Diving into Albania was an adventure unlike anything I’d ever imagined. Few other places in the world can lay claim to vast unexplored water off its coastline. Maybe it’s the murkier than average water or the country’s troubled history. Whatever the case, the Ionian sea off Albania’s coast can make an underwater explorer out of any seasoned diver.
The 28,748 square kilometre country of Albania is located in the Balkan region of Europe, just above Greece. Made up of mostly mountainous terrain dipping down to the blue waters of the Mediterranean sea, Albania’s unique nature and picture perfect landscapes are slowly making it a sought out tourist destination.
Compared to the western region of Europe, Albania itself is a pretty underdeveloped place. Thanks to the bout of communism strain that lasted up until 1991, Albania is a country that is still trying to rebuild from the dark years of civil unrest.
What does this mean as a tourist? Don’t fret too much if you are traveling to Albania, the biggest things that we noticed were the terrible road conditions and old abandoned buildings. On top of the rundown infrastructure, drinking bottled water was an absolute must.
Given the rebuilding state of the country, so much money and resources have been dedicated to raising the quality of life above the water, that exploring the countries coastline has taken a back seat.
To this day the government is still attempting to charter the Ionian coastline, mapping out new and undiscovered treasures on the seabed. Wrecks, planes, mines, your guess is as good as mine as to what is still beneath the waves.
Given the colourful history of Albania and the regions recent violent past, Joey and I were sure we would find a couple of compelling dive sites in the Ionian sea with the crew at Spiranca Dive Centre in Sarandë.
Of the many undiscovered shipwrecks that you can be sure are found off Albania’s coast, there are two well-known dive sites located an easy surface swim from shore:
Nothing says welcome to Albania like exploring a World War II shipwreck on our very first dive.
Along the sandy bottom of the Bay of Sarandë, less than 300 meters (984 feet) from the shore, lies the remains of an old World War II Italian cargo ship.
The SS Probitas is roughly 115 meters (377 feet) in length and rests on its port side along the seabed. At its shallowest point, the vessel is in a mere 3 meters (10 feet) of water tapering down to a maximum depth of 18 meters (59 feet).
Interesting Fact: It is hypothesized that the SS Probitas cargo ship was sunk by a German Bomber returning to its home country after an attack on the Balkans back in 1944. As proof, if you inspect the side of the ships while diving, you are still able to see what is thought to be traces of the bombs.
The shallow region of the boat was marked with a surface buoy keeping boat traffic away from the dive site and also enabling us to take a compass reading before starting the dive.
As I waded into the Ionian sea, I felt a jolt through my body as the cold water seeped into my wetsuit. In spite of the warm and arid weather we had been having in Albania, the sea still needed some time to warm up.
We wasted little time at the surface before dunking down into the silty water of the Bay of Sarandë. Following our divemaster, Joey and I finned through the warm upper layer of the water column, which carried a substantial residue of sand and mud from the previous days of rain. Because of the turbidity and low visibility, we made sure to stick close to one another’s heels.
When we hit the 3-meter (10 foot) mark and had distanced ourselves enough from the shoreline, some of the turbidity cleared, not too extraordinary levels, but enough that we could see into the distance ahead of us. The mud and sand on the bottom seemed to spill for miles. Poking around the mucky bottom I spotted the occasional crab and fish hurrying along the benthos, but on the whole, Sarandë appeared to be a pretty lifeless area.
Staying at a relatively shallow depth, we swam until the ship came into view. I knew the boat was going to be big but had not quite fathomed how enormous it would be until we swam up to its beastly silhouette. My mind was blown away by all 115 meters (377 feet) of this bad boy!
Given the monstrosity of the boat and the bottom time we would have with our tanks, the dive was a rushed one. There was so much ground to cover to see every inch of the SS Probitas. I was constantly taking pictures on the fly.
Ideally, a ship like this would be done in two to three separate dives, giving divers a chance to see and enjoy the different sections of this large cargo vessel.
We ended the dive checking out the ships still perfectly intact propeller that had sponges and algal growth aplenty on the corroded metal surface.
