Events - Diving (Madeira 1999)

Grouper Now THAT is a big grouper
Photo: P.McKenzie

In December 1997, Su & I decided to take a winter-sun break on the island of Madeira, the western-most point of Portugal. The holiday was fantastic and just what we needed to re-charge our internal batteries. While I was there, I managed to squeeze in a half-days dive over in a place called Machico (Su doesn't dive and what the hell? we were there to relax). Herman, the guy I dived with told me that in August/September they get a lot of the big Manta-rays coming through, following the plankton movements south into warmer waters.

This was too good an opportunity to miss, so in September 1999, Tosh and I as the only representatives of the Bandanna club (Unfortunately everyone else was tied up with other commitments) flew out to Funchal in Madeira, for a weeks diving with a dive-club called Ventura.

We managed to squeeze 9 dives into 5 days, which was pretty good going. Ventura has a small dive-club operating from the Madeira Carlton Hotel (where we stayed) and a much bigger club on the other side of the island.

Since neither Tosh or myself had done any serious time in the water recently, we played around in the bay for a few dives, just getting used to the local conditions. Madeira has a huge range of wonderful sea-life and plenty of fish, including Trumpet-fish, various Rainbow-Bream, Parrot-fish, Spider crabs, Cuttle-fish, Barracuda, Tuna, some great Sting-Rays, funky Trigger-fish and a lot more.

A great time was had by both of us, but one thing still still eluded us; a sighting of any of the big Mantas. By our eighth dive, we had become a little despondent at our chances of seeing a big Manta before returning to the UK (Unfortunately nature does not keep the same schedules we do and the Manta tend to follow the plankton; Where and when the plankton move is where and when the Manta's move).

Gliding overhead ... was a Manta-Ray with a wingspan of almost 5 metres. For a second or two, it blocked out the sun ...

Rainer then took us out to a place called Garajau; a marine reserve which has a complete ban on fishing. At 27 metres, the waters are still crystal-clear most days and it's a great place to see some really big Groupers, amongst a great variety of other aquatic life.

The Grouper is an amazingly docile fish. The ones we saw were quite happy to sit on the ocean floor, while we took photos and even allowed us to touch them.

In the past, we have occasionally taken a few breadcrumbs in a plastic bag down with us and hand-fed the fish, where we are permitted to do so. But you can't hand-feed the Grouper; It's not good for them to become too reliant on a non-natural food source and word has it that anyone foolish enough to try will most likely return to the surface missing a finger or two.

This particular Grouper became very attached to one of the ladies that was on the diving party that day and followed her as she swam around the ocean floor for a good 10 minutes, before it decided that it was all too much effort and returned to it's favourite dossing spot, near where this photo was taken.

Earlier that morning, Tosh & I decided to splash out on an underwater camera and housing, which we purchased from a small sporting goods store on Funchal harbour on the off-chance that we might see a Manta.

(Divers Beware: Although Madeira is a great place to dive, trying to get hold of any form of underwater photography gear - even a cheap disposable camera that can stand 3 atmospheres of pressure is damn near impossible. If you want to take photos, it's best to buy a camera and any photography equipment BEFORE going out there. Ours was a good camera and a fairly reasonable price, but it was the one-and-only model we could find in all of Funchal.)

We took it in turns to snap off a few shots (but ended up doubling up on a few) and were still getting used to using the thing when we saw it ...

A Manta glides by... The gentle giant of the sea; a Manta glides by...
Photo: P.McKenzie

Gliding overhead, close to the ocean's surface was a Manta-Ray with a wingspan of almost 5 metres. For a second or two, it blocked out the sun as it travelled through the waters with a grace and beauty that took my breath away.

All too soon it had passed by, following it's personal pathways towards warmer waters and better feeding. I will remember that sight for the rest of my life...

Sadly, the numbers of Manta have diminished over recent years. Quite a few get caught in commercial fishing nets and it is also possible that climate changes may well be altering the currents and thus affecting the movements of the Plankton, the Manta's staple diet. Sometimes, it is a source of great personal shame to be a member of the human race...

What a dive! This was the highlight of the trip for both Tosh and I and we celebrated with a few beers with Rainer and Ute on our return, followed by an excellent meal of traditional Portuguese fare at a local restaurant. We had seen what we came to Madeira to see and everything else was a bonus.

Bandanna Club Rating: 5-Bandannas Bandanna Club Rating: 5/5 (Excellent)

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