|Octopus are everywhere in the sea around the Canary Islands|
Snorkelling and Diving
The sea around the Canary Islands is remarkably clear and an ideal site to try snorkelling. A mask and breathing tube allows the swimmer to become part of the underwater landscape in comfort, and to explore features such as caves that are otherwise inaccessible. From sandy, crowded beaches to rocky shores, the snorkeller is guaranteed to find a dazzling array of life. In this section, we will take a look at the different ecosystems of the Canarian coastlines, highlighting the creatures most likely to be encountered.
While the sea around the islands is largely safe, it is always best to stick to defined swimming areas and avoid sites where nobody else is swimming. Most beaches have a warning system in place, with a red flag denoting dangerous conditions and a yellow flag caution when swimming. Lifeguards are available on most beaches and will be able to provide up to date information about the safety of bathing. In any case, the number of small leisure craft and jet skis in use makes it advisable not to swim out too far without the use of a dive buoy. Technically you need a dive buoy to snorkel anywhere outside roped off swimming areas! Certain stretches of coast experience powerful waves and strong currents and are dangerous for even the strongest swimmers.
For most visitors to the islands, sand is an everyday feature of the trip. The beaches around the islands, both natural and artificial, are usually made up of fine-grained golden sand. At first glance, it is a uniform and seemingly barren habitat that does not look like it supports a wide variety of sealife. However, the life is there and merely needs to be searched out. The trick is to look for features, either in the form of seagrass beds, underwater hummocks or isolated rocks where creatures tend to congregate. Even the buoys that mark out swimming areas are well worth investigating for the variety of life they harbour. Small pilot fish and remoras often latch on to buoys until a more mobile host turns up.
Even areas of completely bare sand support specialist animals. Small flatfish rise from the bottom if the swimmer gets too close. They are often seen in pairs and are surprisingly curious and unafraid of divers. They have a habit of settling on the bottom and disappearing in a puff of sand, leaving only their protruding eyes above the sand. In the Canaries, flatfish are known as tapaculos, of bum-covers.
A more sinister occupant of sandy bottoms is the solitary, sand coloured weever, with its bright blue and poisonous dorsal spines. These fish, up to about 45cm long, are responsible for most of the injuries incurred in Canarian waters, for they inflict a painful sting on bathers unwary enough to tread on them. They are best left well alone. The very similar lizard fish is harmless and distinguished from the weever due to a lack of dorsal spines and its enormous mouth. They are not at all shy and confident enough of their camouflage to allow close observation. Lizard fish are avowed cannibals and will eat anything that will fit into their mouths. There are cases of large ones swallowing smaller examples hooked by fishermen, spitting them out reluctantly when they leave the water.
A curious sand specialist is the pink cleaver wrasse, easily identified by its narrow rectangular head and fierce teeth. It has the almost miraculous ability to disappear in a flash if disturbed, burying itself in the loose sand faster than the eye can follow. It feeds on crustaceans and molluscs hiding in the sand.
Although not tied to sand, large groups of palometas, grey mullet, salemas, bogas, mackerel, sardines and other pelagic fish often come in close to the shore for shelter and can form spectacular shoals. Look for them just beyond the surfline. Wherever large groups of small fish are to be found, the predatory barracuda, needlefish and bluefish are unlikely to far away. A feeding shoal of these fierce fish can be a spectacular, if gruesome sight and the highlight of a swim.
Perhaps the most spectacular sight on sandy bottoms are the rays. Chuchos are the most common and grow up to 250cm long and weigh 250Kg, while the wider mariposa grows up to 50Kg. Both are equipped with tail stings and should not be disturbed. The electric ray is guitar-shaped and can deliver a dangerous shock if handled. A few careless speargun fishermen get zapped every year!
Seagrass may look like a kind of seaweed, but is in fact the only land plant able to grow in the sea. It forms large lawns in water down to depths of 15m and provides a home for a plethora of small animals. Cuttlefish, related to the squid and octopus, are common in seagrass lawns. They are masters of disguise, changing not only their colour but the texture of their skin. If you are lucky enough to see two together, you will notice that they communicate through colour, changing from almost jet-black to white instantly, with different shades rippling hypnotically over their skin.
