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Last Updated on May 15, 2020 by Amy
Our time cruising the Maldives is over! We entered the country on March 27th, 2019 and left May 22, 2019, for a total of 56 days cruising from north to south.
Snorkeling & Diving
With the exception of the megafauna (whale sharks and manta rays), the underwater life in the Maldives was very disappointing. There are plenty of fish, even big ones. I believe this speaks to the Maldivian understanding of tourism versus fishing. In most places in Southeast Asia, the locals overfished, and fishermen often tried to sell us fish too small for a one-person meal…even in Komodo, a marine park and one of our favorite places. For a variety of reasons, the Maldives doesn’t have this issue; we were pleased to see large fish living all over the reefs.
What wasn’t good was the coral. 99% of the coral we saw was dead. We snorkeled over places that clearly used to be amazing reefs but now are just skeletons. There are signs of the reef coming back and new coral growth, but it will be years (if ever) before it gets back to its former glory.
Everywhere we went, the locals were super friendly and often offered to show us around. We found everyone to be very generous, and though sometimes they were shy, we did have extended conversations with some of the locals.
Freedom of religion does not exist in the Maldives. To be a citizen, you must be a Muslim. Due to this, the locals are all conservative. Appropriate dress is required in most places, with the exception of island resorts and designated bikini beaches. I typically wore yoga pants to my calves and a t-shirt or long sleeve shirt to cover my shoulders.
Dining out at the local cafes was pretty inexpensive. Sometimes we ate at more “westernized” places that served pizza or “submarines” (which are very popular for some reason). A local version of fried rice and fried noodles was usually available. When we wanted specifically local food, we were served fish curry, kottu (very similar to the kottu I loved in Sri Lanka) and mas huni, a simple Maldivian breakfast dish.
Currency & Language in the Maldives
While the Maldives’ official currency is the Maldivian rufiyaa (MVR), almost every well-touristed place advertises and accepts USD. Often for dinner or activities, we were given the price in USD and had to ask them to convert to MVR so we could pay cash. We paid our agent with USD and our supplies are getting low.
Absolutely everyone speaks English. Tourism is huge in the Maldives, although twice as many Chinese tourists visit the Maldives than any other nationality.
There are over a hundred private-island resorts in the Maldives. Many more islands are uninhabited. The remaining islands are what I’ll call public islands.
Some public islands have guesthouses – hotels – but a lot do not. The villages have schools, public transportation to other islands, and, of course, mosques. Every public island we went to seems to have major development happening. The Maldives is a middle-income economy, so the lives of the locals, to our eyes, were much better off than many of the people we saw in Southeast Asia.
The Maldives is one of those places where they are building land. The Gan airport needed to be expanded, so they built land up to extend the runway.
Cruising Permit for the Maldives
When we entered the Maldives, our agent applied for our cruising permit. It did take a long time – 6 days – to get our permit.
Our permit for the entire 56 days cost us $1300. Compare this to the Galapagos ($1,355 and we stayed ten days) or Panama ($1,900 for 24 days, including the canal transit) If you break out the cost per day to cruise in the Maldives, it’s $23.35 per day. On the other hand, there are a handful of countries we paid $10 or less to clear in to. For example, 90 days cruising French Polynesia is free!
The End of Cruising in the Maldives?
When we arrived in the Maldives, we knew that doing our formalities in Male was not a good idea, as the government requires yachts visiting Male to pick up and pay for a tracking device.
When we got our cruising permit, our agent had also completed a Traveling Schedule. This list was eight places we are “allowed” to go. The general consensus from past cruisers is that you can go to the places on your permit. You can, theoretically, go to uninhabited islands, because there’s no one to “report” you. Visit inhabited islands at your own risk. What happens if you get caught deviating from your Traveling Schedule? Apparently a fine of $2,000 USD.
About two weeks after getting our cruising permit, our agent contacted us and said that the Uligamu office is now getting tracking devices, and if we renewed our permit with his office after they came in, we would have to get a tracking device mailed to us. The cost would be $200 for the device plus $6.66 per day.
The added cost to an already expensive country to visit is hard to swallow. But what I find worse is the idea that the government needs a device to track you (most countries simply require AIS and track vessels using that) and that this means that the laws regarding where cruisers can not go will be more enforced, and cruisers will not be able to deviate from their Traveling Schedule. The list of “allowed” ports are the bigger villages with harbors and airports instead of lovely isolated beaches.
