Divernet


HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED A SLIGHT FEELING OF INADEQUACY AS YOU BOARDED A BOAT As we load the RIB, I check out the camera systems the other divers are carrying. More than half clutch shiny new Sea & Sea housings and the latest digital SLR cameras. The rest all have cameras much newer than mine. My trusty Nikon 801 and Subal housing are getting on for 10 years old, and have more than enough dents to prove it.
     It isnt that much of a surprise. Ever since Location Sardinia, which was hosting my trip, had mentioned that I would be on a boat with Alan James and his annual photography workshop, I had been expecting to see lots of shiny camera gear.
     It works out quite well. Alan has been here a few times before, knows which dive sites are photographically good and what sort of pics are possible. I had asked him about the dive over a beer the night before, and among other things the key terms were marine reserve, big grouper and 20mm lens.
     In Antheas Divings big yellow diesel RIB its a 40-minute ride north to the middle of the channel between Sardinia and Corsica and a reef to the east of the small island of Lavezzi. Two Corsican dive boats are already finishing as others arrive to take their place. In the water it is busy but not ridiculously crowded.
     The dive site consists of a couple of submerged humps, rounded fractured granite rising from just past 30m to a shallowest 15m. Big grouper come right up and dribble straight into my 20mm lens, begging to be fed before ambling off to harass a dive guide from another boat who is actually handing the food out.
     I have seen plenty of Mediterranean grouper before, but none as big as these, and certainly not this close. They arent as big as the Caribbean jewfish or the potato bass of the Indo-Pacific region, though judging by the rate at which they gobble up the Sooby Snacks they all have aspirations that way.
     Back on the boat, we toast in the September sunshine. I dry my housing and change film, while the digital mob remark that gigabyte memory cards have room for several hundred high-resolution pictures.

red and white
Other boats come and go while we wait out a two-hour surface interval. By the time we re-enter the water, we have the groupers to ourselves. There are more than enough to engage with one each, as we disperse to get out of each others way.
     Dive guide Stefano had mentioned that after such a calm and hot summer the shallower gorgonians had suffered badly. I find a few white skeletons, then a beautiful red-lined gully off to the south-east. It is so nice that I let it distract me for a few shots before returning to my personal grouper.
     Were back by mid-afternoon, so I look around Cannigione. Its a five-minute walk to the high street for a gelati. You cant beat Italian ice-cream for flavour, or enormous portions. Two scoops on a cone is better than little designer balls of ice cream, more like shovels of the stuff. With 30 flavours to choose from, it develops into a regular afternoon mission when I get back from diving.
     The Parco Nazionale Arcipelago La Maddalena covers the north-eastern corner of Sardinia. Having dived with the groupers near the northern limit, its a slightly longer boat ride to the southern limit at Mortorio, where a pair of rounded granite rocks separated by a narrow channel are just inside the boundary.
     The photography workshoppers are all sporting monster macro lenses for the day, while I have decided to stay with wide-angle and the big scene - perhaps to take some pictures of the other divers taking pictures. I do have a lens that big, but with airline baggage allowances to contend with, I had decided to leave it at home.
     Mortorio is another location that proves good for two dives, one around the outside rock and back through the channel, then a shallower dive around the inner rock. I work my way out and deep below the thermocline to find some more colourful gorgonians.

car-wrecks
In the briefing, Stefano had mentioned a couple of cars off the end. I look half-heartedly but cant find them. Its not that a car-wreck would be that interesting, more wondering how a couple of cars could end up this far offshore, yet too close to the rocks for the average shipping route.
     The inner rock has a good selection of marine life and I switch to fish-spotting. Theres a broad mix of the usual Mediterranean species - salpe, black-striped bream and lots of colourful little wrasse. A few barracuda hover a way off, ever-present yet never confident enough to be anything more than thin lines at the limit of the stunning visibility.
     Back ashore, I catch up with the photography group in the early evening. Its a good job I dont have a digital camera, or I would be feeling inadequate about all the latest designer laptop computers on display. Downloaded pictures are being tweaked in PhotoShop, and they seem to be getting good results.
     In the morning its a long boat ride to the south, out of the Parco Nazionale Arcipelago La Maddalena, past the port of Olbia and on to another marine reserve surrounding the island of Tavolara.
     With the change of marine reserves, the scenery also changes from granite to limestone. Sardinia comprises some of the oldest geology in the Mediterranean, far older than Corsica to the north.
     The east end of Tavolara is an imposing cliff of white limestone; the dive sites a series of pinnacles rising 10-15m from a 40m seabed. Its wide-angle day, and the shiny digital cameras are all fitted with dome ports twice the size of mine.

