|THERES NOTHING LIKE STARTING A TRIP WITH THE BEST DIVE ON OFFER. My hosts, Crystal Seas Scuba, normally insist on a warm-up dive before taking anyone to Pont den Gil, but for me they make an exception. It wasnt my idea, honest. I would have been quite happy sticking with convention. After all, if I was hosting someone with whom I had never dived, I would want to check them out before getting into anything too serious.|
Half-hearted modest protestations aside, I am glad to be under water. Pont den Gil is the name of a headland with an arch though it, but the object of the dive, often referred to by the same name, is a spectacular cave cut back into the limestone cliffs.
After a cavernous entrance that reaches from the surface down to 12m, the cave gently shallows and narrows as we work further inside. The first part is a fairly typical seawater cave, with little to separate it from other big holes cut back into limestone cliffs. Then its character starts to change.
Many of the shallow caves round Menorca have been cut by the sea, but the cave at Pont den Gil was cut by an ancient subterranean streamway, then flooded by a change in sea level.
The consequence is cave formations - stalactites and stalagmites formed by fresh water dripping from the surface of the limestone; thousands of years of accumulated lime-scale.
Near the entrance the formations have been eroded, but further back they are increasingly complete, waxy ripples in the walls as we swim deeper in. Sand banked up towards the back of the cave means that only a few large formations stand up from the floor, pillars to circle as we finally cut under the only part with no clear surface, before popping out at a sandy beach more than 200m into the cliff.
The journey back out is very different. After dipping under the water to get away from the beach, the rest of the swim is on the surface. Stalagmites rise from shelves in the side of the cave and stalactites drop to just clear of my head.
Shadows hint at dry passages continuing above the water. These have been thoroughly explored and extend only a few metres back, but the retired caver in me wonders whether there is still more passage to be found - perhaps buried under the beach at the back of the cave.
Near the entrance, regulators go back in and the dive continues. We exit the cave through a slit in the wall. It is not a difficult dive, but I can see the benefit in taking an unknown diver through some shorter caves first. You wouldnt want a sudden attack of claustrophobia at the back of Pont den Gil.
Some trips just begin in the right frame of mind. This visit to Menorca had been helped by an easy departure from Bristol, my local airport. The drive from Mahon at the east end of the island to Calan Bosc at the south-west tip took a relaxed hour through some varied and surprisingly green countryside. There were even Friesian cows grazing in the pastures.
With the biggest and best cave under my belt, there lurks the possibility that subsequent dives will be an anti-climax. The next couple at Lighthouse and Slipway leave me feeling a little that way. They are pleasant enough, but not in the same league as Pont den Gil.
Then we dive at Grand Canyons. This begins with a drop through a limestone shelf at 5m and out through a cave at 15m. A little way along the reef the canyons begin, just wide enough to swim along, a few metres deep and narrowing above - sometimes to the point of becoming tunnels.
The maze extends in and out from the cliffs across a shelf at 5-10m, formed by an old riverbed long since submerged by the Mediterranean.
I know that countless other divers have been here before me, but it still makes me feel like an underwater explorer rather than simply a guided tourist.
I get a similar thrill of exploration at Cap Negra, a shallow dive in beneath the cliffs, where narrow letterbox openings widen out into bowls that break the surface in air-bells at the back of the caves.
Usually the cliffs go down to the water and a little further, to just below the surface and a shelf at 5 or 10m. Or they might give way to a rocky slope or simply extend down to 25m, where the sand begins.
The shallows are riddled with caves. The whole coastline is like an enormous Swiss cheese, and one of the dive sites at the other end of the island goes by that name because it has so many holes. I dont get to dive there because conditions stay good at this end of the island; Crystal Seas saves it as a fallback site for when the sea gets too rough in the south-west.
Divers come in and out of the centre at Calan Bosc marina as and when it suits them. Quite a few are on repeat trips, mixing a general holiday with the odd dive, stopping by to say hello whenever they walk past and to check out the schedule.
I get the impression that some are frustrated divers on family holidays, sneaking off for the odd 10 minutes to mix with other divers as much as possible, then finding time for a quick morning dive and back to the kids before theyre noticed missing.
Instructors are always in and out, taking kit to various hotel pools for free try-dives. Many of the triers seem to convert to open-water try-dives and full courses.
I only really notice how much training is happening on my decompression day. Start times are staggered, so I had been out diving when training courses had been going on in the shop, and vice versa. I hear of a family of five who had a complete family try-dive and continued with an open-water course, all based in the private pool which came with their villa.
Planned morning and afternoon dives for the week ahead are posted on the notice board and it is easily apparent where the best dive sites are. The cavern at Pont den Gil is understandably popular and dives scheduled for twice a week soon have lots of names signed against them.
Similarly popular is the wreck of the Malakoff, a French steamship which hit the cliffs in a snowstorm on 2 January 1929 - an unusual event in a Mediterranean context.
One of the hassles of photography is making sure I have the right lens for the dive. With a wreck I usually take the widest I have, but I quiz Martin from Crystal Seas about what there is to photograph on the Malakoff and he says fish, lots of them, in particular a big shoal of barracuda.
I can make out a dark shadow on the white sandy seabed as soon as I begin my descent. On the wreck at 38m it is at once apparent what Martin meant about the marine life. I can hardly get a clear view of the vessel for the hordes of damsel fish and anthias swarming over it. Ignoring the occasional moray eel poking its head out of a crack, I strike out for the stern.
The cargo of solidified cement provides bulk and strength to the remainder of the wreck. It is heaped highest near the bow and slowly slopes back to amidships. Steel uprights, all that remains of bulkheads between holds, stand proud of the debris. This is a 9m-high cement reef with bits of metal sticking out of it.
