The Italian island of Sardinia in the mid-western Mediterranean has a lot to offer divers - especially around Capo Galera, where the sea reveals a surprising amount of life and colour, says MORTON BJORN LARSEN
A SHORT RUN IN THE RIB brings us to Grotta Del Falco. I am excited to see what lies beneath the surface, because until now I’ve been one of those divers whose first thought is always to dive in the tropical waters of the Red Sea.
But here I am in Sardinia, ready to give the Mediterranean a fair shot and dive in some of the many caves and caverns that can be found there.I’m the first to roll into the water. While I wait for the others, I note that the rocky shoreline is at least as dramatic under water as it is above. At 6m or so we swim towards the wall, where I can see a huge rock overhang. Antonio, the guide, points eagerly to the shadow below it, and signals for me to swim in there.
As I dive in under the “roof”, openings in the rock appear, the entrances to small caves. From here it’s a beautiful sight to turn and look back towards the big blue sea. I turn my torch towards the roof of the overhang, and am delighted by the colours it reveals. There are bright red “mushrooms” and thousands of little yellow and green anemones. I signal to Antonio to stay in the opening of the cave so that I can get some photos with the beautiful colours, and Antonio surrounded by blue water. Further along the wall is another large overhang. This time Antonio swims in first and I follow, feeling slightly giddy. We enter a tunnel, perhaps more accurately described as a huge swim-through. It never becomes completely dark, because the moment we leave the light from one opening onto the reef behind, so a new one appears. I stop several times to enjoy the fantastic terrain, and all the colours on the walls and ceiling.
AS WE SLOWLY DRIFT out of the next opening, Antonio shows me some cliff ledges above us. An elongated blue-greyish body mass is perched there. It doesn’t have the skin of a moray, but as neither head nor tail is visible, I have a hard time figuring out what sort of sea monster this is.Antonio, who has worked as a dive-guide here for almost 10 years, knows the elongated animals and using his torch he gets the animal to pull back a little, so that its head emerges. It’s a conger, the giant eel that can grow up to 3m long and 65kg in weight. It would be nice to report that this specimen was that big and heavy, but it is probably closer to 2m long. Still, I have to take a deep breath before I move in for a close-up.We swim back to the boat to make our safety stop. As I hang there and look through the photos, I consider my first dive in the Mediterranean to have been anything but disappointing – in fact it was quite spectacular!Located on the west coast of Sardinia is Capo Galera, a rocky headland on which a dive centre of the same name is located. The location provides an impressive panoramic view of the Mediterranean. Two Germans started the centre, but in 2000 it was taken over by local Gaddo Risso, who now lives with his wife and two boys in a house beside it. Antonio Barone, my guide this week, runs daily operations. He is a full-blooded Italian with a penchant for grand gestures, who likes to take a trip to the local cheese shop to ensure that you get to taste a genuine Sardinian casu.In high season, which extends from mid-May to the end of October, Gaddo often fires up the big grill. It’s the perfect setup for cosy evenings, complete with a string of more or less true dive stories. There is no restaurant attached to the dive centre, but there is a large kitchen, and every room has a refrigerator and a kitchenette. If you can’t be bothered to spend your holiday cooking, the idyllic postcard town of Alghero lies a 10-minute drive from the centre. You can take a taxi, or Gaddo can get you a good rental deal with Avis. Considering that the dive centre is located high above the Mediterranean, it is wonderfully easy to transport all the diving equipment to the boat. It is done in an open wagon on motorised rails. You can quietly walk down the stairs, enjoying the view over the turquoise sea.
Three years ago, Gaddo purchased a large and beautiful yacht that serves as a liveaboard to take you beyond the dive-sites reached by RIB. There seems to be great demand for cabins on the boat, so booking in advance is advised.
