One of several European destinations featured in our 2018 holiday round-up is Spain, where there are several contenders for your attention, but WILL APPLEYARD set his sights on the region centred on Valencia
HAVE YOU HEARD OF Benidorm Island? I hadn’t I until I saw it appear as one of four destinations on the itinerary for a planned trip to discover the diving around the Valencia Community region of eastern Spain.
The other areas on the list included Tabarca Island marine reserve (sounds nice), the Roman remains of a wreck called Bou Ferrer (sounds great), Calpe (sounds interesting) and… Benidorm. Benidorm! Really?
Well, it’s said that “variety is the spice of life”, so with an open mind, I went along to check them all out.
A short car-ride south from Alicante airport delivered me to the town of Santa Pola. Typically sun-baked and with a reasonably flat landscape, this is the closest starting point from which to reach Tabarca and its surrounding marine reserve.
A marina dominates the seafront at Santa Pola, flanked by a pair of reasonably popular beaches. Walking past the bars and restaurants on the evening before my planned dive, I struggled to single out any British voices – this appeared to be a Spanish holiday destination in the main.
Anthias Diving, a friendly dive-centre founded and run by oceanographer Gonzalo Barrio and positioned within the Santa Pola marina itself, was tasked with taking me out to Tabarca.
“Hola! Soy Will! Que tal?” I exclaimed on arrival on the morning of the dive. In my mind I’m fluent in Spanish, but in reality it’s pretty basic.
If a prize were given for “best boat positioned closest to a dive-centre”, Anthias would win it every year, because literally only a metre separates the boat and its building – amazing.
We loaded the boat with our clobber, and together with two dive-centre family-members and a couple of Spanish divers we set off for the marine reserve.
To dive there, you need to provide your diving cert, insurance details and a recent medical document declaring you fit to dive (the latter being overkill, I felt).
The sea-cops did stop our boat en route to check our documents, too, so they do take it seriously. The area around the island was declared a marine reserve of the highest level in 1984, the first of its kind in Spain, thanks to research carried out by the marine-science department of the University of Alicante that alerted the authorities to its importance. Bravo!
Grouper, I was told, would be the highlight of the dive, and Pablo my guide and buddy explained how to approach them. “They are quite shy, so we will need to sneak up on them… no sudden movements, and try to move slowly without blowing too many bubbles – otherwise they will disappear”, he said.
A fixed mooring-line provided an easy descent from the RIB to the seabed at 26m. It felt good to be diving in a wetsuit again after quite a bit of UK drysuit-diving the week before, and the water was not only clear blue but also an inviting 26°. A current kept my heart-rate up as we hit our maximum depth, reaching a strip of rock that makes up this particular dive-site.
Pablo went to work, seeking out interesting little critters for my perusal.
A massive school of barracuda then stole the show with a fly-past, just skimming our heads – these guys were not shy at all.
Here’s a barracuda fact for you – count the rings on its scales and on its otolith
(a structure within the inner ear) and the number will match the age of the fish!
PABLO MOVED QUICKLY, and eventually led me over the crest of the rock on which we were diving and into a vast field of coarse Mediterranean seagrass, Posidonia oceanica.
I later learnt that this type of seagrass is thought to be as old as the dawn of humanity itself and in some cases dates back some 200,000 years. And it’s there that we met the grouper – a lot of them.
I stopped counting at 17 individuals, grazing like a herd of cows as far as the vis would allow me to see.
Pablo was correct – these chaps were skittish beasts, and even with the gentlest of movements they’d be off.
Cow bream appeared in shoals of 20 or 30 at a time, and I enjoyed watching these fish as they went about their business in the grass. They didn’t seem too concerned about my presence either, and appeared to be keeping the seagrass growth in check. Nudibranchs live there in great numbers, and the occasional moray eel made itself known, although these lads were tiddlers.
After the dive and once we’d unloaded the boat, I took myself back off to Tabarca Island for a spot of lunch.
