Ustica Black Pearl of Mediterranean Sea

One warm October afternoon invites us to climb one of the peaks of the island of Ustica for a walking photographic excursion. Once at the top, on what is called the Falconiera, we overlook the Punta Omo Morto lighthouse, our look enraptured by the flight of a hunting bird of prey.
The mind flies into the island’s ancient past, when one day, about a million years ago, a volcanic submarine mountain began to form in the southern Tyrrhenian Sea. Slowly the volcanic building gained space towards the surface of the sea, until it came out with a series of craters in full swing. The slow eruptive process led to the formation of a small island, a veritable peak emerging from a large submerged mountain, over 2000 meters high, with its base in the depths of the sea, on the hidden surface of the earth’s crust.

Modeled by marine invasions and atmospheric agents, the island took over time the current appearance, with its terraces flattened by the sea and what remains of ancient craters. Of all the volcanic structures of the lower Tyrrhenian, Ustica is the only volcano above sea level born from magma ascending directly from the earth’s mantle, connected to the opening of a whole series of deep crustal fractures in the abysses of the “Mare Nostrum”. A peculiar island, still under study today, undoubtedly interesting for its unusual geological origins. Today the island shows two different elevations: the Falconiera hill and the Guardia dei Turchi Mount. A third elevation (today called Banco Apollo), probably a volcanic cone adjacent to the island itself, is underwater and has its peak between 42 and 60 meters deep.

In the Archaic age, it might have even been partially emerged, but we cannot know for sure. The last Ustica’s volcanic activity took place more or less one hundred and thirty thousand years ago, giving rise to the elevation of the Falconiera, where we are now. The spectacle of the landscapes below us cannot but remind us of the geological evolution of this wonderful “scorched earth” (in Latin Ustum). A land that, by diving in the Tyrrhenian Sea, creates unique environments and ecosystems in the Mediterranean, a veritable paradise of marine biodiversity. There are many dives to do in these waters. To give you an idea of the variety of environments and marine fauna, we will try to describe some of the most beautiful among them. Let’s start our journey underwater diving into a place known as “Sutta a Za Lisa”, where the rock wall continues underwater with its almost vertical slope, up to rest on the sandy bottom around 18m deep.

A very shallow and cracked seabed offers us a pleasant underwater path, to follow with the wall to our right on the outward journey and to the left backwards, at different depths. Despite the modest depth, not exceeding 30m in the most challenging point, we will be struck by the colors and the very varied morphology of the seabed, where the protagonists are the hard corals, the sea fans and different types of encrusting sponges. Here we will encounter groups of two-banded sea breams and some amberjacks, surrounded by clouds of damselfish, while at the bottom, with a little attention, we could find several species of small nudibranchs. On the way back, at lower depths, we find some horizontal cuts in the rock, one of which is very large and accessible by several divers at the same time. Then we get gradually to the decompression depth, surrounded by the dim light and the orange of the hard corals! Another interesting wall, in the inshore, is the one facing Punta dell’Arpa, so-called for the shape similar to that of the musical instrument. An almost vertical rocky slope reaches in fact the sandy bottom at around 30/35m deep. The volcanic rock landslide formed after numerous collapses born from the overlying emerged slope, and today a multitude of marine invertebrates densely colonize it, dominated by the most beautiful red sea fans of the entire island, belonging to the Paramuricea clavata species. These cover, particularly, two pinnacles detached from the coast, on the sand right in front of the wall, at around 36m deep.

The top of these bastions reaches 18m of depth, which makes the idea of the impressiveness of these beautiful rocks. The rest of the landscape, very varied, alternates with the Posidonia prairie and different types of bryozoans (especially sea roses) and calcareous algae colonize it, in a blaze of colors and life. However, we may appreciate the beauty of Ustica especially when we move away a little from the inshore walls, to adventure us towards the shoals. Among these, the Secchitello is the undisputed symbol.

From a detrital/sandy bottom stretched on the 40-60 m bathymetric, rise a series of rocky pinnacles of massive proportions, both in width and height, grouped together with each other to form a single shoal. Considered the most challenging dive of the whole island, due to the descent in the blue and the depth, the Secchitello offers peaks with different morphology and extends abundantly in width towards the bottom. Sometimes it is possible to seeing the fusion, at the base, of the various neighbors peaks, which create scenarios of rare beauty with vertical walls colonized by different sorts of life.

