I THOUGHT OF DUSTING OFF the DIVER mega-yacht for this trip.
It would have fitted in well with all the other yachts in the Golfe Juan marina. Alas, in these times of austerity the most the magazine can afford is fuel for John Bantin’s executive jet, so I have to leave the yacht laid up in a dock off the Thames.
I could also have driven all the way on the autoroute – the Ferrari is quite economical since its diesel conversion – but unfortunately it had failed its MoT again. Instead I fly easyJet to Nice, to be collected from the airport in a black Land Rover with the Diamond Diving logo on the side.
It’s right-hand drive, so my host Alex asks me to insert his credit card in the autoroute toll machine, where it promptly gets eaten.
I’m glad I didn’t drive all the way; I would have run out of cards well before reaching the Mediterranean.
Hand’s up, who’s heard of Golfe Juan It may be easier to say that we’re close to Antibes, one of the better-known locations in the south of France, and famous among underwater photographers as the host of the Underwater Film Festival, though the festival has now moved down the coast to Marseilles.
Golfe Juan is where Commandant Yves Le Prieur swam with his underwater breathing apparatus in 1926. This scuba milestone is celebrated on my first dive, when Alex shows me a statue of Le Prieur in the entrance to Miro’s Cavern. The sculpture is encrusted with yellow and red sponges among brown hydroids, a colour scheme in keeping with the orange cup anemones decorating the cavern walls.
From the marina it’s only a 10-minute ride in the navy-blue RIB to the reef marked by La Fourmigue lighthouse. The fast journey out is followed by a few minutes’ slow searching with the echo-sounder to ensure that the anchor is dropped on the right one of the many rocks that rise to form the reef.
The chain drapes across the top of the rock and, sure enough, the entrance is in front of me.
In typically clear blue Mediterranean water, I need only look up to see the outline of the RIB 20m above.

THE FRENCH HAVE CAFÉ-BAR culture perfected, so there is no doubting where we will end up once back at the marina. Le Saint Pierre is Alex’s usual haunt for unwinding after a dive, and a table inside is the informal classroom for debriefing training dives.
Today a diver is finishing a photography course, so pictures are uploaded to Alex’s notebook and reviewed. I settle in to a beer to celebrate a successful first dive. It’s hard to remember that I left home only early this morning.
Around us, the walls are decorated with the usual ropes and portholes, but interspersed with jazz memorabilia. The long-running jazz festival remains in the Antibes area. Even the small family-run hotel Alex has found for me in Juan-Les- Pins has jazz memorabilia on the walls.
One framed painting in the breakfast room was cut and salvaged from the wooden wall of the bar where it was originally painted.
A breakfast of orange juice and chocolate croissant inside me, the reef at La Fourmigue provides a focus for another pair of dive sites. Alex links them as a single longer dive so that
I can see as much as possible during my short stay.
The Dromedary is a steep ridge of reef extending further south. From the top of the camel’s hump at just short of 9m, the wall is almost sheer down to the camel’s toes at 35m. Just to the south, the ridge continues and drops past 45m at Dante’s Inferno.
A thermocline bites as we pass 20m, then again at about 30m. I’m glad to be wearing a full 7mm wetsuit, even though the thickness isn’t necessary in shallower water. The benefits of the colder water are gorgeous walls and canyons of purple gorgonians that contrast spectacularly with the yellow and orange sponges and orange cup anemones that pepper the rocks between.
We round the end of the Inferno, and return on a slow multi-level route up the other side. An 18m deep-stop conveniently fits in beneath another overhang of gorgonians. Now well clear of the seabed, clouds of damselfish and anthias fill the blue background.
When I look back along the wall we have just passed, I notice a metal box in a crevice. Looking closer, I pick out axles at both ends, and a part-circular rail making a cup above.
It’s not a type I have seen before, but it looks like a mine anchor. Could the mine have been British, American or German Or was it French or Italian

THIS BRINGS ME TO THE STEAM TUG Robuste II, rumoured to have been sunk by a mine during WW2 – a short lifetime for a vessel built in Marseilles in 1921. Alex hesitates about taking me there, as it is only a small wreck, about halfway out to the lighthouse and often used as a training or fallback site. Knowing my affection for wrecks, however, he soon relents.
We head out for a 25m rectangular profile with cylinders of nitrox he has stacked in the back of the Land Rover, left over from a course the week before.
Though described as a tug, Robuste II was fitted out as a cable-layer and used to lay electricity cables to offshore islands. The layout of machinery across the wooden hull shows that she had a wide beam for her length, with boxy steel oil tanks either side of a transverse-mounted boiler.
Behind this, a small 70hp two-cylinder compound engine connects through a short stub of a propeller-shaft to the stern, where the propeller is partly hidden by wooden beams fallen to either side. Surprising is the intact condenser mounted along the starboard side of the engine.
This squat arrangement kept the forward two-thirds of the deck clear, except for the cable-laying drums and winches. With conger eels hidden in the boiler and winch-drums, Robuste II is like many small but enjoyable wrecks we dive at home, but in Mediterranean visibility I can hover amidships and see from one end to the other.
The wooden hull and tug heritage suggests that Robuste II may have been working as a minesweeper, and I had already encountered evidence of a minefield in the area. On the other hand, mine victims this small are usually torn apart by the explosion.
Although the Robuste II’s hull is flat to the seabed, this looks more like natural decay than explosive trauma.
Even the funnel is neatly broken to lie perpendicular off the port side. Perhaps the mine was a near-miss, rather than a direct contact with the hull.
Alex runs Diamond Diving’s own RIB from Porte de Golfe Juan, but he also arranges and guides excursions to other locations along the Cote d’Azur, and has worked with a select list of dive centres for some years.
It’s an unusual achievement for an English instructor, because to teach diving in France involves a bunch of government-specified courses and exams above those of the training agencies, all conducted in French.
Now he even helps to teach on official French instructor courses, using skills articles from DIVER as training material while he shows French instructors how to teach diving in English.
We drive west to La Londe les Maures to dive in the marine park at Port Cros, and perhaps another wreck or two. Aqualonde Plongée dive centre has a big club from Toulouse visiting for a long weekend, however, and the diving will be governed by what its members want to do.

