Jacques-Yves Cousteau would probably have been surprised to learn that the wreck of the First World War Britannic (the sister ship of the mythical Titanic) which he discovered in 1975 southwest of Kea would be classified as an underwater historic site near 50 years later, becoming one of the few marine parks of its type in the world.
The Britannic, however, is not the only wreck to have achieved this status, as Greek authorities have also declared the luxury liner Burdigala and the Greek paddle steamer Patris Underwater Historic Sites, which also lie off the coast of the coasts of the same Cycladic island. . This is a development that should have multiple benefits for Greek tourism, but also for the island of Kea in particular.
According to Yiannis Tzavelakos, municipal councilor of Kea in charge of diving tourism, a fourth wreck should be added soon, that of the German plane Junkers Ju 52.
Tzavelakos is the owner of the Keadivers Center and was the catalyst for the project, achieving the far from easy goal of mobilizing and obtaining the cooperation of the Ministries of Culture, Tourism and Navigation, as well as the support of highest levels of the Greek government. , but also of the municipal authority and a host of other authorities that had to be brought together for the creation of this historic underwater park.
“The new marine park places three protection zones around historic monuments, prohibiting all forms of fishing,” Tzavelakos noted, adding that “the island is finally getting marine protected areas. We estimate that in three to five years, the [fish] stocks will increase dramatically to unbelievable levels for the Mediterranean.
Thanks to the new regulatory framework, visitors from all over the world with a valid diving certificate will be able to explore the wrecks, all three of which are internationally renowned and a major attraction for history buffs and experienced divers alike. Prior to the introduction of the new legislation, anyone wishing to dive on wrecks had to go through a long and complicated process of obtaining a special licence. And not only was it expensive, but it also came with restrictions. This is no longer the case, as under the new rules anyone with certification to dive at the sites can do so on organized tours conducted by dive centers approved for this purpose by the Department of the Navy. The ministry has also undertaken the task of protecting and guarding these sites, its head, Yiannis Plakiotakis, told Kathimerini when contacted about it.
“Recreational diving is an activity that attracts the interest of a growing number of people around the world and diving tourism is constantly increasing”
The framework for promoting diving tourism in Greece was first established in May 2020. For Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni, the creation of underwater archaeological sites and shipwrecks-monuments is a separate and important chapter while their contribution to the sustainable development of coastal and island areas can prove significant.
“Recreational diving is an activity that attracts the interest of a growing number of people around the world and diving tourism is experiencing a constant upward trend. In addition, the turnover of the European diving industry is now in the billions of euros,” she added.
“The creation of underwater archaeological sites was a bold undertaking for the ministry and a challenge with very specific requirements and conditions, which are dictated by three necessities: public safety, preservation of the natural environment and protection of cultural heritage. . Each marine area must first be well documented and marked in order to reduce as much as possible the risk of accident, the possibility of damage to the monument or the possibility of illegal archaeological activities,” Mendoni stressed.
Diving tourism has the potential to become an important source of strength for Greek tourism.
“Through the opening of historic wrecks and provided that the rest of the historic wrecks on the list of 91 sites that have been submitted are approved, we seek to attract tens of thousands of divers from around the world,” says Tzavelakos.
It is also a competitive product in themed tourism which will give Greece a decisive advantage.
“We supported the request of the municipal authority from the start by removing the obstacles and speeding up the relevant procedures – which had been stagnating for decades – so that the wrecks of Kea could make the island a point of reference for tourism. of world diving”, declared the Minister of Tourism Vassilis Kikilias. said Kathimerini.
“We are committed, after all, to transforming Greece into a paradigm of sustainable development and at the Ministry of Tourism we have made progress in implementing this strategy, in cooperation with local government authorities and relevant agencies,” said Kikilias.
“Kea is one of the best diving destinations in our country, combining, in a very particular way, the interest in historical research and a rich underwater life”, added the Minister.
He also promised that money from the Recovery Fund would be used to finance the infrastructure needed to boost other alternative forms of tourism – including diving – in order to “showcase the particular characteristics and cultural heritage of each region. “.
A product of vision, hard work and commitment
Kea Dive Park was an ambitious undertaking that took hard work and vision, but also required a lot of people to do a lot of exploring in uncharted waters over the decades, Yiannis Tzavelakos pointed out. The first of these was Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his crew on the legendary Kalypso, who discovered HMHS Britannic – which was operating as a hospital ship when it sank following a mine explosion in 1916 – lying at a depth of 118 meters.
“In the years that followed, several diving missions were carried out during which important documentary evidence on the wreck was collected, books were written and documentary films were made. All with the support and supervision of the Ephoria of Underwater Antiquities,” the Kea Councilman explained.
In 2008, a team consisting of Giorgos Papatheodorou, Vyronas Riginos, Areti Kominou, Dimitris Galon, Lazaros Galonis and Nikos Karatzas carried out a diving mission to an unidentified wreck outside the port of Korissia and were able to collect evidence proving that she was the SS Burdigala, which sank after hitting a German mine, also in 1916. They were also able to spot the silhouette of an airplane near the wreckage of the liner, at a depth of 64 meters. This turned out to be the German transport ship Junkers 52 number 6590, which sank during World War II.
Another milestone was a major international conference held in Kea in 2016 to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Britannic and the Burdigala and which laid the foundations for the creation of the island’s underwater historic site.
“It’s six years later and we have managed to achieve this vision, to do something quite special, with transparency and without spending money from the municipality, the regional authority or the public coffers. A lot of people have been working diligently, making a really huge effort towards that end,” Tzavelakos said.
“We want to trust that the park will be properly guarded and adequately monitored when and if necessary, as it is a valuable asset to the island and aspires to become a significant attraction,” he added.