Scuba diving in the MediterraneanJacques Cousteau popularised deep sea diving in Provence. Today you can scuba dive all along the Mediterranean and many centres offer baptêmes de plongée (trial dives) for absolute beginners.

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The locations particularly recommended by divers are Marseille and the Blue Coast, the area around Hyères and Cavalaire (as well as points further east along the Côte d'Azur).

The water in the bay of Marseille is cooler, particularly in the strip along the calanques, where the sea bed falls away steeply, but it's reputed to be better for gorgonian coral and underwater rock formations.

But dramatic formations may be found all down the coast, as well as wrecked ships, from all eras starting with the ancient Greeks, and even planes, such as the Hellcat (pictured below), an American fighter plane from the Second World War which now lies on the seabed near Cavalaire.

Around Hyères there are more fish and flora, thanks to the National Park of Port Cros. And the calanques between Marseille and La Ciotat, and the sea around them, were officially declared a National Park in April 2012.

It should eventually have a beneficial effect on marine life, though it may also lead to restrictions on some sporting activities.

The waters of the Med can be very clear, and plant and fish life on view might include - depending on the location and time of year - coral, seaweed, posidonia, sea urchins, hermit crabs, barracuda, octopus, morays, grouper, lobsters, John Dory, congers, wrasse, sea perch and bream.

A Thumbnail History

Scuba diving in a wreck in the MediterraneanThe history of diving is deeply rooted in this area. It's said that the first French commercial scuba diving club was established in Saint Raphaël in the 1930s.

And diving has always flourished, no doubt encouraged by the pickings to be found from sunken Roman ships (indeed the pillaging and illegal trafficking of these treasures has been an ongoing issue in the region).

These discoveries are on display in museums all across Provence, including Saint Raphaël's Musée Archéologique, the Musée des Docks Romains in Marseille and the Musée d'Arts and Traditions Populaires in Cassis.

Cousteau conducted his first underwater experiments in 1936 near Toulon, where he was serving in the navy. In the early 1940s, he filmed underwater documentaries including Par dix-huit mètres de fond (18 Metres Deep) and Épaves (Shipwrecks) and, with the engineer Emile Gagnan, developed the aqualung, a prototype device for breathing underwater.

During this period, Cousteau hooked up with Philippe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas to form a trio described by Tailliez as "the three mousquemers" (a pun on "mousquetaires", or musketeers).

After the war they were commissioned by the French navy to set up a research centre for underwater studies in Toulon. In 1949 Cousteau left the navy and acquired a ship named Calypso.

He fitted it out as a mobile laboratory for field research and in 1952, after a tip-off from a local fisherman, discovered an important wreck at Grand Congloué, 16 km / 10 miles off the coast of Marseille.

It later emerged that there were, in fact, two superimposed ships at the site. The first dates from the second century BC and carried a cargo of over 10,000 artefacts, including 400 wine amphoras of Greco-Roman origin, 30 Greek amphoras and 7000 dishes from Campania.

The second wreck dates from the late second or very early first century BC, and contained over 1,000 Roman wine amphoras from Cosa in Etruria, the present-day Tuscany.

Jacques Cousteau photographed by Yousuf Karsh in 1972In 1954, Costeau (pictured, in a portrait taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1972) published a remarkable memoir of these experiences, The Silent World, which is still a best-seller to this day.

In August 2011, 250 of the amphoras gathered by Cousteau in the early 1950s were resubmerged near the Frioul archipelago and laid out in the shape of a boat for fish to inhabit and divers to explore and marvel at.

Broken pots without archeological interest were used, half-filled with sand and affixed to the sea-bed with steel wires. A similar installation was already in place in the small Blue Coast port of Niolon.

In 1962 Cousteau set up Conshelf I ("conshelf" being an abbreviation of "continental shelf station") just off Marseille. This steel cylinder, christened Diogenes, was just 5 metres (16 feet) long and 2.5 metres (8 feet) in diameter, and served for a week as home and laboratory for its two inhabitants, Albert Falco and Claude Wesly.

Breathing a helium-oxygen mixture and observed from the surface by about thirty people, Falco and Wesly left each day to work underwater for five hours, studying interesting animals and building an underwater farm.

After the success of Conshelf I, Cousteau went on to more ambitious projects, Conshelf II, on the bed of the Red Sea, in 1963, and Conshelf III, near Nice, in 1965.

One of the "three mousquemers" has a small museum named in his honour: the Frédéric Dumas International Diving Museum opened in 2006 in Sanary sur Mer, where Dumas spent much of his life.

The exhibits include a replica of an early diving bell dating back to 1715, flippers manufactured by Georges Sérénon, a pioneer of deep-sea diving, and a diving mask made by Dumas in the 1930s out of the air chamber of a tyre which inspired the ground-breaking squale mask. Some early scuba diving equipment is also on display at the Musée de la Marine in Marseille.

 

Fun fact telescapheIn the late 1960s you didn't need a wetsuit and diving cylinder to plunge underwater off the coast of Marseille.

In 1967 two entrepreneurs from the Alps had the wild idea of adapting the mountain cable car so as to have it go along the sea bed. Their invention was known as the téléscaphe (scaphandre is the French for a diving suit or diving bell).

Telescaphe MarseillePassengers could "scuba-dive" in a sealed capsule while remaining fully dressed in street clothes. A diver swam alongside each cabin to ensure safety.

Marseille's téléscaphe ran from Callelongue to the large neighbouring island of Maïre, a location chosen because of its many fish. Each of the six canary yellow cabins, pictured, seated six (rather crowded) passengers and descended about 10 metres / 10 yards underwater.

The journey covered a distance of 500 metres / 550 yards, lasted 10 minutes and operated by night as well as by day.

The cabins could transport around 60 passengers an hour and the proud survivors received a "beginner's diving certificate" ("baptème de plongée") at the end of their short trip.

Safety concerns and maintenance costs caused the téléscaphe to close down just a year later. But not before over 31,000 curious "divers" used it to explore the Mediterranean sea-bed.

Today if you visit Les Goudes and Callelongue, you can still see the rusty wheels and pulleys that are all that remains of this extraordinary dream.

 

 

Practical Information

Diving in France is highly regulated. Historically, a certificate from the CMAS (Confédération Mondiale des Activités Subaquatiques, or World Underwater Federation) has been more widely recognised than one from PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors), for both accompanied and unaccompanied diving.

Scuba diving in the MediterraneanHowever, the complex laws governing this changed in July 2010, and so it is advisable to check with the diving centre or on a diving forum for the latest information.

You will need a medical certificate of fitness that is less than one year old and written parental or guardian consent is required for divers under the age of 18. Insurance is not obligatory but is recommended.

The sea temperature at the surface ranges from around 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit) in January to 23 degrees Celsius (73 degrees Fahrenheit) in August.

This is a selective list of diving centres along the provençal coast. Only accredited centres with English-language websites are listed.

Saint Raphaël: Diamond Diving (Diamond also has centres at Sainte Maximin and La Londe, as well as Nice and Antibes on the Côte d'Azur).

Cavalaire sur Mer: Eau Bleue

Marseille: Aquadomia. Introductory scuba diving and snorkelling courses open to all, including children over the age of eight, can be booked through the Marseille Tourist Office during the summer.

La Vesse: Au Delà Plongée

Find further reading on Amazon:

The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau.

 

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