Cushionstar

IMMERSING MYSELF IN WATER always seems to hit the spot. All stress seems to melt away when my body hits the sea. Wherever I dive and, pretty much, whatever the conditions, the experience of water swirling around my face and seeping into my wetsuit is always magical.
I had spent all summer diving in front of a camera: in a drysuit, full-face mask with comms and a hood, never being able to feel the water movements around my face and constantly being talked to or at, not able to hear that gentle crackling sound that is so comforting while diving. I think you have to suffer a little once in a while to appreciate diving abroad!
Finding a week with no filming commitments on BBC2s Coast, I hastily planned a trip to northern Greece - a short flight, no jet-lag, warm water and the opportunity for babysitting for the (relatively) new arrival, Amélie, all sounded very attractive.
My requirements for a diving holiday have changed. No longer do I need to get wet before a hearty breakfast and again afterwards, stomach a huge lunch and wear it off in the depths once or twice more before dinner, slumping into bed exhausted.
I have an exhausting nine-month-old to think about now, so I was happy to stick to a leisurely two dives a day.
Organising a trip with a baby or with children is very different from a diving holiday for a couple. Porto Carras was the answer, with extensive activities for kids and adults alike. Amélie would be amused all day long, and I was ready to hit the depths!
Over-fishing has hit the news a lot recently and the area around Porto Carras has not escaped. There is still a lot to see in the warm and exceptionally clear waters, but sadly there is fishing line everywhere you dive. There are fish, shoals of them too, but fewer than
I had expected to see around the reefs.
If those who are desperately trying to protect areas of the coastline and isolated islands from over-fishing can get their act together soon, they can save a fantastic environment. The potential is there, with beautifully colourful reefs full of sponges, soft corals, anemones, sea potatoes, peacock worms, red starfish, sea cucumbers - in fact anything that is either static or doesnt taste good on a plate with garlic.
There is plenty of evidence of this at the local restaurants, because the local fish and seafood is stunning. We ate at one restaurant that served sun-dried octopus, and if you looked around the veranda there it was, just hanging there - sun-drying. Fresh, local produce, but you have to wonder what regulations are in place and if theres a lot left for tomorrow.
From the dive centre you can see the island of Kelyfos, where most of the diving is done. Im not sure why, as the diving further afield is much better.
Kelyfos means the shell of a turtle and from a distance and from the right angle, you can see the head, neck and shell. Its OK for a try-dive, and only a short RIB ride away should you forget your fins, but you have to be content with small and fairly static marine life.
At least you can get your eye in here. The island is surrounded by Neptune grass. Swim through this, and you can explore rocky outcrops covered in delicate peacock worms, colourful algae, anemones, sea squirts and the odd nudibranch. There were plenty of different species, including those that bear my favourite name, Spotted Doris.
Large fan mussels lie hidden in the grass. Approach carefully and you can catch a glimpse of their gills and the tiny shrimp that makes its home in each bivalve. They say the shrimp detects predators by sensing changes in the currents, and nips the mussel flesh, causing it to close in defence. Nice one!
We thought that a night dive would bring out a few creatures that hide from fishermen and divers during the day.
Darkness changed the scenery, even with a full moon, and the cast of characters was different. But despite a few shrimp brave enough to venture out of their daytime hideouts we didnt find the array of crustaceans and octopus that make an afterhours dive worthwhile.
Our dive leader, Manolis, told us of one site he had dived for years. He had fed a large grouper that became friendly and would happily pose for photos. One day, it was gone. Back at the resort, he caught up with some guys who had been spear-fishing that day. They talked of a grouper they had caught - they couldnt believe how approachable he was and how easy to spear...
People told us of interesting historic and archaeological wrecks and our ears pricked up. Ancient Greek artefacts!
But our excitement was short-lived: you cant dive on these wrecks. Too many have been robbed and all are now protected and restricted.
Manolis talked of finding some amphorae on a wreck at around 50m. He had brought a few up to around 30m to take some pictures and left them there. A few weeks later he dived the site again and they were gone... as were the amphorae at 50m. They fetch thousands of dollars. Nothing, it seems, is safe from the preying eyes of divers.
We dived one wreck, the shell of an old Turkish boat, with boilers we could swim in and out of and lots of holes in the wreckage for taking those well-framed photos, but there was little life in the cracks and crevices. A lot of searching yielded a scorpionfish that turned its back on us and disappeared before it could be photographed.
The swim back was more interesting than the dive site, the sun-warmed shallows harbouring small blennies willing to pose as we drained our tanks.
Life above the water looked better protected. Boat trips on the RIB revealed vast stretches of stunning scenery.
Mile on mile of forest swathed the coastline, ending abruptly at the sea with a craggy cliff or a sandy deserted cove. It looked unspoilt and untouched, except for a few exclusive residences among the trees.
These exhilarating journeys led us to some great reefs that seemed to have been overlooked by the fishermen.
Here was the chance to see the diving at its best. We clocked up a good list of species, including huge sea snails - Im sure the shells are collectors items, but I found one with its black and white resident still inside, a rare treat!
There were plenty of bearded fireworms - long red and white segmented worms with tufts of white hair that explode into little pompoms if you should stroke them, though you would be risking a bit of sting afterwards.
On a deeper dive (around 35m) to a pair of underwater mountains, we were promised yellow gorgonians and great opportunities to try out our Fuji Finepix F11 and strobe, and it delivered. It was a long swim over what felt like acres of grass, one of those swims that tests your technique and air consumption!
We stayed shallow to conserve air, a good 10m above Manolis, but I was worried that when we arrived we would have to turn and head straight back.
Eventually we spotted the rainbow-coloured rocks and the promised corals, like the rare pink sea-fans you see around the UK but yellow in colour.
We still had a healthy 150bar, giving us time to pose behind the corals and seek out the moray eels, secretly guarding their treasure.
I was glad the dive wasnt too lengthy, as deeper dives revealed a sharp thermocline at around 25m where the temperature dropped from a cosy 21-22C at the surface to a nippy 16C.
Our 5mm suits had been perfect for most of the diving, but the deeper dives were kept short or very active!

