Less than two-and-a-half hours away from the UK, Croatia offers some chilled out, relaxed diving opportunities. Stuart Philpott went to see it for himself.
Hearing so many good reports about Croatia, I couldn’t resist planning a visit. Well-known brand Euro Divers had opened a dive centre at Stara Baška on Krk Island, located way up north far away from the hustle and bustle of popular tourist resort Dubrovnik.
Checking online I found regular flights departing from the UK to Dubrovnik, but this was hundreds of kilometres from my final destination, making transfer times impractical.
The airport at Riječka was much more convenient, although flight options were limited to a weekly Ryan Air service departing from Stansted during the summer months. At least my air ticket didn’t cost me a fortune, and with flight times of only two hours and 20 minutes, I wouldn’t be shuffling about on my seat for too long.
After clearing customs, I jumped in a local taxi and made tracks for Stara Baška, an hour’s drive down the road, depending on traffic. The fare cost 52 euros each way, so next time around I will put the money towards a full week’s car rental hire.
This would give me much more freedom in the evenings, and I could also go sightseeing on non-diving days. At the opposite end of the scale, I spoke to a young German couple, Stefan and Irena, who were more than happy to stay in town for a complete two-week period.
Stefan said he had a high-pressure job in Munich and preferred to go diving all day and just sit and veg in the evenings.
Stara Baška is located in a sleepy bay on the south side of Krk Island approximately 10km from Punat, home to the third biggest boat marina in Europe (important note – the marina restaurant serves up the best cheeseburgers).
I had booked into Pansion Nadia but was unaware that there were two buildings with the same name. This totally threw the taxi driver, who initially took me to the wrong one!
The town itself has a grand total of three bars/restaurants and a number of low-rise apartment blocks all fronted by a small pebble beach and a concrete jetty, which provides moorings for around 50 or so boats. There is also a supermarket of some sorts, but it was quite a walk from my accommodation so I didn’t get a chance to check it out.
The PADI-affiliated dive centre is conveniently located along the seafront just a few steps below Pansion Nadia. Euro Divers opened for business on 1 April 2013 (hopefully April Fool’s Day wasn’t an omen?).
I met the manager and part-owner, Kai Behrend, who had spent ten years in the German special forces before changing his career to the dive industry. For the next ten years he worked as a diving instructor and manager at various resort islands in the Maldives before settling in Croatia. Kai said: “It takes 100,000 volts of energy to make a dive centre successful. Service and safety are paramount.
I’ve never had an accident, ever”. There were two other full-time members of staff. Vinko doubled up as Divemaster and boat driver, while Maria managed reception. My name seemed to give Vinko the giggles. The only ‘Stuart’ he had heard of was an animated white mouse called ‘Stuart Little’. Maybe there was more of a resemblance than I thought?
Kai said: “We might not have the best boat or the best facility but we care more for our divers. We give the competent divers more latitude and help the weaker divers”. Over 85 percent of Kai’s customers are repeaters. Some have been loyal followers since his Maldives days. A fair proportion of Kai’s clientele came from Germany. With Munich only six hour’s drive away, this was quite understandable. Kai said: “Most of the road is Autobahn down to the bridge at Krk Island”.
Euro Divers Croatia offer approximately 40 dive sites within a ten- to 60-minute boat journey range. Normally, there is a morning dive at 9.30am followed by second dive at 3pm in the afternoon. On occasions, Kai offers two-tank morning dives and full-day trips to the popular Lina wreck, which is about a two-hour boat ride each way. Drysuits are a good option or a full 7mm wetsuit, although Kai said that he had a group of Brummies visiting last year wearing just shorties!
Water temps can hit highs of 26 degrees C but it usually hovered around 18-24 degrees C. Kai recommended visiting in September, when the weather is still warm and there are fewer divers about.
During my stay, I met a complete mix of European nationalities. Some were locals who just turned up for the day, while others were on holiday and staying in town. The whole atmosphere was really relaxed and friendly. Everybody would revert to speaking English when I was around.
I got off to a flying start with a scenic dive at Prvic Tunnel. The main feature was a swim-through/tunnel adorned with colourful sponges. The tunnel sits at a depth of 10m and is roughly 50 metres long with room enough for two or three divers swimming side by side. There was also a wall dominated by vibrant yellow sponges and the odd purple sea fan thrown in for good measure. Fish life mainly comprised of small damsels, flying gurnard, scorpionfish and some black and white spotted nudis.
I quickly settled into a daily routine which began with a leisurely breakfast. Sipping coffee and eating freshly made chocolate croissants while admiring the sparkling Adriatic was simply idyllic. One morning I watched a solitary bottlenose dolphin jumping across the bay. Between dives I would catch lunch at the neighbouring restaurant called Marinara and then return to Pansion Nadia for dinner.
