Underwater museum reveals ancient world

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Scuba divers visit the underwater museum in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of the Greek island Alonissos on July 20. AFP

Emerging from the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea, Hans-Juergen Fercher has just returned from his fourth dive to where mounds of 2,500-year-old wine pots mark the site of an ancient shipwreck – and Greece’s first underwater museum.

“This is a combination of diving and archaeological diving. It’s diving into history,” says the 48-year-old psychiatrist after pulling himself onto the deck of the Triton dive boat.

“It makes it special and unique.”

The museum beneath the waves at Peristera, a rocky outcrop off the island of Alonissos, opened in 2020, though the site has been largely mothballed until now due to Covid-19 restrictions.

As Greece opens up its vital tourism industry, the site offers an example of a new and more sustainable source of revenue.

More to come

Divers like Fercher and Danish wine-cellar maker, Lisette Fredelund, are willing to pay €95 ($110) a dive – about 50 per cent more than the cost of a regular recreational scuba outing – for a guided tour of a site once the preserve of professional archaeologists.

“It was just amazing,” said Fredelund. “I was just, while we were down there, trying to imagine what it had been like being on a vessel transporting wine.”

More wrecks have been discovered in the area – the middle of the country’s largest marine reserve – holding out the prospect that more such museums will open.

Greece has made diving part of its focus to attract visitors since legislation passed in 2020 making it possible to access such sites, Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis said.

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Resting about 30m below the sea’s surface for almost 2,500 years, the Peristera shipwreck opened to recreational scuba divers during the summer of 2020. AFP

“This is a type of tourism that attracts people all year round, a special audience that pays generously to dive,” he said, adding that 10 new diving parks are ready to be licensed under the process provided for by the legislation.

On board the Triton, a group of six more visitors don their scuba gear and plunge into the sea, closely following their guide. About 300 people have paid to visit the wreck since the museum opened, according to Alonissos Mayor Petros Vafinis.

Vafinis – himself an avid scuba diver – joined a group of tourists as they one by one launched themselves off the rear deck of the Triton into the sea.

High expectations