Remembering the Tragedy of the Valbanera – 100 years on

The Valbanera taking emigrants to the New World

100 years ago this week, a terrible accident occurred when the Valbanera, a steam ship taking migrants from Spain to the Americas, sank in a hurricane with the loss of nearly 500 lives, between Florida and it’s destination, Cuba.

The population of the Canaries were badly affected, as more than half of the passengers had boarded the Valbanera in either Las Palmas or Tenerife. Many families lost sons and daughters. The dreams of a new life in the Americas turned into despair for many in September 1919. It has been described as “Spain’s Titanic” .

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, and the Museo Elder in Las Palmas has held a series of events to remember the losses. Eduardo Vera, our lead diver and Instructor has been involved in some of these events, as he led a special expedition to the wreck in 1993.

The Tragedy of September 1919

The Valbanera was originally built in Glasgow in 1905 for the Pinillios line. It was 399 ft long and could carry nearly 1000 passenegers in 3 classes. By 1919 it had already crossed the Atlantic many times taking Spaniards to the New World.

It left Las Palmas in the middle of August 1919 and arrived at Santiago in the south-east of Cuba on the 6th September. When it arrived many of the passengers left ship, despite having paid to go to Havana. Some said that the conditions on board were very bad, some that the crossing had been rough, and more bad weather was forecast. These passengers continued the journey to Havana by land and escaped the mysterious tragedy that was about to happen.

Two days later the area was hit by an early hurricane, and during this frightening and uncontrolable storm , the Valbanera was blown onto the ‘Dry Tortugas’ shoals, near the Florida Keys, where it sank.

A major search was started as soon as the hurricane passed, but it took another ten days to locate the ship, which was found in an area of quicksands, 40 miles South of Key West, in water just 30 feet (10 metres) deep.

The ship was found with all the doors closed, all the windows and portholes shut, and all the lifeboats still on their davits. The Captain must have closed the ship down to weather the hurricane but in turn this trapped the estimated 488 passengers and crew inside. No survivors or bodies were ever found, so the final hours of the Valbanera will forever remain a mystery.

The Lucky Survivors

One group however did survive, and that was the group that left the boat in Santiago and made their way overland to Havana, or settled in the South of Cuba. Juan de la Gru Gonzalez Ponce was one of these. Born in 1899 in Gran Canaria he had already crossed the Atlantic once in 1915 when he was 16 years old, and had worked for two years cutting sugar cane on a farm. He decided to leave the ship in Santiago, and after the tragedy spent another four years working on the farms in Cuba. By 1921 he had saved enough money to return to Gran Canaria, and to buy a small Finca (farm) near Cardonnes in the Arucas district which grew bananas. Two years later he married, and they lived in this house and one in Las Pallmas till he passed away in 1980, one month before his 81st birthday. This was the story of Eduardo Vera’s Grandfather.

The Archaeological Expedition of 1996

In an attempt to find out more information about the wreck, and to verify the reports from seventy-three years earlier, the journalist Fernando J García persuaded the Archivo de los Indianos in Asturias to fund an expedition to the wreck.

Eduardo Vera was chosen as the lead Spanish diver as at that time he was one of the most respected divers in Gran Canaria, and had a personal connection with the wreck, as his grandfather was one of the group that left the wreck in Santiago, and made his way by land to Havana.

The group arrived in Key West, Florida in Febuary 1996, and carried out a series of dives on the Valbanera. Seventy-six years after the sinking, the ship had submerged into the sands, canting to the starboard side. They were able to confirm that the majority of the doors and port-holes were still closed, and spent about 8 hours over several dives exploring parts of the interior of the vessel. Diving in February it was during the coldest month for diving in that area.

Remembering the Valbanera.

This year has seen a series of commemorative acts based around the Museo Elder in Las Palmas, where the conditions inside the boat for emigrants have been recreated. Eduardo has been explaining how his team explored the remains of the Valbanera in 1996 and the conditions they encountered in several live events, and TV and press interviews. The exhibition runs till the end of this year. In addition a new book is due to be published in November which has all the details of this tragedy.

Historians always say that when you understand all the facts, we should see what we can learn from an event. Once again in 2019, a hurricane has taken the lives of many defenceless and poor people, only a few hundred miles from where the Valbanera lies today. One hundred years later the weather is still uncontrollable. People are still losing their lives as they are unable to get out of the path of a devastating storm, despite better prediction and monitoring.