At the foot of the stairs leading down to the water is pretty good house reef, best described as a mixture of northern Atlantic and Red Sea diving. The dive begins with a short swim through some unusually high seagrass, which hides a great deal of life if you care to look closely. Beyond the grass the reef offers photo opportunities for those fond of macro life. Scattered over a large area lie boulders overgrown with bright orange mushroom sponges. The trick here is to find the black fungus that grows between the dominant orange blocks. On this lives the nudibranch Hypselodoris orsinii which, with its very bright bluish-purple colour and yellow stripes, creates a photogenic contrast. If you’re here in the spring, many different nudibranchs and flatworms will greet you on the reef. Squid frequently put in appearances at the house reef.
Both Capo Caccia and Grotta Della Madonnina are interesting enough to be experienced on individual dives, but they are also close enough to be done in a single dive. Capo Caccia is an open-water dive below the 100m-high cliffs that form the rocky isthmus of that name. You find yourself in a very dramatic rocky landscape featuring both columns and inviting crevices. Large fish such as Corsican trout and brown grouper can be found here. If you go a little deeper, to 30-40m, you’ll find soft corals of the sort that most divers would not expect to find in the Mediterranean. The bright red Corallium rubrum has unfortunately been harvested in large quantities for use in jewellery – between 2001-2008, the USA alone imported 28 million pieces of this beautiful coral. Fortunately there are now quotas on the amount that can be harvested, and if these are observed divers can still expect to see red coral here in the future. We find them at 35m, yet they seem to be bathed in daylight. Good visibility and a sun high in the sky make you feel that the depth is no more than 15m.
GROTTA DELLA MADONNINA is an open cave with a number of swim-throughs. The rock wall is clad in fan corals and the colourful sponges and anemones that can be found throughout the area. As you dive through some of the beautiful swim-throughs, be sure to look up at the ceiling for specimens of the beautiful pinkish-red Corallo rosso coral. These corals are not particularly big, but they cover large areas and are home to nudibranchs, crabs and small fish.
If you don’t think that tunnels and small caves are sufficiently hardcore, you should pay a visit to Grotta Dei Fantasmi, where you can literally dive into Sardinia. The cave doesn’t have any holes in the ceiling where sunlight can penetrate, as in many of the cenotes of Mexico. Once you have made your way through the entrance and the narrow passage that bends up and down on the way into the cave, it is only the lamp that you take with you that reveals the beautiful limestone formations.
There are many theories about how far human beings can see under water, but Grotta Dei Fantasmi gives the illusion that you aren’t even in water. Every time you turn around a pillar or swim through a passage a new lunar landscape is revealed, and you actually run out of light beam before you run out of visibility. However, the vis can very quickly go from great to miserable if you accidently stir up the fine silt that lies at the bottom of the cave. Good buoyancy control and little frog-kicks are a must. If things cloud up, you just have to swim a little further and you’ll quickly be back in clear-as-air water again.
In a few places in the caves you will find what Italians call “lakes”, places above sea level where you can stick your head above water and have a chat in mid-dive. Because of the high carbon dioxide content in these air pockets, however, it’s best to keep breathing from your regulator. The beauty of the lakes lies in the stalactite formations that you can see hanging from the ceiling. These were formed by lime-saturated water leaking through the ceiling and walls of a burrow and, drop by drop, leaving small chalk layers as the water evaporated. If you feel comfortable in an overhead environment, you should indulge yourself in the experience of Grotta Dei Fantasmi.
ALGHERO HAS 35,000 inhabitants, and in the narrow streets of the old town both laundry and flowers hang out of the windows. The whole town exudes the particular Sardinian brand of Mediterranean atmosphere. Little cafes and restaurants are scattered everywhere, and evening is the perfect time to take a walk beside the water along the mediaeval defensive walls. With Alghero so close to the dive centre, a family with diving and non-diving members could have fun both individually and together.
My first experiences of diving around Sardinia won’t be my last. I was very surprised at how varied the diving is and how much colour I encountered. For divers with a soft spot for more hardcore tech- or cave-diving, there are also plenty of options, with another dive centre nearby very experienced in this kind of diving. And don’t forget to treat your taste-buds to the delicious Sardinian food and exciting specialities.