THE DREADFUL, EUROPE-WIDE weather of May and June that caused such flooding and a substantial loss of life and property across Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic has been pounding the Dalmatian coastline with unseasonal winds and several weeks of rain.
“This is the worst summer we’ve had for ages,” says Igor, as we head out of the harbour at Bol on the Croatian island of Brac. “Normally, it’s calm here at this time of year.”
As we motor towards the island of Hvar in his glass-fibre boat (converted to diver use with removable rear transom and dive-ladder) it looked pretty clear to me. “It’s good now, but this is a break.” He points into the flat blue. “The vis is terrible.”
This may be a problem. I want to photograph shipwrecks, and I’m lugging a big camera with me.
I’m spending a few days on the Dalmatian coastline. I’d had an easy flight from Manchester into Split the day before, and after a wander round the old town and its colourful markets, I had walked to the top of a forested hill known as Marjan to get a view of this ancient port from the pines.
It’s hard to imagine that Split was once shelled with high explosives in that complicated and bloody conflict in the 1990s. My driver, Ivica, says he can just remember the sirens, explosions and the circling helicopters.
Today, this World Heritage Site is thronged with tourists, exploring the city’s old town, boutiques and exceptional cafes. The countryside is
still littered with gun emplacements, unexploded mines and, maybe it’s just me, but some of the older men sitting and chatting on the benches around the market look as if they’ve seen too much.
The ports of Split, Zadar and Dubrovnik have been fought over for centuries, with the islands of Brac, Hvar, Vis and Korcula in the busy Adriatic being of significant strategic importance since ancient times.

MY FIRST PORT OF CALL is Brac (pronounced like “hatch”), the closest island to Split. As the ferry pulls into the main town of Supetar, I get a look at the island. The countryside here is wild and now mainly devoid of farms, though small-scale viticulture produces some excellent if strong wines.
The limestone landscape is dominated by fragrant pines, myrtle, wild olive and rosemary, and the absorbent rock means that few, if any, streams dump sediment into the Adriatic to ruin the normally excellent visibility.
On the mainland there are wolves, cougar and bears in the wild mountains, but not here in the tame landscape of the islands.
My first appointment is with two men, both called Igor, from Big Blue Diving, based in Bol on the southern side of the island. Bol is a colourful town and, like much of the Dalmatian coastline, it hasn’t been spoilt by the tourist developments of the past few decades. What development there has been tends to be small-scale and tasteful.
Igor cuts the throttle and “Young Igor” fusses with ropes and anchors while I ready my camera kit and feel uncomfortable in my 5mm suit. The sun is beating down and we are in the lee of a promontory on the northern flank of Hvar, fifteen minutes out of Bol.
Once the boat is anchored we get our kit ready. Thoughtfully the crew have provided me with a 15-litre – I always chew through my air when I have the camera with me.
Igor shows me his hand-drawn map of the site. It’s a long promontory that sits under the surface at around 3m before dropping both sides to more than 60m.
The water is around 20°C as we take a giant stride off the boat, though it quickly drops to around 17° below the thermocline – I’m glad of my thick suit.
Young Igor gives me the OK signal and we descend a few metres and fin gently to the tip of the promontory.

