A SHOAL OF YELLOW-BACK FUSILIERS greets us as we descend onto a sloping meadow of hard corals which, on closer inspection, is punctuated not by giant puffballs but swirling clouds of glassfish.
Seductive candy-striped shrimps, nudibranchs and determined-not-to-shift lizardfish immediately tempt away the close-up photographers in the group, but I just want to admire the big view.
And that view just gets better as we move along the reef at around 20m. There are a lot of fish, too – ribbons of tiny blue fusiliers meander one way, while a multicoloured selection of damselfish, humbugs and pullers dash in every direction. Dark sprinklings of unicornfish mingle with equally dusky surgeonfish higher above the reef.
Extravagant purple-lined anemones harbour not nuclear families but dozens of anemonefish darting in and out. Every now and then an eagle ray appears from nowhere, flapping lazily a few metres above the reef and nonchalantly close to the divers. Then the powder-blue surgeonfish enter en masse stage right, among the most flamboyant of Indian Ocean reef fish and always spectacular when seen in shoals of 50 or more.
But all these fish, colourful and distracting as they are, are the top-dressing. Because on this and other reefs in this southern part of the Maldives, the coral itself is the star.
The world’s coral reefs are under threat. We are reminded of this so often that the depressing thought that I may be among the last few generations to enjoy them often pops unbidden into my mind when I’m enjoying coral vistas the most.
For all the times I have found myself at overseas dive-sites where the coral is bleached, storm-damaged, stunted or simply indifferent, and had to accept that this was the new order in that part of the world, every now and then I plunge into a joyous world of coral like this one at Park Thila – a reminder of the glory days.
The Greek word skleros gave us sclerosis and it also gave us scleractinia – hard coral. Here in Gaafu Alifu Atoll it’s all about scleractinia. There are more than 200 types of hard coral in the Maldives, and I’m no better than the next non-biologist at distinguishing one acropora from another, but perhaps we get too hung up on labelling nature (that’s my excuse, anyway).
Some people like to zoom in to photograph the fantastic patterns created by the polyps but for me it’s the cumulative effect of all those plates, pillars, brains, swirling lettuces and cabbages and bulging mushrooms, a fantastic panorama punctuated by weird sculptures and Gothic towers.
We all love colourful soft-coral gardens too, and following devastating events such as the El Nino of the late 1990s in the Maldives, these fast-growing corals soon reasserted themselves on the reef.
Slow-growing hard corals are another matter. While I think of soft corals as the Dairy Milk crowd-pleasers, scleractinia is the 90%-cocoa dark chocolate delicacy.
Gaafu Alifu Atoll in the southern Maldives is part of isolated Huvadhu Atoll, and just a 35-mile boat-ride north of the Equator. Huvadhu is the biggest and deepest (down to 90m) of Maldivian atolls – and the biggest atoll in the world.
To my eyes it’s blessed with a whole lot of stupendous hard coral. In fact on the sites I dived from the island of Hadahaa in June I saw only hard coral, apart from a section of the black coral that always sets me searching for the long-nosed hawkfish that like to hide in the fronds.

I WAS UNLUCKY with the tiny hawkfish, but these and the other macro subjects dive-guide Ashfaq from Blue Discovery dive centre delighted in finding were not high on my list on this flying visit.
I was enjoying the wide-angle view of healthy, abundant hard corals too much to bother about changing lenses. If anyone insists that the Maldives lacks hard corals, tell them to go south, where the dives out of Hadahaa are coral delight.
The island is a place out of time, partly because of its submerged seascapes but also because, like other Maldivian resort islands, it exists in its own tiny time zone. You set your watch forward an hour on arrival, even though you will have flown directly south from the capital Male, about an hour away.
And it’s that additional (and, it must be said, not cheap) domestic flight that means that fewer shore-based divers make their way this far south.
At what I have no choice but to describe as the outstanding Park Hyatt Maldives resort on Hadahaa, time again seems to stand still. In the capital Male, political unrest has continued to bubble away ever since the country’s first democratically elected president (and environmental activist) Mohamed Nasheed was usurped by authoritarian Abdulla Nameen and imprisoned on terrorist charges that few outside the government take seriously. Of course, on Hadahaa all that seems a universe away.
At the end of my stay at the Park Hyatt I was asked for any comments about the resort, negative or otherwise.
Normally I would consider that my cue, but on this occasion, to my surprise, no words of criticism would come out.
I couldn’t knock the place.
True, I had burned the soles of my feet on the midday-hot wooden boat jetty after leaving my sandals behind, but I could only blame myself and the sun for that.
The resort may not be unique but its team has come up with the perfect balance between friendly informality and well-judged attentiveness. The villas are enormous, most with their own pool between you and your section of beach, and they want for nothing.
If you can think of anything the staff haven’t pre-empted, you have your own room-host to call and take care of it for you. I couldn’t really think of anything.
The restaurants and spa are excellent, and the personal service starts when you land at Male, where agents take any strain out of the southbound transfer, and ends only once they have helped you check in for your homeward flight.
Hadahaa also has an impressive house reef, although storms have caused a little damage there. The resort is very zealous in protecting it, encouraging snorkellers to enter the water from the boat jetty to avoid damaging the corals.
This is a comparatively big island but there are only 50 villas, and many guests are from China, where water-based sports have yet to catch on. So Blue Discovery, an immaculately organised dive centre, doesn’t seem to be over-run by divers – bad news for the centre but good news for those who do sign up.