Our agent was able to renew our permit before the tracking devices came in, which gave us another 30 days to get down to Gan by May 16th. At the time of this writing, Uligamu still hasn’t received the tracking devices, and our agent said they are “working to remove all the troubles before next season”.
I can not imagine cruising the Maldives and being restricted to the eight ports on our Traveling Schedule. What’s the point? I want cruisers to see how beautiful the Maldives are and how friendly the local people are, not be stuck dealing with bureaucratic messes. The government wants to charge more than any other country and force cruisers to book tours to go see the splendor of the Maldives.
The Charter Options
While there aren’t fleets of charter boats available, there are one-off boats available for charter in the Maldives. We chatted and were given advice by the team over at Sail Shantaram. If you are interested in booking with them, please tell them we sent you!
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Finding Safe Harbor & Maldives Geography
The Maldives has 26 main atolls. Each atoll is composed of islands and lagoons, which make up the approximately 1,200 islands of the Maldives. The highest point of the Maldives is less than 8 feet above the water, making the Maldives the lowest country in the world.
Some inhabited islands have manmade harbors. The reef is blasted away and a breakwater is built up to provide protection. Some are more developed than others; the harbor we visited in Kulhudhifushi was a commercial port with large breakwaters, while the anchorage in Gan relied on the natural reef between the two islands to create a breakwater and provide protection (at low tide). The trick is – will you be allowed into the harbor? Our agent advised us to hail on channel 16 and if no one answers, go on in. The problem is 1) you might get charged 2) you run the risk of being told to leave and a good anchorage may not be reachable by sunset and 3) someone might report you if this is not one of the allowed stops.
A lot of the islands without lagoons (natural or manmade) do not make good anchorages. There’s no sand to drop the hook in, no wind protection because the land is so flat, and reef to protect the anchorage from the swell. The surrounding reef is very deep.
Most islands in the Maldives are small atolls or lagoons. The ring around the lagoon is usually more reef than land (as opposed to the Tuamotus, where the atoll was mostly land, with a few breaks for water flow). Sometimes the reef is low enough that a boat can navigate over it into the lagoon to anchor. Sometimes, the reef is very high, providing a lot of swell protection at low tide. Some lagoons have passes blasted into them.
There is very little recent information available on anchorages in the Maldives. We were fortunate enough to get in touch with a couple that owned a charter boat in the Maldives, and they sent us some anchorage recommendations.
Charts are absolutely terrible. Using a satellite-image-based program like SAS Planet is an absolute must.
Here is a Google map with the waypoints from YOLO, our Traveling Schedule, and our anchorage positions. You can download the KML/KMZ file here.
Provisioning in the Maldives
Every town we visited has at least some provisioning. It’s usually small shops with a chest freezer with some frozen chicken drumsticks, whole chickens, halal buffalo meat, and occasionally some duck. Snacks like chips and cookies are abundant. Rice, nuts, raisins, cereals, dates, etc, are all available as well.
Produce can be hit or miss, depending on the supply ship. Most shops don’t have much refrigeration, so produce is usually stored in styrofoam bins on the floor, and it’s best to buy as fresh off the boat as possible. I had the hardest time with eggs! I would find that while the eggs weren’t bad (they still smelled and tasted fine) the yolks were often very soft. Research tells me the eggs were old (but not bad) or the hens were feed low-quality feed. In any case, it’s rare to find eggs you can separate or cook sunny side up.
Since land is sparse, not much is grown in the Maldives. You can find local pumpkins, cucumbers, eggplants, breadfruits, and bananas.
When we were in Kulhudhulfuhsi, we walked into a store just after the supply ship delivery. It was like Christmas! Huge heads of broccoli, zucchini, carrots, kiwi fruit, etc.
There are two main cell service providers: Dhiraagu and Ooredoo. Dhiraagu has a data-only package, We paid close to $50 for 100 GB of data. We had service at every anchorage we went to.
One of the bad reputations the Maldives has is from cruisers getting booted from private resort islands. Our agent told us to always contact a resort first before you stop by.
Alcohol is only legal in private resorts in the Maldives. We never did end up getting a day pass, but I did inquire with several resorts. Some said that they don’t allow guests for the day, but most said they do. Here are some examples of day price passes I found:
- Canareef Resort Maldives (Addu Atoll): $25
- LUX (Ari): $550
- Sun Island (Ari): $25
- Six Senses (Laamu): $60
- Cinnamon (Ari and North Male): $50
- Amaya Resort (Ari): $50
Of course, the packages vary on what they include. Some of the packages go towards food & beverage purchases, while some are just access to the grounds. The LUX package includes a meal, a beer, spa packages, etc!
