Freshwater Diving in Europe
You wanted to go on a diving vacation, but no. Your family/friends/significant other/children/etc. insisted that you all go to Europe this summer. And, to make matters worse, you’re not even going to a coast in Europe where you might be able to sneak in a few quick dives in the Atlantic, Baltic or Med. No, you are going to the interior with no sea in sight. Ugh.
Not to fear! Freshwater diving is one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Some of the countries least known for diving offer some incredibly interesting lake and river diving that is sure to please even the most adamant reef diver. The depths of Germany, Austria and Switzerland will make you a believer.
Most diving in Germany happens in the many lakes and quarries all over the country. The water temperatures can be cold, even in summer, so dry suits are the most popular choice. Visibility is often limited. Also, be aware that German law requires all divers to have a valid medical certificate before diving.
Lakes of Bavaria
Bavaria, or Bayern, is a province located to the south-east of the country and has over 70 dive sites that include wrecks, wall dives, artificial pools, quarries and ice dives.
Walchensee (or Lake Walchen) is the largest Alpine lake in Germany, with a maximum depth of 631 ft and an area of 6.3 sq mi. The lake is 75 47 mi south of Munich in the middle of the Bavarian Alps. The lake has car, boat, and even aircraft wrecks that make the lake particularly interesting. Note that non-local divers will need to dive with an expert from the area as a guide. Also, this lake is in the mountains so a diver’s buoyancy will be different than at sea level.
Walchensee has 12 unique dive sites, including the more popular Steinbruch, Urfeld Bootssteg, and Einsiedlbucht. Fleckerlspitz is a good dive site for all levels; it has a wall and makes for a good deep dive. On the lake bottom is a series of wrecks, including three aircraft. From World War II there is a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and a British Avro Lancaster bomber. Among the debris are also the remains of an Aero Commander 680W. This high-wing twin-engine plane with the markings D-ID MON crashed into the lake in 1978 after its tail broke off. The wrecks of two cars, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Ford, are also near the shore and are popular exploration points for divers. Divers can see a variety of freshwater fish, including carp, bream, trout, eels, chub, and catfish.
Steinberger is another popular lake for scuba diving. Though many locals use this lake as a training spot for beginners, there are deep dives and wall dives as well. Eichinger Weiher, near Munich, is one of the most organized dive sites in Europe, with a maximum diving depth of around 40 ft and good visibility, up to 65 ft., due to fresh ground water. Access to the dive site is by shore. Divers can expect a lot of pike during their dives.
Bodensee (Lake Constance) shares the foothills of the Alps with Switzerland and Austria. The lake sits 395 m. above sea level, and it´s the third largest in Central Europe. It consists of three bodies of water: the Obersee (”upper lake”), the Untersee (”lower lake”), and a connecting stretch of the Rhine, called the Seerhein.
Divers can choose from over 20 different dive sites here, including wrecks, wall dives and drift dives, though diving is only done in the summer from June to September. There are lovely walls and plenty of fish to see including char, eels, pike and turbot. Due to the overall depth of the lake, many dives are deep and the use of a dry suit is common.
The Jura is perhaps the best known wreck in Lake Constance. It was built in 1854 by Escher-Wyss in Zurich. In 1861, a German company purchased the ship and moved it to Lake Constance. For three years, the Jura moved tourists and fright from the German to the Swiss side of the lake and back. In 1864 The Jura collided in heavy fog with the Swiss boat Zurich City and sank. For 100 years, she was lost. Commercial divers re-discovered the Jura in 1964. The 138 feet long Jura rests upright at a depth of 125 feet, ½ mile offshore from Bottighofen, Switzerland.
Strict environmental regulations have meant that Austria’s lakes are among the cleanest and purest in Europe. The fauna in Austria’s lakes and rivers is quite diverse: perch, pike, catfish, swan mussel, migratory shell, freshwater sponge, lake trout, grayling, freshwater hydra, crayfish – and in the summer numerous freshwater medusas – are among its colorful water inhabitants. Most diving is done in Austira’s lakes, but divers can also try river diving in the Enns, Steyr and especially the Traun.
Close to the idyllic city of Salzburg, the Attersee is one of Austria’s largest inland lakes, stretching over 14 miles with a maximum width of 2.5 miles. Since its water quality is superb, the lake is a paradise for freshwater divers. It offers diving sites suitable for both novice and expert divers. The lake contains both fish and plant-life and has around 30 diveable sites. During the winter season (January to March) experienced divers in warm dry suits can go under the ice that forms on parts of the lake.
