WHEN I MENTIONED to pals that I was going diving in Madeira, the response was invariably: “Isn’t that where people go to retire?” Certainly the island has its fair share of grey hair, but sporting a reasonable amount of grey myself, I thought I’d blend in quite well – and I’m “only” 38!
My luggage came through at lightning speed at the small airport, and Emanuel Gloder was there to whisk me off to his dive-centre Explora Madeira. Italian-born Emanuel told me that he had visited the island on holiday some years back, fell in love with it and moved there to start his diving career.
I offloaded my equipment and we discussed plans. Emanuel’s English is pretty good, as is that of his team, which includes local lass, boat-skipper and all-round helper Sofia and instructor/dive-guide Arianna, also Italian.
The dive-centre, located in the capital Funchal, was fairly quiet – it was March – and in low season Emanuel employs only a skeleton staff.
We agreed to carry out six very different dives over three days and I scooted off to my seafront hotel for a beer, dinner and an early night. I may have had two beers.
Mamas and groupers
The minibus picked me up at 8.30am. Arianna had our tanks arranged and my gear parked next to it. I’d packed my drysuit, as the Atlantic water is only 17°C in winter – basically summer UK diving conditions, but without that greenish hue to the water.
The RIB is moored only metres from the dive-centre, so in no time at all we were heading for the Mamas.
Mamas means boobs, so predictably it turned out to be a pair of rock pinnacles that begin at 30m from a sandy seabed and finish somewhere around 8m below the surface.
The site, within Madeira’s designated marine reserve, was marked by a single buoy and chain, and I was promised barracuda and moray eels there.
The boobs were visible straight away, but what I couldn’t see at first was a whole lot of life.
We found the seabed and wound our way up the first pinnacle. Emanuel pointed out a crack that was home to a family of shrimps and their arrow-crab guests. Sea-urchins and anemones hung off some of the rocky ledges and we finned past several of the promised moray eels. Arianna, hanging out several metres above, directed my attention to a circle of schooling barracuda of a decent size.
Pinnacle two provided a similar experience. The Mamas, if hardly festooned with marine life, was a reasonably interesting site but I considered my time there to be a check-dive, having spent much of it grappling with a misfiring strobe and several camera issues.
AFTER BASKING IN the sun admiring the view, Emanuel briefed me on Garajau (gara-jow), the name of this area of coastline and also of a seabird.
The steep cliffs were made up of dark, crumbly-looking rock topped by lush vegetation. I had expected the island to be drier for some reason, but felt I could easily have been somewhere in south-east Asia, perhaps because of the banana plants that grow everywhere on the island.
Grouper were to be the next main event and I was promised introductions to several friendly residents including Tony, Elvis and Madonna.
We followed another mooring-chain down to 25m, where a jumble of jumbo-sized boulders with a few interesting swims-throughs made up the topography.
As Emanuel banged his dive-knife on a rock, a super-sized grouper presented itself. I fired off a few shots of the guys posing with what I later learned to be Tony, a fish without a shy bone in his body. I felt privileged to experience this magnificent animal at close quarters, and the minutes passed quickly.
We spent the rest of the dive exploring critters living in and around the boulders and swim-throughs, including octopuses, miniature parrotfish and more arrow-crabs.
Our bottom-time ran out pretty sharpish, and while waiting for seven minutes of deco time to clear from my computer, I wished I was diving on nitrox.
Back on the boat, Emanuel explained that he supplied nitrox only during the summer season, when there was more demand. Deco-diving is also forbidden off Madeira (oops) unless you’re diving with two boats, with the second one as a potential evacuation vessel to get divers to a chamber if necessary.
Arianna kindly rinsed off my gear when we got back to Explora Madeira and I sloped off for the afternoon to explore. The air temperature doesn’t really dip below 20°C in winter, and topped out at around 25° during my stay. The evenings are pleasant and there are plenty of places to grab food and a beverage or two.
Caves and swim-throughs
Caves and swim-throughs topped the list for the next day back out in the marine reserve, which was established in 1986 and includes any area within a 50m depth range. Ponta de Oliveira is a cave that stretches 40m into the submerged cliff and then opens out at the end to form an air pocket. The seabed is at just 12m, so bottom-time isn’t an issue.
Sofia backed the RIB up to the cliff-face and we rolled in, finned along the wall for a few minutes and one by one filed into the cave.
Emanuel had asked us to keep the cave-wall close to our left shoulder on our way in and out, because a monk seal was regularly spotted in the cave, and pinning it between yourself and the wall was not advisable – it could become defensively aggressive.
