IT WAS SILVER WITH BLACK BITS” or “It’s slim and yellow with blue stripes”. Is this how you describe the species of fish you’ve just seen, or can you be more specific and use their proper names
Some are a piece of cake, like the blue-spotted ray. It’s a ray and its spots are blue – hardly quantum physics. The huge species such as mantas or whale sharks would be hard to mistake, too.
What about other species, such as the tentacled blenny or Klein’s butterflyfish Most divers I know would struggle with these bad boys.
If you were to go in search of marine life to improve your identification skills, the Mediterranean might seem to fall well behind the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Caribbean and Asia-Pacific regions as a preferred area to visit. But as the Med is so often accused of lacking in marine life, we thought it would provide an interesting challenge not only for me
but for any dive centre offering a marine ID course.
So I volunteered to review the PADI AWARE Fish Identification speciality – and to do my two days’ training off mainland Greece.
The Messenia coast, around 190 miles south-west of Athens, is beautiful. Field after field of olive trees and orange and lemon groves nestle on a flat plain encircled by mountains, and finally give way to the strikingly blue Ionian Sea.
Its bays and coves are edged with golden-sand beaches where turtles gather to nest, and small rocky islets rise above water bleached by the sun.
In this chocolate-box landscape, which the fierce Messenian warriors fought to the death to retain for thousands of years, history and heritage runs very deep.
A simple 3.5-hour hop from Heathrow to Athens with Aegean Air was followed by a comfortable mainly-motorway drive through Athenian, Arcadian and Messenian countryside to Costa Navarino.
My home for a few days would be the luxurious Westin Resort, part of the Navarino Dunes complex a few miles north of Navarino Bay. Surrounded by an 18-hole golf course, this has all the amenities you could wish for, with restaurants built on a traditional Greek open-air theme and amphitheatre cinema and entertainment provided every night.
There are kids’ clubs where youngsters are supervised and entertained while mum and dad go diving, or while they enjoy a romantic meal in the evenings; shops, swimming pools, organised walks and bike rides.
My luxury suite had its own infinity pool and the biggest, most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in!
PADI Course Director Eleni Siatra, who co-owns and runs the Aqua Divers Club within the Westin resort, explained over dinner that the ID course was designed to impart an insight into the biodiversity to be found locally, getting the student to understand the different “families” of species before looking to identify individuals.
It would also suggest methods of conducting simple surveys to ensure that an area was thoroughly explored.

AS WITH ALL PADI COURSES there is a structured outline but enough flexibility to accommodate individual divers’ level of certification and needs. The one-day course consists of a short classroom session and two open-water dives.
I was issued with a slate displaying images of most of the locally found species, along with their Latin and common names in English and the local tongue (all Greek to me).
Some I hadn’t heard of before, but there were familiar names such as scorpionfish, wrasse and grouper too.
Fish that were venomous or potentially aggressive were labelled as hazardous, and the dusky spinefoot as an invasive species.
I was chomping at the bit to find and photograph some of the animals listed.
Next morning Eleni drove me a few miles north to the harbour at Proti, where we met Captain Yiannis and divemaster Sotiris. We set sail to the island of Proti, just a mile or so out to sea. Eleni pointed out that from our viewpoint the island resembled a sleeping crocodile (there were none on my slate, I was relieved to find).
Proti Island is an arid, sun-bleached, rocky ridge rising 40m or so above the sea. There are goats, a few seabirds and a small monastery built in ancient times for meditation in isolation, and still used on occasion.
Short scrub covered a few rocks, and the place looked desolate and uninviting. However, the sides form rocky bluffs that fall into the sea, with caverns and tunnels carved out by the unbelievably blue water, which looked more like it.
Captain Yiannis had skilfully positioned his boat close to a cliff-face. Kitted up with camera and slate I entered the surprisingly warm water – the long, hot Greek summer had brought it up to 26°C, justifying my choice of a 5mm wetsuit (there’s always a first time!).
The visibility was a genuine 40m, and with no current or swell to deal with we descended slowly, comfortably gaining our bearings before entering a small cave opening.
The contrast from the bleak island habitat above was astounding; bright red, orange, yellow and purple sponge growth on the rocks interspersed with green seagrass created a Technicolor backdrop, and with the sun’s rays casting radiating lines behind the dark cave interior this was a scene that was too good to resist.
I signalled Eleni to pose for the camera and, lost in the moment, forgot all about why we were there.
Back on track, I started to search for marine life, and quickly found a group of small fish nestled among boulders on the seabed. A scan through the images on my slate identified them as black scorpionfish.
These venomous little fish are so confident of their camouflage and defensive spines that they will tolerate a very close approach by what must be a terrifyingly large potential predator – or perhaps they just knew that I don’t eat fish and felt safe.