A trio of grey triggerfish tempts me from my circuit, but they dont want to co-operate and I resume my swim towards the stern. All the engine-room machinery is gone. There are no boilers, no engine and no remains of auxiliary machinery or steam pipes, just a big gap in the middle of the wreck left by some long-forgotten salvage company.
The entrance to the propeller-shaft tunnel pokes out of the renewed mound of cement rubble falling from the aft holds. A flange on the end of the shaft shows where the thrust bearing has been removed. The tunnel is blocked by small lumps of cement. Moray eels gently wave their heads from side to side before retreating.
Continuing to the stern on the port side, I run into the barracuda. With these fish Im just a diver who cant say no. The shoal draws me forwards again, back past the engine room and the forward holds. They keep me so busy, I dont have time to get to the stern before I have to return to the anchor line. Warm water above the thermocline is luxurious for decompression.
A few days later were back on the Malakoff. The shot is about 5m off the starboard side and I take a few minutes to drag it into the wreck. The other divers are all practising with technical kit and I had offered to sort out the shot so that they could descend as a group once it was in place.
Again I am distracted from getting to the stern, this time by a selection of moray eels, a shoal of bream, a scorpionfish and the triggerfish again. I eventually get about three-quarters of the way along the wreck when I meet the barracuda, just in time for a few quick photographs before its time to depart.
The Barge is an old crane-barge purposely sunk in 40m, straight out from Citaduella. It has plenty of fish, but little structure other than the box hull. The crane and other machinery were removed before it was sunk. Its worth seeing once, but for a repeated dive the Malakoff is a far better choice.
As a deepwater wreck of limited size it is an ideal deep-dive training platform. Deep enough to score the depth, yet small enough that there is no temptation to stay too long.
Averaging 10m deeper than the Malakoff or the Barge is the wreck of the Francisquita, a 500 ton coaster that sprang a leak and sank just a few miles from port on 17 December 1952.
The seabed is at 49m and the wreck stands 10m clear. For this dive I borrow a twinset and a side mount of deco mix.
With a slight surface current the line is at 45. Rather than spotting the wreck below me, I see it appear from the blue background as I swim along the line towards it. Layout is that of a typical small coaster. Bow, two forward holds, then an aft superstructure with engine room below.
I look round the bows while Martin sorts out the shot, then we head for the stern. The propeller has been salvaged with one or two trinkets, but otherwise the wreck is beautifully complete.
We cut through open remains of stern cabins, the galley and engine room, working up to the wheelhouse, where a large grouper lurks behind the remains of the steering binnacle. It is skittish and disappears out the back.
Above the wheelhouse, a big shoal of barracuda has appeared while we are below. They form a towering spiral round my bubbles while I listen to my camera click and beep out of film. Frustrating, but also a blessing. Had I seen them earlier I could easily have been distracted from seeing other parts of the wreck.
The cave at Pont den Gil is on the schedule again. I am tormented by indecision. Its a spectacular dive, but I already have one film inside the cave and plenty of other caves from this trip. I elect to stay outside and swim round the point, making a circuit back to the boat through an archway in the cliff.
I start with a few nudibranchs, then a jellyfish with tiny fish hiding inside, then spot a pile of shells moving as an octopus pulls them over its den. An empty barnacle is home to a small blenny, then there are a few more nudibranchs of different species. All the while I havent been deeper than 5m, though I can see other divers at the bottom of the wall 20m below.
Two-thirds of the way round I have used a full film and find the best nudibranch yet, 10cm long and bright yellow with black and white fringes. Usually if I have a short dive it is either very bad or so good I have finished the film quickly.
I speed up and rush back to the boat, swap films and restart from the big yellow nudibranch.
|red mullet on the deck of the Barge |
|grey triggerfish |
|propeller-shaft tunnel on the same wreck |
|barracuda on the Malakoff |
|Preparing to dive at Pont den Gil |
|surfacing among stalactites in a cave at Cap Negra |
|letterbox opening to another cave at Cap Negra |
|an octopus hiding in its den |
|some canyons become tunnels at Grand Canyons |
|tiny fish hide inside their jellyfish home |
|a wrasse on the Barge |
|incredible cave formations above water at Pont den Gil |
|Porthole and cabin doorway on the Francisquita |
|John Liddiard had to go back to the boat and change films to snap this nudibranch! |
GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with My Travel from Bristol to Mahon. Package holidays are available from many UK regional airports. Car hire is not essential if you are staying in Calan Bosc.
DIVING: Crystal Seas Scuba, 0034 971 387334, or visit its website www.crystalseas-scuba.com
ACCOMMODATION: John Liddiard stayed in the Valentin Star hotel, 50m from the dive centre. There are many other hotels from basic to luxury resort. Groups of divers generally prefer to stay in apartments and villas. Crystal Seas can advise on suitable accommodation and UK package companies through which to book.
NON-DIVING ACTIVITIES: Usual beach-holiday activities and remarkably green countryside. Local history includes some of the oldest stone ruins in Europe.
COST: A package of 12 dives costs£209 with cylinder and weights. Package holiday prices vary greatly with standard of accommodation and time of year.£200-400 seems the typical range for a week.
BEST TIME TO GO: Summer and autumn, though diving is available year-round and some very competitive winter deals can be had.
water temperature: Ranges from full UK suit in the winter to 5mm steamer or even less in the summer.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone from beginner to technical.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Menorca Tourist Information www.e-menorca.org. Only available in Menorca, wreck and dive sketches by local diver Francis Abbott are excellent.