Diving the edge of the old world
THE TINY CANARY ISLAND of El Hierro lies at what was once regarded as the outer limit of the known world. Beyond its shores, large, aggressive serpents patrolled the seaways, devouring unworthy sailors before their ships simply fell off the edge of the Earth.
As it became clear that the world was in fact round, and that no-one was going to unleash a kraken, ships finally set sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
But they still needed some way of knowing where they were.
Cartographers outside the British Empire used El Hierro, the western edge of the Old World, as the prime meridian – the arbitrary dividing line running vertically around the globe that would allow travellers to pinpoint their location.
This was vital when land hadn’t been sighted for days, and everyone on board except Giovanni the Lime Manager had scurvy. The Ferro Meridian, as it was known, was used outside the British Empire until as recently as 1851, when it was decided that the 0° global prime meridian would be based on Greenwich.
With map-makers no longer paying this tiny island south-west of Tenerife any attention, El Hierro slipped into obscurity.
A CENTURY AFTER the meridian was changed, holiday-makers discovered the warm winter sun of the Canary Islands, and in the past few decades Gran Canaria, Lanzarote and Tenerife have become synonymous with package beach holidays. El Hierro was left to its own devices, and has remained untainted.
It is a place with small-island values, and its small tourist industry is made up mostly of divers and walkers. If you want to find a British breakfast at midday or a Sunday roast on a Wednesday, this is not the place for you.
If, on the other hand, you like a peaceful atmosphere, friendly locals, serenity and stress-free diving, El Hierro is well worth a visit.
To get to Europe’s south-western reaches is not that difficult. Oonasdivers offers diving or walking trips to the island that tie in with groups led by Irishman Shane Gray, the man who started Scubadivewest, an Irish dive centre popular with the British. The tours all meet on Tenerife and take the daily two-hour ferry to El Hierro.
On the far south of the island is the diminutive port town of La Restinga, a place of fishing-boats and dive centres.
There are more dive centres than any other type of shop, which shows just how popular strapping a tank to your back and jumping into the water is in this tucked-away corner of Europe.
So enthusiastic are the locals that this little town has managed to mount a world-renowned underwater photography competition for the past 18 years.
Photosub attracts top photographers from across Spain, and they compete in teams with models and even art directors. It is a spectacular feat that puts anything the UK can organise to shame.
THE REASON FOR PHOTOSUB’S POPULARITY and the sheer number of dive centres here became clear as I stuck my head under the water for the first time, and the vista opened up before me. With no rivers emptying into the sea, and being far out into the ocean, water quality is excellent and great visibility the norm.
This allows divers to explore pinnacles, walls, caverns and swim-throughs created when the ocean works on the volcanic rock. All the Canary Islands are volcanic, but El Hierro’s volcanic origins are right in your face.
There is, for example, no need to trek miles into the wilderness to find lava fields so untouched that they appear to have spewed from the Earth only days before. In El Hierro, they lie at the end of the street.
The whole island is one big cooled volcano, and the ocean has moulded the fresh rock into all sorts of interesting shapes for divers to explore.
The most famous of these edifices is El Bajon. Had the eruption that created it had a bit more umph, Europe would have had a little more land, but El Bajon gets only to within 8m of the surface.
This great lump of rock sits in an oceanic current that flows past the southern point of El Hierro, and is said to be visited by mantas, mobulas, sharks and even whale sharks on occasion.
Sadly when I visited there was too much surge and not enough current to attract ocean wanderers.
I was instead left with the spectacle of striated rock and a wall of barracuda a bit too far-off to photograph.
El Bajon may be the most famous site, but my favourite was Baja Bacarones, a pinnacle reaching from 45m to 10m.
Between 27m and 12m are a series of ledges where a couple of grouper hung out. Grouper are common in El Hierro because spearfishing is not popular, and a marine reserve protects them.
Several species are found, but the most impressive is the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus). These fish grow to the size of a small car, as I found when following the divemaster’s rattle.
As my head popped up on a ledge I was confronted by an eye that looked the size of my head, and a head the size of my scuba kit. Had this grouper wanted to, it could almost have swallowed me whole.
