IN THE DAYS BEFORE COLUMBUS, when everyone believed that the Earth was flat and supported by four turtles riding on the back of an elephant, the island of El Hierro, in the western reaches of the Atlantic, was at the limits beyond which it was considered foolhardy to venture.
 This blackened lump of lava, spewed out of the sea off the African coast by a rising volcano, was at the most westerly point of the known world. It was from this point east that geographical distances were measured. In fact, the Greenwich Meridian passes through it. Today, few people outside the Canary Islands have even heard of El Hierro.
 Around 25 minutes flying time from Tenerife, it is the smallest of the Canaries. and has little to attract the ordinary tourist. A few rare lizards, a half-dozen trees distorted by the wind, a rare primeval forest and a hotel with only two rooms are among its boasts.
 These attractions represent the typical itinerary for those who venture past the capital, Valverde, in search of adventure.
 Otherwise there are only roads that wind eternally up through the clouds and feature frequent panoramic views of the sea glittering far below, along with the occasional glimpse of an ugly, industrialised banana plantation. El Hierro is a good place in which to catch up on your reading.
 La Restinga, a fishing village at the southern tip, is a 45-minute drive from Valverde, because you never get out of low gear.
 Approaching it by road is like landing in a helicopter. You see it thousands of feet below, and then you descend.
 Its safe harbour is dotted with small fishing boats bobbing at their moorings and hiding behind a massive sea-wall.
 A cluster of modern sheds house a cold store, but otherwise the village is composed of a few mean buildings constructed without reference to any architectural niceties and stark against a background of black lava.

