IN THE BEGINNING IT WAS A HUGE VOLCANO, more than 700m above sea level. All that remains now is a little piece of dry land, forming an island two miles long and less than 800m wide, and called Ventotene.
About a mile away is another little island, St Stefano, the remains of a lateral cone of the volcano now almost totally eroded away.
Geographically these two islands, which belong to the Pontine group, belong to Italys Lazio region, but culturally they seem Neapolitan from the way the people speak and their maritime lifestyle.
Ventotene, then known as Pandataria, was the place of exile for Giulia, the famously licentious daughter of Augustus Caesar, and of Agrippina, grand-niece of Tiberius. But today it is a welcoming place - the Roman harbour is a cosy assortment of tiny buildings, as is the serene village, with its rose and white houses, little church and tortuous roads. On the village promenade is an array of bars and pubs, restaurants and pizzerias.
Coming from the sea, the island resembles a squat turtle, with its little hill and steep cliffs. The transparency of the Tyrrhenian sea reveals the richness of its depths.
And to preserve its well-being, it is part of Italys Marine Protected Areas.
A marine reserve was established in 1997 with three levels of protection. Zone A is totally protected, with diving allowed only for scientific reasons and for groups guided by authorised staff, while the other two zones have lower levels of guardianship.
Diving World Ventotene was Italys first scuba-diving centre, opened in 1978. In 2000 it was bought by the charming Valentina Lombardo and Dario Santomauro, assisted by a dozen PADI dive masters and instructors, whose professionalism reflects their pride in working for this famous centre.
The centre itself forms a part of the surprising architecture of the Roman harbour, located under the arches excavated out of the rock.

Sandy bottoms
The underwater views are a real surprise. The water around the two rocky islands descends to 50m not far from shore, and the walls of sheltered areas and submerged caves are
covered by colonies of colourful anemones and jellyfish, filigree sea-fans and various species of encrusting algae.
There are also sandy bottoms to around 40m, with wide prairies of oceanic Posidonia, a common Mediterranean plant. Here youll find young mullet, cleaver wrasse, turbot, lizardfish and weavers. The channel between the two islands, deep and far from the Italian mainland, attracts more pelagic animals, schools of little squirrelfish and tiny grouper as well as giant dentex, big amberjacks and dense schools of Mediterranean barracuda.
Most dives are made in the marine park area, where respect for the environment is a must.
The pinnacles at La Molara in zone A are the place to find those schools of barracuda, and also grouper, and they allow divers to come close. There is plenty of micro-fauna, and on the seabed youll see fragments of Roman amphorae. La Molara is comparatively shallow and current-free, so is one of the easiest dives.
Also in zone A is Secca Santo Stefano, a sandbank near Santo Stefano Island in which flora and fauna proliferate in the caves and creeks.
There is also a wreck, the Santa Lucia, a steamer sunk by British bombers in July 1943. Their mission was to prevent shipping accessing Ventotene, though the ship carried only civilians on that voyage. Now it lies split in two at 46m, the propeller, the anchors and the handrail on the rounded stern all still intact.
The wreck offers a comfortable haven for many species of fish, especially the anthias that swim around it with their usual peculiar frantic movement.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly to Rome Fiumicino and hire a car to drive to Formia, about 105 miles away, to catch a ferry or hydrofoil to Ventotene (www.caremar.it ). Another option, although quite uncomfortable, is to travel by train.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Diving World Ventotene (0039 771.85178, www.divingworldvent otene.com) has four boats and 13 guides. It can fix up accommodation in resorts, apartments or hotels with full- or half-board service.
WHEN TO GO: March to November.
COSTS: Flights cost from£125. Booking accommodation through the dive centre may yield better prices - expect to pay 25 euros per person for a double room with breakfast, and 60 euros in high season. A single dive costs 40 euros, a 10-dive package 270 euros.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Italian State Tourism Board, 20 7408 1254, www.enit.it


Diving
Diving World Ventotene has been excavated out of the rock around the harbour.
Entry
Entry into the old Roman harbour
colourful
colourful houses in the small village.
barracuda
barracuda shoal
a
a diver with a spirograph worm
a
a picturesque sponge-covered rock
Stern
Stern of the Santa Lucia wreck, sunk in 1943 and lying at 46m