Kvarner – Jewels of the Adriatic
'Croatia? I heard it was really nice, but I’ve never been there…' seemed to be a fairly common thread in conversations prior to departure. However, DIVE magazine has recently been to the Kvarner region in the north of Croatia, and we are very pleased to report that yes, it is, indeed, really nice. More than that, in fact – it’s a stunningly beautiful part of the world, with some fantastic diving thrown in for good measure.
The Kvarner region is not as well known by British tourists as the Dalmatian coastline to the south, of which Split and Dubrovnik will be familiar names, but the Kvarner Gulf, located in the North-eastern Adriatic Sea, is home to a beautiful range of sparsely populated islands, a general all-round feeling of well-being, and – needless to say – some excellent possibilities for diving.
There are well over 1,200 islands scattered around the Croatian coastline, however only around 50 or so are inhabited and chief among these in the Kvarner Gulf are Cres, Krk, Pag, Rab and Lošinj, all easily accessible from the mainland port city of Rijeka, or Pula when direct flights to Rijeka are unavailable.
Our tour began on the long island of Lošinj, in the main town of Mali Lošinj. Hosted by Sergej of Diver Lošinj, along with our guide Tope and captain Ive, we were whisked off to the small and very beautiful island of Susak, home to one of only a small number of sandy beaches in the region and, as was the case for the other members of our dive team, a perfect place to drop off the non-divers for a lazy morning of sunbathing and swimming in the crystal clear waters of the small bay, while the undersea adventurers get to explore some of the neighbouring cracks and caves of the rocky coastline.
Time and weather permitting, the spectacular cave known as the Cathedral is accessible from Mali Lošinj, however as this was not possible, instead we visited two more local sites, known colloquially as 'the Grand Canyon' and the 'White Wall'. Although a goodly number of the local fish population appeared to be on a short break that day, the topography and myriad small cracks in the rocks provided an opportunity to look for smaller critters amongst the overhangs, as well as some abandoned Roman-era pottery, all whilst enjoying 25m of visibility in almost still water.
A particular highlight of the diving day was back in the harbour in Mali Lošinj, where local dive instructor and underwater artist Marijan Radović has constructed an underwater history museum featuring a mixture of genuine and replica historical artefacts including cannon, anchors and a replica of the Croatian Apoxyomenos statue, and although the seabed itself is typical of a small harbour and nothing to write home about, the small park makes for a perfect lazy afternoon third dive, an excellent opportunity for photographers to practise their art, and an interesting, shallow playground for novices and student divers.
One of the island’s most prized possessions is their statue of Apoxyomenos, discovered by a Belgian tourist diver in 1996 and painstakingly restored over three years by the local centre for archaeology. The statue – literally 'the scraper' – an athlete in the process of cleansing his body – is one of only a handful that has ever been discovered and the most intact example of the figure in bronze. So proud are the islanders of this genuine treasure that they have built a small museum dedicated to this one and only exhibit, a wonderful place to visit before strolling around the picturesque harbour.
Next on our itinerary was the island of Rab, to which applying 'idyllic' as a description actually does the island something of an injustice!
Roman settlers named it 'the Happy Island' and, 2,000 years later, it would appear very little has changed in the inhabitants’ outlook.
Arijan and Mirko of Mirko Diving Centre took us to the wreck of the Rosa just off the shore of Otok Pag, a very easy – but at 38-51m, rather deep – shipwreck, but given the clarity of the water it’s easy to hover at a comfortable level and look down at the broken deck, before heading back to the wall to level up and admire the scenery – and the walls of Otok Pag are some of the most spectacular this writer has ever seen – and this coming from somebody who dived the likes of Shark and Yolanda in Egypt at least once a week for three years.
The glorious red gorgonian fans of the second dive at the tip of the island, growing in vast colonies from 30m and below are, given the clear water and the bright sunlight, a feast for the eyes, and coupled with easy sightings of octopus, scorpionfish and Conger eels, the walls of Otok Pag are – quite simply – stunning.
The island itself is certainly worth exploring (with immense thanks to our guide, Luka), with a certain land-based colour matching the vibrance of the underwater scenery. Walking through the old town of Rab and climbing the church tower is well worth the effort involved for the panoramic view from the top, and although the island is relatively small, it is as rich in culture and history as any major city, with plenty of sights to see and places to eat – including Mirko’s own restaurant – just be careful of his home-made grappa. It’s ... delicious, from what I remember!
Back to the mainland and the port city of Rijeka where, as you might imagine, wrecks are the order of the day, ably guided by Predrag, and hosted by Nicoletta and Ferdo of Diving Centre Marco-Polo.
The El Hawi Star, lying on its side in 42m of seawater with the top of the hull at 27m is an excellent dive and home to an absolute monster of a conger eel. However, conditions on the day were not at their best but our second dive, on the wreck of the Sigrid, a ship broken in half and with a depth of 38m at the bottom but a mostly intact superstructure above 20m, was an absolute delight. Wide open galleries and easy, well-lit swim-throughs make for the sort of wreck that can be enjoyed by divers of all experience levels, and would be a great introductory dive for the un-initiated.
Both dives host an abundance of fish life, with large schools of resident smaller fish occasionally being picked off by large tuna flashing through the water.
Rijeka itself is a bustling, modern city overlooking a huge port, and while the port itself is perhaps quieter than in its heydey, it is very much alive, and the city itself is most certainly in its prime.
