I don’t actually know how often Nick H and I have dived the Med. At least a couple of times on dive centre charter boats and three or four on Yellow, diving out of several different places along the coast.
Of course, we could trawl through our logbooks to find out, but where’s the fun in that? It’s far more enjoyable to dig back through our memories:
The one where the hard boat skipper greeted us with a tot of brandy at the end of every dive.
The one where we thought M had hypothermia, so we wrapped him in a space blanket and lay on top of him.
The one where the Mistral got up and the waves were so high we thought we might have to slipstream a ferry. The passengers were distinctly startled when a boat-load of wild-haired Brits wearing diving masks shouted up (in French) to ask which port they were heading to!
The one where three of our divers were ascending from a deep wreck and a local hard boat skipper decided to retrieve the shot we were on.
The one where Nick and I sat on a rock at 25m surrounded by literally thousands of barracudas and where I’d had a giant grouper resting its head on my shoulder for half the dive …
Ah, finally – the reason why we keep going back to the Med: the marine parks of Port Cros and, for this trip, Calanques. Beautiful underwater scenery, blue water, 20m+ viz, some great wrecks and plenty of protected marine life (although more in Port Cros). Combine that with the mediterranean lifestyle and you’ve got a great way to spend a week in September!
But what of the wind, waves and space blankets? Well, every Med trip we have been on to date has been hit by at least a couple of days of the dreaded Mistral wind. It’s so much a feature of life in Provence that hotels, restaurants and even the old Paris-Nice express train are named after it. It’s strong and cold and generally brings clear skies, sunshine and rough seas. It also sends the water temperature plummeting to a bone-chilling 14C, making a 5mm wetsuit feel thoroughly inadequate and generally convincing us that dry suits are best.
Every trip, that is, until this one. Yes, the temperature still fell to around 18C at the 15m thermocline, but that was bearable for most of the wetsuit-wearers, given the delightfully balmy 22C of the shallower water. Those who did bring dry suits, however, were not only perfectly happy with them, they would have been smirking triumphantly if the Mistral had blown, while the rest of us would have been queuing up to rent 7mm semi-dries.
So, what will be my future memories of this trip?
The WhatsApp chat!
Yup – the sheer quantity of chat generated by a group trip to France. Topics included: the need for an actual signed medical – in French!; whether the centre could cope with ‘M25s’ (apparently not a motorway); rugby vs the Pope (both happening in Marseille around our visit); and, with great frequency and much repetition, flight times, transfers and possible kit configuration. And then, of course, the endless banter, photos, jokes, updates, questions and advice that makes this kind of group such a joy.
A week of guilty pleasure
Of course I love the self-sufficiency and challenge of club RIB diving, including towing the RIB the length of France, negotiating with thickly accented harbourmasters in my half-remembered French and planning the next day’s diving over a cold beer. But now and then it’s wonderful to just relax and leave it all to somebody else, especially somebody who clearly loves the area, knows it well and is keen to show us the best.
Anne, the owner of Atoll Plongée, had a ready smile, boundless energy and endless tolerance of us both as individuals and a group. The same can be said of the few French divers who joined us and who didn’t seem to mind unexpectedly finding themselves foreigners in their own country!
The dive centre was small and perfectly formed, with large bedrooms and everything we needed on site. A buffet breakfast, three-course lunch and dinner with wine were served like clockwork, with dietary needs and preferences cheerfully catered for. We were in the middle of a busy seaside area in the south of Marseille, with abundant shops, cafes and restaurants, but only ventured out as a group when we first arrived, in order to enjoy a beer and pizza on the beach.
The 7pm aperitifs
Still food related, these were kicked off on the first diving day by Vineet and Lucie nipping out to the local supermarket for wine, local beer, saucisson, cheese, nuts, crisps and – weirdly – Tuc biscuits. Just to keep us going ‘til that three-course dinner, you understand. An instant daily habit that was not dissimilar to the UK version of a post-dive, pre-shower pint!
If you’re diving the Med, you need to know that even centre-based diving tends to operate out of RIBs rather than hard boats with lifts.
Not cute, 7m RIBs like Yellow and Blue; in this case, a 10m black beast that could cater for over 20 divers. Getting back in required a climb up a spine ladder in full kit that included a 15l steel cylinder weighing an energy-sapping 22kg.
The lack of handholds to haul yourself over the transom meant an awkward manoeuvre onto the knees, followed by a flip of the fin, a twist onto the tube and a shuffle towards the bow to make way for the next diver.
On my first attempt, I thought my legs would give way and I’d have to be parbuckled on board. A couple of days later, I found I could accomplish it with (relative) ease and was greeted by Anne with a muttered ‘impeccable’.
The diving, the diving, the diving
My personal favourite, Impériale du Milieu, the middle of three almost sheer rocks that rise from 50m+ to the surface, offering all that is best about the diving in this part of the world.
A descent to your depth of choice to explore mini-walls, cracks and overhangs coated in colourful growth and hosting morays, congers, small lobsters and multi-coloured nudibranchs.
A gradual ascent up the steep rocky slopes, pierced by crevices, chimneys and overhangs, festooned in purple and red gorgonia. Shoals of fish grazing on the algae, hanging out in the shade of a boulder, swarming down the rock face or twisting and turning in the blue.
The joy of hanging weightless, a few feet from the cliff, alternately admiring the tumbling boulders below and the towering peaks above, haloed by the sun.
A close second, Pierre de Briançon, a dive of many parts that took us around huge boulders, through an arch sitting scenically on the sand and across a ‘plain’ – dismissed by Anne as not worth lingering over – before arriving at an enormous towering finger of rock pierced through with gullies and cracks.
As we slowly spiralled up towards the shallows, every few metres of ascent revealed new delights: tempting swim-throughs; a rocky ledge that Lucie and I peered over like naughty children; and – the bit that literally had me laughing for joy – shoals of anchovies falling like silver rain then turning almost black as they danced in perfect synchrony to a rhythm all their own.
(Photo: Nick Barter)
We also dived Le Liban, a largish wreck at 30m+ that sat close to a wall that boasted two beautiful arches; and Le Chaouen, lying on its port side with several open holds tempting us in.
Some combined the latter with a 42m bounce to a Messerschmidt laid out neatly on the sand; happily the pilot survived and a few years ago shook hands with the enemy pilot who had shot him down.
(Photos: Nick Barter)
So, no hypothermia, no high winds or swamping waves, admittedly only a couple of lone barracuda. Equally, no picnic lunches of baguette and cheese, none of the reward and tales of derring-do that come from a club expedition on Yellow.
But definitely an easy, comfortable, carefree week of great diving in good company.
Merci et santé!