IT IS 1 MARCH, ON AN AFTERNOON IN KIEV. A snowy mantle covers a landscape that disappears into thick fog.
My Russian and Ukrainian friends welcome me warmly at Borispol airport. Kirill, the Team Oktopus manager, and his mate Gisborn are accompanied by Maxym and Irina from the Dive Xpedition Club at Dniepropetrovsk.
It is Ukrainian tradition to toast our reunion, and also warm up a bit with a nice bottle of Crimean cognac.
Considered the Provence of the former Soviet Union, Crimea enjoys a comparatively gentle climate.
The Black Sea bathes its shores and, after centuries of conflict including most recently two world wars and a revolution, the bed of this enclosed sea has become a submerged necropolis, where numerous wrecks await divers. Kirill and Maxym have set up this one-week trip partly to serve as a grounding for a future diving expedition to Siberia.
We are using a former Russian Navy hospital ship, the Frigate, converted for oceanographic research and diving. This will be her first operational outing, with a diving team of six Ukrainians, two Russians and a Frenchman - me.
We catch a minibus in the direction of Balaklava, where Frigate is berthed, making our way along chaotic roads to Dniepropetrovsk, where we spend the night. Tradition steps in again, with bottles of vodka and other strong spirits laid on.
The following morning, after a regenerating shower and inevitable aspirin, we continue south over snowy plains over which a sad, grey sky hangs. The landscape becomes mountainous as we approach the sea.
Balaklava is a former Russian Navy fortified harbour that once sheltered an ultra-secret base for attack submarines. At the harbour we find other team-members: Sergue, Natacha and Max and Sergue Denisov, a cameraman making a film for Crimean TV.
Waiting on Frigate is Anatoly, a former Navy diver who now ensures the smooth running of the ship. He introduces the crew, including diving manager Misha. Nine divers on a boat built for 18; we arent short of space.
Our first visit is to the wreck of Varna, a former Bulgarian merchant ship that served the German army until an encounter on the morning of 20 August, 1943, cut her duties short.
Varna was being escorted by a destroyer and four fast patrol boats supported by a survey aircraft, but was spotted by the patrolling Soviet submarine D4. Her commander launched two torpedoes from just half a nautical mile away, and a huge explosion occurred as one of her ammo stores was hit. Varna sank quickly in a foaming sea. Three of the crew died.
Sixty years later, the Frigate arrives on the scene, cleaving through a sea disturbed by no more than a few wavelets. Misha shows us the sketch he drew after discovering the wreck shortly before, and helps us to pick out the most interesting sections. Our discussions end as the engines die away.
Sailors float two semi-rigid dinghies, and Anatoly and Misha go down to mark out the wreck for its second visit by divers. On their return, the second dinghy drops Kirill, Maxym and I as close as possible to the mark. We descend through green water reminiscent of the Atlantic, except that here the temperature is only 3C. The Black Sea is rather cool!
Viz is excellent, however, and we can see hundreds of translucent medusas undulating elegantly in the gentle current. Sixty metres down, and about 20m from the bottom, we get our first sight of the Varna, lying upright.
Its magnificent. Big mussels have colonised the metal, and in the absence of fish the wreck, rippling in theincessant medusa ballet, looks unreal.
We run along the starboard side toward the bow to find an enormous winch and an anchor in its hawse-hole.
We stroll along the gangways, and the many openings allow us to enter various compartments easily, but were cautious, and content ourselves with a limited exploration of the site.
Back outside, we head for the stern, partly collapsed and so less interesting on the face of it, though further investigation will no doubt reveal fascinating things.
After some 20 minutes on the wreck, its time to return to the line. The unusual appearance of this huge and well-preserved wreck merits repeated diving, and we are sorry to leave.
The cold is getting to us, and its a relief to finish our deco and reach the Frigate. We dekit and swill hot coffee, still shivering - while Irina, who was wearing a wetsuit, heads for her cabin to try to regain some heat.
Its now 5C outside and the weather has changed. The sky is laden with sinister clouds and the wind whips up foamy crests on the waves. It is decided that we should shelter in Balaklava overnight.
