WE WERE JUST OUTSIDE TAVIRA in Portugals Algarve, about to start our first dive on the Coral Gardens with Salvador, one of the longest-serving dive operators in the region. Im used to dive guides trying to enthuse everyone with tales of how you might see a manta, dolphin, eagle ray... but Salvadors was certainly a fresh approach.
The gardens followed a ledge starting in 23m and dropping to 28m, each part of the ledge covered with gorgonians in yellows, reds, purples and whites.
As we rounded a small spur, Salvadors torch caught a lobster, but before we could get in close to see its detail, he waved it back into its hole.
A few minutes later, a stationary grouper almost got to meet us head on - until Salvador scared it off by blowing air out of his regulator while finning straight for it. All very strange behaviour for a dive guide - was there some point to his antics
Ive spent years conditioning the marine life around here, explained Salvador later. Fishermen use scuba and spearguns to hunt the larger fish down - without me training them to fear divers, their population would soon disappear.
Salvador was clearly passionate about his Coral Gardens and several other nearby sites. Forty years ago, a crazy Frenchman taught him how to dive. Since then he has been a strong advocate of preserving the reefs in the region. But he understands that fishing is a vital part of its economy.
His family are all descended from the fishing community, and he is often called on to rescue their nets when they get caught on the reef. I do it to help them, but also to keep the reefs intact.
If they get covered in nets, the marine life around them will soon die off.
Despite Salvadors unusual methods, there was much to see on the Coral Gardens. There may have been a lot in the market too, but out on the reef there were still plenty of shoaling fish, as well as numerous brightly coloured nudibranchs, and sculpins leaping from outcrop to outcrop.
On our return, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant by Tavira Harbour with Salvador and his group of devoted local customers. Most of them had been diving with him for several years.
For them he was the regions father of diving, having been responsible for training most of its new generation of instructors. However, meeting his family of instructors would have to wait.
The next day Salvador took us to Vilamoura to meet another stalwart of the Portuguese diving community, Carlos from Club Torpedo.
Tavira may be famous for its traditional seafood restaurants, but Vilamoura appears to be strongly associated with All Day British Breakfasts, served with British beers at 2 euros a pint.
Around the harbour there was no shortage of Union Jack shorts and other British holiday-maker clichés.
The Torpedo dive school looked slightly out of place among the tackier stores surrounding it. Inside, Carlos, now in his 70s, has a proud display of iconic diving equipment. I commented on his spearguns. Ah, I hung those up a long time ago, he said, laughing.
A photograph of Carlos in his 20s stood proudly next to a fish taller than he was, from his days as a champion undersea hunter. All around the store were relics from yesteryear - Siebe Gorman regulators, Fenzy horse-collars and some of the earliest dive computers.
Like Salvador, Carlos has been diving in the Algarve for decades. Its his home and, even if the diving will never compare to the Red Sea, he clearly loves what he does for a living, where the diving is ideally suited for a few dives while you are on holiday.
Which was exactly what Jenny from Shrewsbury, in Vilamoura to visit her retired parents, was doing. She was also a repeat visitor to Torpedo: Ive been diving with Carlos for three years now. My parents and I like his operation - he knows what hes doing and is very safe.
The dive highlighted the work Salvador had done in clearing fishing nets from his Coral Gardens. It was the same reef, stretching across the coastline, only here it was covered in discarded nets, their corners stretching eerily towards the surface.
But in a strange twist, these nets had become a nursery for small fry, layers of them making the water around the nets turbid. Atop the nets, sculpins jumped from rope to rope like street gymnasts, while each strand was home to nudibranchs and flatworms in purples, blues and yellows.
Visibility wasnt what it had been on Jennys previous dives, but she still enjoyed it: Its a great break from the beach, and there was plenty to see - a small conger eel, morays, and under one of the nets there was a small octopus.
What was missing were gorgonians - the nets had taken their toll.

THE NEXT STOP in our journey west took us to Faro, where Jose and Fatima (more of Salvadors graduates) run the Hidroespaco dive centre. It was time to leave the reefs and explore the coasts wrecks.
The Ipimar, a trawler sunk intentionally by the Portuguese Fishery Investigation Institute in 32m, provided an insight into what can happen to the reefs when theyre left alone.
The wreck is covered in jewel and large patches of white anemones, and is home to vast shoals of bib and bream. A fisherman who chanced his luck around the wreck didnt fare too well, as he left his net behind on the bow.
However, this suited the wrecks resident conger eel, by providing what we were told was an endless supply of fish that still get ensnared.
Tania, a nurse from Lisbon, thought the eel the highlight of the dive, despite cloudy visibility of no better than 3m.
At least I could see the conger and recognise the shape of the wreck, she said. On my last dive on the west coast, I could only see as far as my fin!