AFTER THAT PAEAN OF PRAISE for accommodation that naturally comes at a price, it’s time for the sort of underwater adventure we expect in the Maldives – a channel dive on the atoll’s edge.
The tide is incoming so we’re poised on the outside of the rim-reef, ready to drop onto the wall, hook in on the corner and enjoy the pelagic action before letting the flow carry us back into the lagoon.
You’re never quite sure what to expect with these channel currents – will it be a mask-ripper or just a nice even drift? As long as you’re not required to fight the flow for any extended period, all’s well.
It’s the first dive of the day and it took the dhoni 45 minutes or so to reach the Maarehaa Channel. Shedloads of fish are congregated on the corner as we settle to watch the display.
A grey reef shark, smaller whitetips and some eagle rays wander in and out of our sightlines but sadly no closer than they feel is necessary. Smaller predators size up the breakfast buffet.
Ashfaq, who was born and raised on an island close to Hadahaa, is disappointed by the vis, which he considers poor by local standards at 15m or so. “The reef is always there, but when visibility is good
I am very happy,” he says later.
Thousands of dives have not diminished his pleasure in his coral kingdom. So we follow his lead and let the comparatively mild flow take us for a joy-ride, highlighted by batfish, barracuda and green turtles in a variety of sizes.
The following dive at nearby Dhiyadhoo Thila shows Gaafu’s other-worldly vistas at their best, with its vast petrified pastures of coral.
Visibility away from the channel currents seems endless and we see more eagle rays and turtles and a Napoleon wrasse, though this monster fish is also shy, bowling quickly across the seascape.
The only solitary animal to approach rather than retreat is a green turtle, but I think it mistook my dome-port for something tastier, and we all but collide.
My final dive looms, and as no other guests have signed up to dive this afternoon Ashfaq kindly commandeers the dhoni and crew and takes me to one of his personal favourite but less-visited sites, Grouper Thila. He succeeds in overcoming a GPS problem, locating it using a pair of binoculars from the roof.
Praise be, because this site teems with everything on my fish-wishlist – like Park Thila on steroids.
Apart from the fusiliers, snapper, surgeonfish and multicoloured minifish there are parrotfish and butterflyfish and cracks stuffed with scarlet bigeyes.

IT’S HARD TO KEEP UP – one moment Ashfaq is pointing out some rare shrimp and while I’m trying to zero in I look up to see him swimming happily alongside a turtle. He manages to find the pair of green leaf-fish he has promised me, and we end up deco-ing in a vibrant anemone city – I could spend many happy dives at Grouper Thila alone.
You may get the idea that I did many dives from Hadahaa but this was a brief visit and a sudden storm stopped play on one of the designated diving days.
So that’s 11,200 miles, two days’ diving, five dives, just under five hours under water. Not a carbon footprint to be proud of, I suppose, but all I can say is that the plane would have flown with or without me. Diving? Priceless.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Flights with Qatar or Emirates from the UK via Doha or Dubai. Onward flight to Kooddoo by Maldivian Aero and a half-hour speedboat ride to Hadahaa. Hold baggage up to 32kg is covered on all flights.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION Blue Journeys Dive & Activity Centre, the first PADI 5* centre in Gaafu Arifu Atoll, is part of Park Hyatt Maldives, Hadahaa, maldives.hadahaa.park.hyatt.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round – air temperature stays at around 30°C and water around 28°. Rainy season is May-September but severe storms are rare in the Equatorial belt.
MONEY: Maldivian Rufiyaa, US dollars, credit card
PRICES: Return flights around £600, domestic flight US $510. The resort is currently offering a dive package for a minimum four-night stay which includes breakfast, orientation dive and $150 daily credit at the dive centre, room rates starting from $1080 per night. Full-board rate is $170pp per day.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitmaldives.com