Today we explore the history of the Columbretes Islands. In facto, one of the most demanded spots for our diving liveaboard in Spain. From legends of pirates and smugglers to the paradise of scuba diving in the Mediterranean that the marine reserve represents today.
Firstly, it is known that the Greeks discovered the archipelago and named it Ophiusa. Later, the Romans baptized it with the name of Colubraria, and even the Iberians by Moncolobrer (Mount of snakes). The common reason for these names is the reptile that inhabited the islets: the snake, the first great conqueror of the archipelago of the Columbretes Islands.
Over time, snakes coexisted with pirates (who used the island as safe haven) and with whom they lived in harmony for a long time. The protection offered by the islets and the easy watch offered by the highest point of the archipelago, made out of Columbretes Islands an ideal base for pirates and smugglers.
Once converted into a smugglers’ refuge in 1423, Alfonso El Magnánimo granted the Columbretes Islands to Dionisio de Odena. However, he rejected them when attempting to carry out a military detachment, due to the high cost of the project.
Later in time, in 1855, a place was provided to house the workers in charge of the construction of the lighthouse. Although in 1857 the lighthouse was turned on for the first time, the works weren’t completed until 1860.
On the other hand, the archipelago presented difficulties of habitability because of the large population of snakes and scorpions that had colonized the islets. As a solution, it was decided to use prisoners who began a disproportionate hunting of these animals. At the same time, hens and pigs were introduced to kill them. Finally, in the fight to eradicate the snakes, it was decided to carry out the burning of all the vegetation on the island, which finally was “successful” and the archipelago remained free of these reptiles since 1960.
Soon after, four families began to inhabit the largest of the islets (Columbrete Grande or Illa Grossa) in order to attend the lighthouse. However, little by little the population was reduced until only two people were necessary to carry out the maintenance of the lighthouse.
The lighthouse keepers had to work on shifts of 3 consecutive months in Columbretes Islands. As a result, they endured an austere life and dedicating themselves to agriculture and livestock to survive. At the same time they carried out data collection, allowing the first studies of the archipelago. The inhabitants of Columbretes Islands received help and equipment by boat from the mainland. They were supplied with provisions every 15 days, as long as the weather permitted it. Although we might think it was an easy life, the truth is that it was not. Everything was very rationed and the shadow of losing all the cargo due to wrecks threatened at times.
In 1955, the City Council of Castellón achieved to obtain the jurisdiction of Columbretes Islands.
As a result, Columbretes Islands began to get known. Although not always for good, as devastating practices for their environment started to be common. For instance, indiscriminate fishing, coral harvest, seabed exploitation or birds and rabbits hunting on a massive scale. As icing on the cake, Columbretes Islands were used as military training ground by Spanish and American air forces.
Nowadays, we can find on its seabeds sunken projectiles. In addition, we can also see them at the surface, embedded in the rocky walls and cliffs. The lighthouse keepers of the time reported that even part of Bergantin Islet came off, causing a significant reduction of its size.
All these abuses in Columbretes Islands aroused a necessary environmental awareness.
In 1988, the Valencia Government declared them Natural Park. Shortly afterwards, in 1990, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food establishes the Marine Reserve of 4,400 hectares. In 1994, the Columbretes Islands are set as a Nature Reserve. Today, they are considered as part of the Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI’s), Site of Community Importance (SCI), Special Protection Area for Birds (SPA) and Micro flora reserve.
Little by little, Columbretes Islands are recovering their ecological and biological splendor, becoming an environmental reference area.
All in all, the archipelago comprises impressives seabeds and great geological richness (worthy of a well taken care volcanic archipelago). In addition, we can enjoy the flight of native and migratory birds, as well as unique vegetation. After all, this is what happens in such isolated places like the Columbretes Islands.
Skippered sailboat trips to Columbretes Islands: