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Diving in Dubrovnik by John Liddiard

Base yourself in Croatia’s historic coastal city and you could be in for a treat if you like caves and wrecks, says John Liddiard – not to mention the mobile attractions.


BENEATH THE CITY WALL of Dubrovnik, we look up from the RIB to see throngs of tourists looking down at us. Dubrovnik is a regular stop for cruise ships, and walking its wall must be one of the most popular excursions.

“Tell them you’re Tom Cruise and sign a few autographs,” I suggest to one of the other divers. He does look a little like Tom Cruise, with a similar haircut and a cool pair of shades, though he’s taller.He stands in the boat and shouts, with arms waving wide: “I am Tom Cruise!” Some of the wall-walkers wave back, though I doubt if any have heard him.
It’s not my first celebrity-lookalike moment of the trip. My transport from the airport was a black BMW with the crew-cut driver wearing a crisp dark suit and mirrored sunglasses. He could have been Jason Statham. With my dive-kit in the boot, however, there was no room left for a Chinese immigrant.

From beneath the city walls, instructor Marco points the RIB across the bay to Lokrum island, then leads the dive along a rocky slope to a canyon and then a submerged tunnel through the cliffs to a sheltered lagoon, murky with a strong halocline. Marco explains that it is a popular swimming spot in summer, and those not expecting divers get a surprise.
BACK OUT THROUGH the tunnel, I have more time on the shallow part of the slope, where ammunition is scattered from both WW1 and the more recent Balkan war. There are even some larger bits of metal that may have been part of one of the associated gun-mounts from the top of the cliff.
Almost beneath where the RIB is anchored is the wreck of the Tomislav, a small steel trawler from the Balkan war, but it’s 40m down and I don’t get to dive it until later in the week, with dive-centre owner Anto.
Marco is more into big scenery, walls and caves. He even has a cave named after him, one he discovered on the wall in front of the Blue Planet Dive Centre.
I get to enjoy a bigger and more spectacular cave with Anto on the island of Kolocep. The cave is actually a combination of a big and small tunnel that go right through the headland, meeting in a rock pool about three-quarters of the way through.
But first we have a quick look round the shallow wreck of the Aurora, a diesel-engined coaster that reputedly struck a mine in the recent war.
It surprises me that there is actually a section of mine casing on the sand next to the twisted and broken hull. However, being this shallow much of the damage could have come from storms rolling the hull, and the remains of the mine could simply be a coincidence.
The southernmost point of the island is Bezdan. As we round the point, the wall drops away to the abyss, which is what Bezdan translates to.
Then, further round the point, a wide cave leads back into the headland, a sparkle of blue visible at the back where, after a few minutes at 3m, we briefly surface. A smaller shallow tunnel then leads out, back towards the Aurora and the anchored RIB.
With a route for water to flow right through the headland, the marine life on the walls and ceilings of the cave
are well fed, and represent the best of the Adriatic, with cups of yellow anemones, sponges, shrimps and even a spiny lobster hidden away in a crack by the entrance.
The Blue Planet Dive Centre is located beneath the Dubrovnik Palace hotel, built into the hillside at the end of the peninsula to the west of the old city. It takes me a couple of days to get the elevator call right, remembering that reception is at the top, my room somewhere in the middle, and the dive centre at the bottom.
In line with the peninsula, large and small islands pop out of the sea all the way to the horizon. It’s a view shared
by just about every window in the hotel, including my room and the patio in front of the dive centre, and is a classic feature of Dalmatian coast geology.
The other geological features are caves. The rocks are mainly limestone and, with the relative rise in sea level needed to create the strings of islands that run parallel to the coast, every dive site has one or more caves. Straight out from the dive centre are shore dives at Marco’s Cave and Little Africa.

HAVING CROSSED A DESERT of rocks and sand and a savannah of seagrass, Little Africa is so named because the plan of the dive site looks like a map of the African continent. The cave entrance is in the middle, around about Uganda just past 10m, and the larger and deeper exit is somewhere near Angola or Namibia, in 20m.
Marco’s Cave is deeper, with the cave again being a tunnel, from the top of the reef to an A-shaped opening in the face of the reef at 40m.
The highlight, tucked into nooks on the roof of the cave, is red coral. Coveted for polishing into gems, it is rarely found this shallow.
Only a few hundred metres in front of the dive centre, across a deepwater channel, is the island of Grebeni.
A little further out and to the right, Bezdan on Kolocep island is marked by a lighthouse. In the distance, a smaller island is Andrija, or St Andrew’s island.
Anto normally ties the RIB off to a mooring at Andrija, but the buoy has gone, and it takes a while to get the anchor set to his satisfaction, especially as the only place even remotely shallow enough is directly in front of a lee shore.
The dive site round the corner is more sheltered, but the wall drops straight down to a sandy seabed past 80m.
I get this from reading the guidebook, not from personal experience. Anto hasn’t been all the way there either. Helium is rare stuff in Dubrovnik, so depths are limited to what is safe on air.

