IN 2010 THE MEDES ISLANDS celebrated its 20th anniversary as a protected marine reserve. Strict no-take laws have allowed many fish species to thrive in this part of the Mediterranean.
Dive sites vary from deep walls and caves to huge gorgonian forests in hues of purple, red and yellow. Giant grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) dominate the underwater scene. On several occasions on my visit I found a pair of rubber lips right in my face!
The town of L’Estartit, located at the northern end of the Costa Brava about 35 miles from the French border, is the hub of all diving activity.
I booked a cheap flight with Ryanair to Girona Airport, and then it was a 45-minute taxi ride to the resort.
Silly season for tourists begins in July and ends in August, so September is a good time to visit. There are fewer crowds, and the water is still warm.

UNISUB, OWNED BY TWINS Tony and Sean Murray, is one of the oldest established dive centres in town. Tony Sr opened the centre more than 40 years ago. Sean said that in the good old days his father used to swim out to the islands in full scuba kit. I’m not that rufty-tufty, and preferred to cover the 1km journey by boat.
If I had a pound for every time someone said: “You should have been here last week – we had perfect diving conditions”, I would be a rich man.
The month of August had been one of the best on record, with sunshine and calm seas nearly every day. My arrival in mid-September coincided with the weather taking a turn for the worse.
The wind had whipped up the sea, and it was pouring with rain.
I booked into the Hotel Medes II.
The rooms had recently been refurbished and were extremely art deco, with wooden flooring, black furniture and plenty of mirrors.
There was a sofa and a desk where I could set up my laptop and spread out my camera bits.
The hotel was in the quiet suburbs, rather than the main seafront drag.
This meant that I had a 10-minute walk to the dive centre every day, which helped my breakfast go down but became a bit tedious in the evenings, when I had to carry all my stuff back.
The Hotel Les Illes would have been a better choice. This was a proper diver’s hotel (complete with wetsuits hanging/dripping over the balconies), with the dive centre attached next door. The lift doors actually opened into the dive centre reception. Kit was loaded into vans and then divers walked to the marina a couple of minutes away.
I was booked on Unisub’s flagship, Triton, which started life as a glass-bottomed tourist boat. It has a licence for 50 people, but Tony told me: “We limit numbers to 40 max.”
Unisub also has another boat, Paraguay II. This is licensed for 20 divers, and perfect for visiting clubs.
Boats go out at 9 and 11 am and 3 and 5pm, depending on requirements.
Tony had paired me up with Irish lass Yvonne Emerson, and our first dive was at marker buoy C1, known as El Salpatxot. This site was at the northern end of Meda Gran.
I followed Yvonne around the rocky wall to find masses of silvery saddled bream, and caught sight of a 30kg grouper flanking us. Yvonne pointed out a scorpionfish, but it was too awkwardly placed to photograph.
We kept following the rock face on our right shoulder until we came to an explosion of colourful gorgonians.
I stopped to take some pictures of Yvonne among the sea-fans, but unfortunately 20 divers descended on me all at once, and there was no chance of getting a clean shot among the tangle of bodies, fins and exhaled bubbles.
Another grouper was peering out from between two large boulders, but again the entourage ruined any chance of a decent shot. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of life and the colours on display. I thought the Med was supposed to be dead

THE BOAT WAS PACKED with Belgians, Dutch and Italians, but I was hard-pushed to find any Brits. Then I spotted two older guys sitting quietly together. They reminded me of the Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show.
Roy and Richard were holidaying with their wives, or “diving widows”. They had completed 22 dives by the time I caught up with them. Roy told me that this was their sixth visit to the Islands.
They were very happy with the dive sites and the professionalism of the dive centre. “It’s nice to see the same faces year after year,” said Roy.
They told me that all the sites were different, and that La Vaca, the deepest at 55m, was their favourite.
My next dive was at Dolphin Caves South, on Meda Petita. I took some pictures of Yvonne by the Dolphin Statue before we entered the cave. There was little fish life inside and I didn’t have the item that comes in so useful when it’s pitch black, a torch.
We went as far in as the air-chamber, but didn’t bother surfacing or carrying on through. I tried to get some blue water/dark cave silhouette shots, but somehow screwed up my camera settings (perhaps because I couldn’t see).
I popped into the Marine Reserve office at the marina for a chat with manager Alex Lorente. His department is monitoring the condition of corals and fish, crustacean stocks, seagrass growth and algae levels.
“The level of marine life has reached saturation point,” he told me. I was surprised to hear that stocks had steadily increased over 20 years, to the point at which the islands could sustain no more growth.
Two no-take zones encompass the seven rocky outcrops. The first, covering some 500 hectares, is open to traditional rod-and-line fishing only.
Fishing is forbidden in the second zone, which is smaller at 52 hectares.
Alex said that there were 14 dive centres, which he now realised was way too many. The 400 daily slots are shared out according to how well-established the dive centre is. The seven bigger centres are allocated 37 divers a day, while the smaller ones get 16. Another 50 spaces are reserved for private divers who turn up with their own boats.
Alex said that the dive sites were checked regularly, and fines issued if the centres exceeded their quota. Most dive packages would offer additional off-island diving, but from what I heard this was disappointing in comparison.
There are 11 permanent moorings for divers, mainly located around Meda Gran (1.8sq km) and Meda Petita (0.24sq km), and these are rotated between dive centres, so they all get
a chance to dive different sites every day.
“Freediving fins are banned, because divers don’t need them and there’s more chance of damaging corals with them,” said Alex. Coral damage had reduced from 9.1% in 2001 to 3.8% in 2008.
Divers are taxed 3.80 euros per dive, and this goes towards the upkeep of the marine park, and educating people about its importance.

