some of the canyons turn into tunnels at Grand Canyons in Menorca


Spain. The land of the mass-market package holiday. The place that in the late 1960s and early '70s got everyone deserting the Great British seaside and flying south for a couple of weeks' intense sunshine, cheap food and drink.

Not just food and drink, but cheap kiddie-sized masks, fins and snorkels. It was as a kid on a family bucket-and-spade holiday to Spain that I nagged my parents into spending a few hundred pesetas to get me fitted out with basic equipment, and spent all my time snorkelling round the rocks.

When we got home I tried to join the local diving club, found out I was way too young, and had to wait until I was at university to learn to dive.

But maybe Spain became a victim of its own success. With such a booming business in beach holidays, the potential for diving became overlooked and it was left to the Red Sea to perfect the diving package trip. There were notable exceptions, but most dive centres in Spain catered only for their local divers. Still, how many dive centres in the UK are really set up to cater for international visitors?

It's somewhat ironic that while Spanish diving is now readily accessible to the international traveller, the once specialist diving destination of the Red Sea now has lots of regular beach-holiday resorts.

Early arrivals on the international scene were dive centres in the Canary Islands and Balearic Islands. Administratively part of Spain, they both offer lots of good diving. The Canary Islands are harsh volcanic mountains poking out of the Atlantic off West Africa. With this sort of geology there are lots of dive sites in the category of 'steep and deep'.

One that sticks in my mind is a basalt reef called Catedral de las Nieves, or Cathedral of the Snows, off the northern tip of Tenerife. A giant block of basalt rises from 45m to a plateau at 10m, it has a sink hole big enough to drop several buses through, cutting down the middle then out through an arch. Visibility is typically stunning. But it isn't all advanced diving. There are plenty of shallow inshore reefs with fish, small caves and the odd wreck.

The Mediterranean Balearic Islands have an altogether different geology. Formed as leftover chunks of land when the European and African continents drifted apart, they are mostly limestone with a mixture of volcanic rocks.

Add on some changes in sea level, first when the Mediterranean basin was flooded and subsequently with ice ages and general up-lifting of the land, then a few million years of rainfall, and there are all the right ingredients for caves - seawater caves just below or on the waterline, caves much deeper below, and more serious caves inland which have become new exploration areas for cave-divers.

At Pont d'en Gil in Menorca, a part-submerged cave leads 200m back from the sea to a sandy beach. It is both a spectacular dive and safe for new divers, with a clear surface all the way back except for a few metres just before the beach. Originally formed by a subterranean stream, then flooded by the sea, it is a rare opportunity to dive in salt water among stalactites and stalagmites.

For those who don't like caves, the rocks outside make a nice wall to 20m covered with macro life, while for wreck enthusiasts the Malakoff and Francisquita are fair-sized wrecks, respectively averaging 35m and 45m deep.

On the mainland, Estartit and the Medas Isles for many years represented the only Spanish diving known internationally. Early recognition as a marine reserve has resulted in respectable fish stocks and groupers growing to their massive mature size. Along the mainland coastline are shallow reefs and a scattering of wrecks.
About the time I first noted reports of the Medas Isles in Diver in the late 1980s, I was on a corporate jolly to Marbella on the Costa del Sol. Even the local tourist office couldn't find any information about diving, either in English or in Spanish, so I didn't dive at all.

A few years later there was a continued lack of information and I ended up driving to Gibraltar. Good diving, but not part of Spain, so I won't digress.

Now a simple web search turns up numerous dive centres with web pages in English and the full range of diving from reefs to wrecks. Searching for 'diving' and 'Marbella' can work, but in Spanish the word to look for is 'buceo'; Centro de Buceo, Club de Buceo, and Escuela de Buceo. You could also try looking for 'submarisimo'.

More recently I have been diving at a couple of locations in the province of Murcia, about halfway down the Mediterranean coast an hour or two south of Alicante.

Off Cabo de Palos, the Islas Hormigas are a string of islands and reefs stretching out from a corner on the Spanish coast. Like the Medas Isles, they are now a marine reserve, with hordes of fish swarming where the rocks rise into the current. Along the coast there are some respectable wrecks, from 30m and deeper. These were victims of the Islas Hormigas, poor weather and even war, though Spanish waters were supposedly neutral.

Further south and west at Aguilas there has always been some coastal rock- and reef-diving. In the past few years they have been busy sinking old wooden trawlers to create artificial reefs and a new marine reserve. A wooden hull in warm water doesn't last long, but they are sinking new boats faster than the old ones are decaying, so the reef project is growing.

Spain is a big place, especially when you consider the island provinces, so there is obviously a big variation in the diving available. Wherever I have visited, at least a few dives have fallen into the 'excellent' category, with everywhere having plenty of pleasant dives to fill in the gaps.

If you are on a more relaxed holiday, mixing the odd dive with everything else, you can hardly go wrong. Just pick the best sites and best days and relax in-between.

If you are the type who likes to dive all day, every day, and find you have exhausted the better stuff where you are based, just rent a car and drive for an hour or two to widen your scope. Car hire and insurance are quite competitive compared to many countries.

An unexpected benefit is the availability of flights from regional airports in the UK. As well as convenience, there are hidden savings in getting to the airport and avoiding the need for expensive airport hotels before or after a holiday.





Red gorgonian decorated with cobweb-like strings of plankton at Cabo de Palos in Murcia


saupe above a solitary anchor, part of an artificial reef project at Aguilas

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Package holidays from many regional airports. You may need a hire car to get the most out of some locations, so remember to pack your driving licence.
DIVING: Estartit/Medas Islands - Unisub Diving Centre (0034 727 51768, www,unisub.es); Menorca: Cala'n Bosc - Crystal Seas Scuba (0034 971 387334, www.crystalseas-scuba.com); Murcia, Cabo de Palos - Club de Buceo Islas Hormigas (0034 968 145530, www.islashormigas.com), Santiago de la Ribera - Ribera Diving (0034 968 572162, buceo@riberadiving.com), Aguilas - Club de Buceo Estela (0034 968 448144, www.escueladebuceo.com); Tenerife - Tenerife Scuba (0034 922 785584, www.tenerifescuba.com).
ACCOMMODATION: From package-holiday resort to traditional fishing villages and tranquil countryside. Hotels cover the full range from basic to luxury resort; otherwise go for flats, apartments or villas.
WHEN TO GO: Varies with location but generally summer and autumn, though many dive centres are open throughout the year, particularly in the Canary Islands.
WATER TEMPERATURE: Again varies, ranging from requiring a full UK suit in winter to a 5mm steamer or even a shortie wetsuit in summer.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone from beginner to technical, though not necessarily at the same location. Nitrox and trimix are still rare.
FOR NON DIVERS: All the usual activities at a typical package holiday resort, from sandcastles to water parks to nightclubs. Away from resorts there is some beautiful countryside, history and Spanish ambience.
COST: The best deal is probably to book a package holiday and a hire car, then arrange diving directly with a dive centre. Allow 20-30 Euros per dive.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Spanish Tourist Office 020 7467 5513, www.tourspain.es