CABO DE PALOS NEAR La Manga seems to be the central hub of diving activity in Murcia, with at least four resident dive centres. I was steered in the direction of Planeta Azul, the oldest establishment on the block.
The Spanish take their wreck-diving very seriously. Most weekends we have more than 200 divers here, and 70% of my clientele come from Madrid, said the centres owner, Miguel Angel Garcia Gallego.
With this in mind, and aware that a knowledge of Spanish does help, Mariane, working with Murcia Turistica, proceeded to teach me the basics.
She began with the word guiri, which describes a typical English tourist wearing white socks and sandals.
Very nice!
Just off the coast at the Islas Hormigas marine reserve youll find more than a dozen top-class shipwrecks, but be warned, most of them arent shallow.
My warm-up dive took me to 45m, and from then on it just got deeper and deeper. Javier, my dive guide, said: We only do five minutes deco, so I had to chuckle when I was left hanging at 5m for more than 30 minutes.
I noticed that Javier was using twin 10s, but that everyone else was wearing single steel 15s pumped to 200 bar. Neither did I see any twin-sets for hire. On the bright side, there was always an emergency cylinder hanging at 5m, and on one occasion I nearly had to use it.
Being able to book a cheap local flight with Ryanair really reduced my travelling time. Then it was just an 18-mile drive from San Javier airport to the southern tip of La Manga.

I WAS SURPRISED TO FIND the town deserted at the end of September. It reminded me of a spaghetti western, with everything but tumbleweed blowing down the streets.
During peak season in July and August La Manga heaves with tourists, and most of its 100,000 guest beds are fully booked. La Manga, the Sleeve, is a strip of land 12 miles long and just 100m wide. Every space is crammed with hotels, apartments, bars and restaurants.
On the shoreward side is a huge saltwater lake called the Mar Menor, or Minor Sea. With a maximum depth of about 8m, this is ideal for sailing and windsurfing.
My first dive was on El Naranjito, a wreck located at Isla Gomera, one nautical mile from the harbour entrance. The 51m-long freighter sank in April 1946 during a violent storm, while carrying a cargo of oranges (hence the name). The wreck lies upright in 45m, and fishing nets cover most of the stern.
Javier stopped to cut a slipper lobster free from this death-trap. He later explained that local fishermen regularly trawled the bay for fish, and that the less experienced skippers inevitably snagged their nets on the wreck.
Trawling would usually stir up the sandy bottom and reduce visibility to a few metres. One diver said that the wreck normally looked like a ghost ship.
Sofia joined us for our second dive at Bajo de Dentro, where several submerged mountain peaks lie at a maximum 35m. I was surprised how much life was on display. Grouper lay camouflaged on the shallow peaks, and 100 or more reasonably sized barracuda congregated in the canyon.
The current had picked up as we made our way through the narrow causeway. Beautiful bright-orange cup corals exploded all over the walls. We had left more than an hour between dives, but my no-deco time seemed to count down very quickly, and within 30 minutes I was beeped back into deco.

JUST A FEW MINUTES WALK from the dive centre is a nice little divers bar/cafe called La Bodega, known locally as El Pepe, a no-frills place but serving good, cheap food. Tapas is very popular with chilled caña (small beers) served in frosted glasses. Drinking only from small glasses stops the beer warming up, explained Mariane.
The next day Javier planned for us to go even deeper to visit the Stanfield, a 110m freighter sunk in 1917. The wreck stands upright in sand at 55m.
We were joined by Carmelo Gomez, a Spanish actor. Mariane was drooling over the guy, so I guessed he must be quite famous.
Down to 10m there was a snowstorm of sediment, then the water turned blue, though very dark. We entered the wreck through a door at the bow, then swam out through a starboard hatchway.
I managed to take some pictures of Javier looking in as I was looking out, and felt a slight snag on my BC as I went through the hatch but thought nothing more of it.
We reached a giant crack in the hull, full of beautiful yellow and purple gorgonians. It was then that I realised that my BC was ripped open, and I had lost all buoyancy. I felt like Spiderman clinging to the deck!
Javier tried to remove my weightbelt for some reason, which totally freaked me out. I was breathing quite heavily, but managed to get back to the ascent line, with some additional buoyancy help from Javier.
Im glad that you had the problem - I would have panicked, said Carmelo later, as I made a mental note to find out where the nearest recompression chamber was located. Javier said that there was an all-purpose 24-hour facility at Cartagena, just 22 miles away.

