WE SURFACED TO THE SOUND of goats bleating from the shoreline; they watched us from the shade of a small whitewashed church and some well-tended olive trees. Could there be anything more typically Greek?
The wind had picked up a little while we’d been down, and although the sun shone from a blue sky it was clear that the end of the diving season in the Aegean was approaching.
I’ve lost track of the location of many of the sites I’ve dived in the Mediterranean region. Despite my best efforts, my logbook is a confusion of bad translations, approximations and occasional guesswork.
This time, however, I had snaffled a map from the dive centre and knew exactly where I was – floating in the early-autumn sun in a sheltered bay off an island called Megalo Adelphi (Big Brother) to the south-east of Alonissos, part of the Sporades island group.
The Sporades archipelago is the result of a complicated and turbulent geography that has torn and twisted the bedrock to create vistas under water that look to me to equal, if not outshine, those above the surface.
Every island is riven with deep fissures, faults and cracks, and under water the steep cliffs continue to form sheer walls. Where the “land” levels off, large expanses of posidonia seagrass move in the gentle swell.
Every so often there are large fields of boulders that appear to have been tossed about like a child’s toys, each home to an assortment of blennies, tiny nudibranchs (if you’re lucky) and an almost fractal covering of pink stony algae, solitary button corals and fan-worms.
Overall you’re left with the impression that, yes, it’s lovely and the visibility is superb, but there isn’t that much life. It’s nice, but you want more.
We had just visited a deep wall site, involving a short, shallow pootle from the mooring to a drop-off perhaps 50m deep. The sandy bottom was clearly visible, though the view was obscured by scores of small damselfish.
We had dropped to a little over 30m before Annie, the ever-so-patient dive-guide, turned on her torch. The wall came alive. Bright red and yellow sponges, scarlet cardinalfish and the pink of the deepwater-dwelling anthias contributed to a riot of vivid colours contrasting with the deep blue.
I set about capturing the scene, my strobes picking out every detail. And I have to say that it had an almost Red Sea feel as the pinky-orange anthias (the original species that gives its name to all its tropical Indo-Pacific cousins) hung close to the wall.
“Not bad,” I thought, but I still wanted to see something a little more special.
Many dive-sites in this region are used for training, try-dives and holiday-makers having a quick dive on the side. Shallow sites with sandy bottoms are ideal for completing Open Water courses, and easy moorings save on the costs of keeping a skipper on the boat.
The more advanced sites are off-limits to smaller operators, challenged by costs of staffing, fuel or boat-range.
Add to this the still only-recent easing of restrictions on diving by the government and commercial pressures to keep dive-centre staff bringing in the euros, and not too much exploration is taking place. Regularly used dive-sites aren’t always that interesting to the seasoned diver, and I wanted to see if Alonissos had more to offer.

AFTER A PLEASANT surface-stop spent eating fresh grapes – the goats had thankfully stopped their noisy ruminations – we switched cylinders and prepared for the next dive.
“It’s a small wreck,” said Annie. “It was carrying refugees who had crossed from Turkey.” Naturally I was concerned that this was part of the ongoing human tragedy playing itself out across the Mediterranean, but it turned out that the boat sank more than a decade ago, and with no fatalities.
The small traditional gulet was quite pretty, sitting right-way-up with patches of the original sky-blue paint on its prow.
We spent some time looking for scorpionfish before returning along a line of scattered junk – at some point the ship must have overturned to have lost its batteries on the seabed.
I wondered where the last passengers had ended up after their voyage. The vessel had become a great place to complete a training course, and if it’s your first wreck it’s a good ’un.
That evening I chatted to Kostas, the owner of my host Triton Diving, over some fantastic food at a restaurant in the old town, and he told me of the island’s history.
The old town was pretty much levelled by an earthquake in 1965 and the population moved to the harbour side at Patitiri, which is now the main town and where you catch the car ferry or speedy “flying dolphin” hydrofoil that can have you in Skiathos in 40 minutes.
I’ve often found that Greek islands that require a ferry journey tend to have been saved from the worst of mass tourism, and Alonissos is no exception.
You won’t find thumping bass-lines here, but you will find superb cuisine from family-run restaurants that steer clear of the tourist staples of moussaka and kleftiko.

THE BULK OF THE TOURISTS having flown home, we had the opportunity to try something new. “How do you find new sites?” I asked Kostas.
“You look for interesting landscapes above the sea,” he said, sipping his aniseed-flavoured tsipouro. “Maybe tomorrow we will go to a new site I’ve been told has some nice gorgonians.” My interest was piqued – the biologist in me was itching to see a different Aegean.
At a respectable 9.30am, we gathered to discuss options. The wind had shifted during the night and the weather forecast didn’t match reality.
I got my kit together while the experts made the decision. The new site would be put on hold – we would explore some well-known caves instead.
I’ve always been wary of cave-diving, aware that I have no recognised training in this branch of our hobby, though I’ve been in plenty of holds, companionways and engine-rooms and my buoyancy control is fine. Annie assured me that these were more like swim-throughs with wide entrances, and well-lit.
After a short RIB ride we were on the eastern side of Skopolos and moored up. It was a bit breezy but diveable.
We dropped into a landscape of jumbled boulders amid fields of posidonia. Within the seagrass beds was a complex habitat of fan-worms, large pen-shells (once threatened and taken for the mother-of-pearl trade) and fish (mainly small wrasse and bream).
Some of the fish, such as the ornate wrasse, rival anything from tropical waters, though they’re always on the move and hard to shoot.

