WE SWIM OUT FROM the deep cave towards the wreck at a depth of 15m, and I try to catch the first glimpse of the ship by searching for a darker blur above the white sand in the distance.
I check my landmarks (is that what we should call them under water?) and see, with some satisfaction, that I am on the right track. Posidonia seagrass sways deep below us in the current, and I make sure that I keep to our agreed depth to conserve air and avoid excessive decompression.
After what seems like an interminable swim, the wreck suddenly materialises out of an intense blue, taking more recognisable shape from the promising darker blur on which I had been focused earlier.
I savour the moment, with a mixture of relief at having navigated the journey precisely and a sense of awe as the large aft deck of the 110m tanker greets us.
This happens every single time I dive the wreck of the Um el-Faroud, one of Malta’s prime dive-sites, and it keeps drawing me, even though I have been diving it for the past 20 years.

THE WRECK RESTS STARKLY on a bed of white sand and the impeccable visibility reveals the whole stern section of the ship. From our depth at 20m, we can see the funnel framed by the distant surface waves as well as the rudder and screw below us at 34m, cradled in a depression created by sand scour.
We reach the aft deck, take a well-deserved breather and adjust our photo gear. I watch Veronica, my dive buddy, as she hastens to clip on a wide-angle lens and adjusts the flash arm. Then we move off to shoot the school of barracuda lazily circling the lifeboat davits.
It all started when tragedy struck Malta Drydocks (MDD) on 3 February, 1995. Nine workers lost their lives as an explosion ripped through the night in the Cottonera area.
I was living in Australia at the time, but I heard about the incident when my mother called to tell me – news travels fast, and bad news even faster. I still find it difficult to imagine the national grief that gripped the Maltese islands during that time, despite my reading of newspaper articles and talking to friends who experienced the tragedy directly.
My experience is different but I am reminded every time I see the plaque bearing the names of those nine workers on the bridge of the Um el-Faroud, 18m below the waves at Wied iz-Zurrieq.
A documentary screened by a Maltese TV station featured a ship insurance surveyor who discussed the causes of the accident. The Libyan oil tanker was in No 3 dry-dock undergoing repairs and maintenance. The surveyor claimed that two of the holds had been filled with ballast water but these, unbeknown to MDD officials, would normally have been filled with refined petroleum products – mostly petrol.
As the holds were being emptied of this ballast water, their sides and the sludge that often collects at the bottom of tanks were exposed to the air.
The more volatile compounds of the oil residues vapourised and started to leak from a hole on the deck.
This highly flammable vapour was eventually ignited by welding torches and burned back into the hold, setting off the enormous explosion. Photos in local newspapers reveal the extent of the damage. The central section of the tanker was destroyed by the blast and the ship’s structure was severely compromised.
After three years of legal wrangling, it was decided to patch the tanker, tow it towards Wied iz-Zurrieq and scuttle it just outside the bay.
The idea, to create an artificial reef to serve as a diving attraction, turned out to be a wise one. The dock was finally freed and the local as well as the tourist diving community gained a new reef far larger than anything we had at the time.
I have fond memories of the day the ship was scuttled, 2 September, 1998. I took my two young sons down to Wied iz-Zurrieq to witness the event, and managed to get a few photos of them with the sinking ship in the background.
I remember being surprised by how long it took to sink. The Faroud arrived at the scuttling site in late morning, and it was some four hours into the afternoon before it sank, by which time some of the bystanders had given up and left.

