Illes Medes, a Mediterranean diving paradise on the Costa Brava

Seven islets just one kilometre away from the town of L’Estartit on the Costa Brava form one of the most attracting diving areas in Europe. Twenty years of protection as a natural marine park have permitted a complete sea-bed recovery, which hosts hundreds of species such as groupers, lobsters or even red coral. Caves, sharper rocks and sand banks captivate thousands of scuba diving lovers each year. Thanks to Illes Medes, L’Estartit has evolved from a little fishing village to an international diving town where tourists from all around the world are regular visitors looking for its submarine views.

Océane Apffel / Marina Presas

June 6, 2013 12:37 AM

L’Estartit (CNA).- In the seaside town of L’Estartit on the Costa Brava the tourist season is longer than three summer months. Visitors from all around the world and locals flock to the town from March to November thanks to seven islets placed just one kilometre away from the shore. The Illes Medes (Medes Islands) hide an outstanding submarine landscape, where groupers, starfishes, lobsters, and red coral welcome the diver. Furthermore, from the 5th to 9th June, L’Estartit is hosting a festival based on submarine photography and cinema, the Medes Imatge i Medi Ambient MIMA (Medes Image and Environment).

The Illes Medes are nowadays part of the Natural Park of Montgrí, les illes Medes i el Baix Ter, the biggest Catalan marine reserve. The largest islet, Meda Gran, is 1.8 square kilometres and 80-metre high but the others are merely huge rocks emerging from the sea. Despite the devastation suffered until the eighties, twenty years of protection have been enough to recover the flora and fauna richness and turn the Illes Medes into an envied spot for sea lovers.

A pristine natural landscape waiting to be discovered

Caves, sharper rocks and sand banks are home to an entire ecosystem where fishes and molluscs live quietly without the worry of being captured for a better life in someone’s stomach. The unspoiled zone tempts divers from around the world for its versatility. The sea-bed has different depths, from ten meters (32.8 ft) to 20 meters (65.5 ft) in depth, a circumstance that lets scuba divers become assiduous visitors. Both beginners and diving experts are able to enjoy the capacity of the natural reserve. More than 80,000 dives are carried out year by year in this area.

International diving centre

The area has an undoubted attraction for divers. According to the owner of one of the eleven diving centres in L’Estartit, Sean Murray, “the foreign clients are amazed at the quantity of fauna and flora they are able to see easily”. “The area is well connected to France and the rest of Europe so we receive a lot of French visitors, as well as scuba diving lovers from Holland, Belgium or Germany.” But what really charms the visitors is the ease with which you can see a lot of species in a low depth sea area. “In Italy or France it is impossible to find the same species you can find here at the same depth. In the Illes Medes it is possible to see red coral, a specie in danger of extinction but reintroduced in the reserve some years ago and a rarity in the rest of Europe”, Murray, owner of Unisub diving centre, explained while was helping scuba divers to put on the neoprens and carry the oxygen tanks.

Bert Koster from Holland and David Peissel from France are further examples of the hundreds of foreigners that choose the Illes Medes as a diving destination. “I was told Illes Medes was a wonderful site for diving and I am going to check it out”, Koster told CNA before jumping into the sea. Peissel came with a friend. “It has a great reputation in France so I came here for a whole week and today is my third immersion at the islands. I’ve seen a lot of fish banks and the atmosphere is marvellous”, he said.

However, the little islets are also well-known by national tourists. Carles Gonzàlez and Genís Ruiz from Barcelona are veteran divers. They have been diving for more than twenty years and come to the Medes between twenty and thirty times per year. “It is good value for money, the equation between the marine life on show, the euros it costs and the experience gained is really worth it”.

Chronicle of a town transformed

Augusto Prats, a 79 year-old fisherman, repairs his nets on his little boat while crowded vans filled with divers go up and down the port. He was born in L’Estartit when people used to live off the agriculture and fishing and he has seen the transformation of the town. “The tourists arrived during the fifties and people started to rent rooms.” he explained remembering old times. “I was one of the first fishermen to carry scuba divers to the Medes, everything has changed since then”.

Prats is already retired but he thinks that the fishermen’s guild is undervalued by the people in charge of the Natural Park. “The reserve has been a source of wealth for the town but a complete ruin for the fishermen as a whole.” Experienced fishermen consider that “it is more important to focus on furtive coral hunters and some disrespectful divers than hampering fishermen’s work”.

The first diving centre was set up in 1965 and, since then, the town hall and the tourist office have made an effort in order to promote this kind of tourism. In addition, diving is not the only successful activity done at the islets. Marta Vilavedra from the tourist office states that “apart from diving, the town is expanding to other aquatic activities such as kayak, snorkel or boat trips”.

MIMA, an international submarine festival

From the 5th to 9th June, L’Estartit is hosting a festival based on submarine photography and cinema, the Medes Imatge i Medi Ambient MIMA (Medes Image and Environment).  In this event, professional and amateur submarine photographers can display their works in a competition. After twelve editions, MIMA has been established as a valued festival in the diving world.