OUR BASE WAS THE MELITON HOTEL, one of four at Porto Carras, a 90-minute drive from the international airport of Thessaloniki, on the middle finger of the three northern Greek peninsulas.
Its the biggest resort in northern Greece, with a huge marina and lots of facilities. You can play on an international standard 18-hole golf course, chill out in the spa, go horse-riding, sample the local (and very good) French-style wine at Greeces largest organic vineyard, try out the climbing wall or take to hiking trails.
Childcare facilities were excellent with a large, fenced playground, a childrens pool and lots of indoor games and activities, but mainly aimed at under-10s. Restaurants were child-friendly, as were the staff. I think it was Amélies blonde hair, but some of them couldnt leave her alone! Babysitting in the evening is available at a reasonable cost.
For non-divers there are miles of sheltered beach and clear water which is also warm and calm for water sports. We saw bottlenose dolphins just offshore and lots of octopuses hiding around the marina area. Within walking distance of the resort were 25 tiny coves where you can find deserted beaches along six miles of protected shoreline.
I wouldnt recommend a whole weeks worth of diving. There is too little variety, but two or three days will be fun. Its fine for beginners or those who want really stress-free diving.
After mooring the RIB, we didnt even break sweat kitting up, just threw our gear over the side and donned it in the water, such were the conditions.
As I left, I wondered what the place would be like five or 10 years from now. Things may change for the better as the locals realise what a fantastic resource they have and take measures to protect it. I just hope they do.


Divernet
Surface
Surface interval at the Nireas dive centre
yellow
yellow tube sponges
peacock
peacock worm
Amphorae
Amphorae lend a touch of ancient culture to the scene
bearded
bearded fireworm - touch it at your peril
lobster
lobster and crab face the world together

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Fly direct to Thessaloniki - Miranda flew with Thomas Cook. Road transfers take 75 minutes.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Nireas Diving Centre is a PADI centre and can provide nitrox, www.nireas.gr. Meliton Hotel is a five-star hotel at the Porto Carras Grand Resort. There are also three and four-star hotels, www.portocarras.com..
WHEN TO GO: Spring or summer.
MONEY: Euro.
PRICES: Return flights start at around £90, a double room with breakfast at the Meliton from around £60 a night. 10 boat dives cost £135. Or you can try booking a package with Specialised Dive Tours, 0870 162 0364.
TOURIST INFORMATION: 020 7495 9300, www.gnto.gr