It makes me feel old, but I remember the days before the Health & Safety Executive got hold of diving. When a diver had to climb aboard a slowly rotting fishing-boat with nothing more than an old Ford Escort tyre for assistance. Life-rafts, oxygen kits, and hydraulic lifts would have been laughed at. Real divers didn't need that sort of pampering. If you didn't return smelling of yesterdays catch, you hadn't been for a real dive.
     Nowadays prowling HSE inspectors ensure that diving has, for many, become sanitised, safe and ready for the litigiousness of today's society. But I often hanker for the old roughness, toughness and sense of adventure. And it's great when you find it overseas.
     Few places within a seven-hour flight-time can deliver that sort of spirit-lifting sensation, but Northern Cyprus, that one-time Turkish middle finger in the heart of Mediterranean Europe, is one. The brochures go on about how old world, relaxed and charming it is. I thought it would be the place to get back to grassroots diving.
     Research told me that Northern Cyprus was like the eastern Mediterranean of the 1950s, with almost empty roads, traditional ways of life and minimal tourism. It also promised some of the best opportunities to see Mediterranean green and loggerhead turtles nesting and hatching.
     The border between the Greek south and Turkish north of Cyprus has been open for a little while and tourism is on the increase, though it is far more discreet than anywhere else in the Mediterranean I have visited. But the days of no high-rise hotels are numbered, and tourist villas are springing up along the populated coastlines.

keeping it real
I split my trip between the towns of Famagusta to the south and Kyrenia in the north. I based myself first at the Hotel Palm Beach just outside Famagusta. Its manager, a keen diver, said he would show me the wreck of an unknown coastal freighter off the tip of the islands Karpas or panhandle region in the north-east. This wilderness is left to wild donkeys, snakes, forests and anything else that wants to live there.
     My guide said hed sort out a boat, so at 8am on a hot, sunny Saturday morning, I waited close to the cafe at the tip of the panhandle, scanning the horizon for a small inflatable, RIB or even a hardboat. All I could see was a fishing-boat kicking up a wake. Had my grandfather visited here 50 years before, the scene would probably have been identical.
     The fishing-boat certainly looked old enough. By a rickety wooden jetty at the base of the rocky shoreline, its captain expertly swung it about, reversed and stopped just shy of the platform. Lines were secured and the crew started disgorging that mornings catch.
     A Transit van rolled up, two men jumped down and waved at the captain. Their shouted conversation in Turkish could have been a negotiation, greeting or exchange of insults. My guide told me to get my stuff, and I stared down at the boat, my mouth agape.
     The crew carried their catch in plastic bins to the waiting van. A small crowd gathered to watch and chat. Among it, I stood out like a sheep in a herd of cows.
     We carried our gear on board and the smell of British diving in the early 90s hit me - a combination of fresh fish, rotting wood and sea water. It was like meeting an old school-friend I hadnt realised Id missed.
     The front deck was strewn with net, the makeshift cabin and galley were quintessentially rustic and the helm was the steering wheel of an old Merc. At least the captain had taste.
     A series of small islands and islets extends from the tip of the panhandle. We were going to dive the furthermost, half-an-hour away. Coffee was brewed on an open burner stove with an antique-looking coffee-boiler. My first sip was a shock - an intense caffeine hit, surprise at the thickness of the liquid and a mouthful of coffee grit. By the end I was enjoying it.
     The end of Cyprus is an islet no bigger than a large roundabout. Off its south side, in 15m, lies the freighter, its large stern section on a sandy seabed, clearly visible from the surface, the rest strewn eastwards along the side of the islet. Apparently there was nothing left to reveal its identity.