EVENTUALLY THE LONG-AWAITED MOMENT arrived and the superstructure disappeared below the waves. Whoops, bells, whistles, sirens and fog-horns from the attendant tugs and tenders joined in chorus to salute the ship on its way to the depths.
Of course, I was extremely keen to dive the new wreck to find out if it had landed upright and remained intact. That same evening, our group were the first divers to dive on the Faroud.
We had to wait until all the tugs and other boats had left the area, and night had all but fallen by the time we got into the water and headed off in the direction of the scuttled ship.
We ventured out onto the sand in darkness, our torches illuminating little more than a few metres ahead of us.
At the time powerful LED torches simply did not exist, and our puny Q-lights and Vegas barely penetrated the dark, but I was impressed by the relatively clear water.
We kept finning out into progressively deeper water as I tried to persuade myself that it would have been difficult to miss a 110m tanker. But these thoughts were still racing through my mind as the sand seemed to disappear from in front of me, and we almost slammed into a black wall.
I trained my light upwards and realised, with a mixed sense of relief and some trepidation, that we had reached the towering hull of the Um el-Faroud.
It was at this point that I realised just how big this wreck is – and we had once thought the Rozi a sizeable wreck!
I swam up the side of the Faroud and onto the deck. Strings of small bubbles were still rising at several points, and my lights reflected eerily from the white superstructure.
A large, red NO SMOKING sign painted under the bridge seemed to blare a message that was poignant because of the ship’s history as well as ridiculous, as it was now some 24m under water!
Open dark doorways and hatches beckoned, but I resisted the temptation. Wreck penetration is a hazardous exercise at all times but at night and on an unknown wreck it would have been close to suicidal.
Of course, there was little sign of marine life on such a fresh wreck and we never expected to see any but, finning back towards Wied iz-Zurrieq, we did encounter some squid and gurnards, a welcome indication of good times ahead.
The Um el-Faroud has since become my most-frequented dive site. It is a stupendous wreck; placed just far enough out to make the dive a challenge while being close enough to the shore to make the dive accessible from the mouth of the bay at Wied iz-Zurrieq.
The 17 years in which it has lain under water have wrought significant changes. Severe storms have battered the ship, even though its keel is now resting at a depth of 34m. The main deck lies at 24m, while the bridge is at a depth of 18m.

THE WRECK SEEMS to have settled over the years. The single funnel (the highest part) was clearly visible at a depth of 10m and I used to love snorkelling out to the wreck and freediving down to it. Sand scour is very evident around the single four-bladed screw, which is where divers encounter their deepest part of the dive.
Without a doubt, however, the most significant structural change is the break-up of the wreck into two sections. Not surprisingly, this occurred along the tear suffered during the explosion. The bow and stern sections have now shifted and rotated so much that the port side of the bow section almost aligns with the starboard side of the stern section.
The heavier mass and greater size of the stern section has also resulted in this part of the ship settling more.
The bow section has tilted downwards at the prow. This has created a space between the keel and the underlying sand where quite a few fish like to gather in a semi-obscure habitat.
The more welcome change in this wreck is that it has now gained a patina of algae, sponges, and other sessile organisms. It has become a living, functioning artificial reef.

MOST DIVERS TEND TO BE impressed by the larger predatory fish that often gather around the Faroud. These include large schools of barracuda and amberjack, as well as the more solitary grouper and moray eels.
In my case I also tend to look at the smaller critters. I am always impressed by the various species of nudibranchs, bristleworms, fanworms and other macro subjects – especially if they happen to be crawling over a colourful sponge.
Of course, divers also make good subjects for photography, and they can be beautifully framed by portholes or anchor-chain holes.
A word about safety. Some dive-books and dive-centre websites tell you that you can follow compass bearings ranging from 240° to 270° at the bay mouth to reach the wreck. These are fine but, perhaps because of my familiarity with the sites, I prefer to use visual cues.
I follow the drop-off, at a depth of 15m, up to the deep cave that has three openings – one above the other.
From there, I strike out towards the wreck, keeping the ATLAM SAC monument (a dive helmet) just on my left and the large boulders of the drop-off on my right.
Pretty soon you will see a bare patch of sand shaped roughly like an arrow and about 5m wide among the posidonia. This will point the way to the Faroud.
Of course, gaps in posidonia meadows are not permanent waypoints, so don’t rely on this too far into the future, but it has served me well for the past few years.

CURRENTS MAY BE quite strong, and they tend to sweep you along the wreck from the stern towards the bow.
The best thing to do in such cases is to head towards the shoreline (make sure you take an effective bearing before the dive) or strike out at a right angle to the wreck from the ship’s starboard.
The current will ease as you approach the shore and, in some cases, you may find that there is another current that can lead you towards the valley.
The shallower depths along the shoreline allow safer decompression (if that is required) and you can follow the shoreline to the valley.
Avoid fighting against the current while finning along the reciprocal bearing provided in some guide-books. Many divers have run out of air and had to surface in open water while being carried along by the current.
Some were rescued by fishing-boats, while others required assistance from rescue helicopters. Of course, the prudent thing to do is contact a local dive centre and let it guide you there.