The oceanic archipelago of Madeira lies approximately 1,000 km southwest of Lisbon, right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Located between latitude 30° and 33° N, close to the Straits of Gibraltar and almost on the same latitude as Casablanca in Morocco. Seven islands form the archipelago but only the biggest two, Madeira and Porto Santo, are inhabited, and both have a harbour and airport. The remaining islands and islets are clustered in two small groups, the Desertas and the Selvagens and are natural reserve parks due to their immense biological wealth.
Text and images by Nuno Sa
Geographically located in a subtropical region and influenced by the southerly branches of the Gulf Stream, the archipelago has a moderate climate all year round. Average air temperatures range from a maximum of 23 °C to a minimum of 15 °C, and water temperature hovers around 22 °C in summer, gradually lowering to 18 °C at the end of the winter.
As in most oceanic archipelagos, the sea topography lacks a continental shelf, reaching great depths at relatively short distances from the shore. These characteristics create the opportunity for sighting ocean specimens such as large pelagic fish, manta ray, turtles and marine mammals in diving spots close to the shore.
The archipelago of Madeira has deep blue waters, with excellent visibility (20 to 35m on a typical summer dive) and is home to some 360 marine plant species, together with 550 marine fish, 21 marine mammals and an enormous amount of invertebrates. The biodiversity of species that inhabit the waters of Madeira is unique worldwide. Being an oceanic archipelago, Madeira is not only visited by Atlantic species, such as large pelagic fish, but also a wide-range of species from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, as well as some tropical species that have Madeira Island as their northernmost distribution limit.
Madeira Island offers a wide range of diving sites including several wrecks, cave and coastal dives. However the top dives on this island are concentrated in a small area called Garajau Natural Reserve. This protected area was the first exclusively Marine Reserve created in Portugal, 23 years ago, and since then the area has become populated by a wealth of fauna and flora.
This 376 ha (929 acres), Natural reserve is located on the south coast of Madeira, not too far from Madeira’s capital – Funchal, and has several diving sites, marked by yellow marker buoys. Some of these dives can be made directly from the shore, with some diving centres offering direct access to the dive sites from hotel bathing areas.
Dives in the reserve include several cave dives, including a 35m long cave (Gruta da Ponta da Oliveira) with a large air pocket inside which divers can surface into, and which is often visited by one of the world’s most endangered sea mammals – the monk seal (Monachus monachus).
However, the Garajau Dive site is by far the most visited of them all, and definitely the top dive site on the island. The reef starts at about 15m but quickly descends to about 30m. During summertime, the Reserve comes alive with shoals of pelagic fish that pass through the archipelago following the Gulf Stream. During this time you can expect to see fish such as the white trevally/guelly jack (Pseudocaranx dentex), yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis), almaco jack and greater amberjack (Seriola rivoliana and Seriola dumerili) and bastard grunt (Pomadasys incisus). Towards the end of the summer, the graceful and elegant mobula rays (Mobula sp.) can sometimes be seen slowly gliding over divers.
Here you can also encounter large specimens of barred hogfish (Bodianus scrofa) and comb grouper (Mycteroperca fusca), several species of moray eels and colorful anemones and other species that are abundantly present. However, a particular species captures the special attention of most divers – the dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), considered the symbol of the Garajau Reserve.
Dusky groupers at Garajau are very large (they can weigh up to 60 kg) but are extremely playful and curious, usually following divers for the duration of the dive. Due to their longevity (they live up to 50 years) and curious nature regular visitors recognize particular individuals year after year, such as “Malhado” (spotty), Garajau’s oldest, largest and most famous grouper. 3 or 4 dusky groupers can be seen on a typical dive at this site, often competing for the divers’ attention and usually swimming beside the dive masters that have known them for several years.
Also fun to observe are the large colonies of brown garden eels (Heteroconger longissimus) that, in some places, cover the sand bottom looking at divers and then quickly vanishing in the sand as they approach.
Diving Porto Santo
Just 27 miles off the high rocky cliffs of Madeira is the small island of Porto Santo. Although situated relatively close together, the landscape of the two islands are vastly different. Porto Santo is a small island with a large coastal plane that boasts 5 miles of golden sandy beaches.
Less of a tourism attraction than Madeira, Porto Santo has a calm and easy-going way to it and is also home to some of the archipelago’s best dives and most pristine waters. With daily boat (3-4 hour trip) and airplane connections, visiting both islands on a 1-week dive trip is certainly possible and recommended.