And underlying the tragedy is another theme still on the agenda today … the trans-global migration of people trying to find a better life ‘somewhere else’. Is the fact that they bought tickets from a major shipping line so different from those who pay people smugglers today to follow new and more challenging migration routes?

This week Eduardo has been involved in several events and interviews related to the Centenary celebrations, including a TV Interview on TV Canarias. After that he will settle back into his normal rhythm, showing our guests at Davy Jones Diving his favourite dive site in Gran Canaria, the El Cabrón Marine Reserve.

Author – Brian Goldthorpe is a BSAC Advanced Instructor and a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer with ‘Elite’ status. He has been diving in the Canary Islands since 2002 where he runs a diving centre in Gran Canaria – Davy Jones Diving , where in between his Radio, TV and Press appearances Eduardo also shows guests around the El Cabrón Marine Reserve.

Night Diving Gran Canaria – Five Tips for Stellar Dives.

Are you thinking about trying the dark side on your next diving holiday? .. and going night diving! For some it seems a risk too far.. an extra complication to deal with, while for the converts it can produce magical dives, meetings with strange nocturnal creatures, and a feeling of having witnessed something privileged or secret. Night brings out secretive and sometimes strongly coloured creatures like the White-spotted octopus (Octopus macropus) and many species behave differently between night and day.

I have been leading night dives for our guests for the last sixteen years and some of my favourite underwater discoveries and encounters have been on these dives in Gran Canaria, so here are my tips to help you enjoy your night dives even more.

divers for night diving canary islands

Five tips to get the most out of your holiday night dive

It is very easy to have a great night dive on your holiday, by following some simple steps and discover the changes from day to night underwater. We find that first timers, photo-journalists and professional photographers always love the unique variety of marine life and colours they find when they dive at night in Gran Canaria with us. We have even put together a night dive simulator so that you can see how with a narrow beam of light you see clearly the many strange and amazing creatures who come out at night.

This article assumes that you are diving on holiday with a professional diving centre, live-aboard team or professional dive instructor, who will show you their special place where they do night dives. It also assumes that you have had some basic night drive training or experience already and want to improve your enjoyment and fun on further night dives.

Angel Shark night diving canary islands
Meet an angel shark on your night dive

Tip 1 – Follow your best practices and don’t change much

In your preparation and during the dive just do it by the book! All the simple things we learn, and then sometimes relax about, should be done tonight!

Start with a careful preparation of your kit, new or charged batteries in both your torches and any cameras, and listen carefully to the briefing, good buddy check before the dive, stay close to your buddy, be aware of where the leader, other divers are, and monitor your air regularly. No surprises there… and don’t introduce too many changes to your normal kit. A night dive is not the place to check out a new BCD and suit, or to experiment with your weight, buoyancy or trim.

Tip 2 – Follow the local procedures

Different training agencies and dive centres all have variations on a theme for minor standards, so always follow the local protocols carefully. To avoid confusion for night dives most dive centres use simple local rules and common standards as it can be slower to work out who is who underwater.

For example we have several simple protocols/guidelines – you should always store your spare torch in the left-hand BCD pocket so everyone knows how to help you find your spare. We have our standard procedure for diver separation, and as you cannot do air signals easily with one hand, some simple local procedures when checking air. Finally we have a couple of simple ‘standards’ at the end of the dive – don’t put anything down on the ground (put it in our vehicle) and we have one special place (a big yellow box) for any small items such as cameras, computers, masks, gloves and hoods – so nothing gets lost or left behind in the dark.

Tip 3 – Slow down .. and relax into the dive!

If you take your time moving along a reef, or a wall, or even across a patch of sand, you will see all the strange creatures that come out at night with names like Atlantic dancing shrimp, European locust lobster, or my favourite, the spotted bumblebee shrimp! Your heart rate will slow and you will use less air, and you will have a fantastic long slow dive!

White spotted octopus night diving canary islands
The White spotted octopus is only seen when night diving in the canary islands

Tip 4 -Set your camera up carefully to get great photos

If you take your camera, make a few changes before you get in the water. As most pictures are close-ups at night I take off my dome port (which is for wide-angle) and set the camera to macro mode, as well as increasing the ASA to capture more light. If you have a flash experiment with new settings to get the best combination of sharpness and depth of field.

