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Mission to the Lavezzi Islands - Linda Pitkin’s blog - see images

Saturday 13 September
Above Bonifacio in southern Corsica, on the exposed coastal path, the wind nearly strips me of my T-shirt and tries to buffet me off my feet. It is just as well we were not expecting to dive today! I arrived a day early, with my husband and dive buddy Brian, to catch our dive boat before it leaves for the Lavezzi Islands.  Hopefully conditions will be better tomorrow when my mission starts in earnest.  As an underwater photographer, my opportunities will be limited to the dives the boat can offer, and the dive times will be about an hour depending on the depth and how my air lasts, but I intend to make the most of every minute.

Dusky Grouper Epinephelus marginatus at ‘Merouville’ in the Lavezzi Islands

Mission Day 1
Our boat ‘Galiote’ waits out the morning in the calm of the harbour, for the three-metre waves and “white horses” to subside. In the afternoon we cross to the Lavezzi Islands and get in the water at last, in a calm bay where Günther, captain of the Galiote for 28 years, knows we will see the dusky groupers I am after for my mission. I have dived nearly all over the world but this is my first time diving in the Mediterranean and the whole trip is a big adventure. We dive, swimming slowly over the bed of sea grass and round the rocks, and for a while my heart sinks as I see nothing else, but then our hopes are raised. We spy a grouper in a crevice between some boulders, and another appears. They are a little timid at first but soon they seem to take an interest and start to follow us. These are large groupers, about 2 feet in length and heavy-bodied, so I am able to use my favourite lens, a 10-17 zoom. By the end of the dive I have got some images to build on, although the water is not as clear as I would like - the windy weather has stirred up particles of sand. The Galiote moves into the next bay while we are diving and most of the divers swim round to end there dive at the boat. Photographers are not at all like ordinary divers though, we stay in one spot for ages, especially if the subjects are cooperative and the shots are going well. So when we surface we have not reached the bay and cannot see the boat. Eventually Günther picks us and another photographer up. We are living on the Galiote and it moors in this same bay for the night. Most of the divers and crew are German, which is a little confusing as I have been trying to practise some French and now I am struggling to recall a few words of German; not that I need to as most speak fluent English.

Day 2
We dive at Perduto, a site where we hope to see barracudas, and by luck we head to the spot on the reef where they are. They are in the only still patch of water, all around are raging currents and we use a lot of air struggling to get along the reef, also I scrape my fingers clutching the rocks to stop myself being swept away. There is one other serious photographer among the divers on board but he decided not to take his camera on this dive because of the current. For me a dive without my camera is unimaginable, even in difficult conditions. The barracudas are in a school of 50-100, spread out a bit but still an impressive sight, and I work quickly to capture some pictures in the few minutes before we must head back towards the boat to end the dive. Even so, we can’t make it to the anchor line and, although we are near the boat, we drift away fast all the way up to the surface. Luckily we are seen and they send the small zodiac (tender for the Galiote) to pick us up. It is all worth it to have such an exciting encounter in the Mediterranean.
   I had hoped we would dive next at Lavezzi’s famous site, Merouville (Grouper City), but there is likely to be current there so we dive is in the same bay as the previous afternoon. This time we wait for 40 minutes before a dusky grouper comes close, although two are hiding well under the rocks. The grouper gets bolder as the dive time runs out and follows us back to the anchor line of our boat.

Day 3
We could dive at Merouville but another boat is heading there with 40 divers on board. We don‘t want a sea of legs in the pictures so instead we dive at Horsehead, a scenic site named after the shape of an impressive tall pinnacle there. In the afternoon my hopes for Merouville are dashed again, as often happens around these exposed islands, wind has whipped up the sea and we go to dive at a calm site, shallower than in the morning. Above the water, the Lavezzi islands are a jumble of huge, smoothly rounded, boulders; underwater the scene is similar except that the rocks are encrusted with colorful sponges and zoanthid anemones.

Day 4
We wake to a beautiful calm sunny day but get off to a terrible start! There is very strong current on the surface and even though there is a rope that we can use to drag ourselves along, hand over hand to the dive site, we are unable to make it there with our bulky housed cameras and flashes (Nikon D80 in a Sea & Sea housing), and we abandon the dive. I am so disappointed...  Luckily the next dive gives me at last what I had been hoping for - a good encounter with the big groupers at Merouville. The groupers are wonderful, they greet Günther like an old friend, and then hang around us like amiable dogs. There is very little current there and the session goes well. I spend much of the dive at 25-30 metres depth and after 30 minutes or so I need leave the groupers (reluctantly) and decompress for several minutes before surfacing. We have two days left on the boat so there will be chance for more, I hope.