I WANDERED OVER TO THE Atura dive centre, located in the same row of shops as Planeta Azul. Jesus, the owner, explained that he couldnt take me to dive the wreck of the Sirio, at Bajo de Fuera, because he had to apply for a special permit. The area was unfortunately out of bounds for everyday visiting divers, but he was hoping this would change in 2010.
All he could offer me was the same itinerary as on my first days diving, but after the previous days exploits I was content to revisit familiar wrecks and reefs.
One evening, Mariane joined me on a cultural expedition to the city of Murcia. The streets were bustling with life, in contrast to the holiday town of La Manga. The 14th century Cathedral of St Mary dominated the main square.
We sat and drank granizados, fresh lemon juice with crushed ice. In Murcia, lemons are squeezed onto just about everything!
All the main squares were packed with activity. At the Playa de las Flores I was introduced to a great little tapas bar called Madre de Dios. By 9pm the place was heaving - the Spanish, of course, like to eat late.

THE NEXT DAY I TOOK A TRIP 36 miles up the coast to Mazarron. I had booked three dives with ZOEA, the local dive centre owned by Juan Manuel, and was surprised to find that two staff-members, Martin and Anthony, were expats. Both boats were fully laden with local divers.
El Arco, our first dive, was a 15-minute boat ride from the centre.
The archway that gives the site its name was above water. Our dive began on the wall and we then navigated around the headland and back under the arch.
There were plenty of free-swimming morays, scorpionfish, colourful starfish and sea urchins. Anthony said there was a good chance of seeing conger eels too, though I didnt see any.
By the time we hit the surface, six more boats had arrived, and the sea was bubbling like a Jacuzzi. I estimated at least 100 divers kitting up and jumping in.
After a brief surface interval I was supposed to be diving El Dragomina, an old US Navy minesweeper sunk as an artificial-reef project. But the mooring buoy had been cut off, and Martin said that he had no other means of finding the wreck.
Anthony suggested that we carry on and do the third dive. This was a graveyard of three purposely sunk ships sitting virtually on top of each other, at a maximum 25m depth.
He gave me a lightning tour of the site.I even saw the eerie remains of a basking shark that had got entangled in fishing-nets earlier in the year.
I had been sampling the local wines most evenings, so thought a vineyard tour would be a nice way to round off my trip. Murcia has three main wine regions - Yecla, Bullas and Jumilla. Mariane reckoned the best wines came from Jumilla, which entailed a two-hour drive through scenic countryside.
I was surprised that grapes could flourish in an area of very low rainfall and poor soil quality but the Monastrell grape seems to thrive.
Until my tour of the vineyard and manufacturing plant, I hadnt realised that wine was quite such big business. More than 75% of this wine is exported and there is even an organic variety.
The best part of the tour was, of course, the wine-tasting. What a perfect ending to the week!

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: You can fly to San Javier with Ryanair, but be aware that baggage allowance is only 15kg, and it costs £20 per kilo thereafter. Taxi: Antonio Gambin, info@transfermur.com
DIVING: Cabo De Palos - Planeta Azul, www.planeta-azul.com; Atura-Sub, www.aturasub.com. Puerto De Mazarron - ZOEA, www.zoea.com
ACCOMMODATION: La Manga - Las Gaviotas Hotel, +34 902 223 321. Mazarron - La Meseguera Hotel, +34 968 594 154
MONEY: Euro
HEALTH: Medical certification required.
WHEN TO GO: Early spring to late autumn, but July and August can be very busy.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Sun, sand, culture and wine (Casa De La Ermita vineyard in Jumilla, tour@casadelaermita.com)
PRICES: Return flights from less than £100. Hotels cost from about 100 to 135 euros a day half-board. Dives cost 20-40 euros each depending on location. A vineyard tour costs 15 euros including tasting and tapas.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.murciaturistica.as, www.tourspain.co.uk, 020 74868077