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The Wine Dark Sea: Exploring 425 BC Shipwreck Off Alonissos Island

The Peristera, a huge Greek vessel carrying more than 4,000 wine amphorae, the giant two-handled jugs used to carry the drink, sank off the Sporades island of Alonissos in 425 BC but can now be visited, if you’ve the skills and permits.

Now essentially an underwater museum, a local sponge fisherman and his teenage son discovered it between 70-90 feet deep, the wooden hull of the big ship having decomposed centuries ago but not those indestructible amphorae.

In a feature for the Wall Street Journal, a diver, Tony Perrottet, was one of the relative few able to get into the water to view what was left of one of the largest Classical shipwrecks ever found.

There are no written historical records, so he said archaeologists had to deduce the fate of the ship which left behind those clay pots with all that ancient Greek wine that was so treasured.

Amateur divers were able to begin visiting only in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, limiting international air traffic and holding down the number of people who could visit Greece.

He went in the summer of 2021 and, although an experienced diver certified for Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) in open water dives, he was told he would need an Advanced Certification to go below 60 feet.

It wasn’t hard to get it in Greece, with plenty of expert divers and instructors, and he quickly found one on the island in  Panos Anagnostou at the Seacolours Dive Center, who reassured him.

Perrottet asked how long it would take to be certified to go deeper and got a typically nonchalant Greek answer – like Zorba telling the Englishman boss not to get too cranked up.

Anagnostou shrugged and told him five dives in three days. “It’s not so hard.” “Could I do the course, then dive the wreck on the morning before my ferry left?” “Why not?” he said. “If the weather is good.”

Greek authorities, he said, are obsessive in keeping track of the vessel and who goes there. They monitor all activities to protect it, which means a lot of typical Greek paperwork, and the site has underwater cameras tracking movements.

But first  – eh!, this is Greece – came lunch at a local taverna with fresh spanakopita out of an oven, cold Mythos beer, and learning to take your time.

WINE FOR 4,000

The ship, after all, isn’t going anywhere and neither is all that wine so there was time to talk and eat and drink, and then the next day go underwater for a look at what few people will ever see.

The team passed the beauty of the green island and dove into a twisted finger of volcanic rock in an 850-square-mile Marine Park, checking out an overwater shelf “covered with leaves of soft coral that glittered like gold coins in the sun. Large fish – goldblotch, dogtooth, and dusky groupers – swam past. Moray eels emerged from crevices, baring their fangs; a small squid shot past with a burst of black ink.”

On the morning of the Peristera dive, Panos, Konstantin (another amateur diver), and Perrottet met at the docks for coffee and spinach pie, then drove to Steni Vala marina to register with the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities.

An archaeologist named Achilles Dionysopoulos outlined the protocol for diving the delicate site, especially to never pass above the wreck in case a stray flipper disturbed sand, or an item like a camera was dropped.

“We clambered into a small boat and chugged across glassy waters to a buoy in the channel, 100 yards off the uninhabited Peristera islet. Bobbing in the “wine dark sea” of Homeric lore, it was easy to picture Odysseus weighing anchor or a giant one-eyed Cyclops emerging from the forests. We slid into the water, as placid as a swimming pool, and made our way along the ocean floor,” wrote Perrotett

Then the reason he came began to come into focus under the sea, looking at first like abstract sculptures, amphorae as far as he could see, the shape of the 75-by-27 foot ship outlined although the hull long dissolved.

“We gently kicked from prow to stern, admiring the doomed vessel and its tangle of cargo,” he said.

When the time came to be taken back to the port to catch the ferry to the mainland he said the wonder of what he’d seen reminded him of a piece of ancient graffiti from his research.

It was scrawled in the 2nd Century by an exhilarated Roman sightseer in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings: “Those who have not seen this…have seen nothing,” crowed the pioneer tourist. “Happy are those who have!”

He left happy.

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