|Ever since a goddess emerged from the waves about halfway between Limassol and Pafos, Cyprus has been known as Aphrodites Island. This scorching, barren but seductive stretch of coastline quickly became a place of legend and superstition: Bathe in the waters for eternal youth and beauty. Touch the rock to fall in love, ran the stories. |
At the nearby Sanctuary of Aphrodite, priestesses would give themselves to pilgrims. Pafos (and Cyprus) has, unsurprisingly, been a popular destination ever since.
However, as a diving destination, Cyprus has its critics. The wreck of the Zenobia car ferry is often cited as the only impressive site. Of the 50 or so dive centres on the island, only a few are open year-round. But surely, I thought, there had to be other diving to do
Continuous occupation since 7000BC and a strategic location in the eastern Mediterranean have given Cyprus a fascinating history, from the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans, to the British, and finally, in 1960, to independence. Since 1974 northern Cyprus has been under Turkish control, accessible only from Turkey. I visited the southern Greek part and checked out the diving from three separate dive centres - Pafos, Larnaca and Limassol.
Photos Socratous has been running the 20-year-old Cydive centre at Pafos for just over a year. The retail shop and dive school are just two minutes from the picturesque old harbour, the ruins and some of the finest mosaics from the ancient world. We load our dive-gear on to the trailer and dive guide Adam carefully weaves the ancient 4 x 4 between the strolling tourists. This is the original stealth Land Rover, he tells us.
Aboard Cydive I we head out past the 13th century fort to Manijin Island. Adam - built like an Egyptian racing snake - clearly enjoys the kick of 230bhp as he holds the boat on the plane at 40 knots. The journey takes just 20 minutes.
We freefall a wall to 15m, swim past large rocks and negotiate a gully to enter a cave at 6m, exiting, after a short meander, at 5m, where I spot a foot-long slipper lobster. We follow the side of the island to an archway with an overhang to a blowhole at 2m. Its hard to maintain depth and the computer doesnt like it, but we do.
We see little marine life on the dive, though big grouper and large shoals of saddle bream are reportedly found here.
Octopuses are relatively common around Cyprus; their habitat has been improved by the Octopus Garden Project near our next dive site. The okkies seem to like shelters with small porches, which they can block with stones if a visitor becomes too curious.
We visit the Amphorae Caves, 10 minutes from Pafos. This site is even shallower, at 3-7m, with acres of volcanic rock covered by Poseidon or eelgrass and soft fawn-coloured coral. The bottom is peppered with narrow openings, but Adam knows his pot-holes and leads us into a cramped cave where, a metre above our heads, numerous Graeco-Roman amphorae are suspended from the roof. At least 2000 years old, they are rough to the touch.
Clay amphora pots were the standard container of the ancient world for anything from wine to olive oil and fruit. Their bases were pointed so they had to be bedded down, usually in sand and lime, in a ships holds. After a wrecking, sea water would turn this mixture into concrete, and once the wood rotted a slab of amphora-strewn concrete would be left on the sea floor.
Cyprus is in an area of high seismic activity and in this case it is thought that the shifting sea bottom created a gap beneath the concrete. Over time vegetation grew on the new, artificial sea bottom, while the amphorae remain suspended above.
Countless such remains must be strewn around Cyprus and the following day, at St Georges Island, we discover our very own amphorae, probably not seen by human eyes since before the time of Christ.
Other popular sites in the area include Devils Head and Old Nicks Cavern to the north, where a number of swim-throughs, big interconnecting tunnels and shafts of light permeate the volcanic reef. Green and leatherback turtles are apparently seen here in season. This is the Akamas Peninsula, which has been earmarked as an aquatic park; an alliance of divers andecologists is pushing for the banning of spear-fishing by the end of the year.
Thirty or more sites are accessible from Pafos. In sight of the harbour you can dive the old Roman harbour wall, a shallow shore dive at 4-6m, or try Wall Street, the Shoals, the wreck at 11m of the Vera-K, the Achilleas or the famous Jubilee Shoals, a spectacular dive on a submarine cliff face that drops from 17m to 70m, where groupers, octopus and moray eels might be spotted. For more experienced divers there is an extensive tunnel system to explore.
