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Colourful gorgonian fan corals characterise Catalonia's underwater walls. (Photo: Marc Gimenez/Triton Diving Llafranc)

Everybody said the Med was dead, but a trip to L’Estartit on the Costa Brava leaves Mark ‘Crowley’ Russell revelling in the majesty of the Mediterranean Sea

When I was asked if I’d like to visit the Costa Brava for a scuba diving press jaunt, my first reaction was ‘qué?’, partly because of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, but mostly because, despite my 17 years of diving, more than 9 of which were as a full-time professional, Spain had never once crossed my scuba diving radar.I do not recall a single conversation where friends and colleagues extolled the virtues of diving in Spain. The agreeable climate, yes, gastronomic delights, yes, the warm and hospitable local population, all yes. But the great visibility, rich coral cover, abundant marine life and accessible wrecks? Very much no. ‘The Med,’ they said? ‘The Med is dead.’

My second, more considered reaction to the invitation was, ‘of course’, because one should never turn down a dive trip, especially when it’s somewhere warm and sunny, as opposed to September in the UK, which this year was beginning to turn rather grim. However dead the Med might be, I had no immediate plans to be jumping in the River Mersey. And so I found myself, after a short, but thoroughly enjoyable – if slightly manic – press trip, soaking up the Spanish sunshine with an ice cold deco beer, reminiscing about some excellent diving with my colleagues and wondering why nobody had previously informed me of this marvellous location.

The invitation was to Costa Brava, the northernmost stretch of coastline in Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain which, as we know from recent events, many of the locals do not wish to remain a region of Spain. It’s a very popular destination for British tourists – but not, apparently, British divers. Certainly, our happy little band of journos and travel agents was the only British clientele at the quite wonderful Hotel Les Illes in L’Estartit, about 45km from the city of Girona. It is both a dive centre and hotel, which is not especially unusual in itself, but it is the only hotel I know of where you can traipse through reception, take the elevator and make your way to the room while still wearing full, wet, dive gear. My natural British reserve found this slightly disconcerting; German visitors apparently did not, and neither did the cleaning lady as she cheerfully mopped up behind them.

catalonia coral cover

Known locally as gorgonians, colonies of the violescent sea whip (Paramuricea clavata)  are dense and plentiful (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

We had arrived late in L’Estartit, mostly due to a delay at the airport caused by our driver waiting for us close to the agreed meeting point in the same way that the moon, in one sense, is very close to the Earth, but in another – very real sense – quite far away. Nevertheless, we geared up and padded across the road to the marina and were whisked away to our introductory dive at La Vaca, located in the Medes archipelago, a series of seven small islands and part of the Montgrí, Medes Islands and Baix Ter Natural Park, and which means, for unspecified reasons, ‘The Cow’, in Spanish.

All the other divers were done for the day. I suspect our guide – Carlos – would rather have been heading for home (I would), and after a 3am start and a lot of faffage, keen diver though I am, jumping at 5pm was not necessarily top of my list of things to do. Carlos was, however, everything that a good guide should be. Friendly, fun, knowledgeable, professional and safe, and his briefing followed suit – informative and descriptive with appropriate hand signals and air check warnings. It was the best briefing I’ve had since I stopped being a dive professional. I even paid attention.

Underwater, in the shade of the cliff, our first few minutes of Catalan diving were not spectacular, but once the eyes adjusted to the 15m vis and a greenish tinge, the dive began to live up to Carlos’ enthusiastic briefing, as the underwater scenery became progressively more impressive. I began to wonder where exactly the ‘dead Med’ people had been diving.

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 A dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) observing the passage of divers (Photo: Pau Asensio)

Many divers have their niche: wreck, deep, cold, cave, and so on. I am what I describe as an ‘unashamedly fair-weather, shallow-water fish botherer.’ I am happiest floating over well-lit, beautiful coral, with lots of fish. Big stuff is always great, wrecks are great, diving in general is great, but diving without coral and fish is, for me, like being served a gin and tonic without ice and a slice. And without gin, in some cases.

One of the most outstanding features of diving on the Costa Brava was the coral cover, particularly the stunning red gorgonian fan corals which, in other Mediterranean locations are rarely present, or only grow deeper than 20m or more. Here they reached almost to the surface, and with a much broader extent than I have found in other destinations. The fish life was impressive, at least in terms of abundance, if not odd or unusual speciality species. Large groupers followed our passage with their inquisitive but wary gaze, and in between the cracks were moray eels in numbers I haven’t seen away from tropical reefs, plus the occasional conger.

After making regular and sensible air checks, Carlos guided us through a series of small caves and tunnels that put me in mind of the Comino caves of Malta, only I enjoyed them more, heretical though that statement might be. The tunnels and caverns at La Vaca were wide enough that a buoyancy wobble wouldn’t immediately result in unwarranted pointy rock and head interaction, and well-lit even in the fading light of our dive.