When you are underwater take care not to ‘blind’ the fish (they loose their night-vision) by shining your torch directly in their eyes, and limit the number of flashes per subject for the same reason.

Before you get in the water work out an important factor for your camera … where the light comes from for the autofocus! Most small compact/action cameras usually get around the problem of focus in low light by using a focusing lamp.. but this is often obscured by the camera housing or too weak to be able to focus on anything more than 30cm away.

If you have a strobe with a modelling light then that can give light on your subject, or you can use a weak video lamp which provides a flat even light and gets overpowered when you fire the strobe.

night diving gran canaria - Canarian Lobsterette
Canarian Lobsterette is found at night or in deep caves

Tip 5 – Get that buoyancy control spot on!

If there is one key skill to master for your night dive it is relaxed buoyancy control. During the day it is usually very easy to see if you are moving up and down by reference to the sea-floor or walls or other visible objects. However at night these visual clues are less visible, and you don’t want to be floating up and away from your group as it can lead to separation.

Just make small changes to your buoyancy, and stick close to the bottom or any wall you are following, and of course keep close to your buddy and use him or her as a reference for where you should be in the water.

night diving gran canaria
Sand smelt reflect the diver’s torch

Brian Goldthorpe is a BSAC Advanced Instructor and a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer with ‘Elite’ status. He has been diving in the Canary Islands since 2002 where he runs a diving centre in Gran Canaria – Davy Jones Diving

Join the Vará de Pescao, Arinaga, in 2019

Vara de Pescao in Arinaga at the end of August each year

The ‘Vara de Pescao’ is the main event that happens in Arinaga at the end of August each year. It started many years ago as a celebration of the traditional fishing crafts in the town, but has now become one of the biggest parties on the island with up to 40,000 people joining the event.

The event happens on the last Friday of August each year, so this year (2019) it is on Friday 30th. There is an unofficial ‘dress code’ … the white shirt and blue jeans or trousers that the fishermen of Arinaga wore along with a straw hat! The literal translation is ‘the landing of the fish’.

It starts around mid afternoon with groups arriving in Arinaga, finding a place for a picnic, and by about 5.00pm the town is full of locals greeting each other and strolling around. At 6.00pm there is a ceremonial ‘landing of the sardines’ then at 7.00 a small procession of ‘boats’ make a procession along the Aveneida from Risco Verde, dispensing freshly cooked sardines.

Music at the Vara de PescaoThere will be people in local traditional dress, live music groups playing traditional songs, percussion groups pounding out their rhythmic beat and two DJ’s and a marching band. You get a real feel for the ‘community’ and may come across farmers with their animals as well as women carrying the fish in baskets on their head in the traditional style.

The finale is the firework display at about 11.15, over the bay of Arinaga. Be there a bit early to get a good place to watch. Because this is done over water you get a great view from anywhere along the promenade, and the show includes fireworks on the surface and spectacular reflections in the sea.

If you want to come and see the fiesta, then it is a ‘free’ event, but get here early to find a spot to park (follow the signs for local parking), and when you leave, expect to be breathalysed as the Guardia Civil impose a 100% testing policy! Remember .. blue trousers and white shirt to feel part of the event.

During the event, all the restaurants on the Aveneida close for normal meals and just offer a bar and take-away sandwiches. Away from the main areas you can still get food earlier in the evening. The first year that I lived here (2002), I was in the process of taking over my diving centre in Gran Canaria, and we found a small backstreet restaurant (Bar el Tomate), but every time they started the sound systems they blew the power for half the town and we had to have the meal by candlelight! Today the event is much better managed and power cuts are much less frequent here.

So don’t miss this once-a-year event where you can see our sleepy little town transform into the biggest party on Gran Canaria for just one day.

Can you keep SCUBA diving in the Canaries during a no-deal BREXIT?

Yes of course you can dive in the Canaries!  There is no reason to be worried about planning a diving holiday during the BREXIT uncertainty. 

Since the original exit date at the end March evaporated, the most likely outcome as we write(!) is a ‘dis-orderly departure’ of the United Kingdom from the EU, which will have almost no impact on the millions of holidaymakers who visit Spain from the UK every year.

For visitors to the Canary Islands from other parts of the EU we do not foresee any disruption, so these hints and tips are mainly for travellers from the United Kingdom .