Regular ferries run tourists there and back for a few euros, and the seafood on offer in the restaurants is pretty darn good. Tabarca is a cracking little place, definitely under-dived, and the benefits of its marine-reserve status are immediately obvious.
NEXT UP ON MY Costa Blanca-based mini-tour was the town of Vila Joiosa, which took me back up north, past Alicante again and in the direction of Benidorm (gulp).
My task was to dive with archaeologists on the Roman cargo wreck of the Bou Ferrer, using local dive-centre Ali Sub’s RIB and cylinders – exciting times!
My first question about the Bou Ferrer would probably have been yours – the wreck is almost 2000 years old, so how do you know what it’s called?
Antonio Espinosa Ruiz, director of a local museum associated with the Roman remains, was able to help me with that one. “Essentially it’s not known what the vessel was called, so it has been given the surnames of both of the divers who discovered her around seven years ago”. Divers Bou & Ferrer had found the site by chance after slipping anchor from a nearby area of initial interest.
Our RIB rendezvoused with the archaeologists’ research vessel already moored over the Bou Ferrer site, and I managed to grab a loose dive-brief from Carlos de Juan, the chap in charge of co-ordinating the excavation project.
Carlos told me that four to five archaeologists worked on the site in 40-minute shifts, using French Navy diving-tables that gave them 40 minutes at 26m with a pair of reasonably short deco-stops.
I was diving on a 29% nitrox mix and recreational diving tables, so was doing my own thing. I followed the divers down through crystal water until we hit the 26m mark, where things totally changed.
To say that someone had “kicked up the bottom” would be an understatement!
This was my first time visiting a working underwater archaeological site, but I should have guessed that conditions visually might not be of holiday-diving standards.
A mass of pipes bringing air down to the industrial vacuum-cleaners from the boat above swung about, while huge pipes seemed to move freely on the seabed alongside big plastic buckets containing goodness knows what.
Visibility was no more than a metre or two at best. The archaeologists went about their work sucking sand from a trench they had made to expose the Roman vessel’s wooden hull remains, and score on score of amphoras in mint condition.
These pots were designed to transport spices, fish, oils and wine, and I learnt that some of the examples found still contained some of that cargo.
Towards the end of my time on the site, the visibility cleared dramatically. I left the seabed before the other divers because of my bottom-time limits, but was able to treat myself to a good 10 minutes of viewing from 15m above the remains while hanging onto the mooring-line.
What a privilege it was to have dived on a piece of history that has been touched by so few people for almost two millenia.
I left the water pretty stoked that afternoon!
THE SUMMER MONTHS are a busy time for the scientists, and at that time diving is normally off-limits to anyone else.
This said, if you do want a nose around this dive-site, it’s possible to arrange a special guided trip via Ali Sub with a bit of forward planning – see the factfile.
Perhaps it’s just me that has snobby preconceptions about Benidorm, but I had always imagined the place to be filled with excitable (drunk) Brits spilling out of sports bars, and beaches full of sunburnt lager-louts lounging beside tired-looking high-rise buildings as far as one could strain one’s neck. Significant dive-scene? No way.
Well, my preconceptions have altered in a positive way – a bit like Las Vegas, Benidorm is worth a look for sure.
Yes, it’s a busy place, but I found the city to be pretty well-behaved, with a mix of many nationalities, including lots of Spaniards.
“Manhattan by the Sea” is what some call it, and from a dive-boat you really do get that impression. Several dive-centres ferry folk to nearby Benidorm Island, and Nicos Diving took me on a boat-tour of it prior to a planned moonlit night dive with another centre, Diving Stones (a play on Rolling Stones, by the way).
Nicos Diving’s Jessie made the sites sound extremely inviting with talk of eagle rays, arches, walls and drop-offs to whet the appetite. But, alas, I guess it’s all about the nightlife in Benidorm, right?
So as soon as night fell, and with the help of Diving Stone’s dive-guide Gosia and RIB, we made for Benidorm Island.