On this seabed, the benthic life prevails, although in summer the mucilaginous algae sometimes hide its charm, covering rocks and the coralligenous. A multitude of brown and red algae populates the rock at the top of the pinnacles, with a seasonal presence of Sargassum. Going down, this substrate leave place to red gorgonians (Paramuricea clavata), yellow gorgonians (Eunicella cavolinii) and several ramifications of false black coral (Savalia savaglia).

In a pelagic environment that is in open water, the show is incomparable: schools of barracudas and golden groupers, as well as large amberjacks, are a practically constant presence, performing large fish carousels unique in the Mediterranean. Occasionally, we also see good-sized snappers, fairly confident, while almost ignore the banded sea basses and dreamfishes, having too many things to observe. Needless to say, black and pink damselfish make the atmosphere even richer close to the rocks, with their dense swarms moving in unison.

Paying attention to the microcosm, among the sea fans, there are many more small fishes and large red scorpion fishes well hidden. Soft corals (Alcyonium acaule) are then a treat difficult to detect, such as the beautiful basket star Astrospartus mediterraneus, a brittle star of extraordinary beauty. Another important Ustica’s shoal is the Colombara, with a broad hat, like a terrace, presenting a whole series of interesting sides allowing you to set several dives, depending on level.

Together with the Secchitello, it represents the top of Ustica diving, an incredible place to fully experience, with clear waters and lots of fish.
The classic dive starts from the hat of the shoal, located only three meters deep, where an incredible variety of green and brown algae cover the lava rock: the seascape as soon as you enter the water is gorgeous, with a charm enriched by water clarity and the blue and green hues contrasting with the black of the damselfishes clouds.

From the hat, with little effort, we move towards the edge, where on one side we find vertical walls and on the other a landslide of large boulders with some walls, depending on the points, all sloping down towards a depth of about 25/30 meters. A large plateau, 30 meters deep, at the base of the vertical walls, is then dotted with scattered rocks of different sizes, colored by beautiful sponges.

The diver will be immediately struck by the constant presence of schools of fish: barracudas first of all, but also snappers, amberjacks, black seabreams and large sharpsnout seabreams. Needless to say, you’ll see groupers everywhere, mostly brown, but there’s no lack even of the usual red grouper.

Damselfishes, bogues and saddled seabreams, complete a particularly rich picture, wholly to experience. Since some years, the Colombara has also been offering another interesting dive. In fact, at a precise point of the shoal, the wreck of a ship remained stuck on 21 February 2005. The wreck of the motor-ship ITA, flying a Panamanian flag, is scattered on the cliff in several pieces and creates habitats for fishes and numerous species of invertebrates. However, this volcanic island’s dives offer not only walls and shoals.

The lava rock has created numerous caves, submerged and half-submerged, one more beautiful than the other. Among the submerged caves, the primacy in beauty belongs to the Shrimps’ Cave, easily reachable by following the lava rock landslide and its protruding towards the facing sandy bottom, with a wide and easy entrance and a vault, in half-light, very colorful. As soon as we enter the actual cave, we skirt it keeping the wall to our left, following an ideal path accompanied by the blue light of the entrance, which will allow us to peek into that dark world where swarms of red shrimps (Plesionika narval) move frantically, disturbed by the light of our flashlights. It is not uncommon to see some forkbeard and, more rarely, some conger eel.

The path to follow involves a passage from the larger room to a narrower and elongated ambience, which goes back to lower depths, to the exit at 28 meters.
During this cave ascent, we will have the opportunity to make other encounters: small fishes and invertebrates nestled into the cracks. At the exit, we will be facing a fall of boulders well populated by groupers, goldlines and sea breams of fair sizes. With the landslide of rocks to our right, we will start the journey back, ending with the decompression stop at the edge of the Posidonia prairie.

Among the semi-submerged caves, there is the Cowries Cave, which has its entrance underwater at about 18 meters deep, from where it gradually rises to reach its emerged part: a huge air chamber where you can stop and watch the unknown side of the cave.