I found Pafos an attractive, friendly place. Divers meet in the Rose Pub and the Aces Bar; kids roam freely and safely, non-divers enjoy the mosaics, the ruins and excursions into the Troodos mountain villages and wineries, the Caledonian Falls, the mill at Kakopetria, or a glass-bottomed boat tour over some of the shallower wrecks.
Thirteen years ago Ian McMurray set up Octopus Diving with 40 and four tanks. Today business is booming, with three departures a day to the Zenobia wreck. Ian has fought to keep his dive centre small, with a high degree of personal service; he likes to dive with as many people as possible. Above all, it must be fun, he says. Ian also blows easily the most impressive bubble-rings Ive ever seen.
As far as he is concerned, the Zenobia is Cyprus diving, and he knows it intimately. It has everything, almost no current, 18-23C water, 30m visibility the norm, and an ideal depth range of 16-42m suitable for teaching anything from basic wreck diving to advanced penetration. And its easy to reach - just five to ten minutes from the shore.
The Zenobia was a 12,000 ton ro-ro ferry built in 1979 in Sweden, 172m with a 23m beam. In June, 1980, she capsized and sank in 42m of water in Larnaca Bay, with a cargo of 104 fully loaded articulated lorries.
There were no fatalities then, but there have been some since, mainly from wreck penetrations. Good outside visibility can easily lure the inexperienced inside, but when contact is made with plasterboard partitions, particularly in the passenger accommodation section, these send out a spurt of fibres that will trash the visibility and make it very hard to find the way back out.
Two lorries are still hanging upside-down by their chains and it is an unwise diver who fins beneath them. Penetration is therefore only for the experienced.
I dive the wreck twice with Octopus instructor Helen Moody. The sheer size of this wreck, seen clearly in 35m visibility, is extremely impressive. At 30m we see small triggerfish and some barracuda off in the distance. I am reliably informed that it is quite normal to see families of metre-long grouper up to ten strong, but unfortunately they keep clear of me on both my dives.
Other sites accessible from Larnaca which are good for less experienced divers include Dhekelia Jetty, which is an entry/exit shore dive with a good variety of marine life and the wreck of an armoured car. At 5m this is a simple dive and can be a long one. At Sheep Dip, divers can enter from the beach or from the rock for a scenic dive with numerous small fish, sponges, octopus, small caves and a natural stone arch all within a maximum depth of 12m.
At Hollow Island there are caves and an octopus garden. Chapel Rock is a 30m site, with a cave, wall and the possibility of turtle sightings. Tunnels and Caves is another popular site, starting and finishing through a blowhole that leads to an underwater playground of caves and tunnels, where bubbles escape through volcanic fissures. And at 30m youll find the Ormidhia (HMS Cricket) wreck, a 65m WWI river gunboat.
I can make any dive site interesting, boasts the enthusiastic Clive Martin, director of Dive-Ins four-centre operation. Formerly something in the city, ex-military, Clive is half-Cypriot and has been operating in Cyprus for nine years. The main dive centre is on the beach at the Four Seasons, one of the best resort hotels in Cyprus.
Investment in the retail shop, dive centres, and purpose-built Pro Dive 48 boat has been substantial. Also in Limassol is a hyperbaric chamber, part-owned by Dive-In, which is permanently available for diving accidents but achieving excellent results in treating many diseases unrelated to diving.
Diving in Limassol usually takes place early, because the wind tends to get up in late morning. Clive regards Cyprus as an ideal destination for divers with non-diving families, so he starts at 8am so that his clients can do two dives and be back with their loved ones by lunchtime.
The Four Seasons is an ideal set-up for this, with a superb pool area providing PADI Bubblemaker courses for kids from eight up, and sheltered 6m beginner dive sites just off the hotel beach.
We begin on Big Country, which shelves from 9-23m through gullies and huge rocks on which dead-mens fingers grow. Its becoming a pattern - grouper, moray and octopus are supposed to frequent the site, which is also a breeding ground for green turtles, so where are they Next comes the wreck of the Pharses II at a maximum depth of 21m, sunk in 1980 and available to penetrate.
