Heading off to dive from Cabo de Palos

SWIFTLY FOLLOWING JUAN CARLOS down through the water, I decided to pull on the hood of my 5mm suit. At about 30m, it was getting chilly.
The tranquil wreck lay beneath us.
Great glitterings of bream hovered around the superstructure and pairs of moray eels peered out of portholes.
The old steel hull was covered in colourful sponges, and massed anthia-like fish filled every cavity. The occasional amberjack made passes in futile attempts to pick off stragglers. There was no current.
We swam around the holds and through the engine-room, past the boilers. It had mostly been stripped clean of fittings to become a crowded marine-life habitat. We hoped a sunfish might be on the cleaning station above, but were out of luck this time.
After around 20 minutes at a maximum of 38m, we made our way back to the prow and the mooring line that led, via a couple of deco-stops, back to our dive boat. There were no other boats around.
Diving trips to the Egyptian Red Sea are incredible value for money, but it can get rather crowded out there.
The Maldives is a lot further to travel and a similar trip can cost up to twice as much. Get off the beaten track and the diving may be exciting (or not) but you can easily pay three times the cost of a Red Sea holiday and need to find more time because of the extra distance. This is why I was checking out Spain.
I got on a plane from Stansted with a lot of Brits who obviously have second homes in the sun. It took just over two hours to reach Murcias little San Javier airport, and I noticed aircraft belonging to Excel and Flybe on the scorching tarmac alongside our Ryanair 737-800.
It took no time to collect the bags, and a European passport sees you waved through. But who wants to dive here
Spanish Mediterranean diving earned a bad reputation for two reasons.
Firstly, in the early days following the development of the aqualung, all the large territorial fish were killed by spear-gunning divers.
Secondly, dive centres were operated by a few hardy foreigners who rarely had all the permissions required by Francos pre-democracy government.
Under-capitalised, their owners were often out to make a quick buck before being closed down. They set up in the big beach resorts and offered dives that were little more than getting wet. If you liked rocks and sand, Spanish diving was for you. Be aware that there are still some dive centres like this.
However, Spain is now a modern country and has a huge coastline. Once Spaniards were able to go diving like the rest of us, and dive centres could offer modern training, the sport took off.
The mentality has also changed. Their grandfathers may have spent Sunday afternoon at the bullfight, but many modern Spaniards prefer ecology-related activities.
Dive centres have sprung up everywhere. Unlike the old foreign-operated ones, these cater for a regular Spanish clientele that demands quality and interesting diving. Many operate year-round, too. They have to be professional to survive, and pan-European regulations apply.

IN MURCIA, THE MAR MENOR or Little Sea is only 7m deep and enclosed by a narrow strip of land called La Manga that separates it from the Mediterranean proper. It once had its own eco-system complete with indigenous seahorses, but that was lost with heavy development
of the coastline.
The continental shelf with its deep drop-off runs close to the land from Gibraltar to this point, so species that pass to and from the Atlantic are often sighted. Sperm whales that hunt giant squid in the deep, blue sharks and turtles that gather before setting off for the Caribbean are regularly seen.
The deep drop-off continues out to Cabo de Palos, a headland marked by a tall lighthouse at the southern end of La Manga. The drop-off is marked by a series of sea-mounts and pinnacles that form an underwater continuation of the mountainous Spanish coastline to the south.
Here the nutrient-rich water pushed through from the Atlantic into the Alboran Sea meets the clear blue of the Mediterranean proper. There can be currents, and the water mixes its levels of both temperature and visibility, but such conditions auger well for seeing plenty of a nimals under water.
A marine reserve, this is an excellent place to see the full spectrum of Mediterranean marine life, including masses of schooling grouper.
At one moment I counted more than 14 of these large mero in my field of vision. I also saw schooling barracuda, every type of gilt-head and bream, large groups of corb and ubiquitous moray eels and octopus (pulpo) on every dive. Near one pinnacle called Bajo de Dentro, I came across fields of small white gorgonia and, at about 36m, a luxuriant undergrowth of red coral.
I dived here with Javier Gallego, a famous Spanish mountaineer (climbing is big in Murcia) who works at the Planeta Azul dive centre occasionally.
The sprinkling of pinnacles, some of which come to a few metres from the surface, culminate in the little Islas Hormigas or Ant Islands.
Though the hazards are well marked by lighthouses, their proximity to the seaport and military base of Cartagena means that they offer a deadly trap for unwary navigators. The Spanish for wreck is naufragio (now-fra-hio) or pecio (peth-io).
The area is sprinkled with shipwrecks, including the famous Italian steamship Sirio - the Titanic of the Mediterranean.
She was carrying immigrants to America from Genoa when her master, asleep in his cabin, became responsible for a marine catastrophe as his ship was impaled on the submerged rocks of Las Hormigas on 4 August, 1906.
A century later the tragedy is still the most important event to have happened to the village of Cabo de Palos. Many restaurants display contemporary paintings, reproductions of news stories and old photographs of the tragedy
and its aftermath.
Sirio came to grief semi-submerged on the reef and took days to sink, but hundreds of passengers panicked and died by jumping into the water. Many couldnt swim, or their bulky Edwardian clothes weighed them down. Fishermen from nearby villages did their best to help, and a passing skipper even rammed the bowsprit of his sailing ship into the Sirio to allow people to pass across.
The wreck lies at around 60m and will mainly interest trimix-certified divers, but there are other wrecks shallow enough to dive with air or nitrox. Another useful word is profundo, meaning deep.

