Great House Reefs

Maldives House Reefs

One of the first questions a true Maldives aficionado asks of a resort is ‘How good is the House Reef?’

When I first heard the advice to seek out the best house reef, I didn’t even know what a house reef was. We arrived at Laguna Beach (the resort that preceded Velassaru) and spent our days snorkelling around the coral croppings in the sandy lagoon. Then on an excursion to Bolifushi (soon to be Jumeirah Vittaveli), we went ‘over the edge’ and our hearts nearly leapt out of our snorkels. It is a truly dramatic experience to go from a few feet of water to a vast open expanse with a wall peppered with colourful coral and schools of tropical fish.

When I visited Vadoo, I got into a discussion with Assistant GM Alex Kovacs about great house reefs. Alex was proudly and valiantly making the case that Vadoo’s was one of if not ‘the’ best house reef in the Maldives’. My wife and I had to have a go with that kind of endorsement and can attest that it is a thoroughly fine experience. I would call it a first class house reef, but I balked at his claim that it was ‘the best’. I’ve covered ‘house reefs’ before including ‘Best House Reef’ (based on TA research), ‘Best House Reef Drop-Off’, and ‘Closest House Reef’.

He then challenged me, what makes a ‘great house reef’? I had some immediate responses, but it subsequently made me reflect on what it the characteristics really were. I came up with the following proposed list of criteria…

  • Drop-off (minimum 20 metre drop off)
  • Access (maximum 30 metres from shore to drop off)
  • Quantity and diversity of fish (especially ‘Little Five’)
  • Quantity and diversity of coral
  • Length
  • Low current (typically on the ‘inner atoll’ side of the island)
  • Warm water (this is a given in the Maldives and many tropical destinations, but not a guarantee at other snorkel spots around the world)

Best of the Maldives: House Reef Platform – Kandima

Kandima - house reef platform

One of the key criteria to a great house reef is accessibility. The intra-atoll drop-of-sand islands typically have house reefs a few metres from shore. You don’t have to juggle the logistics of signing up to a resort excursion to take you to some snorkel spot. Instead, you can just dive in and the aquatic wonderland reveals itself to you instantly. It is not just the convenience of proximity, but also a bit of reassurance. Despite the fact that you might be standing metre (on the sand not the coral, please!) in merely a metre of mill pond calm water, there is still something unsettling about swimming hundreds of yards off shore. And snorkeling can take a bit of energy so if you have had a particularly extensive outing, then the last thing you relish is an extended swim back to shore.

The islands that on the outer reef tend to be on broad tables which may make for expansive lagoons, but make for either weak or distant house reefs. Some of the resorts on these islands will typically offer regularly excursions taking people to the edge in a dhoni for an easy splash onto the reef.

Kandima does sit on an outer reef plateau and it has gone a step further to support house reef snorkeling constructing a platform in the lagoon relatively close to the edge. You can use it as a base camp for your house reef expedition. Or just for some middle of the ocean swimming or sun bathing.

Best of the Maldives: Lagoon Coral Garden – Canareef

Canareef - snorkeling 1

The Maldives lagoons. There aquamarine pools are perhaps the feature that most defines the distinctive Maldives topology from above. And yet for many Maldives aficionados and avid snorkelers, they often dismissed and disregarded. The “main event” for the Maldives’ world leading snorkelling is the ‘house reef drop off’. Where the coral shallows plummet into the deep blue ornamented with a living collage of vibrant sealife.

Lori and I often feel these unsung littoral shoals are underappreciated. On our first visit, we knew nothing about the drama of the house reef and spent our first days happily snorkelling among the scattered coral croppings in two-foot deep water. We were nonetheless still mesmerized by the schools of tropical fish darting here and there. Since that time, we have had some very fine snorkels in lagoons.

