MALTA HAS AN ENTIRE GHOST FLEET of ships from all corners of history, and not only from the two world wars. There are paddle-steamers, destroyers, aircraft, ferries, submarines and battleships. Some are deep, some shallow, some hard and some easy. So where on Earth should I start?
There are more monuments in Malta per square metre than in any other country, and the same must go for the sheer volume of wreck-sites.
Having recently finished working for a dive-centre myself, I figured that the best way to decide on the wrecks to feature in this article would be to ask the opinion of the local experts.
Where would they choose to go if they had a week off diving for fun in Malta?
The country I am sent to visit after spending 11 years working in Egypt has one of the lowest Muslim populations in the world, but the Arabs did conquer the islands in 870AD, and their influence is evident in the otherwise heavily Christian architecture, and also in the language.
Malta hosts 100,000 divers each year, a massive achievement for such a small location. Flight prices from the UK are more than reasonable and additional dive-bag charges low.
Three and 4* accommodation is affordable and there are plenty of cheap eateries and après-dive bars.
I took my equipment to Dive/Techwise and met my guide Steve Scerri and the owners of the centre, Alan and Viv Whitehead. Alan is a Platinum Course Director for PADI and an Instructor Trainer for TDI, DSAT and IANTD.
Techwise is “GUE-friendly” but does not alienate non-GUE divers in any way. Alan has a great sense of humour (“they Go Up Eventually…”) while maintaining an emphasis on safety.
He is clearly a highly skilled technical instructor and is in the water most days, while Viv, a bubbly redhead, is in charge of logistics and runs a well-organised office.
Steve gave up his “proper” job recently to become a full-time instructor, and is very much in love with his JJ rebreather. He discussed dive-planning at length, always gave an interesting dive-briefing and even blended our gas for us.
The staff were up-front – they didn’t once promise to deliver something they couldn’t, or gloss over what was out of their hands, such as weather conditions.

Lighter X127
According to Alan, the Lighter X127 is “the most historically interesting wreck in all of Malta”. It was involved in helping the injured in WW1’s Gallipoli Landings.
David Mallard, who finally determined in 2003 that the wreck was that of the X127, has dived with Alan a lot.
The wreck is accessible via Manoel Island, and after descending just a few steps into the green harbour water, you come across it within a few minutes.
The bow is at 5m, but we followed the port side to begin our dive at the deepest part, the stern, at just 22m.
The simple multi-level profile along the wreck’s furry 35m length is easy even for an Open Water Diver.
We weaved our way up, looking into the engine-room with its 5.5-tonne twin-cylinder Campbell engine. X127 was initially a water-carrier, and from the deck you can see six hatches, with both water-tanks and Tangye pumps inside.
During WW1 she became a rescue vessel, helping to remove troops and horses from battle. The footholds for the horses are on the foredeck.
Nicknamed Black Beetles, these ships were designed like Thames river barges to handle steep beaches.
It was in Malta that the vessel went back to being a water-carrier and fuel-oil lighter. On 6 March, 1942, the submarine base where she rested in Marsamxett Harbour was bombed. She caught fire, listed and sank at a 20° angle.
The bomb damage can be seen clearly amidships on the portside deck. Other features are the dinghy davits, chain-locker and gun platform.
At the spoon-shaped bow you leave the X127 and make your way back during a leisurely safety stop to the staircase to exit.