I VISITED A SMALL STEAM FREIGHTER, the Isla Gomera, at 40m. It was smothered in fish of all kinds. The boilers were still in position, though this vessel has lain here since her cargo of oranges shifted and caused her to sink in 1942. The wreck reminded me of the Rosalie Moller in the Red Sea, only smaller.
Just to confuse everyone, this wreck is usually known as the Narangito, the Spanish diminutive for orange. I heard stories of a figurehead in the form of an orange-picker, but although the prow has an odd projection, nobody can confirm the story or knows where the figurehead is now.
It was this wreck that I dived with Juan Carlos, using a small hard boat from the Club Islas Hormigas dive centre.
Most diving is undertaken from big fast RIBs, but the site was almost right outside the marina entrance and speed was unimportant.
Both dive centres mentioned give very competent briefings. I had not seen models used before. Planeta Azul uses a model of Isla Gomera as she was before she sank, whereas Club Islas Hormigas has made a model of the wreck itself.
The difference is palpable.
Other wrecks to ask for are the Thordysa (aka Carbonera), a WW2 collier, and the Standfield.
North of La Manga is the resort of San Pedro del Pinatar. This is closer still to San Javier airport and the salt-pans, still in operation, that in the summer host large flocks of flamingos.
The Turkana dive centre is based in a small marina here, but what makes the diving so good at Cabo de Palos is what makes it less good here - the water is shallow and diving more weather-dependent. It makes a good base only if you are learning to dive.
At Turkana paint-balling is as important as diving, and there are all sorts of other water-related sports on the Mar Menor to keep a non-diver busy.
The marine life and wrecks around La Manga and Cabo de Palos may not be as colourful as in the Red Sea but there is just as much of it.
It makes a welcome alternative, with the bonus of being able to leave England in the morning and dive that afternoon.
It is quite possible to get in seven dives between leaving Stansted on a Friday morning and getting home late on a Monday night, and at the end of each day a vast collection of stupendous restaurants await in La Manga.

on the drop-off at Bajo de Dentro
Club Islas Hormigas model of the wreck of the small freighter Isla Gomera
Smothered in fish, the wreck of the Isla Gomera.
Returning divers at San Pedro del Pinatar


GETTING THERE: Many budget airlines fly to Murcia from UK regional airports. John Bantin travelled at the invitation of Estacion Nautica Mar Menor, an association of businesses including hotels and dive centres that promote tourism in the La Manga area, www.enmarmenor.net
DIVING: Of the five dive centres in Cabo de Palos, three operate legally! Planeta Azul is very modern, open year-round, and can supply nitrox and trimix. Club Islas Hormigas is more traditional and supplies only air. Both offer two morning dives and one in late afternoon. Diving the Sirio needs advance notice and a medical certificate. (www.planeta-azul.com, www.islashormigas.com) The centre at San Pedro del Pinatar is the Turkana (www.turkana.org).
ACCOMMODATION: There are many hotels in La Manga including the four-star Villas La Manga (www.villaslamanga.es) near Cabo de Pilas and, in the north at San Pedro del Pinatar, the four-star Traiña (www.hoteltraina.com).
WHEN TO GO: Year round but conditions are best from May to September.
MONEY: Euro, and major credit cards accepted almost everywhere.
PRICES: Budget flights can be as cheap as £25 return if youre flexible, or book a flight/hotel package. A 10 boat-dive package costs from £155 to £190.
TOURIST INFORMATION: 020 7486 8077, www.tourspain.co.uk