I long ago added a basic ‘house reef’ rating to the resort Profiles, but a couple years ago I thought of adding a ‘Lagoon Rating’. I didn’t have enough information to do a good job of it and, as I’ve mentioned, there’s not a lot of call for lagoon info. But I have seen many lagoons in my 70+ Maldives resort visits and snorkelled most of them, and I have been struck by a number of them. For example, Four Season Kuda Huraa’s with its early and ambitious reefscaping initiative stands out for example. But I have to call out Canareef’s “Coral Garden” as very possibly the best ‘house lagoon’ in the Maldives.

While lagoon snorkels are more sedate and less eventful affairs, our snorkel of their Coral Garden was one of the most exciting underwater excursions of the trip. First you are struck by the great variety of coral. Most of it in very good health. One of the best parts is the crewcut forests of staghorn coral tickling the underside of the ocean top. They weave in contorted shapes like a shrubbery maze in the garden of a stately home that you can get lost in roaming through the sandy channels.

And this water wonderland extends for acres and acres. In fact, it gets a bit spooky to swim half a kilometre offshore even if the depth is still chest high. The shallow depth makes the Coral Garden an attractive option for snorkelling novices especially at low tide. If you have any difficulties, you can just stand up (as long as you ONLY stand on the sand, not the coral, but there is plenty of sand around). Even though it is sheltered and shallow, always take every precaution when snorkelling especially if you are less experienced.

Many resorts have started adding a number of creative touches to give their lagoons more allure. Despite its abundance of natural blessings in the lagoon department, Canareef is not resting on its laurels. They are in the process of building a special overwater bar to support the snorkelling. You can get gear there and have a post-snorkel drink while sharing all your snorkel spotting tales.

Never have I seen so much marine life in such little water.

Canareef - snorkeling 3
Lori venturing out into Canareef’s Coral Garden

Canareef - snorkeling 2

Best of the Maldives: Best House Reef Video – Maayafushi

Maayafushi house reef video

 

 

As promised, I have now completed my own list of post-tour challenges of getting all of the research material consolidated, profiles updated, notes organised, and as promised, expanded information on the resorts’ House Reefs. I’ve added a row to the Resort Profile devoted to House Reef details (see below).

Mostly, I have broken down the very crude “House Reef Rating” into several more granular ratings…

  • House Reef Rating (focusing on the “drop off”)
  • Drop-Off Coral Rating (focusing just on the coral variety and density as opposed to fish life or ease of access.
  • Lagoon Coral Rating (focusing on the shallow water coral croppings)

As a part of my enhancing the House Reef information, I’ve also added a second video link to the resort profiles of footage taken on the house reef. Very often, the TripAdvisor Maldives Forum refers to such videos for first hand documentation of the reef quality. I’ve gone through the videos on YouTube and selected the best I could find in terms of showing the most of the reef (ie. not all close ups of fish and other sightings).

Through my house reef YouTube research, I came across a whole range of quality from grainy camera clips to Hollywood-style editted GoPro productions. The one that rose above as “Best Picture” (among some very worthy competition I must say), was “Maldive – The Movie” 39 minute feature film of the Maayafushi house reef.

Other special mentions include…

  • Most Views – Filitheyo: 4934.
  • Most Likes – Embudoo: 59.
  • Best Soundtrack – Helengeli: (fun and apropos medley of tunes)
I’ve populated the ratings based on my visits and information others have shared, but it is at best less than half complete and could have some inaccuracies.  If you have any information to share, please comment or email me.

 

House reef profile section

Best of the Maldives: Channel House Reef – Gangehi

Gangehi channel

For many Maldive aficionados, the holy grail of the ideal idyll is a spectacular house reef. Typically, the best house reefs are on the dot-shaped islands in the center of an atoll as the topology on the edges of the atoll lend themselves to long, broad shallow tables which make for great lagoons, but often hard to reach “drops off” (the defining feature of a great house reef).

The Gangehi resort has a very distinctive house reef because its drop off is in a “channel”. Channels exist all over the Maldives and are narrow water passages between the inside and the outside of the atoll. Gangehi’s is named “Gangehi Kandu” which is the Dhivehi word for these waterways.