Porto Santo also has a large marine protected area, with several dive sites within its boundaries. Distances to dive sites are, however greater and a short boat trip to the main dive sites is necessary.
Porto Santo is home to a huge biodiversity of marine species. Expect to see; dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus), comb grouper (Mycteroperca fusca), morays (Muraena sp.) large common and round sting rays (Dasyatis pastinaca and Taeniura grabata), shoals of yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) swimming in circles, white trevally/guelly jacks (Pseudocaranx dentex), almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana) and skipjack tuna (Katsuwonus pelamis).
The best and most well known dive site in Porto Santo is without doubt the the wreck of the Madeirense – this dive alone makes a trip to this Island worthwhile. The ship Madeirense – a ship used for decades to connect Madeira to Porto Santo – was purposely sunk for diving on, in the year 2000. Nowadays it is filled with a range of diverse species from resident dusky groupers to large shoals of other fish. As in Garajau Reserve these groupers are very playful and enjoy the company of divers. The wreck lies vertically on the sandy bottom at a depth of 34m and large schools of fish can be sighted as soon as divers start their descent. “Big lips” – the wrecks most curios grouper – usually leaves the wreck to meet the divers as they descend.
When approaching the top of the ship, usual sights are large shoals of almaco jack (Seriola rivoliana), white trevally/guelly jack (Pseudocaranx dentex) and yellowmouth barracuda (Sphyraena viridensis) all feeding on small bogue (Boops boops) that school in thousands around the wreck. Exploring the inner areas of the ship’s bow, are found other, less curious, dusky and comb groupers and it is advised to always keeping an eye on the sandy bottom where resting common stingray (Dasyatis pastinaca) and spiny butterfly ray (Gymnura altavela) are usually sighted.
Diving Desertas and Selvagens Islands
These islands are a group of three major islets located 22 nautical miles from Funchal, and were proclaimed a Natural Reserve in 1995. Visiting these islands is possible with some dive centers and a 3-hour trip from Madeira Island.
The protection of the Desertas islands and the launching of its Natural Reserve was caused by the need to create conservation measures for monk seal (Monachus monachus), whose population was in danger of extinction in Madeira. This species, classified as threatened (in critical danger) by IUCN, is the rarest seal in the world but can still be sighted on these islands. The population of monk seals in the archipelago of Madeira seems to be recovering now, and is currently estimated at around 25–35 specimens. Happily the seals appear to be increasing their range to now include some spots on Madeira Island.
Divers may only visit half of the reserve, as the area most visited by monk seals is completely forbidden to navigation, bathing or diving.
The coastal area of Desertas is mostly characterized by steep cliffs only accessible through some rolled gravel beaches in some coastal spots. Its landscape is sculptured by constant sea and wind erosion, including below the sea where the rocky formations are true works of art from Mother Nature.
Diving in Desertas can mean a chance to witness large shoals of yellowmouth barracuda, white trevally/guelly jack, almaco jack and great lumberjack (Seriola rivoliana and Seriola dumerili), manta ray (Manta birostris) with the added bonus of sometimes an encounter with a sea wolf!
The Selvagens Islands, on the other hand, are located 163 miles south of Madeira and also comprise three major islets. However, diving activities are subject to permission issued by the Madeira Natural Park, but the distance from the other islands in the archipelago is enormous and limits ecotourism activities in these islands.
Altogether this group of islands has something to offer to every diver, from beautiful wrecks, cave dives, pristine waters, a healthy sea life and very reasonable weather year round, and is just a 2-3 hour flight from many European capitals. Together with beautiful landscapes, hundreds of kilometers of walking trails, excellent bathing areas and the opportunity to see several species of whales and dolphins on a whale-watching trip, Madeira is definitely a destination for keeping in touch with nature.
There is one hyperbaric chamber available for the whole archipelago, located on the Island of Madeira.
Desertas: 22 nautical miles from Funchal.
Porto Santo: 42 nautical miles from Funchal.
Getting there – SATA and TAP, are the Portuguese airlines with daily connections to Madeira. Lufthansa, Spanair, Transavia, Continental, Easy Jet and several European airlines have regular direct flights to Madeira and Porto Santo.
Getting around – Connections from Madeira to Porto Santo:
By boat – Porto Santo Line
By Plane – SATA