Blue light effects at the caves at Buracona. The caves are littered with discarded ammo!

Whether you call it Cape Verde or Cabo Verde, some people are hyping this archipelago of 10 islands and various islets as the next great dive destination.

Cape Verde, which lies 280 miles off Senegal in west Africa, gained independence from Portugal in 1975. Over the years it has developed a distinct identity as well as a unique language - a tricky mixture of Portuguese and African.

You need to use all your non-verbal communication skills here.

The islands have a rich history. Tiny dots in the vast Atlantic, they have long been a staging post for ships - and have been thoroughly plundered. The surrounding seas are still supposed to be relatively untouched, however, and we had high hopes of some great diving.

Not only are the many ships that have foundered on the rocky coast still lying undisturbed with cargoes and riches intact, but they are also on the migration route of a vast amount of marine life. Given the latitude the water should be cool, but the sea life is much more tropical, as the islands do not get the coldwater upwellings that are usual off Africa.

With no real coral reefs, the underwater topography is much more like that of home, with rocky ridges, pinnacles and boulders, and great arches and caves.

On land, each island is different. The easterly ones are flat and sandy, the westerly ones mountainous, with dramatic volcanic peaks.

Lying just above the Doldrums, Cape Verdes climate is warm and pleasant throughout the year, with the rainy season from August to October.

Our Pac-a-macs stayed packed, as in reality little rain falls, and some islands never see any.

The diving season is year-round with flat seas and the best visibility is during the peak season in summer - which in Cape Verde ends in December! Be ready for strong currents. Theres nothing between these islands and Brazil.

During the winter the Harmattan, a hot, dry wind from the Sahara, brings dusty conditions and big swells, great for kite- and wind-surfing but making diving conditions a little less ideal.

Its still worth going off-season, however. Accommodation is cheaper, there are fewer people and almost every month has a different attraction. We went in March, a recommended time for humpback whales.

At the moment diving is available on five of the islands, although you need plenty of time and determination to dive them all. Travelling between them is easy with a TACV airpass, and flights take only 15 or 20 minutes.

If you have time and good sea legs, you can also travel by ferry. The local population do not have strong stomachs, and the first thing you are given as you board is a sick-bag!

Some places are decidedly basic, with even the simplest food hard to come by. One memorable dinner consisted of half a head of cabbage boiled to a nice grey colour, but theres always the local favourite, cachupa, a tasty concoction of beans, as well as local cheese provided by the plentiful goat population.

Landing in Sal, the main tourist destination, comes as a shock. Flat, brown and dusty, on the surface it looks really uninviting. Still, no vegetation means no mosquitoes!

Dig a little deeper and the laid-back atmosphere grows on you. You wont find Guinness yet but among the many nightspots there is, of course, an Irish-run bar, called Tam Tam.

Sal is the island with the most easily accessible diving. Almost all the dive sites are a few minutes boat-ride from the wide, sandy beach and a handful of well-organised dive centres. These use RIBs or hardboats, unlike the other islands, where you will usually dive off a small wooden fishing boat.

Our first dive with Romina from Cabo Verde Diving provided a taste of things to come.

Choclassa is a ridge with big overhangs, smothered in bright yellow polyps and populated with aggregations of surgeonfish, goatfish, parrotfish, Atlantic bigeyes and the largest scribbled filefish we had ever seen.

The reef turns to sand at around 26m, where you can often see nurse sharks. Other sharks you may see include sand tigers, lemons and hammerheads, and at the north of the island is a bay where bull sharks come right in, sometimes as shallow as 1-2m.

In summer, the whale sharks arrive. Those interested in macro life wont be disappointed either - it would take forever to catalogue all the nudibranchs and the tiny coral eels.

The following day saw a change of pace as we headed north to the caves at Buracona with Nuno from Manta Diving. The caves are wide and straightforward to navigate, with the bonus of being able to surface and see surprised land-based tourists looking down on you.

Bizarrely, the caves are full of ammunition thrown in by retreating Portuguese soldiers. Its best to try to go on a day with strong sunshine, as you will get the classic view of divers swimming through a beam of light. Among the ledges and crevices we saw slipper lobsters, catfish and lots of moray eels.