nicely narked
There are two buoys, both with dive boats already tied on and a queue of two more boats waiting to tie off to the inner buoy. The photography group quickly kit up, ready to drop in and down on the inner buoy while Stefano keeps the boat live.
     I eye up the boat just finishing on the outer buoy. The dive will average 5m deeper, but the big gorgonians are below the thermocline anyway, so the depth to the top of the pinnacle seems irrelevant.
     I mention this to Stefano. He says OK, and I get the outer pinnacle to myself.
     Its a great feeling at 35m, with walls and walls of gorgeous red and yellow gorgonians, shoals of fish, not a diver in sight and just enough narcs to add that comfortable feeling that a good glass or two of the local red wine brings to dinner every evening.
     Almost two hours south from the jetty at Cannigione, there isnt time to loiter for a second dive. That comes one third of the way back at Capo Figari, the northern limit of the limestone and home to some nice little caves.
     Below the waterline, the cliff soon turns into a steep slope that starts to level out to a sand and grass seabed at 25m. I know there must be lots of sand and grass seabed around Sardinia, yet this is the first on which we have dived. But we dont really dive on it - its just something to swim past between the caves.
     The first cave is down by the grass, a big outcrop of rock cut below to an arched tunnel with a chimney through the top. It makes a good photographic prop, with small yellow cup corals lining the roof.
     Thirty metres along the slope, the next opening is more a cavelet, a small bubble in the limestone that has broken through to the open sea.
     The final cave is the most interesting, a slot from the surface to 18m cutting back into the cliff further than the daylight zone. With waves slopping against the cliffs and a whole boatload of divers, fine silt makes this cave less of a photographic prospect, yet for a diver simply out to have fun in a cavern, this would be the high spot of a dive.

wet and lumpy
Sardinia has quite a few wrecks, ranging from ancient Roman through Napoleonic to World War Two and more recent. The main wreck in the local area is the Angelica, a 4400 ton freighter that ran straight up the rocks at Capo Falcone in 1983.
     The photography group have no plans to dive it, so I swap to Antheas Divings other RIB for a day. The other divers are a typical holiday mix, couples combining a few days diving with a sightseeing and beach holiday and halves of couples getting a dive trip in before joining their other halves for the afternoon.
     The wind has switched to the west, and getting to the wreck is a wet and lumpy ride straight into the short sharp Mediterranean chop. At Capo Falcone we anchor tight behind the point to gain some shelter.
     Bits of the Angelica s bow are wedged into cracks in the granite right below us, then its a 50m swim out to the main body of the wreck. At a maximum depth of 20m and exposed to the sea, the only sessile marine life on the rocks and wreck are the small calcifying algae that cover rocks everywhere in the Mediterranean.
     Having been warned that the wreck is well broken, the fair bit of structure left is a pleasant surprise. The stern rests on its port side, propeller with bent blades and railing curving up. Then it breaks where the superstructure has broken off and landed almost the right way up.
     I tour inside the wheelhouse and a few cabins, playing tag with small shoals of bream. Further forward, the aft hold is broken plates, then the amidships deckhouse and winch-gear lies intact and upside-down, and the goalpost mast has fallen diagonally across the wreck. Apparently this used to stand clear of the water. The forward hold has disappeared completely.
     Having wedged her bow on the rocks, the Angelica must have broken cleanly amidships, leaving the remains of the forward hold somewhere else.
     Back beneath the RIB at the bow, I have a look further along but turn back because the waves in the shallows are too dangerous. I see no more wreck, but do find an octopus.
     With the waves growing bigger, the planned second dive on a Roman wreck isnt practical and we dive a granite reef at Punta Degger. Its a pleasant shallow dive with some colourful sponges and beneath overhangs, best summed up as average Mediterranean, and simply not in the same league as the past few days.
     The photography group go south again for the day, sheltered from the westerly wind to dive a maze of deep, narrow canyons. From their description it reminds me of the canyons off Longships in Cornwall. Its a pity I missed it, yet I wouldnt have wanted to miss the Angelica. There just isnt enough time to dive it all.
     Other wrecks in the area include the Clan Ogilve at just short of 50m and a couple of submarines, both close to one of the ferry routes and hence dived only very early in the morning before the ferry is running. There is a rumour of a third submarine wrecked somewhere between Sardinia and Corsica after its crew hid a cache of Nazi gold up in the hills, but nothing has ever been found.
     Maybe one day it will turn out to be a pile of old boots, like the gold hidden in an Austrian lake, or perhaps there really is gold. Or has some enterprising local already found it and started trickling the proceeds out through the numerous designer jewellery boutiques in the luxury resort of Porto Cervo

