Maldives - Atolls in the Indian Ocean

For many surfers worldwide, Maldives with its clear, warm water and vibrant coral reefs, represents the ultimate tropical surfing paradise. 

Maldives is a string of coral atolls in the central Indian Ocean, oriented from north to south, with literally thousands of islands and coral reefs in warm tropical waters. For many surfers worldwide, Maldives, with its clear, warm water and vibrant coral reefs, represents the ultimate tropical surfing paradise. 

With clear, warm water in the Indian Ocean, Maldives is a tropical surfing paradise.

While today Maldives is regarded as a premier destination of glamorous high-end tourism, the islands were not always so wealthy nor well-known.

Surfers in the warm tropical waters of Maldives, in North Malé atoll.

“Atoll” is a Dhivehi word, from the language spoken in Maldives, derived from ancient Sanskrit. This word has since made its way into English and many other languages worldwide. 

American surfer CJ Hobgood at Beacon's, a powerful right reef wave in the southern atolls of Maldives.

“Atoll” is used to describe a specific type of island, a ring of coral reef around a lagoon, with passes and small islands on the perimeter and sometimes, in the middle of the lagoon as well.

Brazilian surfer Pablo Paulinho, surfing in the northern atolls of Maldives.

Atolls are the remnant of ancient islands, the only remaining part after the landmass in the center has eroded away and all that is left is the sturdy ring of coral reef around where an island used to be, a process that takes tens of millions of years of erosion by wind and rain.

Brazilian Flavio Padaratz, surfing at Pasta Point in North Malé atoll.

Maldives was populated by humans from India and very likely, by additional later migrants from nearby Sri Lanka. The islands had a long period of more than 1500 years as a Buddlhist kingdom before the arrival of Islam around 1200 AD. 

There are still a few secret spots in Maldives, like this one in the northern atolls.

Unfortunately, many of the artifacts from this Buddhist period were destroyed in an attack on the National Museum in 2012, as the Buddha figures and other items from this period when Maldives was a Buddhist kingdom were deemed idolatrous and smashed by extremist Muslims.

American surfer Pat O'Connell surfing in the southern atolls of Maldives.

After many periods of kingship and domination by either Sri Lanka or India, Maldives became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1887. The islands were administered from colonial India by the British, who kept the Sultan happy and other foreigners away from the islands and from establishing a base or colony that could be used to threaten shipping lanes in the area of British India.

South African Stacy Guy, surfing glassy conditions in the southern atolls of Maldives.

The British themselves recognized the strategic importance of the islands and established a Royal Air Force base at Gan in the southernmost atoll in 1956.  This military establishment employed hundreds of locals and provided a major boost to the Maldives economy in the pre-tourism period when job opportunities other than fishing were scarce. RAF Gan was closed in 1976, leading to widespread unemployment in the southern atolls and considerable social unrest.

Safari boat at anchor in the southern atolls of Maldives.

The beginnings of today’s large tourism industry in Maldives started in the early 1970’s as the government considered its options to grow the national economy beyond the traditional fishing industry and provide jobs for the population. 

Early morning waves in the southern atolls of Maldives.

While Maldives is a small country by Asian standards with about 500 000 people widely scattered over hundreds of islands, in a political context Maldivians have always been difficult to control. There are many political factions and social divisions in the electorate and frequent rebellions against the government in Malé, especially by the southern atolls.

Before there were airports in the southern atolls, it was a long journey by safari boat from Malé to reach the waves.

Once decisions had been made to promote Maldives as a tourism destination, policies were implemented which for the most part, are still in place today.

Until recent airport construction, many waves in the southern atolls were accessible only by boat.

One of these policies was to focus on high-value tourism - one person spending USD $100 per day rather than ten people spending USD $10 per day as per the “hippies” in India.

Safari boat in the southern atolls, where there are a plethora of reef waves exposed to southwest swell.

Another core policy still in place is the policy to keep visitors away from Maldivians, with potential contact between visitors and locals kept to a minimum. To that effect, there are many resort islands in Maldives where there are no resident locals at all, with all the employees contracted from Sri Lanka or The Philippines and many islands with towns that have no tourism facilities.

Maldives is all about islands and boats. There are no mountains or rivers in the country.

Many visitors to Maldives never set foot in Malé, the capital, as they are taken from the airport island directly to their resort island by speedboat and back to the airport after their stay.

Randy Rarick, surfing in the southern atolls of Maldives.

Surfing was not part of the government’s plan for tourism development in Maldives, the arrival of surfers was quite unplanned and unexpected by both parties.

A surfer jumping off the boat in the southern atolls of Maldives.

