|GOOD MORNING, MR JOHN is a greeting I am becoming used to in Crete. At first I think that it is a mistranslation, or perhaps a confusion of first and last names. A bit like me getting Chinese names confused when they are written with the family name first. |
Then, over a beer one evening, I ask my host Pavlos about it. He explains that its a straight translation of a Greek form of address that is a little more formal than John, yet much less formal and more friendly than the awkward Mr Liddiard would be.
Good morning Mr Grouper, I mumble through my regulator while diving at Kamini 2. I dont know if its Mr Groupers first or last name, but any large grouper deserves whatever respect I can offer it, especially as he and his friends are taking turns to come in close for a free hand-out of sardines.
At the top of the food chain, a good population of grouper needs an equally good population of smaller fish to sustain it. The odd sardine hand-out may draw grouper close, but wouldnt affect their feeding habits with respect to the shoals of bream and clouds of wrasse that fill the otherwise clear blue and typically Mediterranean water.
Groupers in tow, we swim along the slope. A broken amphora rests beneath a section of wall. It could be ancient, or it could be much more recent. Either way, it is a reminder of the wealth of archaeological heritage in these waters.
Its the sort of trinket found on just about every dive site, the ancient Greek equivalent of a bottle thrown overboard while sitting in a small boat with a fishing line over the side.
Its not important enough to warrant archaeological protection. In fact, when you look at the chart of the coastline, few places are actually protected sites and the vast majority is open to diving.
Kamini 2 is typical of a whole stretch of dive sites along a few kilometres of cliff face. After a shallow shelf, the rock slopes away at an average of 45%, separated by sections of vertical wall and patches that are closer to level.
The Crete Underwater Centre and other dive centres of Agios Nikolaos maintain a chain of buoys fixed every few hundred metres so that no-one has to anchor, from Kamini 1 in the south to Plevra 2 in the north, then Kavo at the point and just round it.
Dive centres have an informal agreement with local fishermen that this stretch of coastline will not be fished inshore, and it largely seems to hold, with only the occasional weekend fisherman sneaking in. Elsewhere in the world it might be called a voluntary marine reserve. Here it is just friends and family getting along. Everyone seems to know everyone else.
Bicycle thief Despite being the biggest of the Greek islands at 155 miles long, and with a bustling tourist industry, life ashore is more like that of a small village.
British expat instructor Gary moved here with his family for, among other things, the good schools and almost non-existent crime rate. The last vehicle-related theft was a bicycle taken from outside a bar six months ago, a crime serious enough to make the papers. It was returned a few days later.
After the odd shards of pottery, the next most common diving find is ammunition from World War Two. Continuing north from Kavo, across the next bay and around the corner, we dive a couple of sites that are simply called Explosion 1 and Explosion 2.
Sitting at the top of the cliff, these were once a pair of big coastal defence guns. Legend has it that these were the sort of guns that would put everything but the largest battleship to shame, supported by an unsinkable hull of rock.
When the allies retook Crete in 1943, the evacuating German forces destroyed the guns by burying explosives in the cliff beneath them, tipping a few thousand tons of rock and the complete gun emplacement into the sea.
It formed the inspiration for the gun battery in Alistair MacLeans The Guns of Navarone, where the fictional guns were destroyed by allied commandos rather than retreating Germans.
Under water, I descend a boulder slope coated in the usual sprigs of green algae and sponges. The first signs of the military hardware are recoil springs from a gun, resting in a gully at 18m. Then, further on, I see a couple of smaller-calibre shells. Back in the shallows at just 3m, I start to find caps and casings from larger shells, perhaps 6in in diameter. Was this the calibre of the guns I suspect that the story is like a fishermens tale, and grows every time it is told.
The gun barrels would prove the point, but these have yet to be found. One rumour is that they are down below 70m. Without trimix available, narcosis that deep would make anything look like a gun. More likely is that the guns were salvaged from the shallows soon after the war. Why would they have travelled further down the slope than the recoil springs
A pattern begins to emerge from the diving. Among typical Mediterranean scenery of rocky slopes, small sprigs of algae and sponge, swarms of small wrasse and shoals of larger bream, every dive has something that makes it stand out from the background.
Sometimes it is big friendly grouper, sometimes pottery or ammunition. Then, drifting round the point at Kavo, Gary guides me to something bigger - an intact radial aircraft engine, complete with propeller.