photo contest
Mike and Judith Osborne from Location Sardinia take me on a day trip south to dive the KV12, an Afrika Corps supply ship. Its a couple of hours by car, then five minutes from the marina at Orosei in Ria Bianca Divings enormous RIB.
     Its the sort of wreck I get excited about. In fact, its so good that youll have to wait for a separate article.
     The KV12 can be arranged as an excursion for those who want to dive it as a day out, or, better still, Antheas Diving is putting the finishing touches to a liveaboard which will do the occasional dedicated wreck week.
     At the end of the week Alan has arranged a little competition for those in the photography workshop. Everyone judges and Mike, Judith and I are invited to help. A line of laptop PCs are scrolling through each photographers portfolio.
     I comment that many of the images look good enough to publish, though there is always the proviso that what looks good on a computer display will not necessarily work in print.
     The real surprise is third place, both for the individual shots and the portfolio; achieved with the most basic digital snapper system available. Ian had rented it only to give him something to do while keeping wife Mandy and her more sophisticated camera system company. Ill bet he got some grief.
     With time to fly in mind, my last day is limited to a single shallow dive. We are joined by a couple of divers who have flown in for a long weekend. They took the economy Ryanair flight from Stansted and were crucified on excess baggage. The only way to get away with a 15kg allowance is to use the dive centres equipment.
     North of Isola Maddalena is a granite reef that doesnt quite break the surface. Sitting just off the channel, its a ship trap, hence its name of Seven Wrecks.
     Except for the remains of a wooden fishing boat near the top of the reef and a few shards of amphorae in the sand at 20m, I dont see any wrecks. Including the bits, that leaves me something like 5.9 wrecks to go.
     But the reef itself has some nice holes and overhangs, a few gorgonians and some big shoals of saupe. Its a good average dive, a wind-down dive, somewhat overshadowed by the splendour and excitement of the other reefs, walls and wrecks.


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most of the colour is beneath overhangs, as here at Morotorio

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a comber

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Gorgonians at Tavolara Pinnacles

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rainbow wrasse

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Entering a cave at Capo Figari

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Steps beside the wheelhouse of the Angelica wreck

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FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: From Stansted with Ryan Air, www.ryanair. com. Other airlines fly from Gatwick and regional airports. Rental cars can be arranged by Location Sardinia.
DIVING: Diving can be pre-booked through Location Sardinia. Dive centres: Antheas Diving, www.antheasdiving.com; Ria Bianca Diving, www.riabianca.com.
ACCOMMODATION: Anything from guest houses in the mountains to four- and five-star hotels and self-catering apartments. Location Sardinia, 01494 601012, www.locationsardinia.com.
WHEN TO GO : Diving is available all year round. Conditions get cooler in winter, when cold winds roll down from the Alps.
COST: Without flights, seven nights half-board in a four-star hotel and 10 dives with equipment costs from £495; self-catering (four sharing) from £370 (low season). From May to October, a long weekend (three nights) half-board and four dives with equipment costs from £260.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Sardinia tourist information 020 7408 1254, www.sardinia.net. For Alan James photo workshops contact 01179 699988, www.marine-cameras.com