By Norm Bour
From the crystal-clear blue waters of the Adriatic Sea to the subterranean caverns of the Pazin area, Istria has something for mermaids and human fish, as well as landlubbers who like to see rocks that were formed when the earth was still young.
Croatia has not been recognized as being a haven for scuba divers or snorkelers, but a joint effort by an enterprising entrepreneur who has been diving the area for three decades, and the Istra Tourism board, is out to change that.
Kathleen and I met Barbara Unković at the Arena Stoja Campsite, in Pula, and were captivated by her charisma and passion for the sea.
“When I was a child my swimming club was just next to the scuba diving club. I was fascinated with diving. Very often I would wait for them in shallow water just to get a bit of air for breathing…,” she said. “Back then it was mostly military divers, but when I hit age 16 I finally got my scuba diving brevet, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
She continued: “Over the past few decades, it seems a lot of focus was on wine production, olive oil, and truffles for tourism, but there was not a lot of attention paid to the amazing snorkeling in the region. During COVID, my husband, a professional photographer, and I were thinking about what we can do, and what we could offer visitors who were here. I’m a certified Dive Master, and I realized that many dive centers were some of the few businesses still in operation during the pandemic!”
That AHA moment motivated her to map out locations along the coast of Istria, which I found out was littered with boat wrecks, the focus for many divers. One of the more famous remains, the “Baron Gautsch,” has been called the “Titanic of the Mediterranean,” and sank in 1914 after hitting a mine as first civil victim in WWI. It is a passenger ship 277 ft/84 m long and 39.3 ft/12 m wide, and just six miles from Rovinj. Even though that wreck, and many areas in Istria, are more suited for scuba, Barbara’s long history in the area and knowledge of the coast, is filling an exciting void.
“As young girls, while Croatia was still Socialist, my parents would finish work early, by 3:00 p.m., so after lunch we would be at the beach till the evening. I learned to snorkel quite young, and when I got older I did it with tanks. I was amazed at all those shells! All those sea stars, and seahorses, too!”
The exuberance she shared in our conversation before she took us snorkeling was contagious, and made my wife and I anxious to get in.
We met at the campsite in Pula and chatted for quite some time as she shared all this, then she did a pre-check to find out our experience levels in the water, and also to uncover any fears or challenges. That was important since many people do not feel 100 percent comfortable in the water, like her, and that was the case with my wife and me.
But in we went, and over two sessions and about 45 minutes we truly had our eyes opened to the beauty of Istrian snorkeling. After three prior times living along the coast, mostly in Dalmatia, I was excited to see that there was, indeed, good snorkeling in Croatia!
Her business is Underwater Affair, and that name is appropriate since she considers her relationship with the water a love affair. She also has wonderful credentials since she was a national underwater champion in orientation, which is where you must navigate your way underwater without clear visibility. Along with that she has also been in swimming marathons along with Free Diving.
She added, “One of the things lacking along the coast was the visibility of excellent snorkeling spots, well organized and safe, and that complete the overall experience of the destination as enhance the valorisation of natural resources that we have under water. This is a new idea to market the destination and create a competitive advantage and creating room for new contents in selective tourism such as snorkeling tours.” That may be poised to change.
Snorkeling is one of the more affordable water sports available, but knowing where to go is vital, since no one wants to look at just water. Barbara fills that void since she has been detailing the shoreline for a quarter century and has profiled 24 different areas. Her maps can show you which beaches to visit, which spots to enter, and what you can expect to see down below.
“I love the sea, and I would be really happy if I will inspire others to discover the beauty that lies beneath it. It is such a relaxed environment where you can leave all you earth worries and just play with fish! An entertainment that can go for hours, especially kids … You cannot be bored by the sea – you just need a good mask!”
For information contact the Istria Tourism Board.