Team Scuba Diver continues to explore the clear, warm waters off Magical Malta and Gozo, showcasing how this archipelago is the ideal short-haul family holiday location
The torpedo ray eyed me suspiciously as I very slowly dropped down until I was hovering just a metre or so away from it. It was lying on a clear patch of sand surrounded by seagrass. I signalled to Luke and pointed out the ray. Fair play to him, he looked extremely excited, but didn’t just dart forward, instead remembering what I had told him about approaching marine life slowly.
I motioned for him to drop down behind it for a photograph, and he stealthily ‘crawled’ in behind the ray, with his body just off the bottom and using his fingertips in the sand, looking for all the world like a human-gurnard hybrid! He positioned himself where he was looking at the ray but I could clearly see his eyes in his black-skirted mask, and we bagged a few decent images.
Once we were done, I gave him the OK sign and he gently pushed himself off the bottom, and made sure he didn’t disturb the ray or any sand. I was very proud to see such conscientious behaviour from a 12-year-old. I had taught the young Padawan well…
The lure of the blue
After a ‘dry day’ for Team Scuba Diver – Editor-in-Chief Mark Evans, his wife Penney, and their 12-year-old son Luke, and Publishing Director Ross Arnold, his wife Gemma, and their two sons, 13-year-old Ryan and five-year-old Ethan – exploring some of Malta’s topside attractions, we were back at Divewise (www.divewise.com.mt) for more underwater fun and games. Long-time Divewise instructor Sarah Shaw was once again pressed into action as our guide and driver for the next three days.
Knowing how much Luke had enjoyed the wrecks we had visited, Sarah lined up a shore dive at the Two Tugs at Zonquor Point in Marsascala as our first port of call. Despite visiting Malta extensively over the last 20-odd years, this was a site I had never done, so I was keen to check it out, and Luke was already bouncing with the thought of not one, but two wrecks on one dive. Sarah tried to temper his enthusiasm by explaining that these were not as visually impressive as the P31, but all he was bothered about was seeing some sort of boat on the seabed!
The actual highlight of the Two Tugs dive was seeing the aforementioned torpedo ray – the biggest I had seen in the Med – but the two vessels are also worth checking out. As Sarah had mentioned, they are not in the same league as the P31, or many of the other deeper wrecks around Malta, such as the Um El Faroud, Rozi and the P29, but lying in 21m-22m, they have been down since May 1998, so are completely encrusted in marine growth, which in turn plays host to all manner of critters.
The 20-metre St Michael is a Tanac-type tug that was built in Canada, while the 16-metre Number 10 is a Melita-type tug. Both were a common sight in the Grand Harbour during their working life, but after being laid up at Jetties Wharf, they sank on-site, and were partially submerged for several years before being raised, cleaned and scuttled for divers.
They lie a short distance apart next to the rocky reef, sitting upright on a sandy bottom. We found scorpionfish, lizardfish, moray eels, numerous nudibranchs and various crabs on and around the wrecks, and on the way back to the entry/exit point along the reef in the shallows we found more scorpionfish and a couple of octopus. The tugs are not huge and there is no real penetration, but there are a couple of nice swim-throughs which Luke duly discovered.
After a quick stop for much-needed sustenance, we headed off to shore-dive number two, and a site that ranked highly on the ‘top dive list’ of one Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Ghar Lapsi is a large natural swimming area, popular with general tourists and snorkellers, but it is also the entrance to one of the most-picturesque cavern systems on the islands. After kitting up in the car park at the top of a steep slope – thankfully equipped with steps down either side! – you trudge down to the water’s edge and giant stride into the blue.
The water is only shallow, a few metres at most, but once you make your way over to the corner, you drop down under an archway and enter the cavern system. Light streams down through holes in the rocky reef above, especially in the afternoon, so torches are not necessary, and there is a reasonable amount of room inside. There are various exits, and when you pop out on to the outside of the reef, you are faced with huge boulders, beds of seagrass and that lovely deep blue that characterises Maltese waters.
The actual cavern section is very short, and the majority of the dive is spent exploring the reef, before making your way back into the swimming area to exit the water – and steel yourself for the walk back up the slope! The reef is full of life, with bream, wrasse, juvenile barracuda, moray eels, scorpionfish and octopus.
For our second day back in the water, we headed back out to Comino on a Luzzu, to revisit the P31 patrol boat and Santa Maria Caves. This gave Ryan the opportunity to see the imposing patrol boat himself on his final qualifying dive of his RAID Open Water 15 course (the full story of this course will be in The Next Generation in a future issue), but also allowed Luke to really enjoy a more-relaxed second dive on this vessel.
The first dive I think he was a little shell-shocked, as it was by far the biggest shipwreck he had dived on, but this time he was more-prepared and really enjoyed mooching about looking inside areas of the superstructure and spotting more critters that have made the P31 their home.
