Declared by the Maldivian government in June 2009 the South Ari atoll Marine Protected Area (MPA) became the largest protected area in the Maldives encompassing 42 km² of coral reef habitat. The area was selected for protection because of its importance as a globally significant aggregation site for the whale shark Rhincodon typus.
The MPA consists of a 42 km swathe of sea around the southern base of South Ari atoll. The MPA extends to 1 km from the shoreline and runs from Rangali island (home to the Conrad Maldives resort) at its north western edge, round to the end of the local inhabited island of Dhigurah at its north eastern extremity. Bordering the length of the MPA are four local islands; Fenfushi, Maamigili, Dhidhdhoo and Dhigurah as well as four resort islands; Conrad Rangali, Sun Island, Holiday Island and Diva Maldives. Scattered amongst these larger islands are a few small vegetated islands and bare sandbanks.
The nearest landfall to the west of South Ari Atoll is Somalia, some 2800 km distant. As a result, the west and south facing reefs are exposed to powerful ocean swells and strong winds, with the reef top reflecting the strength of the pounding surf with relatively
stunted growths of table and porite corals. On the eastern, more sheltered side, the reefs are in a much better condition, with table corals up to 3 metres wide seen in places. The reef structure beyond the inside lagoons consists of a plateau extending for 50 – 150 m at a depth of 3 – 16 m, before descending in a series of steep slopes to a depth of approximately 260 metres.
The deep water just offshore, reaching over 1500 metres (nearly a mile) in less than 3 miles, means that the area is ideally suited to the large pelagic species. Some of the ones most readily encountered are listed in the ‘Wildlife’ section.