WHEN I WAS INVITED to Spain's Costa Brava for a few days’ diving, I have to admit to thinking: “I've done the Med, it's nice enough, but there's not a lot to see.” So before I go any further, let's get one thing clear: I was wrong!
Just two hours’ flight from several UK airports lies a diver’s paradise of wrecks, colourful corals, rocky pinnacles, fish-life and caves. First, a bit of background.
The Costa Brava is Spain’s most north-easterly coastline. Extending from Barcelona to the French border, it’s a scenic mix of flat arable land and rocky outcrops, vineyards and fields of rice.
While we in the UK might think of it as Spain, it is very much Catalonia, with its own language, regional identity and a growing demand for independence, driven by the region’s history and cultural heritage. After all, when you have Barcelona and Girona in easy reach, you’re likely to be justifiably proud!
The locals are also very proud of their coastline. Not only do they know it well, but the sea has seemingly seeped into every part of their life. Seafood restaurants abound and every village and even some of the larger private houses have the remains of towers in which the locals would shelter from marauding bands of pirates centuries ago.
However, more recent commerce and the area’s rocky coastline have resulted in the Costa Brava offering some great shipwrecks. For my first dive I would be exploring a 60m tugboat close to the small town of Palamos towards the south of the region.
I am increasingly fond of compact wrecks. They make such excellent sites for training and for those with a little less experience, but they are also easily doable for any diver because you can often get round them on a single dive.
The Boreas is no exception. The vessel was sunk by the Costa Brava Diving Association, a group of 36 dive-centres that promote and develop diving in the region, and being divers they got her positioned just right, sat on the bottom at a smidge over 30m, bow facing into the prevailing currents.
Once I have my borrowed kit sorted, my 7mm wetsuit on (it can be chilly, even for us Brits, at depth) and have fussed over my camera, we drop into the water.
A slight current is running, and we use a buoyed line to descend to the wreck. As it comes into view and we head astern, my guide Hector signals that he will pose by the propeller for some shots that we’d planned before the dive.
I hit 31m and fin gently to hold my position close to the prop as he poses. I’m glad of the 15-litre cylinder that appears to be a standard offering in these parts, because I always seem to use more gas when my bulky camera joins me.
As we move along the starboard side through companionways filled with anthias I am impressed by just how intact the ship is and how much fish-life is on offer. Shoals of bream glint silver in the sunlight, and the wreck is covered with impressive growths of sponges, sun corals and all manner of life, reminiscent of the Catalan flag with its vivid yellows and vibrant reds.

AS WE ASCEND SLIGHTLY and before we reach the ship's wheel, Hector points out a pair of scorpionfish on the foredeck. He has clearly met photographers before, and quickly positions himself for a shot.
Again, I note the quantity of fish life, and reckon it has to be related to the visibility, which is good enough but not as clear as at some more southerly Mediterranean destinations.
Back on the boat I quiz the guides, who tell me that the mouth of the River Ter is close by and that the currents provide the nutrients that feed the invertebrates and then the fish. This isn’t a clear but barren piece of the Med, it's very much alive – and perhaps I need to rethink.
We pass our surface interval telling stories and snacking on crisps and almonds. The sea is calm and there’s a slight easterly. The coast is partly forested, with small inlets and occasional villas, and there’s a lot of small-boat traffic and some fancy yachts to make me envious. Most importantly the camera didn’t flood – always a bonus after any time spent in a plane’s hold.
I have set myself the goal of trying to dive in every environment the Costa Brava offers, but have only a few days. The next dive is at a series of pinnacles that just break the surface, providing perches for cormorants and gulls. A slight surface current is running. and we use a line to reach a buoy before descending.
Les Formigues, meaning “ants” or “little things”, relates to the small appearance of the pinnacles above the surface. Under water, however, this fractured coastline is a series of boulders and stone towers, each one covered in swathes of vivid yellow and red seafans, among which are soft corals, red corals and the yellow of the sun corals again.
The rare red corals once used for jewellery are very slow-growing, but these filter-feeders growing into the currents combine to be far more impressive than many tropical growths I’ve seen.
In fact I’ve never seen anything this vividly coloured on such a grand scale – the subtle pastels of tropical waters aren’t a patch on these vibrant hues. But take note, to see them at their best you need a good torch with a wide beam setting.
Looking a little more closely into the seafans I see a huge variety of life. Gobies dart around amid fan-worms and I bet there’s a nudibranch or two, but with a wide-angle lens fitted I’m wasting valuable shooting time. Macro will have to wait.
The dive passes quickly as I take shot after shot, and as we ascend towards our safety stop the seascape changes and the seaweeds take over. Damsels, wrasse and bream abound. We spend time fruitlessly hunting for seahorses in the seagrass.