into the blue void
Kitting up in a cramped fishing-boat is best done off it. I jumped in and waited for the captain to lower my kit and camera. I love sinking into water this clear, and descended slowly to enjoy the full impact.
     The stern wreckage is just large enough to appreciate that it was once a ship. Fishing-net hangs from the superstructure, which is coated in marine growth that gives the wreck an eerie ambiance. We circumnavigate the stern, passing the prop and under the hull before moving over the debris field, where the rest of the vessel has been flattened by winter seas.
     There is lots to look at - and portholes to find, which, for a British diver, is quite a novelty. The huge engine-block sits alone on the seabed like a giants spare car part.
     Over almost an hour we investigated the metal plates, horizontal masts and debris normally stolen by visiting divers - this site is not visited that often. It was a great dive. The fish life could have been better, but the captain said his catch had been down and blamed the full moon.
     The captain was waiting close by as my head broke the surface. In the old British days, you often had to climb over a tyre, often in full kit (except fins) in case the sea washed you back in. The flat sea here allowed us to de-kit first, then two strong arms pulled me onto the deck.
     I flailed around like a seal as I tried to stand on the rocking deck while still wearing my Cressi Masterfrogs, before realising that it was best to remove them. I was handed another Turkish coffee and we set off back, as a swell was building.
     Heading back to the hotel, we passed a huge stretch of sand known as Golden Beach, at present home to one hotel. Its an important turtle-nesting area, and in the nearby bays breeding green and loggerhead turtles are often found during May, June and July.

unmolested eelgrass
I was there in August, aware that it was a gamble. Adult turtles were still around but not in the numbers I had hoped for. The clearwater bays were empty of feeding turtles, the eelgrass on the sandy bottom unmolested now that the turtles had moved out into the Mediterranean.
     North Cyprus is perhaps the most important island for breeding Mediterranean green and loggerhead turtles. Greece once held that honour, but thanks to the profit motive has systematically destroyed its turtle population.
     The island of Zakynthos, for example, had a large turtle-breeding population, but is being turned into another Ibiza or Aya Napa - as if we needed another venue for alcohol-fuelled European teenagers to go to contract sexual diseases.
     I had timed my visit to try to find both young and old turtles, but now all my eggs were in one nest. We contacted the turtle project run by the University of Exeter at Algadi Beach near Kyrenia. The team dig out nests to ensure that as many hatchlings as possible make it to the sea, and team-leader Wayne Fuller said he would let me know when a nest was ready for excavation.
     Meanwhile, I discovered that a halfs hours walk down the coast from my hotel were the remains of Cyprus's ancient capital, Salamis. A bustling metropolis as far back as 1100 BC, it remained an important trading post through occupation by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and eventually the Romans.
     The city was rebuilt twice following earthquakes by the Romans and Christians, but slowly the harbour area was overwhelmed and sank beneath the waves. The end came when Arab armies overran the island and sacked the city. Survivors fled and built Magusa - now Famagusta. I had to see the submerged ruins, and discovered that diving wasnt forbidden, as long as I removed nothing.
     I borrowed a tank and headed for the ruins with my guide. The columns, busts, statues, the amphitheatre and the rest of the 1000-year-old rubble is a remarkable tourist attraction, as is the golden sandy beach beside it. Tourists frolic in the waters, unaware of the remains close by.
     There is not much to see of the columns and building blocks that made up the harbour and harbourfront buildings, as the sea has worn them smooth and they resemble natural rock. I wanted to find something distinctive, like a good piece of amphora, but that wasnt particularly easy, so we decided to snorkel over the 3-6m-deep area to save time.
     The area is littered with small pieces of amphora, lumps of marble, overgrown columns and all sorts of blocks. Several amphora pieces are in amazing condition after their millennia under water. But I didnt realise how long it would take to find a substantial piece to photograph, and by the time we did I could hardly move for sunburn - Id forgotten to cream up.
     Thats why I have no pictures of the Salamis ruins. My back was too painful for me to sleep much and I was too tired to go back the next day - sorry.

