The Romans called it Mare Magnum – The Great Sea

A Divers Guide to Marine Life of Britain and Ireland by Chris Wood…
December 13, 2018
Ri-1100 CCN L – 111654
February 15, 2019

The Romans called it Mare Magnum – The Great Sea

Huge Columbretes Islands grouper

There’s a term widely banded about among the diving fraternity when the subject of the Mediterranean comes up – “the Med is dead”.   This term was coined following years of continued commercial over fishing in the Mediterranean and as a result has left this ravaged sea with not much to look at for scuba divers, free divers or snorkelers. To pile further pressure on to, or should that be in to, this vast eco system there is an estimated 1000 – 3000 metric tons of plastic debris that’s found its way into the sea – according to a report by the University of Cadiz.

The Mediterranean Sea covers an area of around 2.5 million square km and is connected by the Atlantic Ocean by the Strait of Gibraltar. The average depth is 1500 metres, with the deepest known part being at 5267 metres. The Romans called it “Mare Magnum” – the Great Sea.

The Columbretes Islands, 2.5 hours by boat.

I am a diver who has spent time exploring much of the Spanish side of the Med and I have seen both its Dr Jekyll and its Mr Hyde. They come in the form of decimated reefs systems sat shoulder to shoulder with thriving marine reserves and protected areas, proving that the Mediterranean Sea can either be ravaged or restored.

I was recently guided on a dive around the rock and cliffs of Peñon de Ifach, the main geographical feature in the town of Calpe, 60km or so south of Valencia on the Costa Blanca. Here I was to witness localised decimation first hand. Fish count during an hour’s local dive included one small shoal of zebra sea bream cowering beneath a rock ledge and later, much later a lone toothed bream which appeared in a hurry – this chap drew the most excitement among our dive group. The rest, I was told had been speared. I later learned that it’s not only the fish that the local spear fishermen were interested in here – lobster and octopus also feature on their wish list.

There is of course a blindingly obvious argument here – catching your meal by hand surely has to be less detrimental to environmental impact than commercial fishing methods do – right? Right, however if a localised area of sea or ocean is plundered then what’s the difference? If it’s gone, it’s gone and if it’s not protected, then it remains gone.

To witness something completely different, on the flip side, you need to travel 200km further south until you end up in the arid region of Murcia and on its southeastern tip – Cabo de Palos, along the Costa Calida. The diving community here is big for a small town and all about protection and conservation. The days of selling dried seahorses in chintzy souvenir shops are over and together, local marine authorities, dive centres, conservationists and marine biologists all observe the strict diving regulations that apply to the Islas Hormigas marine reserve established here in 1995.

Cabo de Palos marine reserve, rich with life.

Dive boats visiting the reserve follow a strict “two boats in, two boats out” rule; lowering the impact that recreational diving may have on the site and of course banning large-scale commercial fishing. The area itself comprises several seamounts or pinnacles that rise from the depths and finish eight or ten metres shy of breaking the surface.

The natural environment here, as well as the wrecks that lay at its feet provides a habitat for the food chain in its entirety. It’s deep, in diving terms, considering the reserve is just a short boat ride from the shore, with the seabed in areas found at 70 metres below the surface, where some of the deeper wrecks can be found.

Once submerged, it is clear to see how a protected area can and will thrive if the rules are strictly adhered to.   Jacks, denton, barracuda, even mahi mahi (the colourful dolphin fish) all take part in a feeding frenzy picking off individual members of a bait ball comprising huge gatherings of fry that flit about yet attempt to remain close together in a bid to escape predation. Deeper still, although less energetic than its mid water cousin the grouper resides.   Served in restaurants around the Med, these marine park grouper inhabitants move slowly, graze like cows and are far more wary of divers than any other fish present. Our regulator’s exhaust bubbles give them prior notice to our presence and approaching close enough to compose a good photograph of one is difficult. Over hangs, caverns and ledges appear when exploring deeper into the 30 and 40 metres depth range and this is as far as our equipment will allow us to venture this time. The marine reserve here is literally living proof of what can be achieved with the right protection, the right attitudes and of course from a financial point of view this kind of tourism is future proof.

Cabo de Palos is no secret among divers, at least not to Spanish divers, who make up the majority of their visitors. But, as far as ecologically shining examples go the holy grail of underwater destinations to explore from the Spanish coast is the Columbretes Islands.

En route to the Columbretes Islands

Located 27 nautical miles from the port of Alcossebre, Castellõn, the main archipelago of the Columbretes Islands comprises four main islets; Illa Grossa, La Ferrera, La Foradada and El Carallot. Some smaller rocks break the surface; perhaps not quite big enough to be called islands surround them – kind of satellite islets. It’s a temperamental place weather wise, which we experienced first hand on our first attempt to reach the islands. “We’re going to have to turn back, the wind is picking up quickly and the increasing swell won’t allow us to tie into a mooring line”. The skipper’s word is final, so within spitting distance of the main horseshoe shaped island, Illa Groaas and having spent two hours already at sea, we turn back and make for port.

