Month after month, we keep being locked down every time the pandemic figures get a bit too crazy. Right after New Year’s Eve, I felt massive fatigue to the point of reaching the limit of genuinely losing it. I needed fresh air; I needed water more than anything. When the opportunity came to return to Toulon, my main scuba diving base in France, for a couple of months this spring, I just booked a train ticket in less than 48 hours and escaped my Parisian flat.
I didn’t know a new lockdown would be declared once more a month later. Lucky me, I could start my 2021 diving season much earlier than in my wildest dreams. I may have only logged 4 dives from March to May, but I usually see half-full glass. These hours I spent underwater made me realised how true everything I read about scuba diving and mental health was. So here is how it went, underwater camera in hand, looking for new exciting marine species and peace of mind…
Dive #1 – Anse Méjan
Dive parameters: max depth 15 m, total dive time 85 minutes, water temperature 13°C
When I arrived at the beginning of March, most dive centres were still closed. So, when I realised my underwater photography dive buddy from New Caledonia, Mathieu of Imag’in Air&Sea, would be in Toulon at the same time as me, we decided to organise ourselves a shore dive. Since he had a car, it wasn’t too complicated to rent tanks and weights at a local dive store for the day. Since I’ve been diving in Toulon for some years now, I knew exactly where to go.
I dusted off my neoprene drysuit, which has stayed in Toulon since 2019. My dive buddy bought a semi-dry suit he could use for the winter season in New Caledonia as he couldn’t find a good second-hand deal on a drysuit at his size.
With our underwater cameras equipped with macro lenses, we went for a long private dive where it’s ok to spend 10 to 15 minutes on one spot, which is complicated to do when diving with a dive centre. I love diving like this more and more. Hopefully, every time I go diving somewhere new, I manage to meet people who are into independent shore diving too!
Our focus was mainly on the colourful nudibranch of the Mediterranean, and I was in charge of spotting them since I know the area the best. But my dive buddy has really eagle-eyes, and he just found as many as I did. Our challenge was to see Bosellia Mimetica, a tiny green nudibranch less than 1 cm long that feeds on the Halimeda Tuna algae of the same colour, called sea cactus or penny weed, present in large quantity at this dive site. I managed to find the eggs, but my dive buddy was the one who could spot this stealthy slug!
While putting our best focus to find Bosellia Mimetica, we actually spotted species of nudibranchs I had never spotted in the Mediterranean sea before. That’s the magic when you take your time underwater!
Right after we immersed ourselves in shallow waters, we found many Elysia Timida nudibranchs; they look a bit like the Thuridilla Hopei or Hope’s elysia I wanted to find for my dive buddy but with fewer colours, only green and white with tiny red dots. A bit further out, the usual pink flabellinas (Flabellina Affinis) and pilgrim hervia were present in numbers and easy to spot as always. But the most extraordinary find was the Facelina Rubrovittata or the red-stripe facelina. I took a picture next to my dive buddy’s finger to show you how small it was; my macro lens was barely enough as it measured less than 1 cm.
Not as small, the blennies still make excellent subjects. I was glad to find a tompot blenny (Parablennius Gattorugine) and a surprise blenny (Parablennius Incognitus). Their look is always hilarious in underwater pictures.
I also loved this tiny hermit crab hiding in an empty tube-worm on a red encrusting sponge! I was longing to take that photo again since the first time I saw this back in 2016 in Porquerolles. Finally, an octopus put on a show just for us; I couldn’t resist taking a few shots.
The weather was very windy this spring in Toulon, so we were lucky to have a beautiful day and a calm sea as the wind just fell down the night before. The visibility was reasonably good between 10 and 15 m. As expected, the water was at its coldest, a little below 13°C. This long dive, almost an hour and a half (I still had 70 bars left, but even in a semi-dry suit, my buddy started to feel cold), is the proof you don’t need to go deeper to witness the wonders of the ocean realm.
