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WHAT WAS I DOING This was the second time in five days that I had found myself finning frantically after a speed demon on the end of a hose.
The first time, I had just arrived in Kalymnos, red-eyed after overnight flights and ferries, to be asked if I wanted to go for a dip with the sponge divers straight away.
Naturally I had said yes, and an hour later was jumping into the sea off a small boat to kit up conventionally, if rather too hastily, in the water.
I had then spent a panting half-hour in hot pursuit of Manolis, who was breathing off a second stage connected to what looked like 100m of garden hose.
The umbilical, or nargile as the Greeks call it, had snaked behind Manolis, winding dangerously around cliff walls that plunged far below us as he flitted from spot to spot in the 20-40m range, like a bee with a bad nectar habit.
Here and there black sponges could be seen, but these were of the wild variety, of no commercial value. Manolis had been after those with a shiny surface, but the only specimen he had located was clearly diseased, and started todisintegrate as he touched it.
The sponge sickness came with a hot current in 1986 - the year of Chernobyl, he told me later. The phenomenon had occurred again, on a smaller scale, in 1999, following earthquakes. Now there are only seven sponge boats in Kalymnos like ours, but once there were hundreds.
You were moving fast down there, I observed.
No! He smiled. I was taking it easy today because I had company.

Lost city of Potha
But that had been five days ago. This time I was chasing Anatolis, another nargile diver, in the misguided belief that he knew where to find the lost city of Potha.
I was sure I had seen some ruins when we first descended, what looked like a low, curving step at 5m, but Anatolis shot off so confidently that I simply followed.
Now the seabed was starting to disappear far below, and I stopped. Looking round, I could see that my other companions, club divers Petros and Costas, had already given up the chase.
I was laughing so much that my mask kept filling up, said Petros, when we regained the boat. I realised that the guy didnt know what he was looking for, and there we were, all chasing him!
It was a weird situation. In 554AD, a massive earthquake caused a rift in that part of the Greek island of Kalymnos containing the Byzantine port of Potha, and it had been engulfed by the sea.
The disaster left what is now its little-sister island, Telendos, separated from Kalymnos, and ushered in a dark age.
Greece has traditionally guarded its submerged antiquities jealously, and I was told that no-one had ever been officially permitted to dive the site. A state archaeology team had investigated briefly a couple of years ago, using divers and ROVs. What we found covers a wide area between 15 and 40m deep, and we also found the remains of a galley from Rhodes starting at 40m down to 90m, a local archaeologist told me.
I was in Kalymnos for its first-ever Diving Festival, an event designed to help turn this Dodecanese sponge divers island into a leisure divers tourist attraction. And out of the blue, the organisers suddenly conjured up an official invitation for me to dive Potha.
But no photography would be permitted, and the single 12-litre tank of air allowed for each of us must also be used later that morning to view sponges under cultivation! A Coastguard officer would have his eye on us.
So there we were, back at the boat with about 150 bar left. It seemed that Anatolis had been expecting to find something resembling a sci-fi illustration of Atlantis. I weighed in with my more modest sighting and we decided to have another go.
Skipper Pandelis was spot on this time. On the sandy seabed, in just 15m, was what could have been an isolated rock formation about 20m long, but we were always determined that it would be the remains of an ancient Greek building.
And when we started examining the overgrown remains closely, it did seem to consist of hewn blocks and rocks, arranged in straight lines by the hand of man. Im no archaeologist but I felt safe in assuming that I was now, as it were, in a spot of Potha.
Disappointingly, we found no ancient relics, not even an amphora shard, though Anatolis did get quite excited about a loose algae-covered lump that could have been a brick. But we didnt have much time for our penetrating archaeological investigation, because we had to save some air for our third dive of the morning.
This was a little disappointing, involving what looked like metal bed-frames strung with wire on which bits of sponge had been impaled to encourage them to regenerate.
Some new growth was evident, but it looked as if a lot more work would be needed before Kalymnos would ever again have its own sustainable sponge supplies.
The remaining sponge boats now work far away for months at a time, in places as distant as Tunisia and Libya.

