Advanced driving in Malta

The Um El Faroud is a shore entry, like most of the dives we did in Malta. Our divemaster, Sergey from Subway Scuba in Malta, liked to start early (so do we) and as a result we always got the best parking spaces, closest to the dive site. On this particular day we were among the first divers on the wreck, but by the time we started our second dive the road leading down to the wreck was a madhouse.

It’s a really steep climb, so we were very grateful for the excellent parking skills of Sergey. As we left after the day’s diving, however, we had to wait at the top of the hill to be sure that the bus would make it out of its space without too much extra weight (me and Tony and two Russian divers) weighing it down! As a precaution against rolling, Sergey had used a “Maltese handle brake” (a rock) wedged behind the Scuba Bus’s rear wheel.

Special thanks to the anonymous cowboy who inserts himself into this clip near the end.

Dive tourism in Malta (and some hints for South Africa)

Last year August, Tony and I spent a blissful week in Malta, diving ourselves silly in the mornings and napping in the heat of the afternoon. In the evenings, we ate ice cream and participated in the time-honoured Italian tradition of the passegiata.

Malta, Comino and Gozo from the air
Malta, Comino and Gozo from the air

The nation of Malta comprises three small islands located just south of Italy, in the Mediterranean Sea. The water is warm, there is almost no sand around the islands (most of the beaches are man-made), the limestone structure of the islands gives rise to caves, swim throughs and gullies to explore, and there is negligible tidal activity. The climate in summer is almost boringly warm and stable and with the exception of some violent winter storms, the ocean surrounding Malta is welcoming all year through. These factors combine to make it an extremely attractive location for scuba diving.

Malta’s natural charms, however, are greatly enhanced by her government’s approach to dive tourism. Recognising that visiting divers bring considerable income to all sectors of the Maltese economy (divers eat, need somewhere to sleep, and can’t spend all day diving!), the government has over the years scuttled a number of ships (ten or more at last count) as attractions for divers. These include the Um El Faroud, the Imperial Eagle, the P29, and the Rozi – all of which we dived. There are also a number of World War II wrecks (submarines!) around the islands, many at depths suitable for technical diving only.

Diving in Malta is well regulated. The Professional Diving Schools Association is a voluntary organisation representing over 30 dive centres in Malta, and encourages its members to adhere to high standards of safety and care. Divers visiting Malta are required to complete medical questionnaires before being allowed to dive, and are required to adhere to certain other regulations governing divers and their safety.

We very much enjoyed the wrecks in Malta, and found a special charm in even the newer ones that were scuttled in the last five years. The P29, for example, was almost clear of marine invertebrate growth, and all the wrecks were still discernible as the beautiful ships they once were. Surrounding them we found scores of fish – damselfish, barracuda, and the odd tuna.

There are several purposely-scuttled wrecks available around Cape Town, but there’s been no additional activity on this front for years. Only the Aster – the newest wreck, scuttled close to 20 years ago – still looks much like a ship. The Smitswinkel Bay wrecks – the Good Hope, Transvaal, Orotava, Princess Elizabeth and Rockeater, were scuttled over 30 years ago and have been pounded by the rough winter seas of the Cape. They are recognisable as ships, but penetrating any of them is a mug’s game and often during dives on these wrecks one can hear them creaking and groaning in the surge. The SAS Pietermaritzburg is in an even more exposed position off Miller’s Point, and is yet more beaten up despite being more recent than the Smitswinkel Bay wrecks.

Before I get shot down in flames for trying to compare Maltese and South African wrecks (age differences aside), let me qualify my statements. I recognise that there are significant differences between the Mediterranean Sea around Malta and the two oceans surrounding the South African coast – here are two:

  • the quantity of biomass that is supported off the Cape coast is far greater than that supported by the almost sterile (I exaggerate) waters of the Med – invertebrates quickly cover available surfaces and blur the outlines; and
  • the tides and currents around our coast are fierce and strong, and in a short time weaken any structure placed underwater.

What isn’t different, however, is how valuable scuba diving tourists are to the countries’ economies. Divers who have the means to travel and scuba dive also have the means to enjoy other activities in their destination countries. Diving is often a hobby of those who generally enjoy the outdoors, and a country like South Africa (as opposed to, say, Dubai) has a wealth of experiences in nature to offer such tourists.

Very little grows in Malta, and the islands are hilly but no one would travel there for that reason alone.  Compared to Malta, South Africa is ridiculously blessed with spectacular landscapes and wildlife both above and below the ocean. South African divers also know the tropical wonders of Sodwana, the chilly but exhilarating shark, wreck and reef diving available in the Cape, and the incredible ecosystems in between. This is all in addition to our mountains, deserts, fynbos, bush, and coastal scenery. Why isn’t more made of our underwater heritage?

