HAVING DONE THE GRAND PRIX AT MONACO and the film festival at Cannes, I take the DIVER mega-yacht down the Spanish coast to the Costa del Sol and Marbella - playground of the rich, the famous, and a popular destination with regular British holidaymakers seeking the Spanish sunshine.
We call the MV Gin-at-Sunset a yacht, but it is actually more like a small cruise liner. It's black with lots of chrome and stainless to match the dive kit. Entering the marina at Puerto Banus is not an easy task. Captain Eaton-Bligh has to pull a few strings to convince two film stars, a rock band, a Great Train Robber and a Greek shipping magnate to shift their smaller yachts into second-class berths to make room, and even then Gin-at-Sunset only just fits.
Having gone through all the hassle of getting the yacht into the marina, it seems hardly worth squeezing out again to go diving. Besides, young Bantin the cabin boy has all that metal to shine. I have the Ferrari unloaded and drive to Happy Divers at Atalaya, a mile or two along the coast towards Estepona. I pass three other Ferraris on the way, but none can match the exclusive DIVER 4x4 pickup conversion.
Diving at Las Bovedas, an offshore reef, almost the first thing I see is an octopus - or at least, the first thing after the cloud of tiny anthias and damselfish filling the last 5m or so of the descent.
The octopus is in the open, undulating across the rocks in the fluid bone-less walk octopuses adopt when not in a hurry. At first it seems unconcerned, then I cross whatever magic distance it considers its personal space and it flows into a hole, only the eyes bugging out to maintain all-round surveillance.
I drift on with the minimal current. The marine life is quite busy. Wrasse, bream and mullet on the reef; anthias and damselfish above and then bream higher in the water. Occasional grouper are very wary in the distance. On the rocks, scorpionfish lurk secure in their camouflage and hydroids are grazed by nudibranchs, varying from tiny puffs of purple fuzz to monster slugs in bright yellow with blue stripes. I mentally tune out the sea cucumbers and urchins munching everywhere.
Below the rocks are conger and moray eels, then, licking out across the gravel, are T-shaped green tongues from worms that remain hidden below. And there are more octopuses. Looking along a wide crack, I spot a small one half out of its den, then another, more timid, just centimetres away.

Fair monster
From our start at 20m the seabed flows gently to 24m or so. Many octopuses later, I meet a fair monster out in the open. It sits there for a few minutes, then decides to go home, lurking on the threshold of its den, ready to dart inside, but still curious of my camera and, I suspect, its reflection in the glass dome.
I ascend, and it's about time. In a 5mm steamer with shortie hooded jacket, I'm freezing. For the Mediterranean, the water is cold. The other divers don't seem to feel it, but most are wearing Happy Divers' 7mm rental suits.
Sea temperature at this end of the Costa del Sol varies with the wind. After a prolonged westerly wind, a whole load of cold Atlantic water has been blown in past Gibraltar. Just a couple of weeks ago it was warm enough to do shallow inshore dives in shorties, and my 5mm suit would have been plenty warm enough.
But the cold water coming past Gibraltar has a positive effect - the tremendous variety of marine life along this stretch of coast. I buy a 7mm one-piece. I could have rented one, but I needed one anyway and in Spain diving kit prices are good.
Las Bovedas is straight out from the beach, 5 miles south. With sea conditions calming, the RIB heads 16 miles west, past Estepona to a group of pinnacles called Sierra. Visibility is a silty 3m or so, and as I descend the line to 16m the first thing I see is an octopus getting very friendly with the anchor. I always thought octopuses had better eyesight than that.
With anything other than a macro lens I would have thought 'yuk dive', but as it is, I have an excellent time, with nudibranchs, tiny hermit crabs, octopuses and shrimps to entertain me.

Complicated junction
Rather than navigate the horrendously complicated junction to get on the main road back to the Gin-at-Sunset, I check in to the Atayala Park Hotel. The dive centre is conveniently located in the hotel grounds. It goes hotel, pool, dive centre, beach (with a golf course off to one side).
Happy Divers' RIB is launched down the beach. I offer the services of the Ferrari's tow-bar, but it isn't needed, as plenty of muscle power is provided by a team of enthusiastic divemasters assisted by a winch. Most are working through to the end of the season before taking the PADI Instructor Development courses and exams. Between guiding boat dives, they take turns at manning the shop and assisting on a busy schedule of try-dives and open-water courses. A new student seems to start every day.
For another deeper dive, inshore and east of Las Bovedas is Pamela, a 2m bank of rocks in the sand at 29m. Marine life is differently balanced; there are many more of the worms with the green T-shaped tongues. The largest rocks turn out to be interlocking concrete blocks used to build harbour breakwaters.
The disadvantage of working a RIB from in front of the dive centre is that the sea can become too rough to launch across the beach. The solution is a drive past Estepona to Punto Atolaya, close to the Sierra pinnacles - and if the duplicate name 16 miles away confuses you, it does me as well.