As we left the wreck behind and swam towards the shallows, our dive guide began gathering discarded garbage that had been carelessly dumped into the bay without a second thought. Following his lead we started doing the same; a plastic lawn chair here, and a rusty tin can there. Before we knew it, our collecting turned into a mini Bay of Sarandë cleanup, each of us grabbing as much trash as our hands and fins could carry. Good karma is always a good way to end a dive!
The Peshkatarit fishing cutter is now a shipwreck at the bottom of Sarandë thanks to a collision with a ferry boat back in the 70’s.
In our pre-dive briefing, we learned that overall the fishing vessel is 60 meters (196 feet) long and draped with curtains of hanging nets and colorful markers. The boat sits in 30 meters (98 feet) of water with a rear mast that rises from the bottom to as shallow as 23 meters (75 meters). The main word of caution was to watch out for the excessive nets and ropes to avoid getting entangled.
After the very sparse amount of sea life on our first dive, I was curious about what to expect of the Peshkatarit, which we dove a week later.
Our dive started with a short, but sweet surface swim to the fishing vessels final resting place. Together with Joey and the divemaster, we slowly ascended to the stern of the ship. Just like on our previous dive, as we dropped past 3 meters (10 feet), the turbid visibility dramatically improved. As we descended, the murky and shapeless shadow of a fishing boat took form at 15 meters (49 feet).
My first thoughts with regards to this dive site revolved around how cruddy visibility was, yet again. As bad as the visibility was, it did somewhat set the mood for this eerie ghost ship strangled in fishing nets. I couldn’t help but get the creepy crawlies as the bow of the vessel drifted into view in these strange and unknown waters.
We leveled off our descent at 26 meters (85 feet). Swimming from the bow towards the stern, we passed curtains of hanging nets, being careful not to brush up against them. The overgrown nets made the wreck look so alive as it provided places for plant and sponge life to flourish and grow.
The Peshkatarit was decently sized wreck intent on putting on a show. On this dive, the creatures were significantly more bountiful, and the algal growth displayed much more color. Joey and I appreciated that knowing our experience level, the guide hung back and let us do our own thing.
I loved watching the gobies, nudibranchs, and scorpionfish scurrying along the ship’s hull and poking out of every little hole I could find. I was also mesmerized by the pulsing movements of the centipede-like fireworms that seemed to be everywhere on this strip of coastline.
Interesting Fact: While not considered dangerous or a threat to humans, fireworms do have bristles that, when flared can penetrate the skin causing stinging, irritation and a burning sensation in the area of contact.
Eventually, we decided to call it a dive but not before running into an octopus and two flying fish resting on the bottom. What a lucky day! I ended the dive giddy with excitement.
Scuba diving in Albania may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it is neat to know that there is still so much unknown just waiting to be found! If you’re a prospective diver thinking of dipping into Albanian waters, be prepared for the cold and unexpected because you never know what you will cross paths within this neck of the Ionian sea.
Cost: The price for scuba diving in Sarandë, Albania can be variable depending on the time of year. Overall budget around 40.00€ per shore dive with equipment, however, don’t hesitate to speak with the dive shop and try to bargain yourself a deal if you plan on doing multiple dives.
Seasonality: As with any dive location, if you have your heart set on diving, you can take a swim in this location all year round, however, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the best times to dive in Albania are in the summer months. For optimal diving, plan your trip to Albania between May to October when the temperature is high, and the chances of rain are low (with July, August, September, and October being the warmest).
Restrictions: When it comes to diving in Albania, there is not too much red tape to maneuver around. The diving regulations are pretty lax to the point that Joey and I didn’t even need to show our dive certification to rent equipment and take the plunge. Because of this lower standard of scuba diving, anyone planning to explore this region should make sure they are competent and self-sufficient divers.
Companies: Scuba diving in Albania is still an up and coming sport. Make sure to plan your diving with a reliable company that places your safety first. Check all your equipment before the boat leaves the harbor to make sure it meets your standards!
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