Um el Faroud
Wied-iz-Zurrieq translates from Arabic to “Blue Grotto”, and just around the headland of this Marine Protected Area is the famous limestone-arch tourist attraction.
The simple entry and exit for this dive is however in a valley of Bombay Sapphire-coloured water that penetrates the rock.
A wide staircase takes you down to the sea, where you then have a 200m swim to the wreckage. Against a mild current this took us around 10 minutes above swaying seagrass that resembled fields of heather.
The Um El Faroud is described as Malta’s Thistlegorm. I would agree insofar as it is large and has many interesting features, though of course it lacks the historical interest.
This 3147-ton single-screw tanker was scuttled on 2 September, 1998. The wreck’s 110m length sits upright in two sections on the seabed at 35m.
Its size allows it to be dived by differing certification levels from Advanced Open Water (the bridge is shallowest at 16m) to Extended Range.
Um El Faroud is often used by dive-centres as a Wreck Speciality training site, and for entry-level tec. Doors and windows were removed before scuttling, so it is easily penetrated.
I dived with twin 32% nitrox and a 50% stage at a maximum depth of 33m. Once you pass a large plinth sporting a diver’s helmet the wreck looms into view.
Spend time at the large winch at the bow, swim through the side gangways, ascend contorted stairwells and feel small on the 16m-wide deck, most of it adorned with sea firs.
In front of the windows at the helm a brass plaque was placed in memory of the workers who died in an explosion while they were repairing the tanker in Valetta’s Grand Harbour.
Leaving the wreck at the funnel, we headed back to the valley walls, where I watched octopus feeding. Thanks to the multi-level profile of the site I had almost cleared deco by the time I reached the exit point after 65 minutes.

HMS Hellespont
The HMS Hellespont was my first boat dive in Malta. We boarded the Divewise speedboat Diversion just outside the Grand Harbour and were soon dropping a shotline down to the rare paddle-wheeled steamer tug.
Launched in 1910, the Hellespont came to Malta from Ireland in 1922. Although she was scuttled, she was initially hit by Axis aircraft during an air raid in 1942.
The wreck sits in 45m and we followed the line down blessed with good visibility and a mild current.
The wooden paddles have been removed, but you can still see the metal shaft that moved them.
I also saw the remains of the engine with its piston-rods and a boiler. The helm is in good condition.
The Hellespont is a relatively small wreck and covered in algae. Sadly it is also adorned with fishing-net and buoys, but I was pleased to see more fish than I had on my previous day’s shore-diving – mainly schooling bream and eels.
The Maltese Tourist Association mentioned to me that it doesn’t buoy the wrecks around the island, as this keeps fishermen away from them.
I dived with twin nitrox 28% and a 50% stage and accumulated 25 minutes of deco in midwater, with the shotline as visual reference.

Bristol Beaufighter
From the mouth of St Julian’s Bay we headed out with the speedboat to the Bristol Beaufighter late in the afternoon, and were on the wreck in minutes. This was my first plane wreckage but I wasn’t convinced that much time could be spent on an area as small as 13m by 8m.
The Beaufighter, a twin-engine strike and torpedo aircraft, failed while climbing to meet other planes on a shipping strike in 1943. The pilot was forced to ditch at a speed of 100mph as he lost altitude following engine failure.
The wreck lies upside-down on the sandy seabed at 38m. This makes the dive more interesting, as you can see the undercarriage, fuselage and landing gear, with a sad deflated tire atop the wheel.
The port engine has one remaining prop and, amazingly after all this time, you can still see both engines, wings and also some of the tail-section feet away.
There is a fixed mooring direct to the wreck and I found plenty of marine life – moray eels, scorpionfish and tubeworms.
I refilled my 28% back-gas for this dive and enjoyed a 40-minute total dive time with little decompression. This is a very easy dive on which you don’t even need a guide, and is a great little training site – Alan was teaching skills in the early stages of a normoxic Inspiration CCR course while we were off exploring.

