Diving the wrecks and reefs within reach of Malta's shoreline, John Liddiard finds a sneaky way to ensure that he gets more bottom time in which to enjoy the views than the other divers in his group
THE CHARACTER OF MALTA HAS A DISTINCTLY BRITISH FLAVOUR. Not the latter-day invasion of expat British pubs you find in many Mediterranean destinations, but a mature blend of local and British history dating back hundreds of years. Pubs, bars and restaurants are generally run by native Maltese with names such as George and William. My Maltese host at Underwater World is Edward. Helping out in the shop is his father, Charlie. Working with him is Maltese dive instructor Kevin. Though, to be fair to other nationalities, Robin is a Dutch instructor working for the season and Carolina, the trainee divemaster, is Russian. From St Paul's Bay, we climb into a 4x4 and vans and head off across the island for a couple of shore dives. Edward warns me not to leave anything valuable in the vehicles, and he is proved right when we dive the remains of destroyer HMS Maori in Valletta harbour. It's a busy location, because every dive centre is there hiding from the wind, but by fortune of timing we get the wreck pretty much to ourselves under water.
Back on the waterfront, the rear-door lock on Edward's Land Rover has been tripped, our clothes searched and valuables stolen - a few pounds in cash, my sunglasses (replaced for£3.50 at the shop across from the dive centre) and Carolina's phone. The odd thing is that the thieves have not ransacked the vehicle. They have folded everything so carefully that it's hard to work out what has been taken. They have even closed the door. Petty theft from divers' vehicles happens so frequently in Malta that dive centres have given up reporting it. Two hours making a statement at the police station isn't worth the effort when measured against loss of diving time. Unable to take my bag of spare camera bits with me to the dive sites, I limit my camera spares to a clean towel and a film for each dive. I have to guess at a lens the day before we leave the dive centre, and hope it suits the conditions we find at each site. But I know which lens I need when we drive across the island to Wied iz-Zurrieq. This steep, narrow inlet is the embarkation point for tourist boats to the Blue Grotto, a cave along the coast, and, more importantly, the entry point for diving the Um-el-Faroud, a one-time Libyan tanker sunk as an artificial reef in 1998. One of the nice things about Malta's artificial reefs is that they are sunk close enough inshore to allow shore diving, but the El-Faroud is about 150m out of the inlet and off the point, a fair swim at the start of a dive. To save as much of my air for the wreck as possible, I cheat. Edward is leading three other divers, and I am diving with trainee-divemaster Carolina. I follow Edward to make sure I get to the wreck, but while he is following the reef out at 15 to 20m, I follow him from above at just 5m. After 10 minutes or so, Edward points into the blue off the reef. He has seen the shadow of the wreck and it's time to swim deeper. From above, I still can't see it, though with the wreck in mind I stop swimming, dump buoyancy and glide forwards and downwards. I rendezvous with the stern deck and immediately head deeper to the rudder and propeller.
By the time I have swum through the engine-room and wheelhouse, then down to the main deck, the other divers are already on their way back to the shore. I don't have enough air left to visit the bow, so use what I can spare to linger round the superstructure's davits and stairways before making a speedy return. In the evenings, I am just about starting to work out my way around all the back roads and alleys of St Paul's Bay, looking for out-of-the-way places to eat each evening. There are plenty of small restaurants and bars offering good-value food and even better value on beer and wine. I get the impression that Malta has its loyal following of regular divers and that the locals are used to this. Anyone from taxi-drivers to shopkeepers to waiters and bar staff embarks on a conversation assuming that I am on a repeat visit. In truth, I am. But not in the way they expect. Getting on for 20 years ago, I went on a couple of club trips to Gozo. All I had seen of Malta on those trips was through the window of a bouncing taxi. Nostalgia. It's a symptom of getting old. I must have enjoyed the diving, as we did the trip two years running. I don't visit Gozo on this trip, but it does play a part. At Cirkewwa the traffic is filtered into two lanes marked in the road. 'Divers' to the left and 'Gozo Ferry' to the right. It shows just how popular this dive site is. The wind has moved round enough that we get some shelter from Gozo, making it possible to dive the wreck of the Rozi, a tug sunk for divers in 1992. Even so, conditions are less than perfect. Robin takes his time to check the safety of the entry and exit points before we dive. A few minutes later, and 5m down, I can forget that there are waves above.
