After my trip to Millau in Aveyron, I had to return to Montpellier to catch my train back to Paris. Instead of going back home right away, I thought it was the opportunity to go scuba diving in Thau Lagoon again by going back to Sète. The picturesque harbour between the Mediterranean coast and Thau Lagoon is only 20 minutes away from Montpellier.
8 years ago, I scuba dived for the first time in Thau Lagoon, a salted water lake famous for oyster farming but also for being a popular spot among those going diving in France; No kidding, in France, this shallow shore dive is almost as famous as diving in Marseille.
Back then, I was still a baby scuba diver and taking underwater pictures was not the priority. This time, equipped with my brand new strobe (underwater flash), I wanted to bring back beautiful images of the superstars of Thau Lagoon: the seahorses. To do so, I decided to spend a long weekend in Sète. Beyond my encounter with the seahorses of Thau Lagoon, I was glad also to have time to explore this hidden gem of the other south of France properly.
Sète: a miniature mix of Naples and Venice in the south of France
Sète is a historic trade harbour established by Louis XIV in 1666. With its canals no wonder why it looks like a miniature version of Venice. The city was also profoundly influenced by Italian fishermen and farmers who moved there from 1870, mainly from Naples and Sicily. They settled mostly in the “Quartier Haut” (Upper district) also nicknamed Little Italy, where I was staying for the weekend. With its narrow streets and the laundry drying at the windows, no wonder how I felt like walking in a miniature version of Naples. Sète might not be big, but many streets and canals to explore, a lively art scene and too many delicious restaurants to try, you will not be bored even if you get a rainy day like me.
My top things to do in Sète:
- Enjoying a boat tour around the canals with Canauxrama: I would recommend to do it at the beginning of your stay as it will give you a good understanding of the topography and the different districts of the town. I would have never seen the district of “La Pointe Courte”, a tiny stripe of land behind the train station with colourful houses and gardens. Tickets cost 10€ per person, and the tour is at least 5 times a day in low season from 11 am to 5 pm. Comments are unfortunately only in French, but I think you can still enjoy the tour. More information (in French only): www.sete-croisieres.com
- Hiking to the top of Mount St Clair to enjoy the view all over Sète from the St Clair viewpoint, and on Thau Lagoon and the Lido Beach from the “Pierre Blanches” viewpoint. The maximum altitude of the hill might be only 180 m, but the walk to the top is quite is intense, so bring your water bottle! You can climb to the top by taking “Louis Raymond” street and go down by “Chemin du mas Rousseau” whose steps are steep so be careful. More information: en.tourisme-sete.com
- Exploring the contemporary art regional museum (CRAC) for free and enjoying a thought-provoking temporary exhibition around one theme. I had moments where I was totally in awe but also WTF moments, which I guess is normal with contemporary art! I took the opportunity of a raining day to visit the museum, which was kind of interesting to hear the heavy shower pouring outside when the theme was “Tempête” (Storm)! More information (in French only): crac.laregion.fr
My favourite addresses in Sète to eat and drink:
- Le Phangan (bar & tapas), 12 Quai Maximin Licciardi, Sète
- La méditérranéene (seafood), 3 Quai Maximin Licciardi, Sète
- Maison Politi (Italian food), 23 Grand Rue Mario Roustan, Sète
- Les glaces de la Bouline (Gelato ice-cream), 23 Grande Rue Mario Roustan, Sète
I usually love getting lost in cities to discover hidden little treasures, but this time I had a map for a special scavenger hunt. Go to the Tourism Office of Sète and ask for the map of the MACO. The street art open-air museum of Sète will lead you to some corners of the town you might not have explored otherwise while showing you the talent of the street-art artists who joined the initiative since 2008. Every year, new murals can pop up all around Sète!
My diving day at Thau Lagoon
Stretching from Sète to Marseillan on 21km and wide of 8 km, Thau Lagoon, is a Natura 2000 protected ecosystem but the area is not remote from civilisation. The lagoon found its balance between the oyster farms, the vineyards and the tourists attracted to the sandy beaches of the stripe of land that separate Thau Lagoon from the Mediterranean Sea. Contrary to diving in Port-Cros National Park which is famous for large groupers sightings, here French scuba divers flock for the macro critters and especially the long-snouted seahorses. The site is known as one of the highest concentration of seahorses in Europe.
