WHEN I ACCEPTED the invitation to do some wreck-diving in Istria, I have to confess that I needed to fire up Google Maps to work out exactly where I was heading.
I knew it was somewhere on the Adriatic, but what I didnt realise was that this part of the Mediterranean is such a rich ground for shipwrecks.
Istria is the northernmost region of Croatia, forming a triangular peninsula of land around the same size as Cornwall at the very top of the Adriatic, just across the sea from Venice.
The links to nearby Italy are strong. In fact before World War Two this area was part of Italy, and Italian is spoken alongside Croatian.
The atmosphere is Italian too, from the vineyards and olive groves in the countryside to the beautiful old harbours and hilltop towns, complete with Roman remains and Venetian villas. Military action during both world wars in the eastern Mediterranean has sent many ships to the seabed, but my first wreck was a victim not of war but of weather.
The Lina was an iron cargo steamer built in 1897 by Leslie, Andrews & Co in Newcastle, and was originally named the Neuva Extramadura.
A year later, she was sold to a French company and renamed the Ville de Nemours, before being sold again to the Società Adriatica Bari in 1907.
Like those before them, the new owners couldn’t have believed that changing a ships name is bad luck, because she was rechristened as the Lina. She plied the seas between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, mostly transporting oil and wine from Italy to Cardiff and returning with a cargo of coal.
In January 1914, six months before the outbreak of WW1, she left the Italian port of Fiume, at the northern tip of the finger of Adriatic that runs up the east coast of what today is Istria.
Her holds were full of timber destined for Sicily, but within hours of setting out she lost her way in fog in the narrow Vela Vrata Channel between the mainland and the island of Cres.
As the weather deteriorated into a snowstorm, she ploughed into the island and sank quickly, though local knowledge has it that all on-board survived.
The 70m Lina lies about an hour’s boat trip from the resort of Rabac, and is a wreck-diver’s dream. It sits upright and intact on a sloping sandy seabed with its bow just a dozen or so metres from the low cliffs of the island.
Visibility on this side of Istria is excellent, so the Lina can often be seen from the surface as a shadowy outline 27m below. In common with many late 19th-century ships, the bow is beautifully proportioned: slender and with an elegance long since lacking in maritime design.
The seabed at the stern is more than 50m deep, making the Lina perfect for technical divers, but there’s plenty to enjoy without going to such depths. After a century under water the wooden decking has rotted away, leaving its iron skeleton exposed and its cavernous holds open, with the remains of the cargo visible inside.

BOTH MASTS STILL STAND and are draped in fishing-net, the forward one rising to within 20m of the surface.
Two huge Admiralty-pattern anchors and their chains rest on the deck at the bow near the ship’s winches and, although the Lina isn’t heavily encrusted with marine life, sponges add splashes of pink and yellow to the old ship.
A line is permanently attached near the bow but the wall of the coast is seen easily from here and makes a much more interesting route to the surface after exploring this classic wreck.
My next glimpse into the maritime history of Istria came with a dive on HMS Coriolanus (T140). Built in 1940 for the Royal Navy by Cochrane & Sons in Yorkshire, this was one of 12 identical Shakespeare-class minesweepers.
With a crew of 35 and armed with 30 depth charges, three 20mm anti-aircraft guns and one 12-pounder 76mm anti-aircraft gun, she had seen service during the North Africa landings in 1942 and the Sicily landings in 1943.
In the last two years of the war Coriolanus was tasked with clearing the shipping lanes of the northern Adriatic, where thousands of mines had been laid. There were rumours that she was also monitoring Yugoslavian radio traffic.
On 5 May, 1945, just three days before the war in Europe ended, Coriolanus struck a mine just forward of midships on her starboard side while about six nautical miles off Novigrad on Istria’s west coast.
I have yet to find out how many casualties the blast caused, but records tell that the ship sank quickly. Captain George Rundle survived and was mentioned in dispatches that September for “bravery, determination and great devotion to duty in minesweeping operations in the Adriatic”.
HMS Coriolanus now sits upright on a silty seabed 28m deep. Masts, funnel and bridge are gone, swept perhaps after the war. The roof of the mid-deck has caved in, but the rest of the ship remains.
At just under 46m and with plenty to see as shallow as 20m, it’s easy to get a good sense of this wreck in a single dive.
The hole ripped in its side by the mine is unmissable, as are the two AA guns on the bow and the single gun near the stern, all still mounted on their turrets.
The companionways on both sides are reduced to roofless frames but the engine-room and other areas inside the wreck are accessible, though care needs to be taken to avoid fishing-nets that drape parts of the old ship.
Lobsters peer from some of the man-made nooks and crannies and shoals of banded bream and smaller silvery fish swirl around the wreck. The lines of the Coriolanus are blurred now by a thick layer of encrusting seashells and the lobes and cushions of black, yellow and bright orange sponges.