Like the El Faroud, the Rozi is more than 100m from the entry point. Once again, I save as much air as possible for the wreck. I let Robin lead along the reef while I stay shallow and follow from above. This time I spot the wreck at the same time as the other divers, and by spot the wreck I really do mean 'the wreck' - all of it. Visibility is the perfect deep blue expected of the Mediterranean. Small grey damselfish form a light cloud above, with a few dozen bream milling in and out of the wheelhouse. A barracuda swims past in the distance. But despite my fondness for barracuda, it doesn't tempt me out on a wild barracuda chase. Back at the exit point, the sea has moved round. It's a little rougher than when we jumped in, though getting out is much easier than I had expected. I have a small luxury today. We are diving in two groups, so I am able to bring my camera bag with me and play with lenses and a dry camera between dives. The van won't be left unguarded. By the time the second group has dived, the sea is getting uncomfortably rougher. For our second dive we move down the island to Ghar Lapsi, a perfectly sheltered bay with a reef and a cave outside. The wind remains from the west and the advantage of an island is that we can dive on the sheltered east. At Zanqar we have flat calm, easy access and dirty visibility, with everything that has been stirred up along the coast swept this way. While preparing to dive, a bright yellow and red fire-bomber skims well out to sea, part of the airshow that is running this afternoon. Who hasn't heard the apocryphal tale of the diver's body found in the remains of a forest fire in California? It's another long swim out to the tugs 10 and St Michael. I follow my usual tactic of following Edward and the rest of the group from well above - though a little deeper than usual, just in case the story of the fire-bomber and the diver should turn out not to be a myth! Both wrecks are smaller and shallower than the Rozi. With plenty of divers from our group and others, after a brief foray to each one I ascend to 7m above the St Michael and conserve my air while waiting for everyone else to turn back. It's a move that takes a bit of a risk as more divers continue to arrive. I pick my moment and descend for 15 minutes on the wreck with just two others. For a second dive, we stay in the bay. Having brought a wide lens for the wrecks, I am now at a disadvantage. I spend 45 minutes finding nudibranchs, scorpionfish, bristleworms and octopuses in their holes, all the while cursing that I had not been able to swap to a macro lens between dives. I do get to play with a macro lens at Qawra Point. Just for the sake of it, I join an afternoon training dive where instructor Kevin is teaching in the sheltered water behind the point, while Carolina and I swim round the outside. It's a shallow wall with some separated boulders, gullies and a couple of small caves. As expected, I find nudibranchs, scorpionfish and bristleworms, but no octopuses. To finish the trip, we take the Land Rover and Jeep to the northern tip of Malta, down a track to a small bay and a dive site Edward calls 'White Tower'. It's the longest swim yet, out of the bay and off the point to the wall, across acres of neptune grass and some rocky gullies on the way. But it's a shallow swim, just 5m deep, then shelving to 10m before the wall dips from a corner. The face of the wall is predominantly made up of the small green calcifying algae that dominate wall dives in the Mediterranean. It is the base of the wall between 20 and 25m that becomes more interesting, with overhangs and small caves providing opportunities for sponges and orange cup corals to show their colours. On the swim back in, I explore the shallows. A scour pit near the point leads back to a narrow cave in the headland, slits in the roof giving light from above. Then, further into the bay we discover a new wreck. It's a good 10m from the bow to the stern. Quite a respectable size - if it wasn't for the fact that it is a small white rowing boat, broken in two.
Steps at the back of the superstructure on the Um-el-Faroud wreck at Wied iz-Zurrieq
Below the wheelhouse in the wreck of HMS Maori
Shell from the forward gun of HMS Maori.
A hermit crab on top of the battery from an old dumped car.
The Gozo ferry coming round the point - which is a good reason not to swim too far round!
Bream swim in and out of the wheelhouse on the wreck of the Rozi
Entering the cave in the shallows at White Tower
GETTING THERE:Air Malta flies daily from Heathrow. Divers get a generous 35kg allowance provided it is booked in advance, though baggage-handling restricts it to 32kg in any single bag. DIVING: Underwaterworld is based at the Grand Hotel Mercure, St Paul's Bay, 00356 2350 3643, www.underwaterworldmalta.com. Accompanied dives cost about£19 per dive, with discounts for multiple dives. If you rent a car and plan your own dives, cylinder and weights for six days' unaccompanied diving with unlimited fills costs from around£38. Nitrox and full equipment rental are available. ACCOMMODATION:Many mainstream holiday companies provide packages inclusive of hotel and charter flights. Costs vary upwards from a few hundred pounds for last-minute out-of-season deals. WHEN TO GO:Diving is available year round. Water temperature varies from that which requires only a 3mm shortie in the summer to a full 7mm wetsuit or drysuit in winter. CURRENCY: Maltese pounds (LM) are worth about£1.70. Malta is part of the EU and euros are widely accepted. FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 8877 6990, www.visitmalta.com