Visiting the Canary Islands, STUART PHILPOTT checks out a selection of the top recreational dive-sites in Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote’s number-one tourist hotspot.
Lanzarote has long been a popular year-round holiday destination for a surprising number of Brits, many of whom either own or time-share apartments on the Atlantic island. Flights are offered from most major and regional UK airports, and the journey time is a bum-bearable four hours.
On previous trips I had bypassed Lanzarote’s number-one tourist town, Puerto del Carmen, but fourth time lucky I was back (if only for a brief spell) ready and willing to soak up the lively atmosphere and sample some of the top local dive-sites.
Lost in Puerto del Carmen
Usually I would hire a car at Arrecife airport, because it’s relatively cheap and convenient. Puerto del Carmen is only a short 10-minute drive away but, long story short, I ended up spending a stressy couple of hours searching for my hotel.
This meant that I inadvertently got to see just about every building, road, signpost etc in the whole densely populated conurbation. I passed row on row of whitewashed apartments with pubs, night-clubs, shops and restaurants strung out along the entire 6km stretch of seafront. The whole place had gone sport’s bar bonkers. Everywhere I looked were chalkboards advertising live daily football matches.
There are around 18 dive-centres in the Puerto del Carmen area, all owned and managed by different nationalities. I had booked with Manta Diving, owned and managed by Brit couple Rachel Parry and Ben Hutchinson.
Six years ago, Ben and Rachel bought the PADI 5* resort centre when its Irish owners decided to retire. Rachel now manages the bookings and website, while Ben sorts out equipment maintenance and day-to-day staffing issues, among other tasks.
While I was there they employed five instructors and were using Aqua Lung and Apeks dive-kit. I could see that the staff had a good rapport with punters. Throughout the day, all sorts of colourful characters would pop in to say hello and have a chat. Some would even go diving!
The dive centre logo got me wondering: are there any manta sightings in Lanzarote? I had seen devil rays at El Bajon on El Hierro, the westernmost Canary Island, so was this where the name had stemmed from? Rachel said that the name had been inherited from the previous owners and she and Ben had simply stuck with it. I bet it’s not the first time they have been asked this silly question!
Out of Playa Chica
Rachel said Manta Diving had the perfect set-up for divers who didn’t want to spend the whole day away from their families. In a matter of hours, they could be back from their dives and by the swimming pool, lapping up the sunshine.
The dive-centre offers two guided dives in the morning and focuses on training in the afternoon, but this programme ramps up to four daily guided dives throughout the summer months. Opening hours are from 8.30am until 5.30pm Monday to Saturday year-round.
Rachel told me that e-learning packages were proving very popular with guests, the theory completed online in the UK to leave only the in-water skills to master in Lanzarote.
The bay at Playa Chica was a hotspot of diving activity. Most of the dive-centres in Puerto del Carmen used this stretch of promenade as a kitting-up area, with entry-points via the steps or the adjacent sandy beach, and the place was chockablock with dive-vans coming and going.
Manta Diving is close enough for divers to get kitted-up in comfort before taking a two-minute (100m) stroll down to the water’s edge. The heavier kit items, including weight-belts and scuba kit, are driven down in one of the company vans.
Playa Chica offers access to 10 local dive-sites. six of which can be reached from the shore, and Rachel had arranged for me to dive at some of the most popular. Instructor Abigail Flynn would be my guide and underwater model for the duration.
As it happened, we planned most of our dives when the majority of dive-centres were taking a break, which gave me a far better chance of getting closer to marine life and taking backscatter-free pictures.
Divers entering via the steps have to swim at the surface and descend inside a floating giant hoop, thus reducing the possibility of being run over by boat traffic, but I noticed that some of the pleasure-boat skippers didn’t regard divers very highly. We nearly got squashed against the wall by one impatient guy picking up a family of four booked on a sightseeing tour.
Cathedral and Blue Hole
My first dive was at a site called Cathedral, a large cave at a maximum depth of around 30m. After crossing a sand patch, we started to descend along the wall. I caught a glimpse of a fair-sized grouper and tried to get close for a picture with Abi following up the rear, but it was far too skittish.
After three attempts we gave up and carried on with the dive. Before entering the cave, I stopped and took a few shots of Abi posing beside a black coral. The cave was wide enough for a few divers to enter side by side. I went in first and then turned to get the classic bluewater cave entrance composition, with Abi hovering somewhere in the middle.
After a short surface break, Abi took me to a site called Blue Hole. I watched a procession of divers coming out of the swim-through in single file and, when the coast was clear, got Abi to hover on the seaward side so that I could get the blue backdrop as well as the sponge-covered cave roof in the frame.
