Capo Milazzo In the sea of Polyphemus

Portella's rock (Artichoke)

Portella’s rock (Artichoke)

I travelled the Sicily far and wide, including several islands, the Aeolian, Egadi, Pelagie, Pantelleria and Ustica, finding an always different and interesting sea. Along these coastlines, in my wanderings, a place I missed, never considering it of being a seabed that important and rich in life such as I got to find out: my attention had never fallen on the sea of Capo Milazzo. Very different from others and from the one of neighboring and far better known of Aeolian Islands. After thirty years of exciting photographic and naturalistic research in the Mediterranean, I remained involved and pleasantly surprised by the charm of this balcony on the Tyrrhenian Sea. I never thought to find similar landscapes and, above all, such and so many underwater wonders. The first impact was with the emerged landscape. Walking on foot on the ridge of the peninsula, I found myself surprisingly surrounded on two sides by the blue sea: the protrusion of a strip of land toward the Aeolian archipelago splits the Tyrrhenian Sea into two. Since ancient times men chose the promontory of Capo Milazzo for its worthy position, as the story and the presence of the largest castle in Europe tell. However, nature is the real star, with a limestone ground changing shapes, beautiful in every detail. With a short walk, I reach the building of the lighthouse, on the Cape, overlooking the Western Shoal (Secca di Ponente), about half a mile offshore. At sunset, under the white light of the lighthouse, I get lost with the look to the horizon burned by the hot colors of the sky, where the dark shapes of Vulcano, Lipari and the other islands stand out. I think about what I will find diving in this Mediterranean still little known and unknown to me, but candidate to protection because of its high biodiversity. Polyphemus, whose cave is located between these craggy coasts, must have thrown giant stones toward the legendary Odysseus’ ship on the run, not knowing that his act would have triggered a mechanism of landslides that created various and jagged landscapes at the bottom of the sea. After the last houses of Milazzo City, going north, the coast changes its appearance. In coincidence with Punta Rugno the sea bottom, from shallow and sedimentary, raises with its first significant rocks. There, a landslide of rocks marks the beginning of a rugged and wild coastline. I follow the road that runs along the perimeter of the Cape, often stopping for looking out to watch the sea. Right away, someone told me that there are two major shoals in the sea of Capo Milazzo. We dive together with Blunauta Diving to understand the state of conservation of sites, learn more about the morphology of the seabed and get ideas for drawing the profiles of the rocks most important for touristic purposes, with the focus on the main biological and ecological characteristics. We begin with the Western Shoal (Secca di Ponente).

