They've talked about marine reserves with fish-attracting artificial reefs in Cyprus for a long time, but with the sinking of a fleet of small boats they're taking shape, says JO CAIRD. Photos by STEVE PRETTY
IT TOOK A REMARKABLY SHORT time for me to start taking Cyprus's new wrecks for granted. On my first dive, I was dazzled by the sight of a 23m vessel sitting bolt upright on the seabed in perfect condition. By the end of my three-day trip to the island’s south coast, I was well and truly spoilt.
Mention Cyprus to a group of divers and chances are they’ll soon be sharing stories about the Zenobia, the Swedish ferry that went down off Larnaca in 1980 loaded with articulated trucks carrying everything from eggs to alcohol.
The Cypriot dive community is justifiably proud of the Zenobia, as well as the island’s shore-diving, but it has long been aware that it’s hard to sustain an entire industry on a single superstar dive-site – especially one the treasures of which are really accessible only to experienced divers.
Something needed to be done and eventually, between December 2013 and June 2014, something was.
Four vessels – two trawlers, one cruiser and one tourist-boat – were scuttled off the coast. In October, I went to check them out.
Descending on a chain from a buoy bobbing on an almost flat sea, it's a few seconds before I catch sight of the Costandis, a bottom trawler built in the USSR in 1989 and scuttled in the new Dasoudi marine reserve off Limassol in February.
A short swim over a meadow of neptune grass at 24m brings me to the vessel. After less than a year in the water the hull is already covered with a fine layer of green organic material – whether plant or animal is hard to tell.
A few more easily identifiable creatures – parrotfish, rainbow wrasse and damselfish – pootle around as I fin up to take a look at the winching equipment bolted to the foredeck.
There’s a nice irony to the fact that this hunk of metal, once so integral to the business of stripping these waters of their piscine inhabitants, is now doing exactly the reverse: attracting marine life back to an area in which fishing has now been prohibited.
I penetrate the wreck through a cabin near the bow, descending into a hold, then passing through to the engine-room through a hatch in the floor.
Small holes punched in the deck ensure that light filters down into the interior spaces, creating a constellation of blue on the ceiling. I don’t really need the torch I’m carrying to see my way through, but am glad I have it when the beam lights on a sea-squirt, a sign that the colonisation process is well under way on this new reef.
LATER, EXITING THE VESSEL’S BRIDGE ready to begin my ascent, I come face to face with a small shoal of barracuda hanging out in mid-water off the starboard bow. I wasn’t expecting to see pelagics on the new wrecks – it makes for a thrilling end to my first dive in Cyprus.
Back at the surface, I warm up before taking on the nearby Lady Thetis. Marios Evangelou, who runs Buddy Divers from a base at the snazzy Le Meridien Limassol Spa & Resort, tells me that there was no wreck-diving at all in the Limassol area before the two vessels went down.
Having founded Buddy Divers here 25 years ago, Marios is delighted finally to be able to offer new Open Water divers their first taste of penetration-diving a 10-minute boat-ride out.
The approach to the Lady Thetis is the same as to the Costandis, but that’s where the similarities end. Measuring 30m with an 8m beam, and boasting a number of large cabins and decks on multiple levels, this German-built tourist-boat is more imposing than its trawler site-mate.
Finning around the hull, I gaze through the vessel’s enormous picture windows into a vast empty interior and through to the blue on the other side.
AT THE BOW I come across the huge pile of mud and silt that the Lady Thetis ploughed into when it took an unexpected nosedive during the scuttling. Thankfully the vessel settled upright on the seabed as planned, but it had been something of a hairy moment, Marios tells me later.
Barracuda, parrotfish, damselfish and wrasse are familiar sights from the earlier wreck but, unlike on the Costandis, I find fish inside the wreck as well as outside.
Well, one fish, to be precise: a small red mullet snuffling around in the organic detritus in the corner of a cabin – it looks very small in this huge space.
All the entry-points and passageways on the Lady Thetis (as on all the new wrecks) are wide, easily navigable and free from hazards.
It’s only when trying to negotiate a tricky exit on the Zenobia the following day that I fully appreciate how much work has gone into making the new wrecks suitable for inexperienced divers.
This extends to their locations too. The Lady Thetis sits in only 21-23m, ensuring that even Open Water divers are able to penetrate the upper cabins.
Having exited onto the spacious back deck, I float up an exterior staircase to discover yet another expansive area at the very top of the vessel.
When I see what’s bolted to the deck up here I can’t help but chuckle through my regulator: a collection of plastic tables, standing there like overgrown mushrooms on a forest floor.
From here I head to the bridge, where the ship’s wheel (like so much of the other hardware on the new wrecks) is covered in a white material that at first
I take to be soft coral, but later discover is the result of the paint gradually corroding with the passage of time.