HMS Stubborn
Nicknamed “the underwater cigar” by local divers, the submarine HMS Stubborn sits upright on the sandy seabed at 57m. Stubborn held the record for deepest dive ever by a submarine, to 165m.
We took a traditional luzzu boat out from St Paul’s Bay. There was plenty of room for my guide and me on open-circuit trimix 20/40, three Swedes on Pelagian CCRs, an Inspiration and a JJ, in addition to a wide array of loud Swedish swimwear!
Stubborn begins to come into view at around 35m in azure water at a toasty 24°. The sub lists to starboard and despite a crusty coating of molluscs has a silhouette as perfect as the day it was built.
At 43m, the temperature rapidly dropped. By the time we reached the torpedo-tubes I registered 17° (mainly in the face!). The Swedish team in their 5mm wetsuits swam past, and I began to feel warm again.
The 70m Stubborn is so intact that you can almost hear the sonar ping. The open hatch at the conning-tower and the missing tail-fin are the only clues that this is not a working sub.
Stubborn came to rest off Qawra Point in northern Malta in 1946, as an ASDIC target. She had a colourful life following her launch – in 1943 she supported craft attacking the battleship Tirpitz; in 1944 she escaped numerous attacks by seven ships in the Norwegian Sea (including 36 depth charges), and she went on to work in Australia and the Pacific.
Marine life was ample – anemones, devil scorpionfish, massive hermit crabs, urchins and numerous sponges.
On our journey to the dive-site we passed big circular tuna farms, and while I carried out my deco along the shotline, I couldn’t help feeling what a shame it was that we weren’t seeing some of these big boys passing in the blue.

Le Polynesien
Le Polynesien cannot be seen in one dive. Its 152m bulk is nicknamed the Plate Ship, as it was carrying a lot of ceramic and glass cargo. I had a 20-minute bottom-time with a run-time of one hour and saw only the midsection.
Again, this wreck was a perfect normoxic trimix dive, with a blend of 20/40 plus deco gas.
Le Poly is historically interesting both to dive and read about. She was built in 1890 in France as a passenger liner and worked as a freighter there for many years until 1914, when she was requisitioned by the French government as a troopship.
A U-boat torpedoed her as she approached Malta on 10 August, 1918, and she went down fast, with 10 lives lost. Locals call her “Malta’s Titanic”.
The wreck lies between 53 and 70m, listing to port at 45°. The cargo holds are large but you should take a guide who knows the wreck well, because they are dark and the exits are not obvious.
I swam over hundreds of bottles of champagne and motorcycle tyres before spending the remaining minutes on the shallower upper starboard side and timber deck, where I found a surreally placed urinal!
Had I had more time, I would have loved to have returned to see the guns at the bow and stern. There was more fish life on Le Polynesien than all of the other wrecks I dived that week – of course, being further out to sea there was more current. I enjoyed seeing large schools of bream, butterflyfish and barracuda.

Imperial Eagle
My favourite wreck to photograph in Malta was the Imperial Eagle. There were no other divers on it except our team, and I found the skeleton of the rotten bow an area of imposing beauty.
I used up more of my memory card on the Eagle than on any of the other wrecks. In fact I found it difficult to tear myself away from the upper deck, bridge and bridgehouse wheel of this 45m passenger ferry.
The ship was scuttled off Qawra Point in Malta’s first marine park in July 1999, landing in an upright position. The statue of Christ that sits just off the bow was sunk nine years earlier, watched by Pope John Paul, and later moved to be near the wreckage.
The Eagle began life as a Royal Navy transport ship in 1938, and went on to carry out port-defence duties, Thames dock cruises and finally ferry service in Malta and Gozo from 1957 until the 1970s.
I took a twin-set topped off from my previous day, which gave me a trimix 26/17. With a 50% stage, I had an enjoyable 72-minute runtime.
The Imperial Eagle could carry 70 passengers and 10 cars. There were many areas with easy swim-throughs, and a more complicated engine-room. This is a perfect dive for sidemount training and entry-level technical divers, as the wreck is in a maximum depth of just 42m.
My guide even gave me a short tour of the rocky reef next to the wreck, which rewarded us with a leopard seaslug.
The deco on this wreck was far less boring than on some of the deeper wrecks, with the 8m Christ reaching up to us from the swaying seagrass below.
However, with rough surface conditions as the week’s kind weather began to change, I found myself being thrown around unpleasantly in the swell on a 6m stop!

