Mallorca, Menorca, Sardinia, Sicily—when it comes to Mediterranean islands, you probably think you know all there is to know. But the Mare Nostrum holds many a secret in its 2.5 million square kilometres, including a scattering of uninhabited islands just off the Spanish coast. In stark contrast to many islands of the Med, there’s not a soul to be seen in the archipelagos of the Illes Medes along the Costa Brava and the Illes Columbretes in Valencia. Both are distinguished natural parks and marine reserves, boasting crystalline waters and an abundance of wildlife to create a diver’s paradise.
Located just a mile off the coast from L’Estartit, the Medes Islands archipelago consists of seven islets and forms part of the Montgrí, Medes Islands and Baix Ter Natural Park. Once a base for pirates, and later monks, the islands have been uninhabited since 1934. They are considered to be one of the most important marine reserves in the Mediterranean and are a popular destination for scuba diving.
Suitable for all levels, dives of varying depths are possible, with shallower areas offering dense, well-lit seaweed and over a hundred brightly coloured species. Dive down 10-15 metres, and you’ll find light-deprived seaweed, rocks, coral, starfish, octopus and lobster, whilst a further five metres will bring you to coloured coral inhabited by over 600 species of fauna. Sardines, barracudas, eagle rays and groupers can all be spotted in the area. The limestone archipelago is also known for its caves and tunnels, although extreme care must be taken in those areas. The largest shipwreck along the Costa Brava, the Reggio Messina, which was deliberately sunk in 1991, lies close by.
There are several diving schools in L’Estartit offering a range of excursions to the islands, suitable for varying levels of experience. If diving isn’t your thing, Nautilus, based in L’Estartit, has a fleet of glass-bottomed boats offering several sailing trips per day around the islands and along the nearby Montgrí coast, where you can catch a glimpse of the underwater world without getting your feet wet. Prices range from €20.50-€28 for adults and €2.50-€16 for children.
Thirty nautical miles off the coast of Castellón in Valencia, the Illes Columbretes are a series of small volcanic islands and reefs. The archipelago is divided into four groups—Grossa, Ferrera, Foradada and Carallot, and together form the Columbretes Islands Natural Park. The largest island is L’Illa Grossa, where a lighthouse stands at the highest peak, 67 metres above sea level. The unique formations of the islands represent the best examples of volcanic landscapes in the country, with the crescent-shaped L’Illa Grossa formed from linked sea craters (calling to mind the volcanic scenery of Santorini in Greece), and Carallot being the remains of a former volcanic peak.
The islands are thought to have appeared as a result of four volcanic episodes, and were known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who noted a very large population of snakes—indeed the name ‘columbrete’ is derived from the Latin word for snake, colubraria. The snake population was eliminated following the establishment of a small human community during the 19th century, who maintained the lighthouse and deterred smugglers. Today, the lighthouse is automated and the only inhabitants are biologists managing the natural park.
The archipelago is an important wildlife reserve above and below sea level. Sea birds, lizards and alyssum flowering plants are the main feats on dry land, whilst the surrounding seabed reaches a depth of about 80 metres and each group of islands offers a unique array of underwater life thanks to differing topography and currents. Expect to see sheer underwater cliffs, deep sea algae, lobsters, starfish and shoals of barracuda and groupers, and occasionally bottlenose dolphins and sunfish.
A number of companies offer diving or snorkelling day excursions to the islands from Castellón, Alcocebre, Benicarlo and Oropesa del Mar along the Valencian coast, offering the opportunity to explore land and sea. The boat trips normally leave around 8am and the journey takes approximately 2.5-3 hours one way. Weekend liveaboard cruises are also available for diving enthusiasts, which normally require some previous diving experience and cost between €250-325, depending on the season.
- Day trips. www.visitaislascolumbretes.com, www.charterscasamar.com, www.barracudabuceo.com, www.gidive.com
- Weekend cruises. www.blueplanet.es, www.xtremtravel.com
Tips for respectful diving
- Maintain good buoyancy through breathing and avoid hitting coral or the seabed with fins, equipment or the body.
- Maintain a distance of 1.5m from the walls.
- Do not disturb marine life.
- Do not touch or feed the animals.
- Avoid going into caves—many fatal accidents have occurred in the Illes Medes in recent years. Furthermore, air bubbles have a negative effect on all species living in the cave.
- If possible, participate in initiatives to conserve the marine environment.
Click here to read our quick guide to underwater life that you are likely to come across in the Illes Medes and Illes Columbretes.