Dolphins in Maldives
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Exploring the Aquatic Wonderland: Diverse Fish in Maldives

Are you craving some time under the ocean? Do you have a need to swim with the aquatic wonders nature has to offer? If so, the waters of Maldives might be just what you’re looking for.

Everyone knows that Maldives is known for its pristine beaches and clear cut waters but it is also widely known for being an excellent snorkelling and diving destination! Given the season, the waters have quite a bit of visibility, making these underwater activities much easier and safer to conduct.

Maldives is home to quite a variety of marine life, be it flora or fauna. The fish species in this island nation thrives with its affluent diversity and volume, making it easy (most of the time) to spot fish in their subaquatic homes.

In this article, we will be going through what sort of marine life exists in Maldives, fish species that call Maldives home and what their existence in the ecosystem does for the environment.

The Vibrant Marine Life of the Maldives

Underwater Beauty in the Maldives
Underwater Beauty. Photo Credit: wirestock via Freepik

For a small country, Maldives boasts quite a collection of fish species, coming up to a total of 1,100! This includes: 

  • Turtles 
  • Sharks 
  • Dolphins 
  • Corals
  • Whales
  • Mollusks
  • Amphipods
  • Copepods
  • Shrimps
  • Crabs 

Fun Fact: While Maldives has a total of 1,100 fish species, the island country itself consists of 1,192 islands. One for almost each species of fish!

One of the lifeforms that goes hand-in-hand with almost every fish is the coral reefs that inhabit these islands. These reef networks are an important part of a larger reef system that spans from East Africa to Indonesia, with many fish calling Maldives reefs’ their home. The reef is also a vital source of sustenance to many different sea creatures such as sharks, turtles, manta rays and dolphins, all of which can be found in Maldivian waters.

In an effort to keep this unique ecosystem intact and to allow it to flourish, there are multiple conservation efforts in place. Some of them include:

There are even more efforts tied to Maldivian resorts as well, with them conducting their own research and protecting the island and its surroundings. Here are some of the resorts in question:

Iconic Fish Species in the Maldives

As stated earlier, there are 1,100 species of fish in Maldives and while that is an impressive number for an island nation, there are quite a few fish that stand out from the crowd. 

Parrotfish: The Colourful Architects of the Ocean Floor

Parrotfish floating through the sea
Parrotfish floating through the sea. Photo Credit: Swaroop Edwankar via Pexels

An odd but important member of the marine ecosystem, the Parrotfish (Scaridae) plays a vital role in the creation of sand. We say odd due to the shape of its fused teeth, which resemble a bird’s beak. Their teeth are designed specifically to remove invertebrates and algae off rocks and coral. By removing algae, it allows the coral to absorb sunlight which furthers their growth. 

In their throats are another set of teeth called pharyngeal teeth, which breaks down the food particles (which are the invertebrates and algae from rocks and coral). Just one Parrotfish can excrete up to 250g of sand in a single day, producing about 85% of the sand found on white sand beaches!

These underwater architects can be seen all over Maldives so fret not if this fish is on your must-see list.

Fun Fact: Certain Parrotfish species are equipped with such strong scales that they can stop a spear!

Moorish Idol: The Solitary Beauty of the Reefs

Moorish Idol among the corals
Moorish Idol among the corals. Photo Credit: Magda Ehlers via Pexels

Moorish Idols (Zanclus cornutus) feature bodies that are compressed vertically and resemble discs with black, white, and yellow bars. The colours and patterns therein break up the fish’s body contour and make it harder for predators to determine the fish’s exact length, making it a viable survival tactic.

With the exception of the dorsal fin, which has extended spines that trail in a sickle-shaped, white whip-like extension, the fins are modest. As the fins age, the spines get shorter.

Moorish Idols spend their evenings on the reef’s bottom and are active throughout the day. They mate for life in pairs, and the male will act aggressively to defend the mate. Typically seen by itself or in pairs, but stunning schools are occasionally spotted, especially when they are young.

Fun Fact: These fish look for food within narrow crevices by using its long snout.

Ready to Dive In? Explore Maldives' Diverse Fish Kingdom!
Embark on an underwater odyssey as we unveil the mesmerizing array of marine life in Maldives. From graceful seahorses to awe-inspiring sharks, discover the secrets of this aquatic wonderland.

