MY NEW BUDDY CHRISTOPHE followed me off the steps and we surface-swam away from the dive centre towards the headland. It was a pleasantly warm day, the craggy cliffs towered above and the Gulf Stream frothed noisily against them.
When we got bored with the topside panorama, we descended a few metres and enjoyed a view of plunging lava rock faces below the surface.
Some way around the promontory the V-shaped crack we had been told to look for appeared like a sign. We lit our torches at about 12m to explore the cavern that gaped below.
Inside lay a jumble of boulders and inviting niches beneath a vaulted ceiling. Our beams revealed little clumps of black coral clinging to the walls.
Warned of what might be lurking in the cave, however, we were busy trying to look everywhere at once, and less likely to notice the gribblier inhabitants of this hole in the wall.
About 50m in, but with the entrance still forming a small blue window behind us, we rose into a pool of air beneath the roof. Aware that it was vented from outside, we took our regulators out to test its quality and pronounced it OK.
We moved back down to explore the opposite side of the cavern. Thats when Christophe, one of the many German divers to base themselves at the Manta Diving Centre while holidaying in Madeira, started making frantic signals, hard to decipher in the gloom.
I got the gist - something was behind me. I turned just in time to see a streamlined shadow flashing past my shoulder towards a dark gallery further below. So this was the famous lobo marino, or sea wolf.
To be fair, I wouldnt know the hand-signal for monk seal either (hands clasped in prayer) and, with only some 50 specimens left in the world, sadly Im not likely to need it often either.
Id love to say I had a meaningful encounter as the rare creature returned to cavort playfully around my fins, but that was pretty much it.
The seal had nipped another German diver the week before and, quite rightly, we had been told that if we saw it we should not follow or bother it in any way.
Another dozen or so monk seals live around the Desertas Isles, which lie within sight of Madeira, and, apart from some small colonies in the Med, thats it. The last of the sea wolves should be cherished.
If the seal was shy, the stars of Madeiras most famous site, Garajao, are anything but.
Manta Diving, located precariously at the base of the cliffs at Caniço, east of the capital Funchal, is near this marine reserve, and it offers some very enjoyable underwater experiences.
A 10-minute boat-ride takes you there. Get down the line first and a dusky grouper as friendly as its large will rush over and gape at you.
Feeding is prohibited here, so its either folk memories, bubbles or sheer friendliness that inspire it (though perhaps someone has dropped the odd boiled egg its way).
This fish doesnt have a name (in Britain it would be called Dave) but its a bit of an icon here. I saw its likeness blown up on the walls of shopping centres in Funchal.
On my second visit it greeted me like an old friend, before darting away as if remembering an urgent appointment.
I followed it deeper before it went into reverse and plugged itself neatly into a hole in the rock. Long-legged cleaner shrimps emerged like the Maclaren pit-stop crew to scratch the fishs itches.

EQUALLY FRIENDLY IS LIMAO, which means lemon and reflects the startling colour of a large and unusual grouper. Also known as Mycterroperca fusca, its been a celebrity here for many years.
Further east along the rocky landscape youll be enveloped in silver shoals of cow and saddled bream and bastard grunt (nothing against them, thats what theyre called), peppered with grey triggerfish, parrotfish and painted-by-numbers Turkish wrasse. And on the seabed we took in a rough-tail sting ray as big as a double bed.
The marine species youll see in Madeira are a variation on what you find in other eastern Atlantic islands, from Cape Verde to the Azores and, of course, the Canary Islands.
Midnight-blue sea urchins abound, so mind your buoyancy as you hover close to the rocks to look for arrow crabs, little red scorpionfish, colourful dahlia and snakelocks anemones, fireworms and gaudy sea cucumbers.
Gurning from cracks like manic Muppets, moray eels abound.
Out on the grey sandy seabed, garden eels sway in the breeze, ready to duck at a hint of danger. Every now and then an eagle ray sweeps majestically across the sand and, at the site of two seamounts known for some reason as Tits, king-sized striped barracuda and mackerel maintain patrol.
You might even be lucky and see a manta. I didnt.
A lot of this life is reachable simply by shore diving from Manta Diving, following rocky spits as they grope down and out to sea.
The nearest is the boot-shaped Lavafinger, or try the Arena to the west, a natural amphitheatre that includes a tunnel where smaller grouper, blacktail combers and morays lurk.
Just banging a few rocks together at any point is likely to result in an explosion of fishy activity around you.

