Croatia’s beautiful coastline has attracted the interest of developers, but there’s still a chance to enjoy it before it becomes a mainstream destination. Charles Hood assesses the diving and picks the top ten of Croatia’s wrecks for divers.
Words and Photographs: Charles Hood
Now is the time to visit Croatia if you want to experience this great diving destination before it becomes a victim of its own popularity. Right now, this small Balkan republic of about 4.5 million people is relatively undeveloped, inexpensive, laid-back, rich in culture and, well, just plain beautiful. But it’s no backwater; in fact, it’s a sophisticated bolthole with all the convenience and facilities of modern Europe.
How long this will last, though, is a matter for debate – the rate at which the Croats are building hotels, resorts and apartment blocks reminds me of Sharm El Sheikh in the early 1990s. I was told that all developments have to adhere to strict planning conditions, but I’ve heard that one before. So, if you’re going to visit Croatia, you should start your planning now.
The country has an extensive and beautiful coastline on the Adriatic Sea, but the region of Istria is the biggest draw. Istria is well regarded by the locals for its beautiful beaches and green hills, which have prompted some travel writers to label it ‘the new Tuscany’. Generally, the diving is typically Mediterranean: there are shallow scenic dives and huge cave and cavern systems, but for me, the best dives are the shipwrecks.
Over the course of a week, it is possible to dive Istria’s ten best wrecks, but some of the larger vessels are definitely worth visiting twice. Most are from the two world wars, are within an hour’s boat ride from port, lie in depths accessible by most reasonably experienced divers and enjoy pretty good visibility. The water temperature is a touch on the chilly side at around 12°C at depth, although the surface temperature in the summer will reach well above 20°C.
I was in the hands of Dive Center Puntizela, run by veteran diver Vladimir Beronja, who is known to all as Vlado. Equipped with a fast 8m-long speedboat, he can reach most of the wrecks inside an hour. His knowledge of the sites is truly impressive, and he was normally lightning-fast when pinpointing each of the wrecks described here.
The dive centre is well equipped with rental equipment, but the majority of divers bring their own gear, hiring only cylinders and weights. Most of the cylinders are 15 litres, with some 12-litre tanks available for light breathers and 18-litre ones for the gas guzzlers. Nitrox is available, but take your own analyser, as percentages on a few fills fluctuate slightly.
As with most destinations, there’s a wide variety of places to stay in Istria. However, situated only a kilometre away from the dive centre is Pansion Sport, a small family-run hotel owned by a retired footballer by the name of Stepo. There are 11 rooms and two small apartments, a bar, a restaurant and a swimming pool. Stepo is proud of the food and insists it is all freshly prepared and cooked using only local ingredients where possible.
Flights to and from Pula, the region’s largest city, are available from a number of airlines. But be warned – the cheapest flights are with Ryanair, though with a measly 15kg, one-bag luggage allowance, this is a false economy. Excess baggage is charged at £5.50 per kilogram both ways. I did ask whether I could book and prepay for an extra allowance, but was told by the manager on the desk, who was wearing a particularly smug expression: ‘No – it’s a take-it-or-leave-it fare, and you can put that in print – they [the management] would love you for it.’
So there you have it: in order to get to this Mediterranean (or Adriatic, to be precise) diving paradise, you first have to brave the purgatory of the dreaded budget airline check-in desk. But is it worth the effort? I’d say yes, and then some – and here are the ten best wrecks to show you why.
A merchant ship that sank in 1915 and now lies at a depth of 33–41m. Standing 8m proud of the seabed, it offers plenty of opportunities to penetrate the holds. The emergency steering mechanism is still clearly visible at the stern.
A 110m-long Italian cargo vessel that sank in a storm in 1974, it now lies in a depth of 48m. It is relatively intact, with the ship’s wheel still in place above the clearly identifiable rudder and propeller.
A merchant ship that sank in 1915 after hitting a mine. It now sits at a depth of 41m and rises to 8m from the seabed. It is more broken up than some of the other wrecks but is home to a wide variety of marine life, such as the bright red sponges that cover most of the superstructure.
Also known as the Constantinos or Istra, depending on who you are talking to. Due to the confusion over the vessel’s name, details of how she sank are still vague, but the odds are that she fell foul of a mine.
At 100m in length and standing 11m proud of the seabed, this steam-powered, armed cargo vessel lies virtually upright at a depth of 28–42m. It makes a great dive, with easy access to the holds, where various ammunition and engine controls can be seen.
This 73m-long Italian torpedo boat fell into German hands and was renamed TA21 (or TA35, depending on whose report you read) before sinking in 1944. According to some reports, she was sunk by a British aerial torpedo, which penetrated the ammunition locker and caused a massive explosion. The boat broke in two and the explosion blew the bow section 80m to the north. Today, the wreck lies at a depth of 30–60m, with deck armaments still in place.
This Austro-Hungarian torpedo boat sank in 1914 and now provides one of the more colourful wrecks in Istria. It sits at 46m, rising some 5m from the seabed, and is festooned with bright sponges and tube worms. Check the nooks for lobsters – there are plenty on this wreck.
The most impressive of all the wrecks is this 85m-long Austro-Hungarian passenger ship, known locally as the ‘Little Titanic of the Adriatic’. She struck a mine in August 1914, killing 240 passengers, and now lies upright in a depth of 28–42m. There are plenty of places through which to enter the ship, with open portholes, baths, sinks, and urinals all easy to identify among the silt.
A British minesweeper that struck a mine in May 1945. This 50m-long vessel lies at a depth of 17–30m, with a variety of munitions still on board. It’s a great wreck to explore inside, as many artefacts such as baths, toilets, tables and gas masks are still in place.
This is not the true name of the wreck, but the only clue to its identity is the name of the maker’s shipyard, engraved on a brass plaque, which was adopted by local divers. As with the Hans Schmidt, she probably struck a mine. The wreck is 65m long and lies virtually upright at a depth of 36–43m.
An Italian armed supply ship from the Second World War that sank in October 1945 after hitting a mine. Listing slightly to starboard, it now lies at a maximum depth of 48m. The forward gun is the most notable feature.