The Black Sea may not be on every diver’s wishlist, but its unpredictable waters host some of the planet’s most resilient creatures, and some hauntingly beautiful seascapes.Without actually having visited the place, a lot of divers think of the Black Sea as a rather unwelcoming place. In fact, this prejudice goes back a long way – when the ancient Greeks first visited, they dubbed it ‘Pontos Axeinos’, or ‘inhospitable sea’. Admittedly it’s not in any way tropical, the northern sections may get just a bit iced-over in winter, visibility is highly variable, and bio-diversity is a quarter that of the Mediterranean… so, yes, the picture may appear to be gloomy, but bear with me.
The Black Sea gives up its secrets reluctantly, yet a thorough underwater exploration of this area yields some classic dives, especially in the Crimea region. The shore here is made up of limestone, which over time has been pocked with grottoes and tunnels. These caves act as a natural snare for drifting creatures such as the Medusa jellyfish, which can be found in ghostly aggregations.
A large shrimp moves into focus
Trapped in the caves by currents, the jellyfish, which do not have eyes, strike against each other and everything in the immediate area. The clogged nature of the aggregation causes the jellyfish to impede their own attempts to swim into open water. Inevitably, most will die, becoming a food source for the remaining creatures.
However, for other creatures, the caves are a home rather than a snare. In fact, a great many Black Sea inhabitants prefer not be seen at all, and nature hides them either by miniaturisation, camouflage or the threat of venom. Others take the most direct route to protection and simply bury themselves in the sand.
The best time for critter spotting is in summer, when many creatures spawn and the sea takes on a new vitality – fins, claws, and multi-coloured bodies are all on display. When the courting period finishes, the animals become parents and will approach underwater photographers up close in order to defend their broods.
Cape Tarhankut is the western point of the Crimean peninsula; it rose from the sea just 500,000 years ago, a relatively short time in geological history. The Black Sea is, of course, connected with the Mediterranean via the Bosporus – a lot of large rivers fall into the sea, and as a result, salinity is low, the sea is prone to icing and its inhabitants have to cope with differing oxygen and light levels.
Tarhankut attracts many divers from all over the former USSR. At first sight, the place appears lifeless, with only stones and sea on view. The shoreline is cut with small bays, many of which can only be reached by swimming there. However, for those who make the effort, there are many tunnels, grottoes and caves under water.
From left to right:  large aggregations of Medusa jellyfish can be seen in limestone caves in the Black Sea;  a tentacled bleeny seeks refuge in a discarded drink can  a bottlenose dolphin poses for a photocall
The low salinity means that life can be hard to find in the Black Sea. It is easiest to approach certain creatures at mating time, when the males try to attract females with their bright colours. Notable among these are the two-spotted clingfish (Deplecogaster bimaculatus), the hermit crab (Clibanarius erythropus), the tentacled blenny (Blennius tentacularis) and the broad-nosed pipefish (Syngnathus typhle). Other reef denizens prefer the cover of camouflage or mimicry, notably the Black Sea turbot (Scophthalmus maeoticus) and the isopod (Idotea baltica). Some bury themselves in the water for their own safety, or to wait motionless until an opportunity for ambush presents itself. One such lunge predator is the stargazer (Uranoscopus scaber). Some critters use their own armour, for instance the Mediterranean shore crab (Carcinus mediterraneus), while others, such as the south-claw hermit crab (Diogenes pugilator), take on discarded shells.
To make the most of diving in the Black Sea, you must study the marine species and learn at which depth they can be found, for the strata of the sea and its salinity is a major factor, dictating which animals occupy certain depths. Also, you need to do a spot of field research, investigating the sand bottom or the bushes of algae, and make sure you look into crevices, where slight movements will give away the presence of inhabitants. At first, it can be frustrating, but take time and you will be rewarded with an insight into the highly adapted animals that make this sea their home.
THE ENIGMATIC SHORE
The Black Sea has been studied indepth because of its strategic importance and the complexity of its water strata. The deepest point of the sea is 2,245m and the average depth is 1,271m. The Black Sea basin has sustained many metamorphoses over the millennia, and it is thought that the region was subject to a massive flood about 7,000 years ago. According to the theory, the Mediterranean swelled and a colossal jet of water was funnelled through the narrow Bosporus, the water eventually hitting the Black Sea with 200 times the power of Niagara Falls.
The oceanographer Bob Ballard carried out an expedition using remotely operated vehicles to scan the sea bed, and found what he called a ‘submerged shoreline’ with signs of habitation alongside it, at a depth of 300m. His hypothesis is that the Black Sea started life as a freshwater lake, then salt water from the Med settled on top and the former lake water became an anoxic soup that could not support life.
Left: A clingfish occupies a shell; [Top right] a scorpionfish takes a bite;  a greater weever camouflages itself on the sea bed
NEED TO KNOW
Accessing the dive sites of the Crimean Black Sea is a convoluted affair. British Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Kiev once daily (£140 one-way from www.ba.com), while indirect flights from other UK airports are available with BA and other carriers. All flights arrive at Boryspil International Airport, from where you can transfer to a connecting internal flight to Simferopol, capital of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. From here, the town of Olenevka on Cape Tarhankut, where diving is available, is between two and three hours’ drive away.
Accomodation is available at Smerekova a hut hotel and diving at Tarhankuta diving centre. For more information see www.ex.co.ua, the website is currently in Ukrainian but will be available in English win the New Year.