Diving El Hierro – The smallest of the Canary Islands
By Claudia Weber-Gebert
The clock ticks differently – no hassle, no stress – travellers seeking mass tourism, are out of place here. Relax and rest you can let your mind wander.
The smallest of the seven Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean lies to the west. The end of the “old world” with the monument of the zero meridian is found in the vicinity of the “Faro de Orchilla”. Before America was discovered the general thoughts in Europe were that this was the westernmost point of the “disk”.
The island is of volcanic origin, which is felt both above and below water everywhere. Black lava fields with vegetation, the crater with fertile plantations, a rugged coastline with bizarre rock formations. With elevations from 0 to more than 1500 meters above sea level, the small island has a variety of diverse climates and vegetation which offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, mountain biking and of course water sports.
You can reach El Hierro from the bigger Canary Islands like Tenerife or Gran Canaria by ferry or twin engine aircraft. The journey is the destination.
Many of Spain’s most popular dive sites are located in the south of the island, next to La Restinga. Although the town is very small it has nine dive centres which will also help you to organize accommodation and transfers.
Zodiacs leave the harbour for the numerous dive sites three or four times each day. You can find a dive site for everyone – from sophisticated drift dives to the “leisurely walk” underwater; deep or shallow, steep wall or sand surface depending on your taste. However, it is located in the Atlantic, which means the dive sites are not necessarily suitable for diving beginners. You should at least once have been immersed in the sea and gathered some experience there.
Depending on the diving base, the tours are groups of 6 to 14 people. The equipment will be transported by car or trailer to the harbour where they are loaded onto the boat.
We have chosen the individual variation and dive with “Fan Diving”, Jutta and Günter Baumgartel, a small dive center, where the diving groups are limited to a maximum of 6-8 people. Individuality is really very important here, it is taken care of you and they are able to read almost every wish from our eyes. In short: Jutta and Günter are always available with advice and assistance, both above and underwater! Defective equipment is repaired if possible and everything is straightforward – just as you would wish for in a relaxing holiday.
On the boat trip along the coast to the dive sites, the history of the island is clearly present: steep walls, the various layers of lava, ash, sand, and the remnants of pyroclastic explosions are visible. You can also make out the hard magma channels that penetrate these layers vertically upwards.
Wind and currents govern the choice of dive sites for the day. We were lucky that the wind came from W – NW, so the spots in the eastern region of La Restinga could be approached with places that are accessible in some cases only 4-5 times in a year. Again, we felt in good hands with Günter Baumgartel, he knows every spot and accompanied us on every dive showing the most beautiful places. He knew the hiding spots of animals and documented the highlights of each dive for a final photo show in the dive base. These photos are later a beautiful reminder of a successful diving holiday.
” El Bayon “, an extinct volcano, is one of the best dive spots on the island – some say the most beautiful area in Spain. The rock falls steeply down to a depth of 100m. The various layers forming terraces where plenty of marine life can be seen. Usually there is a light to heavy current which can make it a tricky dive site. In addition to this awesome place my personal favorite was ” Baja Ribera “, a magma rock with a 15m diameter rising like a needle from a depth of 35m from the sandy soil up to 10m below the water surface. While the rest of the volcanic cone has been eroded, the hard magma core still exists. Barracuda and jackfish are always found here and a “pet” grouper can be met nearly every time. At this place you can sometimes even see manta rays, which circle around the rock from the bottom to the top.
Even the dive site “Emmental” makes its name with many arches, bridges, canyons and breakthroughs. There are several places with wonderful underwater landscapes that make every diver’s heart beat faster.
Everyone who carries with him special diving equipment should be prepared for any necessary repairs. Standard O-rings are available in all dive bases, but everything different from the norm can not easily be purchased in the shop around the corner. So please bring special parts from home.
With water temperatures of 18°C to 24°C, good visibility, some 40m or even more, diving is possible all around the year.