There is no other aircraft wreckage nearby; no undercarriage, cables or sheets of aluminium. Im not surprised, as aircraft are so fragile that just about anything but a solid lump like an engine would soon be destroyed by the sea.
Donning my imaginary plane-spotters hat, my gut feeling is that its from a Junkers 52, the standard triple-engined transport aircraft of the Luftwaffe. This theory is supported the next day when I dive with Pavlos at Plevra 2 on the other side of the point, where a second aircraft engine rests on the reef.
Superficially it looks the same, though without the propeller and section of cowling its hard to be sure without measuring everything. They certainly have the same number of cylinders.
Perhaps a Ju52 crashed into the headland, catapulting an engine off each wing into the sea on either side. Or perhaps it disintegrated in mid-air, with the engines falling either side of the point and other parts of the wreckage in much deeper water. A sheltered and shallow stretch of water at nearby Elounda was used as a seaplane base, so its possible that it wasnt even a Ju52. Or could the engines be from two separate aircraft
The wreckage brings me to a question that I know everyone (well, almost everyone) has been waiting for the answer to. Are there any wrecks
It runs against my intuition. There may be some ancient archaeological sites, but no modern wrecks of steel ships with steam engines. If ships have sunk here, it gets deep so quickly that they will be beyond even extreme diving depths.
Just looking out from Agios Nikolaos, the sea is several hundred metres deep in the middle of the bay.
I do visit a couple of small wrecks, however. At Plevra 1, the remains of a wooden tripper boat lies broken at 36m, where the rocks give way to more gently sloping sand. Its the sort of wreckage that is worth a quick look as part of a reef dive, but is not a dive by itself.
A buoy or two along the coast at the Spelia site, Pavlos shows me the wreck of a GRP yacht in 24m. Again, not a dive by itself, but it has some interesting features. The whole of one side is broken open to give a longitudinal section of the interior. It hit the rocks and slid down.
To stop it sliding deeper, an old safe is tied to the bow as a mooring block.
With Greek the basis for so many scientific terms in English, it is little surprise that Spelia translates to cave, though here it refers to a concave overhang in the cliff above the water, not an underwater feature.
A dive at the rocky island of Glaronissi reveals a real cave. Cracks in the shallow wall have been etched and scoured to varying degrees, in one case widened into narrow winding canyons that are eventually covered by a roof.
Sometimes caves are likened to keyholes. This slot is so wibbly-wobbly, it reminds me of an intricate security lock. Its shallow but would be impossible with any sort of wave surge. Its not for beginners, or for more than a couple of divers at a time. Pavlos and I wriggle in to the point at which it would be bottle off to get any further. I must admit to being tempted, but not for long. I am hardly equipped for such exploration.
All week I watch instructors Richard and Michael lead open-water lessons and regular mid-day try-dives off the beach in front of the dive centre, with new divers coming back with excited smiles.
For qualified divers this is the usual night-dive spot, though I have been too busy sampling restaurants from local waterfront grills to roadside cafés high in the mountains to join a night dive.
Fittingly I finish with a quick dive on the house reef, and its Good afternoon, Mr Octopus. Then its deco day, a walk round town and a trip to the Minoan palace at Knossos.
Thanks for the diving, Mr Pavlos.
|Amphora fragments at Plevra 2 dive site |
|All smiles as beginners return from a try dive |
|remains of a shell at Kavo |
|Shell fragments at Explosion |
|a case of |
|radial aircraft engine at Kavo |
|two-banded bream |
|Cave at Glaronisi |
|Wooden wreckage - the remains of a tripper boat |
|Scorpionfish on the house reef |
|Mr Pavlos in his office |
GETTING THERE: Charter flights to Heraklion from UK regional airports
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Crete Underwater Centre can offer both (www.creteunderwater.com). Plungers Diving offers PADI Open Water referral packages (www.plungersdiving.co.uk)
WHEN TO GO: Diving conditions are reliable from March to October, but enterprising divers still get wet in the winter months. Water temperature varies with the seasons from 18-26C.
COSTS: Seven nights with Crete Underwater including accommodation, diving and transfers costs320, or380 with a PADI Open Water course. Flights cost150-200.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Greek National Tourism Organisation, 020 7495 9300, www.gnto.gr
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