As we lie on Spanish beaches, idly watching the water-skiers and topless sunbathers, few of us stop to think of it as a prime destination for a diving holiday. Yet Spain has the largest coastline of any of our EC neighbours, and a lot of that is bordered by the clear waters of the Mediterranean. As such its in our own backyard and close enough, for those who can afford it, to drive to.
Fewer than 12 hours on the motorway from Calais can see you at the Spanish border. Flights with an economy package-holiday charter airline are not only a lot quicker but save on cost too.
The Mediterranean was a valley that flooded suddenly in prehistoric times, when the isthmus that joined Spain to Africa was breached by the Atlantic. The western part is extremely deep, so detritus that might have fed plankton falls well below the daylight zone. No plankton means no basking sharks or manta rays but it also means exceedingly good visibility.
Close to the Atlantic as it is, the Spanish Mediterranean has far more marine life than you might encounter, say, east of Italy. It might not be as colourful as that found in tropical destinations but if you choose the right spots it can be just as prolific.
Pilot whales and dolphins will cross the path of your boat once you are away from the madding crowd. Under water, mighty conger eels and snake-like brown morays are common. In summer, octopuses wait outside their holes like shopkeepers at their doorways.
Red scorpionfish sit confidently considering their poisonous spines. Glittering shoals of saddled bream are everywhere. More esoteric encounters include those with rays and anglerfish. Luckier divers will be fascinated by mola-mola - the enormous sunfish - or fast-swimming amberjacks.
ESTARTIT EAGLE RAYS
Diving in Spain was hampered in the past by a police state that wanted a ream of paperwork before you were allowed to do anything. Thats history, and since it became part of modern Europe, dive centres have flourished.
In the north, the rocky Costa Brava coast is peppered by caves and punctured by steep headlands. The Medas Islands, close to Estartit, are famous for their cathedral-like caves, together with the enormous and almost-tame groupers that live around them.
A marine nature reserve subject to strict fishing prohibitions and regulation of diving boats, it is the sort of place where you will see formations of eagle rays in midwater, as well as the rock-dwellers such as conger eels and morays, slithering among the gorgonians and other coral-like encrustations. And its only a quick boat ride away from everything that makes Spanish holidays so popular.
Its the same sort of story all down the coast. On the Costa Blanca, Benidorm might be the Spanish idea of Blackpool in the sun, but it too has a beautiful reef just off the shore.
BELLYBUTTON DEL MAR
In the south, in the flamenco province of Andalusia between the border and Gibraltar and Malaga, equally interesting diving is available out of such places as Al Muâ€“equa and Fuengirola. Not too far from that shore lies the little rocky island of Alboran, the bellybutton of the sea. This is virgin diving territory, but many other Spanish islands have more familiar names.
Majorca, the largest island in the Balearics, is visited by 11 million tourists every year. Few of them think to go diving. A short distance from the bustling beaches of this large and wealthy island are some of the least-visited dive-sites in the world. Most of the best diving is along the mountainous and remote west coast between the ports of Polensa and Andratx. Look out for morays, octopus, scorpionfish, bream and anglerfish, not forgetting the amazing shoaling barracuda that glitter in a whirlwind of silver at the tip of Dragonera Island, near the diving centre at San Telmo.
Dont miss a chance to visit the Conger Eel Wreck, where these magnificent animals free-swim in midwater in the hope of a hand-out from a diver. Those lucky enough to be able to book well in advance can dive at the Island of Cabrera. It is the fifth island in the Balearics and as such has had no development whatsoever. Its a marine nature reserve now, and dive-boats depart from Colonia San Jordi near Felanitx.
The islands are the tops of what were once prehistoric mountains and many caves formed long ago have been preserved as they were under water. On Menorca, the second largest of the Balearic Islands, scuba diving and recreational cave-diving have developed side by side. Most of the regularly visited locations are positioned around the southern coast of the island.
Pont den Gil Cavern is a famous opening under the cliffs, with an entrance so large that it is lit with diffused blue daylight for most of its length. Another site, Toms Belfry, has two entrances and masses of limestone stalactites. The Moon Pool has an inner cave, and the SAlgar Funnel a spectacular chimney system. The Drinking Fountain Grotto is also worth a visit.
The little Isla del Aire, just off the south-east corner of the main island, has many sites to offer. These include West End Reef, the Giants Playground and the Spike, which are all as exciting as their names imply. Cavern dives include Orions Cave and the Coral Galleries, where you can find false corals.
There are a couple of wrecks, including ss Malakoff, a French-owned freighter that sank around 1929. She originally displaced around 7000 tonnes and her cargo lies scattered in 27m of water. You can still find the remains of sewing machines and china.
Like Majorca, the sea around Menorca abounds with shoaling barracuda, amberjack, dentex and dolphins. If you are very lucky you might even see a swordfish. The rocky reefs and the small caverns formed within them are home to groupers, moray and conger eels, scorpionfish, many octopuses and the occasional spiny lobster.
EC COME EC GO
Spain is part of the EC and enjoys all the benefits and conveniences that implies. It has modern international airports such as those at Girona, Alicante, Malaga, Palma and Mahon, with regular and charter flights from all over Europe. If the worst happens, top-class medical facilities are readily available and with your E111 form duly completed before departure (at any British Post Office) your NHS healthcare cover travels with you.
Spain is a modern, quite cosmopolitan country that has treated tourism as the important industry it is, and all the main European languages are widely spoken. Its marinas are full of luxury yachts that belong to the most privileged people of the world.
Besides local and regional dishes, the multitude of restaurants can provide international cuisine of the highest standards. The wealth of history, both Christian and Muslim, is reflected in the architecture of Spain, from the Al Hambra in the south to the ultra-modern Olympic architecture of Barcelona in the north. There is always something to do in between diving.
Then theres the nightlife - but thats where we came in!
GETTING THERE: Schedule/charter flights or drive.
DIVING DETAILS: John Eastman travelled to Al Muâ€“equa near Malaga with Club Nautique and Estartit near Girona with La Sirena Diving Centre. Check for details of a diving centre with your travel agent and contact it directly before you book.
ACCOMMODATION : A wide range of hotels and self-catering accommodation to suit all budgets is available through alltravel agents.
LANGUAGE: Spanish (English widely spoken).
MONEY: Pesetas or Euros and credit cards.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Everything that a Mediterranean holiday can offer.HAZARDS: All the excesses of a Mediterranean holiday.
BEST TIME TO GO: May to September.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 16-24C.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone.
COST: Prices start from£300 per person for a week, including flights, diving and accommodation.
PROS: Easy travel within Europe - you can even drive there. The perfect holiday destination for those with a non-diving family. Often under-rated as a diving destination.
CONS: Short season which coincides with our own. It is important to dive at the right sites. Diving holidays are not well-advertised, so check with a local dive centre before you go.