Friday, February 17, 2012

Scuba Diving Off the Peloponnese


In July 2011, I had the opportunity to ship out with a television production crew filming a program for the series Into the Drink. They were looking for people with a lot of scuba diving experience, were qualified in open water, deep diving and wreck penetration.  Basically, I was an extra on the show that featured diving trips to exotic locales as well as exploring the local culture and nightlife. My trip involved travelling around the Greek coast and islands on a 90 foot motor sailor, diving and generally carousing with ten passengers and film crew. I didn't quite know what I was getting into, but it turned out to be the best dive trip I had ever made.

When we assembled South of Athens and boarded our yacht, the MS Meltemi, the weather was hot, dry and the wind was blowing upwards of 30 knots. The little vessel rocked violently against her moorings on a stone and concrete pier jutting out into the Aegean. The ship was all by itself on this 1 km long pier. Though the ship was 90 feet long, she was tossed against her mooring lines like a toy. I was greeted at the ship by female members of the crew who helped me wrestle my heavy gear and baggage on board. As I sat alone in the galley listening to the crew members chatting in Greek, and feeling the boat shuddering as the wind howled through its two-masted rigging, I knew that this was going to be a special trip.

Shortly thereafter, a van approached full of a rowdy group of  young men and two girls. This was the production crew and a few other "cast members" like myself. I met Randy Harris, the producer of the program. Randy is 6' 2", shaved head, boisterous, Texan and very, very intelligent. The photographers and host of the program were also professionals with a lot of experience in diving and underwater videography. (The whole program was filmed in High-Definition TV).


The Temple of Poseidon is perched on a cliff at the southernmost point of land below Athens. It is composed of beautiful columns carved from marble and limestone, and was a very holy place in ancient Greek religion. Due to the high winds, we delayed our departure about a day and went on land to visit the temple. The sun and the hot wind pushing through the ruins made it seem as though Poseidon still reigned there. The site was almost deserted and I felt an immediate spiritual connection to these ancient beliefs.

The following day, we dove off both the East and West shores of the temple. The visibility was good, and the water temperature only required a 3 mil wetsuit with no gloves or hoodie. The bottom was strewn with stony shingle-like material and only limited ocean life was seen.

The next several days were taken up with visiting nearby wrecks, one of which was an 1860's side-wheeler. The enormous wheel was still thrust up from the bottom, while the rest of the vessel was pretty much disintegrated. The aft was intact and I got to take a look inside. After diving these sites, we tied up next to small villages at night.

The shipboard regime was the same each day. Around 7 a.m. I would wake up in my small private cabin in the stern and go up on the aft deck where strong Greek coffee was waiting. The young, attractive female crew members would take our orders for breakfast and fix whatever we wanted. Sitting around in the morning sun sipping coffee and talking with the other members of the show and crew was just wonderful.

When you travel and live intimately with very bright, creative filmmakers, and exceptional sailing crew it makes for a wonderful experience. Never did I hear a dissenting voice from anyone, even when certain rations weren't available (primarily white wine). We would then brief for the dive of the day, and be picked up from the boat by a small fleet of inflatable craft. These were the dive masters who took us to the various sites from the boat itself. Watching the production crew with their expensive underwater cameras working their cinematic magic was interesting. The patience and dedication shown by the production crew was amazing. They took their work so seriously, and often were working late into the night, after an exhausting day in the water, tapping away on their laptops editing the days filming.


My most memorable dive was when we visited the island of Kythros. The island was awash in stucco white buildings lining a gorgeous little harbor. Our dive leader was a big Greek man who was confined to a wheelchair due to a serious motorcycle accident. After his wreck, he decided he could scuba dive using hand paddles which worked as well as a diver with conventional flippers on his feet. We visited his dive shop, which was a first-class operation, with all the necessary equipment. In his inflatables, he took us out to what was described as an "antiquities dive."

We only travelled to the middle of his harbor where there was a few rocks sticking up in the middle of the entrance.  These were very inconsequential looking, but lethal today as two thousand years ago.  As we dove around the prominence we descended deeper until the dive master started pointing out wreckage.  A ship, two thousand years ago, had hit this rock and sunk, spilling its cargo of (probably) wine, grain and olive oil all over the sea floor.  The only significant remains were the shattered amphorae which held the cargo.  Beautifully preserved by the gentle ocean currents, these relics brought all my bible and history lessons together.  I was again humbled by the magnificence of Greece and its wonderful culture.