Dive #2 & #3 – Grotte Sainte-Marguerite
- max depth 17 m, total dive time 45 minutes, water temperature 13°C
- max depth 12 m, total dive time 43 minutes, water temperature 13°C
Towards the end of March, the only dive centre of Toulon had reopened. I was eager to try what dive sites I could access by walking only 10 minutes to the harbour from where I was staying in the Mourillon neighbourhood. It was, for most people, the first dive of the season. As a result, it was decided to go on a not too deep site, but still, interesting site as it has a sea cavern. I had never heard of it before so it was an excellent surprise. The dive site is a 20-minute boat ride away from the harbour of Toulon, a little further after Anse Méjan.
The underwater navigation was easy. First, you need to find the “cube” rock and then turn on the left to keep the wall on your right. The entrance of the cavern, an open-air one, is shortly after, but you usually leave for when you return. From a marine species point of view, I found the big boulders after the cavern entrance on the right were the most interesting, judging from the number of species I found there.
I had taken many times in the past pictures of the female black-faced blenny, which is only red with golden spots and had great difficulty finding the male one, which is actually black and yellow. Gosh, imagine how my heart pounded when I spotted the couple, male and female, there. I only saw later on the screen of my computer that on top of this, a splendid Trinchesia Caerulea nudibranch or blue cuthona was hiding between them. Later, at the cavern entrance, I was lucky to have a male black-faced blenny that just decided to pose for me.
Then, as my two dive buddies of the day, Fred and François, and I were making our way to check the inside of the cavern out, there it was, floating elegantly in mid-waters: a gorgeous rhizostome jellyfish. About 1 m long and with a diameter of about 30 cm, it is the largest jellyfish I have ever seen in the Mediterranean sea, and again it was a first. I signalled my dive buddies that I was about to approach for a photo shooting session, and as the time passed and I was the only one in a drysuit, we had to make our way back to the boat without exploring the cavern. This when an octopus came to check us out before we rose for our safety stop.
Luckily, less than 48 hours later, I was called at the last minute asking if I wanted to scuba dive the same site again as a lady was looking for a dive buddy. I said I was definitely in! This is how I got my chance at exploring the cavern side of the dive site. The craggy walls inside are spotted of sunset cup corals, so when you light your dive torch at them, it looks like a starry sky.
There were even more nudibranchs to be found there, and again I met a new nudibranch species for the first time: the Facelinopsis Marioni or Marion’s facelina. Other great finds including a group of three tricolor doris, a thuridilla (the one I was looking for my New Caledonian buddy on my first dive, duh!) and again, many pink flabellinas.
Dive #4 – Les Deux Frères
Dive parameters: max depth 31 m, total dive time 41 minutes, water temperature 13°C
Right after Easter, we were back into lockdown with a 10 km restriction. Thanks to the couples of dives I could log, I felt much better and ready for it. After 4 weeks, we were free to go (except for the curfew, still enforced to this day). I booked a dive the following Saturday to “Les Deux Frères” (The Brother Rocks), off La Seyne-Sur-Mer, on the other side of the Saint-Mandrier Peninsula. This is where we participated with Mathieu, my dive buddy from New Caledonia, to the French UW Photo championships back in 2019. In addition to my numerous previous visits, saying I know this dive site is an understatement. There couldn’t be a better place to plan my underwater shots.
Even if more than a month has passed since my previous dive, the water was just a little over 13°C as the weather was really not that good this spring with lots of rain and wind. But that morning was definitely the moment to go with bright blue sky and calm sea. At first, the visibility wasn’t that great when we started the dive, no more than 8 to 10 m. As we went deeper to reach for the gorgonian wall I wanted to show my two dive buddies, François and Blandine, the visibility improved dramatically to more than 15 m.
This time, I had taken my wide-angle dome and had asked my dive buddies if they were ok to pose for me underwater. They were more than happy, and we had a great time together. So I gave them my usual photography brief (flipping fingers to say swim here, closing/opening my hand to say switch on your dive light, etc.). The gorgonian wall was a fantastic setting, but the large spiral tube worms, also called fan worms, gave us extra opportunities for pictures.
Once more, before starting our safety stop, we saw a sizeable octopus sleeping below a rock, and I spotted a lovely blue fish. I’m still searching what his name is, but I suspect it to be a juvenile species. For sure, a wrasse, but which one? There is no end to the fun of looking up for new species I spot for the first time… and that kind of happiness can keep me going forever, whatever the complications of the period we’re going through.
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