The Limassol Fish Farm is a novel experience. The nets extend to a depth of 18m, the bottom to 40m. This is not a dive for beginners but the feeling of overhead environment, the lack of reference points beneath, the engulfing swarms of small fish and the 2.5m tuna which buzz divers all make for a memorable dive. There are often more fish outside the farm than inside.
Past the cape at Limassol we dive Twin Rocks to see wrasse, parrotfish and numerous damselfish around a blowhole at 1m. Another good blowhole site, near the misleadingly named Sharks Cove, is Tombs, so called because of the eroding cliffs above the site, reminiscent of Sinai, which perennially release amphorae into the sea.
We finish with a dive at the Akrotiri Fish Reserve, close to the wrecks of a low-loader and helicopter. Fish are numerous here, mainly because divers have made a practice of feeding them.
Cyprus has been intensively fished for many years and scuba spearfishing remains popular. The results are obvious. I saw very little marine life during my 12 dives over the week, though grouper, moray eels, okkies and turtles were reported from so many different sources that Im discounting the possibility of a PR conspiracy. Just remember that this is not the Red Sea, there is insufficient tidal movement for true corals, marine life is sparser and be prepared to have days when little is seen.
That aside, I enjoyed my week. The dive centres were well-run by enthusiastic, helpful staff and the dive sites topographically interesting. I enjoyed the hunt for amphorae and the ever-present possibility of personal archaeological discoveries.
The weather was a reliable 30C, the water 18-23C, which rises to 26C in late summer. English is widely spoken; they even drive on the left. Prices are reasonable, with petrol about 45p a litre, and the beer good.
With such a lot to see on the island, this is an ideal place to combine diving with a family holiday. Id go back in the hope of seeing the flamingos on Limassols salt lakes in winter, exploring the Troodos mountains and ticking off some of the promising sites I didnt have time for, not to mention searching for the definitive underwater Cyprus picture - an octopus in a Roman amphora!
GETTING THERE: Cyprus Airways (0181 359 1333) flies daily from Heathrow to Larnaca from 139 plus tax and weekly from Heathrow to Pafos. A few specialist UK Greek Cypriot travel operators offer diving packages: Argo Holidays (0171 331 7070) offers flight and half-board packages in a 3-star hotel in Pafos for 519 per person per week in high-season, 445 in low season, plus diving with Cydive and Dive-In. Sunvil (0181 568 4499) offers flight and two-bed apartment in Pafos for 436 (no meals) per week in high-season, 394 in low season. Accommodation is next to Cydive. Cyplon (0181 340 7612) offers one week, flight and B&B, at the 3-star Laura Beach Hotel on Pafos with prices starting at 490. Hire cars can be picked up at the airport. Limani (00 357 2 429457) cars start at 14 per day plus tax and insurance. It is the cheapest of the respectable car hire firms and recommended.
DIVING : All three dive-centres visited can be contacted directly and will arrange transfers and accommodation to suit your budget. Try obtaining flight tickets through Teletext or the Internet. Prices are approximate: Cydive, Pafos (tel 00 357 6 234271; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org): BSAC Ocean Diver 220, Sports Diver 255. PADI Open Water 200, Advanced Open Water 130, combined Open Water and Advanced Open Water 300. Ten dives, tank and weights 122. A new technical diving centre is due to open this month. Octopus, Larnaca (tel/fax 00 357 4 646571; e-mail email@example.com): BSAC Ocean Diver 240, Sports Diver 205, PADI Open Water 175, Advanced Open Water 120. Ten dives, tank and weights 130. Dive-In, Limassol, (tel/fax 00 357 5 311923; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) BSAC Ocean Diver 175, Sports Diver 180, combined 290. PADI Open Water 180, Advanced Open Water 155. Ten dives, tank and weights 155.
ACCOMMODATION : Stephen Lee stayed at the Episkopiana Hotel in Episkopi, handy for the ruins but less so for the diving. Near Pafos, the Cynthiana Beach was more convenient, and even has its own shore dive.
FURTHER INFORMATION : Cyprus Tourist Office 0171 569 8800.
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