It is Belgium’s newest “tourist sight” and it’s offering something unavailable anywhere else in the country. TODI is an indoor diving centre based at BE-Mine in Beringen, a former coal mine in Limburg which is being redeveloped as a tourist attraction.
The water used for the diving is automatically maintained at a temperature of just under 25 degrees, which is about the same as you’d find right now in the Mediterranean. “There’s nothing else quite like it in Belgium or many other places come to that,” says TODI’s co-owner Wouter Schoovaerts who launched the centre along with fellow Fleming Dirk Heylen.
The centre is one of the main attractions in the ambitious redevelopment of the immediate area which also includes cycling tracks and the imaginative re-use of one of the former coal slag heaps. TODI, in particular, has proved a huge success since opening just over two years ago and is a living legacy to the massive coal mine that once employed thousands of men.
Its central attraction is a circular diving pool which contains an estimated 4,500 tropical fish sourced from all over the world, including the Amazon, Malawi and Malaysia. This is where anyone from the young and old, beginners and experts, can go diving and/or snorkling – a stunning underwater experience and all in a relatively warm temperature.
You get the chance to be “up close and personal” with the 30 different kinds of fresh water marine life who inhabit the huge pool containing no less than 6.5 million litres of water. This includes the opportunity to swim with piranha fish although, fear not, these are “vegetarian” piranhas who eat only vegetables and fruit, like apples and carrots!
The fish are fed every 2-3 days, otherwise on dry food, and you can watch all this (along with divers doing their stuff) from a massive viewing window which was specially created when the centre was being redeveloped a few years ago at a cost of some €7m. Apart from its recreational use, the centre also does some important environmental work, as was explained by Sean Edwards, a marine specialist visiting from Hampshire in the UK.
He said, “The pool has its own eco-system and bio-sphere which, among other things, means we have to carefully manage the fish stocks. This may involve, for example, giving some of the fish to other aquariums.” He said a range of terrains had been installed in the pool, along with impressive art sculptures and a rock nursery designed to house juvenile fish.
“There is an educational aspect to all this because it allows visitors to learn more about marine life and the importance of preserving fish stocks and the coral,” said Sean. He says the facilities at TODI are so good that he regularly brings groups of young people over from England to dive.
Centrepiece of all this is “Nemo’s Garden”, instantly recognisable by the bright blue glow in the water, which is an underwater air pocket where plants and vegetables can be grown. “The benefit of this is that they are free of the pesticides and insecticides found on land,” added Sean.
The “greenhouse” isn’t the only unusual object – look out also for the car wrecks under the water (one of the centre’s sponsors was a car manufacture) and an underwater bar where divers can enjoy a cocktail (via a straw inserted into their mask).
Everyone is given an isothermal suit and people under 12 need to be accompanied by an adult. The timed diving or snorkling sessions (for the uninitiated, snorkling is swimming on the surface of the water) take up to 2 hours and, after expanding all that energy visitors are likely to have worked up an appetite.
If so, there’s a terrific informal brasserie on the ground floor which also features something of a rarity in Belgium – a female head chef.
Hafida Agandouz is a 34-year-old Belgian who has been in charge of the kitchen here only since August. Her arrival was like a homecoming – her Moroccan-born father used to work in the Beringen mine for years. Sadly, he died three years ago but the place still holds special memories for her, said Genk-born Hafi, one of the relatively few female head chefs in Belgium.
The menu currently features a nice mix of traditional Belgian dishes, including “Putpata”, comprising potatoes, leek and bacon, and “Mijn Stoofvlees”, a meat stew made with a local beer. The restaurant, which serves food throughout the day until 9pm, also has sea bass and fish soup on the card.
There are plans to introduce several new dishes early in the New Year, the idea being to showcase “soul food” that brings people together in the same way that the mine used to with its thousands of immigrant workers. Look out also for the large aquarium in the restaurant containing some of the exotic fish that can also be found in the diving pool.
The circular basin now housing both the diving centre and restaurant used to be the washing facility for the pit. There are, as can be seen, several unique features to TODI and another one is this: as the facility is located on the 4th floor, it must be the only place where you take an elevator to go diving!
Further info here