turtle one morning I decided to swim out to revisit him in the afternoon. The current had become quite strong and I soon realised that swimming back to shore was going to be difficult. Luckily I was with my husband and he guided me in, but it did pose us with a great challenge as there were currents going in every direction, and we seemed to be going nowhere despite swimming very strongly. Perseverance and not panicking saved the day, and we struggled in, but it served as a warning to me not to take on too much and to be aware of the dangers.
So the final piece of advice I have is to do your research before you book a particular island. There is a superb book by Adrian Neville called "Resorts of Maldives" which details all the islands. This is available from major on line book retailers, and this will enable you to select great islands for snorkelling. My recommendations include Biyadhoo, Fihahohi, and Vilamendhoo as I have visited all of these and they have superb house reefs. I also researched some alternatives to save you some time, and here follows a list of islands all with superb house reefs.
Angaga- reef for 2/3 of the island and affords the opportunity to see many turtles.
Asdu Sun Island
This is by no means a complete list but I have used it to highlight some of the possibilities. A holiday on Meeru Island for example would involve daily boat trips to a local reef if you wished to snorkel at an additional expense. Likewise Summer Island has a house reef too distant to reach, so daily four hour snorkel trips are organised. So a bit of forward planning can be vital to your enjoyment of snorkelling.
I had such an amazing experience snorkelling for the first time and the memories will stay with me for life. As long as you exercise caution and respect the sea and the marine life within it, this experience is something which completes a holiday to the Maldives. Done safely and with some prior knowledge of your destination this really is an opportunity of a lifetime.