Bigger fish tend to like the deeper channels, but being intra-atoll, they should be a bit calmer. Certain species tend to favour outside the atoll and other the inside. But this area would seem to have the best of both worlds (Gangehi also has a sheltered side (East) to its house reef to provide more conventional house reef snorkelling). The resort brochure describes…

“Gangehi Island lies on the north-western edge of Ari Atoll, on a oceanic pass, a natural channel crossing the atoll ring that keep in communication the atoll lagoon with the open ocean. The pass, named ‘Kandu’ in Divehi, has a very high ecological function for the Atoll marine life, as it makes possible the renewing lagoon waters. Kandu usually subject to strong currents, incoming or outgoing depending on the tide conditions, and creating a unique environment great for many pelagic species, and a few benthic species cling to the substrates. Gangehi Kandu is one of the longest channels in the Ari Atoll, with a drift of more than 2.5 km from the channel’s entrance to the end of the dive at the inside of the Atoll. The wall here is quite unremarkable really. There are interesting things to spot such as lionfish, moray eels and porcupine fish but the real action is out in the blue. With an incoming current the visibility can be excellent and the parade of pelagic and local residents, impressive. You might see vast schools of fish like fusiliers and blu trigger fish feed in colliding waters, a number of reef sharks as well as barracuda, jackfish and tuna. Large squadrons of eagle rays are frequently seen here seemingly flying in formation in an unforgettable display. The bottom of the entire channel at Gangehi Kandu is sandy, making it a perfect resting ground for Stingrays, White Tip Reef Sharks and the Leopard or Zebra Shark which is commonly spotted here when the conditions are right. At this impressive sites divers can find caves covered with excellent soft coral, a wide range of colourful invertebrates, gorgonians and sponges. The water inside the atoll is breeding ground for plankton and when the outgoing currents bring the plankton-rich water through the channel into the big blue large and beautiful species like manta come to feed.”

Lori and I had the immense pleasure of snorkelling the kandu during our stay there and Lori then went on a drift dive at the edge of the atoll where she saw black sting ray, octopus, eagle rays, a monstrous Napoleon fish (bigger than herself) and many, many sharks especially grey sharks.

That’s the Kandu Spirit!

 

Gangehi Kandu

Best of the Maldives: House Reef Infratructure – Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo

Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo snorkeling

 

The house reef remains one of the top criteria in Maldive resort choice. Resorts with weaker or less accessible “house reefs” have to work harder to compensate with a more enticing overall offering. Distinguishing between the fine house reefs, though, is a very subjective exercise. Some have more coral, some have more fish, some are more accessible, some are more extensive. Except for Reefscaping, there’s not a lot that a resort can do to alter its reef endowment. But given it pre-eminence as a guest lure, I’m always surprised that resorts don’t do more to enhance the house reef experience.

One resort that has pulled out the stops to support snorkling (and diving) its own very fine house reef is appropriately named Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo. They are blessed with a vibrant reef with curious caves and colourful soft coral. But instead of resting on their polyps (hmm…that sounds like a tired person with piles), they have invested in all sorts of infrastructure to guide and support to make the whole experience easier and more satisfying including…

  • Snorkel/dive spotting white board
  • Ropes to dive entry points and at entry points
  • Current indicator
  • Sign out board so people can go themselves on the house reef
  • Wreck next to the house reef
  • Snorkel board

For divers who want to dive this house reef, solo diving is permitted (as long as you follow the strict safety guidelines). I’ve not seen so many things put in place to enhance the house reef experience. A number of them are quite unique in their own right (eg. current indicator, house reef wreck). But the one that excited me the most was the “Spotting White Board”.

I have been advocating for years that resorts feature a white board where they could share their snorkel discoveries and sightings. I envisioned a map where people could highlight what they saw and where. My frustration with the lack of any logging or sharing facility is what led to me developing the Snorkel Spotter. Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo doesn’t have anything as fancy as that, but at least it has a log board for sightings (see photo below) which is in the right spirit.