One reasonably important ingredient of moonlit night-diving is, of course, the Moon.
The Moon had different ideas that night, unfortunately, and parked itself behind a cloud for most of our immersion. However, it turned out to be no great loss.
After accidentally punching myself in the eye while pulling on my wetsuit (I don’t think anyone saw) and against the yellow glowing hue of Benidorm, we donned our gear and flopped into the water RIB-style.
THE BOAT WAS FULL, and we were all following Gosia. I thought this might create chaos, but we managed to fan out and find our own space.
The ocean’s hunters had come to life, and we were met by several octopuses in the first few minutes.
A pair of small conger eels snatched fish from the reef, and a big, lone and grumpy-looking barracuda caused
an involuntary shriek from me as it unexpectedly appeared within centimetres of my left eye (Gosia heard me).
It’s only in recent years that I’ve really started to enjoy night-diving – I guess our tastes change as we get older. This dive, although not packed with entertainment, was interesting and provided some real highlights, including a conger feeding-frenzy at the top.
Several species of sea-scorpion live at the site, and they were lovely to see alongside the great hermit crab and spiny lobster.
I’m no stranger to diving in Spain, but from my experience, many Brits are.
On only two or three previous occasions have I seen any British divers on a Spanish boat, and so far on this trip I had yet to meet any.
With the hustle and bustle of Benidorm behind me, and with my views of the place altered to a degree, I motored on towards the town of Calpe, further north still.
A great big lump of rock, or Penon de Ifach as it’s named, dominates this strip of coast. It’s a beautiful beast – a whopping 332m high and designated a “natural park” which, although it provides a certain amount of protection, doesn’t include what’s under the water – and you could tell.
CALPE’S DIVE DIVE dive-centre took me out with its boat to have a look, and I was paired up with Dutch guide Robert.
Part of the adventure for me always includes the journey to a dive-site, and this location is no exception – Penon de Ifach rock is a reason to dive there on its own account.
This was to be my last and shallowest dive of the week, at a site called Los Arcos (you’ve guessed it, the Arches).
Robert led me through a series of pretty little swim-throughs at a leisurely pace, the light bleeding in beautiful shards at each of the exit-points.
More of that Tabarca-style seagrass grew there, but the contrast in the fish-life department was immediately apparent. One or two octopuses appeared, but only a smattering of fish.
We remained at around the 10m mark for the duration, moving shallower only to pop over some of the colossal boulders if we couldn’t squeeze past them.
At the surface after an hour of pleasant diving, Robert told me he thought that spearfishing had taken its toll on the area, which accounted for the lack of lobsters and the like too.
It’s a spectacular place, both above and below the water, but deeper diving here would, I think, provide more to look at on a fishy level.
SPAIN NEVER CEASES to surprise me as a diving destination. It’s wonderfully diverse and the people involved with the sport and its associated conservation are super-passionate.
There is no shortage of divers and, being just two hours away from the UK via low-cost airlines, I think the Valencia Comunity makes for fabulous, easy-access diving.
GETTING THERE: Will flew from London Gatwick to Alicante with easyJet.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Santa Pola / Tabarca Island - Hotel Patilla, hotelpatilla.com, Anthias Diving, anthias.es. Vila Joiosa / Bou Ferrer - Hotel Censal, hotelcensal.com, Ali-Sub, ali-sub.com. Benidorm / Benidorm Island - Hotel Agir, hotelagir.com, Nicos, nicosbenidorm.com & Diving Stones, divingstones.com. Calpe - Cookbook Hotel (fabulous, especially the food, notes Will) thecookbookhotel.com, Dive & Dive, divedivecompany.com
WHEN TO GO: Summer.
PRICES: Return Easyjet flights from around £90. Dive &?Dive charges 220 euros for a 10-dive package. A Bou Ferrer dive costs 70 euros (half goes to the project).
VISITOR INFORMATION: en.comunitatvalenciana.com