Bends dance
The problem for Kalymnos is this: it is an island steeped in the joy and the tragedy of diving. Every family has members who have worked in the industry, and they are proud of their tradition. But its a macho culture in which the bends have become almost a mark of virility.
Pandelis, chairman of the sponge divers federation, is hugely respected - and he walks with a stick. Its the result of a bend sustained when he was accidentally hauled up from 60m on the end of a nargile after a 50-minute dive.
Even the Greek dancing in the evenings may include the mihhanikos, or Sponge Divers Dance, in which one of six dancers carries a cane and stumbles repeatedly, so painfully that you think he really is a bends victim.
Many ex-sponge divers have gone to ply their former trade in Australia or Florida, or taken up kamikaze occupations such as bridge-painting in the States. Americans know that if you want a dangerous job done, you ask a crazy Kalymnian. (Kalymnians are also disturbingly keen on using dynamite at weddings and other celebrations.)
Some Kalymnians, including Pandelis and Manolis, secretary of the federation, want the island to attract more tourists and leisure divers to see recreations of sponge-diving as it used to be.
Others are reluctant to turn the past into a heritage attraction. As usual in Greece, everyone enjoys arguing it out.
So whats the leisure diving like Well, the island has been thoroughly fished out, both commercially and by spearfishers, though there is talk of establishing an 8sq mile marine park, which would be Greeces biggest, some way offshore. Do it soon, is my advice.
On my dives I did see one dusky grouper, looking as hunted as Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. There were, however, plenty of moray eels and octopuses, colourful small wrasse and parrotfish, nudibranchs, starfish and crinoids.
But I enjoyed the diving because of the dramatic topography of plunging cliff walls, colourful caves and a profusion of wrecks among the seagrass and sand. Most dives were carried out on Pegasus, a dayboat that brings British and Scandinavian divers over from Kos and which, during the festival, became one of the few operations in Greece to gain PADI accreditation.
On one dive, on which our guides had been unable to brief us, we followed the wall for about 15 minutes before a huge straight-edged shape plunging down the wall took us by surprise.
It materialised into an impressive skeleton that must once have been a 2000 ton freighter. It now lay with its bow in around 8m, a big break amidships and its stern down at about 35m.
We followed it up into the shallower water to find that it wasnt the rocks only victim - perched upright across the wreckage lay a small fishing boat. Below it, rubber boots and oilskins, batteries and fishing gear had spilled onto the bigger wreck.
We found much later that it was the Agios Georgios, built before WW2 but sunk in a storm in the 70s.

Liani Pundi
On another occasion, on a second dive at a site called Liani Pundi (most of the dives were off the sheltered south-west coast), we descended through a rock arch into a blue hole.
At the bottom in about 25m lay a jumble of old fishing boats, ribs splayed dramatically. The circular dive unfolded as we visited a succession of anonymous cargo or fishing boat wrecks, each bigger than the last and the biggest intact enough to be able to poke into the hold.
The dive around this underwater museum ended with a photo op beside a large mine with a shell lying beside it.
At this point we had expected to be joined by a helmet diver re-enacting the bad old days of helmet sponge-diving, but he failed to appear because of technical problems.
The following day, they tried again. The diver was Manolis, and I watched him looking tense on Pegasus as he was assisted into the divers dress. This had been ordered specially from China but had been sent in a size that would have looked relaxed on Hagrid the Half-Giant.
Combined with the grim history of death and disability as a result of helmet diving in Kalymnos, the fact that Manoliss grandfather had been killed in a welding accident in a helmet works, and that an internal protuberance on this helmet was threatening to take his eye out whenever it was screwed on, his unease was understandable.
Working equipment officer John Smillie was in attendance with other members of the UKs Historical Diving Society and did his best to help with the limited equipment available (no ankle-weights, jockstrap etc), but this was one re-enactment that was not going to happen, and perhaps just as well.

Pocket Poseidon
Drive over the mountain from Kalymnoss capital Pothia and you end up on the waterfront at Vlihadia. Here youll find Stavros Valsamidis, a small man with a big domain.
Stavros runs the Sea World Museum, an establishment redolent of formaldehyde and brimful of curiosities - preserved sea creatures of all kinds, fossils galore, amphorae, wreck salvage, historical diving gear and, of course, sponges.
On one side of the museum is the Valsamidis family restaurant, where sea creatures are served up in more appetising ways, and on the other side the family bar, where you wash them down.
And the view from all three is the sea, the source of everything that matters to a true Kalymnian.
In the museum is a picture of Stavros and his brothers some 60 years ago, small grinning boys holding gigantic sponges over their heads. Kalymnians roll their eyes and say that Stavros will tell you far more than you ever need to know about the most insignificant sea creature or wreck, but the fact is that he makes a truly unforgettable dive buddy.
One of his boys took us out to the wall on the east side of the bay in a small boat and dropped us in before returning to shore. Starting off among the towering rock formations, Stavros, a true pocket Poseidon, knew just where to find the sponges. Suddenly there seemed to be life everywhere.
He had already briefed me in broken English, and this helped me understand his elaborate mime as he showed off each specimen, squeezing and stroking it like a proud farmer with a bumper crop. This sponge for a womans make-up, this for cleaning the car, this for windscreens and this one - Ill leave you to imagine the mime, but it was hilarious - as a prophylactic.
We entered the first of two caverns, my torch revealing crimson, scarlet and lilac encrusting sponges and algae interspersed with golden soft corals.
There were crayfish here, and in one corner Stavros repeatedly ran his hands through a heap of pale debris, throwing it up into slowly settling clouds, though I couldnt follow his mime this time.
The cave led further back through a smaller opening, and I followed him into what seemed to be total darkness. Then I saw reflections above and we emerged into a moonpool, beneath stubby ochre stalactites.
There were cracks in the roof, so we removed our regs, which was when Stavros explained that the debris in the cave had been fossils. Our exit provided a great blue-hole effect.

