WHEN THE DIVE CENTRE IN LARNACA sent me details of its 10-dive wreckhead tour of the Zenobia, I wondered just how much of the famous ro-ro ferry and its spilled cargo from 104 lorries I would be able to see on a single 15-litre tank.
The mere mention of rebreathers, twin-sets, stage cylinders and trimix was making me a tad apprehensive.
However, I was reassured that there was plenty to see and explore within the limits of a 15-litre, and plenty of opportunities for penetration within the light zone and within the bounds of my training.
The Zenobia had long been on my wish-list of must-do dives, and it seemed like visiting midweek off-season in late September was an ideal time to avoid the crowds and explore the wreck in relative peace and quiet.
I based myself in Larnaca at Dive In, which offers three-minute access to the Zen by RIB from the marina a couple of hundred metres from the centre.
Doing this meant that we were up, breakfasted and on the wreck before other boats were within sniffing distance. And as we could see the site from the promenade, we could time our second dive for when the bigger boats were finishing up in the afternoon.
Dive In caters for all sorts of divers, and its staff have extensive and intimate knowledge of the Zenobia. With me on the boat for my first dives were three Russians doing their nitrox course; Steve, a tekkie with his twins and side-slung cylinder; and Jim, a fellow “single-tank simpleton” with whom I was buddied. Three parties, three guides and three different routes around the wreck.
The Zen has a number of shots on it for easy descent and ascent; Dive In also has its own shot.
Before we descended for the first time, I stuck my face in the water and looked under to see streams of sunlight reaching down towards the Zen’s hull, which, at 17m, is the top of the wreck as it lies on its side.
The first sight of any wreck is special, and my first glimpse of the cathedral-like Zenobia took my breath away.
Even from the surface, I could see through the blue that it was huge.
As I floated slowly down, the surface of the hull and its portholes came more into focus, and I found myself tilting my head to adjust to the fact that I was looking at a ship lying at right angles.
This first foray was a familiarisation dive around the outside of the wreck to give me a sense of its position, features and proportions. So we swam at a leisurely pace from bow to stern, taking in the upper decks, bridge and the massive rear doors, as well as spotting a few eerie-looking lorries.
Overall we clocked a maximum depth of 30m and were under water for 60 minutes, including seven minutes’ decompression time (easy to do at the trapeze Dive In has at 6m).
This passed quickly, as we were entertained by a little triggerfish that lived inside the trapeze pipe.
My intro dive had whetted my appetite for further exploration of the Zen, and I was keen to delve deeper into what the wreck had to offer.
Over a cup of tea and toast at the cafe next to the dive centre, I discussed with my guide, Kelvyn, options for penetrating the wreck that would be within the limits of my training and experience.
It turned out that there were lots of possibilities, so I plumped for a tour of the crew’s accommodation block, which Kelvyn assured me would always be within the light zone and would allow an easy exit should the need arise.
So for the second dive, we descended a different shot and landed close to one of the Zen’s two props. Kelvyn had told me that there was usually a moray eel in residence, and as we got level with the prop, the eel obligingly popped its head out of a hole and posed for a photo.
In general terms, marine life on the Zenobia was what you might expect of the overfished Mediterranean.
But while it was nothing like a Red Sea reef, on every dive I saw schools of barracuda and bream, along with lots of triggerfish, wrasse and grouper.

IF THE LARGE TURTLE that was allegedly hanging around really was there, it evaded me. But you don’t dive the Zenobia for its marine life, you dive it for its scale, its story, its character and its contents. You dive it to explore and discover – which takes me back to the accommodation block.
The crew’s quarters are directly on top of the upper cargo deck and comprise a restaurant, galley, cabins and officers’ mess. We entered through a fairly wide opening and swam the length of the block, changing depth once or twice to remain in the light zone.
The fact that the Zen was a living and working cargo ship hit home to me when I swam past torn floor-coverings and peeling wallpaper.
I could clearly see the tree mural that originally adorned the restaurant, and also some garish red tartan carpet.
And, of course, because such a wreck would be incomplete without them, I was pleased to spot the toilets and sinks.
Exploring the accommodation block was hugely enjoyable because it started to give me a sense of the living Zenobia before it got into trouble and sank, on its maiden voyage in 1980.
Little by little, I was starting to peel off its layers and becoming that much keener on further exploration.
At the morning briefing the next day, Kelvyn said that if I was up for it, a trip to the deepest part of the wreck and penetration of the upper cargo deck would make for interesting dives. It was just going to be the two of us, so we had freedom to tailor the dives to whatever
I was comfortable with.
He explained that while the upper cargo deck would be darker, as it didn’t have the accommodation block’s portholes, there was a very large entrance, and we could turn back at any time if I felt uneasy.
For someone who hadn’t originally intended going inside the wreck, I was becoming more comfortable with the inside environment. I soon confirmed that I was up for it.
Once again, we were first on the wreck and descended to the stern at 41m to check out some of the lorries sprawled on the seabed. Kelvyn pointed out the Egg Lorry, with the smashed remnants of its cargo, and the Bone Lorry, which is still home to a few bones that have outlasted their animal carcasses.
As we progressed along the hull, a large gap appeared. Kelvyn motioned me inwards to the upper cargo deck.
The blue light dimmed as we drifted further inside, inspecting the mangled lorries beneath us.
Wires and cables hung from the walls, while above us, clinging to the ceiling, were hundreds of blue plastic bottles of ethyl alcohol that had escaped from one of the vehicles. When my lights shone on the deck’s control panels, I really got the sense of a busy cargo-hold.

AS WE SWAM FURTHER IN, Kelvyn directed his beam at some narrow entrance points to the middle deck. Peering into a few, I understood the temptation of those who venture deep inside, but being way out with both my skill and comfort levels, the middle cargo-hold would have to wait.
As we turned towards the distant blue gap and headed back into open water, I began wondering whether in the Zenobia I had found a good reason to get some technical training.
While the middle and lower cargo-holds were out of bounds to me on a single 15-litre tank, if I had a rebreather that could be another matter. It was food for thought.
On my last two dives I repeated the tour of the accommodation block, and also took in more of the open upper decks, which are busy with the usual ro-ro ferry paraphernalia such as cranes and winches.
A solitary, redundant lifeboat still hangs at 90° off the railings, and the various empty stairways, though frozen since the Zen settled on its side in 1980, still look as if there should be crewmen running up and down them.
I racked up a bit of deco time on every dive I did on the Zenobia, but it was no hardship doing a longer than usual stop.
Hovering at Dive In’s trapeze, gazing down on divers coming and going on the hull, was pleasant and relaxing, and when there were no divers the little triggerfish was always flitting about, masterfully avoiding my lens, of course.
So now the Zenobia has been ticked off my list. But six dives could only ever scratch the surface of a wreck that is 170m long and has three massive cargo holds to explore.
Suffice to say, my research into rebreathers and advanced technical courses has begun.

PADI 5* centre Dive In Cyprus in Larnaca offers “holiday specials” with seven nights’ accommodation based on four sharing and a five-dive pack for 230 euros, www.dive-in.com.cy