It would be wonderful to see the South African government and South African National Parks being receptive to more properly cleaned wrecks being scuttled around our coast in locations suitable for recreational diving. More Marine Protected Areas, properly policed, would be good. It would also be great to see local dive centres striving to offer meaningful, repeatable diving experiences to tourists, instead of seeing them as once-off cash cows who can be taken out for a dive in appalling conditions because they aren’t coming back anyway. It would also induce much joy if airlines of all sizes in South Africa recognised (as Air Malta does) that scuba diving is a sport, like (ahem – sorry divers) golf, and gave an extra luggage allowance for scuba diving equipment.

I don’t think enough is done to encourage tourists to visit this country in order to dive, or with diving as one of their primary activities. It would benefit everyone – not just dive centres and dive charters – if more could be made of this opportunity. The example of Malta is a good one.

Just blue water in Malta

A short, slightly random video clip I took on the ferry that runs from Cirkewwa in Malta to Gozo. We’d taken the ferry to go and dive the Blue Hole and Inland Sea on Gozo, and on the way back we stood by the rail admiring the magnificent blue of the water beneath us. Malta has no tidal activity and almost no sand close to shore, so the water is ridiculously clear and blue.

If you have your speakers on, you’ll hear us discussing the next day’s diving on the Um El Faroud.

Boat diving in Malta

Here’s Clare doing her first ever giant stride off a luzzu, which is a traditional Maltese boat. In Malta any and every sort of boat is used for diving. We loved the luzzu because there was a lot of space, it moved slowly, and there was shade too. The surface interval between our dives on the Imperial Eagle and at L’Ahrax Point was spent chugging slowly from one dive site to the other.

Entry techniques: Giant strides

For me it’s a toss up between backward rolling and giant strides as my favourite entry technique for scuba diving. Living in Cape Town, opportunities for giant strides are limited to occasional harbour dives (boat dives are generally done off a RIB). In Malta, however, we were in giant stride paradise, and had a number of opportunities to basically bomb drop ourselves into the sea off piers, boats, and rocky ledges.

These two (slightly dodgy but very short) videos were filmed at Wied iz Zurrieq, where the Um El Faroud wreck lies, and the Blue Grotto can be found. The first shows Tony in action, and the second shows our impossibly tall divemaster, Sergey. That one was filmed while I was already in the water, so it’s rather unsteady!

Usually one does this with a fully inflated BCD, so you pop to the surface right away. Of course, regulator is in your mouth and mask on your face, with one hand resting lightly over them for security. To get out of the water at this particular dive site, one uses a metal ladder on the side of the pier. On a boat there’d be a ladder or a dive platform on the back.

Dive centres: Subway Scuba (Malta)

Subway Scuba
Subway Scuba

Subway Dive Centre is a PADI 5* Instructor Development Centre, National Geographic Dive Centre and Project AWARE Official Partner located in the town of Bugibba on the island of Malta. I wish I could remember the details of how I selected to dive with them rather than one of the approximately 40 other dive centres on the Maltese islands… I seem to recall it had to do with their dive packages, which were comprehensive, included dives on both Malta and Gozo, and were at a reasonable rate. I also checked Scubaboard.com for reviews and tips. Being a 5 star IDC didn’t hurt either, though one can’t tell anything about the character and integrity of a dive centre’s staff just from a rating.

Subway Scuba, Bugibba, Malta
Subway Scuba, Bugibba, Malta

Subway Scuba is aptly named, being located almost entirely underground! The centre contains probably the best compressor in Malta (we saw a number of other dive centre staff visiting to mix gas – including Trimix – for their clients), an indoor pool, a shop, classroom, a gear washing area (with a grid roof open to the elements, for quick drying) and lots of space to store your rental gear (in a box labelled with your name) for the duration of your stay. I really liked that for the five days we dived with them, we used the same kit every day. My wetsuit made me look like a cross between the Michelin Man and a cowboy, but it was incredibly comfortable and had a lot of features that one doesn’t expect on a basic rental wetsuit, such as pockets, a compass, and a dive computer strap holder.

Lina Fabri handled the flurry of emails I sent in order to make our booking (I also used one of Subway’s recommendations for accommodation in Malta, Falcon Court, which was just around the corner from the dive centre), as well as some queries I sent her after we went home regarding particular fish we’d seen that I couldn’t identify. While we were in Malta, Lana Markov assisted us from day to day, and her husband Sergey was our extremely marvellous Divemaster. We also spent one day (Sergey had to rest, poor man!) diving with Publio Attard, who we loved meeting because he is Maltese and gave us his perspective on life in Malta. Olga, the owner of Subway, as well as Lana and Sergey, are all Russian, and all the other divers we dived with during our stay were very impressive Russian divers. Sergey obligingly did two dive briefings at each site, one in English and one in Russian.

Me in my dorky (but awesome) rental wetsuit
Me in my dorky (but awesome) rental wetsuit

The dives Tony and I did were all in the recreational range, up to 40 metres, but technical diving is definitely possible in Malta with submarines and many other sites available to those who want to go deeper. Subway offers an Inspiration rebreather course as well as advanced wreck, Trimix, cavern and cave courses. With its many overhead environments and purposely scuttled wrecks, as well as lovely warm water, I can’t think of a better place to get one of these qualifications. It seems however that for guided dives, the focus is on recreational diving.

