The way things perfectly happen sometimes has surprised me more than once. This time, I got a combo of two interesting coincidences. My last scuba diving trip before moving from France to Scotland was in Italy, to dive the underwater archaeological park of Baia near Naples. My first trip after moving back from Scotland to France was again to dive in another underwater landmark of Italy: Portofino Marine Protected Area (MPA). Portofino became first famous for its underwater Christ statue, which is the original model of the one I saw while diving at the John Pennekamp Park in Key Largo, Florida, only 6 months before!
I had many reasons to be excited about this long weekend in Italy, including 2 days of diving in Portofino, mouth-watering cuisine and the breathtaking landscapes of Cinque Terre National Park. Beyond a 3 day program packed with all my favourite things to do, I think what took me back to Italy for the 5th time is intangible. Being French, I am quite good at taking my time and enjoying life, but I think Italians take this to the next level. Dolce Farniente sums this up perfectly. Thanks to this Italian tradition, I had a busy program, yet everything felt relaxed.
Portofino: A voluntary marine protected area since 1999
The Portofino MPA was created in 1999 and includes the shores of the villages of Camogli, Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. For more than 15 years, the area has been a successful example of how you can protect the marine ecosystem, lead scientific research and boost economic development at the same time.
The reserve has been divided into zones A, B and C. The map above explains what you can do and what you cannot do in each zone. Zone A is entirely dedicated to scientific research. For example, the University of Genoa is studying the growth of Mediterranean red coral. Scuba divers can go to zone B and C with an approved scuba diving centre. Zone B is the most attractive for divers as fishing is heavily restricted there.
The result? Valentina Cappanera of Portofino MPA says they noticed “a continuous increase in the population of marine life, especially not moving fish, such as brown groupers.”
Cristo degli Abissi, the world-famous Christ of the Abyss
It should be the most famous underwater statue in the world. The Christ of the Abyss is a monument erected in 1954 by Duilio Marcante in memory of his friend Dario Gonzatti. Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian diver to use scuba gear, and he, unfortunately, died during a dive in 1947 in San Fruttuoso Bay.
This is where the 2,50m and 260kg bronze statue can be found at a depth of 17 m. San Fruttuoso Bay is a sheltered creek. The site of the Cristo degli Abissi is very easy to dive as it is not too deep and is protected from the currents. For this reason, many snorkelers and free divers visit the site.
The statue represents Jesus Christ opening his arms upwards in the sign of invocation. It is now a monument dedicated to those lost at sea. Every year, on the last Saturday of July, a ceremony commemorates those who dedicated their lives to the sea.
The statue is also famous thanks to its most popular copy in Key Largo, Florida, where I had the chance to dive 6 months before. Since then, I discovered there are other copies of the statue, like in Grenada, an island in the Caribbean, or the Italian village of Chiesa di Valmalenco.
Diving in Portofino Marine Park: wall diving & red coral caverns
The most exciting dive sites of Portofino are Gonzatti Pinnacle (Gonzatti Seco), the Lighthouse (il Faro) and the Colombara. After immersing yourself at the buoy, you follow the chain downwards to your maximum depth. Remember: “Plan the dive and dive the plan”. The depth here can quickly go beyond 40 m, so check your dive computer and stay within your training’s maximum depth.
At the beginning of the season, during spring and the first half of the summer, water might be at a pleasant temperature at the surface, in my case 23°C in early July; nevertheless, at 15/18m deep, there was a clearly visible thermocline. The temperature below was between 16 and 17°C!
While I was preparing my gear before leaving home, I hesitated a while between my 5mm wetsuit and my 7mm dry suit. I decided to take my dry suit, but without any undergarments, I would dive only with my swimsuit, t-shirt and socks below. I can tell you that was a perfect choice; even instructors on the boat were wearing dry suits, so I did not feel stupid at all with my dry suit on!
If you are not a dry suit diver, I strongly recommend a 7mm wetsuit with a hood and gloves for the beginning of the season. If you do not like cold water, you need to know water is at its warmest in September/October, when it has warmed up all summer! At that time, a 5mm wetsuit will be fine.