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A John Dory (Zeus faber) swims over the lush soft coral (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

Returning to the hotel, slightly chilly and rather tired after the early start, the benefits of being able to drip directly towards my room and – very importantly – a hot shower, outweighed any embarrassment I might have felt on behalf of overworking the cleaning lady and her mop. Gear (and Crowley) freshly washed and hung on the balcony (gear, not Crowley), the excellent buffet dinner and cold Estrella were very welcome. It also turned out that Fawlty Towers may well have been the barman’s favourite TV show. Every time I said ‘qué’, he burst into peals of laughter.

Unusually for a press trip, instead of hogging the bar, the other lightweights – sorry – journalists – retired early and it was a fresh and chipper group that boarded La Pepita, the dive boat of RosesSub dive centre, located in the town of Roses at the northern edge of the Roses Gulf. Our journey was slightly delayed by the rival magazine’s failure to load their kit bag on the bus. A mistake anyone could make – I was just glad it wasn’t me.

When we eventually got on board I thought the boat was a little overcrowded, but mostly because everybody was packed into the boat’s interior to avoid the rather bracing wind on the outside, and make use of the warm and welcoming space heater on the inside. The boat was broad enough of beam that although there was some squeezing in passing, no toes were crushed.

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The common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is regulalry spotted during Costa Brava diving (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

Everything was – er – rosy. The first dive at El Traire was okay; enjoyable if not spectacular. We didn’t a great deal, probably due to two members of our team going missing, causing the guide (not an employee of the dive centre, I must stress) not to stray too far from the mooring. Turns out that Mr ‘I’ll-be- fine-in-a-3mm shorty’ decided that he would be more fine in a 7mm full suit, but forgot to update his weight belt, and was unable to descend with the group.

The second dive, however, at El Cap Trencat was superb. My notes for the dive begin with: ‘Fish! LOTS!’ A series of pinnacles swathed in soft corals provided shelter to large numbers of small fish, with beady-eyed barracuda and the occasional tuna patrolling the outskirts. Scorpionfish, moray eels and lobster occupied the crevices and although the visibility was still limited to around 15m, the colour of the coral became much more visible, especially when aided by the strong sunlight of an almost cloudless sky (and a torch).

The visibility should not give any diver pause when planning a visit. It’s mostly due to the outflow from the Ter river, which empties into the Mediterranean at L’Estartit and causes algal and plankton blooms in the region around the Illes Medes, which subsequently circulate around the Gulf of Roses. There are few places on earth where the vis is always perfect; 15m is still pretty good, and plankton blooms mean more in the way of life, as further evidenced by the lack of ‘dead Med’ that we kept finding.

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Long-snouted seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) make for excellent macro subjects (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

After a break to enjoy a most excellent lunch (or lunches, given the size of the starter portions) at Braseria Bim’s at the Hotel Terraza in Roses, we headed to nearby Figueras and the Salvador Dali museum which, although clearly unrelated to diving, is very much worth a visit. The surrealist and his energetic moustache do not require much by way of introduction, and if you’re on tour in the area then it’s worth stopping by for a couple of hours. It helps if you have a guide or pamphlet to tell you what you’re looking at, because a lot of it makes much more sense (if ‘sense’ is the right word) when you do. His work is quite spectacular, steeped in tragedy and filled with dark humour. He painted a portrait with an octopus. Not of an octopus; using an octopus. There is no mention as to what happened to the poor creature, but given that seafood is very popular in Catalonia, its fate was probably sealed, and then sautéed and sauced. The painting’s pretty cool though.

Back to the diving and the wreck of the Boreas out of Palamós, courtesy of Dive Centre Palamós, on the morning of Day Three was an excellent little ship to dive; perfect as an introductory wreck dive, but with enough to keep the more experienced diver interested. Deliberately sterilized and sunk as an artificial reef, most of the 60m-long vessel is intact sitting at 30m, with a couple of easy swim-throughs and interesting components such as the anchor winch, wheelhouse and engine block easily visible. Approximately 35km south of L’Estartit and around the Cap de Begur, there was no sign of the plankton blooms. The water was a much more pleasing shade of blue with at least 25m of clarity and zero current.

The old adage of saving the best until last was certainly true of our final dive of the trip at Llanfranc, a small fishing village that has become a tourist hotspot, and top of the list of towns most deserving of the word ‘quaint’.

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Mediterranean jellyfish (Cotylorhiza tuberculata), transparent partner shrimp and the vivid coral coral cover (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

Triton Diving, a family run business at which the founding member Emile, now in his 70s, still works as an instructor and guide, is one of those establishments which prides itself on welcoming its guests as family – smart, spotlessly clean and with a fridge that is at all times full, cold and open to all. A five-minute boat-ride from the small wharf took us to Ullastre, a series of pinnacles which rise almost to the surface as the bottom gets progressively deeper. With the blue water, clear sky and perfect visibility, this was, for me, the highlight of the trip. This wasn’t just the ‘lots’ of fish of my earlier dives, this was – quite literally, and as written in my notes: ‘Tons of the buggers’.

