Cyprus is well-known as a diving destination, but it's the busy southern part of the island that attracts the tourists and the attention. Mike Clark had already been there, but when he visited the Turkish-occupied north, he had cause to rethink his attitudes to diving in the Mediterranean
IT WAS THE FRAGRANCE OF WILD JASMINE, rather than the expected reek of aviation fuel, that first struck me as I left the plane at Ercan airport. I had arrived in the 'sweet land' and hoped the brisk wind that carried that wonderful scent would not hamper the diving too much. But as I drew the curtains next morning, I could see white breakers crashing onto the beach. So I spent my first day in northern Cyprus visiting the castles of St Hilarion and Kyrenia, where the world's oldest trading vessel is displayed in a shipwreck museum. St Hilarion is 720m above sea level, so not for visiting after a 40m-plus dive. The following morning there was no sign of a storm. The water was a clear deep blue and looked inviting. Soon, along with a few other UK divers, I was speeding across the oily calm surface in Amphora Diving's small RIB. All the centre's diving is within five minutes' ride of its base at Sunset Beach, a scenic spot where the Turkish army landed in 1974 when it invaded Cyprus and took over the north of the island. Zeyko, our first destination, is a reef system in around 25m of water, with large fingers of rock surrounded by sand and seagrass. Viz was around 15m. Soon I was looking at vivid red sponges in the overhangs at the base of the reef, along with peacock worms and the squirrelfish which have successfully invaded the eastern Mediterranean from the Red Sea via the Suez Canal.
Above the reef and over the sandflats, vast schools of damselfish flirted. These little fish were constantly harried by the dusky grouper which are common at the site. We watched as these normally solitary fish acted in unison to hunt the panic-stricken damsels. Red mullet were grouped in the sand, and European parrotfish meandered through the seagrass. Ending the dive back at the shotline, wonderful violet nudibranchs (Flabellina attinis) provided more colour before our attention was drawn to three small amberjack cruising the reef top. White Chapel, a newly found site, was slightly shallower than Zeyko at around 20m and offered similar marine life, including flighty grouper, but the reef was less interesting here. I decided to drop in at the training site back at Sunset Beach, a little island in around 5m of water. I enjoyed swimming along the gullies, with Brenton the guide pointing out all the juvenile grouper that frequent the site, and we decided to do a night dive here later.
Paradise was where the diving moved up a gear. At this reef, 42m can be obtained, but if you don't wish to dive that deep there are three ridges, the shallowest starting around 28m. On the seabed off the bottom reef, a couple of small caves were covered in orange soft corals and provided a home for the squirrelfish that enjoy the subdued light. Out of the cave, the viz was stunning and the boat could be seen clearly from the top of the reef. It was here, dropping onto the sandy sea floor at the beginning of the dive, that we saw the sun dancing on the scales of hundreds of little tunny, all around half a metre long. They raced around us for a few minutes, snapping at invisible particles in the water. It was a pelagic encounter on a scale I had never before experienced in the Mediterranean. When they had gone, Brenton's sharp eyes picked out a small sting ray. It took flight, rounded a rock and headed back towards me. It was 10m away when something very large caught my eye. A silver fish around 3m long was cruising some 20m away - we would later identify it as a bluefin tuna. After that encounter, the parade of grouper seemed insignificant until Brenton pointed out a 1.5m specimen holding station with its posse at the edge of the reef. One of its subordinates advanced to inspect us, and when this failed to halt our approach, the big guy flared his pectoral fins and opened a cavernous mouth. The 'get lost' message received, we held station as the big fish sauntered off.
With all this going on, the deco stops had mounted up big-time, so we started our ascent, using a delayed SMB as we had moved away from the shotline. Our stops flew by as that big school of little tunny swarmed around us once more. I was thinking about rewriting the book on the Med - it certainly wasn't dead here. Would there be life after Paradise? Yes, and it was getting better still. At Zephyros, in 30m of water, the flukes of a sizeable anchor are visible, the chain running along the base of a cliff which rises spectacularly some 10m off the seabed. The sea floor was visible from the surface, and the grouper could be seen ambushing schools of pretty blue blotched picarel. At the bottom, divers without a torch might swim off oblivious to the wonders of the site, but my lamp blazed the red, orange and yellow sponges and corals to life. Masses of squirrelfish filled the small cracks and recesses, but the bigger holes formed in the limestone walls were home to grouper and common drum. Further on, another large grouper was lying on the sea floor, digesting his dinner. Perhaps it is spearfishing that has made these grouper so wary, but I decided to get closer, hoping that this time my efforts would not be in vain. I was almost close enough to release the shutter when the dorsal fin became erect and the fish vanished in a flash.
I had been so engrossed that only then did I notice dive-guide Julie attracting my attention. She was pointing to where the other group, 10m away, were being buzzed by three 2m bluefin tuna, which eventually rose over the reef and disappeared. I was glad to have been distracted - the grouper shot could wait! The cliff at Zephyros leads to an adjoining dive-site known as the Wall, separated only by a wide, sandy gully. We treated this as a separate dive, and Julie and I hit the top of the reef slightly before the other group. While we waited for them, we watched fascinated as grouper used stealth, teamwork and guile to scatter the schools of smaller fish and snap up the damsels or picarel. Then, suddenly, even the larger grouper dived for cover. The reason was the lightning intervention of two greater amberjack, and now the small fish were really in trouble. The school was sent panicking in all directions and the big fish left chomping on their latest meal. The other divers were still on their way down.