Politically incorrect
I remember another cave similar to the first, also opening into a pool but beneath an open sky, then we were on a shelving seabed of sand and seagrass.
Now the dive started getting rather politically incorrect, so more sensitive readers, look away now.
Stavros was racing here and there, squeezing out the milky superglue that sea cucumbers use to defend themselves, cracking open urchins to feed clouds of rainbow wrasse from between his teeth, playing with a small inky octopus he had deftly extracted from its lair, larking with crinoids and starfish.
Should I have deterred him Right - try stopping a force of nature for whom the sea has been a workplace and playground for 60 years.
We finned back across the seabed until we found ourselves standing on the little beach beside the restaurant. The dive had lasted some 80 minutes.
As we dekitted, eating the oysters we had collected on route, which tasted just fine without tabasco or lemon, I realised that I had enjoyed this dive immensely.
Independent divers can hire gear and get fills from Stavross shop, and he can point you towards the wonders of the tiny island of Nera, or what he says are wrecked Messerschmidts and Spitfires (sadly it was too windy to dive that far offshore during my stay).
Yes, Kalymnos would be helped by having a marine conservation area, sponge-diving demos, a section of the sunken city open for tours, a permanent dive centre and an airport link with Athens (so far 20 years in the making).
But it has very friendly people, a lively capital with good food and bars, and offers a fascinating insight into an ancient culture in which diving has meant everything.
Its a culture underlined by a visit to the spanking new hyperbaric chamber, one of only three in Greece. Eighty per cent of its clients are working divers.
Out came Anastasis, a man of 55 who told us that he had worked as a sponge diver for 40 years. He plucked hairs from his arms and legs to illustrate that there was no longer any feeling in his limbs.
I will go back to the sea as soon as possible, he told us. Now I feel comfortable only when Im under water.

  • For the full story of Kalymnian sponge diving, read Bitter Sea by Faith Warn (Guardian Angel, ISBN 0953808807)

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    On the way to find the lost city of Potha on one of the last remaining sponge boats

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    Manolis recreates the bad old days of helmet-diving for sponges

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    Diving the wrecks at Liani Punto

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    a nargile sponge diver entering the water

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    remains of a mine at Liani Punto

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    The Pegasus day-boat is used by most diving visitors to Kalymnos

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    The Dodecanese Islands of Greece

    FACTFILE

    GETTING THERE: Kalymnos lies north of Kos, west of Turkey. Fly via Athens to Kos with Olympic Airways, take a taxi to Mastihari on the north coast and a 30-minute ferry ride to Pothia in Kalymnos. An alternative is a 10-hour ferry service from Piraeus on the Greek mainland.
    DIVING: Pegasus Diving Centre, 0030 2430 50750, email skipreos@otenet.gr. Sea World Museum Valsamidis, 0030 2430 50662
    ACCOMMODATION: There are many hotels and apartments. The Elies Hotel is the biggest and is simple but comfortable (2430 47890). It is located inland at Panormos but offers equipment hire and air-fills from this summer. You may prefer to stay in Pothia or on the coast, but it is worth hiring a car anyway (Avis 0030 2430 28990). Another option for a group may be to charter a caique from Kalymnos Yachting Club, 0030 2430 24084).
    WHEN TO GO: May to October
    CURRENCY: Euro
    COST: Return flights from the UK will cost around £200. Accommodation at the Elies Hotel costs from £35 per double room per night.
    FURTHER INFORMATION: 02430 59056, www.kalymnos.gr/diving. For Greece generally visit www.gnto.gr

    SPONGE-DIVING THROUGH THE YEARS
    SKANDALOPETRA - Free-diving for sponges began in ancient Greece, using a 15kg stone weight on a rope, usually to around 30m. This method was used for two millennia - through to the 19th century.

    SKAFANDRO - In the 1860s Kalymnian divers started wearing diving suits with helmets fed by compressed air in order to spend longer periods as deep as 70m. Kalymnos was the worlds prime sponge supplier and productivity soared - as did its first recorded cases of decompression illness. Between 1886 and 1910 alone, 10,000 Aegean sponge divers, mostly Kalymnians, died, while 20,000 were crippled by the bends. Yet the causes of bends had been understood since the 1870s.

    NARGILE - In the 1950s the introduction of synthetic sponges hit the Kalymnians trade hard. The skafandro, along with the fernez, a respiratory mask, continued to be used until the mid-1960s, when the nargile or umbilical system came in, allowing greater mobility for divers.