The “Underwater Forest” that exists below the surface forms a perfect habitat for pike, brown trout, European eel, carp, and perch. Divers can explore the remains of the forest at depths from 43 to 131 feet and enjoy visibilities of up to 80 feet on good days.
A former sailboat is an easy to reach attraction for beginners. At depths from 46 to 66 feet, the wreck is often used for training purposes since a shallow diving platform is close by. Divers can also get a chuckle from an old bathtub in 33 feet of water nearby.
A site called Kohlbauernaufsatz (say that 3 times fast) offers wall-diving. The muddy ground slopes to a depth of 56 feet were the wall drops off and disappears in the dark. Nearby, divers can spot a canoe named Titanic and a small boat that features, for yet another chuckle, a large toilet. Another wall, called Black Wall or Black Bridge, sometimes offers visibilities of 98 feet (30 meters) during the winter months. Recreational divers need good buoyancy skills since the wall reaches depths of 197 feet (60 meters) in some areas and the dive becomes clearly technical in nature.
A small U-Boat that rests on the lake floor in 180 feet provides another opportunity for technical divers. A discussion board on a German scuba site says that the former owner immigrated to South America and left the boot attached to a buoy. People used the opportunity to break into the boat and left a hatch open. Water slowly penetrated and sank the boot in 1996 or 1997. A YouTube video showing divers exploring the submarine is available here.
An underwater mountain in the middle of the lake is reached at a depth of 30 feet (9 meters). Divers can circle the obelisk-like structure that reaches the lake floor in 460 feet (140 meters) of water. A boat is needed to get to the site and a local guide comes in handy to locate the structure and avoid long search patterns.
A picturesque area of more than 70 lakes in the central Alps, Salzkammergut offers an opportunity to see underwater WWII artifacts. In the last days of the war, the Nazis dumped crate after crate of secret cargo into the lakes, many of which are deep, with tree-covered mud bottoms. It was the perfect hiding place. Much has been recovered over the years, including thousands of counterfeit bank notes and the equipment used to make them, but much still remains. Stolen art and millions in gold bullion are rumored to be hidden in the lakes.
Switzerland offers two main options for scuba diving: scuba diving in lakes or scuba diving in rivers. Lake diving in Switzerland is the more popular of these two types of diving, especially in the bigger and deeper lakes in Switzerland, such as Lake Zurich and Lake Geneva. The larger lakes in Switzerland are quite deep and some even have sheer face drops providing an excellent opportunity for some wall scuba diving. Scuba diving in rivers is less popular in Switzerland than lake diving, although hardcore scuba diving enthusiasts in Switzerland will dive just about anywhere they can. Both types of scuba diving offer interesting things to see including different marine life and geological formations. There are even natural springs in Switzerland which are used for scuba diving.
Visibility for scuba diving in Switzerland varies. Visibility in lakes ranges from 3-10 meters depending on season and conditions. Visibility in lakes improves with depth so if the water looks murky at this surface, this does not mean visibility will not be conducive to scuba diving at a depth of 10 meters. Water visibility for scuba diving in rivers can be as low as 2 meters when the water is murky, or as far as 30 meters. Generally water temperatures range from about 4C and can get to be as warm as 20C in Switzerland during summer.
Lake Geneva (also called Lake Léman) is one of the largest lakes in Western Europe, stretching across the border from Switzerland into France. While today the lake and surrounding region is a popular visitors’ spot, it hasn’t always been that way. In the late 1960s excess pollution closed the lake to all water sports, and by the 1980s the lake was so contaminated it was at risk of losing all its fish. Thankfully, efforts were put in place over the years and today, the pollution levels have been dramatically cut, allowing the waters to be re-opened to the public.
Lake Geneva presents divers with interesting options. There are some incredibly sheer walls to dive, most notably at Chateau de Chillon and Fenalet. La Cochère is a fragile wreck that offers lots of nooks and crannies for small fish to hide and divers to explore. But perhaps the most notable dive in the lake is the wreck of the Hirondelle, a passenger cruiser that sank after hitting a rock in 1862. The wreck is in excellent condition, but it is a deep dive appropriate for advanced divers. The stern starts at 43 m and the bow is at 67 m. Make sure you use a local guide who knows the area well.
Lake Zurich extends southeast of its namesake city. The water is exceptionally clean and can reach 70 degrees F or warmer during summer. Most consider the best diving spot on Lake Zurich to be off the Au peninsula (Au Halbinsel) where divers can check out interesting rock formations and a variety of European freshwater fish. For advanced divers, the remains of a concrete ship that sank in 1918 has recently been found and is reported to be in incredible condition due to the depth at which it sits.