WE ARRIVE AS THE DIVERS RETURN from the first afternoon dive of their trip. Some are already setting up extensive crates of alcoholic refreshments as others wash their kit.
I struggle with my scraps of French, as do some of the French with their English, but more than enough are almost bilingual. They translate both ways to include me in the conversation and, more than generously, in their refreshments. French dive clubs are very sociable.
Bad news for me is that they have just dived the Donator, one of the best-known wrecks on the Cote d’Azur, a 1609-ton steamship that struck a mine on 10 November, 1945, so we won’t be diving it again in the next few days. Good news is that the morning’s dive will be Le Grec, an 808-ton steamship that struck a mine in the same area weeks later, on 3 December.
Le Grec is more correctly the Sagona, but some Greek documents were found after this Panamanian-flagged ship sank, so Le Grec it has become.
Aqualonde has a fair-sized hard-boat, but nearly all the divers suit up at the dive centre, as there isn’t much dry space to store clothes, or spare deck space to get changed. With owner Jerome at the helm, it takes about an hour to get to the wreck site.

IT’S THE WEEKEND, and the wreck is busy with numerous other hard-boats and RIBs already there. However, one big advantage of Mediterranean diving is that there are no tides.
We just sit back and wait for them to finish, enjoying the sunshine and chatting about Toulouse winning the rugby last night. Captain Jerome and crew Jo-Jo are fanatical supporters.
As the last divers surface and move away from the permanently attached buoys, the first divers from our boat jump in. For a dive that can range from 30m on the superstructure to 45m by the propeller, kit is a mixture of big single cylinders, twin-sets and a Submatix CCR. The single cylinders all have dual outlets, and most divers fit a second regulator. Alex has found me a side-mount of 70%, so I can stretch my time on the wreck a bit and still keep the deco stops manageable.
We enter last by a good 10 minutes, with a view to enjoying an uncrowded wreck. Despite the lack of tides, there is a moderate surface current. Jerome turns the boat upstream of one of the buoys so that we can drift onto it and pull ourselves down, dodging past others already on the way up.
The wreck is beautiful. Everywhere a gorgonian could hang is filled with gorgonians. I head for the propeller and rudder, then work forwards past the aft accommodation to the engine-room.
Further forward is nothing; the ship was blown in two by the mine, and the bow is some 60m away. Our dive time on the stern is just about right for the gas I’m carrying and the depth.
While dive-boats in the UK provide a hot drink and often a pastie or sandwich, the after-dive snack here is rosé wine with bread and paté; an appetiser for some fine dining back in the marina, but not before an aperitif of pastis from the Toulouse club’s endless supply.
The afternoon dive departs late as usual, because everyone is still enjoying lunch. At least it gives the appetisers time to go down and, unlike most, I stay on water through the meal.

AT THE POINT OF THE STRUGGLE in the Port Cros national park, we descend another fixed mooring to a shallow bed of seagrass. The swim to the point takes five minutes, then the seabed changes to a steep sandy slope with ridges of reef running out from the cliffs.
The big scene is impressive, but not as big as the Dromedary or Dante’s Inferno, so I’m glad I fitted a macro lens. I meander successfully between nudibranchs and anemones, a formula I could have applied to any of the dives so far, as nudibranchs have been plentiful.
Returning to the boat, I take my time and hunt for seahorses among the grass, though without success.
A scenic dive on a grander scale is La Gabiniere Est, also in the Port Cros park. On a Sunday morning, it’s busy. Jerome briefs us in French, and I find I can understand it without needing Alex to translate. That’s what a few days’ practice can do for language skills.
With more boats arriving by the minute, we get on with it. Visibility is much better than in the average pool, but at times it feels as crowded as pool training can be at home.
In addition to fields of gorgonians and the ever-present macro life and small fish, there are also plenty of fair-sized grouper. I don’t think they’re tame in the sense of being fed by divers, more resigned to having to share the reef with us. It’s an effect I have noticed and enjoyed at busy Red Sea dive sites.

I START BY VENTURING just a few metres deeper than most. The extra 5m between 35 and 40m makes a big difference to the number of other divers, though there are still some below me.
The consequence of time at depth is that I then have to decompress in the shallows, where there are even fewer divers and big shoals of grey mullet. It’s an excellent dive, despite the hordes.
Everyone surfaces away from the cliffs on a ballon, or delayed SMB. Somehow Jerome knows which of us belong to his boat and picks us all up, though I do notice one or two divers from other boats swimming hopefully towards us.
I am impressed by the standard of divers turned out by the rigorous French regime, even of relative beginners. It reminds me of UK diver training before it got dumbed down to compete with the US agencies.
Back at the marina, it’s time to head home, for me with Alex via Golfe Juan; for the club, back to Toulouse. But not before more rosé, followed by pastis and another expansive lunch. French divers: they have their priorities sorted out.