We dropped over the reef and 10m down to the sea floor, sunlight dancing off the cliff. The subdued hues of the soft corals and sponges and the shimmering fish flirting along the reef edge made a stunning spectacle. I could see the boat clearly, 33m above. I noticed the brown and white splodges of 5cm-long nudibranchs (Discodoris atrimaculata) and stopped to snap them. That's when I heard Brenton sounding his underwater buzzer from 15m away. He was signalling frantically as three 1.5m greater amberjack swam within a metre of me, looking me in the eye. Their bodies were silver apart from a broad black stripe running diagonally over the eye, giving them a menacing aspect. It was time to ascend the shotline, but we were able to continue watching the struggle for life below as 15 minutes of stops passed by. That night, as I sipped at my Turkish beer and sampled what seemed to be the 20th dish of my mese banquet, I wondered if the diving could get much better.
We visited the Kyrenia shipwreck site, aware that most of the ancient wreckage now lay preserved in Kyrenia Castle. Fred's Reef was only150m away and Asim, who owns Amphora Diving, had placed a line onto the wreck site, so diving both in one go was straightforward. The 4th century BC ship is known to have sunk around 80 years after the vessel was built. Scientists have carbon-dated the wood of the wreck and the almonds among the cargo and calculated the time difference. It's the oldest cargo vessel ever found but the site will probably take up no more than 10 minutes of your time unless you are an avid archaeologist. Depth is 30m. The large basket used for raising artefacts was there and shards of broken amphora could be seen among the sea-grass. The main feature was the 12m-wide depression in the sea-floor where the wreck had rested all that time. A series of smaller holes marked where the amphorae had lain in neat rows. Two minutes' away is Fred's Reef. Masses of grouper came to greet us, as this is the only fish-feeding site in the area. Fred was a very large resident who has since disappeared to be replaced by a descendant, also sizeable. The dive guides fed them bread, and soon swarms of fish surrounded us, including goldblotch grouper and two-banded bream. This reef gets shallower all the time, so we were able to enjoy around 30 minutes on it before decompression became an issue. After dark, it was time to return to the little Sunset Beach site. My head was under water only for a few seconds when I noticed a yellow and mauve locust lobster, and descending on the far side of the reef into no more than 5m, generally only 3m, we found cuttlefish, squid and juvenile moray eels. A juvenile barracuda went berserk in the torchlight, snapping at my macro-framers. Red mullet took it easy, and as I spotted my first scorpionfish of the trip, a lumbering translucent shrimp about 30cm long came into view. We bumped into another group of divers and soon found out why their attention- seeking devices had been sounding off - they had found four octopuses and a flying gurnard. We saw a couple of white-spotted octopuses on our way back in, one displaying vivid neon-green spots.
For my last dive in North Cyprus I abandoned scuba gear to snorkel in shallow water without disturbing the feeding green turtles. Nobody knows why they are found here but you can watch as they take in mouthfuls of sand, which they eject through their nostrils and chomp on the sea-grass roots they have extracted. I spent two hours with these magnificent creatures, the largest of which was just over 1m long, though they do grow much larger. There are few places in the world where you can almost guarantee diving with turtles. Green turtles lay their eggs from June to July, so it's also worth visiting Alagadi beach after dark to see if any are nesting there. Students from Glasgow University are doing a great job there to preserve this endangered species. North Cyprus is uncommercialised - you won't find rows of souvenir shops or diversions for kids. And you can't visit the south of the island because that is the Greek sector. But you can visit the castles or the peaceful Bellapais Abbey, and Salimis and Famagusta make an excellent day-trip.
North Cyprus had exceeded my wildest dreams, and altered my jaundiced views on the state of diving in the Mediterranean. Political divisions aside, where heavy development has not taken place, as is the case here, the clear waters give you a chance to see marine life that is big, rare or just plain different.
Two marauding greater amberjack
sponges on a wall
the squirrelfish which have moved from the Red Sea to the Med
broken amphorae lie the in sea-grass
grouper at Fred's Reef
a European parrotfish
This is a good place to observe green sea turtles
GETTING THEREFlights to Ercan airport. A 45-minute stopover in Turkey makes flying time similar to that of Red Sea resorts. DIVING: IAH Holidays (see below) offers packages which include diving with Amphora Diving at Sunset Beach. ACCOMMODATION:Mike Clark stayed at the Top Set Hotel, which has a seafront location, though it is nearly 2 miles from Sunset Beach and 3 miles from the harbour town of Kyrenia. Car hire is suggested for divers. WHEN TO GO:The season runs from the start of April to the end of October, with average water temperatures of 24?C, but the dive centre is open from the start of the year. CURRENCY:Turkish lira. Credit cards can be used in larger shops and hotels. There are cash machines in Kyrenia. COST:A package including flights, transfers, accommodation and a 10-dive package costs£735-?865 for a week in mid-season. FURTHER INFORMATION:Mike Clark's trip was arranged by IAH (Interest and Activity Holidays), 020 8251 0208, www.scubaholiday.co.uk. Also try www.north-cyprus.com