We dived from Ullastre I to Ullastre II, and I have rarely seen soft coral cover as thick and magnificent as it was here. The gorgonians formed an unbroken apron around the base of the pinnacles, rising to 15m and shallower, interspersed with hydroids and cup corals. More morays, more scorpionfish, an octopus, and nudibranchs everywhere, with the water surrounding each pinnacle teeming with a huge school of tiny silver sardines, flashing in the sunlight as they all simultaneously changed direction.

Orbiting the galaxy of small and shiny fish, slowly but intractably, a school of barracuda numbering in the hundreds finned lazily around the edges, probably with bellies already full from the day’s hunting, while large grouper kept a watchful eye over proceedings. My dive buddy, who started shivering shortly after descending on previous dives, managed the full 50 minutes, it was that spectacular. The deco beer in the sleepy little harbour watching the sunset was a fitting end to a magnificent dive. It wasn’t a press trip anymore, it was a group of dive buddies, soaking up the Spanish sunshine, reminiscing about some excellent diving, and wondering why nobody had previously informed us of this marvellous location.

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Barracuda gather in the hundreds to hunt huge schools of sardines (Photo: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

Rounding off our all-too-short trip was a visit to the historic – and very beautiful – city of Girona. I described it as ‘Shakespearean’, although my colleague from the rival magazine very kindly reminded me that the bard’s fair gentleman were from Verona, in Italy, but I think old Bill would have loved it nonetheless. Fans of more modern theatre might like to know that Girona was the backdrop for several locations in Game of Thrones, and you can follow in Cersei’s footsteps as she performed the walk of shame. They’ve cleaned up the airborne excreta and it's probably best if you mount the stairs fully clothed. And wear comfortable shoes.

For UK divers, any visit to the Mediterranean will inevitably draw comparisons with Malta. I like Malta – especially Gozo – very much, but the Costa Brava was definitely ‘my kind of diving’. Stunning coral cover and lots of fish is what I want to see when I’m underwater, and Costa Brava provided. The local director of the Catalan diving association told us – with some exasperation – that they’d ‘been trying, for 50 years, to get British divers to visit’, and it is baffling why they haven’t.

Those people who proclaim that ‘the Med is dead’ clearly have not dived the Costa Brava, because it is anything but. The Med, my diving friends, is very, very much alive.

catalonia nudibranchs

Nudibranch lovers will enjoy diving along the Costa Brava (Photos: Pau Asensio / RosesSub)

catalonia need to know

DIVE CENTRES:
Our hosts were the excellent Hotel Les Illes in L’Estartit, highly recommended: www.hotellesilles.com • Triton Diving Llafranc: www.tritonllafranc.com • Dive Centre Palamós: www.Palamósdivecenter.com • RosesSub (Roses): www.rosessub.com

WHEN TO GO: The recommendation from the tourist board is to visit prior to 15 July and after 15 September to avoid the busiest time of year. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that the water is a little cooler than it might otherwise be, but at between 21 and 23ºC on my dive computer during three days in late September, a 7mm full suit and hood was adequate, a proper semi-dry would have been better.

MEDICAL REQUIREMENT: Diving in Spain requires a medical certificate from a doctor in order to participate. We visited a local diving doctor (Centre Mèdic Estartit: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) who charges €50 for the check-up, which took around five minutes and involved a blood-pressure, heart rate and lung-function checks, and an ECG. You may want to shop around before departure. My local hyperbaric physician charges £40 for a sport-diving medical, my local GP £130. Many GPs will not have diving-related knowledge or training, and for the price they charge there should be some additional spa treatment, free lunch, and a lollipop on the way out. 

GETTING THERE: Flying to Girona is the easiest option, but Barcelona is serviced by more carriers from more locations. Flights from Manchester to Barcelona take around 2 hours 30 minutes, and the drive from Barcelona to L’Estartit is 1 hour 45 minutes; Girona 45 minutes. There is a high-speed train from Barcelona to Girona which takes around 38 minutes direct and costs between €9 and €38, from where dive centres can help with arranging taxis if necessary. There are local bus and train services to Palamós, L’Estartit and Roses.
Blue Compass is a Girona-based specialist eco-tour operator that offers tailor-made diving holidays along Costa Brava: www.bluecompass.barcelona

CAR HIRE By far and away the easiest way to get around is to rent a car. Hire cars are available from Girona Airport for around £20 per week.

OTHER THINGS TO DO: We were so busy moving around, diving (and taking long lunches) that we didn't get to see everything that the region of Girona has to offer. Aside from the excellent dining, the Museum of Salvador Dali is well worth a visit, as is a tour of Girona's fair city, GoT fan or not. There's plenty of history spread around the sprawling landscape, and the terrain is so perfect for cycling that it's used as a training ground for the Tour de France.

For more information about touring Catalonia and the Costa Brava see: www.costabrava.org

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