 

Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo house reef spotter

How to Write a Great Resort Blog

RSS sunset

 

It is even more surprising it is that no resort has really nailed a sustained, quality blog considering how straightforward the opportunity really is. In addition to the blog fundamentals cited in my yesterdays “Maldives Resort Blog Roll” post, here are a few angles that almost write themselves for most resorts…

  • Staff Profiles – A common feature on corporate blogs is to do profiles of various members of staff. Sometimes they are people doing particularly intriguing or esoteric jobs. Sometimes they are people with particularly unique backgrounds. Sometimes they are staff with special interests. We do them on our Red Bee Piero blog. The benefit to the resort and the guest is that such pieces really personalise the resort. Such individual stories make a bit of a human connection to this plot of sand with some villas and palm trees on it. Another benefit to the resort is that very often the staff are quite proud of the work they do and their story they tell.
  • Snorkel Central – Snorkelling is the main event for the most guests to the Maldives. It is one of the first topics of conversation at the bar in the evening…”What did you see today?” Invite guests to share their house reef adventures and discoveries. Also, the majority of resorts now staff marine biologists. I find too many of these MBs focus on education. They write and speak about the ABCs of marine life. I think they should invest more effort and time in writing about “stuff they saw”.

What about Facebook? Many of the approaches I’ve listed above (eg. sharing snorkel pics) are what resort marketeers do on Facebook. They sometimes respond, “Blogs are passé, Facebook is where it is at.” Yes, blogs have been around for a while. The hype behind them hit a crescendo and has since tapered off (typical of many innovations). And Facebook is very of the moment. Though indications are that Facebook is hitting its own hype apex. Despite Facebook’s popularity and ease of use, it still has a number of major shortcomings especially vis-à-vis blogs…

  • Offline Accessibility – Getting Facebook updates delivered to your offline Inbox (eg. Outlook) is a complicated set of menus and settings, while blogs provide simple (“Really Simple”) RSS Feed that deliver straight to your Inbox for offline reading (eg. on an airplane, in remote areas).
  • Archivability – After certain dates, finding and accessing old posts and updates is a real chore (and I find they often disappear). On a blog, you can readily access them with direct links, Search boxes and dated Archive listings.
  • Searchability – One struggles to find material on Facebook with Google, but Google readily finds most all blog material.
  • Formatability – Facebook has very limited, almost primitive, formatting capability. Your own blog frees up your ability to format your posts in your preferred branding style or in a rich way that makes the post more engaging and/or appealing
  • Linkability – Investing in a blog doesn’t necessarily forgo Facebook. You can have your cake and eat it too. Simple draft a rich format blog post…and then link to it with a brief comment on your Facebook page.

Maldives Tour 2013 – Day 4: Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo

Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo arrival

Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo is like a 4 star Kurumba. Primarily because of it being a classic round Maldivian island shape surrounded by a ring of sea barriers. Some people are put off by the stone defences saying that they detract from the idyllic views over the ocean. But one dividend they provide is a safe haven of snorkelling for beginners and weak swimmers. It is the closest thing to an open water swimming pool. Yes, the sandy lagoon that are all over the Maldives also provide this sanctuary, but they also offer very limited things to see snorkelling. The sea defences themselves often provide a vibrant platform for all sorts of creatures. And the seas defences are positioned at the precipice of the house reef drop off, so the resort does offer that dramatic snorkelling for those who wish to venture out a bit more at some point.

But another reason for the comparison is its value for money. Kurumba is one of the best value-for-money 5 stars and I think Ellaidhoo might just be one of the best value-for-money 4 stars. Don’t take my word for it. I got the notion from a real Maldivian expert and veteran. Known as “Turquoise 23”, as she is known on the TripAdvisor Maldives Forum, we overlapped on our visits this trip and arranged to meet up during our stay (see photo below).