Clownfish: The Anemone’s Partner in the Maldives

Clownfish with the Sea Anemones
Clownfish with the Sea Anemones, their home. Photo Credit: kuritafsheen77 via Freepik

Say hello to Marvin or more appropriately known as the Clownfish (Amphiprioninae)! They have three characteristic white bars and are bright orange in colour, and are easily recognised among reef inhabitants. 

They are named from the multicoloured sea anemone that they live in, and they can grow up to be 4.3 inches long.

Before settling in, Clownfish engage in a complex dance with an anemone, delicately caressing its tentacles with various body parts until they become comfortable with their new home. The Clownfish is protected from the deadly sting of the fish-eating anemone by a layer of mucus on its skin. 

They drive off intruders and cleans its host, eliminating parasites, in exchange for protection from predators and leftover food.

Fun Fact: Clownfish are hermaphrodites, containing both male and female reproductive organs.

Surgeonfish: The Grazers of the Coral Plains

Surgeonfish hanging out with Clownfish.
Surgeonfish hanging out with Clownfish. Photo Credit: Oleksandr P via Pexels

We can’t put Marlin in and not expect us to put in Dory! Named the Surgeonfish (Paracanthurus hepatus) or Blue Tang, this fish has a few rather interesting facts.

Blue tangs have the ability to change their colour from light blue to deep purple, most likely in an effort to camouflage themselves in deeper waters, while also simultaneously being poisonous. They are frequently observed cruising over the reef top in big schools, swimming and feeding on algae. 

These groups are frequently made up of several species from the Acanthuridae family, which includes tangs and surgeonfish.

Fun Fact: They are called Surgeonfish as they can go toe-to-toe with predators by using a spine so sharp it’s been compared to a surgeon’s scalpel.

Butterflyfish: The Graceful Dancers of the Maldives Waters

A closeup of the Butterflyfish
A closeup of the Butterflyfish. Photo Credit: David Clode via Unsplash

Just like the butterflies that inhabit the world above water, the Butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae) are extremely colourful and move in a flitting, darting manner. 

Plenty have rounded, eye-shaped dots on their flanks and dark stripes across their eyes to make it difficult for predators to determine which end to attack and which way they’re most likely to run. Typically found in shallow inshore waters, butterflyfish eat a variety of crustaceans as well as coral polyps.

Although they are widespread in tropical reefs worldwide, the Indo-Pacific region is home to the majority of the world’s butterflyfish population. While many butterflyfish species travel alone until they find a mate with whom they may mate for life, some species travel in small schools.

Fun Fact: They are one of the few fish that feeds directly on hard coral.

Encountering Predators and Peaceful Giants

Blacktip Reef Shark: Misunderstood Inhabitants of the Shallows

A Blacktip Reef Shark swimming in peace
A Blacktip Reef Shark swimming in peace. Photo Credit: David Clode via Unsplash

Not all is what it seems when it comes to this denizen of the ocean. The Blacktip Reef Shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) may get a bad rep (due to it specifically being a shark) but they are known to be quite shy and quick to panic, being quite harmless outside of being provoked. Just make sure you respect their space and you’ll be in for a wonderful experience.

Blacktip Reef Sharks tend to stay in very specific areas, usually as large as 0.3km2. This makes them easier to locate and allows for diving and snorkelling experiences to be carried out without issue. They also spend a lot of their time in shallower waters, hardly going past 75 metres in depth. They can grow up to 130 kg in weight and 1.9m in length on average.

These creatures move in packs when they hunt for food, mainly consisting of small fish from the reef. They do also feast on sturgeon and mullet if the need arises.

Fun fact: They also have an ampullae of Lorenzini that enables them to detect the location of prey from electrical currents prey emits. 

Nurse Sharks: Gentle Denizens of the Night

A Nurse Shark surveying its hunting grounds.
A Nurse Shark surveying its hunting grounds. Photo Credit: Karl Callwood via Unsplash

The Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) is a docile creature that can grow up from 7.5 to 9.75 feet in length and weigh up to 200 to 300 pounds. They are usually found along the shallow seabeds, where they hunt for food at night and sleep during the day, making them a nocturnal species as well. 

They have a preference for squid, shrimp and fish but will feed on shellfish and other hard organisms if the need arises. These sharks have smooth skin, compared to their rougher shark counterparts (this doesn’t mean you should go touching Nurse Sharks, they will still bite you in self-defence if you get too close or appear to be a threat).

Extremely sedentary, these sharks move quite slowly and have been recorded to grow up to 14 feet in length and have a curious shaped mouth, with it being hinged and curled, almost like it’s trying to do the duck face.