Our group enjoyed a return visit to the famous Santa Maria Caves for our next dive, and this system of large cathedral-like caves and interconnecting caverns, which are well lit by natural light, are truly spectacular. Most of the bigger caves are only semi-submerged, and boats often cruise in, so make sure you stay close to the bottom and aware of surface traffic during the dive. The topography of the site really holds your attention, and it is a safe and shallow introduction to this type of diving.
Our third – and sadly final – day of diving in Malta saw us heading towards Marsamxett Harbour off Manoel Island at the start of Lazzaretto Creek. Our destination was the wreck of the X127, or the X-Lighter as she is also known. Interestingly, you get to dive a World War One and a World War Two vessel in a single dive!
The X127 was a 24-metre landing craft built in 1915 in the UK for the Royal Navy. Initially she was converted into a water lighter, and then later again into a fuel lighter. It was sunk in March 1942, and for many years was known as the Carolita, or Coralita, by divers, who referred to it as an ordinary barge, but in 2003, an underwater survey identified it as a lighter. First it was thought to be the X131, but in 2006 it was finally confirmed to be the X127.
She lies on a slope, with her bow in just 5m, and her stern in 22m. To reach her, you get into the water via some sturdy metal steps, and then swim along a reef, which is littered with old bottles and other artefacts from the past, as well as seemingly innumerable scorpionfish.
The vis is generally not great given its location, and sure enough, when we eventually reached the X127, the visibility around the stern section was down to a few metres – it was like a UK dive in warm water! However, you could still peer inside and see some of the pumping machinery, and as you headed up the side of the vessel to the bow in shallower water, the visibility dramatically increased to double figures.
After dekitting and repacking the van, we headed round into Valletta and parked up for a relaxed surface interval and a picnic in the sunshine in St Elmos Bay. Then it was time for the last dive of this trip, and one of my favourites – HMS Maori.
The Maori was a 115-metre-long World War Two British destroyer which was sunk in the Grand Harbour by a German air raid in February 1942. In July 1945, the wreck was raised, though it split in half, and the fore-section was scuttled in its current position in St Elmo Bay near the entrance to Marsamxett Harbour. It now lies in a maximum depth of just 16m, making it a genuine wartime shipwreck that can be explored by all levels of diver.
Although her shallow depth means she has suffered at the hands of winter storms, the Maori is still an impressive dive site. The wreck is half-buried in the sand, with 40-odd metres of the forward superstructure still recognisable, and while the guns were removed soon after she sank – to be used on land as a shore battery – there is still much to find, including hatches, gun-mounts, bollards, cables, anchor chain and more.
Luke was in his element poking about the scattered debris surrounding the main part of the wreck, and he discovered some porcelain artefacts partially protruding from the sand that looked to be part of an electrical set-up.
He had enjoyed all the other wreck dives we had done in Malta, but the fact that this was a true military ship appealed to his sense of adventure, and he stated it was his favourite of the trip, along with the P31. In fact, I had a hard time getting him away from the wreck at the end of our dive time, and I think he would have happily completed a few more dives on the Maori. It made a suitable epic finale to the diving portion of our trip.
As we said last issue, where Malta and Gozo come into their own is the vast array of activities and places to visit available above water, making it ideal for groups who aren’t going to be diving every day, have non-divers with them, or who just want the ability to mix it up.
We now had a couple of free days before flying home, so as we had visited Valetta on our first ‘dry day’, this time we headed to the Three Cities and Mdina.
The Three Cities – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – lie close to Valetta, and were the first home of the knights of the Order of St John, so the churches, forts and bastions pre-date its near-neighbour. Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, existed since the Middle Ages, with the other two cities being founded by the Order of St John.
The Three Cities were besieged during the Great Siege of Malta, and the impressive and imposing Cottonera Lines – massive fortifications – were built to repel any future attacks. They were heavily bombarded during World War Two, and many areas were rebuilt in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Three Cities covers quite an area, and it would be impossible to explore it all on foot in a day, but we headed out with Rolling Geeks, a ‘talking’ electric car. This pimped-up golf buggy can take four people, and is equipped with a pre-programmed GPS that navigates you around an 18-mile winding loop, with your vehicle ‘talking’ you through what you are seeing as a guide.
It is a fun way to get out and about in the Three Cities and see some areas you most-definitely would not discover if you set out on your own, including the Malta Film Studios, the Inquisitor’s Palace, Fort St Angelo, the Rinella Gun and Battery, Fort Ricasoli, and the Grand Harbour Marina.
For our final day we went to the ‘silent city’ of Mdina, which can trace its history back more than 4,000 years, where after exploring some of the winding streets and passageways in this walled city, we watched a short film about the Order of St John, and also ventured around an exhibition of dioramas featuring very-detailed waxworks which also delved into the history of this ancient organisation. After working up an appetite, we took some local advice and visited the Fontanella Tea Garden for absolutely enormous – and delicious – slices of chocolate cake, all served while you admire stunning views from the top of the walls out across the Maltese countryside.
Photographs by Mark Evans