This environment, hidden in absolute darkness, is only visible to divers armed with flashlights: with the changing colors of lava and the drawings created on the reddish stone by the roots of the plants above, the show is definitely worth living over and over again.

The dive is easy, even if the cavity has particularly dark stretches and you must ensure having a good control of the buoyancy during the underwater itinerary, to avoid lifting any suspension.
The very large environment does not create problems even for the less experienced: access is comfortably feasible, considering the blue of the entrance light accompanying us almost until we’ll go up to the surface, in the innermost part of the cave. Finally we arrive, along a stretch in shallow water, to a small lava beach through a path in the dark that, favored by the flashlights of a small group of divers, will become a color show.

We should travel through everything backwards, seeing again the penetrating blue atmosphere from the large entrance, towards which we will head for going out and finish our dive. Just 5 minutes by boat from the island’s port, right after the Blue Grotto, opens the Pastizza Cave. The dive is easy and feasible also at night, given the many surprises. Everything without ever exceeding 20 meters deep. Entering the cave, at about 10/12 meters deep, we find a whole series of interconnecting corridors, with two rooms emerging above sea level.

In one of the emerging rooms, we can admire the statue of the island’s patron saint: San Bartolicchio.

The blades of light inside the rooms are very suggestive and the path is not to be considered complicated. In the bay in front of the cave, on the plateau, lies one pierced sea-stack, crossable and fun to observe.

During night dives, encounters multiply and between rock and Posidonia we might meet many small fishes, cuttlefishes and the beautiful nocturnal anemone Alicia mirabilis!

There is much more to say about other interesting diving spots, but let me conclude for now by mentioning the rock symbol of the island of Ustica, where underwater itineraries are never-ending.

Not far from the integral reserve area, this rock emerges a few hundred meters from the coast. Called “Scoglio del Medico” (Doctor’s Rock), dialectal adaptation of “Scoglio Omerico” (Homeric Rock), it emerges a few meters above water surface and jumps into the sea slowly sinking on the different sides in a changing way, offering several ideas for a series of ever interesting dives, characterized almost all times by clear waters.

The richness of the coralligenous contributes then, together with the geomorphological variety and the many possible paths, to make this dive point one of the most interesting of the entire island. The crown jewels of this seabed are the barracudas carousels and the large size amberjacks.
A unique show, virtually guaranteed. Groupers of all sizes abound, with greater presence of brown and red groupers, as well as some beautiful specimens of golden grouper. There are also schools of goldlines, bogues and banded sea breams in a riot of species offering all the real taste of a Mediterranean dive.
The Doctor’s Rock offers us a classic external path, towards the submerged rock stack, good to observe fishes; an external path called “The Arches”, between 30 and 45 meters, more challenging, with less fish but very suggestive scenarios between arches of rock and passing-through tunnels.

Then there are some cave paths, under the rock, where a tight alley cuts in two the rock itself starting from a very large cavity known as “The Whale”. Here you can make some timid penetration in total tranquility up to 26 meters, amid walls decorated with sponges and hard corals.
One side of the cliff then presents, in its descent across imposing rocks towards the depth, several vertical cracks, some of these accessible and one in particular, known as “The Canyon”, with light play going down up to 30 meters deep.
At this point, after so many nice words, we can only try to dive into the heart of the Mediterranean, where the scorched island is waiting for us to make us fall in love with its sea!

WORDS and PICTURES by Francesco Turano

Blue Diving Ustica

Blue Diving Ustica was born after years of experience in the field of recreational and technical diving in the Mediterranean.
Today it is a PADI Diving Center and Training Facility PSAI, and is located in the center of the small village of Ustica. At our premises, you will find everything you need to spend your diving holiday in the best way! Customized packages, complete with stay and diving, will satisfy all needs with maximum flexibility. The center has an equipment stock consisting of two large dinghies for 40 complete scuba gears. For technical divers, we offer the double-scuba-tank rental, and a dedicated blends refill service. We organize all our outings at sea by dividing the dives according to the divers’’level of experience. For non-divers, the Center organizes guided snorkeling and “baptisms of the sea”, the first underwater experience. The Center also offers courses in underwater photography and marine biology, in collaboration with Francesco Turano, curator of photographs and maps of the Center’s seabed (also on social networks)!

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