Run aground
Below the coastal watch-tower, we shore-dive a shallow reef in the lee of the point. Wind, fine sand and shallow water combine to give close visibility. It isn't an amazing dive, but I amuse myself finding scorpionfish and spider-crabs in gullies in the rocks.
With the sea calming and inshore visibility improving, it's time to try the wreck of the Lys, a French galleon that in 1705 was run aground and burned by her crew to avoid capture. After 300 years, a surprisingly large amount of the ship remains.
A section along the full length of the hull of big square timbers rises a metre or so from the sandy seabed, providing a home for plenty of fish. Guns and metalwork have been salvaged, but divers still turn up occasional brass buttons, which should be left in situ, as this is a historical wreck. At only 7m deep, the Lys can even be enjoyed by beginners.
I drive into downtown Marbella, a few mile east of Puerto Banus. From the Marbella marina I join Diving Marbella, which takes me to the Marbella Towers, another easy and shallow dive site.
The towers are the supports for an old conveyor that ran from an open iron mine in the hills to load ore onto ships off the shallow beach.

Bodged foundations
The outer tower stands from a sandy seabed at 10m. It's the sort of small dive that you need to explore in detail. Cracks in the bodged foundations are full of octopuses, congers and blennies.
Towards the corners are patches of jewel anemones, rarely seen in the Mediterranean.
Scorpionfish hang on tight in the waves, ready to grab a snack from the clouds of tiny damselfish surrounding the shallower part of the tower. Off its base, a small steel wreck hosts more fish, as does the debris from a loading gantry on the seaward side.
I can understand how the inner tower was undermined by a storm a few years ago and now forms a shallow submerged reef.
The dive sites from Marbella overlap with those of Atolaya, and I dive Las Bovedas again, though on a different part of the reef system. In fact, I seem to be diving Las Bovedas at least two out of every three days, and each time it's a little different.
They need to start naming some of the sites within Las Bovedas. It's like diving a reef complex the size of the Manacles in Cornwall without distinguishing between the Raglan and Maen Voes, or the Vase and Penwin. Each part of the reef has variations in character on the underlying Las Bovedas theme.
There are no 'steep and deep' walls, only variations in rough ground, with boulders and ledges and a rich variety of marine life fed by Atlantic waters.
Pushing the limit of the free 32% nitrox that Happy Divers provides to anyone with a PADI or NRC nitrox qualification, Las Roquelles is an area of domed reefs rising from 33m to 29m. Each reef is about 150m long and 30m wide, running north-south.
First down, I spook a trio of small sunfish being cleaned above the reef. The rock domes are fractured and undercut to leave a criss-cross of shallow canyons just wide enough to swim through, though I take care to avoid bumping the sprigs of yellow tree coral adorning the sides. Every now and then I spot another sunfish, though never quite close enough for a photograph. On this one dive, I have encountered more sunfish than in the past few years of diving added together.
Come to think of it, in a few days I have also seen a good year's worth of octopuses and, unlike the sunfish, they are much more co-operative photographic models.


Checking the knowledge reviews on an open-water course at Atalaya Beach


Ascending from the dive at Las Roqueillos


A joint between gullies forms a swim-through at Las Roqueillos


preparing for a shore dive at Punto Atalaya


yellow tree coral



FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Iberia flies daily from Heathrow to Malaga. The Atalaya Park Hotel is located off the coast road between Marbella and Estepona, opposite the turning for Benahavis.
DIVING: Happy Divers 0034 952 88 90 00, www.happy-divers-marbella.com. Diving Marbella 0034 952902304, www.divingmarbella.com. Also see www.divingcostadelsol.com.
ACCOMMODATION : Many mainstream holiday companies provide packages inclusive of hotel and charter flights.
MONEY : Euros
WHEN TO GO : Early spring to late autumn, though the summer can be busy.
COST : Costs vary upwards from just a couple of hundred pounds for last-minute out of season deals.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Spain 020 7486 8077, www.tourspain.co.uk or www.spain.info.



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