Straddling the equator, the typical weather for the time of year we visited (April & May) is hot and still. As a result, we used a lot of diesel by motoring from island to island and running our generator to make more water and run the air conditioning. Even with running our air cons about every other day and showering twice and day, we still enjoyed some heat rash from the constant sweating.
For about two weeks in May, we got a surprise; twin cyclones in the Indian Ocean brought westerly wind to the Maldives. Even though it was only 15 knots, we were in a part of the Maldives where there is no westerly protection for wind or waves. The good news was the chop and swell aligned with the wind, so life aboard Starry Horizons was not uncomfortable. The one exception was in the Himmafushi lagoon, where the waves bounced against the walls of the tuna processing plant and made it bouncy – I got seasick at anchor!
Squalls became more frequent, either because it was getting later in the year or we were further south.
Other Cruisers in the Maldives
We’ve known Slow Flight since June 30, 2018 when we met at the Sail 2 Indonesia Rally starting party in Cairns. We’ve spent so much time with them the past year, and they arrived just one day after us in the Maldives. We cruised with them for almost a month, parting ways in North Male.
There are not many other cruising boats in the Maldives. We had three with us in Uligamu when we arrived, two more in Gan when we left, and in between….we met ONE other cruising boat. Our agent tells us there are about 40 boats that cruised the Maldives this year. Who knows where they all were, although Slow Flight had about ten boats in Gan when they were there.
Uligamu, Haa Alif Atoll
We had a warm and wonderful welcome into the Maldives at Uligamu. Asad and Imaadh, the head of the village, really became a local guide for us; we made friends, had dinners, and toured the island. It was a wonderful welcome in the Maldives.
It also showed us how beautiful the Maldives would be during our visit, as the water was clear and so blue. We also went snorkeling but were less than impressed with the underwater life.
Dhapparu, Miladhunmadulu Atoll
This was one of my favorite stops. Dhapparu is a nice long island with a beautiful stretch of white sand beach. With Kimi and Trevor, I hiked the small path to the iron-rich lake and hung out on the beach.
Utheemu, Miladhunmadulu Atoll
We dropped our anchor just off of Utheemu Island for a short visit. Kimi wanted to tour some of the (rare) Maldivian history in the islands so we stopped in to tour the Utheemu palace.
Kudafarufasgan’du, Miladhunmadulu Atoll
This anchorage was our deepest one yet! We stayed two nights anchored in 90 feet of water (with 300′ of chain – barely 3:1 scope). The weather was flat calm, and this was some of the better snorkeling we had. Trevor had an epic catch with his spear gun – a nice lobster, which we all shared in a mac and cheese!
Kulhudhuffushi, Miladhunmadulu Atoll
We arranged our visit to Kulhudhuffushi with our agent. There is a customs office here and diesel service, so we pulled into the harbor to fill our tanks. We ended up being stuck for 28 hours, while the staff (customs, fuel service, agent, and eventually a broker) figured out how to implement new paperwork.
The town had great provisions and was interesting to tour for the two days.
Dholhiyadhoo, Miladhunmadulu Atoll
Another epic stop, Dholhiyadhoo is home to an abandoned resort. We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the ruins.
Bodufarufinolhu, Raa Atoll
This is an uninhabited island, where there appears to be a sand quarry or some kind of construction going on. We first anchored to the south, but the water visibility was so low, we moved the next day to a northern anchorage and enjoyed clearer water and some snorkeling.
Thulhaadhoo, Baa Atoll
We popped into Thulhaadhoo to look for it’s famous lacquered wood, which we found. The atoll is very well known for manta rays, and we saw our first one just next to our boat!
Rasfari, North Male Atoll
According to YOLO’s report, this is a manta ray cleaning station area. We snorkeled once in the south and didn’t see any rays. We would have loved to go snorkeling again, but the weather deteriorated and we had some blows and rain.
Himmufushi, North Male Atoll
Surfer’s paradise in the Maldives, this is the closest we could get to Male without going through a bunch of Maldivian bureaucracy. The winds were still pretty high for the area: 15 knots. This doesn’t sound like much, but there are very few anchorages in the Maldives with westerly swell protection, and even less with westerly winds. Combine that with the express ferries running through, and Starry Horizons bucked and bounced at anchor, making me seasick.
