Spain’s highest mountain lies off the continent of Africa and is surrounded by the deepest chasms of the Atlantic Ocean—what a unique place! And the islands where the mountain is located are just as special. We are talking about the Canary Islands, which lie in the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco.
They are of volcanic origin, the evidence of which is still clearly visible and often bizarre. Spain’s highest peak, Teide-Pico Viejo stratovolcano, reaches 3,718m (12,198ft) and is found on the island of Tenerife. It attracts a lot of tourists, nature lovers, rest seekers and folks on weekend getaways. Varied landscapes also offer the best conditions for other sports. For many Europeans, the island is also the ideal place to spend the cold winter months. The mild climate in the winter here draws one straight to it.
And precisely because of the climate, Tenerife is also becoming more interesting to divers. While the political situation in various popular diving destinations in other parts of the world is scaring off a lot of dive travelers, the friendly Canary Islands can be reached from Germany (where I am based) in four to five hours with airlines offering cheap fares. So for many, this destination is suitable for short breaks throughout the year.
The Arona region is located in southwestern Tenerife. In February 2018, I was invited by the Arona Son Atlántico ocean festival to take a closer look at this area. Accompanied by underwater photographer Sergio Hanquet, I spent some exciting days on the island.
One of the most interesting areas, where most of the dive centers in the Canary Islands are found, is the southern part of the island, especially near the port of Los Cristianos and the Marina de Las Galletas. In particular, the area of Punta de la Rasca is recommended, because in this area, about 30 different dive sites can be found. Here, you can dive by boat or from the shore.
Sergio is Belgian but has been living in Tenerife for over 30 years. He knows the dive sites like the back of his hand and has published two books on them (which are only available in Spanish): Bucear en Canarias 1 and Bucear en Canarias 2. These books detail 400 dive sites as well as the flora and fauna that can be found in this region.
The exposed location of the island of Tenerife in the Atlantic Ocean brings with it a lot of unique aspects. Because the coasts of the islands drop steeply—up to 4,000m (13,123ft)—many marine creatures from the deep and pelagic species from the open ocean can be sighted here. Ocean currents in the Atlantic ensure that water temperatures do not drop below 18°C in the winter months. As a result, the fauna is a mix of Mediterranean and subtropical. The main characters are the large stingrays (called chuchos by the locals) as well as angelsharks, sea turtles and huge swarms of silvery yellow bastard grunts (called roncadores).
Even in bad weather, there is always a chance to do shore dives in one of the sheltered bays and marvel at the island’s macro world. The waters in the Arona region invite you to dive into a diverse underwater landscape at various sites.
Punta de la Rasca is the most popular diving area of Las Galletas, Playa de Las Américas and Los Cristianos. In general, the dive centers do two dives a day, and there is also the option of doing a night dive.
The most well-known dive sites include El Bufadero (15-26m), the wrecks of El Condesito (18m) and El Meridian (30m), La Cueva de las Morenas (18-31m), Los Roncadores del Faro (15-21m), La Cueva de Ali Baba (25-42m) and El Arco de Coral (25-40+m). The rocks slope steeply, reaching nearly 50m in depth just a few meters from shore, and visibility in the water is usually around 30m. The diversity of habitats brings forth a great variety of fauna, including an infinite number of invertebrates, bottom-dwelling fish (individually or in schools), or large fish that suddenly emerge from the deep blue sea. At a depth of 35m, there are beautiful black corals, which can be found protruding upward like branches from the ground and rocky outcrops or hanging in caves.
In addition to the many species of fish, lovers of invertebrate animals will also find sponges, anemones, fireworms and squid as well as various types of shrimp, crabs, colorful nudibranchs and starfish. And for the experts who like to explore with a magnifying glass, there are scary-movie aliens—ghost crabs that hide in the algae!
Tenerife is a tourist destination and divers come from many European countries. The staff of various dive centers speak a variety of languages, including Spanish, English, German, French and other European languages. The average price for a dive is about EU€30 (US$34), or EU€25 (US$28) with the purchase of a package of six dives. There are excellent conditions for all types of underwater photography. As for accommodation, dive centers can organize your lodging in advance. There are many types of accommodation, including hotels, apartments and rooms in cottages. As for transportation, one can easily and cheaply rent a car at the airport upon arrival.
Diving takes place all year round. The trade winds are the prevailing winds. The south of the island is protected, which is conducive for diving and navigation. There are several dive centers in Los Cristianos and Las Galletas. We dived with Rincón de Arona.
A unique dive
La Cueva de las Morenas (The Cave of the Moray Eels) is a dive on a 30m long hill and is home to a large population of moray eels. In this place, one can observe the three most common species in the area—brown moray eels, black moray eels and tiger moray eels—all of which may sometimes share the same hole. The fauna is rich here and many species allow one to approach them with ease. In fact, many fish have made it a habit to accompany their human visitors during the dive.
