SPAIN AND FRANCE - Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson

Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)


by Lawson Wood

THE MEDITERRANEAN, WHERE THE FIRST sport diving took place, has received a bad press over the years. Population and industrial growth has resulted in vastly increased pollution levels. Much of the original coastline has been changed irrevocably by marinas, harbours and housing developments. Monaco has now lost some 75 per cent of its original coastline. The Mediterranean Sea is undoubtedly one of the world’s most threatened seas, due to the increased demand on its natural resources and pollution from homes, industry and intensive agriculture. Fortunately, the influx of fresh seawater from the Atlantic has managed to slow the deterioration.

While small areas such as the waters around Venice and the northern Adriatic, sections of the Greek coast and parts of Tunisia are under increased threat due to the pressures of tourism, this is usually on a seasonal, temporary basis and the marine life does regenerate itself. However, there is now a new threat: the introduction of alien species of algae to this enclosed sea as well as commercial fishing.


There are protected areas around the shores of the Mediterranean, but enforcement is difficult, particularly when it involves huge factory ships. Most countries now accept that a successful tourist industry relies on strict conservation policies. For this industry to succeed and prosper, tourists also have to be made aware of the impact they have on small areas. Membership of conservation agencies is an important step towards understanding and protection of marine habitats.

The South of France is still very popular with divers, despite the effects of the ‘killer algae’ Caulerpa taxifolia, which has overrun many coastal reefs. There are a number of marine parks along the southern French coast, starting with the nature reserve of Cerbère-Banyuls just north of the Spanish Border. Similar to the geology of Estartit, with many sea caves, the reserve is supported by the Arago Oceanographical Laboratory located at Banyuls-sur-mer to the north. The reserve is noted for its dead men’s fingers and precious Red Corals. Near Toulon, the island of Porquerolles is administered by the French National Trust and has many interesting wrecks nearby. The Côte D’Azur has excellent diving around the offshore islands near Cannes, Cape Juan and Cape Antibes with some superb walls and interesting topography.

Much of the southern Spanish coast is similar in topography and species diversity to Gibraltar. As you travel northeast towards the French coast there are a number of protected areas, with good diving and excellent marine life to be found at Al Muñequa and Fuengirola. The most famous of the protected areas is the Medas Islands off the coast near the resort of Estartit. These small rocky islands have been protected since the early 1980s and have huge concentrations of fish, including grouper, sea bass, bream, sardines and mullet.


Travelling south from the border of France into the Costa Brava region of Spain, the coastline rises perceptibly with huge limestone massifs eroded over aeons into a picturesque coastline dotted with islands, subterranean seamounts and carved with thousands of caves, many only accessible from underwater.

The largest group of islands is the Medas group, only a kilometre (⅔ mile) east of the deep-water marina of Estartit. The Medas Island group was declared a national marine park in 1983. The islands are known for the profusion of marine life due to the upwelling of a cold water stream from the central Mediterranean combining with organic material from the River Ter and the wide river deltas along the south coast of France. It was important to protect the islands from large-scale commercial fishing and drastic steps were taken in the early 1980s. After initial opposition, fishermen are now happy with their yields on the perimeter of the marine park and the upsurge in tourism boat traffic.


Red Dead Men’s Fingers soft corals (Alcyonium spp.) can be found covering large areas of the lower rocky cliffs, in shaded areas which are swept daily by the nutrient-rich waters of the northern Mediterranean.


Active predators at night, common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) are a common find along all the rocky shorelines. Their lairs are easy to find by the shells (remains of their dinners) scattered around the entrance.


The islands are known for the huge numbers of fish at all depths, with anchovies and sprats feeding on the surface, Bogue and chromis in the mid-water column hunted by sea bass, jacks, Dentex and, at the top of this small food chain, large grouper and barracuda. The Medas group has average depths of 10-25m (33-80ft) with many vertical and underhanging walls covered in brilliant yellow cup corals, colourful sea fans, Golden Zoanthids, anthias (Anthias anthias) and nudibranchs by the score. However, most divers come back year after year for the cave systems, many of which cut all the way through the islands with small chambers and air vents.


The largest cave system under Meda Petita, known as Cova del Dofi Sud (Dolphin South Cave) is very complex and there is a small, stylized statue of a dolphin at the main entrance. From there a series of shafts and tunnels traverse the island. Spiny lobster, precious Red Coral, golden cup corals, colourful sponges and sea squirts adorn the walls everywhere. A delightful surprise is the number of friendly groupers, weighing 45kg (100lb) and more, which come directly up to you.


One of the smaller rocky islets is Tascó Petit, located to the west of Carall Bernat in the southern group. Here huge limestone boulders have created narrow canyons covered in brilliant purple and yellow Gorgonian Sea Fans. Scores of bream and wrasse in at least half a dozen varieties vie for feeding space around the ledges and the macro aspects of the marine life here are perfect for underwater photographers.


Armed with a mouth full of razor sharp teeth, the lizardfish (Synodus saurus) await their prey either partly hidden in the sand or perched on algae-covered boulders.


To the north of the Medas Islands, lying in 42m (138ft), is the wreck of the Avvenire. Known locally as the Marmoler (due to the cargo of marble it was carrying), she sank in 1971 after hitting the coastline. Tide and current carried her to her present position, sitting upright on a sandy plain. Visibility is generally poor and the thermoclines inhibit most divers, with the temperature dropping by as much as 7°C (45°F). The wreck is quite intact and an oasis for fish life, but can be dangerous due to all the netting that drapes the decks.



Further along this northern stretch of coastline are two superb cave and cavern systems. These are El Milà and the massive Las Vetes. Again, these caves are quite complex and should only be dived with an experienced local guide. Las Vetes is particularly convoluted, with many side passages and narrow dead ends. El Milà is easier with its two long caverns. Ancient stalagmites can be seen underwater and still-forming stalactites are evident in the numerous air chambers. During the summer months the air in one chamber is filled with the sight and smell of thousands of bats. The walls play host to a huge variety of sponges and other colourful invertebrates including the now-rare precious Red Coral.


To the south of Estartit, and about 45 minutes travel time by dive boat, is a series of offshore seamounts called Ullastres, which rise from 65m (213ft) to around 5m (16ft). The water is always much clearer to the south, well away from any river estuaries. These seamounts are covered in colourful Gorgonian Sea Fans and surrounded by schools of various types of fish, each in their allocated feeding zones. It is amazing to watch the interaction of fish species and the ever-present predators such as Almaco Jacks, Dentex and barracuda.

While the Mediterranean is inevitably exposed to the problems of an enclosed sea, the far-sightedness of the Catalan Government in protecting their islands and coastline has paid off handsomely with a sustainable ecosystem for good catches of fish and, of course, the pleasure of visiting divers. Estartit and the Medas Islands should be on everyone’s diving list.


The distinctively coloured Spotted Doris (Discodoris atromaculata) can be found feeding on sponges at the entrance to deeper caves and in shaded areas.


Triplefin Blennies (Tripterygion spp.) only grow to 5cm (2 in) long and can be found at shallow reefs.


The Blue Lagoon at Comino is sheltered, with numerous caves. It is often the first point of entry for many people snorkelling in the Maltese Islands.


Dwejra Point on Gozo is a shore diving location. The six dive sites offer spectacular underwater topography and marine life.