THE MAIN ROADS DETERIORATED after Bulgaria but they weren’t all bad – just single-lane, narrower and more uneven in places. One of the good things about a KTM 990 motorbike is its very high ground clearance, allowing you to see well ahead and spot the numerous goats, sheep, geese and Lada Classics.
Today was Border Day. The proximity of Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine to the northern Black Sea allows you to travel through each country in a few hours – enduring eight separate entry and exit gates.
The record was three minutes leaving Bulgaria, but the Ukrainians took 40 minutes to go over my documents. These were off-the-beaten-track outposts where few tourists ventured.
Once in Ukraine I headed for Dnipropetrovsk, which had a straight run up to Moscow and was where my diving friends Max, Denis, Julia and Phil lived. They could provide useful tips for travel and diving in Ukraine and Russia.
I had experienced a flat front tyre before, like any other biker, but usually you get some warning before it totally deflates. Approaching Odessa at 60mph in three lanes of traffic, and with a 400kg weight on board, my front inner tube suddenly collapsed like a balloon.
You can lose control if you break or shift down; best to come off the gas and grip hard. The steering was violent and the front wheel was flapping from side to side, out of control. At 20mph I was ready to jump off and roll to avoid being run over when the inevitable fall came.
It never did. The bike just carried on careering until it stopped with my feet firmly on the ground. To my right I saw a spectacularly lucky sight; two tyre repair shops side by side!
A couple of mechanics had seen my near-miss and came to help. Within an hour I was rolling again with my new tube. They wouldn’t take a penny! Great ambassadors for the Ukraine.
I arrived in Dnipropetrovsk at the weekend and my Garmin 660 Zumo GPS took me straight to Phil and Julia’s front door. “We’re diving tomorrow, what gas would you like” said Julia, before I could open my mouth. We would call the Russian embassy first thing Monday about my visa extension.
The dive-site was very unusual, and only recently discovered by their friend Sergey Ivchenko. “It was a quiet day and we were sitting around chatting about how few diving opportunities there were near Dnipropetrovsk,” he told me.
“I began searching Google Earth for blue bits of water, and about 120km away we thought we’d seen what looked like a good spot, so we drove off to investigate. It was all done with modern technology but it worked.”
The “blue bit” was a big freshwater quarry that had consumed (and still consumes) whole fields and a forest.
This 500m-long lake contained crystal-clear water to a depth of 38m. Temperatures near the surface were 28°C but dropped abruptly to just 5°C below 20m. The locals used it for swimming and boating, but no divers had been there before Sergey.

THE DIVERS I MET IN THE UKRAINE were highly trained individuals with a leaning towards GUE-style diving and equipment configuration. They had to deal with low visibility and cold water, so it was drysuits, thermals and twin-sets all round today, gloves too!
My buddy was Alex. Julia would provide surface cover and drive the vehicle to the other side of the quarry to pick us up – another first, a drift-dive by car! It was warm getting in, but at 20m I was grateful for my O’Three suit and Fourth Element undergarments. Not a drop of water got in.
Swimming through a grassy field and an underwater forest has to be done to be believed, especially when a fish swims out of a tree! Eerie but very exciting.
The colours changed from light green to blue and glowing white mist, where some plants were shedding their skins.
I could see the various thermoclines, and it was useful to spend the last hour of the dive in the shallows at 25°C.
We must have got carried away. After 90 minutes we surfaced exactly where we had started, having circumnavigated the whole lake. A short ride in an old Russian military van got us back to Julia, and a telling-off!
“You’ve got to be joking” summed up the answer from Ukraine’s Russian embassy. I had a few days left on my Russian visa and they allow a week’s extension, but only when you are already inside Russia. I wouldn’t have time to get to the White Sea, dive, and get back.
“If you wait two weeks you can get a new visa,” they said, but there had been too many admin delays already.
Even allowing for the inevitable hold-ups, those in Istanbul and especially Cairo had me beat. The White Sea would have to wait for now.
Our consolation “Coloured Sea” would be the Arabic White Sea we had dived at Alexandria in northern Egypt, but it wasn’t quite the same as diving within the Arctic Circle. A sad day but the trip would go on – there was still much to do in the Crimea.
With the pressure of time eased, I took the camera out on the streets to record daily life in beautiful Dnipropetrovsk.
Wary of being arrested again, I left the Go-Pros and slung my Sony “tourist-looking” camera around my neck.
I must have been the luckiest tourist alive to walk straight into a full-scale re-enactment of a WW2 battle scene involving the navy, parachute regiment and infantry.
They dropped from the sky, fired machine guns from a passing boat and even shot dozens of rounds from a 1940s BMW motorbike ridden by three soldiers wearing original WW2 German infantry uniforms and weapons.
It was the Ukraine’s parachute regiment anniversary, and they sure knew how to put on a show!
Sergey and Julia helped with my route-planning to Sevastapol, due south along country roads past huge lakes and dams, plus many memorials to the fallen of the great famines and two world wars. Statues of Lenin were everywhere.
My bad luck wasn’t over. On one stretch I noticed that I was getting beeped and flashed a lot by overtaking motorists. I took it as a welcoming gesture, and it was only when I pulled into a petrol station and the attendant came running up to make me move the bike away that I realised something was up.
“You’re on fire, sir!” exclaimed the attendant, checking wind direction towards his 95 octane storage tanks.
A bungee strap had snapped and my bag had dropped towards the exhaust pipe. Inside the bag a melted tool-kit had caught fire and was dripping burning plastic everywhere.

