A local resident called emergency services after spotting what he thought was a man's body in the sea.
But firefighters who were called out could do nothing because their specialist maritime unit was disbanded years ago and they did not have the required resources or personnel. The incident occurred around midday on Thursday at La Malagueta beach in Malaga.
Red Cross volunteers eventually recovered the unnamed man's body from the water, opposite a luxury hotel which used to house Malaga’s law courts.
He was already dead when they reached him and his body was taken to Malaga’s port so it could be transferred to the city’s Forensic Medicine Institute for a post-mortem.
No personal details are expected to be released until the man’s next-of-kin have been informed.
He is believed to have been alone when he went into the water.
Eyewitnesses told police that the man had been walking on the breakwater for a while but they then lost sight of him.
Police have launched a routine inquiry and will pass their findings on to a local judge, although there is nothing at this stage to suggest any foul play.
The beach where the tragedy occurred is a short drive west of the spot where British holidaymaker Reece Morris, 40, from Walthamstow, north-east London, died a hero last August trying to save his 10-year-old daughter when they got into difficulties.
The tragedy happened in front of the dead man’s wife and other daughter aged five at El Penoncillo Beach in Torrox on the eastern Costa del Sol.