Maldives wildlife

A ping on your phone: it’s Fernando again. He’s a seven and a half metre-long whale shark with an amputated fin who loves hanging out on the South Ari Atoll. You saw him there last year, and uploaded his photo onto the Big Fish Network, an app created by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme. The AI did its thing and told you his name and his vital statistics. Now, whenever Fernando is spotted (he’s a regular on the atoll) you get an alert – it’s practically social media for sharks.

If you spot a Maldives whale shark that hasn’t been sighted before, you might even get to name it. According to Ub Waseem, a Senior Guide at our partner Secret Paradise, that’s trickier than you’d think. Secret Paradise assist their guests in using the app, and work with the research programme on conservation efforts.

“The whole night we were coming up with names,” Ub says, describing the time he took a tour out on the boat to search for sharks, and happened across a newcomer. “Everyone was so excited. We had to have a name that everyone agreed on, but there were just so many names that we couldn’t agree!”

What happened next? “In the end we asked the research programme to name it!” Let’s hope they didn’t just go for ‘Spot’.
If you spot a whale shark that hasn’t been sighted before, you might even get to name it.
You can’t get more connected to wildlife than this. For too long, visitors to the Maldives have encroached on wildlife in more and more harmful ways in order to get close to it. Whale sharks and manta rays – two of the creatures on most scuba divers’ and snorkellers’ bucket lists when they visit – are often subject to unwanted harassment by visitors who want to touch them. This behaviour stresses these mellow giants out. In 2018, Babaganoush, a manta ray, sustained horrific damage from a boat propellor, and collisions like this occur every season. There are better ways to get close to wildlife – and technology such as the Big Fish Network app used in conjunction with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme can help.

Local fauna with local guides

Another way is to get close to wildlife in the Maldives is to work closely with the people who help look after it. Secret Paradise’s team is 95% Maldivian, with 12 trained guides who work closely with three big marine charities in the area to learn how to identify wildlife. They run Maldives conservation cruises with Save The Beach and representatives from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme, where visitors can learn how to help preserve Maldives wildlife and coral reefs. All of their island trips feature accommodation owned by locals, where visitors are invited to dine with the families who live there. Local connections are the key to their success. “The ocean is on their back doorstep,” explains Ruth Franklin, co-founder of Secret Paradise, describing their guides, “it’s been part of their lives since they were children. They have a thirst for knowledge for marine life which they have gained themselves, or through our comprehensive knowledge-building programme.”

Guides work with marine charities in mutually beneficial partnerships. Secret Paradise guides, for instance recently translated a the whale shark code of conduct training guide into Dhivehi – the Maldivian language. In exchange, these charities provide in-depth training to the guides. “I used to just go where the whale sharks were because I saw them there, but now I know why they are there,” Ub explains, “I now understand in depth the behaviour of sharks and the reasons why they do things.” It’s knowledge that he now loves passing on to guests.

What can I see on a Maldives wildlife vacation?

Manta rays

The Maldives’ manta ray population can be seen year-round around the islands, and they are a firm favourite with visitors because they are giants of the ray world. Hanifaru Bay in the Baa Atoll, north Maldives, is one of the few places in the world where you can see mantas en-masse, engaging in cyclone feeding – a curious phenomenon where the rays swim in a washing-machine motion together, feasting on zooplankton.

Manta rays visit cleaning stations across the Maldives, where smaller fish gather to eat the algae and parasites off their skin and teeth. In the protected area of Madivaru, for instance, you can gatecrash these underwater beauty appointments between February and April. Some estimates say that manta rays bring in some $8 million of tourism a year – now, that’s a mental mantle for one fish to bear.

Whale sharks

The Maldives is one of the rare places in the world where you can see whale sharks all year round: slow, gigantic and limousine-like, gliding frictionless through the water and carrying a celebrity aura. These massive fish, sometimes 12m long, are closely monitored, and distinguishable from each other by the unique pattern of spots on their skin. How easy is it to come across a whale shark? Experienced guides make the whole thing sound a breeze, “We cruise the SAMPA zone,” says Ub, using the common nickname for the South Ari Marine Protected Area. “When we see a black shape that looks like a fish that is moving then it’s most probably a whale shark.” Most wildlife vacations will involve a spot of shark-seeking, boat captains sharing intelligence with each other on whale shark whereabouts over shortwave radio.


Turtles, so often the poster child for ocean protection, can be seen across the Maldives, and you can even go on a turtle conservation vacation here. Green, leatherback, loggerhead, olive ridley and hawksbill turtles all stop by the Maldives, with several species also nesting on the islands. They make wonderful snorkelling companions, traveling in stately sine waves between the surface and the sea grass – the curiosity is mutual.

Fish, wonderful fish

‘Fish soup’ – that’s what you might hear the water being called, when it’s so thick with fish that you, snorkelling among them, can barely move. The Maldives’ fish population numbers over 1,100 individual species, and ranges from hundreds of tiny, kaleidoscopic reef fish, to the long and wriggly: “We have all kinds of eels,” says Ub, “zebra eels, moray eels, honeycomb moray eels – they are magnificent creatures, very calm and unbothered.” Most wildlife vacations offer plenty of snorkelling over reefs, one of the best places to see huge numbers and varieties of sea creatures.

