|THE NAME CROATIA MIGHT HAVE BECOME SYNONYMOUS WITH CONFLICT IN RECENT YEARS, but as far as Croatians are concerned the Balkan crisis is history, and their Adriatic coastline the perfect place for a diving tourist - especially one with a camera.|
I am curious about the destination, having visited it many years ago before I knew anything about diving. I remember the colour of the water, an incredible, almost tropical blue.
I decide to drive the 300 miles from my hometown in Italy to Ancona, and take a ferry from there. Early the next day I arrive in the city of Split, set on a long, mountainous coastline.
Split is the capital of Croatias Dalmatian region. It grew up around the Roman emperor Diocletians palace, which remains one of the worlds best-preserved ancient buildings.
I dont have time for sightseeing here, however - I am taking the next ferry to Korcula.
Korcula is said to be one of Croatias most beautiful and also one of its biggest islands, with 112 miles of jagged coastline. Stepping off the ferry, I am overwhelmed by the perfumes of rosemary, sage and lavender. The old Greek name for the island, Korkyra Melaina, reflected its dense covering of pine trees, though these have been whittled away over the years for boat-building.
The underwater world of Korcula is, however, only now being revealed to diving tourists. My base in the north-west of the island is Vela Luka, a small town where ancient Romans used to relax between wars. From Vela Luka, which means big bay, we can head north or south to dive.
Today my guide Franco, co-owner of the Posejdon Croatia Dive Centre, has anchored his inflatable on the south coast. Between 10 and 15m, he says, we will find walls rich with life.
We follow the anchor chain down and head out along a wall covered by sea fans and encircled by flocks of anthias. Big branches of red coral can be seen growing from the cracks.
Sponges are everywhere: the Greek bath sponge (Spongias officinalis), so dark we see them only when up close, and the verongia, golden-coloured sponges that grow to no more than 20cm and are heavily concentrated on the rocky walls.
The yellow or orange antler sponges (Axinella cannabina) are showier, and some are more than a metre high. Attached we find squid eggs and featherstars, but the tissues of other antlers have been invaded by Parazoanthus bushy coral polyps.
At first we think we have come upon branches of black coral (Gerardia savaglia), but realise our mistake as we get closer. Though disappointed that it isnt black coral, this growth is a curious phenomenon I have read about but never before seen.
Nearby we count numerous tiny Hypselodoris tricolor nudibranchs, coloured an intense blue with a white or yellow line on the back, feeding on Cacospongia sponges.
Before returning to the dive centre, Franco takes us to a small bay to visit one of his friends. Gecko shows off a collection of amphora necks and, with the help of some local red wine, tells us tales of treasures from sunken Greek boats and Spanish galleons and about the wrecks of aircraft from World War Two.
Next morning the sky is cloudy and the sea calm, but a sirocco wind is predicted for late afternoon. Franco has decided to show me some caves. We enter the Blue Hole only 9m below the surface, and follow a big chamber downwards. The walls are covered in multi-coloured sponges, and near the exit point at 35m the deep colour of red coral branches is revealed in our torch lights.
Another cave, called Onion, has an ample entrance at 15m. We move in for some 60m, noting a muddy backdrop relieved by the cerianthus anemones typical of this environment. Encrustations on the walls hide prawns and small crabs.
A white spirograph signals the halfway point, and here the cave starts its descent to 30m. There is plenty of space and the dive presents no difficulties so long as you have a good torch.
Our diving on Korcula continues in caves, on walls and pinnacles. On one such dive we see an abundance of lobsters which, quite unflustered, come out of their dens to observe us up close, not hesitating to touch my dome port with their antennae.
Night dives take place from the shore or from the boat. I particularly enjoy one such dive about ten minutes ride out of the bay, around a small rock-cliff.
I come across numerous squat lobsters, again unconcerned by our presence, along with lobsters, crabs and shrimps. At the end of the dive, an octopus and a squid put in appearances.
Another night dive in the bay reveals many blennies and Alicia mirabilis anemones with their stinging tentacles. These come out only at night. On my way back to the surface, I spot cowrie shells among some of the sponges.
Sponges might make their presence felt in Korcula but echinoderms abound in an astonishing variety of forms. I could well believe that every type of Mediterranean starfish exists here, and I saw hundreds of sea cucumbers.
Korcula is a pleasant place for a break - Dalmatians tend to be cordial, easy-going and noisy, and show a genuine desire to offer the best of everything to the guest.
Between dives, I enjoy the local food - grilled meat and smoked ham, salted pilchards, sheeps cheese, paprika salami, Slavonian spicy sausages and so on. Specialities are Dalmatian brodet, a kind of fish broth, and pasticada, beef braised in herbs.
Croatia also has an ancient wine-growing tradition, while the local sljivovic can always be relied on to raise the spirits.
Time passes pleasantly both above and below Korculas waters. For the photographer there are many treats and much, I imagine, still to discover.
|Torpedos still loaded || |
|SOUTH OF KORCULA IS A VERY DIFFERENT UNDERWATER ATTRACTION, but only under the eye of accredited dive guides. This is where youll find the wreck of the German torpedo boat S-57, one of the most prized dive-sites in the southern Adriatic and protected by law. |
S-57 was one of a very successful class of small torpedo boats produced around the start of World War Two. Her hull was steel-framed, with mahogany panels. Prow, deck and superstructure were partially lined with steel plate.