In the spring and summer, it is common to see some pelagic species like the yellowtail horse mackerel, the blue triggerfish or the peto fish. We paid a little attention to the cracks and crevasses of the rocky reef, discovering a myriad of small invertebrates—especially shrimps, anemones, sea squirts and slugs. On the sandy bottom, which is 32m deep, there is an significant colony of sand eels. It is also an excellent place to watch rays.
The journey to the dive site takes 10 minutes from the port of Los Cristianos and 25 minutes from Las Galletas or Puerto Colón. The dive time is 30 minutes, the difficulty level is zero and currents are normally absent.
Octopuses and frogfishes
On my first dive together with Sergio and a Spanish photographer from Madrid, Fernando de la Torre, we discovered an octopus that had decorated its cave entrance with many beautiful shells. One after the other, we photographed the little fellow, which actually did not want to get out of its hole. Finally, Fernando approached the octopus with his action camera. This rig aroused the interest of the octopus, and with a quick movement, it clasped the camera with its arms. In this moment, one could easily underestimate the power that such an animal has—but it really did not want to let go. Incredibly, the octopus turned the camera around and began to pan the area. We all laughed until our masks were full of water.
Spotfin frogfish (Antennatus nummifer) are common but hard to find here due to their small size and excellent camouflage. They live in caves, cracks and under cornices—usually in reverse position. Frogfish are very bad swimmers and move with small jumps. Their coloring varies greatly, depending on the environment in which they are located.
The white-spotted octopus (Callistoctopus macropus) can be found in the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. As a master of camouflage, it can also be difficult to find.
Due to its location in the open Atlantic Ocean, whales and dolphins can be seen in the seas around Tenerife. These marine mammals hunt in the deep waters surrounding the island or just pass through the area during their migrations. Fin whales are seen more often than humpback whales or orcas.
On a boat trip, one always gets to see a variety of dolphin species, especially the resident species known as pilot whales. Around Tenerife, there is a population of about 400 of them, which dive to depths of 600 to 800m to hunt for squids and sardines.
In the Canary Islands, whales are protected, and there are rules for responsible observation so as not to disturb them. These rules prohibit approaches less than 60m from the whales, and swimming or diving with them is not permitted (Royal Decree 1727/2007).
That is why whale watching is offered to tourists. Whale-watching tour operators are specially trained and require state approval before providing services. Diving and swimming with whales and dolphins is only possible with special permits from the Spanish government.
It is definitely worth it to book a whale-watching excursion! One should definitely choose a provider with state approval. This certification can be verified by a blue sticker. There are a lot of ”pirates” who do not follow the whale-watching rules and endanger the animals.
These rules require, for example, that boats and people stay at least 60m away from the animals; only a maximum of three boats may approach a group of whales; and one should behave calmly and avoid making noise in their presence. There is a good reason for these rules. The animals hunt for food at great depths and may sprint up to 40 km/h during their hunts. When they return to the surface, the pilot whales need rest breaks to decompress.
As divers, we are familiar with this principle. After a difficult deep dive, we have to rest, and no one thinks about running a marathon. The same applies to the pilot whales. They should therefore not be disturbed nor startled.
Due to the thundering ferries and disturbance caused by other pleasure boats, the whales are already heavily stressed. It is therefore advisable to bring a pair of binoculars, or a camera with telephoto zoom, and maintain the required distance from the whales.
In contrast, the pods of dolphins in the area behave differently, often accompanying the whale-watching boats and delighting boat guests with acrobatics in the bow wave. Dolphins do this voluntarily and are therefore not disturbed by the presence of humans. But even so, boats must not chase after the dolphins if the animals want to swim away from the boat.
Sometimes, you can see the very shy beaked whales, which live in the waters of the Canary Islands throughout the year, especially near the small neighboring island of El Hierro. And with luck, you might also see the great whales, such as the humpback whale, fin whale, minke whale or sperm whale, which travel north in the spring and towards the Equator in the fall.
A final highlight
The volcano, Teide-Pico Viejo, is definitely worth a visit! Of the seven islands that make up the Canary archipelago, Tenerife stands out for the ubiquitous presence of Teide. The volcano Teide reaches 3,718m, rising 7,500m from the seabed. It is the roof of Spain and the largest peak of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also a national park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2007. It owes its name to a Guanche word, Echeyde, with which the indigenous people of the Canary Islands identified the presence of evil gods or hell.
But this has nothing to do with the feeling that seizes us today at the sight of the volcano. Rather, it is the opposite feeling that overcomes us—an overwhelming awe of its magnificence. If you go there, please do not forget that it is a high mountain of considerable altitude with the associated risks. Fans of adventure sports will enjoy plenty of recreational activities here, such as climbing, mountaineering, caving in volcanic tubes and canyoning. ■
Claudia Weber-Gebert is an advanced diver, underwater photographer and dive writer based in Germany.