|Diving at Levezzi may be easy, but you could never say its dull! A gentle current, wind induced as the water squeezes around the adjoining chain of islands, brings plenty of nutrients to this spot, which would otherwise be quite bland topographically.|
Levezzi is famous for being the home of a multitude of large groupers, the size and type of animal that was prevalent in the Mediterranean before the aqualung made spear-fishing equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel - and you wouldnt get many of these brutes in anything but the largest.
Because theyre protected, they flourish here. The only danger they face is from health problems brought about by thoughtless divers tempting them with unsuitable food like bread and frankfurter sausages.
That apart, its sometimes quite daunting to be met by large animals with big unblinking eyes and enormous mouths who hang around waiting for a handout instead of giving the diver the more usual fleeting view in rapidly diminishing perspective as they hurriedly retreat into a hideaway among the rocks.
They make great models for the underwater photographer. They wait patiently for their picture to be taken, even allowing you to get your buddy into a good position. They get distracted only if they hear the sound of other divers entering the water, in which case youre suddenly yesterdays men as they head off in search of a better prospect for a free meal. Youre left with glittering shoals of saddled bream, still ever hopeful of picking up scraps from the groupers abandoned table.
People usually think of Levezzi and its marine reserve as part of French Corsica - which it is - but in fact this famous Mediterranean island sits between Corsica and Italian Sardinia. The majority of the other small islands close by are in Sardinian waters.
For those who prefer cozze marinara to moules mariniere, the north-east coast of Sardinia is just as close and convenient as Corsica, and in some ways there are advantages, especially when it comes to price.
Thanks to the European Union, vessels from Sardinia can operate without hindrance in Corsican waters, and the island of Levezzi falls easily within the range of a days diving trip, even for a vessel that makes only stately progress.
Between Sardinia and Corsica, the chain of 16 islands - including French Levezzi and the Italian islands of Caprera, Maddalena, Spargi, Budelli, Santa Maria and Razzoli - punctuate the sea and form intricate navigation channels. Their natural reefs are adorned with the wrecks of vessels that never reached their destinations.
These range from the Roman wreck at Spargi to the 19th-century wreck of the Clan Ogilvie; from the remains of an ammunition wreck, the Cogliano, and the reef it took with it when it exploded (worth diving for the anecdote if little else!) to a war-time Italian submarine, not to mention a modern 6,000-ton freighter, the Angelica, that foundered in 1982.
To dive the Angelica is reminiscent of a British wreck dive, except that you are rewarded with the sort of view of the dive site that only the clear plankton-free waters of the Mediterranean can provide. Its still fun to visit remaining elements of its superstructure, even though its being severely mauled by the weather.
The Clan Ogilvie is at least 50m deep, and remains the reserve of more experienced divers and those equipped with twin-sets and decompression rigs.
Then there is Seven Wreck Reef, with the remains of at least three vessels! The recent wreck of what might have been a fishing boat lies in the shallower part. Its wood is gone, but its metal-work - including the engine, transmission and propeller - is still very much in evidence.
At the deepest point of the reef, the sandy seabed is covered in shards of amphorae, and divers constantly take the opportunity to sift through the sand in the hope of finding a reasonably intact and therefore recognisable artifact. Of course, taking anything like this from the sea is totally illegal, but with so much of it lying here, some people find temptation is beyond endurance. There is a small cave at around 25m and its floor too is full of broken pottery - very much as if a bull had had its way in a Roman china shop.
The Roman wreck at Spargi is protected by law and you need permission to dive it. But this is Italy, and when I was there I noted unattended inflatables flying A-flags and anchored over it on several occasions. I assume that these divers were just taking their chances with the police patrols.
There is plenty of military surface traffic to watch out for too. The US Navy operates a base on Maddalena and the Italian Navy often visits the picturesque town of Palau close by - not to be confused with Palau in Micronesia.
And if its simply scenic diving that interests you, theres Washington Rock, a submerged sea-mount covered in purple gorgonia and colourful anemones.
Sardinias Costa Smeralda enjoys that name because of the remarkable emerald colour of the water along its shore. It is an area made famous by the Aga Khan, with development of the millionaires playground at Porto Cervo. Naturally, this is a place to see and be seen in, with its glistening white yachts and a distant insight into the way of life of a tiny minority of people who can really afford it.
It is certainly worth the trouble of donning your white trousers and all your jewellery just once in order to strut your stuff along its waterfront - even if youre reduced to gasping drop-jawed at the prices displayed on the menus of the adjacent restaurants.
Porto Cervo and its association with Costa Smeralda makes the whole place sound very expensive, but the extremely English Sardinia Scuba Tours operates out of nearby Cannigione, and has been providing club divers with attainably priced diving holidays for many years.
Its principal Steve Davis admits that the boat they used in early days, Old Bill, was too slow and too small, and the accommodation available in the village for his guests was often considered less than basic.
But things are different now. He runs a 15m traditionally built hardboat called the San Georgio, which is fully equipped with sounder, magnetometer, GPS, computerised chartplotter, oxygen-therapy unit, shaft-driven 20cfm compressor, toilet and kitchen sink!
Nowadays, guests are accommodated in the unadulterated luxury of the Cala di Falco resort, which offers inclusive facilities such as a gymnasium, tennis courts and mountain bikes, in addition to its well-equipped apartments, two swimming pools and an exceptional restaurant - all at very affordable prices.
Other restaurants in the area supply delicious meals for around£10 per head or less, including a jug of local wine. And you cant say youve had a pizza until youve had a pizza in one of these places - theres nothing like it.
Steve Davis is one of those characters who seems to have been on the diving scene forever. His towering frame and close-cropped head has been a feature of the village of Cannigione for so long that hes considered to be a local - and having helped to rescue people whose homes were engulfed by forest fires some years ago has made him a bit of a local hero, even if he does speak Italian with a Southend accent!
There are other diving centres in and around the area, run, in the main, by very friendly locals. However, there is something rather comfortable about being looked after by a Brit who seems as familiar as the Terry McCann character from TVs Minder.
GETTING THERE: Scheduled flights or charters to Olbia, or drive via Toulon.
DIVING DETAILS : Sardinia Scuba Tours can be booked through Lipscombe Travel 01702 351111. Take your E111 and enjoy reciprocated NHS.
ACCOMMODATION : Cala di Falco resort.
LANGUAGE:Italian (and English).
MONEY :Italian Lira.
FOR NON-DIVERS : Good food. Everything a Mediterranean holiday offers, plus numerous sports on offer, such as aerobics, at the resort.
HAZARDS :Mediterranean sun.
BEST TIME TO GO : May to September.
WATER TEMPERATURE : 18-24C.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR : Everyone.
COST :Prices start from£290 per person for a week, including flights, diving and accommodation.
PROS :Easy travel within Europe - you can even drive there. The perfect holiday destination for those with a non-diving family. Large variety of Mediterranean diving, with wrecks from 2000 years old to modern times.
CONS: A short season from May to September which can be marred by high winds (the Mistral) blowing from the Alps.