Just 10 minutes driving from Sète, I went with Pascal from Osez Plonger to the dive site called “Le Ponton” in Balaruc-les-Bains. It is a shallow shore dive site with easy access to the water thanks to the steps near the lighthouse. If love muck diving, you will love scuba diving in Thau Lagoon.
From April to June, water is much warmer than in the Mediterranean Sea with 18°C. Diving there in the morning from 9 am or is the perfect timing to enjoy Thau Lagoon waters. Many underwater photographers come every day in the summer; they look for macro critters such as nudibranchs, peacock blenny, pipefish, peacock worms, sea hares and the superstars of Thau Lagoon: the seahorses.
We prepared our gear near the lighthouse at the end of the jetty. After an extensive dive briefing with Pascal, we were ready to dive at 10 am. As our maximum depth would be 5 m, a 10-litre tank was more than enough for our 70-minute dive. With a water temperature of 18°C, I could have brought a wetsuit, but as I had brought my drysuit for the cool waters of the Gorges du Tarn, I felt after 70 minutes staying mostly immobile to shoot pictures and videos, it was not a luxury to stay warm and toasty in it.
As I could not take any pictures during my first dives at Thau Lagoon in 2010 and 2011, can you imagine how happy I was to come back with my underwater camera set-up including by brand new Inon S-2000 strobe? Talking about the strobe, I thought I would struggle more to use it, but I made my life easier by using it in TTL mode (automatic mode) and only playing on the manual settings of my camera. The visibility was not great that day, depending on the areas of the dive sites it was between 2 to 10 m. I knew I had to play with the orientation of my strobe to avoid the backscatter, so that was the main exercise I did by trying different lighting angle for each shot. While I still clearly need training, I am quite happy with the results, and this is giving me great hopes for the futures with better conditions.
For information, the seahorses of Thau Lagoon can be seen all year long, but they are masters of camouflage and the conditions for scuba diving in Thau Lagoon are quite unpredictable. In 2011, I tried coming back by myself shore diving with a tank I rented at Pons Plongée. While I saw many nudibranchs that day, I could never spot the seahorses. The tricky thing with seahorses is how you expect to find them: they are not graciously waiting on a blade of seagrass but most of the time just lying on the dark seabed which makes them almost impossible to see. One piece of advice: bring your diving torchlight!
At 12 pm, after chitchatting about how the dive went, dissembling and putting away our scuba diving equipment, my dive buddy and I were ready to go for lunch. It might be the thing I love the most about scuba diving in France, right after your dives you can combine the discovery of Thau Lagoon with a local culinary experience.
On the road between Mèze and Marseillan, I visited an oyster farm of Thau Lagoon managed by the same family for 3 generations. The Tarbouriech family turned their “mas” (local house) into an incredible restaurant “Le St Barth” for a delicious tasting of their oysters, “Picpoul” white wine from the vineyards located just behind, and “Tielle” (octopus pie), a Sète speciality.
The place is casual chic: as you can see in the pictures, I came as I was, in my post-dive outfit and it was not a problem at all as the atmosphere is friendly.
After your long lunch break, take the direction of the beaches from Marseillan to Sète and finish your afternoon in the sun on the long sandy beach of “Le Lido”.
How to go to Sète in France?
By train: You can take a “TGV” high-speed train from Paris to Montpellier and then a regional “TER” train to Sète (20 minutes from Montpellier). Some trains are going all the way to the Spanish border so you can have a direct ticket from Paris to Sète in TGV in only 4 hours.
Then a renting a car if you have scuba diving gear with you can be a good option, but there is also a bus going from Sète to Balaruc-Les-Bains or if you kindly ask, Pascal of “Osez Plonger” can also pick you up at Sète train station on your diving day.
Where to stay in Sète?
I already had a little crush when I saw the pictures on booking.com, but when I saw the place in real life, it was love-at-first-sight with “Picoti Picota” Guesthouse in the heart of the upper district of Sète.
Danielle refurbished an old house into a cosy guesthouse that has 2 bedrooms with a shared bathroom, and a one-bedroom apartment decorated with her favourite accessories from the 1970s. She serves every morning breakfast in the tree-filled courtyard, with homemade cakes and jams and freshly pressed fruit juice. I could not dream of a better place to stay for my long weekend in Sète.
Do you want to discover other quirky dive sites in France? Have a look at these articles:
- Diving detours in the other south of France: Millau & the Gorges du Tarn
- Rediscovering my local dive sites in Brittany
- Ice diving above 2000 m in the French Alps
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