A diver in blood cave

THE CLIFFS SOARED OUT ABOVE our heads and the swell slopped lazily into the alcoves. Beneath our small boat the water dropped away inky blue to goodness knows where. The conditions were perfect summer - but this was mid-October.
The previous day we had been at the Dive Show in Birmingham. Now here we were 60 miles south of Naples, basking in the sun. I had never heard of Capo Palinuro in the Campania region of Italy until one of my students lent me his book of the place - a book of cavern- and cave-diving in a stunningly beautiful location, and as off the tourist trail as it was seemingly possible to get.
Facing west into the Mediterranean, the limestone headland makes for an impressive scene from any angle, and due to one of those quirks of nature the place appears to be riddled with intriguing caverns and caves.
OK, we all know that there are caverns in places such as Majorca and Minorca, islands with countless swim-throughs and easy caves. Clearly this experience adds to the flavour of the holiday diving.
But as I slowly perused Fabio Barbieris book, it became clear that the caves of southern Italy had other fascinating dimensions, namely stalactites and stalagmites, emissions of sulphur and a profusion of varied and colourful marine life that I had never imagined to exist in the Mediterranean.
This trip was a busmans holiday to somewhere distinctive and with superb photo opportunities. Little did we realise when we booked that we would be the last divers to visit Palinuro in 2006.
The tourist season in southern Italy is surprisingly short, and on arrival we discovered that the place was more akin to the sleepy village one might recall from a certain margarine ad on TV.
The dive centre, Palinuro Sub, is run by Fabio Barbieri himself, one of lifes true gentlemen. Fabio exudes a genuine passion for his diving and went out of his way to ensure that our stay was as good as it could be. There was little doubt that we were in the hands of the most experienced and qualified practitioner in the area. While my companions Helen and Rob wore
twin-sets, I opted for the easiest and safest configuration for cavern-diving, a single 15-litre cylinder equipped with an H-valve to permit the use of two independent regulators.
All the cave sites are accessed by boat, and all lie a short distance from the harbour. Cathedral Cave, for example, was a five-minute cruise around the headland. Dropping through the cobalt water, we entered the cliff face at 19m depth, then quietly ascended to a much larger tunnel at 10m.
This, like so many of the sites at Palinuro, presented a superb cavern dive. Visibility was an excellent 30m, and to the right lay an enormous blue portal, a shallow return to the sun for those so inclined. To the left, a short length of tunnel led to an air surface, a dark and cosily enclosed air bubble decorated with a few humble flowstone formations.
The water was a balmy 23 and the one-piece 5mm wetsuit proved perfect. It was great to be able to dive without hood or gloves, and this was to be the same for all the dive venues.
The first afternoon introduced us to one of the most unusual settings I had experienced. Blue Cave is a couple of minutes from the harbour and boatmen regularly take sightseers inside this dark but spacious cavern.
The inner cave is illuminated by a deep blue glowing daylight permeating a short length of flooded tunnel from the far side of the headland. But from a divers perspective there is far more.
The marine life here is among the finest in the Mediterranean, while off to the landward side of the tunnel lies a huge void, one of the most intriguing places that any diver will visit.
The cavern, at about 15m depth, is known as the Snow Room. Marine life decorates the lower walls, but rising through the water one enters a wholly different environment.
A wispy trace of cloud heralds both halocline and a temperature gradient, above which it feels not only warmer but distinctly eerie.
The upper environs of this cavern are plastered in a mat of sulphurous bacterial growth - distinctly strange and alien. Examined closely, the rock surface appears to be carpeted with cream-coloured fine hairs, 5-10mm long.
As one moves forward through the cavern, exhalation induces disturbance to the ceiling above and, like a gentle snow from a windless sky, flakes of every size quietly fall into the blackness.
Fascinating as it might be, it is chilling to reflect that over the years four divers have perished here, in two separate incidents, on becoming disorientated in reduced visibility. Today dive operators exercise an altogether more responsible, proactive approach to diver safety.