Sargos are common around seagrass, as they are everywhere, as are Red Mullet, a local delicacy. These pink fish make a living digging pits in the sand and eating exposed morsels, feeling for them with a pair of barbells under their chins. A feeding shoal of these fish often attracts others, including the pufferfish and triggerfish, both lazy opportunists. Among the fronds of seagrass lurk a wide variety of shrimps, small gobies and crabs, along with grotesque sea cucumbers, which do nothing but roll back and forth in the current, siphoning in water at one end and squirting it out of the other. Among the most remarkable seagrass specialist is the seahorse, very common in some areas but hard to spot and very shy. Patches of floating seagrass uprooted during storms often harbour its relative the pipefish, just as shy and very well camouflaged. Another notable inhabitant in the culebre, a type of eel that looks exactly like a sea snake. They often shelter in sunken car tyres and are harmless, retiring fish. Another eel lives in colonies of several hundred and spends its life half buried in the sand. If a diver approaches to closely, the eels will disappear, emerging when the coast is clear.
Rocky and Mixed Bottoms
Rocky bottoms are the snorkelling and diving sites par excellence of the Canary Islands. Here the widest variety of algae, fish and invertebrates live and feed, taking advantage of the cover afforded by caves, cracks and attached seaweed. Large boulders and rock formations attract schools of smaller fish, which in turn draw in predators. Grotesque scorpionfish lurk under overhangs while fulas and pejeverdes abound. Pufferfish and triggerfish are in their element on mixed bottoms, along with white-faced blennies and a plethora of goby and other small species. Rocks covered with algae are home to several species of small green wrasse, which can be very common. A particularly striking, bright yellow sponge is also common on large boulders. It takes many years to grow and loses its vivid colour very quickly if removed from the sea.
Large schools of grunts or ‘roncadores’ are a common site amongst rocks and are locally called snoring fish due to the loud noises they sometimes make. Roncadores are still very abundant around the islands because they do not enter fish traps. They are shy creatures that feel safe in large groups. Several thousand can sometimes be found in very shallow water. Sargos are common and the large and solitary ‘sargo breado’ is a spectacular sight, growing to over 50cm. They are often seem hanging off schools of other fish and are wary of divers and inclined to flee into deeper waters if disturbed.
Multicoloured Parrotfish or Viejas are most likely to be encountered on rocky bottoms, browsing on small animals in large, mixed-sex schools. Once heavily fished as a local delicacy, a reduction in the harvest is now allowing the Vieja to recover and it is returning to its old haunts. Large examples, up to at least 50cm, are still rare, but shoals of up to 50 of these peaceful fish are becoming a feature of some sites. Where speargunning is banned, they are quite tame and smaller specimens are curious and will come and investigate swimmers.
Caves on rocky bottoms are well worth investigating, as they shelter species that only come out to feed at night. Red ‘alfonsitos’, looking remarkably like goldfish, and the larger ‘catalufas’ are common. Lucky divers or snorkellers will encounter grouper caves, where several specimens of different sizes live together. The fortunate few will find a yellow ‘abae’, a rare morph of this common grouper, usually brown with black marks. Meros and abaes can become quite tame and soon get used to being hand fed, to the point that large examples, up to 2m long, will pester divers incessantly. The debate about feeding these magnificent fish continues as tame and well-fed examples become easy targets for unscrupulous speargun fishermen.
Caves are also the best place to see sea urchins, in a variety of colours, sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sea hares and sponges. Long-spined black sea urchins are common and have assumed plague proportions in some areas, grazing so intensively that algae has no chance to grow. Areas of white rock covered in urchins are called Urchin Bights and tend to support fewer fish than areas without urchins. Part of the problem is the overfishing of predators such as triggerfish and triton shells, which keep urchin numbers under control. Some divers crush these urchins whenever they can in a bid to control them but this is not advisable, as the spines are poisonous. The urchin’s long spines also provide a home for a variety of juvenile animals and small creatures, such as shrimps and spider crabs.
Octopus are the star cave inhabitant, as they are house proud animals and keep the entrance to their particular cave spotlessly clean. A small cave surrounded by weedless rock, small pebbles and crab carapaces is very likely to contain an octopus. Rarely completely hidden, they tend to sit at the entrance to their home, watching their neighbours. If disturbed, they slip into their cave and block up the entrance using their collection of pebbles. If pressed, octopus, or ‘pulpos’ as they are known locally, shoot off using their siphons for propulsion and leaving a cloud of brown ink behind them. In some places they are extremely common and you are almost always being watched by at least one pulpo when swimming in the Canaries.
For a guide to seeing underwater stuff without getting wet, check out the lazy man's guide to underwater life in Gran Canaria.