Wild wonders of the Mediterranean
ABOVE BONIFACIO in southern Corsica, on the exposed coastal path, the wind nearly strips me of my T-shirt and tries to buffet me off my feet, as I gaze out at the 3m waves and white horses. Just as well we werent expecting to dive today!
I had just arrived, with my husband and dive buddy Brian, on a one-week mission for Wild Wonders of Europe, to photograph the big dusky groupers that are one of the most impressive sights of the Mediterranean.
The next afternoon we cross to the Lavezzi Islands on our liveaboard Galiote, and drop into the water at last. Günther, captain of the Galiote for 28 years, knows we will see some dusky groupers in this calm bay.
I have dived around the world, but this is my first time in the Mediterranean, and the whole trip is a big adventure. We swim slowly over the bed of seagrass and round the rocks, and for a while my heart sinks, because I see nothing else.
Then our hopes are raised. We spy a grouper in a crevice between some boulders. Then another appears. They are a little timid at first, but soon seem to take an interest, and follow us.
They are large, a good 60cm long, and heavy-bodied, so my choice of a wide-angle lens works well. The Galiote has moved into the next bay as we dive, and most of the divers swim round to end their dive at the boat.
Photographers are not like ordinary divers, however. We stay in one spot for ages, especially if the subjects are co-operative and the shots are going well. So when we surface we have not reached the bay, and cant see the boat. An uncomfortable start! Eventually Günther picks us up.
MOST OF THE OTHER DIVERS on board and the crew are German. They are a friendly group, which is just as well, as we are living at close quarters for the week. The Galiote takes 12 guests and we all share the shower (in turn, I mean).
We have the largest cabin with a double bed, and an ensuite toilet, which makes for some interesting moments as the others pop in to use it now and then. It also doubles as the wine store!
The two smallest cabins are crawl-ins. In the small galley, Rü the chef prepares delicious meals, even baking special gluten-free bread and pizza for me (I am coeliac), after the rolls I attempted to make turned out like golf balls.
Bottles of wine appear on the table for lunch (the alcohol-no-diving rule is obviously not the Continental way of things), but Brian and I save ourselves for the pre-dinner aperitif session, when every conceivable kind of liquor appears on the groaning table on deck.
AT PERDUTO WE HOPE TO SEE barracuda, and by luck we head to the spot on the reef where they are, in the only still patch of water.
All around are raging currents, and we use a lot of air struggling to get along the reef. I scrape my fingers clutching the rocks to stop myself being swept away. The other serious photographer on board decided not to take his camera on this dive because of the current.
For me, a dive without my camera is unimaginable, even in difficult conditions.
The barracuda are in a school of 50-100, spread out a bit but still an impressive sight, and I work quickly to capture some pictures in the few minutes before we have to end the dive.
Even so, we cant make it to the anchor-line and, although we are near the boat, we drift away fast, all the way to the surface. Luckily my safety sausage is seen, and the Galiotes small inflatable is sent to pick us up. The German biologist sniggers that for us English our dive sites should be called Perduto 1, Perduto 2 - but its all worth it to have such an exciting encounter in the Mediterranean.
The place I most want to dive is Lavezzis famous site Merouville (Grouper City), but the current is again likely to be strong there, so we dive in the bay where we first dived. This time we wait 40 minutes before a dusky grouper comes close, though two are hiding under the rocks.
The grouper gets bolder as the dive-time runs out, and follows us back to the anchor-line of our boat (we make it back without mishap this time).
Next day starts fine. We could dive at Merouville, but another boat with 40 divers on board beats us to it. We dont want a sea of legs in our photographs, so dive instead at Horsehead, a scenic site named after the shape of an impressive tall pinnacle there.
In the afternoon, my hopes for Merouville are dashed again, as often happens around these exposed islands. Wind has whipped up the sea, and we have to dive at a sheltered spot.