My tours are starting to become TripAdvisor Meetups. We swapped stories and perspectives from her 15 trips to the Maldives. She has run the gamut from Shangri-La Villigili to the now defunct Lohifushi. Ellaidhoo is the third resort that she has graced with a return visit. She explained her decision to me saying she had a really great time here on her last visit and doing her research this time around, it was the best value going.

During my short stay, I uncovered 5 distinctives to write out in the coming months.

 

Chaaya Reef Ellaidhoo T23

House Reefs

Profiler House Reef selection

“How is the house reef?”

That is one of the most common and critical questions prospective visitors ask when considering a Maldives resort. One of the marquee Maldivian activities, perhaps the best in the world, is snorkelling. And the main event to snorkelling is the ‘house reef’.

When I was first introduced to the Maldives by friend and colleague Andy Lees, his main words of advice were to make sure the resort had a great house reef. Of course, the sun, the sand and the overall paradise can be more than enough for a spectacular holiday for many. Also, those resorts poorly endowed in this all things reefy almost always offer many excursions to take guests to excellent nearby reefs for snorkelling.

I’ve covered the subject of house reefs on several occasions…’Closest House Reef’, ‘Best House Reef’, ‘House Reef Drop Off’.

But the subject has come up so frequently that I have decided to add a ‘House Reef Quality’ parameter to the Maldives Complete database of resorts. The breakdown is fairly basic, but it will provide some general help to people who do want to filter on this variable…

  • Distinctive. One of the best house reefs in Maldives in one way or another. Only a handful of these.
  • Good / Very Good. Where the lion’s share of house reefs sit. These resorts will deliver great snorkelling experiences characteristic of the Maldives
  • Problems. Some sort of significant problem or weakness to the resort’s house reef. Usually, the problem is accessibility, but it could be strong currents, no drop off or something else.
  • No information. I haven’t been able to find any details yet on the resort’s house reef.

You can filter on this item (see snapshot of ‘Resort Finder’ page above) and the information is included in the Resort Profiles.

Best of the Maldives: House Reef Drop Off – Filitheyo

Filitheyo House Reef
One of the absolute joys of the Maldives is the snorkelling. There is plenty of debate in the diving community about the top dive spots in the world. The Maldives always ranks up in the elite top with the likes of the Great Barrier Reef, Cayman Islands and the Red Sea. There don’t seem to be as many ‘top’ lists or guides for ‘snorkeling’, but it would be hard to see how the Maldives could be bested for its clarity of water, comfort of water temperature, diversity and quantity of fish, and a range of other variables.

For a snorkelling neophyte, there is a sort of progression of steps one should take to build up to the main event…

  1. Sandy lagoon – Start in the white bottomed, impossibly shallow sandy lagoon. Look at the little sand gobies, garden eels, silvery goat fish ambling by, mini humbug damsels darting in and out of tiny crevasses, trigger fish munching on strewn bits of small coral croppings.
  2. House Reef – Proceed to the area of the island where the coral aggregates into an underwater sculpture garden teaming with ever more colourful and diverse fish from the classic surgeon fish, colourful wrasses, angel fish and parrot fish, perhaps a turtle or small reef shark will make an appearance.
  3. House Reef Drop-Off – But the big event to any snorkelling is the ‘drop off’. Where the depth goes from a few meters to virtual oblivion. As you swim along the precipice, it is the closest feeling to flying without being in the air that one can have. Out in this open water, the island reef is a massive canvas of aquatic colour. The bigger space affords room for schools of jacks, oriental sweet-lips and the occasional larger visitor like a Napoleon fish or a ray.

Once you visit the ‘drop off’, the rest of the snorkelling will seem rather tame though it will always have its comforts and charms.

The resort with the deepest drop off, according to Emu72 on TripAdvisor appears to be Filitheyo, “Filitheyo has the deepest drop off in the Maldives at 90m on the NE corner, and the reef remains in fairly good shape.”

I can personally attest to how great the Filitheyo house reef is and its drop off from personal experience with me pictured above here diving into its depths.