We anchored beneath the sheer cliffs. In front of the RIB I could see the entrance to a large cave beneath water of the deepest blue. I rolled backwards, allowed in first as I was feeling the effects of the long swell. My complexion (I was told) resembled a beautiful avocado at that moment, but I at once felt better and glanced below. I could see the much-indented reef top at 6m seawards, with the wall descending into deep-blue oblivion.

We dropped to the reef top and started a headfirst glide downwards. Another reef top appeared - it was time to set up the camera. I was now at 55m and my exhaled breath sounded as if it was flowing through soup. I looked over the reef to see large shadows moving with slow deliberation way below. I wanted more, to be down among the creatures that inhabited the reef at Ras ir-Raheb, but Edwards signal said it all: Youve had a glimpse of life over the edge - its time to get back to reality. Were up now!

Against my instinct to soar to the bottom of the drop-off, I reluctantly finned up the sheer wall into saner depths. At 30m I followed my two buddies into a cave system. I was surrounded by grouper which looked at me in wonderment and didnt flee as the camera was flash-fired.

I could hear my buddies exhaled bubbles and see their sweeping torch-beams through a vertical hole in the roof of the cave. I followed, only to become firmly wedged. A hand came down from above, easing my cylinder valve away from the confines of the surrounding rock wall, and I rose into a large cavern.

The surrounding walls were festooned with small lace corals, and I eased my way through shoals of large saddled bream and grouper, which hung in midwater as if saying: Its up to you to move, were staying put! Again with some reluctance,
I followed the others out of the upper cave to the 6m reef and our RIB above.

This was Maltese diving at its best, the Malta that local dive centres tend not to take you to, although Underwaterworld Diving was today proving an exception. Be it the wreck of a British submarine or, as we had just experienced, a dive off the Dingli Cliffs, if youre experienced and qualified and want the best, it promises to take you there.

From the moment I first dived the Blue Hole, Azure Window and Inland Sea in 1980, I had also marvelled at the diving sites of Maltas neighbouring island, Gozo. Many thousands of dives later, I still find them as good.

Fins on, reg in, I lowered myself into the clear liquid of the Blue Hole and dropped through the vertical cavern to fin out into the iridescent blue. I had listened with only half an ear to the pre-dive briefing from Bob, the dive guide from Calypso Diving Centre, because I knew this site of old.

Its a dive of exceptional quality - at 20, 30, 40m, every ripple could be spotted on the surface, and underwater life went on, not caring that we were perhaps 200th in a procession of surface fodder to have cruised its way that day. Octopuses scurried over the reef. Morays with their ever-opening and closing jaws eyed us with suspicion, and grouper floated motionless, always about 4m away, and considered us with shy inquisitiveness.

As shoals of damselfish moved to and fro in an hypnotic dance around us, I was moved to a state close to drunken euphoria. Then, in seconds, all life was gone. Nothing moved over the reef and walls. I glanced seawards to see dark shapes cruising in from the limit of visibility - four 2m long amberjack were scouring the area, foraging for their next meal.

They too were gone as suddenly as they had appeared, and with their departure the inhabitants of the reef returned from 1001 hidey-holes. Too soon, the dive was over. It seemed as if only a few minutes had elapsed since we had left the confines of the Blue Hole, but my computer indicated that we had spent 50 minutes down below.

For many years the Maltese islands have enjoyed a vast influx of divers from all over Europe. With shore-diving giving immediate access into 30m-plus depths with drop-offs, caves, natural arches, reefs and of course wrecks at a number of locations, its easy to see why.

A number of World War Two wrecks lie in deep water (the S-class British submarine HMS Stubborn in 60m, a Blenheim bomber in 42m, a Spitfire in 50m and the Freighter wreck in 65m) and they are dived only infrequently, but there is still much wreckage from this period to dive at less demanding depths.

Aware of the hot competition from the Red Sea and elsewhere, and to cater further for wreck-divers, the Maltese government has initiated an artificial reef programme which to date has scuttled six ships, including two car ferries, an ocean-going tug and the 5390 tonne, 109m-long merchant tanker Um el Faroud, a shore dive from Wied iz-Zurrieg.

Malta and Gozo offer good diving suitable for all grades of qualification and experience, while the non-diver should never feel neglected, as there is much to see and do around the islands.

Dont expect to see multicoloured tropical fish, manta rays, sharks or the living coral reef in this part of the world - if you want this, a trip further afield will be necessary. And bear in mind that downsides include the fact that diving can be restricted if a north-westerly wind blows up (these can last a few days) and that if you hire vehicles some of the roads leave a lot to be desired, with even the potholes having potholes!

What Malta can offer is some of the best diving available in the Mediterranean, in a safe location, within three hours flight-time of the UK. Its comparatively cheap, and divers are warmly welcomed everywhere. Wish you were there

Divernet
A
A divers landmark in Gozo is the Azure Window and Blue Hole
diver
diver at the wheel of the Imperial Eagle, an old Gozo ferry sunk in 42m as an artificial reef
Mediterranean
Mediterranean moray eel
tubeworm
tubeworm on the wreck of the tugboat Rozi, one of Maltas most popular wreck sites

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Air Malta flies from most UK and European airports to Luqa International Airport in Malta.
DIVING: Centres in Malta include Underwaterworld Diving, 00356 9494034, e-mail: underwaterworld@onvol.net; and Meldives Diving Centre, Malta, 00356 522595. On Gozo - Calypso Diving Centre, 00356 562000, e-mail: caldive@digigate.net. Also check others advertising in this issue.
ACCOMMODATION: Plenty of good hotels, and self-catering accommodation is available at competitive rates, though best value might be obtained through package deals.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round diving destination though with an air temperature reaching as high as 40°C in the summer and dropping as low as 10°C in January. Very little if any rainfall between mid-May and October.
WATER TEMPERATURE: 14-26°C.
MONEY: Maltese lira, credit cards. Sterling and travellers cheques can be exchanged almost anywhere.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: Everyone.
FOR NON DIVERS: Watersports, one water park, ancient temples, Popeye Village film set, Captain Morgan Island Cruises.
COST: A one-week package including flights costs from £174 depending on date of travel and accommodation required with Malta Direct Travel, an Air Malta group company, 0208 785 3233. A six-dive accompanied package costs from £49. Car hire costs from £7 per day, driving on the left as in the UK.
FURTHER INFORMATION: Malta Tourist Office, 0207 292 4900, www.tourism.org.mt