THE VIS IS ATROCIOUS compared to a normal summer in the Adriatic, just over 10m, I’d say. I extend my strobe arms as far as they’ll go to control backscatter as much as possible.
The seabed is covered in the usual mass of short seaweeds, with occasional yellow sponges. The odd crack with piled-up shells around it marks the lair of an octopus. These often feature on Croatian menus, sometimes cooked in a traditional iron cooking pot known as a peka, which is cooked in the ashes of an olivewood or old vinewood fire.
The terrain changes abruptly as we pass over the drop-off and begin our descent to 40m. We take our time, keeping close and equalising frequently.
On reaching our depth, Igor cranks up his torch and I turn on the LED modelling lights in my strobes and for the first time get a view of the breathtaking colours. From a world of deep blue with little colouring, my senses are overwhelmed.
I can feel a hint of narcosis, and indicate that we should ascend a few metres. As we do so, I look more closely at the reef wall. It is far more colourful than any tropical coral reef. Red and yellow sponges grow amid yellow, red and pink gorgonians, 30-40cm across.
Delicate, spidery featherstars clamber across pink algae that is laying down calcium in its stony growths to create a deeply textured habitat for small purple nudibranchs and tiny yellow gobies.
The biologist in me could spend hours here just noting life that is ever more complex the closer you look – almost fractal in nature. Why did I leave my macro lens at the hotel
All of this life survives without light. A quirk of topography has provided a place where these animals can capture passing planktonic food that rains down from the sunlit uplands above.
There is no secret to why these habitats exist in the shade and the dark. If they were any brighter they would be overgrown by algae; any shallower and they would be damaged by the winter storms.
After off-gassing on the finely pebbled beech of Zlatni Rat, I ask the Igors about wrecks. “You’ll get some wrecks on the next island, Vis,” they say.
Our second dive-site, further along the coast, is one I can’t pronounce. They write it for me, giggling. “SmoCiguzica means ‘wet arse’,” says Igor.
“I’ll be putting this in the piece, you know,” I reply. “You wouldn’t be taking the piss”
It seems that when map-makers came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which once ruled this part of the world, the locals were unhelpful and would offer names that were “biological”, “instructive” and may have featured the mapmakers’ mothers – or all three.
“What was the name of the first site” I ask.
“Zala Luka. It means ‘evil bay’,” says Igor, with a shrug.
The next day I leave early to get the ferry from Brac to Split and then back out to Vis, the furthest-flung island. I have been promised exceptional diving including several wrecks, though as the ferry clears the shelter of Split the wind picks up, as does the swell, and I hold my cappuccino tight. Have I mentioned that Croatians make excellent coffee
Vis (pronounced vees) town is a welcome sight. The narrow-necked harbour is full of yachts, which I ogle as we disembark.
I am staying in the sleepy fishing port of Komiža on the south-west coast, and as we drive past largely abandoned farms and vineyards, I ponder the history of this small patch of green.

VIS HAS BEEN OF STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE since humans first sailed the Adriatic, but in more recent times it was a military base, with no tourism allowed.
With no sources of income other than simple farming, most folks left and the island has mainly reverted to scrub and forest.
Tours will take you deep into caverns that were used as military bunkers from WW2 and later under General Tito’s command. In the central plateau you can still make out the runway of an airbase that hosted Allied air-crews. A rarely visited B17 bomber lies on the seabed beyond 60m. Sadly, I wouldn’t be visiting that.
The next day I call at ISSA Diving Centre in Komiža. This charming little centre sits on the beach a stone’s throw from my apartment in one of the very tall houses that cluster around the harbour. Reluctant to spread into expensive land, they’ve been built upwards instead.
“We have a very nice wall today, for the seafans,” said Siniša Išakovi, the centre’s genial owner. I point at the superb illustrations of wrecks on the wall – the Teti, the Brioni, the Vassilios - and ask if we can make one later.
The answer is a firm “ne”, but I have to respect Siniša for putting our safety before my write-up.
I join a group of mainly German divers and buddy with an English chap. We swim to the boat before heading out on a 20-minute trip round the headland to find shelter from the wind, which seems to have picked up a little.
I have read that the locals can judge the weather by the afternoon wind. If a mistral is blowing they know it will be the same the next day, and if not a change is coming. The flat calm of the day before is indeed telling me something.

ON ENTRY, the seabed is much the same as I have seen before. A few holes mark octopuses’ lairs and pretty soon we drop over the wall.
This wall is even better than the one at Brac. Fish-life is much more extensive, with shoals of bream, damsels and some deepwater anthias that show off their pinks and oranges only in a torch-beam.
The gorgonians are superb again and, as I hit my 40m, I can see some of the group below me, looking under overhangs and in crevices for lobsters and conger eels.
We ascend to a more comfortable 20m and into a series of rocky valleys. This is when the current hits.
Divers with big cameras do not fare well in current. The lack of streamlining requires us to fin harder and in the end, like my fellow-divers, I hunker down and use one hand to help pull me along the seabed – inelegant but necessary.
I am also aware that, wearing unfamiliar fins, I am developing cramp. I look down at my buddy, who must have been thinking: “What on Earth is he doing”, and battle on.
I’ve had worse currents in the Maldives but it’s enough of a doozy to have me emptying my cylinder at a shocking rate until eventually we clear a promontory and are in calmer waters again. An exciting dive, but my tank has dropped to 50bar.
I have to stay very shallow, so I look for scorpionfish and, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully, for seahorses.

