The warm onshore breeze carried the tops of Adriatic waves up the brilliant white cliff to the crumbling castle perched atop. Far below I stand alone in a sheltered cut in the rocks, bathed in early afternoon sunlight, watching the Dalmatian water gently lap against the shore. Warm, gin clear and inviting, it’s an idyllic and innocent looking scene, but I knew it harboured a dark and dangerous secret. Submerged to my ankles I try to visualise a route to the safety of deeper water, nervous sweat drips steadily off my nose. I know that one false move and it’s all over. I’m totally surrounded by an array of black anemone needles promising pain, suffering and a ruined holiday. I suppress memories of previous encounters with these black devils. Memories of dozens of glass-like spines protruding from my flesh, black ink discharge mingling with my blood and seawater. A week of frolicking in the perfect seas of this magnificent Croatian coast cut short by a surprise attack from an unseen speedboat wake and the subsequent meeting of my thighs, shins and arms with an anemone covered rock.
Two years later I am back in the Kornati National Park, a necklace of parched white limestone Islands stretching down the Croatian coastline. Bare of vegetation except for tinder box brown grass and the occasional olive coloured bush. The islands distinctly lob-sided shape testament to the never ending battle between geology and the sea. Concentric parallel faults in the rock give the islands an false impression of ancient cultivation. Sheer karst limestone cliffs face the open sea like sentinels guarding the distant shore of the Croatian mainland. However on the lee side of this impregnable wall the islands slope gently to natural harbours and beaches. But it is not this lunar landscape that draws me here, it is what lies beneath the waves. The Kornati National Park is renowned for its ocean fauna, a bio-diverse wonderland of fish, corals and sea grass await any intrepid snorkeler.
I am reliably informed by our local guide that the best snorkelling is to be found on the open ocean side of the island. Unfortunately the only way into this natural aquarium is either a two kilometer swim around the island, for which I have neither the time nor the stamina, or through a small natural fault in the cliff wall. However this breach in the natural seaward defenses is guarded by an army of anenomies which only and an idiot would choose wade through. Everyone else in our group, including my fiancé, are safely sunbathing and snorkeling in the sheltered shallow bay a kilometer away. However I am as determined as I am stupid and now submerged to my waist I figure there is enough depth for my keel-esque gut to clear the spiny reception waiting below. I check the face mask is tight, grip the snorkel between my teeth and lunge forward in an ungainly seal-like leap into another world.
I slowly swim down the tight rock funnel surrounded by smooth porcelain walls, occasional dark cracks the only scribbles on this otherwise flawless surface. I follow a small group of Salpa, sea bream with glittering golden stripes guiding me onward towards the open sea. The water clarity is astounding, I can see the bed below me, five feet, seven feet, ten feet. Suddenly this reassuring sea bed reference drops away and I am flying above an oceanic abyss shimmering with sunlight refracted through every shade of blue. Like an inverted mirror image of the world above, the limestone cliff plummets into the depths. However there is no lower summit to this submerged rock face, just a point hundreds of meters below where the white wall fades to deep blue, the light no longer able to penetrate. I suddenly feel very small and vulnerable, an alien bobbing around in this surreal world. As I look around and orientate myself this momentary panic is stopped in its tracks to be replaced with simple awe. I realise that the submarine cliff is a blank canvas for nature’s graffiti artists. Yellow coral fingers reach over to tag red algal clumps, green sea-grasses wave in unison like raised hands at a rock concert. Brightly coloured Wrasse busily dart left and right, whilst Groupers observe their world grumpily from rock niches. I feel like a Lego-man diver in a tropical fish tank, surrounded by stripes, spots, golds and silvers. The entire water column from blue black depths to the clear sunlit surface is a kaleidoscope of fish. Shoals of sea bass, mullet, sea bream and a thousand other species fill the view through my mask, striped, spotted, yellow, black and iridescent red drift in tune to the ocean swell.
I loose myself in this breathtaking world, thoughts of the gauntlet of anemones waiting patiently between me and dry land blissfully suppressed – for now.