by NEO magazine/Gregory Sioris*
A few years ago while sitting at a cafe on Manhattan’s East Side I was speaking with another patron born in Greece. During our conversation I revealed that I had often gone scuba diving in Greece. Much to my surprise she surmised and insisted that I am must be an antiquities thief (archaiokapilos) since the only purpose of diving is to steal antiquities, at least according to her, and, as it seems, far too many other Greeks. This was not the first time that I heard this claim from a Greek, since often after surfacing from dives locals have come and asked what I found or rather taken from below, this being a clear reference to purloining antiquities. However, hearing this comment in Manhattan from someone who holds herself out as being literate, let alone cosmopolitan, surprised me considering the seas abut every corner of Greece and its islands which make it an ideal country for scuba diving.
Scuba is a sport and/or an environmental activity which attracts high end tourists willing to spend generously to pursue this wonderful endeavor. This is the tourist demographic Greece certainly needs and should be attracting, particularly at this time of economic hardship since divers’ spending can provide growth in almost every corner of the country.
Seeing that perhaps too many Greeks are ignorant about diving in their homeland it is perhaps a timely subject for discussion since it provides many benefits, which for far too long have been overlooked if not completely ignored by those in Greece and around the world. It’s also time for NEO’s readers to get their masks and fins on to experience some of the cleanest and warmest waters the planet has to offer which they often neglect when visiting Greece.
Prior to 2006 scuba diving was greatly restricted in Greek waters the fear being that the sea floor was teaming with rare and unique antiquities of great value that easily could be grasped and smuggled for sale to dubious “art” dealers. This flawed thinking led to scuba diving being forbidden throughout Greece except in locations that were few and far between, with one bay (Limanaki) at Vouliagmeni in Athens and some locations in Mykonos and a few other locations in islands such as Rhodes and Corfu.
Abiding by the law’s proscriptions on where not to dive was frustrating, since with an endless coastline and numerous islands the attraction to dive in Greece is an endless siren song. A recreational diver should not have to fear the local port authority police swooping in with their speedboat and seizing a diver’s gear and even the boat she is diving from, which was the penalty for diving in zones that were not legal, which in reality was the entire mainland and the great majority of the islands. The threat of enforcing these strict and often arbitrary laws was terrible for the tourism, since the word in the diving community was that there was an outright hostility in Greece toward scuba and scuba divers. The result was that Greece’s nascent diving industry in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s was being put down by the very government it could provide revenues to by attracting affluent tourists who wanted to dive and who were willing to pay for the privilege.
By closing its doors Greece provided the incentive for European based divers to head to the Red Sea and stay at sea side resorts in Egypt and Israel. The dive tourists that Greece could have attracted decades earlier were being diverted to resorts in the Red Sea where a mature and thriving dive tourism industry arose, less so now due to the troubles in Egypt.
Greece’s restrictions also meant that anyone chartering a yacht in Greece was forbidden to use scuba gear almost anywhere, which provided a profound disincentive to charter in Greece if diving was on the agenda. One simply could charter a Turkish flagged vessel and dive on the Turkish side of the Aegean free of the worry that diving is illegal. The Greek government’s myopic and uninformed thinking hurt at least two, if not more industries, with diving and yacht chartering being the obvious and intended victims of the shortsightedness of the Greece’s bureaucrats.
Fortunately, in 2006 the European Union came to the rescue when it compelled Greece to open its seas to scuba diving. There are some exceptions such as areas where there are proven antiquities below, such as around the isle of Delos, or within ports or busy sea lanes, where recreational divers have no business diving. Motivating the EU’s move were its treaties which compel member states such as Greece to uphold the free movement of goods, services and people within the EU. Tourism is a commercial service and there’s no reason to maintain restrictive laws which keep an entire nation off limits to divers based on mere suspicion that rare and valuable antiquities are ever present below the surface when there’s little evidence to support such a concern. Antiquities thieves can dig and search as easily on land as they can in the sea, but the Greek countryside is not off limits to campers and hikers who can easily find picks and shovels should they wish to engage in this illicit task. That being said, some thoughts on finding gear and places to dive in Greece.
