Will Har­ri­son rev­els in the dra­matic na­ture of Sardinia’s mazy se­abed.

Sport Diver - - Contents - Pho­tographs by WILL HAR­RI­SON

Je­sus used to re­side here. Un­til some­one lifted the un­der­wa­ter icon for a clean and ne­glected to re­turn him to the se­abed that is... Sadly, as any­one who’s done any Mediter­ranean div­ing will at­test, it ap­pears some­one has done the same with all the fish. On this oc­ca­sion though, I was quite happy with­out. Dur­ing a week’s div­ing at Santa Teresa Gal­lura, a beau­ti­ful town on Sardinia’s north­ern shore, I didn’t once yearn for the vast shoals that used to call the Med home. I man­aged with­out the Big Man too.

Sardinia un­ques­tion­ably of­fers the most to­po­graph­i­cally in­trigu­ing se­abed I have ever en­coun­tered. Con­torted swim-throughs slice through bedrock that, in other places, has suc­cumbed to the re­lent­less bru­tal­ity of the sea and fallen away to cre­ate piles of gi­ant boul­ders, or col­lapsed to form deep canyons. The ar­ray of cav­erns and caves is end­less, as are the nooks and cran­nies in which crit­ters hide - and all this, as a con­se­quence of some rather un­help­ful winds, at a rel­a­tively small se­lec­tion of dive sites.

Our in­abil­ity to reach sites far­ther afield was ini­tially a con­cern - like any is­land, Sardinia has a plethora of di­ve­able sites, both near and far, and I was wor­ried I’d per­haps miss out on the best spots. My fears were quickly al­layed after a dive at a lo­cal site called Mu­nicca, just a few min­utes by zodiac from Orca Dive Club, with whom I was div­ing. This site is as close to a house reef as a har­bour-based dive cen­tre can get, and it’s a beau­ti­ful dive. Fo­cused around Mu­nicca Is­land and a few neigh­bour­ing rocky breaches that would have once been con­nected, the dive unsurprisingly boasts some glo­ri­ous un­der­wa­ter fea­tures. Down at depth there’s plenty to steal your at­ten­tion, from im­pos­si­ble over­hangs to rock for­ma­tions with such sheer sides they look as though they’ve been pol­ished to pre­ci­sion. Around these dra­matic sights lies a grassy se­abed, home to small fishes and in­ver­te­brates.

Our route took us north to­wards the open sea, around the far­thest out­crop and back along the other side, be­fore a fi­nal dis­sec­tion of two of the pin­na­cles and a re­turn to the shot­line. The re­turn be­tween two of the rocky mounts was both fun and full of at­mos­phere. With the wind up and our depth no more than 5-6m, we had front row seats to waves smash­ing against pin­na­cles, the water churn­ing and gur­gling be­fore an­other set rolled in.

My ‘dive of the week’ came at a site called Monte Re­galo, which trans­lates as Gift Moun­tain. It cer­tainly lived up to its name. It came on my penul­ti­mate dive day, when the winds had re­ally picked up and most sen­si­ble folk had sought cover in a shel­tered trat­to­ria (Santa Teresa Gal­lura has some ex­cel­lent eater­ies). The team at Orca or­gan­ised a spe­cial foray for me and a lo­cal diver - dive guide An­drea Garuti had waxed lyri­cal about this par­tic­u­lar site for the pre­ced­ing few days and the team didn’t want me to miss out. Fa­mous for its cav­erns adorned with beau­ti­ful red corals and swim-throughs clus­tered with pur­ple seafans, I was keen not to miss out too! We loaded our­selves into the zodiac and headed out into a lumpy sea. While the site wasn’t far, progress was slow, the cap­tain eas­ing off the throt­tle as we crested big waves.

Down at 5m, as the three of us gave each other the okay, there was no hint of the weather up top - one of div­ing’s great pleasures. With most of the dive site at around the 30m-mark, the num­ber of caves and cav­erns vis­ited de­pends en­tirely on the vis­it­ing group’s speed, what’s en­coun­tered and, if there’s a pho­tog­ra­pher in the mix, how long they spend on a given sub­ject. We were aim­ing for three cav­erns and man­aged two be­fore spi­ralling deco forced us up. The ev­i­dence for who to blame for the missed third cav­ern is in­con­clu­sive, but most fin­gers point to ei­ther me or the gor­geous scor­pi­onfish I just had to get a de­cent shot of. Sat on a rocky ledge, he was pic­ture perfect - bright orange and an ab­so­lute mon­ster! An­drea later told me he never moves from his perch, and it’s no sur­prise - given his size, the eat­ing there is clearly good. Fi­nally con­tent with one of my images, we moved on to­wards the first cav­ern.

