If you visit a Greek island like Lesvos, you may have to accept that diving comes a poor second to fishing, says Zac Macaulay. Still, there's more to life than fish!
THE BIGGEST GREEK ISLAND in the north-eastern Aegean, Lesvos is a delightful picture-book sort of place. Its beaches are fringed with charming restaurants that send the scent of barbecued lamb wafting over the countryside. Its buildings are traditional, its alleyways narrow and its Orthodox churches admit visitors only if their legs are covered and their T-shirts respectful. It also offers a line, as you might imagine, in women-only holidays. I remembered the island from when I knew it as Lesbos, when I was 18 and inter-railing with my first girlfriend. Happy days. The chilled nature of the Lesvians was reflected in the way in which my diving visit began. On day one I should of course have been diving but, because of some misunderstanding that was never explained, I ended up spending it on a sun-lounger, topping up my tan. However, as is the way with diving, the mood then suddenly shifted from relaxed to blood-vessel-bursting exertion. I travelled south from Petra to the capital Mytilene, to be introduced to George Filious, owner of Lesvos Scuba Oceanic Centre, the island's only dive centre. With the first day of the week lost, I needed impact, so we headed out on George's speedy RIB Calypso II. Our targets were two underwater caves, Agios Vassileios and Fara-Tarti, both lying to the south-east of the island. Thirty-seven metres beneath a dead-calm sea, we entered Agios Vassileios. The depth precluded a long bottom time, but the cave was handsome enough to offer this photographer a Kodak moment. Fara-Tarti was more readily accessible. It lay in 20m a short distance away, a perfectly formed chamber inside a miniature island - just the place for a Bond villain to hole up. My initial impression of the underwater scene in Lesvos was that there was not a lot of life to see. We had expressed the concern that this might be the case when divEr was first invited to report on Lesvos, but had been assured that we had nothing to worry about. Now my hosts told a rather different story, putting the lack of life down to overfishing. However, as the week went on, I did find that some dive sites were rather better than others.
FOR OUR NEXT OUTING we glided towards the Greek-Turkish divide, a few miles north-east of Mytilene, on Calypso, George's new and immaculately kept cruiser. On the boat's last visit to this site it had been boarded by a Turkish naval vessel. The Greeks and the Turks don't exactly get on, and the Turkish coastline was clearly visible from our dive site. But today we were left alone to descend onto the wreck of the Korakas, a small cargo vessel and a victim of World War Two. It lies in 30m, resting at 35? to port and rising to about 20m, so makes for an easy dive. The Korakas is only about 20m long, and mostly intact. The wheelhouse is just a series of struts and uprights but looks good and is easy to swim through. The bow and stern are both impressive. Swim over the top and you can see right into the cargo bay. A fair number of fish do hang around the wreck.
UNTIL A YEAR OR TWO AGO, the Greek government strictly limited diving, with the intention of preserving any antiquities on the seabed, but with the ban now lifted there are plenty of dive sites around Lesvos yet to be discovered. George says he is finding new ones all the time. Lamna Reef, near the Korakas, he described to me as the possible site of an ancient city. He got me excited when he mentioned the 'A' word - Atlantis. The strip of seabed between Lesvos and Turkey was once thought to have been land, encouraging tales of lost cities. All of which got the juices flowing and made me eager to get in the water. Once down I could see monster slabs of stone with flat edges, which my guide insisted could have been fashioned only by man. The ancient-city theorists may have a point, and perhaps the slabs were primitive building blocks. Look at the pictures and decide for yourself. More tangibly littered on the seabed were amphoras of all sizes, the cargo from ancient vessels. I also saw a massive anchor here. The week passed quickly. George, to his credit, is taking an active part in trying to create a series of marine parks to counter the effects of overfishing, but the frequent scarcity of marine life was always a touchy subject. The next two dive sites, for example, were Agios Vasileios, a small reef around one of the intended aquatic parks, and Mersinia Island, both south of Mytilene. Both were pretty well devoid of fish, apart from one large, friendly moray eel. These were frustrating dives. All I could see of my buddy from the dive centre at best were his fins in the distance. Either he was desperately looking for signs of life or, realising that I was unimpressed, was giving me the underwater cold shoulder. I felt a barrier growing between us. On one day I was told that the weather would preclude diving, though when I insisted we went ahead we encountered nothing worse than a mild chop. And a suggested trip to another wreck where I might get better pictures was dismissed, as George tried to fit in other paying divers on the last few days of his season.
MUCH OF MY TIME WAS SPENT SHUTTLING on the two-hour road journey between Lesvos Scuba's two bases, in Petra and Mytilene. And as it happened there was a bit of a treat to come - a trip up to Petra and Fegameni Reef. Here impressive pinnacles jutted up like mini-skyscrapers, and amid this wonderful morphology and at Petra Island I finally found more species of fish than I had seen on all my previous dives put together. Damselfish, anthias, rainbow wrasse and even grouper were to be found among the towers, and with dozens of amphoras on view this excursion was the most memorable. It would have made a better finale to the trip, because as we waited to dive on our last day, in a lovely little bay near Petra, there were fish all right - but we could see them being scooped into a fishing-boat only a few hundred metres from where I was supposed to be photographing them! Topside, beautiful - Lesvos has atmosphere, views, rustic charm and great food. But until at least some of its sites are protected, don't go under water expecting to see teeming shoals of fish. What you will find is a rugged seascape with its own Greek charm, all antiquities and artefacts present and correct.
At the Agios Vassileios caves.
Large anchor at Lamna Reef.
Stone slab at Lamna - the work of the ancients?
moray eel in the Fara-Tarti cave
GETTING THERE: Zac Macaulay flew direct from London Gatwick to Mytilene with Monarch Airlines. DIVING: Lesvos Scuba Oceanic Centre, www.lesvoscuba.gr ACCOMMODATION: Zac stayed at the Marina Apartments in Petra and the Orfeas Hotel, Mytilene, www.orfeas-hotel.com. MONEY: Euro PRICES: Flights and self-catering accommodation start from £495 in low-season, or 3* hotel B&B from £632. A two-boat dive day with Lesvos Scuba costs from 50 euros. FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7495 9300, www.gnto.gr