WE HEAD TO 32M and along the wall, with diversions into two caves. Then, after doubling back, we visit a much larger cave in 15m. Looking at the shape of the rock, it could have been opened out from the same crack as the previous cave, but by this point in the dive I don’t want to follow the crack back down past an overhang to check my suspicion.
Closer to the dive centre, the top of Grebeni is marked by a squat lighthouse. The light is now automatic and the building, owned by the Dubrovnik Palace, is fitted out as a luxury suite. If you have the money, you can stay there with a private butler, maid and chef, though the food in the hotel restaurants is so good that I wonder what a private chef could do to make it even better.
There are dive sites all round Grebeni, including the 1943 wreck of the Italian steamship Tottono. After striking a mine on 15 February the Tottono sank across the lip of the wall, with the bow in 20m and the stern on a sandy seabed in 52m.
The Tottono has broken its back just aft of the engine-room to leave the aft hold and stern well broken and flat to the seabed, with the forward half of the ship making the hypotenuse of a triangle between the wall and the sand.
For some unknown reason it is referred to as Taranto locally. I guess this may be a Croatian corruption of the Italian trattore, because of the tractors it was carrying as deck cargo.
There is a cave in the wall beneath the bow; not that I get round to exploring it, because I am absorbed in the wreck and the tractors. I have never dived a tractor before, and on this dive I see three of them before we have to start working our way back through the engine-room and forward holds to the bow.
For me, Dubrovnik would be worth the trip for the Tottono by itself, but Anto has an extra-specia treat in store. The wreck of the S57, a German motor torpedo-boat, lies along the coast on the Peljesac peninsula.
I dived this wreck last time I was in Croatia and wouldn’t miss the chance to revisit it. From Dubrovnik it’s a comfortable afternoon out by car to the sleepy little village of Zuljana to climb aboard dive-centre owner Barbara Immersio’s boat.
An added bonus is that Peljesac is Croatia’s main wine-making region, with lots of small family wineries producing in the traditional way.
On the night of 17 August, 1944, British MTBs ambushed a German convoy on passage from Korcula to Dubrovnik, sinking five out of six ships.
Next evening the S57 was part of a mission to search for survivors, and was again ambushed by the MTBs. In the early hours of 19 August, the vessel badly damaged by fire, S57’s crew were forced to scuttle it.

THE STEEL SKELETON stripped of its plywood skin is pretty much how I remember it, except that the bow has tipped a little further to starboard and the stern has broken to collapse on top of the propellers.
The ribs are covered in red, orange and purple sponges where the water flows gently through the wreck.
On the aft deck the anti-aircraft gun still points skywards. At the bow, the torpedoes are still in their tubes, and re-load torpedoes are stowed to either side of the open wheelhouse.
Anto has one more treat lined up. We take the RIB a little further south than his usual patch to Mrkanjac, a small strip of rock that forms the southern extremity of a chain of islands off Cavtat. Anto hasn’t dived here before, but on a friend’s advice we avoid the obvious caves and make a drift around the point.
With a fair current running along the outside of the island, the marine life provides everything I need to make up for my previous inattention to such detail. It had been there on all the dives – it’s just that I have been paying more attention to the wrecks and caves.
Nudibranchs are everywhere, as are small scorpionfish and hermit crabs. Moray eels poke their heads out of holes, while octopuses are a little more shy. We even find a trio of forkbeards in a hollow.
After a short morning tour of the old town earlier in the week, I am quite looking forward to decompression day and a chance to walk round the city wall.
But the rain tips down. My balcony becomes one step in a waterfall. Instead I enjoy a long lunch and hang out with Anto at the dive centre.
He asks me what I thought of the diving. I answer honestly that I would be happy to dive any of the sites again.

In 1979, the walled city of Dubrovnik was one of the first to be listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The two-mile-long walls with their system of turrets and fortresses surround the old city on both landward and seaward sides, and protect churches and other buildings of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
The original settlement is thought to date from ancient Greek times, when it would have been a convenient overnight stop for ships travelling between Budva and Korcula.
Through the Middle Ages, the city prospered as the Republic of Ragusa, rivalling Venice as a maritime trading power, and maintained its independence by skilful diplomacy until occupied by Napoleonic France in 1808.
Following Napoleon’s fall in 1815, Ragusa became part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and the name changed to Dubrovnik.
After World War One, the city and the surrounding province of Croatia became integrated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which then become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Tito’s communist rule following WW2.
Tito died in 1980, and without his control nationalist pressures and disagreements grew,
until in 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared their succession. Bosnia and Macedonia soon followed, and the complex Third Balkan War ensued (the first two were squabbles over territory in the years prior to WW1).
Dubrovnik was besieged by Serb forces and much of the historic architecture was damaged by shelling, leading UNESCO to move it to the “World Heritage in Danger” list. The damage is now largely repaired and the city restored.

Appeared in DIVER March 2011/ autor: John Liddiard

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