Miranda Krestovnikoff was ecstatic to finally head off for a diving holiday as a family, and found Gozo the perfect place for her kids to venture underwater for the first time.
Ever since I had my second child, I have dreamt of that moment when the whole family would be underwater together, diving for the first time. Before having kids, I took every opportunity to go diving. My husband and I travelled a great deal, spending many happy hours underwater but now, time is more limited and trips are more scarce. I wish every holiday would involve diving, but up until now, the children have just been too young. All that was about to change…
Left to my own devices, I would have had the kids diving before they could walk, but restrictions mean that children can’t breathe compressed air at any depth until they are eight years old. However, they caught the bug early – doing a SASY course in St Vincent and the Grenadines at the ages of four and six, where they played with mini-diving kit in a pool and learnt to breathe through a regulator on the surface – they looked and felt like real divers.
For each child, when they turned eight, their birthday present included a Bubblemaker session in a local indoor pool – descending to the dizzying depths of a mere 2m, but wearing full scuba kit and breathing underwater for the first time.
It was absolutely the best thing; playing with bubble machines, torpedoes and generally having a lot of fun meant they were relaxed and it was enjoyable. Welcome to the world of scuba, kids!
Then the decision came: now that the eldest had ‘come of age’, where do we go for their first big diving holiday? Where was safe? Convenient? Reasonable? And offered good enough diving for the grown-ups? Gozo kept cropping up, time and again. Short-haul flight, laid-back, fairly warm, famous for its limestone arch (which isn’t there any more, but is now a great reef dive!), it seemed to tick all of our boxes.
More than anything, I wanted diving to be fun for the kids. I wanted them to fall in love with it as I did, but I was concerned that the quantity of theory might put them off. I needn’t have worried – with the goal of becoming a diver in mind, my 11-year-old didn’t bat an eyelid at having to spend hour after hour wading through course material.
I encouraged her to get it all completed online before we left, all so she could hit the water the moment we arrived. And she did – thanks to all the staff at Bubbles Diving in Marsalforn, she had the best introduction to diving that I could have asked for.
After a day of settling in and swimming in some fairly challenging waves on San Blas Bay, we met up with the dive team in the safety of the sheltered Hondoq Bay on the southwest of the island.
Kitting up was done slowly and thoroughly, despite the heat. As safety was, of course, the most-important consideration, I watched the instructors like a hawk as the dive brief was given and the group prepared to go in.
I couldn’t fault the team – patient and kind, Amélie was in the best hands and I relaxed as they walked towards the water’s edge. Looking calm and comfortable, she smiled and signalled okay as she disappeared beneath the waves for the very first time. She was about to be baptised into the wonderful world of diving.
Now that she was gone for an hour or so, I turned my attention to Oliver. Only eight years old, he wasn’t allowed to go below 2m and that, for him, was nearly as annoying as having an older sister – especially one who was allowed to dive.
Not wanting him to be bored or jealous, he was quickly kitted up by the lovely Eva and taken in the water. I followed, eager to see how he got on and after a great deal of thrashing around, he managed to sink down under the surface.
Eva never let go of his set as he swam around like a wind-up toy, peering wide-eyed at this magical world around him. There was so much to see and everything was new to him.
I don’t know if he actually spotted any of the fish that swam by, but he certainly looked like a mini-Cousteau after a while. But, all too soon, he started to shiver (skinny little thing!) and was whisked out of the water and back to base for a hot chocolate and some lunch, waiting for his sister to surface.
And what a smile greeted us! She was the happiest girl in the bay. Despite a fogging mask and dodgy buoyancy, her first dive had been incredible and she couldn’t wait for the next one. We all slept well that night.
The first week continued pretty much like this – with Amélie training every day and the rest of us snorkelling our way around the island. There are so many beautiful bays to visit, many almost as good to snorkel as they are to dive, and each with their own unique topography and wildlife.
Tucked away places like the long, narrow, deep inlet at Wied il-Għasri. This charming spot is only accesses by a dirt track and then a steep rock staircase, but the beach is stunning. Tiny and unspoilt, it is surrounded by small caves and is one of the best places to snorkel on the island.
The panoramic views from the top of the cliffs are stunning and there are salt pans nearby that Gozo is so famous for – plenty for the curious visitor to explore!
