Diving With Stalin
WEIRD DIVES: THE ODESSA UNDERWATER HISTORICAL MUSEUM
Debbie Rolls with the first in an occasional feature on bizarre, strange or peculiar dives. If you have an equally whacky experience get in contact
I knew that choosing to spend my summer in Ukraine would limit my diving options. After two weeks exploring cities and mountains, Mike and I were finally on the coast. Walking the promenade in Odessa, I recalled the fish, moray eels, crabs, spiders and sea snakes I had seen in Bulgaria the previous year. I knew the same creatures had to be here just across the Black Sea, even elusive seahorses, which I never seemed to spot.
A visit to Odessa Market, one of the largest in Europe, had shown us a multitude of piscine offerings on the stalls. Many of which we could not name.
Between the park and beach, there were wooden tables set up on the promenade to sell excursions. I made a beeline for the one with a photo of a diver. I pointed to the photo. The young man nodded enthusiastically, grabbing his portfolio of trips and flicking it open to show me further images. My heart sank. The diving was in an aquarium. With dolphins.
‘Very good, very safe’ he said in his limited English.
Not so good for the dolphins, I thought.
It seemed hard to believe that there was no ocean diving. That evening I searched the internet. I made two discoveries: a dive shop ten minutes walk from our hotel and the ‘Odessa Underwater Historical Museum’.
A visit to the dive shop enabled us to check out plenty of masks and neoprene. However, they did not run dive trips. They confirmed that our best bet was a trip to the museum but no one answered the phone when they rang on our behalf.
An inquiry at Odessa Tourist Information Centre brought the same recommendation for diving at the aquarium. The young woman behind the counter spoke immaculate English, had lots of recommendations regarding interesting sights but knew nothing of what was on offer in the sea. 'There is nothing much to see,’ she said. ‘What about seahorses and the Underwater Museum?’ I replied.
Adriana was intrigued by the webpage I showed her and phoned the contact number. She tracked down Sergei Zyatikov, the founder and curator of the Underwater Historical Museum. He agreed to take us diving in an hour. ‘Meet him at the front of the aquarium’, Adriana stated, going on to explain that he would know how to find us.
‘I have told him about your hat.’
At the aquarium, we were approached by a short, thick-set man with a smiling face. Pointing at my white straw hat with blue palm trees, he asked: ‘Go diving?’
Sergei led us away along a path, to a large grey metal gate. No dive flags nor signage, no wonder we needed an escort. We went through and down a set of metal steps, arriving at a landing stage with a building, a grounded boat, a line of air tanks and a pile of concrete statues. Possible exhibits for the museum?
We were introduced to Sergei’s son, who spoke good English and helped us get kitted out. Sergei pulled on a thick wetsuit, complete with hood and gloves, only his face available to air or water. The extra padding giving him a rotund look. I chose a shortie, enabling my arms and legs to savour the movement of the water.
Soon we were following Sergei into the sea. Although there were steps, the entry was not easy. A strong surge lapped back and forth, causing thick emerald weed to gather at the sea wall. We swam until the weed thinned, then dived. We could see each other but not much else; we were swimming through a pea green fog.
A few minutes later, having floated with jellyfish over crabs and gobies, shapes began to coalesce out of the green. A large anchor marked the entrance to the museum.
Sergei led us around a statue of a Greek goddess, anchors, cannonballs and busts of various Soviet leaders. Some of the exhibits are truly old, the cannonballs date back to the 1870s. Most are discarded objects that have found their way into the exhibition or been commissioned from the Odessa Art School.
The museum was ‘opened’ in 2012. Some of the exhibits had clearly been there since that date. Anchors formed mussel beds. Seaweed fronds waved in front of exhibits. Soviet leaders sported punky hairstyles of bright green algae attracting small fish to nibble their crowns. Others were newer; their whiteness glowing against the green backdrop.
Coming face to face with Stalin under the waves gave me a shiver. Perhaps it was just the thermals. The familiar chiselled features were hard set and unwelcoming even in the green, softened light.
I was not sure who all the other exhibits were meant to be, but there was no mistaking his countenance.
There were lighter notes. My favourite exhibit was a statue of a dog. This stone canine seemed to be guarding the exhibits. He stood firmly, rooting his four paws on the seabed. There was something about his solid frame and expression that reminded me of Sergei.
After the dive, Sergei proudly showed us inside to use hot showers. A welcome opportunity; somehow bits of green weed had adhered themselves all-over my body. We then sat and sipped mint tea while relaxing and logging the dive.
The rest of the day was spent on a lounger beside Odessa’s long beach. On an occasional swim to cool down, I headed to a sea wall that lay just beneath the water’s surface, about 30 metres offshore. My goggled eyes must have bulged with satisfaction as I swam out - hovering upright, just above the rocks, was a seahorse.
I am glad to see that the Odessa Tourist Information website now has a page on the Underwater Museum. Hopefully, more visitors will seek it out and Ukrainians will come to realise that their seas contain all kinds of wonder. Stalin and seahorses!