The Canary Islands are a dive holiday destination I never thought I would visit. Living in Australia I didn’t know much about these rocky islands, even though they featured in one of favourite movies as a teenager, One Million Years BC starring Raquel Welch. It wasn’t until I became a diver that I learnt anything about the Canary Islands, mainly that they were popular with European divers. But located on the far side of the planet, even Raquel Welch strutting across these barren islands in her fur bikini couldn’t sell the Canary Islands to me.
But my opinion changed several years ago when I heard that the Canary Islands are the best place to see common angel sharks. With a great passion for sharks, I knew I had to get to the Canary Islands one day to encounter this critically endangered shark species.
My chance to visit the islands finally came this year in September, when a friend asked us to join her on a special trip to Spain and Morocco to celebrate her 50th birthday. I quickly negotiated an extra week in the itinerary so we could dive the Canary Islands.
There are dozens of places to dive across the Canary Islands, and countless dive operations, but I knew straight away where I wanted to go – Arinaga on Gran Canaria. Last year I co-wrote a shark book with Andy Murch (Diving With Sharks) and he had recommended Arinaga as the best spot for common angel sharks. Andy put me in contact with Brian Goldthorpe, the own/operator of Davy Jones Diving and we organised five days of diving.
Before arriving on Gran Canaria we did a little more research and discovered that all the diving off Arinaga is done in the El Cabron Marine Reserve, and there was a lot more to see than angel sharks. We also discovered that September is not the best time for angel sharks, as they prefer the cooler water temperature over the winter months. But with the trip all booked we couldn’t change plans to suit my desires to see a common angel shark.
Finally arriving on Gran Canaria at night, we checked into our apartment accommodation and didn’t get to appreciate our surroundings until the next morning. Arinaga is a small beach side town, but it is by no means a picture-postcard destination, with a rocky shore line and grey sand beaches surrounded by a desert-like landscape. But as divers we could see the appeal straight away, rocky terrain dropping into very clear water.
Picked up by Brian after breakfast, we completed our paperwork and sat through the briefing about the diving in the El Cabron Marine Reserve. Brian explained that they have around a dozen dive sites in the marine reserve, though several can be covered in a single dive. He also explained that it is all shore diving, with entries and exits over the rocks or from the beach depending on the site. With the gear loaded in Brian’s car, we headed 15 minutes down the road to the El Cabron Marine Reserve.
The scramble over the rocks at Table Top wasn’t too hard, even with a large camera system, and once in the water we were surprised to find the visibility close to 100ft. Swimming over the rocky reef we were quickly captivated by the local fish species – the pretty Mediterranean parrotfish, the cute Guinean pufferfish, the colour changing Atlantic damsels and the very inquisitive learned rockfish. There were also numerous species of sea bream in schools and singular, including zebra, white, striped, saddled,red-banded and common two-banded sea bream.
Following Brian over the rocky reef, the small boulders in the shallows quickly gave way to a series of gutters and walls dropping to the grey sand at 70ft. This was the area I was looking forward to exploring, as sand is where angel sharks live. Angel sharks are ambush predators that spend most of their time hidden under a layer of sand, which can make them difficult to find.
Surveying the sand it looked barren at first glance,but we soon spotted soles, flounders, razorfish, lizardfish, pufferfish and cute starry weavers. Also on the sand was a colony of brown garden eels, but they disappeared into the sand before we could get close with the camera.
Cruising over the sand, but staying close to the edge of the reef, we came across a school of red porgy, then a yellow stingray and finally a small African cuttlefish. We also saw several spots where angel sharks had been hiding in the sand, but unfortunately, no angel sharks.
Swimming back over the rocky reef, two things struck us as highly unusual - the fireworms and the isopods. Fireworms, also known as bristle worms, are generally active at night and even then they are only occasionally seen, but on this dive we had seen over a dozen crawling over the rocks and algae. Even stranger was the number of isopods, with every second reef fish having one or more of these blood-sucking parasites attached. We were to repeat this unusual observation at all the sites we dived. Of course there were other invertebrate species to be seen, including cleaner shrimps, arrow crabs, anemones, sea stars, sea cucumbers, sea hares, sea slugs and octopus.
