Closer to Africa than Europe, the island of Madeira offers some surprisingly good diving as well as great food and wine.
By Fiona McIntosh
The sea was pumping as we scrambled down to the platform at the foot of the Pestana Palms Hotel. The skipper brought the rubber duck up and we hastily passed over weight belts, tanks and gear as the boat yawed in the swell. “It’s not normally like this,” insisted Susan, a regular diver. “On most days the wind blows from the north and this is a millpond,” she said. Not today. This was more like a South African launch and we were pumped with adrenalin by the time the skipper told us to hold on tight as we skimmed over the waters of Funchal Bay.
As with most things on this little Portuguese island off the West African coast, diving in Madeira is fun and relaxed. We mustered at 10am, kitting up in baking spring sunshine. The waters of the Atlantic seemed pretty cold to me – it had been 19°C the previous day – but Waltraud Charné, the charming and entertaining owner of the dive school laughed at my concerns. “It’s warming up,” she assured me, “Last week it was 18°C.” Two of our fellow divers, Dutch girls with an apartment on the island concurred. “In Holland we dive in 2-4°C – these are our tropical suits!”
From the water it’s hard to believe how the mass of white and red-roofed houses stay rooted to the precipitous slopes. The volcanic island rises sheer from the sea. There is no littoral, no beaches, just steep, steep cliffs and dramatic gorges. The highest point, Pico Riuvo, is over 1 800m above sea level – and most of the island is above 1 000m. We’d been warned not go hiking or inland sightseeing after the dive!
We were at the buoy marking our dive site, Garajau East, in 25 minutes – on a flat sea the journey is even shorter. Octavio, the DM, buddied us up and did a briefing. “We meet on the bouy line then go down the chain. There’s a lot of swell and there might be current down there so keep together with the rocks to your left,” he said. There was indeed a lot of swell, but down at 20m all was calm and visibility was about 25m – poor by Madeiran standards apparently thanks to an unfavourable wind direction, but we weren’t complaining! As we adjusted our gear on the seabed, a metre-long grouper approached, checking out each diver in turn before returning to the blue. Next up was a bright orange fish that looked like a grouper – an Albino grouper one of the Dutch girls informed me later. Two more big grouper came in and looked positively tickled to be stroked by the DM – they were clearly the stars of the show.
The underwater topography was very similar to that at the surface – big boulders of basalt on which little grew. For the first time diving in Europe I saw lots of fish – big schools of goatfish, Striped bream and Bluefin damsels. Two big morays swam past us and a massive octopus lurked next to a grouper under a slight overhang, only noticeable when it changed colour and swam off. We saw Trumpet fish, Red parrotfish and Triggerfish, lots of Hermit crabs and a couple of colourful nudis. My buddy pointed at the sand and at first I couldn’t understand what he’d spotted. Then I saw them, the familiar little periscopes of garden eels poking their heads up when we were at a safe distance. It was a fabulous dive and a great taste of Madeira’s underwater treasures.
The next day we dived the wreck of the Bom Rei which sank some 13 years ago when she broke in the middle during routine operations. She’s better known, however, by her former name – the Bowbelle. On August 29, 1989, the Bowbelle was involved in a tragic accident on the River Thames when she rammed a dance-club boat called the Marchioness, claiming the lives of 51 people. A year later, the boat was sold to a Madeiran company as a sand dredger and was renamed the Bom Rei.
The wreck, which lies at 22-32m, was found after intensive searching by the Tubarão Madeira Diving Organisation and is still in good condition. The artificial reef is a refuge for a profusion of fish and marine life including Moray eels and yet more friendly grouper. A bonus for experienced divers is the opportunity to swim through the ship’s lower decks.
We didn’t have time to dive what is apparently a fabulous wall that drops from about 10-22 m where morays, rays and barracuda hang out, or the alluring ‘Blackcoral’, a reef that rises from 35m almost to the surface, at the foot of which are big clumps of black coral and enormous shoals of fish. Clearly I’ll have to return. The house reef also eluded us, but those that had dived these sites were full of praise. And the latter’s sheltered location, shallow depth and profusion of macro life makes it perfect for training. Granted, I haven’t dived extensively in Europe, just a bit in the Mediterranean off southern Turkey and Greece, and off the Italian and Scottish coasts, but the diving in Madeira impressed me. So far it wins hands down!
Our time on the island was fun and varied. The sleepy Portuguese way of life is much in evidence, the food is superb (and, if you avoid the central touristy areas, inexpensive) and the wine is great. The capital, Funchal, has a range of attractions including the fascinating rabbit warren of the old centre and a telepherique, which whisks you high into the mountains to the Monte Cathedral or the Botanical Gardens.
When you fancy a break from diving you can go exploring by bus or car, do some wine-tasting or take one of the wonderful walks through the high mountains or along the island’s famous ‘levadas’ (irrigation canals). Just don’t go expecting a beach holiday.
The dive centre is in the Pestana Palms Hotel where there’s a big pool, changing and toilet facilities. A full range of dive courses (CMAS and VDST, and also PADI in summer), including photography specialties, are offered and the centre is an ITDA authorised instruction centre for nitrox and rebreather courses.
Most dive sites are within the underwater 'Nature Reserve' so they offer a wide diversity of marine life. They are all easily accessible and only minutes away by boat.
The waters are warmed by the Gulf Stream and temperatures range from 17/18°C – 24/25°C.
Typically over 30m.
C-cards, logbooks and a valid medical certificate; available on the website www.scuba-madeira.com
Best time to go:
Madeira is a year-round destination, but the best time to visit is between June and October. Summers are typically Mediterranean – hot and dry with temperatures up to 32°C during the day. Winters are warm during the day although it can get cool at night.
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