THE CRIMEA SAW the Charge of the Light Brigade, was involved in the world wars and in Balaklava has a huge nuclear submarine base, now decommissioned, as a tourist attraction. There would be plenty to do but first port of call was Black Sea Explorers to meet co-owner, manager and world-class Russian technical diver Oxana Istratova.
I had heard of Oxana when she achieved a world record in the Red Sea for deepest woman’s wreck dive at 180m on the Jolanda, also becoming Russia’s deepest woman diver in the process.
“We dive tomorrow at 9am,” she said. Within minutes of my bike pulling up they had transferred all my dive-gear to their boat, Stryder. Once again, twin-sets, drysuits and thermals were the order of the day and among regular visitors were well-trained, committed and disciplined divers at many levels.
I asked Oxana about Crimean training methods. “We’re a mix of TDI and IANTD for people progressing beyond recreational diving,” she told me.
“You’ll see a lot of divers using similar equipment and methods because we make it easy for anyone to drop by and slip into our way of diving. There’s more familiarity and less confusion when diving in teams trained for these conditions and procedures.”
I noticed a lot of GUE influences. “Some of us have had GUE training, so of course we often apply what we feel is good for the students we train ourselves.” A dive professional is the sum-total of knowledge and training received from multiple sources, so it was pleasing to be in an environment where they weren’t afraid to mix and match. If you keep to standards, the rest is up to you. Many agencies will tell you this too, especially those that are instructor-led.
Our first dives were at local sites along a high cliff face that dominated the coastline for miles, diving with 32% nitrox in double-12s within recreational limits. There were more thermoclines than in Dnipropetrovsk, but the temperature was pretty constant at the various depths. Here we had 28°, 20°, 15°, 10° and finally 6° at 30m.
Vis for most of the week was slightly below average at around 6m. We dived a canyon, a wall and an old wreck named the Vinovoz, which looked like a more broken-up Dunraven, the ship of a similar era in the Red Sea.
It was important to stay together, as separations were all too easy in limited vis, but the training, briefings and dive plan always addressed this. Black Sea diving requires a different attitude and plan but it is not hard for any experienced diver to fit in.
Staff can handle multiple skill levels, though I was lucky to stay in a group of five good divers, all with at least some light tech qualifications.
They all wanted to visit “The Black Sea’s Thistlegorm”, as Oxana called it.
The first similarity was that we had to get up at 6am to travel there. It was two hours away by road, then a three-mile ride in a large capacity RIB. The guide jumped in to tie the lines.
The ship sits upright between 30m and 19m, with much detail remaining between bow and bridge. The Black Sea excels at preserving timbers.
The Volga Don was built as a Soviet warship in 1917, became an ore-carrier and was taken over by the Germans in WW2 to transport munitions. She was sunk by torpedo in 1943.
On board is a large anti-aircraft gun and several small shells. Many Black Sea wrecks are covered in mussels but retain their distinctive shape. Currents were strong only during descent and ascent, and eased off once inside the wreck.
There is more silt on the Volga Don and areas are tighter than on Thistlegorm but you can still take a good look around and have plenty of bottom time.
We were diving air and 100% O2 deco gas. Torches are essential, and parts of the wreck should be dived only by those with overhead training.
I visited a Cold War Soviet nuclear base that probably sent shivers around the world during the dark years of the global arms race. I’d been arrested in Egypt for filming a street, but here I was welcome to film decommissioned warheads and submarine docking stations.
It was an odd tourist attraction, where children pose for family snaps by sitting on Armageddon-capable projectiles.

THE LAST DAY’S DIVING was on Ushakov’s Wall. Conditions all week had been good, with light surface swells and few dark clouds. Once below 30m the vis became gin-clear but at 40m the 5°C temperature was the coldest I had experienced. The fingers cooled, but otherwise I was warm.
The many jellyfish at depth gave the dive an eerie feel. Huge rocks and boulders littered the seabed. We had been told that they “fell off the cliff above over the years”. Ukrainian Aquatic Roulette
I hit the road again for the long ride back, covering several hundred miles a day and sleeping under trees, by rivers, on beaches and occasionally in my tent, which was less fun.
From Romania to Bulgaria I was caught in the open in a heavy electrical rainstorm that lasted three hours, almost forcing me to wear my drysuit on the bike! I arrived, drenched, back at Black Sea Scuba near Varna. “Did you just ride your bike through a lake” asked Scott.
At Istanbul airport I found that my beloved crate had been “relocated”.
I could knock up another one out of old pallets – or there was a new ferry service from Mersin to Port Said. But looking at the timetable I knew it would be tight – I had just 24 hours to ride 620 miles.
The Nikolay Konarev was a commercial ship that took occasional passengers and vehicles. The crossing took two days, but then we dropped anchor outside the Egyptian port.
“It’s the post-Ramadan holiday period,” we were told. “The port is closed for three days and you all have to stay on board.” The ship became a floating prison, with a broken game of table football. We resorted to playing I-Spy, a tedious end to what had been an unforgettable experience on many levels.
A huge thank you from me to all the individuals and companies that made this trip possible.