THE DORSAL FINS of a thousand silver Atlantic triggerfish ruffle the oily surface of the sea, and
I amuse my fellow-passengers by diving fully kitted, headfirst into the water from the RIB, my camera at the ready.
These silvery, flat-sided fish had been irritating me all week with their ridiculous swimming motion, tantalisingly hanging about in hordes, but diving into any crack in the rocks
or simply swimming away as soon as they realised that I wanted to get close with my camera.
I couldn’t say I blame them. With boisterous gangs of hungry dolphin of all types passing, combined with the fact that triggerfish are a tasty speciality in the restaurants of the Azores, you can understand why they might be nervous.
This time they are occupying the top few metres of the water column, enjoying a balmy 20°C when just below it was only 18°. I am thankful for my close-fitting O’Three neoprene drysuit, which keeps the chill away from my undersuit yet allows me to swim quickly, like a predatory fish.
I manage to squeeze off a couple of successful frames with my camera before the triggerfish all do their well-practised vanishing trick.
It’s as well that they’re good at it, although they obviously can’t protect themselves from fishermen this well.
The seabed is littered with the severed heads of those that took the fatal bait.
Meanwhile, I’m battling with an Atlantic surge that threatens to crash me against the rocky terrain.
It may be calm at the surface, but the full power of the Atlantic swell is more than apparent down here.
A large black moray eel can’t believe my persistence, and neither can I. It escapes in a swirl of activity after I have nearly crushed it in my surge-ridden attempts to get a close-up picture of it.
The archipelago of the Azores was formed by volcanic activity and, as such, is not dissimilar to Tenerife in the Canary Isles in appearance.
The difference is that the islands of the Azores are at the same latitude as New York, and the water in the middle of the Atlantic is appreciably cooler.
In fact, the view of the coastline is not dissimilar to that of the Western Isles of Scotland on a summer’s day. The weather changes from moment to moment. It may be foggy and raining, and then before you’ve put a coat on, it’s blindingly hot and sunny.
Underwater, the topography was formed by molten lava as it cooled, which can lead to some interesting, if not bizarre, rock formations. It’s possible to spend hours investigating the tunnels and overhangs so formed. The endemic marine life appears to be a selection of Mediterranean and Atlantic species.
Of course, the Azores is famous for its whales. Apart from a permanent population of sperm whales, other types pass by on migration routes at various times of year. The sea appears at times to be thick with common dolphin, adorned with that tell-tale yellow stripe.
American whalers came here from Cape Cod during the 19th century to set up a whaling industry, training the Azorean people to work as land-based lookouts and processors of the carcasses.
A whale was processed for lamp oil, candles, medicines, perfume, machinery lubricant and corset staves.
This industry was brought to a halt only as recently as the 1980s. Now the same people use the same spotting techniques to run a thriving whale-watching industry instead.

Azoreans used to be recruited to work on the whaling ships, and many split their time between New England and their home islands.
Since then, a great number have also settled in Toronto in Canada, which is why everyone in the Azores appears to speak English perfectly. Nevertheless, the architecture of the towns and villages is distinctly Portuguese.
Whales and dolphins are not the reason to plunge under water in the Azores, and unless you get your rocks off looking at rocks, the wreck of the Dori is the main attraction for divers
in Sao Miguel, the largest island and the one with the benefit of direct flights from the UK.
The wreck-site is conveniently placed between the marinas at Ponta Delgada and Vila Franca, so dive-boats from both locations can easily visit.
Some of you may recall that a little blue fish that lost its memory in Finding Nemo was called Dori, but that’s as famous as the name gets. The Liberian-registered mineral-ore carrier of that name got into difficulties during passage from Africa to the USA in early January, 1964. Her cargo had shifted in heavy seas, and she was listing badly.
The captain hoped to reach the relative safety of Ponta Delgada harbour, but they didn’t make it. The vessel foundered a few miles short of its target.
Today, it is a quintessential diving spot of the Azores.
With a length of around 75m, the wreckage rests on a sandy seabed 20m deep, sheltering diverse species such as octopus, red porgy and ornate wrasse.
Around it, schools of barracuda, guelly jack and the odd amberjack can be spotted in open water.
From a depth of 10m onwards, the shape of this sleeping giant looms out of the gloom. For a long time the local people have said that touching the blade of the giant single propeller of the Dori brings luck to the diver, but we all use diving computers for luck instead now.
The water is much colder than expected. The warmth of the sunshine and the smoothness of the surface of the sea misleads us. We’ve been dropped
in directly over the stern, recognisable from its superstructure and that famous propeller, two blades protruding from the sand. An octopus peers with obvious curiosity from a hole in the great rudder, before posing magnificently for us on the gravelly sand.
The power of the Atlantic surge is evident here. No one expects several thousand tonnes of steel to fall 20m to the seabed without sustaining a bit of damage, but while this wreck is well broken up, its constituent parts are recognisable.
The 1943-vintage boilers with their condenser blocks lie close to the steam engine they once supplied. All the connecting pipe-work complete with control valves is visible. Blocks and tackle, winches and their capstans, masts and ladders, massive chains, even the remains of an upturned crane are all obvious.
Fire-hoses and other deck paraphernalia are easily spotted, as is the anchor at the remains of the bow.

IT’S NOT JUST THE WRECK that is the attraction, however. It’s the marine life.
The wreck lies in a vast open plain of sand, and as such forms a habitat and a refuge for all manner of animals.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of red mullet sit around lethargically in the open spaces, reluctantly getting up and moving off as we approach them. Spanish bream loiter in silvery hordes.
Colourful parrotfish, in both blues and reds, together with drabber wrasse, browse among the chaos of broken and rusted steel. Little red scorpionfish are everywhere, darting about like sparrows.
There is no coral to speak of, but tubeworms come in arrays of Chelsea Flower Show proportions. Whole walls of rusted steel are adorned with their feather-dusters, presented in a range of pastel hues.
These tubeworms are brazen. They allow me to get in among them with my wide-angle camera, and not one of them retracts suddenly into its tube, as they usually do elsewhere.
It’s not the same with the endless little flatfish that are busy playing ducks and drakes over the sand. I have a fine old time getting one lined up for my camera, only to be rewarded with amazing colours once it is lit up by my flash.
Schooling triggerfish try to tempt me out into blue water, but I know their game by now. They’ll move off continuously as I fin towards them, and I’ll never get near.
I’m not falling for that one again.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: There is a weekly SATA flight direct from Manchester via Gatwick to Ponta Delgada
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: John Bantin dived with Nerus at Ponta Delgada (www.nerusazores.com) and Azores Sub at Vila Franca (www.azoressub.com). He stayed at Hotel Sao Miguel Park (www.bensaude.pt) and Hotel Caloura (calourahotel.com). Terra Azul organises whale and dolphin-watching trips (www.terrazulazores.com) when to go May to October.
MONEY: Euro
HEALTH: European health scheme. There is a hyperbaric chamber on Sao Miguel.
PRICES: John Bantin’s trip was organised by Regaldive with Sunvil Holidays. Flights, transfers and seven nights’ B&B at the Caloura cost from £774 per head (two sharing).
A 10-dive package costs from £188, www.regal-diving.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitportugal.com