I WAS VISITING MADEIRA at the invitation of a consortium of 16 upmarket hotels called the Quintas Group. The islands hoteliers, like the tourist board, are keen to emphasise the more energetic activities available on this Portuguese island, as opposed to the flower-sniffing and fortified wine-tasting with which it is associated - in other words, to draw a younger crowd. I dont flatter myself that I fit that description.
Alongside diving, surfing and other watersports, mountainous Madeira offers high-level activities such as climbing, mountain-biking, trekking, hang- and para-gliding and canyoning.
I discovered hours before departure that I was required to stay at three hotels in the chain, and dine at four more. Unfortunately the Quinta Splendida in Caniço, which is close to the dive centre and has the coolest spa Ive seen, was on the dining agenda only.
The first two hotels I stayed at were way up in the clouds: the very English and charming Casa Velha do Palhiero and, higher still at 860m, the Jardim da Serra, modern and panoramic (though its restaurant, by the groups impressive standards, let the side down a bit).
The first time we drove there after a days diving, I had to ask the taxi-driver how much further we were going to ascend, aware that Madeiras mountains rise to over 1800m, and nervous of being dropped in a state of fizziness.
Hotels at altitude are about as useful to scuba divers as the Dead Sea.
A better option would be the Quintanha Sao Joao, the Bella Vista or the Casa Branca, all close to sea level in pleasant Funchal. All three live up to Madeiras reputation for fine food and smiling faces. The dining at the Casa Branca in particular was historic.

MY DISAPPOINTMENT was that I didnt get to dive the Bowbelle. If the name sounds familiar, this was the 2000-ton dredger that cost the lives of 51 people when it hit the 90-ton Marchioness pleasure boat in the Thames in 1989.
Later sold as a sand-digger to a Madeiran company, it was renamed Bom Rei, and sank here in 1996, broken in half in 32m about 45 minutes south-west of Funchal.
Diveability depends on wind and waves. The small Manta boat could not undertake the hour-long journey out, and the dive centre Tubarao Madeira Diving Organisation, which found the wreck, dives it only on summer weekends when south winds dont blow.
Tubarao says the Bowbelle is in good shape and attracts plenty of marine life, but Ill have to take its word for this until my next visit. I would happily return to Madeira, perhaps also to sample sandy neighbouring island Porto Santo - and, of course, to drop in on those celebrity sea-dwellers.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly direct with TAP Portugal, which provides a good Airbus service (www.flytap.com). It takes just over three hours from London Gatwick with a 20-minute transfer to Funchal. Easy Jet also starts flights to Madeira this year.
DIVING: Manta Diving Centre is a friendly and tightly run Quality Divers location (www.mantadiving.com, 00351 291935588). Tubarao Madeira Diving Organisation dives the Bowbelle in summer (www.scuba-madeira.com)
ACCOMMODATION: Quintas do Madeira hotels are generally excellent, and there are 16 from which to choose (www.quintas-madeira.com). If you dive with Manta, the Hotel Galomar above is another option (www.galomar.com).
money8 Euro.
LANGUAGE: Portuguese, English widely spoken.
MONEY: US $ and Bahamian Dollar (parity). Major credit cards.
HEALTH: Self-certification isnt enough - without a doctors signature you wont be allowed to dive. An incident involving an uncertified diver in 2006 resulted in closure of a dive centre in Machico to the east of the island.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Sea temperatures 17-23°C, late summer/autumn is warmest. It can be wet late in the year.
PRICES: Return flights with TAP from £84. Seven nights B&B at the Quinta Splendida, with 10 dives at Manta Diving, car rental and two dinners costs 1104 euros between mid-March and end of October (www.quintasplendida.com). Or book flights, hotel and transfers from around £600 through Cadogan Holidays (www.cadoganholidays.com, 02380 828313). Manta charges 207 euros for a 10-dive package.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Madeira Tourism Board, www.madeiratourism.com