Karwela
I took the 25-minute ferry ride over to Gozo, which is much greener and more rural and has far less traffic than Malta.
Gozo Technical Diving professes to be “GUE-minded but open-minded”, teaching TDI, PADI, ANDI and ISE courses up to instructor level, under the mentorship of Tom Steiner and his partner Audrey Cudel.
The couple took on the centre when it was no more than a “chicken shed”. With a lot of TLC they have created a very stylish building with state-of-the-art equipment and technology, and with access to a 4.5m-deep training pool.
Their creative streak is evident in the T-shirt design, quirky signs and artwork in the classroom. Tom’s reputation affords them a loyal clientele who use him to continue their training year after year, but Audrey seems to be catching him up with her high quality of sidemount-, cave- and cavern-training. She describes them as people who are always teaching, even when not paid specifically to do so.
We drove to the entry site of the mv Karwela in one of the centre’s pickups. The stairs and facilities down to the entry area are ample, yet getting in with camera, fins and stage tank required some assistance from my buddy Matt Jevon, a JJ instructor and friend of Tom and Audrey from Ireland.
The Karwela was a passenger ferry that worked between Malta and Gozo from 1986 until its demise, and had capacity for 863 passengers. She was scuttled with the Cominoland, which lies close by, on the same date in August 2006 and is described by Audrey as “the finest of the three Gozo wrecks”.
It’s a short 80m swim from the rugged coastline to the Karwela, which lies in 33-45m. Initially you just see the bubbles of other divers emerging from the bridge.
We made three penetrations, one in the engine-room, one in the deep bridge and one down a central stairwell.
Again, all doors and windows were removed before the sinking, so this is clearly an ideal site on which sidemount divers can cut their teeth.
Audrey took me around the Karwela like a sidemount siren, without one awkward movement. She glided through doorways and stairwells effortlessly.
My eyes were almost as drawn to her as they were the wreck. It was a pleasure to meet this strong-willed, highly skilled woman in the male-dominated world of technical diving.
Avoiding a less-than-glamorous exit where we entered, Audrey took us on a longer, more scenic route via a boulder reef covered in sea fir. This enabled us to complete the deco of a 71-minute dive in less static surroundings. We exited easily up a metal ladder to flat limestone rock, where our truck met us.

Deco day
Most UK return flights are early-morning, so you may be unable to dive on your final day. If so, I strongly recommend some culture. I took an adventurous seven-and-a-half-hour tour of topside Malta.
The tiny city of Valletta hides many treasures within its limestone walls, and I must have had the most knowledgeable tour-guide on the island, taking me through a history spanning seven millennia.
Malta and Gozo also have three of the world’s 1000-plus UNESCO World Heritage Sites a stone’s throw from your hotel. I visited one – a prehistoric fertility temple.
Because of its location, 300 days of sunshine a year and low-cost flights, Malta has grown popular with the film industry. Game of Thrones, Assassin’s Creed, Troy and Gladiator among others have been filmed here in recent years.
During my tour it was thrilling to hear of the centuries of battles, air sieges and bombings that resulted in many of the shipwrecks for which Malta is famous, despite being separated from other countries by hundreds of miles of sea.

FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Cath flew from London Heathrow with Air Malta, www.airmalta.com
DIVING: Divewise & Techwise offers open and closed circuit – rec and full tec – for training and guided dives. RIB dives are available, www.divewise.com.mt. Gozo Diving offers guided and unguided shore- and boat-dives on single tank or sidemount. It has a guesthouse above it called the Mariblu and can also recommend self-catering apartments and hotels, www.gozodiving.com
ACCOMMODATION: Cath stayed B&B?at both the 3* Sunflower and 4* Santana hotels located near St Paul’s Bay. St Julian’s Bay is closer to Divewise but much noisier, www.sunroutehotels.com
WHEN TO GO: Cath travelled in October and the water was still 24°C above 40m. Summer months can bring roasting temperatures for technical divers in drysuits.
MONEY: Euro.
HEALTH: Recompression facilities at the Msida Hospital in Malta and one in Gozo.
PRICES: Flights, £120 return. A Divewise six-boat-dive rec package costs 75 euros and the tec equivalent 220 euros. With Gozo Diving a six-shore-dive package is 150 euros. Guided tec prices range from 50 euros for a 40-45m deco dive up to 120 euros for a 60-70m trimix dive.
VISITOR INFORMATION: www.visitmalta.com