Even when scuba diving was restricted dive gear could be found throughout Greece. In smaller towns it may have been difficult to find items such as tanks, regulators and compressors to provide air and mixed gasses such as Nitrox to fill tanks, but the basics were always plentiful, easily found and affordable. This meant that masks, fins, snorkels, wet suits, weights and underwater lights and knives were ubiquitous. Spear guns and their accessories such as spare spear shafts and spear points were also ever present with tourist shops and even supermarkets carrying these items. Greeks love to spear fish and with the price of fresh fish being so expensive in Greece it’s no wonder that people are motivated to go and spear fish for their dinner.
By the late 80′s early 90′s scuba diving was catching on among the locals. Dive schools connected to dive stores were opening in Athens and the other cities and persons of both genders and of all ages were partaking in what had been considered an exotic sport geared toward wealthy tourists. Mind you that many of the scuba students had grown up near beaches and had been snorkeling for years and were well aware of how to dive, albeit by holding their breath. It was now time to start breathing by using a tank which is far safer to holding one’s breath to stay below. A great percentage of those learning, at least to my eyes, were girls of high school years and older showing that the diving’s appeal in Greece is gender neutral and not geared only toward macho types. With the seas that Greece has, this makes perfect sense.
The gear found in Greek dive shops today rivals the gear found in New York, Los Angeles, Maui or any dive resort in the Caribbean or any other place on the planet. Those choosing to buy their gear in Greece for future uses will not have a problem with the selection and range of prices for whatever it is they are looking for, even for higher ticket items such as air compressors. Servicing and repairing the gear is also not a problem in places such as Athens since major manufacturers have agents or distributors there who can address almost all service issues. To provide one example, I had a problem with a Finnish Suunto dive computer which took in water two years ago. It was promptly repaired in Athens, the speed of the repair surpassing what one expects even in New York. Needless to mention that I was pleasantly surprised with the speed and quality of the service, especially because I was able to get back into the water without delay.
In addition to diving on air, which you’re inhaling and exhaling as you read this, mixed gases, otherwise referred to as “technical” diving gasses are available throughout Greece. This is largely attributed to Panagiotis (Takis) Vournas, a former Greek Navy Seal and master diver from Patras who has his shop in Piraeus and who represents American Nitrox Divers, Inc. or ANDI throughout Greece, www.andi.gr. Takis and his team installed the pylons on the Rio-AntirioBridge which opened in 2004 prior to the start of the Olympic Games at Athens and continues to maintain the bridge’s underwater structures to this day. In addition Takis takes on commercial diving projects such as laying underwater pipe and salvage operations.
ANDI is based in Farmingdale, New York (Long Island) and is known worldwide as perhaps being the first proponent of Nitrox for recreational uses. Nitrox is a gas mixture which contains a higher percentage of oxygen and lesser amounts of nitrogen so that a diver can stay underwater longer or make repetitive dives during a day by lessening the risk of having nitrogen narcosis or suffering the effects of having excess nitrogen entering into the bloodstream and causing “the bends”. This occurs when nitrogen goes from a soluble state in the bloodstream while underwater but returns to a gaseous state upon surfacing. The gas deposits in one’s joints or lungs and which results in embolisms. Moving the joint is painful and in extreme cases of “bending” the joint cannot move at all. In severe cases of the bends serious injury or even death can occur. Breathing nitrogen at depth under the water’s pressure for long periods can also cause a type of underwater dementia which in severe situations can lead to loss of consciousness and even drowning, which is referred to as nitrogen narcosis.
Nitrox can alleviate some of these risks by reducing the level of nitrogen that a diver breathes. It is referred to as “old farts gas” since the feeling of fatigue is lessened by its use which allows for older divers to make repetitive dives during the diving day. Nitrox is considered somewhat safer than air and ANDI is its great proponent and promoter throughout Greece.
In addition to providing instruction and certification for Nitrox, Takis also provides instruction in the use of other more complex mixed gases, such as Heliox, which is a mixture of helium and oxygen. Heliox and other “exotic” gas mixtures are used for deep “technical” dives, where a diver may spend hours underwater at depths of several hundred feet, such as working to lay a pipeline in the case of commercial divers.