Fun Fact: The Nurse Shark is one of the very few species that can sit still and breathe underwater, by sucking in water into its mouth. This process is called buccal pumping, allowing it to bring oxygen into its body without needing to swim around.

Oriental Sweetlips: The Pouty Spectacle of the Reef

Oriental Sweetlips in all its glory. Photo Credit: David Clode via Unsplash
Oriental Sweetlips in all its glory. Photo Credit: David Clode via Unsplash

These sweetly named fish got its name due to them having smaller mouths & teeth along with fuller lips, as seen in the picture above. They can grow up to 86 cm in length with black and white stripes and yellow across the outer sections. They are usually quite easy to approach given they feel safe near hiding spots.

Oriental Sweetlips (Plectorhinchus vittatus) tend to stay close to the reef, taking any opportunity to zip into their hidey-holes if they feel threatened. They are not that social and can mostly be seen alone, sometimes in small groups and rarely in schools.

Much to our surprise, these fish are seen as a delicacy to eat in eastern countries and in Maldives as well due to their taste. If you’re curious, it helps to know that these fish prefer live food instead of regular bait. Their taste may be attributed to the fact that they are quite picky in what they eat.

Fun Fact: These fish are also called grunts, due to the sound they make when they are caught. This may be because they may grind their teeth upon capture.

Trumpetfish: Masters of Camouflage and Precision

A closeup of the Trumpetfish.
A closeup of the Trumpetfish. Photo Credit: Oceanário de Lisboa via Google Images

With a rather unusual look to the eye, the Trumpetfish (A. chinesis) are known to either be reddish brown, brown with pale bands or yellow in colour, with them also having the shape of the long stick you used to play sword fighting with as a child. Their name is a combination of the Greek words for flute (aulos) and mouth (stoma).

Trumpetfish are known to grow up to 36 inches in length, with an ability to camouflage themselves by changing their colours in accordance to the environment to derail predators. They can be found lounging around the depths of the reef, where they feast on crustaceans, small fish and larger fish should the need arise. When hunting for small fish, they point their heads to the ocean floor and wait for an unsuspecting fish to come close enough. When within the vicinity, the Trumpetfish quickly expands their mouth, creating a suction effect that funnels the prey into their jaws.

Their vertical posture when hunting also allows them to blend into their surroundings, making this a viable tactic for survival as well.

Fun fact: Like seahorses, the males care for the eggs, carrying them in a special pouch.

Snorkelling Tips and Best Spots for Fish Watching in Maldives

Snorkelling in Maldives is always going to be a fun time and for those who’re more on the experienced side of things, grab your gear and head to the ocean! As for the rest of you who aren’t as well versed as the others, read on for some snorkelling tips that will serve you in any ocean you may go to.

  • Don’t touch or stand on the marine life
    • It’s important that you keep a safe distance between yourself and the fishy residents of these waters as they may become defensive which might end up in someone getting hurt. The same goes for coral as well, where you should keep in mind to not step on or touch them as well. While they may be strong, it is still a shame if a piece breaks off as it takes quite a while for it to regenerate.
  • Don’t walk on the ocean floor to avoid corals and sea creatures
    • Walking on the ocean floor might sound cool (just like that one scene from Pirates of the Caribbean) but there is a chance you might step on some coral or even some fish that camouflage themselves in the sand like a manta ray for example, which might hurt the creature and yourself as well.
  • Don’t chase the fauna
    • Giving chase to sea creatures is only going to stress them out and it might cause them to turn on you so it’s best to just let them go about their day at a safe distance.
  • Don’t use flash when taking pictures
    • The denizens of the sea wouldn’t be used to the flash at all and it might make them panic so it’s best to disable the flash on your cameras if you’re taking pictures or even a video.
  • Don’t feed the fish
    • Feeding the fish equals you getting close to them so to avoid any sort of injury make it a point to not try and get them to eat stuff from your hand.
  • Snorkel on a clear day when the weather is good
    • Mother Nature can be quite unforgiving at times and when the Maldives weatherweather gets rough above water, it can get quite rough under the water as well. The waves close to the surface and currants below water might get a bit rough so make sure you pick a clear day to go snorkelling.
  • Wear sunscreen and UV protective swimwear
    • It’s never fun when you get a sunburn so make sure you bring sunscreen that’s also safe for the coral as some sunscreen products tend to have bleaching elements that might damage the reef. UV protective swimwear is also a big plus so wear what you think might protect you from the harmful rays.
  • Ensure you’re a strong swimmer / decent snorkeller
    • A beginner class would always come in handy if you’re new to snorkelling and even swimming. The guide will be glad to help complete newbies get their footing right in the ocean and if you’re already decent in both areas, then you’re good to go.
Dolphins in their natural habitat.
Dolphins in their natural habitat. Photo Credit: Kammeran Gonzalez-Keola via Pexels