THE NEXT DAY I MOVE NORTH to dive from the town of L’Estartit, with its superb harbour, wonderful restaurants and, more importantly, its proximity to the gem of the region, the Medes Islands.
Before the dive I chat with Marc Marí, Manager of the Medes Islands National Park, which extends inland to cover some of the wetlands and mountainous areas.
Interested in how tourism and diving can impact on the natural world, I ask him how the area copes.
There is some impact from diving, he tells me. However, he is working with the 12 dive-centres that dive the Medes Islands regularly to train them and help them train their divers to take better care of the fragile eco-systems, and to pass this “best practice” on to other dive-centres along the coast.
Divers bring an estimated 10 million euros to the local economy, and a small levy on each one goes towards the park’s research and conservation work, funds a range of walking trails and reserves, and maintains the status of the Medes as a nature reserve in which fishing is banned.
Marc tells me that the bigger the fish get the more eggs they can lay, so fishermen along the coast are benefitting as well as the divers. He reminds me that divers can help by being aware of their own body and equipment, especially when holding a camera.
There are fewer issues now, he says, as the practices of fish-feeding and breaking urchins open decline. Overcrowding, he says, can still be a problem.
My first Medes dive takes place in the best weather yet, with vivid blue skies and calm waters. Within 10 minutes the boat is holding station within the lee of the largest island.
The islands are less than a mile from the coast, and this is a small archipelago by anybody’s standards.
There are seven islands in total, some the size of a small house, with the largest, Meda Gran, in the middle. The most striking, Carall Bernat, projects prominently into the air – “carall” derives from an older name, used when people were far happier to liken “sticky-up” rocks to male body parts.
Diving here is a slick operation. Several large boats ferry divers out to the various dive-sites, marked with buoys and agreed with the National Park staff. Each boat holds 20-30 divers and they are superb, some with twin diver-lifts. Briefings stress the importance of the site for wildlife.

AS WE BOB ON THE SURFACE before the descent, seabirds wheeling overhead, I am reminded of the Farne islands.
Maximum depths here can vary, with some very shallow sites also ideal for snorkelling and some more suitable for technical divers trained to travel to 50m or so. Most suggested dives in the guide-books have maximum depths of 20-30m, with those on the periphery of the archipelago offering greater depths.
I requested dives that could get me the best wildlife encounters, and my Medes dives didn’t disappoint. At a site called Les Ferranelles an eagle ray passes as we spend time looking for the large grouper that without the fear of persecution have become rather tame.
Again the rocks are covered in seafans, half a metre across and bright yellow in torchlight. Morays are common in cracks, and the overhangs burst with life.
I have little luck persuading the grouper to come close, and there is a fair amount of good-natured laughter as my fellow-divers hear my occasional cursing through my reg.
A very large scorpionfish is more co-operative and, finally, as I am beginning to think about signalling to ascend, I spot an octopus. Unsure of itself, it freezes long enough to allow a nice shot before turning white with alarm and scooting off. For anyone interested in marine life and sheer spectacle, this is awesome diving!
That evening after a great meal, but slightly saddened to have seen shark jaws and dried inflated pufferfish in a souvenir shop, I dream of yellow octopus – can’t think why.
I am scheduled to head north to L’Escala for some cavern-diving, but in the night the wind shifts – an easterly has picked up and we have to rethink.
Diving will be affected all along the coast, and although the wind is predicted to drop in the afternoon I am flying in the morning and want to get one last dive in.
So I turn to a solution common to many UK divers – find a sheltered cove and enjoy a shore-dive.
A drive a short way south of L’Estartit to Begur takes me to the incredibly scenic cove of Aiguablava (literally “blue water”). After kitting up and hauling our ungainly bulks past the sunbathers, my buddy Ramon and I fin out to seagrass beds amid boat moorings and small rocks. The noise of chains clanking takes some time to learn to ignore.

NOW I HAVE TO ADMIT that I spend the first 10 minutes with my camera, fitted with macro lens, hoping against hope to see a seahorse. I spend the next 10 minutes sulking because I probably won't see a seahorse. I spend the rest of an 80-minute dive elated as I pull myself together and enjoy a proper critter hunt.
It takes a while to get my eye in, but once I have there are richly coloured gobies, blennies, hermit crabs, nudibranchs and fan-worms aplenty.
I am having the time of my life. In a few short days, I have enjoyed no two dives the same, but all world-class.
That evening, as we enjoy a deco-beer in my hotel, Juan the manager asks me why so few British people are visiting the Costa Brava and I have to tell him I simply don't know, nor understand why.
Perhaps UK divers think, as I did, that the Med has little to offer compared to far-flung tropical destinations?
Think you know the Med? Then think again! The Costa Brava offers a wealth of marine life, superb wrecks and some very, very beautiful underwater scenery.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Richard flew from Manchester to Barcelona with Ryanair. Budget flights are available from all major UK airports to Barcelona or Girona.
DIVING There are more than 30 dive centres along the Costa Brava. Check out: subcostabrava. com/en/diving.html
ACCOMMODATION Most dive centres have agreements with accommodation providers to offer full packages to divers. For a range of accommodation from villas to camping, visit the tourist board website below.
WHEN TO GO: April to October, though some centres stay open all year round.
MONEY: Euro
PRICES: Return flights from the UK from around £35 out of season. One-week accommodation and diving packages range from 350 to 600 euros pp, while separate dives cost 24-40 euros.
VISITOR INFORMATION: en.costabrava.org