THE PLANE LANDS IN TENERIFE AT MID-DAY. I have a spare afternoon, so what can I do I know, go diving! John Liddiard flew from Bristol to Tenerife with First Choice.
It wasnt quite that spur-of-the-moment. With the help of Madge from Aqua-Marina dive centre, I had been planning in meticulous detail an all-round-the-island dive-tour of Tenerife, largest of the canary Islands, beginning on the north coast on my first full day.
But that was before the tickets arrived and I realised there would be time for another dive. So a couple of hours later, Madge drops me off at Paradise Divers in Callao Salvaje. It immediately breaks my anti-clockwise circuit, but that doesnt matter as it would on larger-scale tours. Anywhere on Tenerife is within easy day-trip distance of anywhere else without having to shift accommodation.
Dave, the boss, is teaching a navigation course, so I am soon in the van with instructor Mia and the afternoons divers for a shore dive at El Puertito, which means something like Little Harbour.
We swim out on the surface and then under water to an area marked by a line of small white buoys. We pass a cuttlefish in the shallows, and I know we have arrived when one of the resident turtles flaps up and admires its reflection in my camera lens.
The other attractions are the big butterfly rays that rest in the grey sand. For something so big they are not easy to spot, their mottled colour blending perfectly with the speckled dark grey of the powdered basalt. It is easier to spot the depressions in the sand left where
a butterfly ray has moved on.
As the turtle continues to circle us, and one of his less-bold friends arrives in the distance, Mia spots the first butterfly ray. Switched onto the pattern, we all begin to pick them out - some bigger, some smaller, and some enormous, wider than I could span with my arms.
El Puertito is not a typical Tenerife dive site. The conditions are in transition. Dive centre Ocean Dreams Factory has an ongoing project to clear invasive long-spined sea urchins from the marked-off area. The idea is to return the ecosystem to what it would have been like before the munching urchins arrived.
It is nine months since the initial clearance, only occasional maintenance is now needed and the effect is starting to show. Algae are growing on the rocks and the number of grazing fish is increasing. Just about everything else is growing from there up, though the butterfly rays are in the bay only for mating, and the turtles just seem to like the place.
David from Ocean Dreams Factory is passionate about the project. He explains later that it will be a few seasons before the undergrowth fully matures. To build fish stocks, he has been providing food in the form of fish-heads but not feeding by hand, just laying it on the bottom.
His scientific advisors want to boot-strap the areas regeneration, not create a feeding site. Over the next year the feeding will be phased out completely.
David asks divers just to dive, look and enjoy, and to leave everything else to him and his team.
My tour proper gets underway with a drive across the island to the El Cardumen dive centre at Puerto de la Cruz. Owner and instructor Rafael loads divers and equipment into a minibus for a short ride down the hill to the harbour.
Exposed to the prevailing wind and the Atlantic, Tenerifes north has a reputation for being wild. The diving is less accessible and more physical, as becomes evident when Rafael guns the RIB through the confused waves at the harbour entrance, then throttles back for a more leisurely cruise along the big groundswell to Baja de los Realejos.
This side of Tenerife is much greener than the south or east. The mountains catch most of the rain and the hills are naturally forested. The radical difference in weather across the island was demonstrated last year, when hurricane-force winds felled electricity pylons at Santa Cruz yet, in the south, dive centres missed only one dive.
Baja de los Realejos is an offshore ridge running parallel to the shore and rising vertically from 40m or more to just below the surface.
Most of the dive is at 35m or more as Rafael and I stalk the groupers that hide in the boulder caves and shadows at the bottom of the reef. They must know that I am on nitrox with a 40m limit as they always retreat that bit deeper than I can follow.
I didnt notice it so much on the way down, but working back up the reef the groundswell creates quite a surge.
A benefit is the lack of long-spined urchins and a consequent short but dense undergrowth of algae, sponges and barnacles. It shows the potential for the El Puertito project, though without the heavy surge the undergrowth developing there could be considerably different.
At 15m I slosh backwards and forwards, admiring the colours and spotting the occasional scorpionfish and moray eel. The morays share their holes with a team of cleaner shrimps. Going shallower the work gets harder, then easier as I retreat up and along the anchorline to my safety stop. The surge is noticeable only close in to the reef.
After lunch ashore, we head back out to La Catedral. When Rafael first mentioned the site, I wondered whether it was a cave I had dived before, La Catedral de las Nieves off the north-east tip of Tenerife, but then realised that La Catedral is a popular name for any dive with a cave and chimney.
A step in the grey rock from 20 to 35m is cut first by a sloping canyon with a scattering of red seafans, then, along the wall, by the arched entrance to La Catedral. Light is visible through the collapsed roof and through a series of narrower chimneys off to the side.
Nitrox again makes a difference, as the shallowest rock is at 18m. The mix allows additional minutes looking into cracks for more scorpionfish and moray eels, always surrounded by small wrasse.
