This feature first appeared in Ireland’s diving magazine, SubSea, Autumn 2020.
South of Ireland's shores, as the water warms, there are many great diving islands in the eastern Atlantic, known collectively as Macaronesia. These include the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, as we near the equator.
Irish divers have long been familiar with the much-lauded 'wild Atlantic way' of our western seaboard. At these temperate latitudes, we enjoy great seasonal diving, but we often look south to warmer waters during our late autumn, winter and early spring months. As low-cost and charter airlines have opened up these possibilities, these blue water destinations have become more accessible. Geographically, Macaronesia is the name given to these widely spread volcanic islands, not to be confused with Micronesia, which is the name given to the islands in Oceania in the Pacific – best known to divers for the shipwrecks in Truk Lagoon and the scenic diving in Palau and Yap.
. The Canary Islands and Madeira.
The Canary Islands will be familiar to most Irish divers, Madeira less so. Since the 1960s, the Canary Islands has been a refuge for northern Europeans seeking sunshine in their long winter months. Tenerife is the largest and most populous island and receives over 5 million tourists each year, making it the busiest for tourism. Gran Canaria is the largest island and is considered to have the best weather and beaches. While there is diving on both of these large islands, the smaller ones tend to be more attractive to divers, particularly Lanzarote – the most north-easterly island, neighbouring Fuerteventura; and El Hierro accessed via Tenerife. Being well developed for tourism, they are easy to travel to and explore and have the great advantage of being suitable for non-diving partners or families. This can be a great advantage, as most dive centres will do two dives early in the day, leaving the afternoons free to do other things. The climate, of course, is a big attraction – the annual average temperature being 25°C, although there can be quite a variation between islands. Like most of the islands in Macaronesia, the prevailing winds are the trade winds which blow from the north-east throughout the year and are generally stronger in the summer and autumn months. Water temperature can vary considerably, and particularly in spring, it may only be between 17° and 18°C – and it is not inappropriate to use a 5mm drysuit with a light base layer. Otherwise, a cosy 7mm suit is best. Later in the summer and autumn, water temperatures will get up to 22° to 23°C, and a 5mm suit may be enough. Ashore, there are many natural attractions throughout the islands, from the stark volcanic landscape in Lanzarote to the dunes in northern Fuerteventura. Finding a dive centre is easy, as there are so many, but a recommendation or reputation of long-standing is reassuring. I have personally dived with Safari and Rubicon in Lanzarote; Punta Amanay in Fuertaventura and can recommend them confidently; also with Shane Gray in La Restinga on El Hierro, which I have written about in these pages before.
The Azores are a group of nine islands – the European Union's remotest outpost – and are a long way offshore, being 1500km or two hours flying time from Lisbon. The Azores are also considered to be Europe's best-kept secret – the islands are diverse, exquisitely beautiful, tranquil and welcoming. For a long time, few people thought of the Azores as a diving destination, but it is becoming more recognised, although still undeveloped and mostly virgin territory. Unlike the Canaries, it is not a destination for new drivers or try-diving, as conditions are a little more challenging and require more experience. The underwater landscape is of a similar volcanic origin, with areas of lava and volcanic debris, tunnels, arches and small caves. Visibility is a big attraction here, being so far offshore, and is generally around 30m. Dropping into such clear blue water is always a pleasure. The island of Pico is probably the most interesting for divers, with an excellent and long-established diving and cetacean observing company, CW Azores. The signature dive here is to Princess Alice banks, a seriously offshore dive – 50 nautical miles from Pico Island. The early start and two and a half-hour boat journey is worth the effort with a unique underwater landscape and commonplace encounters with Mobula rays and large shoals of pelagic fish. There are other megafauna experiences to be had nearer to Pico, particularly with blue sharks, and it is possible to snorkel with whales under licence.
The Cape Verde Islands.
While both the Canary Islands and the Azores feel European, the Cape Verde Islands – located a thousand kilometres south-west of the Canaries – feel distinctly African. This group of ten islands is a crossroads of transatlantic travel and a melting pot of cultures as a result. The islands are dispersed over a large area and it is most convenient to take regional flights between them. As with the Azores, the gateway airport is Lisbon. The archipelago is popularly divided into two groups – the Windward Islands to the north, including Santo Antáo, Sáo Vicente, Sal and Boavista, the latter two islands being the most developed for tourism. The Leeward Islands to the south are the main island of Santiago, Fogo and Brava. There is diving on several of the islands, particularly Sal, which has a variety of sites in the Santa Maria Bay. Sáo Vicente also has good diving and the seascape resembles the volcanic characteristics of other Macaronesian islands, but with the rock faces often covered in bright yellow polyps and with larger aggregations of surgeonfish, parrotfish and Atlantic big eyes. Turtles are also frequently seen, as are nurse sharks, occasionally found resting under rocky overhangs. Being much further south, water temperatures are a very comfortable 21°C to 27°C, so a 3mm suit will often suffice with a rash vest or hooded top. Dive centres are not as numerous or long-established, so it is worth seeking a recommendation and asking details about the diving, boats and guide experience.