Our floating 'botel' – an old, converted passenger ferry – made for a quirky, but centrally located location from which to explore the city centre and also to visit nearby Kostrena, where the local diving centre charges a small fee for unlimited use of their very easy to dive house reef, with tank fills or rentals charged as supplements. Divemaster services are optional for experienced divers, and reasonably priced for those who prefer a guide.
Lobster, Scorpionfish and brightly-coloured sea-slugs are easy to find, and the simple topography of the house reef makes it ideal for training.
The final destination on our wonderful but all-too-short tour was the very beautiful (but very difficult to pronounce!) Mošćenička Draga, a sleepy fishing village (population 1,500) and very small tourist resort, with only two hotels and a plethora of street-side café-bars in yet another idyllic setting.
The wreck of the Lina, a cargo ship lying between 27 and 52m – and also accessible directly from Rijeka – is closely located and one of the most popular dives, and the small sandy beaches (including a secluded spot for naturists, if you like the all-over tan effect) and hillside walks above the harbour make for a perfect place to relax away from the city, and only an hour’s drive in either direction to the airports.
The diving conditions in the Adriatic Gulf of Kvarner are generally good; with clear water and little in the way of current, and plenty of options for more sheltered dives should the underwater conditions prove less than ideal. Marine life is plentiful, from the beautiful gorgonian fans and soft corals and sponges, easy-to-find octopus, scorpionfish, conger eels, lobster and nudibranchs, to larger pelagics such as tuna and, occasionally, bottlenose dolphins.
Temperature-wise then the best time to dive is, of course, going to be from mid-June through until October, but the presence of thermoclines means that even in the height of summer, it may be much colder at depth than near the surface. My computer recorded a very tepid 14 degrees down at 40m on Rab, but a much more agreeable 24 above 18m. My 5mm semi-dry and a judicious amount of going shallow when needed, was more than sufficient to keep me comfortable, however, even in mid-July, drysuits were commonplace. Year-round diving is available if you don’t mind colder water, and high season is from mid-July to the end of August, when the islands can become very busy.
The general topography of the region means that rugged island shorelines descend into the depths very quickly, and whilst there are plenty of options for shallow dives, an Advanced Open Water equivalent or a Deep-diver certification is highly recommended as much of the best diving is at 30m and beyond. With this in mind, it’s very easy to reach standard No-Decompression Limits very quickly, and therefore diving with a computer is pretty much mandatory; nitrox is useful where possible and appropriate, and it should be noted that descent below 40m and minor violations of NDLs – the sort that can be cleared on a computer with a slow ascent and an extended safety stop – are not deemed to be completely unacceptable. The centres we dived with (listed below) were as well-appointed and professional as they were welcoming and friendly, but if you’re concerned about deep diving then it’s a discussion you need to have before heading out to sea.
The Kvarner Gulf – and some of the best wrecks – are certainly within the realm of full-on technical diving, and Croatia as a whole is popular with GUE (Global Underwater Explorer) divers. Some dive centres are able to offer custom blends of trimix but do not actually engage in technical diving themselves, however, there are a range of options. For recreational diving, CMAS have as much of a presence in the region as PADI or SSI, with the full range of programs inevitably available.
Each of the locations listed here lend themselves well to a relaxing week-long break, but island hopping will give you a much more complete experience. Covering the itinerary as followed by DIVE magazine would be better undertaken as part of a two-week vacation, but splitting a week between two locations would be relatively hassle-free.
Although it presents an obvious logistical problem for UK visitors, if you’re prepared to rent a vehicle then one of the best ways to tour the Kvarner region would be by car, as evidenced by the array of multi-national number plates from Croatia’s closest neighbours. The roads are almost perfect and tremendously scenic (and would be heaven for bikers!), with regularly scheduled, high-capacity ferries between the islands.
Direct flights are available to Rijeka from London Heathrow and Stanstead with Croatian Air and Ryanair respectively. Alternatively, flights to Pula are available from a number of UK airports through Jet2, EasyJet, Norwegian and Ryanair.
Croatia specialists Prestige Holidays can offer you a tailor-made package to suit your needs, including flights, hotels and accommodation. Although their website advertises mostly single-location options, call their reservations department on 01425 484200 and they will happily put together a multiple-resort holiday on your behalf, including transfers between islands as necessary www.prestigeholidays.co.uk/croatia
For more information on the general area, things to see and places to stay, check out www.kvarner.hr – the list of dive centres and hotels below were our hosts for the trip and therefore come highly recommended.
Apoxyomenos Museum: www.muzejapoksiomena.hr
Hotel Padova – luxurious rooms with a luxurious (but not unreasonable) price tag: http://www.imperialrab.com/eng/hotel-padova
Kamenjak Restaurant and apartments – splendid home-cooked food with an amazing view of the island: http://www.kamenjak-rab.com/
Diving Centre Marco Polo – located in Rijeka’s Olympic-class Kantrida swimming and watersports facility, sailing directly from Rijeka Harbour. Accommodation also available: www.diving-marcopolo.com
Botel Marina – Quirky, converted former ferry. Outstanding bar with an outstanding view: www.botel-marina.com
Hotel Mediteran: www.remisens.com/hr/hotel-mediteran
Jovana Milanko is an award-winning Serbian photographer and former dive instructor. Her work is available through Stocksy United at www.stocksy.com/jovanamilanko and her personal website www.jovanamilanko.com