The Cies Islands, the jewel of the Rías Baixas
This small archipelago forms a natural barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Vigo Estuary. The islands’ fortunate location means that the underwater ecosystem is a unique example of diversity. Rocky cliffs, sandy seabeds and forests of seaweed - here, any habitat is possible. And in all these habitats, you'll find natural and scenic riches which will really surprise you.
The Cies Islands form part of the Atlantic Islands National Park, together with the other small archipelagos of Ons, Sálvora and Cortegada. The main islands in the Cies Archipelago are Monteagudo (the most northerly), Faro and San Martiño, and the small island of Boeiro (which is some distance from the others). The estuary waters carry sand to the archipelago, and as a result of this, Monteagudo and Faro are now connected by the Rodas sand bar. This sand bar has created a beach and the Dos Nenos Lagoon, home to eels and other fish.
Harsh living conditions and constant pirate attacks have meant that the archipelago's population has been in decline since the 16th century. This has been very good for the natural environment. Nor has the fishing industry ever really taken root on the islands. However, tourism, and the effect of commercial shipping using Vigo and Baiona, have endangered these islands' extraordinary biodiversity.
Several factors have contributed to making the Cies Islands exceptional. Firstly, although they are located out in the open sea, they are still affected by the Gulf Stream, which raises the average water temperature to 14 ºC. Secondly, they form a natural barrier which intercepts the rich nutrients carried by the waters emerging from the Vigo Estuary.
As a result, the marine flora and fauna are richer than at any other point on the Spanish coast. This will be obvious the moment you dive at any of the points suggested by, for example, the Cies Islands Scuba Club. At the outer edge of the archipelago, which is lashed by the Atlantic, the seabed is mostly rocky, and the only species you'll find there are the ones which can survive these harsh conditions. In the El Ruso vertical gorges (next to Monteagudo Island), and in El Príncipe and Monteagudo Bay, you'll see conger eels, anemones, sea urchins, barnacles, limpets, spider crabs and even octopus, sea bass and turbot. Many of these creatures are used to seeing scuba divers, and will probably approach you, so you'd better have your camera ready.
In the landward part of the Cies, facing the Vigo Estuary, the seabed is mostly sandy, with species which bury themselves in the sand to survive (razor shells, clams, cuttlefish and hermit crabs). If you want to see them while diving in this area, the best places to choose are Los Ciegos (the conger eels and dogfish can be glimpsed through the cracks), Viños Island (be careful of the rays) and next to San Martiño - where the colonies of cinnabars cover the underwater rock walls, and the spectacular forests of brown laminaria seaweed (kelp) offer food and protection to hundreds of small invertebrates.
You can also swim underwater to Os Pesos, where there are vertical drops of up to 38 metres and, if you're lucky, you may find notched stones which, in the past, were used as boat ballast. Another option is to visit one of the abandoned flat-bottomed boats which serve as improvised "hotels" for fish and molluscs. On these dives, you'll become fully aware of the richness and diversity of the seabed around the Cíes, which are well worth return visits.
Formentera, from pirate island to marine life sanctuary
So close to Ibiza, yet at the same time so far from its noisy, cosmopolitan lifestyle, Formentera is a pocket of tranquillity, both on dry land and in the water. Scuba diving in its clear water is a wonderful, pleasurable experience, especially at La Plataforma and Punta Pedrera.
La Plataforma is one of the best-known and most popular dives in the Mediterranean. You get there from La Savina Port, where the island's leading diving companies, such asVellmarí Formentera (tel: 971 322 105) are based. This is the island's only port. For several hundred years (right up to the 17th century), the activities of Barbary pirates meant that Formentera was uninhabited. The island was gradually repopulated, but because it is small and has poor access, it has avoided being overrun by tourists.
La Plataforma, at a depth of 30 metres, is not the usual sort of wreckage found in the sea. It is, in fact, the remains of a fish farm which was called the Mariana, on which gilthead bream were once raised. It keeled over, and is now permanently settled. This dive is between 11 and 32 metres. It’s an environment where there are many species of creatures, which use its nooks and crannies to live and breed, confident they will not be disturbed. You'll see conger eels, morays, and impressive barracudas which will swim at your side as though nothing unusual was going on.
Fish, crustaceans and seaweed all benefit from the fact that, in this area, the seabed is fully protected, since it is part of the Salines d’Eivissa i Formentera Natural Park (tel: 971 301 460 / 696 349 514). This protection has helped to preserve the natural riches of this and other dive locations. It has also helped maintain the excellent visibility of its waters down to a depth of between 15 and 50 metres, so you can see objects, rocks and creatures with no difficulty.
