Not every diver’s dream is to watch shimmering shoals of fish swim through coral reefs in dazzlingly blue seas.
For Laura Tuominen, the ultimate diving experience is not to be found in the Red Sea or the Caribbean, but in a labyrinth of spectacular underwater caves beneath the pavements of Budapest.
The Hungarian capital is already famous worldwide for its steaming hot spas and thermal baths.
But the underwater Janos Molnar cave system, named after the Hungarian pharmacist who discovered it in the 19th century, has become a hot tip for diving aficionados.
Around seven kilometres (4.4 miles) in length and previously open only to scientific expeditions, the cave became accessible to the public — that is, qualified divers — when a diving centre was opened here in 2015.
“We are under Budapest! It’s amazing!” shouts Tuominen, a 39-year-old Finnish anaesthesiologist and passionate amateur diver, as she jumps into the warm waters from a platform mounted in the narrow space at the bottom of the entrance tunnel.
She is one of a group of hobby divers and speleologists, wearing dry suits and carrying double cylinders of compressed gas on their backs, who then descend into the gloomy waters, the light from their torches gradually fading out of view.
The group is accompanied by a diving centre staff member who directs them with the help of “guideline” cords through the maze of narrow passageways and cavernous cathedral-like chambers.
‘Very rare’ urban setting
“It’s the only underwater cave in Budapest open to divers. Speleology is a niche market. It doesn’t have mass appeal. And our urban location makes us special. It’s very, very rare,” says Attila Hosszu, who has run the centre since it opened.
The advantage of being underneath a city is that “you don’t have to haul your equipment up a mountain or down a deep valley to get here,” Hosszu adds.
The entrance to the centre is a discreet metal door near one of Budapest’s main boulevards and just a block away from the Danube river that separates the city’s two halves, Buda and Pest.
According to the diving centre’s website, the cave was formed many millennia ago, when the geological fault line on which Budapest is situated cracked. The ascending thermal water ate into the rock to create caves close to the surface.
“You can see amazing stalactites and stalagmites in Mexico. But you have to travel for days to get there. Here, you just walk in and dive, it’s very exciting,” says 38-year-old Russian Irina Litvinenko after getting off the tram on her way to the centre.
Outside on the streets, the autumn wind is blustery. But inside the centre, the air is still warm and humid, making the divers sweat as they get their equipment ready.
Explorations from the 1950s began to reveal the full extent of submerged canyons, halls and passageways.
But until the diving centre opened three years ago, only scientists were permitted entry to explore or collect samples for laboratory examinations. — AFP