Over the next few days we visited more of the 20 or so mapped sites and particularly enjoyed seeing turtles. These were loggerheads, but Cape Verde is an important breeding site for many other species, including leatherbacks and hawksbills. The little-researched populations congregate on the beaches here in May, and its easy to watch them come ashore to give birth.

Unfortunately, a local festival leads to the death of many nesting turtles, whose shells litter some of the beaches. Their meat is believed to be an aphrodisiac. The worldwide decline of turtles means that this sort of practice shouldnt be allowed to continue much longer.

Leaving Sal, we headed for the north of Santo Antao. You need to fly via Sao Vicente, take a ferry from there and then a two-hour taxi journey to Ponta do Sol. Its a bit of a mission but its well worth the effort.

This is the only island that always has water in the rivers. The abundant vegetation is almost a shock. Its an amazingly scenic journey, going rapidly from dusty roads to pine forests and dramatic peaks. We hurtled along the precarious road that winds along the ridges, trying not to look down - it would be a long drop into the volcano crater.

Oddly, the French you learned at school will help you the most on this island. Theres little in Ponta do Sol, but it is heart-wrenchingly picturesque, with stunning sunsets setting the rocks ablaze each evening.

These days the coastal airport is just a convenient place for the locals to fish. Tourism consist mainly of hiking in the dramatic mountains, but one adventurous Spanish soul has set up a dive centre.

Diving is just one of the things Eduardo does, along with trekking, canyoning and rock-climbing. Eduardo is great fun and never stops laughing. His mother claims that he giggled rather than cried when he first entered the world! His eccentricity runs to keeping as a pet a goat, which the villagers would prefer nicely roasted.

Diving here is very different to Sal. The big surf makes getting in and out a little trickier. In the past spearfishing has prevailed, which shows when you try to approach the fish. Unfortunately there hasnt been much diver training either, and some of the local fishermen show obvious signs of the bends.

Going underwater for pleasure is sometimes a hard concept to explain. When we showed our lovely hotel manager our underwater photos, she proudly reciprocated by displaying a big bag of dead fish.

Eduardo uses a traditional fishing boat for diving, and his crew provided us with a couple of comedy moments.

At the end of one dive we tried to return to the anchor line as briefed, but couldnt find it. Just to confuse us, the skipper had moved the boat. A quirky approach to diver recovery!

The first dive from the shore was notable, sadly, for the amount of rubbish lying around. Environmentally there are still things about the islands that may make you cringe. We saw sharks being caught for their fins and, in one place, the octopus population had been savaged following a careless comment from a tourist about the lack of them on the menu.

Nevertheless, even so close to the village there was plenty to see. We particularly liked the flying gurnard, a large, peculiar-looking fish with big, colourful wing-like pectoral fins.

The next dive was at Selenas Arch, named after Eduardos daughter. This is a reef going from 15m to 25m with a host of extremely large cornetfish. One was more than a metre long and stalked us throughout the dive. The archway provided a classic photo op.

Mindelo, the capital of Sao Vicente,is a pleasant, cosmopolitan town with a strong musical tradition.

Blue Discovery, run by Frenchman Frederic, is its only dive centre. Its based in a large resort, so we enjoyed lazy surface intervals around the pool. Theres always a catch, however, and here it was the huge surf break. The theory is to run like crazy with all your gear on until you get past the pounding waves, quickly put your fins on before you get sucked back onto the beach and then swim calmly to the boat.

It doesnt always work, as the person on the next island who finds my fin will no doubt agree. Never mind, the diving was amazing and very close to shore - handy if you have only a 9bhp engine!

Our first dive was at Farol, the most common dive-site name on all islands (it means lighthouse).

Around the big boulders you could sit and watch the marauding hordes, among them big schools of barracuda, mullet, goatfish and surgeonfish.

Hiding in the rocks were tiny sharp-nose puffers, octopuses, morays, spiny lobsters and arrow crabs. Look out for the colourful but painful bristleworms that are rife here.