The promontory of Capo Milazzo

The promontory of Capo Milazzo

We drop anchor at ten meters depth, the average depth of the top of this shoal, which runs in length parallel to the coast for about three hundred meters. It is a rocky fortress oval-shaped, whose perimeter consists of vertical walls between twenty and twenty-five meters. I could describe it as a flattened truncated cone, with peripheral detachments of rocks around going down up to about fifty meters of depth to meet the sand. It is worth to observe this submerged island, which is less than a mile from the coast with calm and commitment. This is why we try to study it, plunging first in places already exploited by the diving center itself for diving. The top of the shoal, a sort of terrace particularly broad in its width, has a rocky bottom quite varied and full of ravines. The green of the algae alternates with the orange of bryozoans and cup corals, guaranteeing to the substrate great vitality. Near the bottom, we find many sedentary fishes: combers, painted combers, scorpion fishes, moray eels, and wrasses. Just above, schools of barracuda and salema, along with many white breams and black seabreams, swim without too many discretion. The carousel of black damselfishes frames everything. Within a few meters from the anchor point is a spectacle, but we head straight to the edge of the vast shoal and look out into the blue, where the walls fall. We let ourselves go towards the depth, while remaining high on the bottom and observing the transition environments that follow one another going towards the shoal’s depth. The passage from the cliff covered by white gorgonians (Eunicella singularis) towards the one with red gorgonians (Paramuricea clavata) is gradual and offers rocks with the two species of gorgonians together, very beautiful for the color combination of white and red, but also particularly frequented by fishes. Soon we reach thirty meters deep and find right in front the dark shape of majestic rock agglomerates. Three are the most important, from west to east and each one deserves a single dive. The first one is the so-called “big bow” due to the presence of a pass-through cave that leads us to at a depth of forty meters, densely populated by red gorgonians: a kind of gateway to the open sea. Even the second block, called “small bow”, has a pass-through cave. Lastly, the third dive site is a proper rock mountain, with only one side, the one exposed to currents, sprinkled with encrusting invertebrates and red gorgonians very large. Three dives, one more beautiful than the other. Three colorful underwater sites rich in fish, with attractive passages of pelagic fishes and the ubiquitous big snappers and savvy goldblotch groupers (Epinephelus costae). And there’s more. The eastern side of the shoal also has vertical walls, falling immediately upon stacks of large rocks around thirty meters deep, offering breathtaking spectacles due to the very high concentration of sea fans, sponges and bryozoans. Among other things, the sandy areas between a rock and another, show the presence of large noble pen shells (Pinna nobilis) with their valves colonized in an unusual way by sea fans, sponges and bryozoans together. The shaded areas of the larger stones have spectacular colors, with blue and orange colorcasts offered by sponges. It is not difficult to find large branches of false black coral (Savalia savaglia) and wonderful basket stars (Astrospartus mediterraneus), the flagship of this side of the shoal. The seabed excites and invites constantly to searching for new species, for how much it is rich and attractive. You feel like making new dives, one after another, to find out more and more. The western shoal is not the only interesting thing: inshore, the spectacle and the explosion of Mediterranean biodiversity continue. At the peak of the promontory, right in front of the rock of Portella, there is the so-called “artichoke”, as nicknamed by the local tradition. This seabed, typified by great rock cathedrals, falls quickly to the deep blue and is the ideal place for diving at every level: from the less deep path at around 20-25 m, where the orange of the cup corals (Astroides calycularis) dominates everything and where myriads of small animals invite to observe the microcosm, to the medium difficulty path, where rocks covered by sea fans and sponges host a reasonable movement of fish, up to the deepest Monk’s rock, a huge bastion rising from 55 m towards the surface up to 20 m, which is the realm of deep reds and chock full of gorgonians that seem to create real submerged “forests”. Scouting meticulously between the fans of these coelenterates, we understand the gorgonian’s color variations among the same species (Paramuricea clavata), changing from two shades of red to pink salmon and even to an intense yellow. There is no lack of yellowish branches that should probably belong to a similar species, the Skerki’s gorgonian.
A galaxy of color and life, surrounded by the silence of the deep and by the malicious game of the currents, to be reckoned with sometimes because of their momentum. Do not omit to scour even the other shoal, the eastern one, less colored but rich in life too.
This is the realm of vast sea grass meadows, narrow ravines populated by forkbeards, groupers, moray eels and large octopuses, piling pebbles on their dens’ front doors. At the peak of the shoal, westbound, one of the largest rock formations rests abnormally on the rest of the cliff, creating a dead-end cave with very high walls and lots of light leaks from the sides. We are about 35 m deep. Scouting the cave is simple and sometimes a big conger awaits us in the dark, among swarms of red shrimps.
It is not easy to get to deeply understand this sea. It requires the proper care, diving several times in the same places for understanding the differences through every seasons and different times of the day. We started a search path valid either as protection of the sea or as an offer to more sensitive divers and lovers of true Mediterranean. The continuous discoveries, still in progress, made us understand how much these waters are important and still alive, despite the signs of depletion mainly related to overfishing. The proposal of realizing a Marine Protected Area, by now of forthcoming creation, gives us hope. We want to believe to a possible future. We want to think of a Sicily that learns to know the sea, preserve it, becoming a destination for a healthy diving tourism, never overwhelming and always in balance with the delicate coastal habitats of this dear old Mediterranean!

WORDS and PICTURES by Francesco Turano

Reef and sponge

On the left Reef with red gorgonians (Paramuricea clavata) and Swallowtail seaperch (Anthias anthias)
On the right Two large nobles pen shells densely colonized by coelenterates, bryozoans and sponges

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