There is an interesting article in the german magazine “Unterwasser” issue 4/2013 by Günter Baumgartel about the “3 seasons”.
Since no industrial fishery is allowed and the authorities support sustainable fisheries, fish populations are still healthy. By using traditional methods overfishing doesn’t seem to be having an impact. The Peto fishermen fish using a long pipe harpoon and take only a single fish at a time from a small boat. Parrotfish are caught with a special hook by the fishermen while snorkelling, taking only what is sufficient for their own needs. Harpooning is even banned in some sites.
You almost feel like you are in a conservation area. Unlike in the Mediterranean, there are still large schools of fish to find: shoals of sardines, mackerel, jackfish, peto, tuna or barracuda .Groupers grow to an impressive size, they approach and are not shy at all and even allow divers to get close.
With luck, you can also get manta rays or see whale sharks, turtles and other large fish. Dolphins can also be heard underwater and seen on the surface – but the shy marine mammals do not come near divers. The overgrown caves and crevices provide shelter for eels, crabs and other small animals. You should always carry a lamp to illuminate the holes to see animals that may be hiding- there’s a lot to explore . On large sandy areas sand eels are seen. The sand also offers good opportunities for rays, flatfish and a lot of octopus.
A spectacular eye catcher is the famous black corals on steep drop-offs rocks. Unfortunately, these corals were the “loser” of the volcanic eruption in 2011 – covered in mud they regionally had only low survival chances. Here, just a slow regeneration is taking place. However, the dead branches of the black corals turn into a starting point for other species: partially yellow anemones colonize these branches.
An El Dorado for wide-angle underwater photographers – the rugged landscapes offer numerous and varied options: Steep walls with black coral, dark sand surfaces with sand eels, caves, canyons and breakthroughs with wonderful perspectives and bizarre rock formations, various vegetation, shy marine life and large schools of fish.
For the macro-photographer it is not so plentiful, but you can find beautiful small critters: Snails, shrimp, blennies and anemones always offer nice images.
It is advantageous if you have a local guide with you, someone who knows the hiding places of the animals and the most beautiful caves and rock formations. In this respect, our choice of the dive base “Fan Diving” was exactly the right thing. As an avid underwater photographer Günter Baumgartel led us to the most beautiful places. He is always ready with help and advice, even if things are not working or there are questions about the photo technology.
Every year in autumn in La Restinga an importatnt photo event takes place: the international photo competition “Open Fotosub” in which well-known photographers compete – no wonder with those stunning underwater scenes.
Country and its people
You should definitely take at least 1-2 days and explore the island on your own. This is very easy with a rental car.
Worth seeing are the “Sabina Herreña”, some more than 2000 years old conifers, which are considered as landmarks of the island.
Other points of interest are the Faro de Orchilla, the lighthouse with the monument of former zero meridian, the laurel forests in the fog and cloud region, the cliffs in the north or the plantations of the “El Golfo”.
The Herreños are friendly and helpful, as we experienced during the breakdown of our rental car. Immediately several local motorists stopped and offered the “tourists” help – a kindness we miss elsewhere.
In the town of La Restinga you will experience village life – young and old come together in the evening on the harbour promenade. There the gossip of the day is exchanged until the late evening hours. An idyllic village with a harmonious character.
The volcanic eruption in 2011
In October 2011, about 1.8 km off La Restinga, a volcano erupted under water and life in the fishing village turned completely upside down. The town had to be evacuated because of the risk of life-threatening fumes.
There was a fish-die-off due to ascending gasses and a layer of mud covered the ocean floor later on. An unexpected situation for the fishermen and diving centers.
Since the beginning of March 2012 all dive sites have been cleared, there is no more danger and there are no restrictions.
Günter Baumgartel documented the disaster with photos before the disaster and 1 year later showing how quickly nature regenerates itself and that which presents as destructive to us can sometimes be an advantage for nature. The nutrient-rich mud has created a good base for flora and fauna under water – hardly anything is visible of the disaster today.