The weather forecast suggests that we are unlikely to dive tomorrow. As we moor up a few hours later, big snowflakes are falling - and ice rounds are forming on the sea surface! We spend a warm night in the wardroom, listening to Philip and Irina sing Russian songs.
Once again cognac, vodka and Crimean champagne have appeared as if by magic, so we do justice to local tradition as a storm rages outside. When we wake late the next morning, were happy to find that the snow has stopped and the sun is shining. What an amazing region!
The sea is still shaken up, however. and no boat diving is possible. We pass the time in the historical city of Sebastopol and, returning at the end of the afternoon, walk up to the old fort above Balaklava. The magnificent view reveals a calm sea - well dive soon.
Long before first light, Frigate has rigged to bring us to another wreck, the Volga-Don. This Russian cargo ship was seized by the Kriegsmarine during World War Two and met the same fate as the Varna. On 25 November 1943 she was cruising with a tanker, escorted by four fast patrol boats, when the Soviet submarine L6 launched a four-torpedo fan against the little convoy.
One of these damaged the Volga-Don irreparably. The crew struggled to keep the ship afloat and get her to safety, but the arrival of a storm combined with the heavy damage saw her sink only two or three nautical miles from the coast. The wreck is marked and the two dinghies bring our three teams as close as possible to the line. Kirill, Maxym and I begin a short descent to the venerable skeleton and are soon joined by the second team.
The Volga-Don lies at 35m, upright on her keel. I am disappointed by the visibility, but remember that the sea had been stirred up the previous day.
We follow the starboard side out of the wreck before exploring various nooks. Entering one compartment, I get a surprise - a fish! Some kind of scorpionfish, it swims hurriedly away in a silt cloud, clearly unused to divers.
A sudden movement outside the wreck attracts my attention. Its no ghost, just Maxym looking at me through an opening. He joins me inside before we emerge to do a complete round of the partly collapsed wreck.
We are fairly shallow, so have time to take in the Volga-Don at leisure. We fly over decks filled with artefacts, planks and barrels, up to a bow surmounted by a splendid carriage. This still supports twin guns, which have bartered their war paint for a shroud of mussel shells.
I take in this phantasmagorical show, as Max twirls around the barrels. Big particles in suspension in the current give the illusion that the wreck is moving. After 35 minutes we call a halt.
On our deco-stop we see Gisborn ascending with one of his regulators frozen. Its the second time this has occurred on the trip. I am preoccupied, cursing a leak in my drysuit. The cold is biting, and all I can think of are the hot drinks waiting aboard Frigate.
The weather changes again. There is no snow or rain, but a heavy eastern wind shakes the sea, so we visit Yalta, famed for the treaty signed between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It reminds me of the French Riviera, with its palm-lined streets, parks and alleys.
That evening a star-studded sky reveals a glassy sea. Expect the Black Sea to be changeable in winter!
I am rocked awake by purring engines, though we have been moving for several hours. This morning we dive the Tsarevitch Alexis, a magnificent yacht that used to belong to the Imperial Family and met a similarly grim fate (the last tsar of Russia, Nicolas II, was executed by the Bolshevik secret police in 1918 with his wife Alexandra, his 15-year-old son - Tsarevitch Alexis - and their four daughters).
Anatoly had shown me an old photograph of the vessel afloat and had told me that the wreck was one of the best-preserved in the Black Sea and one of the best dives. Viz is good, despite all the big particles in suspension. Bolt upright on the bottom, Tsarevitch Alexis appears in its green crystal casket, gorgeous and grandiose. After a century spent 55m down, the wrecks state of preservation impresses. Exploring some of the compartments, we are amazed to find the panelling covering the partitions and floorboards clearly visible under a thin covering of sediment. An accommodation ladder lies pathetically across the planking, and we find remnants of crockery and broken crystal goblets.
Our examination brings us to the round stern that was a feature of such turn-of-the-century vessels.
Over 25 minutes we explore the Tsarevitch Alexis, but its nowhere near enough to take in all this splendour that has been sleeping in the Black Sea.
Its difficult to tear ourselves away, but we must. Anatoly was right, this wreck takes some beating.
Worsening weather stops us diving a German WW1 submarine and WW2 ship, both in 85m. But another expedition is being considered, and in the meantime we anticipate many other interesting wrecks being discovered by Frigates crew.