brass monkey swam past
Back out of the water, I found a message from Wayne. That night, sunburn or not, I would be visiting the turtle beach near Kyrenia. Students on the turtle project had found a loggerhead nest, and had seen the first breakout.
     Turtles do not hatch in one go. The first wave leave one night and the majority generally leave the next. Waynes team aims to get there first, as theres a good chance of predators such as foxes and feral dogs being alerted to the hatchlings, and hundreds could be lost. As Mediterranean turtles become rarer, every hatchling needs a fighting chance of survival.
     Tourists are welcome to watch the hatchlings being released, and the sites can get busy. The loggerheads are a little more sluggish than their green cousins (green turtles are not actually green, their fat is - sailors who fed on them provided the name).
     They are the Nell MacAndrews of the reptile world, cute, fit and active creatures. The loggerheads are more Homer Simpson.
     I watched the hatchlings scamper down the sand into the surf (they are not released straight into the water, as they need to imprint on the beach in their memory). A few would make it, and in 30 years or so would be back to lay their own eggs.
     The turtle project has been running for 15 years, so even the first hatchlings it released have yet to return. Helping nature is a long-term project.
     I couldnt stay on North Cyprus without diving with a commercial centre to see what was on general offer. So I based myself at Oscars Resort in the heart of Kyrenia and chose Blue Dolphin Dive Centre at the Jasmine Court Hotel on the outskirts.
     The dives are on a submarine wall a few miles offshore. All are buoyed and range in depth from the top of the wall at about 12-16m down to 27-40m, depending on site.
     Zephyros is a site known for its turtle sightings, topography of giant boulders and an old anchor. Viz was, as usual, excellent. The top of the wall could be seen from the surface and, once under, I could see the bottom.
     Steve, my guide, picked out a green turtle before we had touched bottom, a medium-sized animal that slowly cruised away before we could take a decent photo.
     We followed the wall down, and at around 23m I swore a brass monkey swam past with a pained expression. The temperature dropped from a balmy 26C to a chilly 13C within a metre. I thought Id been bundled into a freezer and the door slammed shut behind me. I swam a little faster, but my semi-dry suit was no longer providing much thermal protection.
     The fish seemed unbothered. Grouper hung around the boulders, darting away as I approached. There were quite a few, which was nice to see, and I was pleased with the level of marine life I saw. Towards the end of the dive, we investigated the large anchor embedded deep in a crevice in a large pinnacle next to the wall. There would have been no way for the ship that cast it away to have saved it, it was stuck too fast.
     After lunch, we dived the next site along, and down the anchorline I immediately found two morays in one hole. I hung around the wall overhangs watching the anemones and smaller fish while searching in vain for nudibranchs.
     I had found this centre well-run and offering good-quality experiences. It might get a bit samey over a week, but North Cyprus has so much else to offer that youd be ill-advised to spend all your time under water anyway.

A young loggerhead turtle makes a dash for the relative safety of the open sea
Diver next to the engine block of the Karpas wreck
Two moray eels happy to share a hole
The captain of the
A green turtle tastes the sea for the first time


GETTING THERE: Gavin Parsons flew via Istanbul in Turkey to Ercan Airport on North Cyprus. The Greek-Turkish Cypriot border has been open since 2003 and it is no longer necessary to have your passport stamped on a separate sheet of paper. British citizens require a full passport with six months to run.
DIVING: Blue Dolphin Dive Centre, Kyrenia, www.bluedolphin.4mg.com
WHEN TO GO:Most of the year for diving, walking and wildlife-watching, but the best time (when the turtles are around) is from June to September.
LANGUAGE: Turkish, but English widely used
CURRENCY: North Turkish Lira
COSTS: Holidays to North Cyprus start at from around£450 for seven nights including flights through Mosaic Holidays (020 8574 4000, www.mosaicholidays.co.uk). Diving prices are around 20 Euros per dive (full packages with multi-dives included are available which can discount that rate).
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7629 7771, www.gototurkey.co.uk