Punta Pedrera is a cliff wall five minutes from La Savina. Here, there is another wreck - the Hermanos Florin - which has become the dwelling place for marine life. This trawler, which sank in 1995, lies in the middle of a meadow of posidonia. El Arco is also recommended. It gets its name from submerged stone arches, where you can dive peacefully, with no danger of falling rocks or strong tides. Punta Prima is an undersea cliff which drops down 78 metres, and here you should watch out for falling rocks. If you look carefully into the cracks at Punta Prima, you'll surprise quite a few crustaceans. Another good location is La Mola's rocky platform. At all these spots, you'll find yourself surrounded by species such as: red mullet, lobsters, octopus, sea bass, bream and grouper. These creatures have claimed the red coral reefs and posidonia (Neptune Grass) meadows as their own.
Another place that divers love is the Punta Rasa Caves. A certain amount of experience is required if you're going to dive here. You'll discover lakes inside these caves, with air trapped above them, so you can remove your equipment and breathe normally. You're in a place in which silence reigns - a silence which almost seems to echo around the cave - and while you absorb it, you can watch the light from the outside playing on the rocks. Without doubt, it's a real experience.
CAPE OF CREUS
The Cape of Creus, where the mountain goes under the sea
You are at the most easterly point of the Iberian Peninsula, where the last peaks of the Pyrenees are submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean. The result is a site where, together, the rocks and the absence of commercial shipping create a seabed which is full of delights for scuba divers.
The waters around the Cape of Creus have benefited from the fact that they are far from commercial shipping lanes and from the routes of cruise liners which travel from Barcelona to Marseilles and Genoa. This, combined with the rugged topography, has preserved these waters and kept them clean and clear. There are not only incredible underwater seascapes here - the Cape de Creus Natural Park also includes beautiful landscapes, and the famous coves which can't be reached from land, but where scuba divers' boats can anchor.
The park is divided into several areas. Bear in mind that s’Encalladora Island, close to the Cape's famous lighthouse, is a reserve in which scuba diving is not allowed. In the waters of the rest of the park, you can dive freely provided you behave responsibly, though there are certain areas where restrictions are imposed, and here, you must follow the instructions to the letter.
The Cape of Creus Natural Park is divided into two zones: mar d’Amunt (upper sea), from the cape to Port de la Selva, which is close to the French border; and mar d’Avall (lower sea), from the cape to the Gulf of Roses. One of the best scuba diving clubs in the upper sea is the Centre d’Immersió Cap de Creus. This club will take you to several dive spots (all marked with anchored buoys). These include: La Galera and Bau del Molí which are easily accessible and present no technical difficulties; Bau de la Torre; and Massa d’Or Island, a favourite with divers. Just off the Cape of Creus itself, there are dive spots such as Fredosa Cove and Jugadora Cove.
If you choose mar d’Avall, there are other highly recommended spots, such as: Montjoi Cove (where Ferran Adrià's famous El Bulli restaurant was open until last year); Bau del Cap Trencat, with its grottos and tunnels; and Falconera Point. However, the most popular spot, because of the richness of its fauna and flora and its great underwater landscapes, is El Gat. This is in the Cape of Norfeu protected area, and the guides working for the Roses Sub Diving Center know it well. El Gat (cat, in Catalan) gets its name from the fact that one of the rocks sticking out of the sea looks like a pussy cat peacefully lying on the water. Under water, you'll find several marine platforms, down to a depth of over 40 metres. This is a staged descent, and you'll see conger eels, morays, octopus, white sea bream, giltheads and sunfish. It's like a real underwater zoo, and will give you some unforgettable moments during the dive.
The seabed around the Cape of Creus is an extraordinarily rich environment, especially the part closest to the cape, where the Pyrenees have been submerged. They extend as much as ten kilometres out, under the sea. As a result, the geology is complex, and there are many rocky formations, with sheer drops of as much as fifty metres very close to the coast. Unusual ecosystems have formed here, with coral beds and large colonies of posidonia and gorgonians (sea fans). Sea fans look like underwater bushes, but are, in fact, a type of coral and so are members of the animal kingdom. It is among the posidonia and the sea fans that fish and invertebrates find food and protection from both their predators and strong sea currents. All this will guarantee you hours of unforgettable diving.
The Columbretes Islands off Castellon, a volcanic gift to divers
This volcanic semi-circle of islands is one of the best spots for diving along the Levante Coast. La Illa Grossa (Big Columbrete) is the largest island of this small archipelago, but not your only choice for diving.
