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 is again to dive another underwater landmark of Italy: Portofino Marine Protected Area (MPA). Portofino is famous for its underwater Christ statue, which is the original model of the one I saw while diving John Pennekamp Park in Key Largo, Florida only 6 months before!
I had many reasons to be excited about this long weekend in Italy that would include 2 days of diving, mouth-watering cuisine and new breath-taking landscape to explore from Portofino to Cinque Terre. 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, taking my time and enjoying life is something I am quite good at, but I think Italians take this to the next level. “Dolce Farniente” sums this up perfectly. I had a busy program and yet, everything felt relaxed thanks to this lovely Italian trait.
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 this friend Dario Gonzatti. Dario Gonzatti was the first Italian diver using 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 17m. 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.
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 it is protected from the currents. For this reason, many snorkelers and free divers visit the site.
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 Carribean, or the Italian village of Chiesa di Valmalenco.
Diving in Portofino Marine Park
The most exciting dive sites of Portofino are Gonzatti Pinnacle (Gonzatti Sseco), 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,” depth here can quickly go beyond 40m, so check your dive computer and make sure to stay within your training’s maximum depth.
At the beginning of the season, spring and the first half 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 undergarment, I would dive only with a swimsuit, a 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 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, 5mm wetsuit should be ok.
At about 25m deep, look for the friendly but shy brown groupers and explore cavern with a torch-light. They are covered in Mediterranean red coral and yellow encrusting anemones. Many steep walls are also vertical forests of red gorgonians. They look blue but get closer with your torch-light to see their original bright red colour. Cavern and cracks are the ideal places to look for nudibranchs. This where I found most of my sea slugs friends: Doris and Flabellinas.
Visibility was reduced during the deepest part of the dive to about 15m (still excellent compared to Scotland!). Above the thermocline, in shallower water, the visibility was incredible with about 30m. Dive time was on average 50 minutes including 20/25 minutes below 20m, 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 big schools of barracudas, two banded breams (sar) and cow breams (salema) in the Mediterranean Sea. There were swirling all around us is crystal clear water allowing me to shoot incredible videos. Portofino made it to my list of the best diving in Europe.
A quick look at the VIP harbour of Portofino
On each day, we took our surface intervals at San Fruttuoso Bay where is located the Christ of the Abyss Statue. 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, no alcohol is allowed! The delicious focaccias (Italian flatbread with olive oil), especially those with crushed black olives on top, with a glass of freshwater, totally made my day. When I was gearing up for the second dive, the crew found me still chewing another piece of focaccia, so they laughed I enjoyed so much their beloved speciality of Liguria!
After the second dive, the crew took us for the VIP 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 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 clearly not the type of tourist that would spend thousands of euro in 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 centre 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, then 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 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, to 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, usually diving in Europe is more about DIY but there I experienced the same level of service I had in Egypt or Indonesia. Big thumbs up for Massub!
117 Calata Porto Turistico, 16033 Lavagna, GE
Phone: +39 0185 599121
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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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