THE MEDITERRANEAN SEA IS a complex body of water. To most divers, it’s where you go to have a short-haul holiday. For its surrounding population, it’s a place of recreation, business and a source of sustenance.
But since the advent of industrialised fishing in the 1950s the Med has been in trouble. This year is the centenary of the birth of Jacques Cousteau and it has often been said that he would turn in his grave if he could see what’s been done to the place where the aqualung was born.
The environmental organisation Greenpeace has an ongoing campaign demanding a network of connected marine reserves in the Mediterranean.
I was asked to document a project that investigated marine life on offshore banks between Sicily and Tunisia, in what is known as the Sicilian Channel.
This is a vital highway between the two sides of the Mediterranean. It provides a flow of water, nutrients and marine life, including the highly endangered bluefin tuna, the cause of some passionate clashes between NGOs and fishermen in the past.
Several offshore banks rise to within a few metres of the surface in the Sicilian Channel. Our first target was the Skerki Bank, some 70 nautical miles from the western end of Sicily.
There has been so little diving here that we may have been the first people to touch the seabed.
The Bank is dotted with shallow areas known as knolls, which is what we would dive, as they rise up to diveable depths.
The exact spot took about an hour to find though, and I was as pleased as a panting dog finding a rancid puddle to get in the water. It took so long because charts and GPS points aren’t altogether accurate this far from anywhere.
The chart said we were dead over the 15m deep ridge called the Sylvia Knoll, but the depth sounder read 30m-plus.

GREENPEACE’S FLAGSHIP, Rainbow Warrior, was a little way off, because the shallowest part of the dive we were about to do was listed at 7m, and this was no place for a ship to meet a lump of rock unexpectedly.
The sea was calm and the temperature well into the 30s, so by the time our depth was shallow enough I was sweating like a fat guy in an all-seasons sleeping bag on a July afternoon.
I was delighted to get into the water, and when I looked down I could see the seabed covered in algae as thick as a 1970’s Motown star’s hair, wafting gently in the slight swell.
We descended on the main reef top in 10m of water. It was pock-marked with circular holes, probably made by rocks that had long eroded away, and cut into at the sides by clefts that provided overhangs where life other than algae found a home.
We wanted to record as much as possible. My task was to photograph pretty much everything I could find, plus what was pointed out to me by the Greenpeace campaigner – a marine biologist and the project leader.
Then, back on Rainbow Warrior, I had to find the Latin names of all the species with the help of the scientists and Internet (so for every species I name here, I’ll attach the Latin version).
After a few minutes I decided that Sylvia Knoll was about as exciting as a grannies’ knitting club. We did, however, find a decent sized crawfish (Palinurus elephas) and every overhang had good quantities of anemones and ascidian species – that’s a scientific name for sea snot.
There was also a decent archway to swim through, but it was a site most marine biologists would call interesting, rather than exciting. I didn’t care for the place, but I suppose that as a check-out dive it was beneficial.

WHERE THE FISH ARE
The Mediterranean is not famed for its abundance of fish. Sure, there are reserves where divers see large dusky grouper, amberjacks, dentex bream and large shoals of salema (see panel), but these are drops in a desolate sea.
I would love to report that the offshore banks are an oasis of life, far from the reach of fishing gear, but that would be a lie. At some point someone has to tell the truth. The rumours are true, the Med is almost dead and for one reason – fishermen have killed the fish and people have eaten them.
It’s not a hunch, the discarded evidence is plain to see. Syvia Knoll was blighted by lost fishing gear, as were all the other knolls.
The second site, Hecate Patch, was dominated by a longline, which was wrapped around the site’s main feature – a huge pinnacle of rock.
The thick braided monofilament line encircled the rock and then stretched off into the distance. I swam down it hoping to find the end, but it just went on and on, so I gave up and rejoined the others.
However, Hecate Patch had a larger biodiversity than Sylvia Knoll, probably because of its uneven terrain of large boulders. The overhanging walls were coated in so many colonial cup corals (Astroides calycularis) and sponges that no rock remained visible.
As we fanned out across the reef, we found larger fish – a decent-sized torpedo ray (Torpedo nobiliana), a couple of Mediterranean moray eels (Muraena helena) and even three, albeit small, dusky groupers.
The reef was harder to fish because of the terrain, as the lost long line demonstrated, so juveniles of larger species were hanging on here. It would take only a few non-fishing years to see Hecate Patch thriving again – all the building blocks were there. It just needs a break from commercial fishing pressure.
As we returned to the shallows around the huge rock, two of the Greenpeace divers cut away the tough line of the lost gear. If we’d left it, the line would have scoured the rockface, killing anemones, sponges and algae and creating a man-made scar in a place so far from land that it should be pristine.
As I waited for the boat to pick us up, I photographed surface pelagic life. Comb jellies and mauve stingers (Pelagia noctiluca) are common in the Med – as is a lot of plastic. Some is big enough to spot from the air (I know, I’ve seen it), some so small you need a microscope (I’ve seen that, too).
It’s everywhere. And the animals are eating it, thinking it’s food. Fish, turtles and seabirds consume huge amounts of plastic every year. Many die as a result.
At the time we were diving, Rainbow Warrior was conducting an initial assessment of the micro plastics in the Med. The survey net pulled it up on every trawl, a depressing sight.
What made it worse were the number of Cory’s shearwaters (ocean-going birds like albatross) we observed feeding at the surface. As well as plankton, they must have been ingesting a lot of plastic.