A COMBINATION OF WINDS from the north and currents from the south had stirred up the visibility, and the water temperature had dropped, we were told, by several degrees.
Carlos and his friends spent 18 years being towed behind a sled before they discovered our next site. Even then, it was a freediving friend who eventually provided the co-ordinates for the wreck of a B24 Liberator, a World War Two bomber that lies scattered along a sandy bottom in 20m.
You can still see one of the propellers in the shingle, but the main attraction is the upturned wing, complete with engines and landing gear. The wing-frame was home for moray and conger eels, their tails wound around the jewel-anemone-encrusted struts. The structure was also home to a particular type of nudibranch in yellow and blue, some of the biggest and fattest I had ever seen.
I tell people that I feed them, joked Carlos later.
Although we heard several versions of the truth about the popular B24 site, the one I liked best involved the crew surviving and being helped by daring Portuguese freedom-fighters. Later, Salvador told us of another warplane wreck further down the coast. Ive only seen it once, he said. I took down the transits, but when I returned, building work had obscured them. Its still down there, waiting to be rediscovered.
The weather closed in for the rest of the week, but our search for the Algarves best diving didnt stop.
In Armacao de Pera we met another of Salvadors students, Miguel, a qualified marine biologist and DIR devotee. We had to settle for video footage of diving on the reef here.
It was June and water temperature was 15°C, with vis of 2-3m. The footage had been taken a month earlier in 22°C water and 15m vis. Its all down to the position of the Algarve and how different wind directions and currents change the face of the diving, explained Miguel. It adds to the unpredictability of diving in this region.

FOOTAGE TAKEN OFF SAGRES, at the tip of the Algarve, looked very attractive if you like grand caves, overhangs and tunnels, If I get enough notice, this is something both I and Hidroespaceo can help plan for you, said Miguel.
Some other dive centres we visited seemed to be lacking the professional approach of those already mentioned. Its only my opinion, but I would avoid the town of Albufeira - we heard too many tales about the dive centre there trying to outsource, unreliably, to Miguel and Carlos operation. Besides which, the beach smells of urine and the bars are your worst British holiday-maker nightmare.
On our last night we joined Salvador at one of his favourite restaurants, the little-known Marisquera Fialho in Sino de Pinheiro, Luz de Tavira. All the customers were locals and its a restaurant that from the outside you would probably avoid, but, as Salvador explained, this is where the fishermen bring their catch, and have done for generations. We see the fish under water, but we cannot resist eating them.
As we feasted on shellfish and grilled fish, we knew that we were contributing to the overall demise of the reef - a strange feeling, one also shared by Salvador. But in this uncrowded community, relatively untouched by tourism, there was no animosity towards divers from fishermen.
Salvador told us that by the end of the night they would be trying to coax from him the locations that might maximise their catch. Sure enough, they did.
Amid the laughter we could make out the Portuguese word for market, and worked out where Salvador had sent the fishermen to find the fish.

GETTING THERE: Monarch Airlines has routes into Faro from all over the UK.
DIVING: Most dive centre websites (where they have one) are in Portuguese, but enquiries to the following are answered in English - Coral Diving, Tavira, 00 939 017 329, coralsub@mail.telepac.pt; Club Torpedo, Marina de Vilamoura, 00 289 314 098, torpedodiving@hotmail.com; Hidroespaco, Faro, 00 289 862 500, www.hidroespaco.com; Dive Spot, Armacao de Pera, 00 282 314 825, www.divespot.com.pt
ACCOMMODATION: Brendan OBrien stayed at the Pedras del Rei hotel in Santa Lucia, Tavira, www.pedras-del-rei.com
WHEN TO GO: Summer months. Take a 7mm semi-dry.
PRICES: Flights from the UK to Faro start ar around 160 euros. Rooms at the Pedras del Rei range from 35 to 200 euros a night. A two-tank dive trip starts from 60 euros.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Algarve Tourism Authority, www.visitalgarve.pt