We took the ferry from Himmufushi to Male to check out the big grocery stores and pick up provisions. A lot can be found in Male.
Our friends Gina (formerly of the boat Cartago that we met way back in Hiva Oa) and her fiance Eze. They took the last ferry from Male (2200) to join us. Despite the awful anchorage, Gina and Eze had an awesome time surfing.
Maagaa Reef, Ari Atoll
With the high winds, we were able to sail (!) the 43 miles to Maagaa Reef on Ari Atoll. Once we made it through this tiny pass, the reef protected us from the swell. This reef is near the Cinnamon Ellaidhoo Resort, and while Maagaa does have an island, I suspect it is a private home. Seaplanes for the nearby resorts would land in Maagaa quite frequently.
We did have one day with lighter winds, so we gave our first attempt at wakeboarding! We tried using one of the surfboards, but it was too thin, light, narrow, etc. Then we inflated Lady Gemini, my paddleboard, and had major success! Lady Gemini is probably at the other side of the spectrum (too wide, too buoyant, too long) but it worked!
We also snorkeled the area, and though the coral was still bad, we did see two octopuses and a nurse shark.
Dhangethi, Ari Atoll
We’ve been calling this one North D H island. We anchored fairly close to the public dock, thinking we would have the anchorage all to ourselves, but no….every afternoon large liveaboard dive boats came in and anchored all around us, running their generators into the night.
Dhigurah, Ari Atoll
Dhigurah means “Long Island” and this was my favorite stop in the Maldives. We anchored just off the bikini beach and the Bliss Guesthouse. There, we quickly made friends with Chloe, the expat Brit activities coordinator and former Maldives Whale Shark Research Program staff.
We dropped Gina and Eze off to catch the ferry to Male from Dhigurah. Two days later, we returned with Madeline and Molly.
We had two lovely meals at Hermit’s, the rooftop restaurant, once with Eze and Gina, and once with Madeline and Molly. The house special dessert is salted chocolate pudding with espresso sauce and homemade coconut ice cream! So good!
The best place to spot manta rays is in the lagoon, while whale sharks are just offshore of the atoll. With Madeline and Molly, we booked a whale shark snorkel with Chloe.
Dhigurah is lovely for walks, as you can walk from Bliss all the way to the public picnic area at the south end of the island in about an hour.
Maamigili, Ari Atoll
Madeline and Molly flew in to meet us at Maamigili. I was able to pick up provisions here, and we got petrol for the dinghy.
Crossing the Equator
Our time was running out on our permit, so we dropped Madeline and Molly at the airport and took off for a two-night sail down to Gan. During the days, it was flat calm and sunny. We often had dolphins join us.
In the wee hours of the second morning (0215) we crossed the equator for the 3rd time! It was dark and we were both tired. Plus, our bottle of bubbly did NOT want to cooperate; when I pulled the cork, the bottle was perhaps a bit too pressurized from rolling around the fridge and sprayed everywhere. Then, despite the use of our sparkling wine stopper, it leaked the whole bottle into our fridge. Hopefully, that’s not a bad omen.
Gan, Addu Atoll
We snagged a space in the shallow lagoon between two islands for our final stop in the Maldives. We’d have days of still heat, and then days of rain and squally winds. We were one of only four cruising boats in Gan at the time. In Gan, we were able to fill up on diesel and do a massive amount of provisioning to prepare for our time in Chagos. Unfortunately, we ended up having to wait several extra days because our agent had sent our propane tank off to be refilled and it took a week!
Clearing out is cumbersome – they want 48 hours notice in a place where the weather is challenging. But, our agent handled everything for us.
Would We Cruise the Maldives Again?
Short answer: probably not.
Long answer: it’s an expensive place to cruise for such heavy restrictions. There is NO WAY that I would cruise the Maldives if the government enforced the Travel Itinerary. If the government requires cruisers in the future to pay even more to have the tracking device, I would also find that a very good reason not to cruise there.
Some people come only to Gan to provision, fuel up, and cross the Indian Ocean. While this seems like it should be cost-effective, many of the fees still apply, so cruisers would be paying over $500 for a short visit to Gan.
The underwater life is mostly dead, and anchoring can be challenging. Overall, we haven’t seen anything in Southeast Asia or the Indian Ocean that we enjoyed as much as any of the South Pacific. Perhaps we should have taken the Southern Route?