FIRST RARE FIND
Most divers who take a camera under water know about nudibranchs – colourful sea-slugs in countless varieties. They are in fact from a scientific order known as Opisthobranchs, a large family of fairly rudimentary creatures of which the nudis are the most flamboyant.
Yet not all nudibranchs are Josephs; some are mere Joes, and dress in very drab clothes. One of the most basic is Umbraculum mediterraneum, a sort of Shrek nudibranch with a small pyramidal shell on its back. It is thought to be rare, but could be as common as anything, and simply pass unnoticed.
We found one on Biddicombe Patch, which lies south-east of Sylvia Knoll in the north section of the Skerki Bank.
For some reason Biddicombe Patch was the only place on the offshore banks where we found nudibranchs. There were several species – Chromodoris krohnii, Hypselodoris midatlantica, Peltodoris atromaculata and Flabellina affinis, and they were concentrated near a lip of rock close to the thermocline at around 18m.
Perhaps the nudibranchs were an indicator of the health of this reef, as it did seem to have a good level of biodiversity. There appeared to be more small fish, plus crustaceans, worms, and eels. Like Hecate Patch, Biddicombe has a rough terrain, making bottom trawling tricky, but long-liners still operate, and we saw no large predatory fish.
The top of the reef was much more current-washed than the others we had visited at that point, although that could have been a temporary phenomenon.
The reef top was also thickly covered in algae, an essential part of the eco-system and one that will absorb a huge amount of CO2 from the atmosphere as the algae photo-synthesises.
It was hard to stay in one position during the safety stop, partly because of the current, but mainly because the sea was chopping up. Offshore, a small chop can quickly turn into a swell, which the sea was doing as we surfaced.
A weather front was moving down the Sicilian Channel, so Rainbow Warrior made for the shelter of the small island of Pantelleria.
Although this was a slight “blow” to the diving schedule, it did give us an opportunity to dive some nearshore reefs, and compare the difference in marine habitat and life.

PANTELLERIA IS A SMALL ISLAND nearer the coast of Tunisia than Sicily, but it belongs to Italy. It has a small tourist industry, with a select (and rich) clientele, a dive centre and a handful of listed dive sites. In rough weather it only offers a little shelter, so only a few sites are diveable when it’s windy.
Secca di Nica was open to us, but the strong wind had caused a localised current. I just managed to get to a large boulder, covered in yet more cup corals.
These bursts of orange were a feature of all our dives throughout the area, off- or nearshore. I’ve never seen such as orgy of anemones.
Secca di Nica was also the first place where I came across the long-lived marine clams Pinna nobilis. I’m sure they were at the previous sites, but the covering of algae, posidonia seagrass and sargasso grass hid them.
The specimens off Pantelleria where small but good to see. Pinna nobilis and its cousin Pinna rudis are very slow-growing species and vulnerable to damage. A trawler or even a tangle net makes light work of pinna clams.
So I was pleased when the Rainbow Warrior could once again get out to the offshore banks, and we got to see some more on Talbort Shoal, a small bank south of Skerki Bank in the Sicilian Channel. On the very top, quite close to some lost fishing gear, were three medium-sized Pinna nobilis clams.
They stood proud of a rocky seabed that had been overgrazed by sea urchins, in itself an indicator of over-fishing.
When most large fish are taken, organisms further down the food pyramid, such as urchins, are left unchecked. The upshot is barren patches of rock cleaned of algae, where no shrimp, crab or juvenile fish can live.
For any larger fish trying to move in, it’s like walking into a restaurant to find that Gordon Ramsay has fired all the staff and employed an army of termites to slowly eat the place.
Thankfully the offshore banks are generally in good benthic condition.
The few barren patches are relatively small. A few predators would make light work of the over-population of black urchins and would, in a few years, restore the eco-system.
As well as a lack of predators there is, these days, a threat of alien species. Caulerpa racemosa, an invasive algae which has taken over certain parts of the Mediterranean, was found in small concentrations off Pantelleria, but it was not found on the offshore banks.
What we did find there was a species of octocoral – a small soft coral not recorded before in this part of the Med, though not an invasive species as such.

