In search of sunken treasure
Scuba diving in Europe can yield surprising finds
SCUBA divers will travel to the ends of the planet to fill their logbooks but your average open- water diver isn’t so choosy, which is one excuse to go diving in Europe.
The Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean seas are not David Attenborough territory. Fish are hard to find, coral is equally scarce and you’re more likely to be bumped on the head by an anchor than menaced by a shark, yet the experience of exploring some of the world’s oldest navigated waterways can be rewarding.
I am after treasure, ancient treasure, and the coastline of Europe is layered with wrecks. These are routes that were crossed by Bronze Age traders, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, celebrity conquerors, the odd Pharaoh and modern navies. Like the ruins above the ground, those below give a timeline of human activity and offer divers the thrill of discovery.
My first dive is not promising. Plunging in off the fashionable Croatian island of Hvar, there is not much happening underwater. Sven, a languid divemaster, pops us into the water in front of our hotel and I scour the floor of the sea for fish, coral, seaweed, shellfish — anything really. There is nothing, which explains why you often pay the equivalent of $80 for a fish meal in Croatia.
Turkey is more promising, where off the south and west coasts the water is warm, the visibility is often more than 30m and the seas are calm in summer. The seas weren’t always so flat for ancient mariners. Turkey is still discovering treasures both on land and underwater. In 1982, a sponge diver found a Bronze Age vessel, with its cargo intact, just off the coast of Kas. The wreck was brought to the surface and is now housed in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archeology.
Last year, while I was diving off Bodrum, professional divers discovered a 17th-century Ottoman wreck with thousands of Dutch plates onboard.
The area of Limantepe is so rich with underwater treasures that a team of archeologists is employed to find and retrieve wrecks.
The problem with underwater treasure hunting in Turkey is that the
ALAMY best sites are off-limits but authorities have conceded a few to amateur divers and, off Bodrum, they have sunk navy ships and an aeroplane for the pleasure of shallow-water divers.
On our dive, however, I missed the amphora. It was there. There are pictures of it in the dive shop and online. But somehow I missed the giant pot lying half-buried in the sea floor.
This time, my last dive in the Mediterranean is off the Sicilian town of Taormina. In August, the beaches below the hill town, Mazzaro and Isola Bella, are standing- room only; the boats are buzzing in and out and there are queues at the dive huts.
Clearly, the only place to be when you’re on the Italian coast in August is underwater.
The marine park of Isola Bella offers a respite from the trawled-over coast of Sicily, where abandoned anchors, fishing nets and the odd milk crate give the appearance of an underwater vacant lot. The tiny islet is connected to the mainland by a strip of sand just wide enough to accommodate a beach towel and it has UNESCO protection, partly because it once housed a Roman prison but also due to its geology.
Diving among the limestone cliffs and boulders, you can spot shoals of tiny coloured fish, grouper, giant caterpillar slugs, eels, starfish, corals of dull ochre colour and the odd showy anemone. But the dive here is all about the caverns and caves, created by limestone formations.
We make our way through about six caves or grottos, some quite tight fits, others with a few turns and one that starts at a depth of 15m and delivers you up to 7m at the other end. It’s almost David Attenborough stuff.
But the search for treasure yields nothing, until I spot something blue and shiny lying in the sea grasses. I flipper in great excitement and scoop the object from the sea floor. It is a pair of goggles, in great condition. OK, it isn’t Roman or Greek or even Ottoman but it is a find, it is sunken treasure. I have to give back the goggles when a diver from the boat above taps my shoulder and mimes ownership. Still, the thrill of underwater discovery has been worth the few minutes of possession.
The wreck of Turkish naval ship Pinar 1 off Bodrum