Vast Las Canteras beach is the main reason I live in Gran Canaria’s capital city. It is one of the world’s great urban beaches (after visiting 40 countries, I’ve seen a few).
At over 3 Km, it’s so long that it’s a playground for everyone who lives or visits the city. Surfers and beach footballers stick to the south end where the sand changes colour with every tide. The locals prefer the golden centre of the beach behind the reef. Visitors and tourists choose the north end where the pale sand is wide and shaded by coconut palms.
But while sitting anywhere on the beach is fun, my favourite bit of Las Canteras is underwater.
There’s a world under the surface that has appeared in just 10 years.
The beach and El Confital Bay became a no-take marine reserve in 2009. All fishing, trapping and shellfish harvesting was banned.
It turns out that fish are far brighter than anyone thought. It didn’t take them long to work out that they were safe behind the reef. They came in droves, stayed and bred.
The change has been more dramatic than anyone expected.
After 10 years of protection, diving into the clear waters of Las Canteras is like sneaking into an aquarium tank.
And it gets better every year. Predatory fish like grouper, triggerfish, white trevally and moray eels are coming back. New species colonise every year as the food chain gets longer and the ecosystem matures.
There’s something almost sensual about the smooth lines and puckered mouths of parrotfish or viejas. They don’t so much swim as drift over the bottom and aren’t shy about having a lie down on the bottom.
But viejas are far more than just pretty fish. They are a keystone species and when you see schools of parrotfish you know that the ecosystem is healthy.
Viejas crunch up the sea urchins that used to stop weed and sponges from colonising the lava rock. Small fish and fry shelter in the weed and draw in larger species like sea bream, barracuda and jacks.
There’s now so much to eat at Las Canteras that the resident fish spend a lot of their time just lolling about. You can stop and look around you and see schools of a dozen species just floating in the shallow water.
One of the great things about snorkelling at Las Canteras is that most of the marine life is in the shallow water. Just jump in off the sand and the fish are waiting for you.
To get an overview of the diversity of the reserve, head to Playa Chica, the mini-beach right in the middle of Las Canteras. It’s best at low tide but impressive at any time.
Swim south towards the rocks and the fish surround you. The striped bream have now lost all fear of people and hang around swimmers in little gangs. Vast schools of parrotfish drift over the lava followed by wrasse and damselfish. Sinister but harmless lizard fish and scorpion fish lurk on the bottom.
There’s always an octopus watching you from its cave.
Can’t see it? It’s there.
For a more adventurous snorkel, drift out to the reef to see clouds of grunts, porgies and damsels. The water is clear and shallow and the colours just pop.
At low tide climb onto the lava reef and look back at the city (walk on the dry bits as it can be slippery). Or dive into deep, cool water on the ocean side. Here you’ll see black seabream and clouds of porgies. Watch out for moray eels amongst the crevices.
Even at the sandy north end of the beach there’s plenty to see. Salmon pink cleaver wrasse and tiny flatfish (tapaculos or bum-coverers as they know in Gran Canaria) hand out over the sand and big schools of oceanic mullet rest in the calam water. In late summer, rays visit to breed and the odd turtle grazes on the outer part of the reef.
The water is warmest in late summer but is always warm enough for a snorkel. It’s best to plan your day so that you’re in the water at low tide because the water is clear and the fish closer to shore.
The perfect time to snorkel is at dawn on a sunny day when the tide is right out. If you make it, I’ll see you out by the reef.
Fish are always happier if you’re at their level rather than on the surface. Dive down, grab a rock and just hang in the water and the bream and parrotfish will drift closer for a good look at you.