Mediterranean paradise for divers

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The dumping of ten derelict army tanks in the sea off Lebanon last year highlights the growing popularity of diving tourism across the Mediterranean, which has become renowned for its wide range of dive sites.

The tanks join a French submarine and a Macedonian freighter on a growing list of hotspots for underwater explorers in Lebanese waters.

Supporters of the project are confident that as well boosting tourism; the wrecks will create habitats for marine life.

Officials in neighbouring Cyprus share that view. They say few experiences can match the thrill of diving, which is a firm part of the tourist product. In 2013, the Nemesis III, a nondescript old fishing trawler wrote itself into the local history books becoming the first artificial reef to be sunk off the island.

Soon after, three more vessels were sent to a watery grave – they are all now abundant with marine life. The initiative was welcomed by diving schools as a much needed addition to their product.

“In the last 10-years diving has become much more popular in Cyprus,” Andreas Panayotou, of Zenobia Divers says.

He claims increasing numbers of people – of all abilities – take diving trips during their vacations. “It is a safe sport – and we have great visibility, marine life and wrecks. We are world-class, as a diving destination.”

On the other side of the Mediterranean, Malta has also recently increased the number of artificial reefs and purpose sunk wrecks.

“This has enhanced diving,” Alan Whitehead, a diving instructor with TechWise in Malta, said.

“Also, the growth in technical diving and the multitude of wrecks from World War One and World War Two around Malta has boosted the image and profile of Malta with many media articles, awards and archaeological expeditions and studies increasing every year,” he adds.

Whitehead says that social media allows people to see the beauty of the underwater world with high quality images and reckons diving is no longer seen as an extreme sport.  “But still has its risk when not conducted properly,” he says.

“The major training agencies have moved towards the recreational aspect and an inclusive approach rather than exclusive or elitism. So scuba is for all that want to try, medically fit – both physically and psychologically ready – and meet some basic prerequisites such as age.”

He says advancements in diving – such as rebreathers, photographic equipment, and training programs have increased the awareness of wreck diving in destinations such as Malta.

Back in Cyprus, its most famous wreck is enjoying record summer visits. The huge Zenobia ferry capsized in 1980, taking with it over 100 trucks and trailers to the sea bed. Panayotou says its labyrinth of passages and rich cargo makes it a firm favourite with visitors from all over Europe.

“It is the ‘king of the wrecks,’ or as we call her the ‘Titanic of the Mediterranean,’ about 25,000 people dive there every year. She is an amazing wreck,” he says.

For Alan Whitehead, one of the major draws in Malta is the Polynesein, a large converted liner from World War One. “But there are new wrecks being released every month and recently my favourite has become an aeroplane wreck, Juncker 88, just outside our dive centre,” he says.

The Um el Faroud is also considered by many to be the best dive wreck in the Mediterranean. The 10,000-ton Libyan tanker was scuttled off the south coast of Malta in 1995. The boat has become a massive nursery ground by providing space for reproduction, growth, feeding and refuge for marine organisms.

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