AS I LEFT THE OVERHEAD ENVIRONMENT for the bright sunlit water outside, I found myself in the middle of a gorge, its sheer sides covered in life. Starfish in deep reds, purples and pinks contrasted with the multi-coloured sponge growth and short-leaved seagrass dotted about.
Beautiful spiral tubeworms with their open fronds looking for morsels to devour were easy to find.
As I passed through the narrow valley I could see small shoals of damselfish, with a few tiny cleanerfish in attendance. The latter didn’t appear on my slate, but their role was clear.
I was looking for sea bream, as seven species were listed on the slate. They’re easy enough to recognise as members of the same family, but have some subtle variations, from spots to stripes.
I found a pair of fish that looked very similar on the slate, so photographic evidence was needed. One individual stayed put for me to capture its likeness on my memory card.
I later learnt that this was an annular sea bream, highly prized in larger sizes by local fishermen.

AWAY FROM THE ROCKY SLOPES and valleys were beds of long-leaved grass on the sandy seabed; just the place to hunt my next quarry. Six species of colourful wrasse were listed on the slate, and some looked familiar, unlike their names.
The seagrass appeared to be fish-free, however, and I managed to find only a few painted combers among the fronds.
I’d bet you’d find a seahorse or two tucked away in there but we had neither time nor air to explore it properly. The wrasse family would have to wait.
We passed our surface interval nestled in a small cove shaded from the hot sun. We ate lunch on board and chatted about our next dive.
I asked Eleni where we might find some cardinalfish or the elusive wrasse – or possibly even grouper.
The general consensus was to dive the wreck of a small fishing-boat just out of the cove. The shallow water would give us a longer bottom time.
“If not on the wreck itself, we stand a good chance of finding a wrasse or two among the boulders and rocks at the base of the cliff,” she said.
We headed straight to where rock face met seabed, with little red fish dancing around the hollows formed by the boulders. I identified them from my slate as cardinalfish, a species I was familiar with but hadn’t seen in this crimson hue before. Another box ticked.
Swimming down the slope came a familiar fish with yellow flanks, blue stripes and tail and pink, cyan and green face markings. Of course (as my crib sheet confirmed) it was an ornate wrasse, out looking for anything I might have stirred up from the sand, and happy to stay while I studied it in more detail.
This beautiful little fish would have trouble hiding because of its bright livery, and its darting movements look almost comical.

I FOLLOWED ELENI ACROSS the barren-looking sand to the fishing-boat. Lying on its port side in 5m and lit by the afternoon sun, it appeared devoid of life.
On closer inspection there was much to be found. Fire-worms snaked around the rusting structure, and hermit crabs dragged their portable homes around, disappearing inside them as my shadow passed over them.
Small wrasse and silver sea bream along with juvenile striped red mullet hid in the tangled superstructure, while more red cardinalfish and dull brown damsels patrolled in small groups.
On the sand lay small wide-eyed flounder, perfectly camouflaged, though once I started looking out for their faint outline and tell-tale eyes they became easier to find.
I noticed a fish I hadn’t seen before, tentatively identified from the slate by shape alone, as the colours differed from the specimen in front of my mask.
I pointed at the slate and the fish, followed by a palms-up “what’s that” signal, and Eleni confirmed that it was a pearly razorfish, later informing me that they were very rare around Proti Island.
We finished the dive after 90 minutes and headed back to the boat for coffee and a debrief. I’d ticked off around a third of the listed species and was chuffed to bits.
The PADI Fish ID course is designed to give a diver new to any area an insight into what they’re likely to find.
I found it a useful tool for focusing the mind and encouraging the searching for species in certain habitats rather than just happening upon them. It’s also really good fun, and something I’d do again, especially in an unfamiliar area.
The trick is to adjust your expectations to suit the region in which you’re diving and to take it one species at a time.
Also keep in mind that it’s not a box-ticking race. A methodical approach will result in a better outcome.
Back at the Westin resort I visited Navarino Natura Hall, a hi-tech nature conservation and information centre in which flat-screen monitors and data projectors continue with virtual reality headsets and backdrops to showcase local wildlife and ecology. The marine section indicated that there was much more to be found in these shallow coastal waters.
The Ionian Sea isn’t a really prolific destination in terms of marine life; there are no coral reefs or big shoals of brightly coloured fish shimmering in sun’s rays. But though the list of species is relatively short I had enough to keep me occupied for a couple of days’ diving.
This is a place where you have to work to find your quarry, but that also means you feel you’ve accomplished something when you track it down!

GETTING THERE: Nigel flew with Aegean Airways, which flies regularly from Heathrow to Athens, and daily from Athens to Kalamata. Golfers are offered free carriage for golf-bags and equipment, but there is no such concession for divers. Transfer to Navarino from Athens by car takes nearly four hours.
ACCOMMODATION & DIVING: Westin Resort Costa Navarino is open from the beginning of March to the end of November. Navarino Underwater by Aqua Divers Club is a 5* PADI resort centre,
WHEN TO GO In summer – the climate is typically Mediterranean, with summer air temperatures from 25-32°C and water from 21°C in April to 26°C in October.
HEALTH: The nearest hyperbaric chamber is in the Navy hospital in Athens. Take mosquito repellent.
PRICES: Return flights to Kalamata from around £320. Deluxe garden-view room at the Westin from 140 euros per night. Aqua Divers Club offers the PADI AWARE Fish Identification course for 170 euros. The full range of PADI recreational courses is available. A boat dive costs 60 euros, a 10-boat-dive package 400 euros. Nitrox is not available.