|IM DESCENDING FREELY INTO THE CLEAR ATLANTIC waters of one of Madeiras marine parks, straining to catch my first glimpse of the seabed. The chain of a permanent mooring snakes away into the blueness below me. Something is moving down there, something big. And its not another diver.
A grouper the size of a large dog is circling the chain in a series of lazy ellipses. It moves in the same expectant, impatient way that a toddler swings to and fro on a door, waiting for adults to be ready. As I approach from above, the ellipse widens and quickens, the grouper scoots round a rock and then shimmies towards me, eyes rolling, mouth opening and closing as if trying to form words. I am transfixed.
Close, closer; the fish turns sideways and presents me with a perfect side view. We are now so intimate that I can see the tiny lice-like parasites scooting across the groupers head and scales. The rolling eyes regard me with anticipation. If I stretch out my fingers now I would stroke that fishy flesh...
With a dismissive flick of the tail, my grouper heads off to flirt with another diver. And I glance down and realise that my camera is still clipped, unused, onto my BC - aargh!
Carlos the dive guide is singing into his DV as he gathers the divers together. The grouper is still buzzing around like an excited puppy and doing everything possible to attract attention. I lag behind, camera in hand, hoping for another chance, and only now do I notice my surroundings.
The underwater landscape is a tumbling continuation of the cliffs above, with huge slabs of rock strewn about on a bed of chocolate-coloured sand. Spiky black sea urchins dot the surface of the rocks, providing a menace for anyone with dodgy buoyancy, and a flurry of small damselfish and multicoloured wrasse busy themselves in the nooks and crannies. A glittering shoal of sea bream moves unhurriedly between the boulders.
Were diving at the marine reserve of Garajau. The deeply peaceful ambience of the site and the fearlessness of the fish has been aided by the exclusion of fishing; its a firm favourite with visiting divers.
My buddy is nudging at my elbow - the group is heading off without me. As I turn to give an OK, I come eyeball to eyeball with another, larger grouper. I dare not breathe. I raise my camera very, very slowly and try to position the strobe. The grouper does a dramatic eye-roll and sinks elegantly onto the seabed, waiting for me to follow.
So Im lying on my belly with the camera scrunched against my mask, trying to hold the strobe at the correct angle without actually losing my lens inside the groupers mouth. My buddy has spotted that Im not following the guide and settles himself lightly next to the big fish, resting a friendly hand on its massive head. The whole scene is so comical that Im in danger of ruining the shot with camera shake.
The fish gapes seductively and poses like a prima donna. I have never met such co-operation from a fish before, but as I soon found out, Madeira is a place where everybody - including the marine life - has impeccable manners.
Surfacing from the dive, I can immediately tell from the smiles on the boat that everyone has enjoyed the dive. The group is an eclectic bunch of nationalities - Austrian, Portuguese, Danish, Brazilian, German and British. We may not share a common language but divers have an uncanny knack of communicating without words.
As the boat bounces back across the waves towards the dive centre, I get an uninterrupted view of Funchal, Madeiras capital city and home to most of the islands population.
Madeiras is a mountainous interior, mysteriously wreathed by a cover of clouds. The steep cliffs tumble abruptly into the sea, scarred by deep gorges which drip with greenery. Red-roofed houses cling precariously onto the terraced slopes all the way across the sweep of the bay, and the hotels at the front have a series of lifts to enable tourists to travel to and from sea level in comfort.
Looking up from the sea, the roads are barely visible, concealed by the numerous tunnels that motorists weave through as they make their way up and down the tight turns.
We pass across the mouth of Funchal harbour, scene of dramatic pirate incursions in the 16th century, when a fair proportion of the 22,000-strong population was slaughtered and many of the islands riches looted. These days the only incursion is by massive cruise liners disgorging thousands of tourists.
At New Year this natural arena is the scene of a fabulous fireworks display, the harbour is jam-packed with visiting liners and yachts, and every room in the capital is full.
But my interest is in the wreck of the Pronto, lying upright in the sand, right here in front of the harbour entrance.
At 35m, the small dredger is regarded as a relatively challenging dive, but its pretty much perfect as wrecks go. The viz is so good that I can see the entire structure laid out below me, almost as soon as I start to swim down the shotline.