Exploring a series of ledges and caves Brian pointed out dusky gropers, island gropers, glasseyes, cardinalfish, scorpionfish and trumpetfish. But the highlight of the dive came near the end when Brian spotted a tiger moray eel. There are several moray species in the marine reserve, but this is the most spectacular with its yellow and brown skin patterns and a mouthful of over-sized teeth. We didn’t find an angel shark, but this dive at Table Top was a great introduction to some of the 400 species that are found in the El Cabron Marine Reserve.
After lunch we dived a site called Two Caves. Once more the fish life was impressive, with schools of bream, goatfish and grunts covering the reef in places, and also plenty of caves to explore. In one cave was a tiny European locust lobster, while in another was a sleeping round stingray. Other caves were home to bream, gropers, arrow crabs and a slipper lobster. Once more we spent time on the sand, looking for an elusive angel shark, but without luck. We did see a few yellow stingrays, but missed the spiny butterfly ray that another group of divers from Davy Jones Diving saw. Brian later informed us that they see about ten species of ray in the marine reserve.
Exploring ledges, caves and gutters we found octopus, sea slugs, pufferfish and a rare yellow coloured island groper. Brian searched the reef for the resided common seahorse, but like the angel shark it eluded us, instead we found groups of hairy blennies that must have been ready to mate, as they were fighting.
Over the next three days we enjoyed wonderful dives at Luna Reef, Hole in the Wall, Los Roncadores, Punta de la Sol, Playa Risco Verde and Punta de la Monja. We explored caves, walls, gutters, seagrass beds and vast expanses of sand. We saw plenty of reef and pelagic fish, stingrays and invertebrate species, but still no angel shark. We even did a day trip to the southern end of the Gran Canaria, with Brian organising two boat dives with Canary Island Adventures out of Taurito.
The first dive on the Cermona II shipwreck was brilliant, with this compact wreck overflowing with fish. Resting in 70ft, the wreck has broken open, and is home to trumpetfish, gropers, parrotfish, moray eels and schools of bream, grunts and barracuda. During the dive we also got buzzed by a yellow submarine full of wide-eyed tourists. It was like being in some bizarre animated Beetles film clip with this yellow submarine following us around.
The second dive wasn’t as good, diving a rocky reef and sandy plain at Perchel. While the visibility was great at 70ft, there was a complete lack of marine life – one stingray, one octopus and a sparse population of reef fish. It really made us appreciate the rich species diversity of the El Cabron Marine Reserve.
With the angel sharks eluding us, Brian suggest that a night dive was our last hope, as the sharks are more active at night when they feed. Diving off the beach at Playa del Cabron, we first explored the rocky reef in the shallows. Here were mating spotted sea hares, dozens of them in long mating chains. We also found sleeping fish, arrow crabs, European locust lobsters, dancing shrimps, brittle stars, common octopus, sea slugs, African cuttlefish and a very large spiny pufferfish.
Heading over the sand we spotted a few broadtooth conger eels emerging from their day time hideout, a pretty tube anemone and sleeping starry weavers. But a white-spotted octopus was a great find. These orange coloured octopus live in the sand and are only seen at night. We shot countless images as the octopus slowly crept across the bottom.
Exploring the sand, I waved my torch back and forth hoping to spot an angel shark, when I suddenly noticed an eye glint in the distance. Racing over to the spot I could see something was buried, but suspected it was only a fish. I waved some sand away and to my surprise and delight a common angel shark wriggled out of the sand and swam off. But this was no adult, which grow to 8ft long, but a baby, less than one foot long.
I was overjoyed to finally see a common angel shark,and shot a range of photos when it settled on the sand again. Brian has been working with researchers to study these critically endangered sharks, and informed us that the females give birth in June and July, so this small shark was only a few months old.
We enjoyed a wonderful time diving the El Cabron Marine Reserve. This part of the Atlantic Ocean may not have the rich species diversity we are use to in the Indo-Pacific region, but it has its own unique species that are just a precious, and very well represented in the El Cabron Marine Reserve.
A number of airlines operate direct flights from Europe to Gran Canaria Las Palmas.
Davy Jones Diving are a PADI 5 Star Centre.
Self-contained apartments are the best accommodation option in Arinaga. We stayed at Seven Islands Aparthotel, which is near the dive shop and they can organized bookings.
When to go
Year round, but if you want to see common angel sharks then winter is the best time. Water temperatures off Gran Canaria vary from 17°C to 23°C, while the visibility varies from 30ft to 100ft plus.