Exploring the blue depths of the Aegean and Mediterranean

By Levent Konuk

The coasts of Anatolia are sprinkled with ancient cities whose harbours bustled with ships engaged in the thriving sea trade of the Aegean and Mediterranean. But not every ship made it safely to harbour. Many were wrecked in storms and sank with their cargoes to the seabed, and the remains of these have lain hidden on the seabed for long centuries. Wrecks of both merchant and warships each have their historical tale to relate, and are among the underwater sights that fascinate divers today.

No other region of the world is so rich in sunken history as the seas around Turkey. The world`s oldest known wreck was discovered at Uluburun near Kas, and after years of work was lifted to the surface and placed on exhibit. Nautical archaeology began in Turkey, and today is recognised as a distinct branch of archaeology throughout the world. The first scientific excavation carried out entirely underwater took place at Gelidonya Point in 1960.

This was followed by excavations of the Uluburun, Serçe Limani, Roman, Yassiada Eastern Roman, Ottoman, Bozburun and Pabuçburnu wrecks, all of which passed into archaeological literature and were followed with interest all over the world. The timbers of wrecked ships are destroyed within a few years by fireworms, but their cargoes often resist erosion by the sea water for thousands of years. Commodities of many kinds were transported in amphoras, pottery jars with pointed bases and two handles. Such jars are known to have first been used in the city of Troy in 3000 BC. The tapering pointed shape enabled them to be stacked safely in ships` holds and kept upright so that their contents did not spill. As well as wine and olive oil, these jars were used for grain, salted fish and many other dry commodities. Despite the passage of thousands of years, most of these amphoras remain undamaged at the bottom of the sea.

Over recent years divers have been given access to many areas where diving was formerly not allowed, bringing to light hundreds of wreck sites which can be visited by divers once archaeological studies have been completed. However, divers are expected to take the utmost care not to damage such sites, and it is forbidden to remove any remains they might discover, alter their position or even touch them. This is because an amphora on the seabed marks the position of a wreck, and to move it might make the site impossible to ever locate. Ships that sink on a sandy bottom are often buried in sand by sea currents, leaving nothing but a few amphoras visible. More modern wrecks interest both historians and divers. Dozens of ships sunk in Çanakkale Strait during the First World War, the Saint Didier which sank 200 metres off Antalya Harbour, and the Paris II sunk off Kemer during the same war attract thousands of divers from both Turkey and abroad. In some parts of the world today ships are sunk deliberately to attract divers, bringing animation to the underwater life of these areas.

One of the great advantages for those wishing to explore shipwrecks in Turkish waters is that these are usually fairly close inshore. Turkey is surrounded by four seas, the Mediterranean, Aegean, Marmara and Black seas. The Gulf of Saros is one of the most popular areas for divers of all levels, since it is within easy reach of Istanbul. The cold waters of the gulf, with its strong currents, abound in many fish species, such as groupers, sea bass and conger eels, and numerous other sea creatures, such as nudibranches (a kind of sea slug), shrimps and starfish. At Ayvalik further to the south, coves and bays sheltered from the fierce winds of the Aegean are home to colonies of bright red coral and soft corals whose colours are equal to any in the Red Sea. With its clear water, natural reefs and Mediterranean seals, Bodrum is another area noted for its underwater beauty.

Then there is Kas, where the warm sapphire sea with its diversity of water creatures and reefs seems to have been created just for diving. An Italian bomber plane can be seen on the seabed here. Although it lies slightly beyond the depth limit for recreational diving, so long as the right precautions are taken it is possible for amateur divers to visit this site. Bes Adalar, the Five Islands, are foremost among the places preferred by experienced divers. Another group of islands, the Three Islands, are like a natural aquarium, their reefs home to shoals of barracuda and white bream (Diplodus sargus), and with many spectacularly beautiful underwater caves. Three of these caves are visited by Mediterranean seals at certain times of the year. Early May is the time to see dolphins leaping through the waters off Kemer. Many divers come to see the wreck of the French warship, the Paris II, resting at a depth of 30 metres just five minutes away from Kemer Marina, and the Saint Didier 50 metres off the sea cliffs at Antalya.

As you travel eastwards the diversity of underwater plants and sea creatures increases, due to the numerous escaped species from the Red Sea that have found a new home here. All of us have a responsibility to ensure that the underwater world is bequeathed intact to future generations, and the best souvenirs of their history and marine life are our colourful memories.

Copyright 2007, Skylife.

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