In the mid-19th century Marbella was an important mining town. The first civilian blast furnaces in Spain were installed in the municipality and they produced 75 per cent of the country's cast iron. As a reminder of the intensive activity at the Peñoncillo Mine and all the infrastructure associated with it, we can still see the 'Torre del Cable' today; it is an old loading dock which used to be part of an aerial tramway that was built in 1957. This used towers and a monocable to move the iron from the mine over the N-340 highway, to the ships that could not enter the fishing port because of their size, so they could load it into their cargo holds.
Out of that network of towers, rails and other structures only the last one, the loading bay, is still standing now, and it has been affected by the passage of time, insufficient maintenance and even the effects of earthquakes which have occurred in the area.
Four years ago, the Spanish government decided to remove it on the basis that it could be dangerous, but campaigners using the slogan 'We are all the cable' successfully stopped those plans and Marbella council agreed to carry out urgent works to protect the remaining tower.
Four years on, this project finally has a date and funding and is expected to be carried out in June. The works will include cleaning, removing the existing paint, repainting, and removing any elements which have deteriorated to such an extent that they could pose a danger.
The upper part of the structure will also be given a facelift. This is the most famous part, the one which has become a symbol of the town and is often shown on posters, pictures and even pendants. It even had a cameo role in one of the Pili y Mili films, the stars of Spanish cinema in the 1960s.
But what condition are the base and the rest of the structure in? That question is being asked not only at the Town Hall - where they are waiting for authorisation so they can carry out the relevant survey - but also by groups of professionals and local residents who are well aware that the tower is not just historic but has also become environmentally important.
Adhering to the base, to the fragments which have gradually been falling down over the years and with two shipwrecks nearby, a highly valuable underwater ecosystem has been growing. There are species of animals and vegetation which could disappear if works are carried out on the submerged structure. Would it be preferable to protect them, instead of carrying out works to strengthen the base of the tower from which fragments are continuing to fall? How could they be protected? Would they be affected by the project which is about to begin on the upper section of the loading bay?
Most experts believe the most important thing is to maintain this ecosystem. "It has to be maintained. It is full of life," says Salvador Galdeano, the founder and an active member of the Official Underwater Research Centre in Marbella (COIS). "For me the Torre del Cable has both sentimental and ecological value. I have been diving in that area since I was 15 years old, and I'm over50 now," he says.
When asked about the condition of the underwater part of the structure, he had no doubts: "There is evident deterioration. During our most recent dives we have seen that more pieces have fallen off. So what should be done? Well, I believe they need to find some way to protect the ecosystem while maintaining the tower at the same time," he says.
The Marbella Fire Brigade has offered to carry out an inspection and any necessary preventive work without charging the council for it. This would have two aims: on one hand to preserve as much of the post as possible, and on the other the Fire Brigade's Underwater Unit could use the opportunity to dive in that area for training purposes.
Fire brigade proposal
The idea has has already been put to the Town Hall. "We could carry out inspections into the state of the ironwork, and also the condition of the seabed and the pipes in that area," says Manuel Lavigne. He knows that area well and a few years ago he produced a report about the condition of the tower after a strong earth tremor caused part of the concrete to give way.
Manuel is also keen for the posidonias to recover; these are a type of seagrass which has been gradually disappearing from the area after an infestation. He also believes the area has possibilities for tourism, something with which Salvador Galdeano agrees.
"Diving in the area close to Marbella doesn't reveal even half of the marine life, biological activity or beauty which this structure holds," says biologist Nora Cámara. Numerous species adhere to the base of the tower, such as mussels, and there are anemones on the lower levels.
"As we go down further, we start to see marine creatures with different biological requirements and their locations depend on their needs," she says.
Nora, who has been working for some time on a study of this ecosystem which adheres to the Torre del Cable (some details have already been released by the Marbella Activa Association) says there are three marine communities at the base of the post.
"There are those which need a high degree of insolation, such as seaweed, brightly-coloured sponges - it is living alongside the seaweed that gives them their colour - and those that hide from the light because they like gloomy conditions, such as the sponges and other dark-coloured invertebrates, red or brown seaweed; and there is also a mixed area, where species which are able to tolerate drastic changes in insolation coexist," she explains.
The old lifting crane which has been submerged for years has also become home to different species and, as Nora explains, "we have found Alcyonacea, a species of soft coral which needs colder, dynamic waters which are filled with plankton. All these species which adhere to the structure are called benthic and they create the biological substratum which is necessary for fish, crustaceans, octopuses, starfish etc to find shelter and food. In other words, they depend on what has adhered to the Torre. If the benthic species disappeared, those that depend on them would do the same."
All these professionals want a detailed study of this wealth of nature to be carried out before any action is taken, but they are aware of the difficulties involved.
"This isn't a case of rebuilding an inert wall in an inert street. We are talking about the sea, somewhere which is alive," says Nora.
"Maybe it will be necessary to take all the different aspects into account: the maintenance of the tower, the protection of the natural species and the possibilities of aquatic tourism in the area," adds Salvador Galdeano.
The future of the Torre del Cable is obviously still in doubt.