As so often, the weather gods play a part when a Croatian wreck-diving itinerary is at stake, but RICK AYRTON gets a good crack at the wrecks of Istria, including some British iron and steel
I HAD HEARD WHISPERS about the quality of diving in Croatia, and when good friend Gerard Punch announced that he was arranging a trip there, I jumped at the chance to join in.
Gerard had researched the possibilities and decided that we should go to Diving Shark Croatia, a PADI 5* centre based in Medulin, Istria in the north of the country. The intention was to explore the numerous deeper wrecks visited by the dive-centre, which could offer a full-service technical centre and a catamaran with diver-lift.
Getting to Medulin was not difficult. Pula, a small and interesting city, has its own airport and several low-cost UK airlines fly there. I am Bristol-based, so was delighted to find that Thompson flew there direct on Saturdays.
It was only after the flights were booked and paid for that I realised that Thompson appears to have a more restrictive baggage allowance than other low-cost carriers. The most I could book was 30kg of bags plus a 20kg sport bag (15kg + 5kg on presentation of a dive cert), totalling 50kg. Thompson has a cabin-bag limit of just 5kg.
By comparison, Easyjet allows 60kg of booked bags and no weight restriction on cabin bags. I was diving with a rebreather (the dive-centre had cylinders) and drysuit and would need to take my basic dive plus camera equipment.
Normally my total weight comes in at about 70kg, and I am more than happy to pay for the extra weight, but Thompson would not give me that option.
I HAD NO IDEA HOW I would get everything to Croatia, but was eventually saved when an extra diver joined the trip at a late stage.
He would be driving from the UK, so kindly allowed several of us to load a bag into his car. I had learnt a lesson – check weight limits before booking.
I could have saved weight by hiring a drysuit, and the centre has manifolded 12-litre twin-sets for those happy blowing bubbles. All its equipment was in good condition and looked well-maintained.
From the airport we were taken straight to the dive centre, just 20 minutes away, and greeted by owners Valentina and Davor. We were encouraged to assemble our kit and fill and analyse the gases for our rebreathers and were briefed on the next day’s diving (everyone spoke good English).
The following morning we loaded the heavy gear onto a trailer that was taken the short distance to the quay, where the boat was waiting. The first dive was to be a bit of a try-out in 48m, not one of the dives planned by Gerard but the Italian destroyer Cesare Rossarol, lost just after the end of WW1 while trying to negotiate a known minefield.
A massive explosion split the ship in two and she was gone in just three minutes. It was one of the greatest WW1 tragedies for the Italian Navy, with 98 of its sailors lost. The two parts lie about 400m apart, and we would be diving the stern section.
After diving all summer in the UK, the gin-clear Adriatic water was a treat. I was one of the first on the wreck, and the two guns, an interesting range finder and a complete ship’s wheel at the auxiliary steering position were a treat to see.
What was disappointing was that the visibility quickly went from sparkling to thick fog as the silt was stirred up by numerous divers trying to get a good look around a small wreck on which there was little current.
Now I knew that all the kit was working well, but a second reef dive was available and I took advantage of this to see a pretty vibrant reef made up of a succession of steps down to about 35m with good, colourful fish life.
Back in the shallows a trial of different scooter models involved 10 minutes learning the skills to control and ride devices that are so heavy and awkward at the surface but which take movement below it to a different level – and are great fun.
The next day gale-force southerly winds stopped all dive activity, so we explored Pula, which has an almost intact Roman amphitheatre as well as a go-kart circuit where we got our adrenaline fix for the day. Medulin too is well served by inexpensive and good-quality restaurants.
ALTHOUGH STILL WINDY, we were able to dive the following day, though limited to the bow section of the Cesare Rossarol, at the same depth as the stern section and in similar silty conditions – enjoyable, but not what we had come this far to see. It isn’t just the UK where the weather causes problems.