This dive completed, it’s back to the dive-boat before the third and final site of the day. The first two dives had been kept deliberately short, but even so a longer surface interval is required before I’m ready to visit the Pyramids, the oldest artificial reef in the Dasoudi marine reserve.
Created in 2009, the site gives an indication of what’s to come for the Costandis and the Lady Thetis.
Swimming around and between the piles of concrete blocks, interconnected by ropes along the seabed for ease of navigation – I spot a wide range of soft coral and sponges, algae, invertebrates and fish, including bearded fireworms, large shoals of two-banded bream and some damselfish so fearless that they come and nibble at my fingers.
Towards the end of the dive I catch sight of a turtle darting away into the blue – it’s too far off to identify, but Marios guesses at either a green or the rarer hawksbill.
Whichever it may be, it’s an encouraging sign for the new wrecks – if turtles are feeding on and around the Pyramids, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t visit the nearby Costandis and Lady Thetis too.
I’M DUE TO DIVE the other new wreck on this side of the island, the Nemesis III, which was scuttled in a new marine reserve off Protaras in December 2013.
Joey A Ridge, founder of Easy Divers, is less than delighted with the sea conditions and wants to wait. It wouldn’t be much fun bobbing about on a rough sea in his small RIB, he says.
You can dive year-round in Cyprus, but the weather is less reliable outside of high season – I’m paying the price for having waited until the cooler weather of autumn for my visit.
The delay is frustrating, but there’s a silver lining to this cloud: the change of plan means that I’m able to squeeze in a couple of dives on the Zenobia, with the ever-resourceful Joey as my guide.
This is a story about new wrecks, however, not old ones, so I won’t go into those dives here, but suffice it to say that the old Swedish ferry delivers on its reputation as one of the most thrilling wrecks in the world.
I MEET JOEY at his dive centre in Protaras the next morning for the final new wreck of the trip. A fishing vessel built in France in 1956 and brought to Cyprus in 1987, the 24m Nemesis III has a beam of 6m and sits in 23m.
Standing directly beneath the buoy that marks it, the wreck is visible in all its glory from the moment I dip beneath the surface.
I get my bearings with a circuit of the hull before penetrating the vessel from portside, dropping immediately into a petite engine-room filled with tool-covered work-benches and fledgling tubeworms.
From here it’s forward into the vessel’s former freezer hold, a space in which even rows of rusting steel columns disappear into blackness like a woodland in a steampunk fairy tale.
As I emerge blinking into the light of a large foredeck cabin, I catch sight of a lone cornetfish. It’s well-camouflaged against the blue water and greying cabin paint, especially compared to the cloud of damselfish – both adult and juvenile – that surround the wreck.
Cornetfish can be skittish but this specimen is happy to hang out and be photographed – a proud ambassador for the Nemesis III.
After a short surface interval there’s just time for one more dive.
I have visited all the new wrecks on this side of the island (the remaining new wreck, the Lamoe, is scuttled off Paphos, too far away for this short trip). However, before I go Joey wants me to see the Liberty, a small Russian cargo ship that kicked off this new wave of artificial reef creation in May 2009.
Lying just a couple of hundred metres away from the Nemesis III, the Liberty is an excellent companion dive to the new wreck although, at 28m maximum depth, it’s less accessible to inexperienced divers.
Already covered in soft coral, sponges and tubeworms and home to fish in large numbers, the Liberty is proof – if proof were needed – that “if you build it, they will come”.
Artificial reefs and marine reserves take years in the planning, but from what I observed in Cyprus less than a year after the scuttling of these new wrecks, they seem worth all the hard work that went into them.
If you’re on the island for a week’s holiday there is now more variety to balance a Zenobia diet, with the prospect of increasing marine-life colonisation over time. These days there’s more than one way to get wrecked in Cyprus.
|GETTING THERE Flights from Stansted to Larnaca with Cyprus Airways, cyprusair.com. Car hire Ascot Rent A Car, ascotrentacar.com|
DIVING Easy Divers, ezdivers.com; Buddy Divers, buddydivers.com
ACCOMMODATION Protaras: Grecian Park Hotel 5*, grecianpark.com; Limassol: Poseidonia Beach Hotel 4*, allegrocollection.com
WHEN TO GO Year-round, but best months April-September. Water temperatures peak in August.
PRICES Cyprus Airways flights from £184. B&B at the Poseidonia Beach Hotel from £73 pp per night (two sharing). Easy Divers 10-dive package (eight local plus two on the Zenobia) including equipment hire, air (nitrox on Zenobia dives), transfers, guide & lunch 415 euros. With four Zenobia dives 480 euros.
VISITOR INFORMATION www.visitcyprus.com, Cyprus Dive Centres Association, www.dca-cy.com