HEADING HOME
On the way back to Sicily, we dived in a category C zone in a Marine Protected Area, which actually means little when it comes to protection.
Artisanal fishing (local traditional techniques) are allowed. Now I think of traditional fishing as a guy with a paddle or sail-boat and a rod and line – not an engine and tangle net. The politicians who make the decisions see it otherwise.
The site, Secca del Toro, is close to the small island of Favignana and is a classic Mediterranean wall. It drops sheer from 13m to 30m, is slightly undercut and is covered in sponges, anemones and colourful gorgonian sea-fans.
Below 20m the wall was packed like a medieval forest. Most are the common red gorgonians, but with the odd yellow one growing just as strongly.
Gorgonians are, like reef-building corals, made up of colonial polyps, each having eight tentacles. They live on shaded walls and catch passing plankton. Again like reef-building corals they are slow-growing and vulnerable to damage, whether from fishing gear or divers’ fins.
They are a good indicator of fishing damage, and it seems that Secca del Toro doesn’t suffer much lost fishing gear.
Offshore it was different, and we found nets and ropes on all the banks we visited. The lack of large fish was a disappointment, but the lack of invasive species and the sightings of juvenile predators shows that the shallow areas are good candidates for protection.
More work needs to be done. There are many more patches, knolls and banks, but without protection they will be scoured by the fishing fleets.
I was just the photographer, but even I can see the need to protect these areas.
Too many fish have been stripped from the system and there doesn’t seem to be much work being done to protect what’s left, except on the part of NGOs such as Greenpeace.
Some areas are better than others, and most of these are marine reserves, so there is a precedent. The problem is one of control. Outside territorial waters, no one country has jurisdiction, so to provide the Med with an effective network of marine reserves requires international co-operation.

THE RESULTS OF PROTECTION are obvious to anyone who looks. Closing areas to fishing allows species to flourish, and once an area is saturated in large fish they move outside the protected areas naturally and thus feed the fishing industry which in turn can feed the populations of Mediterranean countries north and south.
The Mediterranean will take some time to heal. Marine reserves do not work overnight and won’t work at all unless they are properly set up and run.
But with a healthy sea come benefits in tourism from diving and wildlife watching. One day, liveaboards may venture out from Sicily to the Skerki Bank, Talbort Shoal and Adventure Bank to see all the fish life there – but only if governments take action.

For more on Greenpeace’s campaign for marine reserves in the Mediterranean, go to www.greenpeace.org/international/ en/campaigns/oceans/marine-reserves

MARINE RESERVES NOW
Below are some of the most popular protected areas in the Mediterranean. All tend to be close to shore and near popular resorts, or are extensions of nature reserves that butt onto the sea. None tie together in a coherent way to form a network of reserves for species to travel between protected areas. To learn more, download the IUCN, WWF and MedPAN report Status of Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean Sea from www.medpan.org

Medas Islands (Spain) Perhaps the most famous marine protected area among divers lies off the Costa Brava near the small town of I’Estartit. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled; marine life is abundant and well- protected. This is considered one of the Med’s best reserves.

Columbretes Islands (Spain) 30 miles off the Valencia coast near Castellon, this chain of small volcanic islands has been protected since 1998, and the sea surrounding them was protected in 2001. It’s a long boat-ride, but because it’s one of the few offshore sites, it is little visited and offers the best diving in the region.

Port Cros Park (France) Belonging to the Hyères Islands archipelago, this is the smallest French National Park. It’s a popular diving and snorkelling area, and while the fish life is good the seabed is a little bland.

Lavezzi Is (Sardinia/Corsica) This archipelago of small islands and reefs falls under Corsica, but is dived from both sides. It is famous for its large dusky groupers, which is reason enough to protect the area. It also has some good reefs which are fed by the currents in the Bonifacio Channel.
The Channel is not protected, however.

Portofino (Italy) The promontory of land sticking into the Med was a protected area and the local authorities extended this into the sea. It’s a multi-zone marine park with good protection and abundant life. Diving is popular, but there are enough sites to keep most places quiet. Boat disturbance is not permitted close to shore, and all dive boats must be licensed to operate there.

Miramare (Italy) This shallow body of water off Trieste in the north-east won protected status only in 2008, when Italy underwent a phase of creating marine parks, so the life has yet to reach the standards of more established marine reserves.

Laganas Bay, Zakyhthos (Greece) A multi-zone marine park that is supposed to protect the island’s fragile turtle population. However, illegal beach development is threatening one of the last nesting beaches in Greece.

Malta, Gozo & Comino Four new marine protected areas were recently created, the largest lying north-east of the
islands and stretching down their coasts. There are plans to zone the areas to provide different levels of protection, so it is hard as yet to comment on how effective these areas will be.