After this, the weather looked up. It wasn’t perfect but we would be able to do what we wanted. The dive-centre suggested that we plan on two dives a day to make up for lost time. We would take the boat south, then north-east to the small town of Plomin Luka, and base ourselves there for the next two days.
Now the quality of the diving moved to a different level. Our next dive was to be the Glasgow-built cargo vessel Vis, lost just after WW2 on 13 February, 1946, after hitting a stray mine.
The 2865-tonne ship is 79m long and was built in 1921. After the occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, ships that found themselves in British or American ports were requisitioned and the Vis worked in convoys along the Cuba-USA-Canada route under Allied control, returning to the UK, then onward to her home country after the war.
On the day of her loss she was heading to Rasa in Istria to load coal and was running in the channel between the Croatian mainland and the island of Cres that had not yet been cleared of mines.
Unfortunately she struck one, and now lies upright and very much intact in 60m, with her decks at around about 50m. The rear mast is intact, complete with rigging that reaches up to 37m.
The first thing I saw were shoals of swaying and shimmying fish that gradually parted to reveal the wreck.
The shotline was attached to the anchor-winch at the bow – all the wrecks we dived that week had permanently fixed lines, easy to create in the tide-free Adriatic and respected by all the users.
The Vis is one of the most intact wrecks I have seen. Its various deck levels are easy to move around, and it is a bit tight but not unreasonable to get into the engine-room.
Watch the silt here, but on the whole this is a clean wreck with a lot of intact superstructure, including the funnel.
THE BRIDGE AREA IS EASY to examine, and the plinths for the compass binnacle and ship’s wheel remain. Through the bridge windows I watched fish rather than the miles of ocean passing as they would have done in the ship’s heyday.
I went aft, dropping over the stern to check out the prop before returning to deck level and slowly making my way forward again. Visibility was in excess of 30m, except where the fish got in the way!
Then it was back to the shotline for decompression. It was important for all divers to return up the line, but this arrangement did mean that it could be a bit unstable, especially while trying to maintain depth on deco.
I found it easier to send up a DSMB from the shallows and remain in comfort, because there were no significant currents with which to contend.
After a leisurely lunch to give us all a decent surface interval, we moved to the Lina, more old British steel. Built in Newcastle and launched in 1879, she foundered in a storm in January 1914 and now lies close to shore, upright and intact. The top of the bow is in 25m, the stern in 55m. I planned to do a quick tour taking in the stern but to spend most time above 35m checking out the engine-room and forward parts of the wreck.
The bow is memorable, with the two Admiralty-pattern anchors stowed on deck. The difficulty deploying them can be understood when you can see them like this. The helm can be seen on the remains of the bridge, and it’s easy to get below decks and explore the holds.
The timber cargo on closer inspection turned out to be stacks of wood veneer, the clean surface obvious when lifted.
A number of Croatian wrecks have memorials placed on them by local divers, and inside the bow of the Lina is such a memorial, to the ship and its sailors. The wreck lies very close to shore, and if you have any deco to do it’s a short swim over to some convenient caves at 5m, but the swell caused by previous high winds made such an excursion unwise.
Our overnight mooring was at the small and obviously busy fishing village with a backdrop of a huge chimney, part of a coal-fired power station.
We were driven (an hour’s journey) back to the dive centre where scrubbers were changed, cylinders refilled and torch batteries put on charge for the following morning, when we travelled back.
CONDITIONS WERE THE BEST YET, and it was easy to get to the Kalliopi, a large cargo vessel. Greek registered, this was a US-built Liberty ship formerly called the Robert Dale Owen. She changed hands in 1946 and became yet another victim of a stray WW2 mine on 20 December 1947, in the same channel that finished the Vis.
She quickly took on a list, and soon afterwards the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.
No sooner had they got into the life-rafts than the ship broke further and slipped beneath the waves. Only one Greek sailor was lost.
I failed to listen properly to the briefing and spent my dive going around the upturned bow section, where I saw some big anchors, but that was the highlight.
