A Liquid World of Surprising Colors: Snorkeling Catalonia’s Costa Brava

11 Feb A Liquid World of Surprising Colors: Snorkeling Catalonia’s Costa Brava

A slice of the coastline of Sa Tuna Bay in Costa Brava, northern Catalonia. ©Beebe Bahrami

A flash of neon blue with bright yellow streaks strafed past, and then disappeared into the subterranean cave. With it I went, so enthralled in my pursuit of the bejeweled, oval-shaped damselfish that I didn’t see it coming: A serpent-like creature with yellow-brown disks for eyes suddenly shot out from the cavern wall. Its gaping, beak-shaped jaw—set with rows of needle sharp teeth—flashed near my mask as it lunged toward me.

I gasped, just catching myself from swallowing the seawater that rushed into my breathing tube. The creature boomeranged back into the rocky tunnel from where it had come, but its yellow eyes stayed on me, unblinking and unnerving.

I pulled my head above water and back-paddled swiftly out of the cave and into the dazzling blue of the Mediterranean sea and sky. Conger eels—like the one I had just come face to face with—dine on fish, octopus, mollusks, and sometimes even scavenge for carcasses. They do not dine on humans, thankfully, but I still resolved to avoid that particular spot of the cave.

I drained the water from the tube and refitted my mask. I had to go back under: I was under the spell of the jewel-toned fish, the way my body felt with the fins, and that liquid world of surprising colors.

But just as I was about to slip back under, I heard my name. Looking back toward the small, scallop-shaped beach, I could see my two friends standing onshore. They looked hungry.

We were enjoying an escape from Barcelona’s urban congestion and had driven north to the fishtail-shaped Sa Tuna Bay of Costa Brava in northern Catalonia. Our Catalan friends had suggested a seaside lunch in a rural restaurant that promised the Catalan classic, fideua con almejas, a saffron-garlic noodle paella with clams.

Sa Tuna is a hamlet set at the base of a steep descent to the Mediterranean shore. We had to park our car at the top and descend through jagged hills, dense with cork oak and stone pine—trees that cling with their roots like geckos to the vertical face of the rocks. The final approach to the beach was like walking through a funnel in reverse, the narrow end widening to the mouth, where the beach opened to craggy coastline and subterranean caves.

Considering the effort it required to get there, I was surprised at how crowded the beach was. Nearly every inch of its pebbled surface was covered in beach towels and sun-bathers, half the women tanning topless, with no intention of getting wet. My friends spread their towels out to join the sun worship, but I slipped on my fins, picked up my snorkel gear, and picked my way between towels to the water’s edge, as gracefully as was possible in duck feet.

In a one-piece swimsuit and fins, I was definitely overdressed. I waddled awkwardly to the water, placed my mask, set my mouthpiece and tube, and waded in.

Sa Tuna Bay, Spain. ©Beebe Bahrami

My last vision of Sa Tuna hamlet before I took the plunge was of houses huddled against a rock slope above the fishing boats moored near the beach. The houses had rich terracotta roofs and stucco walls painted either salmon orange, cotton candy pink, lemon meringue, or sky blue, all wrapped in the dark green of the oaks and pines. But the scene was pale compared to the seductive explosion of color I found below the dark blue sea.

When I went under, all my clumsiness dissolved. I propelled myself forward in mermaid fashion, becoming more and more graceful the farther I swam from the land-bound bipeds.

I followed the seafloor and saw an orange-red starfish slipping across a rock, beside yellow-green cylinders of gold sponge. The more I paddled, the more wonders revealed themselves: I saw bright red coral, then pale, ethereal algae catching the dappled light from above; I spied vanilla and orange-sherbet stripes of fluttering red scorpion fish.

Yellow-cream striated sea bream swished past, turning in synchronized motion, and disappeared into the deep green distance. A yellow, long-snouted seahorse stopped to investigate, regarding me with big eyes while looking as though he were pedaling a unicycle or dancing the flamenco.

I was addicted; I followed the underwater edge of the rocky shore, moving away from the bay and out toward the sea, seeking color and life in every turn, until, with a flash of an eel’s teeth, life and color came to me.

As I caught my breath back out in the bay, I only felt hungry for more liquid color, more of this underwater life, more of staying in and growing gills. But my friends were already ordering cold beers at the beachside bar. I made my way back to shore.

With my returning land-dweller’s nose, I picked up the scent of frying garlic wafting over the beach from the kitchen. I stepped back onto the pebble beach feeling electric and light. As I made my way to my friends and to lunch, I no longer cared about the difference in my attire. And luckily, my appetite was back. I just made sure not to order eel.


Mediterranean jewel-toned and garlic-laced adventures:

Backroads to the Pyrenees and Costa Brava, Costa Brava and Provence, Spain, France, and Europe at Large

Lindblad Europe and the Mediterranean

Natural Habitat Adventures and O.A.R.S to Croatia and Montenegro


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Beebe Bahrami
Beebe Bahrami is an award-winning writer and cultural anthropologist who writes about travel, food, and wine, outdoors and adventure, archaeology, spiritual, and cross-cultural topics. She has lived and traveled in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and North America. Her work appears in Wine Enthusiast, Archaeology, The Bark, Michelin Green Guides, National Geographic books, the Pennsylvania Gazette, The Best Women's Travel Writing, Transitions Abroad, Perceptive Traveler, and Expedition, among others; she writes extensively on the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago in France, Portugal, and Spain. In addition to two travel books on Spain, The Spiritual Traveler Spain and Historic Walking Guide Madrid, she has two forthcoming travel narratives on the life, lore, adventures, and prehistory of southwestern France: Café Oc (Shanti Arts Publishing, winter 2016) and Café Neandertal (Counterpoint Press, spring 2017). She earned her PhD in cultural anthropology and her BA in molecular biology and liberal arts and draws often on these fields in her writing. An avid hiker born in Colorado, a surfer now based in part in New Jersey and in part in southwestern France, an addicted trekker, and a nut for learning other languages, she loves bringing engaging and unexpected local information into her writing toward better understanding a place and its people.
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