Fish of Malta
Fish of Malta

Tony and I felt very welcome at Subway, and, very importantly, comfortable that safety was an absolute priority. Our gear was in good order, the cylinders were in date, and every time we used Nitrox we had the opportunity (which we took, otherwise we’d have been instructed to!) to check the mix, the maximum depth it permitted, and to sign our understanding of those facts. Our experience at Subway Scuba was very positive overall.

Underwater alphabet

The finished alphabet
The finished alphabet

My sister and brother in law announced to us in September 2010 that they were expecting a baby boy. Asher was born on 9 March 2011, and his first Christmas present from me and Tony was an alphabet poster that we put together from (mostly) underwater photographs that we’ve taken (mostly) in Cape Town, Sodwana and Malta. When it was still a work in progress, I blogged about it here, here, here and here.

I am not a particularly arty or crafty person, and eschew the slightest digital manipulation of my pictures after I’ve taken them (I will crop at a push, but there’s nothing worse than seeing a picture taken in False Bay with a mysteriously metallic blue hue to it that you know has never been seen in real life). Also, I’m lazy. Putting the poster together, then, was a fairly (for me) mammoth undertaking.

The Cruse scanner at Artlab in action
The Cruse scanner at Artlab in action

It took more than a little while to sort through 16,000 underwater images and try to choose the best ones for the poster. I used BorderFX to overlay text on the photos, printed them, laid out the poster, scanned it at ArtLab, and then took it to Stephen at Art Assist for printing. Plastic Sandwich laminated it, and it was presented to Asher (now a bouncy 11 month old) on Christmas eve.

The upshot of this is that because I now have the poster in extremely, frighteningly high resolution digital form, I’m able to produce copies up to A0 size. I wouldn’t recommend the A0 version – it’s large and striking, but almost prohibitively expensive for what it is. Sizes between A1 and A0 work quite well, and can be reasonably cost-effective.

If you would like a copy of Asher’s Alphabet, send me an email.

Malta dive sites

A summary of the posts covering our Malta diving holiday follows. Peter G. Lemon’s book on scuba diving in Malta, Gozo and Comino is an excellent reference too. Hopefully this information can help you plan a Maltese diving holiday, whet your appetite for some warm water dive travel, or just let you do some armchair adventuring.

Malta

Gozo

There’s also more on the fish (specifically bluefin tuna), invertebrates and sponges and coral found in the waters around Malta.

Dive sites (Malta): L’Ahrax Point

Inside the inland sea
Inside the inland sea

When he surfaced, ecstatic, from this dive, Tony exclaimed to Sergey our Divemaster in Malta, “I think that was the best dive I’ve ever done!” It was only the second day of our diving in the Mediterranean this August, so we were both understandably euphoric about the warm water and limitless visibility, but I think that both of us still feel this was one of the most wonderful dives we’ve done. It was easy, long, and sheer enjoyment.

The rim of the ceiling around the inland sea is visible through the clear water above Tony's head
The rim of the ceiling around the inland sea is visible through the clear water above Tony's head

L’Ahrax Point is located on the northern tip of the island of Malta, and can be done as a shore entry with a long walk to and from the water. We did it off a boat (a beautiful, traditional Maltese boat), however, just after we dived the Imperial Eagle.

The entrance to the inland sea, seen from the boat
The entrance to the inland sea, seen from the boat

Like the Blue Hole on Gozo, L’Ahrax point features a cavern whose roof has long ago collapsed, giving rise to a beautiful circular hole in the rock above, quite a few metres (ten perhaps?) above the surface of the sea. You can surface in this little inland sea, as Tony did, because the cave is open to the sky over most of its extent – at some early stage of its history, the roof collapsed.

Rays of sunlight in the shallow inland sea
Rays of sunlight in the shallow inland sea

The boat anchored in about 10 metres of water, quite close to the entrance to a small cave that is open to the air through a circular hole in the roof. After swimming through a dark, magnificent slash in the limestone, one emerges into bright sunlight and 2-3 metres of water. There is rich vegetation and invertebrate life in this shallow inland sea, as well as in the entrance tunnel and the small, dark cave located at the furthest distance from the open sea.

A pinnacle in shallow water
A pinnacle in shallow water

After exploring the inland sea and cave we exited through the tunnel and swam past where the boat was anchored. There are many overhangs and narrow gullies to swim through, and the sea grass and other plant life made it seem as if we were exploring an underwater meadow. We entered a couple of small caves (really just cracks in the rock), and dived ourselves silly. After doing three wreck dives in a row and not being blown away by the marine life of Malta (but not minding because the wrecks were so good!), we were suitably chastised after experiencing the richness that is L’Ahrax point.

Dive date: 3 August 2011

Air temperature: 31 degrees

Water temperature: 25 degrees

Maximum depth: 13.8 metres

Visibility: 30 metres

Dive duration: 56 minutes

We drop through a narrow pass
We drop through a narrow pass
Diving the wall
Diving the wall