About 20m away lay the rear section, and other divers reported that it lay on its port side, with a large bridge complete with telegraph and compass binnacle that could be entered.
The funnel remained in place behind the bridge, railings fenced off the whole structure and doorways into the interior beckoned, as did openings into the holds. I’ll have to return for that one!
The dive centre advised against our planned dive in open sea on a wreck called the Argo, because the weather was forecast to worsen. Some of the team had had issues that prevented them diving the Vis the first time, so we decided to go back there, and it was just as good.
What should have been an easy trip back to Medulin took more than an hour longer than expected thanks to increasing wind and a big broadside sea, but luckily the wind moderated for our final day and a planned single dive on what is probably the most famous dive in the area, the Baron Gautsch.
Built in the Dundee shipyard of Gourlay Brothers & Co, this luxury liner was launched in 1908, 84m long with a beam of 12m and just over 2000 tonnes.
She was employed along the Adriatic coast until the build-up to WW1, when the Austro-Hungarian navy requisitioned her as a troop-carrier.
She was lost early in the war on 13 August, 1914, when Captain Paul Winter ignored communications from the navy minelayer Basilisk that she was laying mines to protect Pula and should stay clear. Basilisk’s sailors watched in horror as they realised that the beautiful liner was sailing directly towards the mine barrier they had just deployed.
A massive explosion sealed the liner’s fate, and just a few minutes later the bow rose and she slipped beneath the waves. Of those on board 159 were saved but 177, including many women and children, were lost. The captain was arrested but the outcome of any investigation is unknown.
The Baron Gautsch is not classified as a technical dive. The wreck lies upright in 40m and its decks come up to about 27m. When we arrived several other dive-boats were already present, and the first 20 minutes of the dive were in diver soup.
I prefer to have wrecks to myself and the numbers of others present did spoil the experience for me. There are several different deck levels and the engine-room can be explored, and although on this occasion visibility inside the wreck left something to be desired, a gentle current outside it proved helpful. Big shoals of fish swirled over the decks.
HIGHLIGHTS INCLUDE roof-lights to the engine-room complete with intact glass portholes, life-boat davits and another memorial plaque, placed in 2014 on the 100th anniversary of the sinking at the stern. A steering position with wheel boss is also present. Several large red scorpionfish were spotted, and the whole structure is colonised with colourful sponges and other marine life.
I would like to dive this wreck again when fewer or no other dive-boats are present, and think it would provide an outstanding experience.
We felt we had only scratched the surface of the numerous wrecks in this part of the world. Croatia’s Ministry of Culture issues permits to dive wrecks such as the Hungarian battleship Svent Istvan at set times, but these did not coincide with our trip. And poor weather conditions had meant that we had to dive local wrecks that would not normally have been on the tick-list.
The dive-centre was excellent, made us welcome and provided an efficient and well-organised service, including sound advice on planning the dives.
Though we couldn’t dive our planned itinerary, what we did lived up to those whispers I had heard, and all agreed that a return visit would be in order.
GETTING THERE: Rick flew Bristol-Pula with Thomson, and other budget carriers such as easyJet and Jet2 also fly direct.
DIVING: Diving Centre Shark is a PADI 5* & DSAT tec centre and IANTD centre, and supplies Sofnolime, helium and oxygen as well as nitrox, www.diving-shark.hr
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Arcus is a 15-minute walk from the centre, which is itself based in a large campsite, so accommodation in air-conditioned mobile homes is available next to it.
WHEN TO GO: The centre is open all year but the main diving season is from March to November.
CURRENCY: Croatian kuna, euros widely accepted.
HEALTH: Nearest recompression chamber in Pula.
PRICES: Return flights cost Rick £400 (with 50kg of baggage), seven nights’ B&B 262 euros, five days’ technical diving to distant sites 500 euros (closer sites cost less). Three-litre rebreather cylinder oxygen fill, 6 euros. Heliair 10/52, 10 euros.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.istria.hr