Day 5
We dive at Merouville again and it is fantastic! The morning sunlight is better on this fairly deep site than the duller light we had the previous afternoon.  I watch Günther as he disappears into the distance with the other divers in tow, gathering groupers as he goes like the pied piper. In the past, the groupers were fed indiscriminately by divers, but it became out of control and the top diving operators took a responsible stance, restricting feeding to just a small amount given only by themselves. Even so, I prefer my subjects to be behaving as naturally as possible, and I don’t want messy shots either, so Brian and I avoid the circus and stay not far from the mooring line. There is no need to go anywhere as enough groupers hang around, and I can take my time (although it goes all too quickly again) gaining their acceptance and getting some good angles on them. The fish are inquisitive enough to swim up to us, and they react placidly as I edge my camera housing’s large dome port just a foot from their noses. I am using a 20 mm lens on this dive and I find it perfect for close wide-angle shots of these large fish, some as much as 3 feet long. It’s not so good for Brian though as his flashes aren’t working - underwater photography has these frustrating moments.
   After the excitement of Merouville, the afternoon dive at Turtle Rock is less action-packed but pleasantly productive, around shallow rocks with a good variety of smaller marine life. We moor for the night in a sheltered bay where we make a very shallow night dive. It reminds me of the English south coast as I glide over the flat sand, occasionally flushing out a well-camouflaged cuttlefish or an octopus, as startled as I am, and ghostly gleaming in the beam of my torch.
Day 6
Our last day on board already! The weather is unsettled and exposed sites such as Merouville are out, but the bay where we saw our first dusky groupers is a welcome choice. This is my chance to change to a macro lens (60 mm) for some tight portraits of fish faces, and the groupers oblige. They have an alert and almost enquiring gaze and the grim look some unkindly attribute to them is due only to a jutting lower jaw. I have a slight hitch at the start though, when one of my bendy arms (made up of plastic ball joints fitting together to support the flash) snaps apart. It happens just as a grouper is right beside us, and the fish sticks it’s nose in to see what’s going on as Brian and I struggle to wrestle the arm back together again, while I am thinking “Oh no, I’m missing such a good chance here”. Luckily, we succeed before the grouper loses interest.
   We finish the trip with another dive at Turtle Rock, where I photograph lovely violet nudibranchs (sea slugs) and other small animals again. As we start heading back to the Galiote, the current picks up, the surface has turned choppy, and the light level drops so that we cannot see the boat until we are right by it, but we make it back on board OK without having to be picked up. As the Galiote speeds away towards the Corsican mainland we look back and see a waterspout at the very spot where we had just been diving.   

Day 7
After breakfast, we leave the Galiote reluctantly. We shall miss Günther and the others, and the excellent cooking of Rü the chef. He prepared delicious gluten-free meals for me all week as I am coeliac, and baked special bread for me, after the rolls I attempted to make turned out like golf balls. Also, of course, I shall miss the diving - I’m still raring to go. We have one final chance to get a dive in from the mainland though, so we hire a car in Bonifacio and head up the coast to the tucked-away beach of Palombaggia, where the dive centre Kalliste Plongée has been recommended to us. Sadly, the dive is not what we’d hoped for, and our dive guide works against us the whole time, chivvying us around an uninteresting site along with a couple of ordinary divers. For me, it is redeemed only by some scenic rocks as we near the end of the dive. Thank goodness we spent our main time in Corsica with Günther on the Galiote!


Lavezzi Islands and Dusky groupers

The Lavezzi Islands are situated in the Strait of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia, forming the southernmost point of  France’s European territory. The islands are a nature reserve with no inhabited buildings, although in 1855  a cemetery was built on the main island for the victims of the shipwrecked frigate Sémillante. All around are huge granite boulders scoured into strange shapes by wind and salt. The surrounding seas have a special attraction – fish that may grow to a metre or more in length and weighing perhaps 40 kg. These are Dusky groupers Epinephelus marginatus, an endangered species that is abundant only in Marine Protected Areas, where numbers are recovering since fishing has been banned. The natural lifespan of these large predators may be up to 50 years but they are slow growing, taking five years to become sexually mature females and 12 years to mature as males.

All images and text are copyright of Linda Pitkin

Last updated 22-Oct-2012  Dr B R Pitkin