These caves were once high and dry, but due to the immense natural force exerted by an earthquake the Palinuro landmass has been thrust downward, in one fell swoop plunging the caves below sea level. It is along this massive fault plane that deep, thermally heated water finds its escape.
This chemically rich sulphurous water seeps quietly to the surface, emerging unseen from small fissures to warm the outlet caves to a constant 24C all year.
In October the thermocline is only a degree or so but in April, when the sea is at its coolest (13 - 14), this difference is a marked 10!
Cathedral 2 is another longer and deeper network with fine displays of marine-encrusted stal formation. For those suitably equipped and qualified, it is possible to descend a 25m shaft at the furthermost point and then follow a straight passage (maximum depth 32m) to emerge at 30m depth in open water.
Grotta Delle Corvine was another short cave with two fine entrances, a halocline and more stalactites.
The Eyes and Blood Cave were contrasting caves within easy swimming distance of one another. The first was a dual-entrance ancient fossil cave with stal formations, while its close neighbour was a sporty cave in relatively shallow water formed by wave action.
A comfortably sized offshoot in Blood Cave led for about 30m to a large lake chamber. Fabio is a passionate environmentalist and he amused us greatly with his tale of rescuing seagulls from this pitch-black cavern.
On two separate occasions he had taken hold of a gull that had fallen through some invisible rocky fissure high above. Holding it under his armpit, he dived back through the submerged cave to release the bird in daylight.
Amazingly, despite their entombment and lack of breathing apparatus, both birds took to the air five minutes or so after regaining the surface!
Lake Cave lay a few minutes further from the harbour, almost directly below the lighthouse. The bay here is affectionately known as Stinky Bay thanks to the smell of sulphur discharged by the water percolating from deep within the limestone.
Lake Cave is also noteworthy for its fabulous array of stal formations above and below water. There are very few places where a diver can appreciate such exquisite rock formations without difficulty or risk of causing damage.
This is one of the most accessible in Europe.
You will find all the typical Mediterranean benthic fauna here in the south Tyrrhenian Sea. This includes red coral on the deeper walls (below 40m), seafans, spiny lobsters, dusky and golden groupers, brown meagres, greater amberjacks and spotted dogfish. There are also species found only in southerly locations, such as purple starfish, ornate wrasse and star coral, among others.
In the twilight and darker zones of the cavern areas the life includes leopard goby, cardinal fish, sponge crabs - clutching sponge on their backs - cave spider crabs and small but beautifully coloured nudibranchs.
The orange star coral, only found in the south, is a notable darkness lover, presenting a splash of colour way back in the caverns.
There is diving here for all levels, with both shallow and deep caverns, all amply spacious. Cavern training would obviously be an advantage, as visitors would be able to take full advantage of the place, but swimming a short distance inside the cavern is a norm in any case.
Palinuro is peaceful, as Italian as it is possible to get and everyone was friendly and helpful. We saw occasional small boats ferrying a few sightseeing tourists, but the most amazing thing was that we never saw another diver all week.
Icing on the cake are the tourist spots that complete a trip like this. Just at the outskirts of Naples (the nearest airport) there is the incredible archaeological site of Pompeii, overshadowed by Mount Vesuvius. You need at least half a day to experience either location.
Then there is the stunning scenery of the Amalfi coast, the three magnificent temples at Paestum, the intriguing hill-top towns and villages such as Pisciotta - the wine is superb, too.
Our visit to Capo Palinuro, Europes best-kept secret, was to prove perfect.
I feel confident that any diver following in our footsteps will reiterate these sentiments.

Entering one of the caverns by boat.
Stalagmite in the Eyes Cave.
Darkness lover - orange star coral.
A dry grotto in Lake Cave.
A diver in Blue Cave examines its tube worms and fans.
Fabio Barbieri, who runs the local dive centre.