Limpet and chips
EU funds have gone towards building a complex promenade, but it needs visitors to promenade along it. The same source provides money to extend the port, a process that had just started last November while I was there.
 I counted four restaurants, two bars and one shop. The restaurants were probably served by a single kitchen connected by pneumatic pipelines, so similar were their menus.
 Lapas and papas-frittas (limpets and chips) became my favourite meal. I got used to drinking canned carbonated beverages that had gone slightly rusty and were usually past their sell-by date.
 The small beach at La Restinga has black sand that permeates everywhere. The water in my shower came out stained as black as if it had been used to wash a car. I stayed at the White Sands (Arenas Blancas) Apartments.
 Why the name Before they built the port, there was a small beach with white sand. It got lost under tons of black rocks. Its a beautiful story!
 Doesnt sound too seductive so far, does it Well, whats special about La Restinga is that it had, at the last count, nine dive centres. Theres a clue!
 I was representing as a judge for OpenFotosub 04, a prestigious international photo competition that revolves around pictures taken during the event, and attracts top Spanish competitors.
 The waters around La Restinga are thought to provide the best diving in Spanish territory.
 La Restinga was brimful of people until the event was over and they all went home, leaving me alone to dive with David Marrero from El Submarino Diving Centre.
 David has a big 9m RIB with an inboard Volvo diesel, looks like Yul Brynner, speaks good English and proved very hospitable. Even so, between dives, I found myself spending a lot of time sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.
 The diving is all about fish and rocks. Initially, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Mediterranean. Familiar gold-striped saupe and saddled bream, together with brown-spotted morays, await. There are the familiar sea urchins and octopuses, Turkish and rainbow wrasse. Then you start to realise the much greater variety of marine life thats waiting to be seen.
 The lava that poured down the mountainside and set in petrified folds continues under the water, providing dramatic scenery.
Many surfaces are adorned with red  . La Restinga features a vast area of marine reserve that overspills its fish population into adjoining areas.
 Punta La Restinga (the Point) has an underwater cliff that turns in a huge arc and drops from less than 10m to 35m. Its rock walls are home to various types of moray eel, and big shoals of silvery-sided bream glitter in the sunlight. A dive site called Bocarones (Whitebait) is a pinnacle of rock swept by the tides and home to multitudes of juvenile wrasses haunted by raiding parties of trumpetfish sporting various colours and patterns.
 Trumpetfish have faces like elongated seahorses but long straight bodies propelled by a set of fins near the tail. These fins vibrate so quickly that the fish appear to move without effort.
 Their motionless hovering in the water is punctuated by sudden projectile manoeuvres to grab prey.
 Nearby Punta Miradero (the View) has a cave at around 32m with a resident shoal of guelly jacks which hide in the dark until dive-lights send them spiralling out into open water.
 These jacks have yellow markingsand are much larger than the horse-eye jacks typically encountered in schools in tropical waters.
 Worthy of a second dive, without any accompanying divers (save for my buddy) to spoil my chances of pictures of these large yet timid fish, I found that I had shot 36 exposures of film within just 12 minutes. Now thats what I call a good dive!
 El Desierto is a desert of black sand that is home to a million equally black garden eels.
Where the sand finishes and the rocks begin, at around 35m, lives a famous old grouper. Pancho is inclined to lie patiently and impervious to divers entering his territory, and makes for a great photo-opportunity.
David lay down beside Pancho while he eyed him suspiciously. The big fish never lost his nerve and seemed unperturbed by the closeness of my wide-angle dome and flashes.
 On a second dive at El Desierto I had to content myself with the company of a large if skittish stingray, a spiny pufferfish hiding under a rocky outcrop and hordes of little scorpionfish that hopped around like sparrows.
 This is also a good place to see spiny lobsters. Back in the shallows, we met another big female grouper under a rocky outcrop but, unlike Pancho, she did not have the stomach for a long photo-session, and made a dash for it after my first exposure.
 El Bajon is famous. Its a vast underwater reef that sits right outside the harbour. The movement of the tides causes water to rush in a strong current up and over its seaward-facing vertical cliff. This attracts pelagic life as well as the ubiquitous trumpetfish and the smaller fish on which they prey.
 Out in the blue I saw big amberjacks and cruising barracuda on my single dive there. Divers tend to cling on at the top and look out into the open water. Anything can turn up. Its about 40m to the bottom.
 In the harbour at La Restinga floated the severed heads of half-a-dozen massive fish locally called peto, now rendered into steaks for export to restaurants on the other islands. They are tuna-like but really big.
 Im told that peto sometimes come into El Bajon but I was not lucky enough to see one alive.
 The bars and restaurants of La Restinga are hung with the dried heads and armouries of large swordfish too. Obviously the diving centres have an uneasy relationship with the local fishing industry.
 For me, the best dive site is Herradura, or the Horseshoe - something to do with El Hierro being a blacksmiths tool, an iron brand.
 It was lucky for me. First I saw a bunch of male groupers and a large wrasse, decked out in different mating colours and harassing an octopus.
 Then I came across a giant female grouper (or dusky perch) that took a liking to its reflection in the dome-port of my underwater camera.
 I had difficulty getting a profile view of this large animal as it constantly pursued its own image in the mirror. In fact, it followed me up from 35m to 10m and then loitered, waiting to intercept me at my every move.
 In the rocky lava punctuated with holes were all manner of colourful eels, including one of a very bright yellow, and lots of scorpionfish.
 I had never seen so many trumpetfish, cruising in mobs and ever-ready to grab an unsuspecting victim.
 Constantly pestered by, and always aware of the large mouth and sharp teeth of, my recently acquired dive-buddy, the big grouper, I still managedto notice oceanic triggerfish, another large ray, clusters of zebra bream and lots of other stuff, before I retreated to thetranquillity of a 5m safety stop.
 The Atlantic is not warm. I used a full semi-drysuit with a hood, and gloves are a good idea. I noticed many divers from the photographic competition bearing the scars of encounters with stinging plankton on their necks and faces.
 I let a little growth of beard protect the exposed parts of my face.
 The marine reserve is in an area known as the Calm Sea, protected from the prevailing easterly wind by the island. However, not all dive sites are on this side and some rides in the RIBs can be a little British by nature.
 Similarly, there is usually a current running, from mild to wild, though nothing that a diver with air-management skills cant master.
 Dives centres provide only air, and this, combined with the depths of the best parts of the dive sites and workload imposed by the currents, plus the long walk from jetty back to your accommodation, can mean that two dives a day is enough for most people.
 I met a gentleman now resident in Tenerife, whose son operates a dive centre in Ireland. He regularly escorts groups from Ireland to dive at La Restinga, and implored me to keep El Hierro a secret.
 Too late. Sorry!


Guelly jacks at Miraderos cave

La Restingas black lava

one of El Hierros celebrated distorted trees

a vain grouper poses for its portrait



GETTING THERE: Fly to Valverde airport via Tenerife North, or catch the car ferry from the south of Tenerife..
DIVING : El Submarino Diving Centre in La Restinga, 10 dives £140,
ACCOMMODATION : The dive centre can arrange self-catering accommodation, hire car and so on.
LANGUAGE : Spanish, but English is spoken by dive-centre staff.
MONEY : Euros.
HEALTH : An E111 form (from your post-office) gives reciprocal NHS cover.
WHEN TO GO : February to November.
COST : A weeks self-catering including flights costs £507 through Crusader Travel (020 8744 0474, Dives with El Submerso cost 24 euros, or 210 euros for 10.