But it just sat waiting for the horde of divers to take their pictures and pass by.
Dusky grouper are found throughout the Mediterranean and tropical Atlantic.
I have often seen them swimming away.
In El Hierro, with no fishing pressure, even the smaller females (they mature into males at around 12 years old) are as curious as a fox sensing a three-day-old roast chicken in a bin-bag.
They just stare at you. Hanging motionless nose to nose with a fish that big is about as surreal as seeing a Hell’s Angel at a Kylie Minogue concert.
Between the pinnacle and the shore, where the boat anchors, is a gently sloping expanse of sand, then a boulder field.
At other sites the topography is completely different, and this is what attracts me to places such as the Canary Islands, because the dives vary. I can get a bit bored by the tropics, but El Hierro changes on every dive.
The fish life may be less abundant, but there is a plethora of benthic beauties to keep any diver occupied. If you’re fed up on one bit of a dive just wait, because the next bit will be completely different.
BARCO CHINO IS ONE such dive. It is littered with swim-throughs and rock-stacks, all in shallow, clear water. I felt like an eight-year-old on his first visit to an adventure playground, and the soupçon of surge just added to the excitement.
Another site called Roca Bermesa is different again, furnished with a lovely cavern. Each fin-kick back into the island is like munching an adventurous apple, each bite more exciting than the last.
The water was clear until the dive-group kicked up the silt. That didn’t detract too much from the beauty of the place, but entering was not half as beautiful as coming out.
The sun streaming into the curved opening was spectacular.
A short way down the wall from the cave is a drop-off where, at 28m, you’ll find a forest of black coral. This stuff is rare because it’s not black but a beautiful red, and has been harvested around the Mediterranean region for generations to make jewellery.
As the dive comes to a close, an impressive rock gully picks you up and spits you out with a bit of surge, topping off a real fun dive.
The area outside the harbour is a marine reserve, which has saved the grouper, barracuda and black coral.
There are strict rules for diving there, including a ban on night-diving, which has to be done inside the harbour.
Enough EU money was spent on the sea defences to render Nigel Farrage apoplectic, but the result is a harbour that’s arresting both above and below the waterline.
The harbour wall is made from gigantic blocks of stone that sit on a 6m-deep plateau. This slopes to the 10m-deep seabed over a jumble of boulders that makes an ideal habitat for all manner of darkness-loving marine life.
I saw all the regular suspects – octopuses, slipper lobsters, shrimps and the like. The reef extends along the harbour wall and out into a catchment basin. It’s no deeper than 12m, and there is life everywhere.
OUR PLAN WAS to swim out and back to the steps at the far end of the harbour, but we got so engrossed that we ran out of time and had to surface halfway back.
It was after 10pm before we had sorted ourselves out at the dive centre and headed off for dinner. As this was El Hierro, the restaurant stayed open just for us and the staff welcomed us warmly.
La Restinga is a special place because of that attitude. Everyone is friendly, from the woman watering the flowerbeds outside the apartments to Marissa, an old lady who led us up a hill to show us a new restaurant. Few others places would see a senior citizen talking to two foreigners as if they were long-lost family.
In La Restinga locking doors is frowned upon, traffic almost non-existent, and kids play in the streets and in the water without being watched over constantly.
With its calm, quiet air, the place is as welcome as finding £20 down the back of your sofa.
Outside the town, a network of dedicated trails take walkers of varying abilities into the heart and soul of this unique island.
On the north-western shore, a huge landslide about 15,000 years ago has created a massive bite out of the rock interior. On what is now called El Golfo, from the vantage-point of the Mirador de la Peña restaurant perched on the hillside, you can see down to the world’s smallest hotel and the crashing Atlantic still trying to eat away at the island.
The interior is a mix of farmland, volcanic scrub and pine forest. Scuba-divers rarely get a chance to do much other than dive, but take time to see at least some of the island.
If time has forgotten El Hierro in some respects, in others it is ahead of the trend. It is working to becoming power self-sufficient through a combination of hydro- and wind electricity power generation. Free public wi-fi is promised and already operational in some parts.
El Hierro fast became one of my favourite parts of the EU. This is a place a diver can fall in love with.