Cabo De Palos - Islas Hormigas (Marine Reserve)
Cabo de Palos is the most-southerly place on the Mar Menor, the shallow body of water separated from the Mediterranean (apart from a couple of channels) by the 21km-long, 300-metre-wide area of land known as the La Manga Strip. Mar Menor means ‘small sea’ in Spanish, and it is a great description, as it is the largest lagoon in Europe, with a surface area of 170 sq km.
Cabo de Palos itself is a large village, with the Mar Menor on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, but the hub is the quaint marina, which is surrounded by a host of restaurants, as well as being home to the dive centres serving the area, not to mention the impressive Visitors Centre of Cabo de Palos, which has literally thousands of diving books, a 3D model of the region, information about the marine park, local seahorse populations, details of shipwrecks including the tragic story of the Sirio, and a small theatre where you can watch documentaries about a range of subjects. Elsewhere, the imposing lighthouse is worth a visit, and there is a pleasant sandy beach which joins on to the beaches of the La Manga Strip.
Cabo de Palos is the gateway to the marine park at Isla Hormigas, which offers divers the chance to dive among some of the healthiest fish stocks in the Mediterranean. Drop in on sites such as Piles I, Piles II, Bajo de Dentro, Bajo de la Testa or Bajo de Fuera and prepare to be greeted by vast shoals of barracuda, large and quite curious grouper, tuna, amberjack and trevally.
Depths range from just 3m to 60m plus, ensuring there are sites suitable for all levels of diver, from relative novices or those just learning to dive to hardened veterans and technical divers seeking more of a challenge.
As well as swarms of marine life and dramatic underwater topography, there are also shipwrecks to explore. Within the marine reserve, at Bajo de Fuera, you can find not one but three wrecks – the Nord America, the Minerva and the Sirio. All lie below 40m, so these are definitely for the more-experienced diver.
Enroute to the marine reserve and just over a mile outside the Port of Cabo de Palos lies the Isla Gomera, commonly known as the Naranjito due to its final cargo of oranges. It sits upright, with the stern in 46m and the top of the superstructure rising to 27m, and offers many penetration possibilities.
Then there is the SS Stanfield, a vast wreck with a length of 120 metres and a beam of 14m. Torpedoed on 26 June 1916 by a German submarine, it lies in 62m, with the deck at 45m, and is perfect for technical divers. It is heavily encrusted in marine growth.
Slightly shallower – it sits in 44m with the deck at 35m – is the 120-metre-long Italian steamship Lilla (also known as the Carbonero due to its final cargo of coal). This merchant vessel was torpedoed by a German submarine some seven miles east of the La Manga strip in October 1917 and is now home to a rich selection of marine life.