Stuart Forster reports on the experience of learning scuba diving in Portugal.
I learnt scuba diving in Portugal with Haliotis, a PADI-affiliated dive centre with a base in the fishing port of Peniche. If you’re looking for scuba diving near Lisbon it’s worth noting that this dive centre, dive shop and diving school is around 90 kilometres from the Portuguese capital.
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The staff at Halitios impressed me with their passion for what they do. The instructors that led the classroom sessions and then took me out on the water were, as you’d expect, experienced divers and competent instructors.
The team is multilingual. Haliotis offers scuba diving courses in English, German and French plus, of course, Portuguese. Learning the basics of scuba diving in Peniche proved straightforward and enjoyable. Thanks to the lucid explanations and support offered by the Haliotis team I had no problems qualifying as a PADI Open Water Diver.
Scuba diving in Portugal
Haliotis offers beginners the chance to undertake an intensive PADI Open Water Diver course. It’s four days long, meaning it’s possible to travel for a week’s holiday from abroad and still have a couple of days to relax. There’s also an option to split the course over two weekends. That was my choice as it gave me more time to read about and digest the theoretical aspects of diving.
Linguistically, it was no problem to learn to dive in Portugal and PADI qualifications are recognised globally. In addition to going home as a PADI Open Water Diver, I had the bonus of learning that the Portuguese word for diving is mergulho, a word that makes me think of the sound of air bubbling to the water’s surface.
Peniche is a popular holiday destination, thanks largely to its pleasant climate, long hours of sunshine and sandy beaches. The area is popular with surfers. Along with Ericeira, which lies further southward, Peniche is regarded as one of Portugal’s top surfing locations.
Water with good visibility
Diving in seawater off the Berlegas means learning in waters with good visibility. It also means being able to enjoy the sunshine on the surface. Not being too far from home makes this a viable alternative to learning in a swimming pool in the United Kingdom. .
Peniche’s old town has a sixteenth-century fortress and, seemingly, more fish restaurants than Portugal has recipes for preparing cod, which is known as bacalhau in Portuguese. The town is an attractive place to relax on evenings. None of the local barkeepers disturb foreign visitors poring over PADI manuals while nursing a glass of wine, so learning here can be combined with an energising short break.
Diving at the Berlengas Islands
My first open water dive took place just off Belengas archipelago in the water of the Atlantic Ocean. The Berlengas Islands lie approximately 10 kilometres off the Portuguese mainland and are the location of some of the best scuba diving in Portugal.
From Peniche, the boat journey over to the largest of the Berlengas, Berlenga Grande, takes about half an hour. Haliotis operates rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) for journeys out to sea from Peniche. The journey over to the largest of the islands, Berlenga Grande, takes half an hour. It’s thrilling to bounce across the surface of the open looking back at the cliffs of Portugal’s coastline.
During the summer season, boats from Haliotis Dive Center Peniche cross to the Berlengas every day. Lunch is usually taken overlooking the Fort of São João Baptista, the fortress known in Portuguese as the Forte de São João Baptista. The fortification dates from 1502 and has reputedly fought off numerous attacks from pirates and marauding privateers, including an attack by British seadogs. As I sat chewing my sandwich, the old fortress struck me as the kind of location that would be ideal for filming something like The Man in the Iron Mask.
Visiting the Berlengas Islands
Planning on learning to dive during a holiday in Portugal? If one or more of the people you’re travelling with will not be participating in the course but don’t mind taking to the sea, you could recommend that they take a boat trip out to the Berlegas.
The pause between the morning and afternoon sessions provides a little bit of time to observe the seabirds that nest on the rugged islands. In 2011 UNESCO declared the Berlengas a biosphere reserve. A maximum of 550 people can visit the archipelago on any given day.
While diving off the Berlegas you may well spot the silvery insides of upturned haliotis shells reflecting sunlight reaching the ocean floor. The ear-shaped shells are commonly known as ormers or abalones in English. The Haliotis Dive Center is named after the shells.
The sea temperature at Peniche
The average temperature of the Atlantic Ocean at Peniche remains above 17°C (63°F) from June to October.
A 7-millimetre neoprene wetsuit suit is adequate for the temperature of the Atlantic water here during the summer season.
Diving in the Berlegas Islands in winter
Subject to weather and sea conditions being acceptable, Haliotis operates diving excursions to the Berlengas Islands on winter weekends. Trips can be arranged by agreement on weekdays.
In case you were wondering, haliotis is a type of abalone (not a mouth infection, as one of my mates incorrectly suspected). The haliotis form beautifully curved shells, inlaid with mother of pearl, and are sometimes referred to as sea ears. Sometimes you can see haliotis shells shimmering on the seabed around the Berlenga Islands.
Getting to the Haliotis Dive Center Peniche
Peniche is a little under 90 kilometres northwest of Lisbon.
Thinking about how to get to Peniche from Lisbon? If you hire a car, you can drive between the two cities in less than 90 minutes. Subject to traffic, the quickest option is to head north out of Lisbon on the A8 and then turn west along the IP6. Travelling on the A1/E1 then the A15 and IP6 adds a few minutes onto the journey but means avoiding highway tolls.
Don’t like the idea of driving in Portugal? Coaches to Peniche depart from Lisbon’s Sete Rios bus station. The journey takes around 95 minutes on the Rede Expressos service.
The map below shows the location of the Haliotis Dive Center (Casal Ponte, 2525-376 Atouguia da Baleia, Peniche; tel. +33 351 262 781 160):
Accommodation in and around Peniche
It makes sense to book accommodation in advance during the high season. August is the Portuguese holiday season and coastal resorts can prove busy. There is ample accommodation in and around the town if you’re planning on visiting out of season.
Visit Booking.com to search for a hotel room in Peniche:
If scuba diving in Portugal appeals, visit the Haliotis website for information about PADI scuba diving courses.
Learn more about the Berlenga Islands on the Peniche municipal website. For ideas about what to see and do while visiting the area, take a look at the Visit Portugal website.
Diving images were supplied courtesy of Haliotis. Images of the Berlengas Islands are by Why Eye Photography.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. He lived for two years in Lisbon, Portugal’s capital city. You can find several posts about Portugal on the Go Eat Do website. If you’re thinking about combining learning to scuba dive with a holiday why not factor in 48 hours in Lisbon at the start or end of your trip.
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A version of this post was initially published on 22 February 2014.