In the shallows we encountered a small cuttlefish. I tried several times to get close, but it just backed away from me, tentacles raised in a defensive posture.
Two larger cuttlefish suddenly appeared on the scene, probably to give their fellow species some moral support by playing the safety-in-numbers game. Although still wary, the larger cuttles allowed me to get much closer, thus yielding a couple of pictures.
Close to the exit I found an old grey Uwatec dive-computer that had obviously been dropped by a diver from another centre. Abi managed to track down the relieved owner, who would probably have been charged for the loss.
Our final dive for the day was at a site called Rene’s Wreck, which turned out to be a right marine-life teaser. We started at the little wreck sitting upright on the seabed before finning around the wall to see a clump of rare soft red coral.
I was hoping to get a captivating image of the coral fronds, but found that it was well and truly wedged inside a rocky overhang. A number of inquisitive grouper followed behind us, but none would come close enough to fill my wide-angle frame.
Abi guided me to a field of tubeworms gently swaying in the current. I slowly and carefully got into position and snapped off a stream of pictures before they all shot back inside their protective tubes. On the way back I found an angel shark but, because it was buried in the sand, it refused to make a striking composition even with Abi hovering in the background.
We finished off exploring a cave at a depth of around 3m. Deep inside there was a hole in the ceiling allowing shards of light to come flooding through. This looked very effective with Abi posing underneath.
Rachel had recommended that I stay at the Hotel THB Flora, located near the old town harbour. The reception staff were full of smiles. They explained that the hotel was basically split into two areas, with a public road running through the centre. The apartments across the road had just been refurbished but were pretty much booked up, so I was allocated a room on the older side. This self-catering apartment turned out to be a good size.
My only concern was that the single beds looked and felt like camp-beds and, because I weigh in at a slender 95kg, and I felt they might collapse on me.
Quite a few families seemed to be enjoying the swimming pool. I thought the Germans were supposed to be the towel-on-sunbed experts but the Brits had taken this sneaky trait to a whole new level, and must have snuck out late in the evening! For a reasonable price, I could have upgraded to full board and dined at the in-house restaurant, but I wasn’t around enough to make full use of the facilities, so declined.
The steep windy roads at the western end of town were just what my legs needed after a full day’s diving – another heavy calf work-out! I managed to sample some of the local restaurants and didn’t have one dodgy meal.
I can definitely recommend the Purple Turtle sports bar, which is just a short walk from the hotel, but my favourite had to be the Mexican restaurant called Emma’s Cantina. The mojitos had a kick like a mule. After downing three, I really didn’t care about the walk back uphill to the hotel!
The harbour wrecks
A visit to Puerto del Carmen wouldn’t be complete without a dive on the harbour wrecks. As I kitted up by the wall, I caught sight of a familiar face walking up the gangplank towards me. Kevin Craddock, the owner of Flippas ’n’ Fins in Dorset, had brought out a group from the UK. Once they had vacated the RIB, Abi and I jumped aboard for a short two-minute journey around the harbour wall to the entry-point.
Abi had put her blonde hair in a subtle ponytail for our first few dives, but this time around we were going for a full-on bouffant 1980s retro-style.
The dive-site is a graveyard of fishing-boats, all lying on top of each other at depths of 12-40m. Most of the wrecks are well broken up and have merged into one giant debris field.
My favourite sits at around 25m and is known as the Steamer Wreck. The foremast and rigging with funnel in the background made a great composition.
Unusually, the shallowest wreck is the most intact, with some great wide-angle picture ops of the exposed hull and deck area. We even ventured through the criss-cross deck supports into the interior for a poke about. At times, this dive-site can yield some spectacular marine life sightings, including Atlantic sting rays and hammerhead sharks.
My flying visit to Puerto del Carmen had come to an end. Sadly, there had been no time to explore the offshore sites at Playa Chica, including Rachel’s favourite site called Waikiki which, I’m told, has the shallowest red coral found in Europe, as well as an abundance of trumpetfish, grouper and angel sharks. But the sites I had seen offered a good selection of caves and swim-throughs, as well as a few exciting marine-life encounters.
There was also that unique harbour wreck site – it wasn’t often I got the opportunity to explore six shipwrecks on a single dive. “Playa Chica is fantastic for training and there are lots of 30m dives for more-experienced divers, making Lanzarote a good all-rounder,” says Rachel.
Manta Diving had been perfect hosts. I even had the chance to fo for a dive at underwater sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor’s Atlantic Museum in Playa Blanca, with Rachel acting as guide and model.
Photographs by Stuart Philpott