In search of sunken trea­sure

Scuba div­ing in Europe can yield sur­pris­ing finds

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - DEIRDRE MACKEN

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

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