There are few sensations more disagreeable than donning a black neoprene wet suit as the summer sun beats down upon you. I was reminded of this on a scorching August afternoon as I struggled to stretch a suit over my sunscreen-slicked skin. What made this instance particularly unpleasant was that the rented wet suit was actually wet, saturated with seawater and sweat (and who knows what else) from a prior user.
I was on a boat off the shore of the Spanish coastal town L’Estartit, heading in the direction of the Illes Medes, a series of rocky islands that rise dramatically from the Mediterranean Sea off northeastern Spain’s Costa Brava. Along with 30 or so other scuba divers, I was taking part in an excursion to the waters around this archipelago and, in spite of the annoyance of my wet suit, I could barely contain my excitement. Up to that point in my nascent scuba career, I’d only dived in fresh water, which has none of the colorful coral and diverse marine life that you find in so many ocean scuba sites.
In my heightened state of anticipation, I assembled my scuba gear backwards. Luckily, a helpful — and clearly more experienced — diver named David saw me struggling with my rig and offered to help me sort out which hoses connected to which valves. He corrected my mistakes in a matter of minutes, after which we struck up a conversation to pass the time before we reached our dive site. David spoke broken English with a heavy Dutch accent, but he managed to tell me that he typically goes diving at least 40 times a year, a rather astounding figure when you consider how much gear and effort scuba diving requires. He had been diving all over Europe but especially loved coming to the Spanish coast, he said.
I wasn’t surprised. Although sunbathing on rocky beaches and consuming fresh paella and cold wine at seaside restaurants are the typical activities associated with Spain’s Costa Brava, the section of coastline stretching from the resort town of Blanes all the way to the French border, a thriving scuba culture exists here. Its popularity can be traced to the postwar era, when tourists from continental Europe and elsewhere began flocking to the region for its pristine beaches and found that the underwater flora and fauna made for good diving.
The waters around the Illes Medes are considered by many to be the Costa Brava’s preeminent dive site. Since the 1980s, the government of Catalonia has worked to preserve the islands’ natural habitat. Partly as a result of these conservation efforts, this stretch of coast has escaped the crass overdevelopment that blights so much of the Iberian Peninsula, while the Illes Medes have become a bona fide marine reserve, attracting scuba divers from all over Europe and beyond.
The chance to dive at the Illes Medes is what had brought me to L’Estartit, a coastal town with a large boat-filled harbor and a handful of dive shops scattered along the main drag downtown. I’d only been scuba diving once before this trip, and as I stood on a wooden dock and gazed out at the beckoning Mediterranean waters, I couldn’t help thinking about those rare yet alarming stories in which some vacationer goes diving in an exotic location only to be mistakenly left at sea. I’d failed to persuade my wife to join me — she’d opted for a day at the spa — and so by embarking on this excursion I would be breaking the first rule of scuba diving: Always dive with a buddy. In spite of the nervousness that tends to precede any first-time experience, I knew that there was no turning back.
Our dive site was next to Meda Xica, one of the larger of the Illes Medes. As the boat came to a stop, we divers formed two single files on each side of the boat and hopped into the water two at a time before pairing off into groups ranging from four to 10 people. The ship’s first mate led my group; he had apparently been tasked with supervising the novice divers like me and several friendly Germans.
On the count of three, we submerged to a depth of 25 feet, where I came face to face with an underwater landscape of multicolored coral swaying back and forth to the unknowable rhythm of the ocean’s ebbs and flows. The Costa Brava, which gets its nickname of “wild” or “rugged” coast from the tree-covered mountains that hug the shores, is home to some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in Europe. The underwater topography at the Illes Medes is no less spectacular. Marked by dramatic cliffs and coral mazes, it offers no shortage of objects to behold.
Paddling past one stretch of rocks, I extended my hand and touched a piece of white gorgonian, a coral best described as a group of faintly connected white tentacles. Patches of it speckled the rocks. The piece I touched felt like an oversized grain of al dente rice. I ran my hand along another part of the coral-covered rock and felt the texture of a worn-out Brillo pad. A blue fish the length of my arm swam lazily by, not at all fazed by the group of bubble-emitting humans floating about its habitat.
I continued to swim along as our dive leader occasionally used an underwater flashlight to point out a particularly bright patch of coral or a fish. At one point, he shone his light on what looked like a rock. I stared blankly at it until it started blinking back at me. Fooled by this particular fish’s camouflage trick, I continued paddling about, looking for the elusive red coral, a beautiful species valued by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, so I contented myself with observing the various species of fish, some quite large, others much smaller, swimming all around me, and the countless starfish dotting the rocks.
The joy of scuba diving comes from the way life slows down once you get a few feet below the waves. The constant noise of busy, trapped modern life disappears, replaced by an all-encompassing quiet. This is why scuba diving is sometimes referred to as the “lazy man’s sport” — because the object, unlike in other physical pastimes, is not to exert yourself, but to stay calm, move slowly, and observe the environment around you, principles I tried to remember as adrenaline coursed through my body.
After 45 minutes of paddling back and forth, it was time to head back to the ship. As our group resurfaced, the captain greeted us in a little red dinghy that he used to pick up divers and ferry them back to the main boat. While floating in the dense Mediterranean saltwater, I removed my dive mask and turned it around, so that the strap ran across my forehead and the enclosed part hugged the back of my head, where it wouldn’t impede my breathing or vision. It was a trick I’d learned from the instructor who’d administered my certification course several months earlier.
As I climbed into the dinghy, mask on backwards, the captain looked at me and asked, “Where did you learn that Navy SEALs technique?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Navy SEALs put their masks on backwards when they resurface,” he said. “It’s silly and dangerous. The only place a mask should go is where it’s designed to be. And I should know, since I train the British Special Forces.”
His tone of voice suggested that he didn’t take this matter lightly, and I had to suppress a smile. Although scuba diving is not an inherently competitive activity, its devotees, like those of many extreme sports, approach it with a strange and intense form of ownership. They display extreme attention to detail, and disagreements over even the slightest nuances often turn into contests of one-upmanship.
But the chastising didn’t dampen my mood. The Illes Medes had delivered a scuba experience that was relaxing, intriguing and breathtaking (in a metaphorical sense). Now I was ready to return to shore and enjoy some of that renowned Spanish paella.
Craft is a writer in Arlington.