I tried to keep the thought of this seal suddenly appearing in my face in the dark at the back of my mind. By the time we reached the end of the tunnel (the end for us diving on single cylinders, anyway), I could only just make out the blue hue of the entrance behind me.
I shone my torch above to find the surface of the water in the sump and the three of us entered the pitch-black air pocket and stayed for several minutes, marvelling at this environment.
Very cool, I thought, as we dumped the air from our wings and headed back into the cave for our return journey from the underworld.
The light from the entrance grew larger with every fin-kick and eventually we popped back out into sunlight. The seal remained elusive and, much as I love seals, I’m not sure I needed to have to deal with one inside that very dark cave.
I put the experience down as my favourite dive of the year and was feeling pumped. The sea would remain calm for my stay as the prevailing wind was north-easterly, but with the main diving on the south side of the island, you’d be unlucky to have a dive blown out.
WE HEADED FOR AN AREA KNOWN as Arena, with a labyrinth of swim-throughs and mini-caverns. The rock formations appeared almost man-made, like those “rocks” made from painted glass-fibre found at theme parks.
I enjoyed exploring this area, but if it’s interesting marine life you want this probably isn’t the site for you.
Skimming back to Explora Madeira, I quizzed Emanuel about his competitors. “There are 12 dive centres on the island,” he told me, serving a busy summer season that attracts mainly British and German divers.
Wreck and reef
Emanuel had often proudly mentioned the dive-centre’s “house reef”, so I was pleased that we’d be diving it the next day. First, however, he wanted to show me a local wreck only five minutes away by boat.
The Pronto, in 33m depth, would make the perfect nitrox dive. Before it became a diving attraction, it serviced the island as a cargo vessel and took fresh water to a smaller neighbouring island called Porto Santo – that is, until it blew up and sank a few hundred metres from the Funchal shoreline.
No buoy marks this site, which is how local dive-centres prefer it, according to Emanuel. He reckons local fishermen would soon pluck all of the life from it if it were marked.
The Pronto was reasonably broken up, but it was interesting to see it in its entirety as visibility was around 20m.
I was led to the rudder on the seabed, and on to the remains of the hull and eventually over the top to deck level, where the boilers were present.
We covered the whole wreck with our limited bottom-time super-quickly, and found ourselves back at the RIB’s anchor-chain in a flash. I would like to have spent more time there but you can’t argue with physics.
I wondered whether the summer months might provide more fish activity than we saw on the wreck, although we were greeted by a handful of decent-sized bream on our way back up from it.
The house reef, I was told, was usually treated as an east/west two-dive site, but we were going to bash it out in one go.
We entered from the shore and made for the west side and a series of swim-throughs that again looked man-made, and reminded me of a Star Wars set (perhaps I was narked).
We found heaps of arrow-crabs as well as an octopus and a gurnard on the 12m seabed. Twenty minutes later we had crossed the sand to the east side and a patch where I was told that seahorses were often found.
Emanuel had told me that his wife was the expert seahorse-spotter but, being heavily pregnant, she was not available to help.
We searched for 10 minutes or so, but without success. Emanuel was certain he’d be able to find the resident frogfish, however and, sure enough, close to the “seahorse area” there it was, wedged into a crack in the wall.
The guys like to keep its location secret, although I’m not sure how any other visiting divers would ever chance on it – there is no way I would have spotted it. Nice find!
The house reef was also described to me as the “best night-diving spot on the island”, and I could understand why Emanuel and his team were so enthusiastic about it.
If one was considering taking the family, there didn’t seem to be anything in the way of a beach – the coastline is mostly rock. I could imagine enjoying diving in a wetsuit in summer – I was happy in my drysuit, but taking one does limit your luggage capacity.
I consider Madeira to be an accessible location for divers wanting to explore something off the beaten track, and truly underestimated.
I suppose the four-hour flight could put some folks off but, hey, you get out what you put in, right?
GETTING THERE: Direct budget flights from the UK – Will flew with easyJet from Gatwick.
DIVING: Explora Madeira, Funchal, www.exploramadeira.net
ACCOMMODATION: Will stayed at the 4* Baia Azul hotel, hotel-baia-azul-funchal.h-rez.com
WHEN TO GO: Year-round. Sea temperatures are 17-23°C, and late summer/autumn is warmest. It can be wet late in the year.
PRICES: Direct return flights from £220. Explora Madeira offers seven-night/10-dive packages from 450-650 euros depending on season. This includes hotel, diving, airport and dive-centre transfers. B&B accommodation at the Baia Azul starts at 55 euros per night.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitmadeira.pt