The Columbretes are thirty nautical miles from El Grao, the fishing port of Castellón de la Plana. The information and reservations office for the Columbretes Islands Natural Reserve is in the Castellón Planetarium (tel: 964 288 912), which is in El Grao. This is where you'll go to plan your visit. It is also where you'll be given instructions by the reservation's rangers, which you must follow to the letter. For example, you cannot carry out any type of underwater activity in the strictly protected Murall del Cementiri Reserve or near the Bergantín and Carallot islets.
Even with these restrictions, the Columbretes still offer many options for spectacular dives. In the bay of Isla Grossa - the only one of the islands which has ever been inhabited - you'll immediately become aware of its volcanic origin. You'll be in the centre of a flooded circular crater, where two dive spots are marked with anchored buoys. One is closer to the shore, and if you dive from there, you will encounter no strong currents, since it is protected from the open sea. You can expect excellent views over seabeds with kelp, starfish and small communities of ornate wrasse, slippery lobsters, morays, etc. More experienced divers prefer the second diving point, from where they can swim round el Mascarat - an almond-shaped rock at the edge of the crater - out to the open sea. You must be careful with the currents coming into the bay - swimming out against them requires significant effort. Once you're in the open sea, you'll be amazed by the volcanic cliffs which fall steeply to a depth of over 80 metres. This means you can't see the seabed, despite the excellent visibility in these waters.
Around you, there'll be an amazing spectacle, with colonies of red gorgonians carpeting cliffs and rocks, starfish, red mullet, two-banded sea bream, damsel fish, giltheads, red lobsters, white sea bream, a sunfish or two, barracudas and good-sized groupers. The fish are so used to human presence that they will sometimes even touch you. You will find the same is true of dives from the archipelago's other two islets - La Horadada and La Ferrera or Malaspina. To make the most of your dives, you should therefore seek the advice of the professionals, like those at the Centro de Actividades Subacuáticas Barracuda, which is based in the Las Fuentes Marina at Alcossebre.
The Alboran Sea, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic
The Alboran Sea is the western part of the Mediterranean, where it narrows as it approaches Gibraltar and the outlet to the Atlantic. If you take Alboran Island as your starting point, you'll be close to the best areas of the two ecosystems, and have the chance to sight some truly spectacular marine creatures.
While you're still on the surface, you'll be surprised by leaping cetaceans which are in the waters of the Straits - dolphins, pilot whales and porpoises, etc. They will be your companions while you decide where to dive - and there are several options to choose from. You could go to Alboran Island itself. This islet is flat, lashed by the wind, and barely 600 metres long, with steep cliffs which rise out of the water to more than ten metres above sea level. It is the visible part of a largely underwater mountain range which runs for about 150 kilometres along the seabed. It's also the epicentre of the Alboran Island Fishing and Marine Reserve.Take care not to enter the strict reserve areas.
You'll be scuba diving in waters which are at an almost constant temperature, in which, thanks to conservation efforts in recent years, shoals of sunfish, greater amberjacks, tuna, horse mackerel, sardines, red mullet and anchovies proliferate. In this area there are also positive forests of kelp, which are essential for the survival of many species. You will normally find these at depths of over sixty metres. In some places, this kelp may reach heights of five metres. You'll also see colonies of red coral and sea fans. However, due to the rocky nature of much of the seabed, there are not many of the usual prairies of posidonia. To dive in the Alboran Sea, Marbella is a good starting point. There, you'll find Oceánica Buceo (tel: 639 155 422).
The special nature of these ecosystems comes from the fact that the Alboran Sea's Mediterranean waters are relatively warm, and therefore evaporate quite quickly. This means that nutrient-rich water flows past Gibraltar on the surface, while, at the same time, the colder and saltier Atlantic currents enter the Mediterranean under them. This mixture has created an environment where over 1,200 species - some of which have disappeared in other latitudes and many of which are still commercially harvested - can survive. This richness can be explored from two continents, since the North African platform also has excellent diving spots. A good way to get to know them is through one of the scuba diving clubs in Ceuta (Diving Center Ceuta) orMelilla (Club Ánfora, tel: 658 038 831). From these centres you can get to know a shoreline which is very rich in marine life. There are also excursions to Alboran, the Chafarinas, and other little-known spots.
Back in mainland Spain, there is no need to go as far as the Cape of Gata-Níjar area, which is another scuba diving paradise, since you can dive in the waters of the Acantilados de Maro-Cerro Gordo Natural Site, on the border between Malaga and Granada provinces. This is an area of coves which are difficult to reach from land, underwater caves, steeply sloping seabeds - such as you'll find off the Cantarriján Beach - and also a wide variety of underwater life: posidonia, sponges, rainbow wrasse, sunfish, molluscs, etc. You can also visit one of the seabed wrecks which have become the home to colonies of corals and many other species, and which give the whole of this reserve significant added value.