The torpedo tubes were built into the prow, with a high freeboard providing good protection from the waves.
She coped well in difficult seas, and her three diesel engines made her fast - S stands for Schnellboot.
LAUNCHED IN APRIL 1940, for three years S-57 served in the North Sea. In 1943 she moved to the Tyrrhenian Sea and at the start of 1944, as Anglo-American forces advanced in Italy, was transferred to the Adriatic.
There, under the command of Frigate-Lieutenant Hans Georg Buschmann, she joined 3S Flotilla. Operating from Dubrovnic, she helped protect German convoys from British naval attacks and emerged from a few skirmishes without serious damage.
ON THE NIGHT OF 17 AUGUST, two British motor torpedo boats, MTB 657 and MTB 653, and a motor gun boat MGB 658, based on the island of Vis, attacked a German convoy of six ships proceeding from Korcula to Dubrovnic. Five German ships were sunk.
The German naval commander for southern Dalmatia ordered a group of what he called charging boats, protected by five torpedo boats, to search the battle site and the nearby shore of Peljesac for survivors.
S-57 was one of the five torpedo boats which followed the charging boats towards the Mljet channel at dusk on 18 August. At 3.50 the next morning those same British boats ambushed them. S-57 came under heavy fire and went up in flames, lying still in the water as the crew tried to dowse the fire.
After 10 minutes both sides suspended fire and the other German boats came to the assistance of S-57. They tried to tow her away but, finding no suitable shallows in which to strand her, explosives were placed in her hull and she was scuppered.
TWO CREW-MEMBERS HAD BEEN KILLED AND NINE INJURED. Commander Buschmann was saved and later took command of one of the other torpedo boats present that night, S-60, later to be destroyed by the British.
S-57 went down off the south coast of Peljesac, at 42 51 2N, 17 30 E (degrees, minutes and seconds), about two nautical miles east of the Lirica lighthouse near a small wooded bay.
The remains lie on a steep, sandy bank with the bow facing the shore. The tip of the prow is at 26m and usually has a buoy attached.
THE SEA IS ALMOST ALWAYS CRYSTAL-CLEAR, allowing divers to survey the length of the ship from the prow.
It looks like a big spine, with regular steel profiles which preserve the distinctive shape of these German torpedo-boats, which are slim with tall sides and a short superstructure.
The wooden panelling has almost rotted away, giving the diver a unique opportunity for close examination of all parts of the boat without having to squeeze into the cramped interior.
The bow contains torpedo tubes with flaps for firing on the left and right. Beneath them, swimming between steel ribs which are now covered in sponges, you will usually see a shoal of black umbers.
THE NEST FOR THE 20MM BOW-GUN is built between the tubes, though the gun has gone - a surviving crew-member allegedly took it to Germany some years ago. Behind the wave-rampart is a complete anchor-windlass, its cogwheels decorated with red sponges.
To the rear of the left torpedo tube, the flap is missing and the rudders and screw of one of the torpedoes are sticking out of the pipe.
In front of the bridge, the ship is broken in half, though both halves are still joined at the keel, where the explosives were detonated. Only the base and the edges of the wheelhouse walls are left. Two reserve torpedoes remain attached to the deck-rail.
THE DEPTH UNDER THE STERN IS 38M. Here you will find a double-barrelled 20mm anti-aircraft cannon and shield. The gun is so well-preserved it can still turn.
One of three bronze screws projects from the sand, and through the cross-brace of the hull you can peep into the engine-room. The diesel engines are all in place, with a forest of pipes and wires attached, and oysters hanging all around.
The inside is messy. The crews quarters in the bow are relatively spacious, and among pieces of wooden furniture covered in mud are remains of trunks with tin cans and other small objects.
Older visitors remember seeing soldiers shirts embroidered with the German eagle, dishes with naval insignia and other personal objects.
|Featherstar attached to red gorgonian |
|every type of Mediterranean starfish seems to thrive at Korcula |
|diving in the Blue Hole |
|Diver with antler sponge |
|Not the Mediterraneans black coral (the black part being the skeleton) but the similar goldenzoanthid |
|Tompot blenny |
|A double-barrelled 20mm anti-aircraft cannon and shield is mounted at the stern of S-57 |
GETTING THERE: Return flights from the UK to Split start at around£260. Ferries leave daily for Vela Luka.
DIVING: Posejdon Croatia Diving operates from a private beach in Vela Luka bay and offers SSI courses at all levels. It has a twin-engined motorboat that can take 25 divers, and two inflatables. The centre can arrange diving on the S-57 torpedo boat wreck, at a cost of£21. A standard 10-dive package costs from£130. Tel/fax: 00385 0813508, www.croatiadivers.com
ACCOMMODATION: Posejdon Croatia Diving is part of the Hotel Posejdon and you can stay in the hotel itself or in beachside apartments. Cost is between£12 and£23 a night half-board.
WHEN TO GO: May to October.
CURRENCY: The kuna, but all credit cards accepted
FURTHER INFORMATION: Croatia Tourist Office, 020 8563 7979, or for dive centre, www.korcula.net