There are sports divers who dive on these exotic mixes to visit attractions in Greece such as the wreck of the Brittanic, the Titanic’s sister ship. Originally built as a transatlantic steamer, the Brittanic was converted into a hospital ship during the World War I. She sank in November 1916 off the island of Kea (Tzia). The debate continues to this day as to whether the sinking resulted from a mine or a torpedo courtesy of the German Navy. The wreck lies in one piece, is very well preserved and lies approximately four hundred feet deep. Takis has visited the Brittanic which has been declared an underwater memorial to honor the memory of those sixteen souls who went down with the ship.
Famed diver Jacques Cousteau dove the Brittanic during 1975 and made a documentary about his expedition which is available on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bb-Xqv3wivI. In the documentary Cousteau takes one of the ship’s former and now elderly nurses down to see the wreck in a mini submarine, which is perhaps what likely influenced similar scenes in the 1997 movie Titanic. When Cousteau dove the Brittanic technical diving was only for highly skilled and seasoned divers like himself and not those with recreational interests in mind. With dive technology advancing, this has certainly changed.
Mykonos & Santorini
For those going to the popular islands of Mykonos and Santorini, there are very good dive centers to be found.
In Mykonos, the premier dive center is Dive Adventures, nestled discretely behind the Tropicana Bar and Restaurant at ParadiseBeach, www.diveadventures.gr. Dive Adventures opens in mid April and closes mid October and is a short walk from the bus stop. It is managed by Kostas Sgourakis, also a former diver in the Greek Navy, but with an M.B.A. from a Florida university. Kostas speaks fluent English and runs a five star PADI certified dive facility of which there are few in Greece. In terms of instruction, equipment, atmosphere and providing professional services overall, Dive Adventures can compete with any dive center in the U.S. or the Caribbean, which means that it can compete with any center in the world. The well maintained equipment is of high quality and the instructors are top notch. The classroom and other learning facilities make it a joy to learn how to dive and become a certified scuba (and/or Nitrox) diver while in Mykonos. Kostas goes out of his way to make his students and experienced divers enjoy the pleasures that diving in Mykonos has to offer.
Unknown to many is the shallow reef which lays off ParadiseBeach directly in front of this dive shop and the Tropicana Bar. The reef is about 15-20′ deep and depending on the hour teems with small fish and other marine life. The beach and the reef provide a great place to learn how to dive, since this is a natural swimming pool with warm and clear water devoid of underwater threats and eyesores such as discarded machinery and garbage. For other dives such as visiting wrecks off Mykonos Kostas has an inflatable boat which goes out several times a day from shore. The boat dives are for divers with experience and certified by one of the several certifying agencies, such as YMCA, PADI, NAUI, etc.
Several of the sites that I dove off Mykonos were teeming with sea life and interesting under water environments. For those familiar with diving the Caribbean the colors in the Aegean may not be as bright or the fish as plentiful, but the clarity and warmth of the water are on par with the finest sites in the Caribbean. The lack of underwater currents in Mykonos is also pleasing, especially for divers without much experience. The size and number of the groupers is impressive as are the loutsii or the Mediterranean cousin of the barracuda, whose disposition in the Med mirrors the warmth of the indigenous people of the region. The loutsii in Greece are not aggressive which is what one often hears of and fears regarding their Caribbean cousins.
The activities after diving at ParadiseBeach are likely the best in Greece. The daily late afternoon and evening party at the Tropicana Bar during the summer months is filled with people dancing and partying to the sounds of some of the world’s best djs. Taking in the party after a dive is an experience which makes diving at Paradise all the more fun.
During summer of 2013 I visited another dive center at LiaBeach in Mykonos, which by car is about 35-40 minutes from the center of town. For those who’ve not been to Lia, it’s a picturesque and quiet beach, with one taverna being its sole source of food and beverages. Unlike Paradise, there are no bars, convenience stores or showers. There is no public transportation to take you to Lia, unlike the bus and boat which go to Paradise. You arrive either by boat, car, taxi or motor scooter.