ALEX INVITED ME OUT on the company RIB for a dive. He wanted to check on the whereabouts of a rare triton (Charonia tritonis), a huge sea snail, in the sea-grass at La Vaca on Meda Gran.
This gave me a chance to explore the big cave. The three groupers at the entrance were unfazed by my presence, and I spent the next 30 minutes playing Mexican stand-off with the inquisitive fish. Perhaps they were watching their own reflection in my dome port
Octopus is their favourite food (this must be the only species that is not thriving in the Medas Islands), and by mimicking an octopus with my hand I found that I could draw them closer.
In fact anything white seems to attract them, so my flashgun diffusers got nudged several times.
This really was a memorable dive. There are scores of “friendly” grouper at nearly every site. I didn’t have to go looking for them – they would always find me. Some of the divers were groping them, and this didn’t sit well with me.
Unfortunately, night patrols around the islands are limited, and only spot-checks are performed. The instructors mentioned that they had seen illegal fishing going on. Martin from Les Illes dive centre said that grouper meat was worth about 20 euros a kilo on the open market, so fishermen could earn up to 600 euros from a single fish.
Night diving is not permitted around the islands, which is a shame.
The next day I managed to hop aboard Paraguay II. I teamed up with Yvonne again, and we headed south to Carall Bernat. The boat had been mobbed by a London BSAC group that reminded me of the Kray gang. There were plenty of colourful characters, and no shortage of banter.
I stayed in the background, trying to deflect any flak coming my way. One of the more outspoken guys decided to drop his shorts and do a dump over the side. Why is it Brits who always seem to lower the tone
This area was extremely active in terms of marine life, with at times strong currents both on the surface and under water. Tony had recommended dropping to a ledge at 30m for more grouper, and then working our way back into the shallow rocks beneath the boat.
The ledge was indeed full of grouper, but it was an early-morning dive, so light levels could have been better.
Morays were everywhere, some even free-swimming. We also saw a nice shoal of 100 or more barracuda, and an even bigger shoal of yellow-striped saupe.
The boats all use the numbered yellow mooring buoys provided. Most divers tended to linger under the boats and not stray too far. I guessed that they weren’t confident of their navigational skills.
This was confirmed when half a dozen blobs popped up some distance from the boat. For safety reasons, all the dive-boats have RIB tenders to pick up any wayward divers.

I WAS TOLD ABOUT A nice little wreck dive 25 minutes’ drive away at Palamos. Toni, the owner of Palamos Dive Centre, said that the wreck was 35m long and at a maximum depth of 32m.
I was paired with Ramon, one of the divemasters. His English was none too hot, but this didn’t matter under water.
Huge shoals of small damselfish were darting between us on the mooring-line. Ramon’s integral weights decided to eject themselves as I passed below him.
I managed to dodge one, but then the other hit me square on the head!
We started at the prop and worked our way forward. The stern hold had collapsed, and didn’t go anywhere. Ramon popped his head up into an air pocket. It seemed strange to be talking to each other at 32m.
We went through a bulkhead door down into the engine-room to see a big conger eel staring out at us. Although the wreck was quite bright and airy below decks, it was better with a torch.
Ramon guided me into the forward hold. A row of brass portholes stood open, and not a lumphammer in sight.
The floor was caked in powder-fine silt and there were plenty of dangly wires to negotiate.
The wreck was just about big enough to keep my interest for the entire dive. Toni said that Palamos would soon be granted marine park status.
Taxis from L’Estartit to Palamos Dive Centre cost 40-50 euros one way, and for peace of mind there is a 24-hour recompression chamber at Palamos Hospital, which also services L’Estartit.
The Medes Islands is one of the best diving areas in the Med, though not for beginners. There are caves, deep wall dives and, at times, strong currents.
I enjoyed the variety of sites and their abundance of fish life. Strict no-take laws really do make a difference. But by the end of the week, I had begun to develop a nervous twitch. Every time I looked over my shoulder, I expected to see a monster grouper following up behind!

FACTFILE

Fly from London Stansted to Girona with Ryanair. Transfers: Taxi Alex 0034 659 550 550
DIVING: Unisub, Girona, 0034 972 751768, www.unisub.eu
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Les Illes, Girona, 0034 972 751239; Hotel Medas II, Girona, 0034 972 750880
MONEY: Euro
PRICES: One week in a seafront self-catering apartment with 10 boat dives is priced from 320 euros. Unisub also has a special offer for groups of 10 divers or more, with a week at a hotel on full board plus 10 boat dives for 435 euros
TOURIST INFORMATION: en.costabrava.org