In early 1973, two surfers boarded a boat in Sri Lanka and along with the Captain and his pet monkey, set sail across the Indian Ocean on the monsoon for South Africa. A few nights later, thanks mostly to the Captain’s ineptitude and near-total lack of navigation skills, the boat crashed onto a reef in Maldives.

Maldives has become an established surfing destination with surfers worldwide.

The next morning, the two surfers; Tony Hinde and Mark Scanlon from Australia, took a look around and immediately noticed the waves breaking on the reef next to the boat and the seasonal offshore northwest wind. 

Pasta Point in North Malé atoll is one of the most well-known waves in Maldives and has been surfed since the 1970's.

They salvaged what they could from the wreck and gradually made their way south to Malé, where Mark boarded a plane and left the country. Tony stayed in Maldives for most of the rest of his life, becoming a Muslim, getting married, raising a family and founding Atoll Adventures, a surfing travel agency, in 1992.

Australia surfer Adam Melling, surfing in the northern atolls of Maldives.

Tony surfed alone or with just a few friends for many years in North Malé atoll; finding, surfing and naming many of the waves which are packed with surfers on live-aboard boats or staying at nearby resorts today. 

Tony Hinde-Hussien, the pioneer of surfing in Maldives, surfing in the southern atolls.

In the early 1990’s, a group of the friends with whom Tony had shared his Maldives surfing secrets decided making money was more important than mateship and started a business, bringing in surfers to North Malé and kicking off a surfing boom that is still growing today.

A sunny morning in the southern atolls of Maldives.

As Tony told me on our first trip to Maldives in 1993, “I knew if I did not start a business, I was going to be the odd man out and have no say in the surfing development of Maldives, so I started Atoll Adventures”. As surfing became firmly established on the seasonal reef breaks of North Malé atoll, surfers began to look around for other locations where there might be good waves in Maldives. 

A group of surfers on a sandbar in the southern atolls of Maldives.

With two distinct seasons for waves and weather, Maldives has periods of favorable wind and swell conditions and less favorable periods for both throughout the calendar year. 

Traditional dhoni at Thanburudhoo Island in North Malé atoll.

The dry season generally has great conditions in most of Maldives, with light winds from the northwest, north and northeast, low humidity and little rain from November to April. The southwest monsoon starts in late May or early June, with stronger southwest winds, soggy humidity and periods of heavy rain. 

Surfing in Maldives is done in warm, clear tropical water - no wetsuit necessary.

The trick is to get the late dry season winds combined with the early swells of the southern hemisphere winter, which would be the months of March and April, along with a similar period after the peak of the southwest monsoon in September and October.

Ying Yangs is well-known wave in Laamu atoll in the southern atolls, it picks up all southwest swell in the Indian Ocean.

Along with the now-uber popular waves of North Malé atoll, Tony Hinde-Hussien discovered a number of waves in the southern atolls that would later become popular destinations for surf travelers. 

Among them were the right hand reef wave at Ying-Yangs in Laamu Atoll and the powerful right reef break at Beacons in the far south, perhaps the most exposed surfing location in the country. Open to the southwest, Beacons is never flat and can produce powerful, double overhead waves breaking on a coral reef shelf.

Tony Hinde-Hussein was a pioneer of surfing in Maldives before his death in 2008.

Back in the 1980’s the southern atolls were a restricted area with no tourism at all and required a special outer atolls permit from the government to visit. Travel was by boat only, either a sailing dhow or later; a dhow fitted with a diesel engine. Either way, a southern atolls surfari took a month or more, to go there, surf a number of swells and return to Malé.

Surfing in the northern atolls of Maldives, in the Indian Ocean.

Now there are several new airports in the south, as the government has invested in infrastructure for the area to curb the rebellious politics of the region. Telecom services and internet access are remarkably good for a remote area and tourism resorts have sprung up on several islands in the southern atolls, to offer locals job opportunities other than fishing.

American surfer Noah Johnson, surfing in the southern atolls of Maldives.

Development has proceeded at a steady pace in the tourism industry as a whole, with a pause during the pandemic as construction was put on hold and workers stayed in their home countries, unable to travel to Maldives to work but operations are largely back to normal in 2023.

Rick Irons from Hawaii, surfing at Pasta Point in North Malé atoll.

Surfing has continued to grow  in Maldives with more live-aboard charter boats and more surfing resorts than ever before, operating in North Malé atoll and throughout the many atolls in the north and south of the country. With its clear, warm waters and coral reef waves, Maldives continues to represent for surfers worldwide the ultimate tropical surfing paradise.

Brazil world champion Adriano de Souza, surfing in the northern atolls of Maldives


Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE

Want more from  ?

Join azylo to get the latest stories from the author in your feed. Don’t miss a single story.

Recomended for you

View All