Portofino might be a high-flying town, but it offers British divers the chance to enjoy budget-priced diving getaways. It has also now welcomed back a greatly missed underwater icon - no, not Zac Macaulay, he just went along to watch
PORTOFINO, PLAYGROUND OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS. Dolce & Gabbana have a wonderful villa here, as does premier Silvio Berlusconi, and Madonna is apparently lunching here on Saturday. The place just needs Michael Caine sweeping through its streets in a Mini Cooper, leaning out of the window with his cheeky grin. After nightfall the young things parade in their designer outfits in front of huge gin palaces moored in the harbour. Picturesque restaurants entertain happy diners below poplar-tree lined roads that lead up to fabulously preserved historic villas. All this can be yours for the price of a dive-trip to Dorset, and it's only two hours' flight from the UK. But I was there to witness a one-off event in the Italian diving calendar, the re-sinking of the 'Christ of the Abyss'. This 10m-high statue, cast from anchors and war medals contributed by ships and servicemen from around the world, was to be sunk with great ceremony at the end of my stay. Meanwhile, I had asked to be shown the best diving Portofino had to offer. The European Dive Centre was my host. The well-equipped centre nestles just off one of the small beaches in Santa Margherita, in the heart of the Italian Riviera and next to the Marine Park at Portofino. Here Englishman Miles and Italian Antonio provide a nice blend of personalities. The European DC is happy to organise your entire break, and one option on offer is a long weekend's diving in Portofino while staying in Santa Margherita at the two-star Hotel Europa. The area from Santa Margherita east to Camogli is divided into three conservation zones, arranged so that zone C allows diving and other watersports while A permits little recreational activity at all. You are charged a small conservation levy on each dive.
My introduction to underwater Portofino was on a wreck called the Mohawk Deer, a Canadian freighter built in 1896. Its bad luck in sinking twice may be attributed to its breaking of the golden rule of ship-naming. She went down for the first time in 1915 as the Riverton, but was repaired and renamed. Her second and final sinking came in 1967, between Portofino and San Frutuoso. Mohawk Deer lies between 18 and 40m, close to the coast. I spent much of my time around the bow section at 25m, admiring her lines with my lens. You can descend deeper to the boilers, though this was a temptation I could resist, as the visibility was to prove a problem throughout my week in Portofino. However broken up, this is a good wreck on a grand scale. The next day seemed suitable for caves, rocks and swim-throughs. I was taken to Colombara where, at 15-20m, photographers especially can enjoy a visual feast, as there is so good scope for composing pictures among the natural rock shapes. Later we visited the Lion's Head site for a descent into shallow caves at about 8m, their ceilings carpeted in beautiful little yellow polyps. Once through these, we were told, there was a good chance of spotting Mediterranean grouper. We didn't. There were plenty of small fish on our dives - wrasse, goatfish and dentex bream - but advertised attractions such as the grouper, moray eels and octopuses eluded us. We dived from big RIBs with plenty of space to kit up, and rarely saw a boat-handler without that 'life is good' Italian grin, and a cigarette wedged in the corner of his mouth. I wanted to see the gorgonian fans and now-rare red coral I had been told were to be found at Secca dell'Isuela, on the western edge of Portofino's dive sites. Visibility was getting worse, but I was not disappointed. The corals suddenly appeared in incredible profusion at about 38m, seeming to cover an area the size of a football pitch. I set to work framing up my first shot, confident that the camera would perform as it has done for years, but it was not to be. My flash made a weedy attempt at working for one or two frames, then packed up altogether. Divers who don't sport cameras don't realise how fortunate they are. Luckily, we were able to come back that afternoon to dive it again. Next day was the big day, and seemed to have been pencilled into every Italian's diary. The Christ of the Abyss had originally been sculpted just after World War Two. Sunk to protect sailors and divers from harm, it became a Catholic icon all over the world. But a few years ago the Christ's outstretched hand was damaged by a wayward skipper's anchor, and it had taken some time to make good the damage. A very large boat took us to Genoa, where the Christ had been loaded onto a small naval frigate. TV crews and photographers grabbed final shots as the morning sun started to beat down. Our boat rapidly filled with marine biologists, ecologists, generals, politicians, old soldiers and local officials. Braiding, epaulettes and scrambled egg was appearing everywhere, and foccacia bread was distributed with barrels of Italian wine. As we steamed back east to San Fruttuoso, the small flotilla swelled to an armada of every type of craft imaginable. Horns tooted and the bunting was out. Deputy Prime Minister Fini was to be the first to dive on the renovated Christ. As pink rose petals were scattered over the waves, the statue's head disappeared beneath the surface - for the last time, we hoped. Some of the tightly packed officials were starting to look a little bilious, others perhaps looking forward to the buffet. But then, a most Italian thing happened. A small pleasure craft skippered by an attractive and crucially topless young lady motored in noisily among the throng of official boats, egged on by her male admirers. The security personnel stood like soldiers and smirked like Cheshire cats. It was a great finale.
Despite a two-week embargo for diving after the resinking, I was given special dispensation to visit the sunken Christ the next day. The statue's spiralling base starts at 18m and the tips of the fingers are at 8m, so it's well placed for a long look at a thing of beauty. The water above us was so crowded with swimmers and rowing boats that I feared the sun would be blotted out altogether, but in the event my buddy Maria and I enjoyed one of the most inspirational dives of our lives. The Christ is quite close to the cliff edge at San Fruttuoso and faces west, making for a very dramatic underwater view in the afternoon. We were lucky in having perfect sea conditions and no other divers around as we hung there. On surfacing we experienced mixed emotions of consternation and relief on encountering two large boats full of divers preparing to dive, heedless of the embargo. But nobody could take away our 40 minutes alone with the statue. Maria's father had been one of the eight Italian Navy Seals who had worked to set down the Christ exactly 50 years before. Hhe had been too sick to attend the ceremony, but when we surfaced, Maria called him on her mobile phone I could hear her father's cries of joy from the other side of the boat - his only child had helped to restore the Christ to where it belonged.
divers on the Mohawk Deer wreck
view of Portofino - cosmopolitan yet well-located for a cheap break!
Starfish at the Raviolo site
diver in the shallow caves at Lion's Head
the statue of the Christ is prepared to descend once again
gorgonian sea-fans at Secca dell'Isuela
GETTING THERE: Zac Macaulay flew to Portofino with Ryanair from London Stansted. DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: European Dive Centre (0039 0185 293017, www.europeandc.com), a PADI Gold Palm 5-star resort and Dive Instructor Centre, offers packages through London Scuba (07000 272822, www.londonscuba.com). Zac stayed in Santa Margherita at the Hotel Europa, a clean, air-conditioned two-star hotel WHEN TO GO:Summer COST: Flights vary depending on how early you book, but can generally be had for£20-?100 return. It's cheapest to book your own flights. Various diving and accommodation packages can be arranged but as a guide for a long weekend, a price of£190 covers transfers, three nights' B&B and a day's boat diving with two dives, tanks and weights. tourist information: 020 7408 1254, www.enit.it FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7408 1254, www.enit.it