Bizarrely, none of the food menus were written in English. After some searching around, Goran – the waiter at Nadia – managed to find an old dog-eared paper copy, but it was literally the only one in town! I recommend trying out the local Croatian specialities, especially a dish called ‘mucka licka’, which is basically a beef stew with vegetables, but beware – pronouncing the words as they are written has an entirely different meaning!
Kai said that last year he counted eight different seahorses on the house reef and so taking up the challenge, we went hunting for seahorses. The bottom composition was mainly sand with the odd patch of sea grass. Black sea cucumbers were everywhere. I also found an old boot, a discarded wine bottle and a lorry tyre. We searched fruitlessly for 45 minutes and then, as promised, Kai found me a seahorse. Apart from the house reef, there are no other shore diving sites at Stara Baška.
After our morning dive I heard the church bells ringing incessantly. This seemed to be a strange time to hear bells. I looked at Vinko and he gave me the slash across the throat signal, meaning there had been a death in the village.
Kai said there were quite a few elderly residents, so this happened several times each year. Soon afterwards the wind picked up, which didn’t bode well for diving. Kai said there are two main winds affecting the dive sites. Bura blows from the northeast and is not usually a show stopper. Hugo blew from the south and although quite rare, usually whipped up the waves and stopped the majority of diving activities.
Unfortunately, I got dealt a Hugo but Kai promised me the rough weather would only last for two days. As usual, I managed to break the record and get the very first three-day Hugo! Galun Island is the only dive site accessible during a Hugo (15 minutes boat ride from the dive centre) so I got to know Galun extremely well over the next three days.
At Galun Lanterna, there are the remains of a speedboat. The stern was full of old dive cylinders, which had been loaded up to stop the little wreck from moving around the seabed. The steering wheel and gauges were all intact. A giant tubeworm made a great focal point for my pictures.
In the other direction at Galun Anphsa, I found a drop-off covered in bright yellow sponges and red starfish. On the opposite windward side of the island, there was a garden of small sea fans and rocky outcrops covered in black and white nudis. Big fish sightings were quite rare.
I paired up with a German diver called JJ for a dive at Brazol, which started with a wreck at a depth of around 30m. I didn’t know the wreck’s history but it looked to be an approximately 20-metre-long cabin cruiser or an old dive boat.
I managed to get through the hatchways, but most of the interior had already disintegrated. Marine life consisted of a conger eel and a lobster hiding behind the prop. Vinko mentioned that there was another relatively untouched wreck in the middle of the bay at 50m, but the weather conditions had scuppered all possibilities of a visit.
On our trip to the popular site, Prvic Coral Garden, Kai paired me up with Polish diver Renata. At a maximum depth of 42m, this turned out to be my deepest dive of the week and had the best visibility.
The site was basically two seamounts that dropped off into the deep blue yonder. I followed Renata down to a very pretty wall full of huge purple sea fans interlaced with red and yellow sponges. During the ascent we watched shoaling bream dodging our exhaled bubbles.
The dive ended at the tip of the pinnacle, around 10m beneath the boat, where I found scorpionfish, starfish, fire worms, a few wrasse and more sponge formations. There are around six dive centres operating in the region but Euro Divers are the only centre at Stara Baška.
Kai said: “We rarely see another dive boat at a site”. Kai’s favourite site was called Zala Draga. This was by far the best macro site with a variety of nudis, scorpions, blennies, wrasse, mullet and multiple octopus sightings. Using Renata as a marine life spotter really helped me clock up my picture quota.
My last dive at a site called Skuljca was best for wide-angle opportunities. There were a number of deep gullies making a kind of underwater maze. This opened out by a rocky outcropping covered in bright orange cup corals. The late-afternoon sun filtered around the rocks, making the perfect backdrop for my pictures.
At the end of the week, Kai gave me back my cert card and a list of all the dive sites I had visited, including depths, times, etc. This was the first time anyone has ever done this for me, and what a great idea as I am always forgetting to write down the details.
Stara Baška wasn’t the most adrenalin-fuelled diving destination I have ever visited but I came away feeling happy and contented. I couldn’t fault the dive centre or the staff. The dive sites I visited were full of colourful flora and overall had very good underwater visibility.
There was also a house reef to explore with virtually guaranteed seahorse sightings and even a couple of small shipwrecks. Pansion Nadia offered a good spread of food and wine (at very reasonable prices, I might add) and my room, which had recently been refurbished, was modern, clean and comfortable.
Most importantly, the beers were always served in frosted glasses, so all in all not a bad result!
The tunnel sits at a depth of 10m and is roughly 50 metres long with room enough for two or three divers swimming side by side
Photographs by Stuart Philpott