As for the best fish watching spots, here’s a quick and short list of our best picks:

  • Baros Maldives: Incredible house reef
  • Embudu Village Resort Maldives: Spotted Eagle Rays
  • Mirihi Island Resort Maldives: Crystal clear waters allowing for exceptional visibility
  • Vilamendhoo: Sea turtles, Blacktip Sharks
  • Whale Shark Point at Ari Atoll
  • Hanifaru Bay at Baa Atoll: Manta Rays

How to identify fish: Colours, patterns, the way they move their fins, which fins move as opposed to others, shape of their bodies, their nature as fish (if they’re territorial, docile, etc), 

And if you’re a curious individual who wants to know what sort of fish they are, there are a few ways you can identify them. 

Before you even jump into the water, take the time to familiarise yourself with reef fish families, at least the common ones. Take note of their colours, patterns and behaviour to verify which family they belong to so that it becomes exponentially easier to narrow down what fish it is. Immediately after the dive, ensure that you look up and identify the fish so that you retain the information rather than forgetting the fish in question.

Get yourself a slate to take with you when you go snorkelling so that you can do rough drawings of the fish you want to identify. The drawing doesn’t have to be perfect, it just needs to have enough detail that denotes the main features of the fish such as the colour, shape, markings and fins.

If you want to have pinpoint accuracy on your fish identification, make sure you remember the latin / scientific names for the fish as well. There are instances where guides and books have two different English names for one type of fish which might cause some confusion. To avoid that, lean on the latin / scientific names.

The Role of Fish in the Maldivian Ecosystem

Fish are a vital part of any ecosystem. One of the biggest contributions they make is their ability to provide nutrients that they recycle, which in turn helps other, smaller species to survive. They also provide cultural and recreational benefits, with some fish being used for religious reasons and other fish used in big game fishing and such.

An Infographic on Tropical Fish.
An Infographic on Tropical Fish. Photo Credit: helpucover via Visualistan website

Fish have their own role to play when it comes to the coral reefs as well. Underwater algae are known to grow on coral which deters coral growth, marking it as a net negative for the ecosystem as a whole. That’s where the fish that dwell the reef come in.

The fish or rather herbivorous fish such as the Surgeonfish or Parrotfish as mentioned earlier, make meals out of the algae, providing protection for the reef from these microorganisms, while the reef provides these fish with shelter and protection from larger predators.

The reef fish also makes sure the coral aren’t eaten by corallivores, which are organisms that feast on corals as per their name. Not only do they eat coral, they also weaken the reef and spread diseases as well.

With the increase in tourism in Maldives over the last few decades, it has become apparent that the fish population has been impacted as well. More people coming into the country equals more fishing, be it tuna or underwater delicacies such as reef fish. This leads to overfishing if left unchecked and can have drastic effects on the surrounding environment.

One of the things that the fishermen do is to employ the One-by-One Fishing method, where fishermen use a simple handline and hook or a pole with a barbless hook to catch tuna one by one. This eliminates a lot of excess fish getting caught by netting and also leaves juvenile fish out of harm’s way which cancels out the disruption of an increasing population.

There are things you can do as a tourist to help as well! One of the things you can do is to be wary of litter, especially littering in the ocean. If you’re swimming around near the beach and you happen to want a treat like an ice-cream cone, don’t just throw the wrapper into the ocean next to you! Take the time to throw rubbish into the trash can and you’re already miles ahead of a lot of tourists.

Another thing would be to not try and take fish out of the sea to keep for yourself. As ridiculous as that sounds, anything is possible but that doesn’t mean it should be done. The only thing it’ll do is stress the fish out and disrupt the underwater world.

Keep an eye out for these fish species in Maldives when you take a dip and take in all its natural beauty. Treat the sea and its inhabitants with respect and both you and the fish will be in for a treat!

Share with us your experiences about swimming and snorkelling in Maldives when you book your trip via MadlyMaldives.