The dive was nicely finished off by the sight of a humpback whale surfacing just 30m from the boat in really shallow water. Cape Verde is a known breeding ground, and two adults and a calf had been sighted several times over the past few days. In lots of places you will see the whales cruising past the shore.

The next day, not only did we sight a big school of common dolphins but also a small manta ray on the surface. Mantas and whale sharks are more common in summer, so this was a bonus.

Back on Sal, the wreck of the Santo Antao did not disappoint. Its a small trawler that sits in only 11m but could keep you occupied for hours, its a good job all the dive centres are laid back about maximum dive times.

We saw many of the same fish, including the endemic Guinea grunts, but unafraid and much larger. Even the nudibranchs were the length of my finger, boldly running round in the sand. The wreck was also home to strange-looking lizardfish, as well as sting rays.

In contrast, I saw the smallest soapfish (or dopefish as we call them), which could have fitted on my fingernail.

The newest wreck is the Kwarcit, which Nuno had sunk in January. An old Russian trawler, known by some as Boris, it is fully intact and sitting upright in 25m, providing great access to the holds and bridge, where Russian is visible on the instrument panels.

After only a couple of months, it was covered in growth and full of fish. At present it isnt possible to dive the older wrecks, but in the capital, Praia, you can see a great exhibition of items brought up from 400-year-old ships during an archaeological survey. Included are large lumps of fused pieces of eight, and a gold crucifix with diamonds and emeralds still intact.

Much more treasure lies down there, waiting for the government to allow marine archaeologists to recover it.

Our final dive, Cavala, was a case of saving the best till last. Its the deepest of the regular sites, with the wall starting at around 20m and going beyond 40m.

Stunning, colourful topography is complemented by schools of guelly jacks, snappers and amberjacks, the large pelagics that so far had been missing.

The most memorable thing about that days diving, however, was being under water and hearing the strange, haunting sound of humpbacks singing, a sound so mesmerising it stops you in your tracks.

Cape Verdes dive industry is in its infancy, but it will grow. In Sal the level of service is what you might expect in other resorts, but this is a remote location. Sal has a recompression chamber, but it isnt operational.

On the other islands, the likelihood of any rescue operation is remote, as there are no helicopters or coastguard.

I hope these rich seas will not end up as another sad tale of exploitation but one of conservation. Development is rife on a couple of the islands but there are many spots that are pristine and many, many areas that have never been dived.

If you have an adventurous spirit and like to dive where few others have been, Cape Verdes for you.

Divernet
Parrotfish
Parrotfish
Colourful
Colourful coral polyps
Typical
Typical Cape Verde marine life including a surgeonfish
slipper
slipper lobster
spotted
spotted triggerfish
nudibranch
nudibranch
juvenile
juvenile moral eel
Precipitous
Precipitous road view on Santa Antao
Fly
Fly bridge on the Boris
A
A shoal of Guinea grunts

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly via Lisbon or Amsterdam on TAP Air or TACV. Direct flights from the UK were due to start this month, though this is unconfirmed. Airpasses are available on TACV. Visas can be obtained in advance or on arrival.
DIVING: Sal - Cabo Verde Diving, www.caboverdediving. net; Manta Diving, www.mantadivingcenter.cv; Sao Vicente - Blue Discovery, www.bluediscovery.com; Santo Antao - Eduatours, www.eduatours.com. All can arrange accommodation if required. ACCOMMODATION: From all-inclusive hotels to cheap B&Bs. For the best value for money, go self-catering. On Sal, contact Kim Lark, www.aquisal.com
WHEN TO GO: Any time. Water temperature is 20-22°C in winter, 27°C in summer. Topside temperature is around 27°C in winter (20° at night) up to 30°C summer (24° at night). Air conditioning is not usually required.
MONEY: The Cape Verdean Escudo (CVE) is tied to the Euro at CVE 110.27 = 1 Euro
PRICES: Flights start from around £520. Accommodation averages 17-20 a night for two sharing. Dives cost from around £27 each.