MY NEXT WRECK was the Baron Gautsch, reputedly one of the best dives in the Mediterranean. It’s known as the Titanic of the Adriatic because of the lives lost and the tragic circumstances of the sinking, the mine responsible having been laid by her own countrymen.
The Baron Gautsch was built in 1908 by Gourlay Brothers in Dundee. She was one of three fast passenger steamers commissioned by the Austrian Lloyd shipping company to link Trieste to the southern outposts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, running from one end of the Adriatic to the other.
She had three steam engines and her boilers were fired by heavy oil rather than coal, the latest innovation in shipbuilding technology.
Around the outbreak of WW1 in July 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Navy used the Baron Gautsch for three weeks to transport troops south to Kotor in Montenegro and to evacuate civilians to the northern Adriatic, away from areas threatened by the approaching war.
On 11 August she was returned to the shipping company in Trieste where the ship’s second officer attended a meeting at naval headquarters, outlining the location of the minefields being set to protect the port of Pula on the southern tip of what is now Istria.
After a clear run south to Montenegro she took on more refugees and the families of Austrian officers before heading north back to Trieste.
She then stopped at the port of Veli Losinj in the Dalmatian Islands to take on holidaymakers eager to return home now that war had been declared.
Baron Gautsch left port on 13 August and steamed north, heading within nine miles of Istria, much closer than had been ordered by the military authorities.
Her sister-ship Prinz Hohenlohe was seen heading south some three miles further west, but the officer in charge didn’t alter course.
By lunchtime the captain was asleep in his cabin and the first officer was dining with the first-class passengers.
Austro-Hungarian mine-laying ship Basilisk tried to warn the steamer of the danger ahead – mines she had just laid – but as coffee was being served in the elegant dining rooms the Baron Gautsch struck a mine on her port side.
Survivors tell of the panic that broke out after the explosion among both passengers and crew. The ship quickly took on water, listing to port so steeply that the starboard lifeboats were useless. Six minutes after the collision, she sank.
Three destroyers rushed from Pula and rescued 159 people, but at least 177 died, either killed by the burning oil that spilled from the fuel tanks or drowned. Many were women and children.

TODAY THE BARON GAUTSCH sits upright and remarkably intact on the seabed at 40m, and is protected by the Croatian Ministry of Culture. The wreck can be dived only through centres that hold a permit, and for safety reasons entry is not allowed deeper than the top two decks, though the restriction does little to spoil this stunning wreck-dive.
The bridge has gone but the top deck, which lies at 28m, still bears the lifeboat davits, the remains of air vents and the stumps of the funnels. The forward mast has fallen backwards and rests on top of the superstructure.
Inside the two upper decks the timber flooring, ceilings and ornately carved panelling have rotted away, leaving an open latticework of iron where the passengers once dined and relaxed.
On the bow and stern the steamer’s great winches are frozen in position by rust and encrusting seashells, and its huge anchors still hang on either side of the impressive and elegant bow.
At 85m long and 12m across the beam, this is a big wreck to explore and deserves to be visited time and again.
The sinking of the Baron Gautsch represented the largest civilian loss of life in the Adriatic in the 20th century. Every year on 13 August a service is held above the wreck and a memorial dive takes place to lay a wreath on the ship.
To mark the centenary in 2014 a series of events took place, including lectures and exhibitions of artefacts, photographs and films relating to the lost steamer. There was also a unique underwater exhibition, consisting of 10 large waterproof canvasses fastened to the wreck and showing images of the ship in her heyday.
The pictures of the inside of the ship were hung where they were taken. Looking at images of the first class saloon more than 30m down but where the photographer would have been standing was an eerie, thought-provoking and unforgettable experience.
The wreck diving wasn’t the only great thing about Istria. The region also has a wonderful culinary tradition and, while pizzas and steaks are readily available, there are some fabulous and very reasonably priced restaurants serving local delicacies such as seafood, truffles, honey and olives, as well as the rather good wines from the region.
If a combination of gastronomy and great wreck-diving is your idea of heaven, Istria is the place to head.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE Budget flights from the UK take around two hours.
DIVING Sue Daly dived the Lina with east-coast Rabac Diving, which offers several wrecks, shore-diving and nitrox and trimix fills, www.rabacdiving. com. She dived the Coriolanus with Zeus Faber Diving Centre near Porec, which also visits other west-coast wrecks, www.zeus-faber.com. Diving Centre Indie, also based on the west coast, runs boat dives to the Baron Gautsch and several other wrecks, www.istradiving.com
ACCOMMODATION Sue Daly stayed at the Hotel Eden, Rovinj, www.maistra.com
WHEN TO GO Diving season, April to September.
CURRENCY Kuna.
PRICES Ryanair flies from Stansted to Pula from £32 each way, Jet2 from Manchester and Leeds Bradford, £55 each way. Altum Mare, the Istrian dive-centre association, says a 12-dive package costs 350-550 euros and a six-night accommodation package 180-240 euros. www.altummare.hr
VISITOR INFORMATION www.istra.hr