Another dive was made on the wreck of the “Avantis.”  In this case the ship had sunk only a few years ago.  It was a cargo ship of modern vintage, but had made the same mistake the captain two thousand years ago had made.  He challenged a rocky coast and lost!  All but one unfortunate sailor was rescued from this sinking.  The ship lay on its side on a steep underwater cliff.  The stern extended below our safe dive limits, but the bow was easily accessible.  I got a good picture looking inside the bridge.  The captain’s chair was still there, upended from the collision.

The rest of the wreck was unremarkable, except what happened next.  As I swam back to the infallibles, I saw two of our divers frantically trying to wash something off their faces.  Both of their faces were bright red and I could tell their eyes were hurting.  It appears they penetrated a compartment on the wreck that was still full of gas or diesel fuel which had leaked in.  I had seen this phenomenon several years earlier on a WWII Japanese wreck that still had a compartment with aviation gas in it.  These fossil fuels are lighter than water and will stay suspended in sealed ship spaces. Therefore, it is easy to enter a part of the ship and ascend up into the fuel. The divers made an emergency ascent and were trying to get the fuel off their skin.  Seeing their plight, I dropped off my tanks and swam to a nearby yacht.  I explained our plight to the ship’s master and asked for a bar of soap for the men to wash off the remaining gas.  This was the simplest solution to the problem and worked very well.  So, when diving, know where you are going and try to be PREPARED!


     At the end of our diving we spent several days in Athens seeing the sights and shopping.  I could yak about the great things to see and do in Athens, but it has all been said before.  Needless, it is a great city and one of my favorite in the world.  So, I am going to share my thoughts on the current problems there.   In August of last year the Greek economy was in difficult straits.  Everyone I spoke with had a different opinion on the financial problems; foremost was the lack of leadership in the Greek parliament.  This had sown tremendous mistrust of public officials.

Next, in the people's ire was the European Union and the agreements which the Greek people had to meet financially to remain a member.  These included deals on buying armaments which included expensive and unnecessary German submarines.  One old line Communist even stated the Greek Orthodox Church was to blame due to its vast wealth, lack of taxation and miserly treatment of its parishioners.  The bottom line is that the Greek people have endured major pay reductions, increased taxes and horrible unemployment to be a part of the EU.  The one overriding thought was “what do we need the Euro for when we had a good economy with our old Drachma?”

I spent an hour in Syntagma Square, which is adjacent to the Parliament building, hanging out with the protestors.  Thousands of well dressed business people pass thru the park every day from the offices of downtown to the central subway station and on to flats in the suburbs.  I watched this cavalcade of hard working, well dressed people while I was sitting on a park bench among the small throng of protestors.  The workers had to thread their way through this mess of “protestors.” The protestors had the look and feel of a decrepit 1960’s hippie commune.  People lived in tents under virulent banners of rebellion, waiting for something to happen.  They seemed to spend most of their time wandering around and visiting a small village of porta-pottys.  A van load of Detroit cops could have rousted the whole filthy bunch in twenty minutes.

The only tourists I encountered en mass on the whole trip were while visiting the Acropolis.  Suddenly thousands of tee shirt wearing “tourists” were in front of me.  It seems that two cruise ships had simultaneously docked and released their tide of fun seekers.   My thoughts on this are people still want to visit the Greek isles, but have been frightened away by the threat of street violence. So, they find safety in cruise ship vacations. Obviously, this only exacerbates their financial problem by inhibiting the tourist industry.

To sum up my trip to Greece, we stopped for lunch halfway up a mountain and visited the only taverna in the village.  It overlooked a distant green valley and was easily one of the sweetest places I had ever been.  The only other people in the open air restaurant were apparently a family having lunch.  The women were all dressed in black and the men wore black shirts.  It was somber and they were talking quietly among themselves.  It was a funeral luncheon.  As we ordered up beers and lunch, what appeared to be the matriarch of the group walked slowly up to our tables.  I thought “oh no here it comes…we were being too loud and acting disrespectfully.”  She spoke softly with the most sincere expression.  Translation revealed the following statement:  “Thank you for coming to Greece in our time of troubles, and not being afraid.”

You can view all of my photos from the trip on the Corvus Facebook Page, and my movies on our YouTube Channel.

For more information about the airing of this TV episode, please visit the Into the Drink Website.

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