At about 25m deep, we looked for the friendly but shy brown groupers and explored caverns with a torchlight. The inside of the caverns was covered in Mediterranean red coral and yellow encrusting anemones. Many steep walls were also vertical forests of red gorgonians. They look blue but get closer with your dive light to see their original bright red colour. Caverns and cracks are the ideal places to look for nudibranchs. This is where I found most of my sea slugs friends: Doris and Flabellinas.
Visibility was reduced during the deepest part of the dive to about 15 m. Above the thermocline, in shallower water, the visibility was incredible with about 30 m. Dive time was, on average, 50 minutes, including 20/25 minutes below 20 m, so I was happy to ascend in the shallower and warmer water, especially to watch the incredible fish action.
There I could understand the benefits of the marine protected area. I have never seen such large schools of barracudas, two-banded breams (sar) and cow breams (salema) in the Mediterranean Sea. There were swirling all around us in crystal clear water, allowing me to shoot incredible videos. For this reason, Portofino made it to my list of the best diving in Europe.
A quick look at the VIP harbour of Portofino
Each day, we took our surface intervals at San Fruttuoso Bay, where the Christ of the Abyss Statue is located. This creek is so pretty with its tiny beach, abbey and tower. No wonder why so many people came with a boat to enjoy sunbathing with a glass of rosé wine. I was a bit envious, but as I had to dive a second time, so no alcohol was allowed.
The delicious focaccias (Italian flatbread with olive oil), especially those with crushed black olives on top, with a glass of fresh water, totally made my day. It was so good I became addicted to it. When I was gearing up for the second dive, the crew found me still chewing another piece of focaccia: they laughed at how much I enjoyed their beloved speciality of Liguria!
After the second dive, the crew took us for a tour of the harbour of Portofino. Portofino is the place where millionaires like to hang out in Italy. Before arriving at the port, I felt like on a VIP tour of the star mansions of Beverly Hills, “Here it is the villa of Dolce and Gabbana; here it is the villa of Berlusconi.” Once you arrive in Portofino, you can see huge deluxe yachts near the ancient red and yellow buildings.
To be honest, after visiting Cinque Terre at the end of this trip, I can tell it was nice to visit it from the boat but not worth spending the day in the village. I was not the type of tourist who would spend thousands of euros in those designer fashion shops. Nevertheless, if you are into people’s watching, I guess you might enjoy it.
Where to stay while diving in Portofino?
As you can easily understand, if you want to sleep in Portofino itself, you will have to put serious money on the table. In my case, As I wanted to explore the National Park of Cinque Terre, I found my hotel in Sestri-Levante, the Grande Albergo, was ideally located halfway between Portofino and Monterosso, the first village of Cinque Terre.
I have also published a detailed article about my itinerary in Liguria from Portofino to Cinque Terre, where you can learn more about Sestri-Levante and the best way to explore the National Park of Cinque Terre in a day from there.
Who to dive with in Portofino?
I was lucky to find Massub Diving in Lavagna Marina. Easily accessible by train (just forget about renting a car in this region of Italy), I could walk to the train station of Sestri-Levante from my hotel in only 5 minutes. I had 10 minutes of train and 10 minutes again to walk to Massub diving centre. Their central location in Luguria allows them to dive either in Portofino MPA or Sestri-Levante’s wrecks, renowned among tech divers.
I loved the enormous space they had in their dive shop to prepare the gear, change or take a shower. They also have a large bright classroom in a mezzanine upstairs. Although the boat is only a few steps away from the dive shop, they place your equipped tank on a trolley that they roll for you to the boat. Seriously, diving in Europe is usually more about DIY, but there, I experienced the same level of service I had in Egypt or Indonesia. Bonus: their delicious focaccia at the surface interval!
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Many thanks to Massub diving for inviting me to discover this incredible region of Italy underwater and beyond. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect honestly my experience there.
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