In the 20 or so minutes of no-stop time available you can explore the whole thing, from propellers to mashed-off bow, swimming through the open interior and pausing at the engine room to watch the large moray eel sharing its cubby hole with two strikingly white-limbed cleaner shrimps.
The sand here appears lighter in colour, giving the wreck a bright, friendly feel. You dont need a torch but Carlos has brought his anyway to highlight the copious marine life on the wreck. He poses obligingly next to the props for me before accompanying the less experienced divers around the wreck. I can hear him humming reassuringly throughout the dive.
Every time I look up, the haze of small fish that form a halo around the deck are scattering before pairs of enthusiastic divers. My buddy is beckoning towards some gruesome-looking gribbly lurking in the wreck. It resembles a miniature spider-crab with a pointed barb for a mouth. There must be people in this world who adore arrow crabs but Im not one of them. Spindly crustaceans just remind me of my old physics teacher...
Back at the dive centre, Im enjoying the luxury of a hot shower with a pile of clean towels on hand. I always think the true test of a good centre is the post-dive care. Madeira Divepoint is at sea level in the Carlton Madeira Hotel and the set-up is impeccable.
I stroll outside to hang my suit up in the sunshine and order a drink from the smart poolside bar.
Later well eat - cuisine here is Portuguese-influenced modern European. Some of the best restaurants are found in the hills above Funchal, overlooking the bay, and also in the historic old town, close to the harbour.
This is holiday diving at its purest, because everything is designed to make your life comfortable and pleasant. For UK divers its likely to come as a culture shock.
Wilfried and Ralf, who run the centre, are genuine professionals. Videos and photos from their shark-diving days in the Bahamas are much in evidence. Wilfried has a scar on his knee where a shark collided with him, its mouth open, a protruding tooth piercing his protective chainmail suit.
When I raise an eyebrow he laughs and insists that the sharks are perfectly harmless. Its the nutty tourist divers that are likely to cause the grief.
When Wilfried and Ralf decided to leave the Bahamas they had their pick of dive centre opportunities around the world. After careful consideration, they chose Madeira; safe, hassle-free, tourist-friendly, deeply civilised and altogether a charming place to live.
In the afternoons, we typically dive the house reef at the front of the centre, entering from the steps on the hotels slipway. Curious sunbathers look up from their poolside loungers as we stroll past in full kit. The boulder-strewn shoreline soon makes way for larger rocky outcrops, but not before youve been stalked by all manner of marine life.
Wilfried is ahead of me, moving through the water in that ultra-relaxed fashion that accomplished divers have. Trailing in his wake is a collection of glossy silver bream. The pied piper effect is down to a small supply of breadcrumbs that he carries everywhere and distributes occasionally to guarantee that theres never a dull moment.
We are making our way over to a picturesque series of caverns, worn into the rock like holes in Swiss cheese, when we are ambushed by three curious cuttlefish. Divers and cuttlefish regard each other from a respectable distance.
We pause on the seabed to make efforts at communication. The cuttlefish have a rich vocabulary of movements and colours. We wave our fingers and blow bubbles, like total numpties. The bravest of the cuttlefish is right in Wilfrieds face, and it makes no move to escape when he stretches out his hand. Im practically choking with shock as the cuttlefish settles onto the palm of his hand.
Nobody in their right mind is going to believe this, Im thinking. And then I remember my camera...
|Swiss-cheese-style caverns at the Madeira Divepoint house reef |
|Carlos examines an anemone in the marine park |
|The rare yellow grouper is so famous that a chapter of the local marine guide is devoted to it |
|Carlos examines the prop on the Pronto wreck |
GETTING THERE: Flights leave the UK for Madeira every day of the week, but most frequently on a Monday from Gatwick. The flight to Funchal takes just over three hours.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION : Madeira Divepoint operates from the five-star Carlton Madeira (Pestana) Hotel, in Funchal. Most dive sites are on the southerly, more sheltered side of the island and an easy boat ride from Funchal. A list is available on the Madeira Divepoint website, www.madeiradivepoint.com
WHEN TO GO: April-October generally offers the best weather and calmest conditions.
LANGUAGE:Portuguese, but English widely spoken.
COST: Atlantic Holidays (01452 381888) specialises in holidays to Madeira. Seven nights B&B at the Carlton Madeira including flights and transfers costs from£449, and a 10-dive package (tanks and weights) from around£130. Check latest prices on www.divernet.com under Holiday Offers.
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