To make my counter-clockwise connection to Los Gigantes, the best road is back across Tenerife and down the autopiste to the apartment in which I am staying at Playa de las Americas. Next morning, its onwards to Ocean Blue Divers in Puerto de Santiago.
We load into a minibus and Emma drops us off at the nearby marina at Los Gigantes to board the RIB.
Dive-centre owner Brian is boatman and my buddy for the day is instructor and manager Mike.
With bright sunshine, deep blue water and grey basalt columns, Atlantis is typical of the best of the west-coast dives. A ridge of matrixed hexagonal blocks extends from the main reef to separate two bays of black sand.
With so much wonderful volcanic geology on show, I wonder that no enterprising instructor or dive centre has created an underwater geology speciality. Lone spires off the end of the reef maintain their hexagonal outline, as do a pair of isolated columns out in the middle of one of the bays. Patches of shocking red and orange encrusting sponge provide colour.
We had hoped to catch a shoal of roncadores out by the pinnacles, but only later in the dive do they find us back in one of the bays.
Bastard grunt by name and by nature, I suppose they are no less co-operative than the shoal of saupe or smaller gangs of bream we encounter on the way.
After lunch back at Ocean Blue, our second dive is lunch for the sting rays at Barranco Seco, still fairly close to Los Gigantes but along the coast below the impressive cliff face after which the town is named. The cliff looks pretty big from where Brian drops the anchor, then bigger still after the dive as he takes the RIB in closer.
A ray feed is a bit like a shark feed, but with flatter elasmobranchs with smaller teeth.
Mike heads out from the shallow reef to his usual spot on the black sand.
As the rays gather, he takes small scraps of fish from the bag, hand-feeding the rays one scrap at a time, though not necessarily one ray at a time.
At first it is just small brown sting rays that turn up, then its bulkier eagle rays, and all the while wrasse, bream and damselfish are piling in.
As the sand and visibility is stirred up, we move a few metres on and the process continues. Larger butterfly rays soon arrive, but are less pushy than their smaller relatives. The big grey Atlantic sting rays bide their time and make an appearance right at the end.
Each species and even individual rays have their own personalities as lunchers. Some lurk by Mikes feet and dart up for the occasional snack.
Others prefer to orbit his head, and others just glide across in a straight pass, somehow timing it for exactly when the food is on offer.
The trick is not to give out the food too readily or rapidly. It takes only a small chunk of fish every now and then to keep things going, whetting the rays appetite without letting them become dependent on handouts. Even with a deliberately small bag of food, my film runs out long before the food or rays do.
With Madge managing things for me, I have been in and out of the Aqua-Marina dive centre at Playa de Las Americas for the past three days, but it is only on my day diving here that the name clicks. Aqua-Marina was the character in the old TV puppet series Stingray, and there are pictures of the submarine, Troy, Phones and Marina on the wall.
The dive centre is 150m or so back from the beach. Boatman for the day Neil leaves early to fetch the RIB from Los Cristianos marina.
The rest of us get sort-of-ready to dive, cylinders on, fins and other bits in hand, then walk down the street through the sunbathers to the now-waiting RIB.
The topography around the bottom corner of Tenerife is consistent. From the shoreline there is a short drop, then a rock slope with sandy patches from 10 to 20-30m, then a wall dropping another 10m before a steep sandy slope leads off into the real depths. Working with transits and echo-sounder, Neil drops anchor on the sand, just past 20m. A ridge of grey lava leads out to the lip of the wall and the cave below.
The cave has a reputation. Instructor Paul has warned of a maze of narrow passages and fine sediment further back than I would sensibly go. No-one has found the end of the system - or, at least, no one who returned. Guarding the entrance is a cross and plaque.
Further out stands a Madonna and Child (and sea urchin). This is part of a fishermans tradition, guarding their lives from the perils of the sea. I suspect that the origins go back long before Christianity, an ancient rite to the sea gods usurped by popular religion.
As with all the dive centres, we return to shore for lunch, giving parents a chance to mix a dive with a family afternoon on the beach, and video-grapher Jenny a chance to head off to edit her DVDs of the dive ready for the divers. Those of us diving all day can leave everything on the boat.
The afternoon dive is on the Condesito, a cement-carrying coaster that was swept onto the rocks following engine problems in the 1970s. It is a shallow-enough wreck to make a nice beginner and training site.
To show the experienced part of the group a bit more, Paul leads us on an alternative route, the boat dropping us by the lip of the wall, then over the edge past outcrops adorned with sprigs of black coral.
You need discipline to follow the plan, saving enough air and bottom time for a fair swim back inshore to explore the wreck.
The Condesito lays stern out from the shore. I could have said bow on, but no bow is left. Aft of the boiler the wreck is reasonably intact, though for how long is questionable. As I swim through the engine-room, I notice a swinging plate that might fall at any moment.