The dive facility at Lia was a shack, the owner telling me that it’s taken down in the off season by moving it behind the taverna. Unlike the inflatable boat used at the dive center at Paradise, the one in Lia uses a caique or traditional wooden Greek made boat to dive from. I did not dive here, but from swimming at this beach during prior years know the waters in this part of Mykonos are very clear and diving from this Spartan facility seems to have certain charms. The prices to rent gear and dive were on par with those in Paradise, which is surprising, considering that Lia seems like a very out of the way place to go diving and one would expect the prices for outings there would reward the efforts one takes to get there.
Similar to Mykonos, Santorini needs no introduction. What’s claimed by some scholars to be the location of ancient Atlantis, Santorini’s caldera is a sight to behold both from high atop its cliffs and at sea level. The caldera seems like an endlessly deep body of warm blue ink which if touched is likely to leave a blue stain on your skin. Swimming in the caldera’s warm deep waters is among life’s greatest pleasures. With the cliffs looming in the background swimming in the caldera’s very deep and endless blue waters provides a feeling of being in a profoundly beautiful place. Diving the caldera provides an equally grand pleasure since two active volcanos sit in the middle of it, leaving one curious to view the underwater environment that has resulted from what is believed to be one of the history’s most devastating volcanic blasts. Few people know that Santorini has two volcanoes, Mikri Kameni and Megali Kameni, translated as small burned and large burned or the small and large volcanoes.
SantoriniDiveCenter in Perissa has dives to the volcano daily during the summer months from the beach at Akrotiri, www.divecenter.gr. The grey haired owner Antonis is personable and has his facility literally on the beach. For those who don’t have a car on Santorini, Antonis or his staff will collect you from your hotel and take you to his beach for one or several dives. I was fortunate to dive both the large and small volcanoes on successive days and recommend these dives to experienced divers.
The Center has a comfortable boat which accommodates nearly twenty or so divers (both scuba and snorkelers) for the fifteen to twenty or so minute ride to either volcano. As the main island is left behind the volcanoes’ dark grey, near black color comes into focus and makes an immediate impression of burnt, disfigured rock on a grandiose scale. Seeing the volcanoes up close is, on their own, worth the cost of the dive. It makes one very curious as to what lurks below this forbidding environment.
The volcano dives were interesting for many reasons. The underwater environment is disfigured and tortured. You see the effects of the blast which removed the center of this island and supposedly caused a tsunami in the Aegean which ended the Minoan civilization. Viewing the underwater rock formations up close provides an uncomfortable feeling, since they have been burned and tossed about. The underwater environment is foreboding and ominous with a pervasive feeling that something awful has occurred here, which in actuality it has. The twisted rock formations evidence the effects of the force of the eruptions. Oddly, the blackened rocks have short blond hair-like vegetation growing on them without more. Fish did not seem to feed on this vegetation which provides an eerie yellow glow to the underwater environment. Hardly any fish were to be found at the volcanoes which seemed as though they too know that something violent has occurred here and as a result stay away.
On the second day of diving several cruise ships were parked about a mile away. It seems that their engines were on in order to run their generators to provide on board electricity and at times to run the propellers to gently move the ship back to a certain position against the currents. The working engines provide a low pitched drone reminiscent of the sounds heard in B horror movies of the 50′s, which is not at all pleasing while underwater. The noise proved an ongoing distraction and during portions of the dive it seemed that we were in a direct line with the noise which felt almost deafening. The noise detracted from the dive making it feel surreal as though being a lingering effect of the volcanic blasts from millennia past. The overall experience however is one that is unique and full of wonder regardless of the droning.
The pleasures of diving (and yachting) in Greece are too many to describe in this short space. The good news is that the Greek seas have been open for the past eight years and will likely remain so in the future. Both the novice and the technical diver can partake of the scuba experience which should not be neglected on your next trip to Greece.
See you below.
*Gregory Sioris, besides scuba diving, is practicing law in Manhattan, NY.