Firstly, there seems to be a raft of ‘misinformation’ and scare stories, so I have tackled here some questions we have heard from guests who want to go diving in Gran Canaria. There are still many divers who want to come out from the UK to get a break, in the sun, especially in Autumn and Winter when most of the Mediterranean Resorts are closed.


Much of this advice is based on authoritative reports, but also on the experiences of customers during the ‘Ash Cloud’ crisis in 2010, when planes stopped flying.


I hope this will cut through the FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt), so you can travel happy and enjoy your diving in Gran Canaria and the other Canary Islands this year.

What happened during the Ash Cloud?

In April 2010, the eruption of a volcano in Iceland created the highest level of air traffic disruption since the second world war.  Many fears have been published that a ‘no-deal’ BREXIT could also leave pilots and planes without permission to fly, stranding British holidaymakers throughout Europe.

Relax and enjoy the sunshine if your flight is delayed


But when that happened in 2010, all the Tour Operators, such as TUI, Thomas Cook stepped up to the plate and arranged continued stays in hotels, and looked after their customers, taking some back home in chartered  cruise ships or by land.


So our first tip, is if you are worried about ‘being stranded’ by a sudden no-deal Brexit, book a package holiday with a major tour operator, in one of the bigger hotels.  They will then be there to help you and to make sure that any travel disruption is minimised, and at no extra cost.


And the ‘official position’ is that in March 2019 the EU and the UK agreed a reciprocal 12-month airspace access period in the event of no-deal, when “ for the 12-month period the UK intended to grant EU air carriers a level of access to the UK at least equivalent to the rights that would be granted to UK airlines under the EU’s regulation.“This includes traffic rights, ownership and control, leasing of aircraft, cooperative marketing arrangements and fair competition,” the transport department said.“. 


So even with a worst case of a no-deal BREXIT, UK flights will still come to the Canaries, and European carriers can still fly in and out of the UK.  

Do I need an International Diving Licence to dive after BREXIT?

Yes, this is in fact true … but you need one today, and you already have one!


The majority of recreational diving qualifications are NOT controlled by either the EU, or by national governments.  Your PADI, CMAS, NAUI or BSAC qualification has been issued by an independent body, and all have been approved as meeting the International Standard ISO 24801-2. 


We will accept any diver with a valid ISO qualification here to dive, in all cases (No-Brexit, No-Deal, transition period  or Smooth exit).  I am sure that other dive centres in Spain will be the same.
So our second tip is that if you are  worried that your PADI card does not specify this standard (or you have lost the card), then you can get a replacement card for about €45.00, or why not do that PADI Advanced or Speciality course you were thinking of, and get a new card which shows the ISO compatibility.

Can I still use my EHIC card for medical treatment during any transition period?

The answer here is more of a ‘yes and no’.  The European Health Insurance Card does cover basic medical costs when in Europe, but importantly, in Spain and some other countries it DOES NOT COVER HYPERBARIC TREATMENT.  In Spain the law requires all divers to have both diving medical insurance and ‘Responsibilidad Civil’, neither of which are covered by the EHIC card. 


Over the last few years I have seen more and more visitors travelling without any form of travel Insurance, and I have also heard about visitors who have had a (non-diving) accident, been treated free, but then had extra costs to pay for new flights or changes to hotels, all of which are normally covered by a good travel insurance policy.


Remember also that the EHIC card only covers treatment in the Spanish National Health service, where they do not always speak English, while if you have a travel insurance, you will be treated in a private clinic where there are more language experts.


So tip 3 is that both before and after any BREXIT, you should have a good travel Insurance policy, which covers diving, and in the event of any unfortunate accident such as a broken leg, you not only get good medical treatment, but great support from your insurer to get home without any extra problems.


Yes, I know insurance is boring and sensible, but there are plenty of good annual multi-trip policies available, including from diving specialists such as DAN and Divemaster Insurance, which will give you a comprehensive cover for a whole year at a good price.   If you just want to ‘top-up’ your cover for diving here we have daily, weekly ,monthly and annual policies available which cover any diving issues in Spain.

Summary

So to summarise my three tips, book a package of flight and hotel to somewhere familiar, where you have been before, and where the family will all feel comfortable. 
Check that you have your PADI card or equivalent before travelling, and double check that your travel insurance covers all the activities you want to enjoy on holiday, including Scuba Diving.
If you book your package to Gran Canaria (tip no 4?) then send me a message, let me know you are coming and I can arrange some dives in the El Cabrón Marine Reserve for you.