Above the surface, the Lavezzi islands are a jumble of huge, smoothly rounded boulders; under water the scene is similar, except that the rocks are encrusted with multi-coloured sponges and yellow zoanthid anemones.
We wake to a beautiful calm, sunny day, but get off to a terrible start! There is very strong current on the surface, and although we can drag ourselves hand-over-hand along the line to the dive site, we are unable to make it there with our bulky housed cameras and flashes, and abandon the dive. I am so disappointed.
Luckily, the following dive at last gives me what I have been hoping for - a great encounter with the big groupers at Merouville.
They greet Günther like an old friend, then hang around us like amiable dogs. There is very little current, and the session goes well. I spend much of the dive at 25-30m, and after 30 minutes or so need to leave to decompress for several minutes before surfacing.
THE NEXT DIVE AT MEROUVILLE is fantastic! The morning sunlight is better on this fairly deep site than the duller light we had the previous afternoon.
I watch Günther as he disappears into the distance with the other divers in tow, gathering grouper as he goes, like the Pied Piper. The fish were once fed indiscriminately by divers, before the top diving operators started to restrict feeding to a small amount dispensed only by themselves. Even so, I prefer my subjects to behave as naturally as possible, and I dont want messy shots, so Brian and I avoid the circus, and stay near the mooring line.
There is no need to go anywhere, because enough groupers hang around.
I take my time gaining their acceptance, and getting some good angles on them.
The fish, some nearly a metre long, are inquisitive enough to swim up to us, and react placidly as I edge my dome port just a foot from their noses. Its less good for Brian, however, as his flashguns stop working. Underwater photography has these frustrating moments.
That evening we moor in a sheltered bay for a very shallow night dive. I am reminded of the English South Coast as I glide over the flat sand, occasionally flushing out a well-camouflaged cuttlefish or octopus, as startled as I am, and gleaming ghostly in my torch-beam.
Our last day onboard brings unsettled weather, so exposed sites such as Merouville are out, but the bay where we saw our first dusky groupers is a welcome choice. This is my chance to change to a macro lens for portraits of fish faces, and the grouper oblige.
Finally, at Turtle Rock, we find some lovely violet nudibranchs, obliging fish and plenty of other life. As we head back to Galiote after a tranquil dive the current picks up, the surface turns choppy and the light drops. We cant see the boat until we are right by it.
However, we surprise the biologist by make it back on board without having to be picked up. We must be getting the hang of Corsican diving!
As the Galiote speeds away towards the Corsican mainland, I turn for a last look - and see a waterspout at the very spot where we have just been diving.
For more on diving from the Galiote, visit www.tauchclub-galiote.de
WILD WONDERS OF EUROPE
This is the biggest nature photo project ever to be mounted anywhere in the world, and it has attracted partners such as WWF and National Geographic.
It got underway in May 2008, when 60 of Europes top nature photographers commenced 100 assignments to 45 countries. Their mission: To reveal the amazing natural heritage of Europe and to inspire a desire to save it.
The Wild Wonders of Europe collection will be displayed through major touring exhibitions, audio-visual events, a website and photographic books.
Much of the photography is land-based, but the eight UK photographers include underwater specialists Doug Allan (a principal cameramen on The Blue Planet), Linda Pitkin and zoologist-broadcaster Mark Carwardine.
LAVEZZI ISLANDS DUSKY GROUPERS
The Lavezzi Islands lie in the Strait of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia, forming the southernmost point of Frances European territory. The islands are a nature reserve with no inhabited buildings, although in 1855 a cemetery was built on the main island for the victims of the shipwrecked frigate Sémillante.
All around are huge granite boulders scoured into strange shapes by wind and salt. The surrounding seas contain fish that can grow to 1m or more in length, and weigh some 40kg. Dusky grouper (Epinephelus marginatus) are an endangered species that is abundant only in Marine Protected Areas, where numbers are recovering since fishing was banned.
The lifespan of these large predators may be 50 years, but they are slow-growing, taking five years to become sexually mature females, and 12 years to mature as males.