FEELING A LITTLE SORRY FOR MYSELF, I retreat to a restaurant, eat large amounts of pizza and ice-cream and ponder my poor fortune. Staring at the yachts doesn’t help. Freelance journalists tend not to own yachts and I’m unlikely to become an exception to this rule.
After a good night’s sleep, aided by some excellent wine, I contact one of Vis’s other dive-centres and take the 6-mile trip back to Vis town to hook up with Anma Diving.
Anma is run by a father-and-son team. I am to dive with Antonio, a huge bloke who smokes copious cigarettes and has a tattoo of Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart on his shoulder.
We discuss where we might go. “Well, the best wrecks are not good in this weather,” he says, pointing to the whitecaps on the water, “but we could do the amphorae.”
For me wrecks tend to be very photogenic places and support a lot of interesting marine life but their history and engineering often leaves me a little cold. Now, however, I am enormously excited that we will finally get to dive some sort of wreck!
We head out of Vis harbour, turn west and moor up in the lee of a small island that plays host to the port’s lighthouse.
Again, a warm smell of pine and rosemary is blowing off the land and the sun is strong between some dark clouds building to the north.
The plan was simple – follow Antonio to 20m for the main bulk of the wreck, and then a little deeper if we so desire.
Anyone who has dived ancient wrecks knows what to expect. Any organic material has long disappeared and all that remains is the cargo, cannon or anchors in a ship-shaped configuration on the seabed.
Antonio had told me that this was a Roman vessel bringing amphorae to the island to fill with wine. As we fin down a gentle slope I wonder what befell it. Was it wrecked on shore, had a fire occurred or was it attacked We’ll never know.
The ship must have been well-laden, because as we approach what was once cargo I am surprised to see just how extensive the field of broken pottery is.
Individual amphora with handles intact are still visible. Small gobies swim among the fragments and our torches pick out bright red sponges that have colonised them. I assume the currents have kept this field of ancient ceramics free from sediment.
Antonio signals me to continue down, and we reach around 35m to view a single amphora that seems to have rolled down the slope to come to rest on its own. Only the point of amphorae is their birds-egg shape – they sit against each other for ease of packing in ship’s holds, and can’t roll far, or in a straight line.
Antonio signals a wall close by. I laugh through my reg and try but fail to communicate: “What, another, don’t be daft!” I settle for the thumbs-up sign.
Antonio tells me that later that he thinks the amphorae are being taken, and that someone had freed up the single one we’d found. “There are some in the museum,” he says, and I guess he fears the wreck will be plundered.
The Dalmatian coastline hits the spot for its superb scenery, wildlife, history and a rich food culture. Next time, I plan to hire a car and travel the coast farther north, stopping off at smaller towns en route and taking a few days in the southerly city of Dubrovnik – before trying my luck with the wrecks again.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Flights from UK airports take 2-3 hours, www.jet2.com. Regular car and passenger ferry services to all the islands, www.jadrolinija.hr
DIVING ISSA Diving, Komiž a, Vis, www.scubadiving.hr. Big Blue Diving in Bol, Brac, www.big-blue-diving.hr. Anma Diving, Vis, www.anma.hr
ACCOMMODATION Bluesun Hotel Elaphusa, Brac, www.hotelelaphusabrac.com. Lavanda apartment at Villa Nonna, Vis, www.villa-nonna.com
WHEN TO GO Summer.
MONEY Croatian kuna.
PRICES Flights from Manchester to Split cost from £50 one way with Jet2. Bluesun Hotel from £100 B&B, Villa Nonna from £34 per night, both two sharing. Ferry Split-Brac £3.70, Split-Vis £6.15. One boat dive with Big Blue Diving £22.
FURTHER INFORMATION www.croatia.hr, www.visitsplit.com, www.tz-vis.hr