Ukulhas is a cigar shaped island fringed by coral sand beaches. It’s located within the Alif Alif Atoll which is a group of islands an hour or so west of the capital Malé (rhymes with soufflé).
Ukulhas is not connected to any other island. It stands alone surrounded by a gorgeous blue sea. Nearby are some sand banks and submerged reefs.
The “option” comes in the fact that you can hire a boat to take you to an off-shore reef which doesn’t get stirred up like the near-shore reef do. More on that later.
A quick note about currency: most transportation is paid for in US dollars. The Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR) is used for buying snacks etc at the local markets. At restaurants, many accept both MVR and USD.
Ukulhas is one of the many islands which can be reached by slow ferry or speed boat. That really helps for economizing. The speed boat is $50 (one way) and I think the slow ferry is around $10 (probably less).
Ukulhas is a good “option island”. If you hit a stretch of perfect weather, then the house reef is like a giant swimming pool. On the other hand, if rain/wind coincide with your vacation plans, then expect waves and poor underwater visibility.
It should be possible to take a sea plane, but that is the most expensive option and runs around $300USD.
There are no resorts on Ukulhas, but there are many “guest houses” which range from a room at someone’s house to clean and comfortable multi-story hotels.
With taxes, expect to pay $40-85USD per night (2020 prices). I’d recommend not going “full board” and instead have lunch and/or dinner at one of the many small restaurants on the island. The variety of food is a bit limited, but prices are around $10-15 for a main dish.
In general, the multi-story hotels are better built and thought out. There are guest houses which are cheaper and certainly there are clean and nice guest houses. Read the reviews and see what people who have stayed there say.
On the beach…
Most accommodations on Ukulhas are on the western side of the island. In fact, the hotels are right across the street from the beach. By “street”, I mean a pathway made of sand. Across the “street” is a sandy area … a buffer with coconut and banyan trees and other tropical vegetation. Basically, you’re on the beach.
Most hotels and guest houses do not have “view” of the beach. If you want a great view, walk out the font door and take another 30 steps and sit on the beach. The sand on the beach is fine but not quite powder. They keep the beach clean although you need to be careful about stepping on broken coral fragments which might have just washed ashore.
It’s a very nice beach for walking. You can walk around about 60% of the island while staying on the beach. The west side is typically more tranquil, although it can have waves too.
Be sure to head to the beach before 9am and keep an eye out for sea-life. On numerous occasions we saw large pods of dolphins along the drop-off (where the reef enters deep water, on average 70 meters from shore). We also saw huge manta rays hunting plankton. There are large schools of bait fish which hug the beach. Predatory needle fish zoom into those schools and the bait fish fly in every direction. Baby black-tip reef sharks likewise hug the shore and can frequently be seen cruising within 1 meter of the beach. The ocean surrounding Ukulhas is teaming with life.
Ok, let’s get in the water already!
The reef on Ukulhas is a typical fringing reef. The fore-reef ranges from 20 meters to 500 meters wide and encircles the entire island. Conditions can vary widely depending on wind and weather. If things get stirred up, expect poor visibility. But if the winds remain calm (and they usually do) you can expect near-swimming-pool-conditions.
Start off on the west beach. It’s on the tranquil side of the island, but check the waves and look at signs of what the currents are doing. Plan accordingly.
The island is about 43 acres (17.5 hectares) while the shallow reef is likely double that size. The distance from the beach to the reef drop off averages about 70 meters, all of which is under 2m deep.
The fore-reef is easy to snorkel, but it’s more-or-less a waste of time. It’s sandy and silty and any wave action will cut the visibility. And due to those conditions, there isn’t much growing on the fore-reef.
If you are comfortable being a bit far from the beach and in deeper water, head directly for the reef drop off (where the color turns from aqua to dark blue). Watch the current as you get out there and plan accordingly.
At about 3-5 meters of depth, the population of fish pegs the meter. Corals also abound. It’s not the Maldives of old as 2010 and 2016 El Niño events decimated much of the Acropora in the area. But it is growing back. And the reef is well populated with interesting denizens like anemones, crinoids, turtles, rays, squid and Christmas Tree worms.
From the drop-off, head north along the coast. The current should push you slowly in that direction. But be wary of the current’s speed and if it’s moving you quickly north, then be sure to head back to the beach as you approach the northern tip of the island.
If the currents are mild, then you might consider heading out past the northern point. The reef makes a wide arc and there is a “blue hole” on the north east corner. It’s a pretty far swim to get out there, so renting a sea kayak for a few hours might be an easier way to do it. Be sure to ask the guy to give you an “anchor”. He will fill a sandbag with sand. Be sure the rope is decent and don’t take too much sand as getting the “anchor” back into the kayak may prove difficult!
If you are wondering whether you are missing out by not going to the far northern part of the reef, don’t be. The reef mirrors what you will find off the west beach. One option would be to go as far as the “Christmas Tree worm” zone, which is well worth the trip. At low to medium tide, you will see a couple large rocks poking above the water surface near the northern point of the beach. The most seaward rock is approximately where you’ll find the large coral boulders full of the worms.
It’s interesting how there are “pockets” of densely populated reef real estate. There are also plenty of areas which are virtually barren. It pays to look around. Regardless of your starting point, when you head out to the drop off, if you don’t see much of interest, try swimming parallel to the beach for 10-20 meters. You might be surprised how life tends to clump together on the Ukulhas reef.
When to go
The best time of the year to go to Ukulhas is between November and April, with February reported as “the best”. Conditions are quite variable and a bit of wind can quickly stir up the water and cut visibility drastically. It takes a few days of calm weather for everything to settle down.
What to do if you are on Ukulhas and the seas are stirred up? Get a boat ride to the nearby sand bar and snorkel there. Be sure to ask about the currents for that day.
Or, head to one of the many submerged reefs which are within a short speed boat ride from the island. The trip can run $70-100USD, but it’s well worth getting in the water far from the beach as it will likely have much better visibility. Be sure to ask about the conditions.
Ukulhas is easy to reach, affordable and ocean life abounds. But it can get rather stirred up if it’s windy and the resulting loss of underwater visibility could put the kibosh on your house reef snorkel plans. Consider heading to areas well off the beach in deeper water, or even an excursion to an off shore reef.
If time is short, your budget is tight, and you want a nice beach with plenty of marine life, then Ukulhas is a great spot.