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We were positively surprised to see the beautiful coral reefs in the Maldives after the destruction we were used to in Malaysia, Thailand and especially the Andaman Islands (with very few exceptions). We were expecting worse conditions after the big bleaching event in 1998 and a smaller one in 2010. The coral reefs, at least within the atolls, have recovered well in many places, even though you can see damaged areas time and again. The outer coral reefs are having a harder time to recover probably due to their exposition. There you only find small colonies and only a few species, which grow much slower.
The Maldivian archipelago is one of the most important coral reef areas in the Indian ocean and is divided in 26 atolls. Even the word “atoll” originates here - it comes from the Dhivehi (the Maldivian language) word “atolhu” and means “ring-shaped, in a circle arranged islands”. An atoll develops independently from the continents or main land areas in the middle of the ocean and was a former volcanic island with a fringing reef. While the volcanic island slowly immerses into the ocean the corals in the fringing reef keep growing towards the surface and so finally the typical reef ring or atoll develops. The Maldives developed probably out of a whole mountain range, which was immersed and the fringing reefs kept growing and veered away from the central mountains in the middle. So the coral reefs remained like a circle around the lagoons - the atolls. On their fringes there are canals or channels were the water can flow into and out of the lagoon. The currents there are often very strong and because of that those are popular diving spots to encounter big fish. In the atolls itself there are plenty of smaller ring-shaped reefs with smaller lagoons and often small sandy islands, so called pseudo-atolls or faros. There are about 1200 sandy islands in the Maldives!

Coral reef in Ari atoll at low tide
Coral reef in Ari atoll
ring reef with lagoon-channel in the center and sand islands
Coral reef in Hagrandhoo atoll

In some places, where we were snorkeling, you can find a coral cover of up to 80% again with lots of reef fishes, and also sharks. You can usually see black-tipped (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and white-tipped (Triaenodon obesus) reef sharks every time you go in the water. One has to get used again to have those impressive predators around all the time. Deeper down you can sometimes also see gray reef sharks  (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos). Especially in the atolls further south (for example Gaafu-atoll) we have seen a lot of younger ones during snorkeling.
You should not go diving without a reef hook in the channels on the edges of the atolls because of the strong currents. But because of the currents you can see a lot of sharks, great barracudas (Sphyraena barracuda), different trevallys and jacks, leopard sharks (Stegastoma fasciatum) resting at the bottom, and a lot more. Reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) are very common in the Maldives. You can usually find a few individuals at known spots where they have a cleaning station. There you have plenty of time to  observe those gently marine birds (see former blog). On some places like for example the Vattaruh atoll we were able to see their smaller relatives the mobula. They are usually very shy and disappear quickly into the open ocean. At the reef edge but also inside the atolls you often see spotted eagle rays (Aetobatus narinari) which sometimes are curious and come very close.
The dominant coral genus is definitely Acropora, which you can find in all possible versions. From finely branched to big and saucer-shaped, you will find everything. Generally we have the impression that the more south from Male' the atolls are situated, the more beautiful and species-rich the coral reefs and their inhabitants are. Sadly because of the bad weather conditions we didn't have the opportunity to go diving or snorkeling in the southernmost atoll - Addoo. There the outer reef is supposed to be in a much better condition than anywhere else in the Maldives.
One more thing we noticed is that the big, territorial fish are missing in most parts. We usually only found them in remote reefs which are not easily accessible. This could be a sign that the local population does a lot of spear fishing.
You can find our under water treasures in our under water gallery of the Maldives.