An­drea paused at the en­trance, peered back­wards to make sure his charges were present, and headed in. Once inside, he turned his torch

“The site is made up of wind­ing twists and turns, tun­nels and fun­nels. For those with de­cent in-water skills, it’s an ab­so­lute play­ground”

on to re­veal a ceil­ing of corals and sponges. The cav­ern was awash in beau­ti­ful reds. I could see why sev­eral of Orca’s instructors con­sider this one of their favourite sites. The sec­ond cav­ern was just as stun­ning and the seafan-adorned gully walls, which had been de­scribed as a sup­port act, turned out to be as gor­geous as the cav­ern ceil­ings. After an en­joy­able meet­ing with an enor­mous con­ger eel, we headed to­ward the sur­face and a not in­signif­i­cant amount of deco…

Grotta della Cer­nia should be re­named The Maze - or Il Labir­into in Ital­ian. The site is made up of wind­ing twists and turns, tun­nels and fun­nels. Like a mag­got to an ap­ple, it’s as if a gi­ant worm has eaten its way through the bedrock, leav­ing a mazy trail in its wake. Its cur­rent name trans­lates as Grouper Cave, though sadly none were en­coun­tered on my visit. Good buoy­ancy skills are im­por­tant as there are a few tight spots - colonised by colour­ful sponges and fans - that re­quire con­trol and judge­ment. For those with de­cent in-water skills, it’s an ab­so­lute play­ground.

Other dive sites vis­ited in­cluded La Balena, or The Whale, so named be­cause the land against which the dive site sits ap­par­ently looks like a whale… No whales be­neath the wa­ter­line, ob­vi­ously, but plenty of pur­ple seafans. Il Cristo, the site where the statue of Christ once resided, is a rel­a­tively open area, with sponge-cov­ered boul­ders and a grassy se­abed, and Punta Contessa (Count­ess Point) has a mul­ti­tude of swim-throughs and tight turns that of­fer plenty of en­ter­tain­ment.

We did also man­age to visit the wreck of the An­ge­lika, a cargo ship that sank in 1982. Now scat­tered across the se­abed at 12-20m, it’s a perfect dive for divers of all ex­pe­ri­ence lev­els. While pen­e­tra­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited, there’s plenty to hold your at­ten­tion, in­clud­ing a num­ber of well pre­served stair­wells. A va­ri­ety of fish call it home too, in­clud­ing some stun­ning scor­pi­onfish, moray eels and nudi­branchs.

While I did likely miss out on some fab­u­lous sites be­cause of the weather - as well as a trip across the water to dive Corsica - the smat­ter­ing of sites I vis­ited of­fered more than enough to con­vince me of the qual­ity of the div­ing in the area. Given none of the sites were more than a ten-minute zodiac ride from Orca Dive Club’s base in Santa Teresa Gal­lura, it’s fair to say they’ve got some ex­cel­lent div­ing right on their doorstep, which is ex­actly what you need when the weather rolls in.

I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered Malta and Cyprus to have some­thing of a du­op­oly on Mediter­ranean div­ing, at least as far as Bri­tish divers are concerned. And true to form, my fel­low guests in Sardinia were all ei­ther Ital­ian or Ger­man. But with dive cen­tre staff who speak ex­cel­lent English, and a shorter flight time than both Malta and Cyprus, there’s no rea­son why Orca (and Sardinia at large) shouldn’t en­counter a few more Bri­tish divers in the com­ing years - the div­ing is cer­tainly good enough. And don’t even get me started on all that sun­shine and pizza…

“Sat on a rocky ledge, he was pic­ture perfect - bright orange and an ab­so­lute mon­ster! Given his size, the eat­ing there is clearly good”

Divers re­turn to the zodiac as oth­ers com­plete deco obli­ga­tions be­low

Dra­matic walls at Mu­nicca

Divers ready to roll

The Sar­dinian se­abed is lit­tered with weird and won­der­ful shapes

Dive guide Ilaria Brut­tomesso ex­it­ing the An­ge­lika

Dive guide An­drea Garuti at the en­trance to one of many swim-throughs

Seafans at Monte Re­galo

Strewn boul­ders are in­dica­tive of an ever-chang­ing se­abed

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