ANNIE SIGNALLED THE CAVE ENTRANCE at around 14m and sent me in before her. I wanted to photograph her swimming into the cave-mouth and she obliged. The cave, more of a cavern really, was several metres across, lit by other smaller entrance “windows” and full of delicate life. Small chrome-yellow cup corals punctuated the reds and oranges of sponges.
The floor was a jumble of smoothed pebbles like a riverbed, perhaps a relic from the water flow that formed the cave when the sea level was so much lower.
Whatever the cause, it was nice to avoid the risk of kicking up silt, though as the cave exit approached I needed to trim my buoyancy before I hit the roof, as we were exiting a few metres shallower than the entrance.
As we returned to the mooring, I wondered how many more caves have yet to be explored in this fractured landscape that will require time, patience and technical gear to find, let alone to fully explore.
The following day the wind had shifted again and we were able to head west as planned, to the channel between Alonissos and Skopolos and to the westernmost tip of the island.
The cliffs were sheer and barren, with scrubby pines.
Not knowing entirely what to expect other than a tip from fishermen about gorgonians, Kostas would stay with the boat after dropping us close to the wall to provide surface support and watch for our SMBs.
The sounder had registered a good 50m: we expected a wall and we found one!
We were prepared for current, but fortunately it was only mild. We dropped quickly past 30m. The gorgonians would be deep, where they could grow without being clouded by light-loving algae.
We saw the wall change from being dominated by the typical Mediterranean algae and sponges to a landscape rich with seafans, finger sponges, lace corals, zoanthids and button polyps in yellows, reds and oranges. Were those purple gorgonians? I squeezed off several shots and positioned fellow-diver Stathis as my model. He kept signalling a double OK, clearly enjoying the scenery.
Some gorgonians were a rich maroon, looking deep purple without a light. My modelling lights revealed a mixture of deep burgundies, tinted a vibrant purple.
As we finned a little south, keeping to 35-40m, the habitat became richer. Anthias were everywhere, the longer-finned males holding court over their harems, and it reminded me of Shark Reef in Egypt’s Ras Mohammed. I had never seen anything like this in the Med.

WE KEPT THE DIVE short and built in a conservative safety-stop, but I had to return. Back on the boat, the normally quiet Stathis told me he’d never seen anything like it – gorgonians, yes, but not in such profusion and in so much colour.
We planned to return, and the next dive would be all about macro.
That night, as I reviewed the wide-angle pictures, I could see evidence of discarded fishing-nets hung on the wall.
This reminded me that Alonissos is part of a marine protected area, which has perhaps some work to do yet.
I was told that fish stocks had yet to increase and that many fishermen were selling their boats.
On a number of evenings, perhaps hypocritically, I dined on fish.
It was the day before I had to fly home when we once more dropped to the same depth as before. The gorgonians were growing at right angles to the current; delicate branches reaching out into the channel.
As I finned along, taking pictures of nudibranchs, a whopping scorpionfish and a multitude of polyps and anthias, I came across some very thick growths and, at the same time, a cold, cold current hit me, coming from the deep.

COULD THIS BE THE CAUSE of the richness of the life here? Were the upwelling currents combining with the surface current to provide enough nutrients to maintain this tropical-like growth? The evidence strongly suggested so – the thousands of anthias had to be feeding on something.
I found myself butting up against the limits of recreational diving, and had to return to the everyday Aegean.
For the first time in the Med I found myself thinking how nice it would be to have technical gear – and, of course, the training to go with it.
Even the spectacular gorgonian growths in Spain’s Medes islands are outclassed by this remarkable wall-site.
Back on the boat, we cast our eyes over the cliff. Where it met the sea to the south was a sharp promontory – would the currents continue to mix there? To the north the wall continued – would there be caves down there, perhaps, also colonised by these remarkable gorgonians?
It’s likely that no one will know for some time just what this site offers, as winter and pressing maintenance on the boat and centre calls, but how many more such sites or even better await discovery?
I hope that dive centres take the initiative in seeking such exciting sites.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Richard flew to Skiathos with Olympic Holidays. These flights are available from several UK airports from May to October – outside the holiday season flights need to be booked to Athens or Thessaloniki. A 90-minute ferry service connects Alonissos to Skiathos and several mainland ports, www.openseas.gr.
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Triton Dive Centre, Patitiri offers nitrox to 40% and daily dives in summer, as well as dive-and-stay packages, www.bestdivingingreece.com
WHEN TO GO: Summertime, May to October.
MONEY: Euros.
HEALTH: The nearest hyperbaric facility is in Thessaloniki, a 40-minute helicopter flight away.
PRICES: Triton dive-and-stay packages, with 10 dives and self-catering accommodation, start from 445 euros. Return flights from London Gatwick to Skiathos cost around £290, and the ferry to Alonissos and back costs around 30 euros.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitgreece.gr, alonnissos.net