So diligently did I peer into the depths of the world's second-biggest ocean that I swam head first into the boat.

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These islands are neither here, in Europe, nor there, in the Americas.

Wander through the placid cobbled lanes of Ponta Delgada and you see how the Azores provided a prototype for the New World for 15th-century Portugal.

The early settlers who arrived in hope or in despair infiltrated the folds of this crumpled volcanic landscape to create a grid of streets as straight as the contours would permit, then peppered it with a profusion of pretty churches. This summer, though, the lanes are echoing with a few more footsteps as a benign invasion begins.

How much fun can you have in a no-frills week at the western edge of Europe? But as I plunged into the water the notion of enjoyment wasn't uppermost in my mind.

Instead, I was thinking, approximately, "Goodness, even though I am wearing an ill-fitting wet-suit, the Atlantic is mighty cold." The next thought needs to be contemplated in the manner of comic-strip bubbles: "Instead of air I seem to have inhaled through this snorkel a great mouthful of ocean." After a few minutes I sorted myself, began to breathe as normally as the extreme cold allowed, and remembered the task I had been briefed on: swimming with dolphins, the gentle way (from the perspective of our flippered friends, at least).

In some parts of the world, dolphins are incarcerated and taught how to push humans around big swimming pools with their noses. Humans are allowed to be dropped off the side of a Zodiac (inflatable boat) into the cetaceans' swimming pool, the Atlantic.As I paddled, I remembered being told to look down to see if the dolphins wanted to play or were merely amused by the aquatic complement to a fish out of water.I'd imagined she would say they were creatures of habit and usually gather here mid-morning. She pointed to the rocky shore rising to either side of Sao Miguel's capital, Ponta Delgada."We have spotters on the cliffs who see where the whales and dolphins are.Then they radio through to us." Until four decades ago, locals did exactly the same job for a more sinister purpose.They spotted sperm whales, and directed men rowing in open boats towards their prey. As demand for whale-watching surges, the Azores are perfectly positioned in mid-Atlantic. A tiny box to the bottom left of the map shows the islands sprinkled across the ocean in all their isolated glory.