Illa Grossa, manned only by a ranger station and the odd scientist I’m told, is always the first stop upon arrival. Permits and diving documents are to be checked here by the rangers and because the mouth of the bay was subject to high wind that day, we had no chance of entering safely. It was apparent that poor the weather situation is quite common when attempting to reach these so far elusive islands – the weather forecast says one thing, then it decides to do something different just hours later.

We wait it out for several days, camping wild along the coast in our van before the weather allows us to make a second attempt on the islands.

“Atun”, the skipper announces – we are on final approach to the islands once again after two and a half hours at sea – a school of tuna race past on our port side, breaking the surface as they rocket through the water. Entering the mouth of the main island, a RIB approaches us with marine and wildlife park officials on board. They take the protection here very seriously and insist on knowing what every vessel is doing there. Only one other boat is moored in the bay – a sailing boat with a family aboard.

Huge Columbretes Islands grouper

Not only is the admin strictly adhered to here but the dive plan is too. It is imperative that divers follow a guide and divers must return to the boat’s mooring to begin their ascent back to the surface there. “Anchor” is a dirty word at the Columbretes Islands. It’s a wild, remote place surrounded by nothing but open sea and so locating missing divers should any disappear so far from the mainland would prove a mission to say the least.

The Columbretes Islands are of volcanic origin and Illa Grossa, by far the largest, stands in the place of an ancient crater and is the northern most island of the group. The only buildings present are a 19th century lighthouse, a jetty and staff quarters. The name “Columbretes” stems from the Latin word for snake – Colubria. This name was given owing to the high number of snakes discovered on the main island when early explores landed there. The archipelago above water was declared a natural park in 1988 and today regarded as Nature Reserve. It is home to the Audouin gull, listed globally as near threatened. The submerged area surrounding the islands and our ultimate destination was declared a marine reserve in 1990, covering an area of 400 square kilometers.

Galápagos style islets at the Columbretes Islands

Mixed feelings of both wonder and of sadness struck me as we venture off the mooring line and begin to descend. This is what the Med would have been like, could be like, I ponder. Yet, at the same time in awe of the shear quantity of fish life, the clarity of the water and the dramatic rock formations that disappear into the deep – this is the definition of pristine.

There is a slight current running against us and so we fin close to the seabed, the most energy efficient way to swim against a current, if you really have to.   Once we arrive at 27 metres we turn a corner and along a great wall that towers above and disappears into the blue. Hard and soft corals fill the wall, flora that was once harvested and sold to holidaymakers, now thriving, untouched. Shoaling fish fill the water column on a level more akin with areas of Southeast Asia or perhaps more remote areas of the Red Sea I have visited. I sigh bubbles of appreciation and our guide, although more than familiar with the dive sites here, is clearly as excited by the place as he was on his first visit. Others in the group, all Spaniards, have travelled from every corner of their country to be here. It’s a high wish list destination and a right of passage for Spanish divers, but outside of Spain, most are unaware of this cluster of tiny islands.

Grouper live here too, although unlike the grouper that inhabit the Cabo de Palos reserve, these guys are inquisitive, almost boisterous. And they so they should be, living in and around not only a Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI), but a Site of Community Importance (SCI), a Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA) and Micro flora reserve. The grouper approach us like playful dogs, as if hoping to be fed and as photographic subjects they’re almost too willing to participate. One creature nudges my camera dome port as if attracted by its own reflection, which is behaviour I has seen before when photographing several cuttlefish species and the cuckoo wrasse.

We have been underwater for nearly as long as our bottom will allow us and our dive computers are urging us back to the surface before we are penalised with decompression time, which our single air tanks wont allow us to do – we would simply run out of air. The grouper we have been observing follow us back to the boat’s mooring line and one individual even joins us as we ascend the line, displaying yet more dog like behaviour.

Both the Columbtretes Islands and Cabo de Palos are considered treasures, however with the Med supporting a staggering 1/3 of the worlds tourism on top of its already sky high density, only 0.04% of the sea is covered by Marina Protected Areas and that, is a very small number indeed. Not only that, how well is that 0.04% being policed?  Regardless, for scuba divers and free divers, there so much more to see once submerged than one might be led to believe.

Will Appleyard
Will Appleyard
Will Appleyard is a diver who has a passion for the waters of the UK and he communicates his enthusiasm through his photography and writing. His first book - "Discover UK Diving" has become a best seller and together with his second book - "Dorset Dives" has raised awareness to many dive sites off the south coast. Will also regularly contributes to DIVER magazine.

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