Maldives wildlife under threat

Climate change poses an existential threat to the islands. Rising sea levels are already eating away at them, and will one day reclaim them altogether. When you’re an island nation, the threats come from all sides. It’s a scary prospect, and, understandably, Maldivian people don’t always want to talk about it. Instead, they focus on what they can do: protect what they have. A Maldives wildlife vacation can show you these conservation efforts in action.

Coral reefs and sea grass

Coral reef has been shown to massively reduce the effects of coastal erosion from sea storms, which are more likely to happen in the future. Unfortunately, lots of Maldivian coral was damaged, in a process known as coral bleaching, by 2016’s El Nino, a warming event which temporarily raised the temperature of seas across the world. Coral nurseries all over the islands attempt to regrow lost coral. Fragments of live coral can be attached to 3D-printed frames, and these act as underwater trellises across which the coral can spread, eventually forming a new reef. On a Maldives wildlife vacation you may visit a coral nursery, as well as both bleached and healthy reefs to see the differences between them.

Organisations like Maldives Resilient Reefs preach the importance of seagrass – once thought of as an ugly nuisance that makes the sea bed look messy, but now increasingly treasured for its importance as a habitat and food source for turtles and other species. Visitors can learn about seagrass – and snorkel over it – to understand its benefits.

Clean beaches

When it comes to waste disposal – always tricky on islands – local guides like Ub have been at the forefront of behaviour change. “The local word for garbage area is technically also the word for beach area,” explains Ub, “Islands produce garbage and put in an isolated area on the shorelines and if it gets too excessive then they burn it.”

Ub is passionate about telling his friends and family, and his company’s local partners about proper waste disposal, and he’s not afraid to tell strangers off, too, “I HAVE to tell people to stop if I see them throwing something on the ground. It’s my character, I’m like this – they will listen and if I’m around they have difficulty doing it again if they see me.”

From turtles trapped in plastic rings, to reefs littered with ghostly plastic bags, Maldivian people might see the damage done by plastic waste, but they can’t fix the problem without proper infrastructure. Without government support, the problem is escalating. “The new way is not to throw stuff, and not to burn stuff,” Ub explains, “but of course it’s hard because there are not other ways to get rid of the rubbish – the government haven’t provided alternatives.” On Maldives wildlife vacations you might be invited to take part in beach clean-ups alongside local charities. You can also make a difference by taking as little packaging as possible with you, and taking any you use in the Maldives back home.

Good tourism

Tourists can make a big difference to how wildlife is valued in the Maldives. Instagram stories that show guests hanging off whale shark fins, stepping on coral or feeding sting rays perpetuate harmful expectations. It’s vital that guests follow codes of conduct. Tourists hold a lot of sway in a destination so reliant on their income – sometimes more sway, unfortunately, than the voice of local people. “It has to be the voice of the tourist for things to change,” says Ruth, “Tourists should be asking tour operators questions. And tour operators need to be aware of the protocols – how many people in the water, the distance they should be from wildlife.” Don’t be afraid to interrogate them about how they go about wildlife watching. A responsible tour operator should be able to reassure you regarding the codes of conduct they follow.

Whether any of this can be enough in the face of climate disaster is a big and frightening question, without an easy answer. “Sometimes travelers say. ‘We should stop traveling’,” Ub says, “But that’s economically very difficult for us.” For now, the Maldives needs its tourists just as much as it needs its wildlife, but it needs responsible tourists most of all.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Maldives or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

How to see wildlife in the Maldives

Maldives wildlife vacations are all about the sea life. The island nation is, after all, 99 percent ocean. It means that most trips here involve a bit of cruising, perhaps with a couple of days devoted to searching for whale sharks, and other days snorkelling reefs. Wildlife vacations of this kind are enhanced by good crews – for example, you may have a marine biologist or a marine charity representative on board with you to answer your wildlife questions. Having local guides who know the area well can also enhance the experience.

Combining wildlife vacations in the Maldives and Sri Lanka

The Maldives are a 90-minute flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka, meaning it makes perfect sense to combine a sea safari in the Maldives with a land safari in Sri Lanka’s Wilpattu National Park or Yala National Park, where there’s the chance to spot leopards, sloth bears and elephants. Vacations tend to start with more fast-paced activities in Sri Lanka, before allowing you to drift from reef to reef and beach to beach in the Maldives.

Seeing wildlife on diving trips

The Maldives is a diver’s playground. Experienced divers can enjoy drift dives and great visibility up to 40m down, but you could also come here as a complete newbie and get your qualifications – there’s no more beautiful school around, and with water temperatures remaining constantly balmy throughout the year, there’s not many warmer schools, either.

Conservation trips

You might not be able to touch a whale shark, or manhandle a manta ray, but in some wildlife rehabilitation centers you can, guided by a marine biologist, help clean and feed a turtle. Conservation trips in the Maldives might focus on rescue turtles that have fallen foul of fishing equipment or the illegal pet trade. You’ll work closely with local people and charities in rescue and rehabilitation efforts, and may get involved in public awareness campaigns – as well as being taught enough fish facts to make your head spin. These trips can work really well for families as kids of all ages can interact with turtles.

Seeing Maldivian wildlife and wanting to save Maldivian wildlife should go hand in hand; trips like this make sure that they do.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sebastian Pena Lambarri] [Intro: Sebastian Pena Lambarri] [Manta rays: Sebastian Pena Lambarri] [Coral reefs and sea grass: Ishan @seefromthesky] [Seeing wildlife on diving trips: Sebastian Pena Lambarri]