Day five came – which was the day we could all dive together. We pulled up at one of the many dive sites which sit at the side of the road. It feels a bit too easy, coming from the UK, where there always seems a long waddle down the beach with heavy kit, but I wasn’t about to complain.
Xwejni Bay was the place of choice; an unassuming place where the road runs right alongside the bay, but for convenience, we could all kit up out of the back of the truck and walk straight onto the beach.
The dive, although not the most-remarkable dive in terms of wildlife, was my first chance to be underwater with the whole family. My long wait had ended and I now had two wide-eyed children immersed in the world of scuba.
Week two was spent practicing skills, exploring more shallow dives sites and having a lot of fun underwater. Subsequent dives were mostly one adult snorkelling with Oliver and the other diving with Amélie, but this way we discovered the best of the sites.
The Inland Sea at Dwerja was a real highlight; arriving early, as it gets pretty crowded, we swam through the 100 metre or so tunnel out to the open ocean, avoiding boat trips taking tourists through the narrow slit in the rocks. The light spills in from the far end, just enough to see the sponge-encrusted walls and the rock crabs which harvest them and use them for camouflage on their backs.
We spent an entire day here, in the warm lagoon, feeding the small fish, and trying to catch the little blennies – a really safe place for the kids to hang out, and a local hotspot for a BBQ on a Sunday.
The pretty inlet at Mgarr ix-Xini was another favourite that we returned to, with plenty to do for the non-divers, with scarily high rocks for fearless youngsters to jump off and a tiny beach with limited parking which kept the place fairly quiet.
Oliver had another taste of diving to just 2m and this time managed to see his first flounder, which spawned conversations about flatfish life-cycles, an octopus which generated conversations about chloroplasts and camouflage, cuttlefish (ditto) and fireworms (toxin chat).
There were lots of hand signals for ‘Look, but don’t touch!’ (they may look furry, but you’ll regret it afterwards). Good diving lessons learnt and marine biology facts shared.
Although terribly overcrowded, we just had to experience the island of Comino and took a boat trip out there to explore the caves. Thankfully, most of the visitors choose to stay dry, catching rays on the beach and underwater is a lot less crowded.
Our newly-qualified diver was very excited to be diving in a cave within a week of qualifying. It was years before I headed into my first cave and here she was, with ten dives under her belt, venturing forth, torch in hand, with not a backward glance.
She peered into holes to discover squat lobster and brightly coloured nudibranchs with eggs. Moray eels hung out in the crevices and hermit crabs scuttled away from her torch light. Her view of cave diving was a very positive one!
My husband gets a bit bored (?!) diving for more than a few days and with two weeks to fill, he prefers to wander off in search of local food and archaeology. Thank you, once again, Gozo! Braving the intense heat one day, we were stunned by the one of the Med’s top archaeological sites – the temples at Ggantija – one of the oldest free-standing structures in the world.
These two temples date from 3,600- 3,200 BC, pre-dating Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. Even the frazzled and dehydrated kids were impressed and remembered a few facts about the temples to write about in their school diaries.
The charming craft village at Ta’Dbiegi filled at least a morning with its throughly mesmerising glass blowers and hot chilli sauce tastings. And at the end of each day, we were treated to the wealth of fantastic food that the island has to offer. Even for a coeliac like my husband, we were well catered for with super-fresh fish, rabbit stew and local delicacies like hot, fresh ftira (stuffed bread) and pastizzi (flaky pastry filled with ricotta cheese) from the bakery in Nadur.
The children became very well acquainted with the ice cream bar at Marsalforn – a real treat after diving, and a worthwhile detour when sugar levels ran low. All in all, it was the best place we could have chosen for the kids to learn to dive and although I don’t feel as though we explored all the must-see sights underwater as we might have done as a couple, we certainly got the best from the clear water and safe, shallow bays that Gozo offers.
I left wanting to return to explore more wrecks and limestone formations that it is so famous for, but we have another child who will be ten soon and will want to get his PADI certificate, so hopefully we’ll be back!
I don’t know if he actually spotted any of the fish that swam by, but he certainly looked like a mini-Cousteau after a while
Week two was spent practicing skills, exploring more shallow dives sites and having a lot of fun underwater
Photographs by Miranda Krestovnikoff