Dr Lou Luddington explores La Gomera’s rugged coast and discovers abundant wildlife and stunning underwater vistas while freediving from her yacht
For many cruisers in the Canary Islands, La Gomera is off track or a stop-over before heading west to El Hierro and La Palma. Drawn to its deep water and craggy coastline, we discovered a wild island, rich with stories to tell, writes Dr Lou Luddington.
As liveaboard freedivers with time to linger, our days are focused on exploring natural places and observing wildlife.
The second smallest of the Canary island chain, La Gomera is an island of varied, dramatic landscapes.
From arid rocky coasts to cool, lofty cloud forests and glittering underwater vistas, the ‘isla mágica’ may cast a salty spell on you.
On passage from the south of Tenerife to La Gomera on my Westwind 35, Noctiluca, we caught sight of a group of whales.
The dark silhouettes of their broad dorsal fins slicing through the surface and puffs of spray as they clear their blowholes to breathe are easy to spot; with a smooth ocean unruffled by wind, the conditions were perfect for wildlife watching, prompting us to cut the engine and drift.
The only sounds were the occasional clack of the boom as we rolled in the swell and pilot whales blowing as they surfaced for air.
Home to the largest population of short-finned pilot whales in Europe, these waters have been declared a Hope Spot by Mission Blue in recognition of their extraordinary diversity of open ocean species in need of increased protection.
Resident to the deep, volcanic waters of the Canary Islands, these pilot whales live together in close family groups, sprinting to depths of 1,000 metres or more in pursuit of squid.
Described as the cheetahs of the deep sea, they recover from the exertion and oxygen depletion of these hunting forays by breathing, resting and socialising at the surface.
We were mindful not to approach too close or pursue the whales, allowing them the freedom to come to us or swim away.
On day trips offshore from La Gomera we would enjoy regular sightings of not just the whales but green turtles, loggerhead turtles, Bryde’s whales, bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins and scores of Portuguese man o’ war and by-the-wind sailors.
Most often we would come across great rafts of Cory’s shearwaters, gathered together resting and preening, or in loose groups fluttering around a lively pod of bottlenose dolphins hunting fish.
Drawn to these islands by their carnal urges, the sea cliffs of the south and western coasts bustle with breeding birds from March to October.
By day all is quiet as they head to sea to fish or hunker in their earthy burrows, but come nightfall the air is filled with their raucous growls and cackles as they greet each other, returning to cliff colonies shrouded by darkness to avoid predatory gulls.
I became very fond of this evening soundtrack and couldn’t help hailing their arrival when I heard the first call of the night, ‘Hello shearwaters!’
These birds travel huge distances every year migrating thousands of miles between winter feeding and summer breeding grounds.
In flight they are masterful, carving precise lines between open ocean waves; it’s strange to imagine a bird so attuned to life at sea ensconced in dusty holes in the cliffs for several months to raise their young.
The anchorages of the southern coasts are quiet and mostly uninhabited, where you can often be alone and easily hop ashore to explore rock pools or wild camp in a cave for the night.
Some places experience a venturi effect from the high elevation of the island with winds gusting up to 30 knots.
Though presenting its own challenge this may bring a welcome break from the roll of open Atlantic swell; the one drawback of La Gomera is that the anchorages can be on the lively side.
On the whole it is bearable but when it gets too much head for the marina at San Sebastián de La Gomera; small and friendly, we always enjoyed our time there.
Built within the wind acceleration zone you can be guaranteed a swift exit and return journey to the south coast, for the first few miles at least.
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We were often torn between heading offshore for the chance of some whale and wildlife watching or hugging the coast to marvel at the rock formations and scope out new freediving spots.
The underwater seascape is as impressive as the land; caves, vertical walls, archways and great slabs of ancient lava flows encrusted with yellow sponges and furred with feathery seaweeds and clouded with fishes.
The clear blue waters with which the Canaries are blessed allows you to see it all, as though gazing across a vast, hazy vista.
Our greatest highlights underwater were mooching with huge shoals of parrot fish cheerily pecking at the rocks, communicating with octopuses through tentacle touches, and gliding eye to eye with eagle rays one afternoon as they hunted for shellfish.
One of the best places to see stingrays is Puerto de Vueltas at Valle Gran Rey.
Here rough tailed stingrays have learned to scavenge on fish scraps dropped off the harbour wall by local fishermen.
The size of a car bonnet and black as night, they are easy to spot flapping around the shallows.
Visit between June and August and you may see giant butterfly rays that gather in the calm shallows of the port beach to breed and give birth.
They glide around like tablecloths billowing in a breeze before settling to the seabed in a flurry of sand as they bury themselves.
Ongoing research in other parts of the Canary Islands has shown such breeding areas to be important for the survival of this endangered species; education about the rays has encouraged curiosity among locals and visitors alike.
By the end of August they vanish back to deep water only to return next season.
On a few occasions we were drawn to explore beyond the coast and either took a bus or hired a car for the steep ascent through the cloud forest to the top of the island.
The change from dry, hot coastal climate to the moist cool environs of the high forest is swift and striking.
Drive a matter of minutes up the road and you’ll be reaching for a sweater that you haven’t needed for months on the coast.
La Gomera is certainly an island of magical contrasts. Drop anchor, embrace the roll and immerse yourself in its rich, natural splendour.
Tips for cruising La Gomera
The best time to cruise La Gomera is from April to November.
Navily was a great resource for choosing anchorages.
Our favourites were: Playa de Chinguarime and Playa de Ereses on the south coast for their great freediving, sea cliffs, wild pebbly beaches and hiking trails.
Vueltas Bay is a popular anchorage beneath soaring volcanic cliffs with a friendly community of liveaboard sailors that come and go.
Access to Puerto de Vueltas is easy and a safe place to leave your tender at the harbour wall. You can berth alongside the harbour wall overnight for a fee; no power hook up. Water and fuel are available to anyone but you must pre-book with the harbour master.
From here, the town of Valle Gran Rey is a great place for grocery supplies, eating out, browsing tourist shops and swimming at the town beaches.
Hire a car or make use of the excellent bus service to access hiking trails and other parts of the island.
With just 335 berths, Marina La Gomera (www.marinalagomera.es) in the capital San Sebastián de La Gomera is small. Booking by phone (+34 922 141 769) is recommended as it has limited availability.
There is no marine supply store on La Gomera but there are good hardware shops in San Sebastián de La Gomera and Valle Gran Rey.
Another smaller port at Playa de Santiago on the south coast with no berths or facilities available. Anchor in the bay then tender to the harbour wall.
The wind acceleration zones are the main consideration when mentioning weather. This is where the wind squeezes and accelerates around and between the islands. On La Gomera they occur along the east and west coasts.
Marina La Gomera sits in the east coast zone making approach and departure interesting.
Publications & Charts for cruising La Gomera
Atlantic Islands by Anne Hammick FRIN, Hilary Keatinge, Linda Lane Thornton and Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation , 7th edition (Imray, £49.50)
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