Next stop is with Chris at Tenerife Scuba in Las Galletas, either as far south as you can get on the east coast or, being geographically imaginative, in the middle of Tenerifes very short south coast. The harbour is in transition, the wall being widened and extended to envelop a new marina.
The dive sites overlap with those of the west coast. Ali-Babas cave is on the same stretch of wall that I dived with Aqua-Marina, not as big as Palm-Mar cave but with better visibility, as the extra 10m depth puts it beyond reach of most divers.
So many Spanish caves I have dived have been made into shrines. At the back of Ali-Babas is a small nativity scene. I am lining up to photograph it when Chris flashes his light. A big grey sting ray is flapping forward from a crack at the back of the cave, straight towards me. I gently shift my aim.
The ray circles between us a couple of times before disappearing into another dark crack.
Outside, the wall is deep enough to host sprawling trees of black coral.
I swim deeper along a spur in the wall to get below the thickest clumps, then look round to see light coming from a window to the other side of the spur. Its too small to swim through, but a nice frame for the scene.
We head inshore to lose some of the decompression penalty we have accumulated on the wall. On reaching the rocks, we drift with the gentle current, back across the wreck of the Condesito, then on for another 10 minutes as our computers tick down.
I find it unsettling that a 3m stop feels too shallow in visibility this good, especially when the rocks 10m below look no further away than the bottom of a swimming pool.
Over lunch, we discuss options for the afternoon dive. A favourite at Las Galletas is another sting ray feed at a wreck just outside the harbour.
I am tempted, as the last one was such fun, but I want to get the maximum variety of diving from this trip. Chris is minding the boat this time while I dive with Tony, and the promise of the site comes true as we hit the water. While Tony fixes the anchor, I come face to face with a very co-operative cuttlefish.
The grey rock at Steps drops in a broken staircase of 3 or 4m chunks. Around the first corner, I see a small shoal of barracuda. Tony swims out and round to encourage them my way.
Meanwhile, an angel shark swims beneath us. I am torn by indecision, but stick with the barracuda as they pass on the outside, then circle back between me and the reef.
The next corner is cut by a swim-through, home to a shoal of roncadores. Then the steps break into a slope of small rocks where every nook and cranny holds something interesting, from scorpionfish to arrow crabs.
Further up Tenerifes long east coast, just south of Santa Cruz, my final stop is Tenerife Divers at Las Caletillas. Its a quiet day, so its just me in the minibus with owner and instructor Claudio as we wind down the steep hillside to a narrow bay and a shore dive at Punta Prieta.
Cars at the end of the road indicate that divers are already in the water. This is a popular site with the locals.
I have heard from more than one overseas dive centre that hardcore UK divers dislike surface-swims. I spend the 100m or so out to the point wishing I was under water, though I accept it as a necessary evil to start at the deepest point of the dive with maximum air. At least the return will be all under water.
I can just about see the reef below when Claudio signals to descend. On an uncharacteristically grey day, this turns out to be a 25m drop onto a steep slope that then curves over the top of a cave at 35m. A solo amberjack loops in from the blue, circles and heads out again before my camera is even switched on.
We turn south-west along the slope, Claudio spotting critters among the rocks, from shrimps and crabs to a violently coloured yellow moray.
The deep reef at the point would make a good dive by itself, yet the highlight is still to come.
Following the lava flow back into the bay, there are more shrimps, more nudibranchs, and finally a seahorse holding tight to the algae in the surge.
Las Eras is another shore dive popular with local divers. Its an easy entry down a slipway, with a short swim until the water is deep enough.
The rocks have a good coating of sponges and small leafy algae. Grazing fish graze on these, and larger fish graze on the grazers. Las Eras has a nice cross-section of the whole food-chain.
There are larger fish about, but I soon agree with Claudio and others who recommended Las Eras - this is a macro dive. We dont find anything like the seahorse at Punta Prieta, but there is a good variety of nudibranchs, shrimps and small fish.
There must be plenty more to see, but with a large dive site and a rich habitat, it is just well hidden.
It is not only my tour of Tenerife that has gone full circle. My first dive was at El Puertito, with its urchin-clearing and habitat restoration project.
Las Eras was cleared of long-spined urchins several years ago and now shows a marine environment closer to its natural state, with enough urchin-munching species such as triggerfish to maintain a balance.
Some of the sites I dived were obviously grazed by urchins, while others were not, either by natural factors or human intervention. With or without urchins, they were all good dives.
Any intervention needs to be cautious. Sadly, the world over, well-meaning but poorly understood meddling with the environment has a long record of getting it wrong.
I like Paradise Divers instructor Mias idea: We should sell the urchins for Chinese medicine. With those long spines they must be good for something. We could call the product Miagra.