Last summer, I went on holiday in Hyères with a friend from Paris to introduce her to the underwater world. After her discovery dive in Porquerolles Island, we went for a day, hiking and snorkelling, on the island of Port-Cros, to extend the experience in the heart of the first marine park in France and Europe. This is then the opportunity to look back at the heritage of the French pioneer of European marine parks and the dives I have done there since 2016. Even if Porquerolles Island remains my favourite dive destination in France, one cannot deny the natural beauty of Port-Cros National Park, both under and above the water.
The heritage of a marine reserve pioneer in Europe
In a nutshell, the Port-Cros National Park is one of the favourite dive spots of French divers. However, it is little known that its creation in the 1960s launched a marine protected area movement not only in France but also in Europe and even beyond.
The date of the 14th of December 1963 marks the creation of the first and thus the oldest marine park in France and Europe. The Port-Cros National Park was the second national park to be created in France after the Vanoise National Park in the Alps earlier that year. These creations follow the enforcement of the French national park law of 1960 which was modernised only recently in 2006.
In 2012, the Port-Cros National Park is extended by creating a second protected area around the island of Porquerolles; it is also when the Calanques National Park between Marseille and La Ciotat was created.
Today, the heart of Port-Cros and Porquerolles marine protected area covers a surface of 2900 ha (29 km²) in which 180 species of fish were recorded. If we include the adjacent marine area, a total of 123,000 ha (1,230 km²) are protected in the Var prefecture.
While the Port-Cros National Park is the first marine park in Europe historically speaking, the Pelagos Sanctuary, which Port-Cros area is a part of, is the largest in terms of surface area. The administration of the Port-Cros National Park is in charge of the monitoring and coordination of this international sanctuary created in 1999. It covers 87,500 km² between the French Riviera, Corsica, Monaco and Italy with the aim of protecting whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea from disturbances such as pollution or noise.
Created in 2006 when the law on national parks was revised, the newly created system of marine natural parks is better adapted to large marine, making it possible to protect ecosystems located further offshore, within 200 nautical miles.
Today, France has nine natural marine parks. The first was created in the Iroise Sea in 2007, and the last in Martinique, in the Caribbean, in 2017. In its overseas territories, New Caledonia created in 2014 the Coral Sea Natural Park, based on local law. As a matter of fact, in terms of protected surface area, it is now the largest French marine park with a perimeter equal to New Caledonia’s sea area, i.e. 1 291 000 km².
Scuba diving in Port Cros National Park
Port-Cros Island may be a popular destination for hiking lovers, it remains mostly a popular destination for scuba divers from all over France but also Switzerland. Since my first stay in Toulon in 2016, I have had the opportunity to scuba dive several times in Port-Cros National Park. Usually, we went for the day by taking the boat in Hyères with a lunch break at the harbour of the island.
Best dive sites in Port-Cros National Park
Here is the list of the most interesting dive sites in the protected area of the island of Port-Cros in order of decreasing maximum depth :
- La Gabinière, max depth 45 m
- Pointe de la Galère, max depth 35 m
- Pointe du Vaisseau, max depth 38 m
- Pointe de Montrémian, max depth 33 m
- Pointe de la Croix, max depth 30 m
- Les dalles de Bagaud, max depth 12 m
My dives in Port-Cros National Park
Often considered as the best dive site in mainland France, this is where I started my underwater discovery of the Port-Cros in 2016 when I had just returned to France after 2 years in Scotland. Being quite a sporty drift dive along a drop off that descends to a depth of 45 m, this spot is obviously not recommended for beginners but will delight experienced divers in search of sensations.
Although I prefer the colours of Porquerolles’ dive sites, I must say that the action at the “Gab”, as the local call it, is dazzling. The spot is famous for its numerous big groupers and you might find yourself surfing the underwater current among barracudas. Surprisingly, during my visit in June, the drop-off was full of nudibranchs: dotted sea slug, giant dories, tricolour dories, thuridilla, and red-rim flatworms.
Les Dalles de Bagaud
It is the perfect dive site for beginners and try dives in Port-Cros National Park. It was indeed the exact reason why we stopped there on our way back to Hyères after our lunch break. But don’t underestimate this site, the fields of posidonia boast with marine life for those who know how to take their time and look.
La Pointe de la Croix
Port-Cros Island being further than Porquerolles Island from Hyères, as a result I went there less often. So it’s only a year later that I returned to Port-Cros, with the intention of giving the Gabinière another chance to impress me. Unfortunately, the weather conditions that day didn’t allow to dive there safely. So we went to another dive site. The Pointe de la Croix site was in the end, from a marine life point of view, just as interesting as the Gabinière, without the vertiginous drop-off.
Which dive centres go diving in Port-Cros ?
To go scuba diving in Port-Cros National Park there are several options. You can either go to Port-Cros Island directly and book with its single dive centre, Sun Port-Cros. It is an interesting option if you intend to stay one or two nights on the island (be careful, places are very limited). You can also leave from La Londe where most of the dive centres going to Port-Cros are located. On the other hand, if you come from Toulon, the most convenient is to go scuba diving from Hyères.
If you are a beginner diver, you can plan a discovery dive or passing your Open Water course in the Port-Cros National Park, but be aware you won’t be able to access the most interesting sites such as the Gabinière due to its depth and sometimes its strong currents.
Snorkelling in Port-Cros National Park
The underwater trail of La Palud is one of the main attractions of the island of Port-Cros. Its 6 buoys with educational boards located between La Palud Beach and Rascas Islet, with a depth ranging from 1 m to 10 m near the islet, gives free access to an excellent overview of the marine ecosystem of the national park.
It is a 30-minute walk from the harbour along the Estissac trail. Beware the path is in full sunlight and is quite steep, so be sure to bring enough drinking water. The views of Bagaud Island, Porquerolles Island, Giens Peninsula and Maures Mountains in the background will make you forget all your efforts to climb at the top of the cliffs.
If you take your fins and your diving mask with you, a backpack with a strap to tie them over it will be a good idea because hiking with fins in hand is not so practical (says the person who didn’t do that). I had planned a small waterproof bag with drinking water, a small picnic and a change of clothes.
Beware in peak season, the beach of La Palud, which is really not wide, fills up quickly. Try to take the first boat which leaves Hyères at 9 am to enjoy a calm morning where you will be more likely to encounter groupers and octopus.
How to go to Port-Cros Island?
You can go to Port-Cros Island from La Gavine Harbour in Hyères or from La Londe. In my case, as I was staying in the heart of the old town of Hyères, the easiest way was to take bus 67 towards the Tour Fondue which stops directly at La Gavine Harbour.
You can buy your ticket directly at the TLV pier. Even in the middle of the summer season, I didn’t need to make a reservation to be able to get on board; but if you wish, you can pick up your ticket the day before.
La Gavine Harbour is a little further away than La Londe Harbour to Port-Cros. The crossing takes about an hour but is very pleasant. Beware of sunburn if you stay on the upper deck, remember to protect yourself.
You can easily go hiking and snorkelling in Port-Cros Island for a day from Hyères. If you take the boat in the morning and come back at 5 pm, there is plenty of time to discover the island. On the other hand, those who would like to go on the trails leading to the eastern part of the island should make sure to leave with the first boat in the morning or spend a night at the harbour.
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