|WEID-IZ-ZURRIEQ IS A SPECTACULAR GULLY OF CLEAR DEEP BLUE WATER on the south-western coast of Malta. It looks an appetising dive site in itself, but the main course is a 3147 ton oil-tanker a few hundred metres offshore. The site should be renamed the Golden Grotto. |
The Um El Faroud was intentionally sunk here for divers in 1998 as part of a programme of wreck-sinkings around Malta and Gozo, planned to improve the islands already renowned diving. It was built by Smith Dock of Middlesbrough in 1969 and was operating as a Libyan tanker with her registered port Tripoli until her services were no longer required.
Rather than scrap her, she was offered as a diving prop for a dive site and came to Malta to be cleaned up and made safe for divers to explore.
Sadly, nine Maltese workers lost their lives as trapped gas exploded while the ship was moored in the Grand Harbour in Valletta. It was a tragedy that affected the tight-knit Maltese community in which most people would know of one of the poor victims. There is now a plaque on the wreck commemorating them.
The Um El Faroud now sits proudly upright on a clean, sandy sea floor. Its screw lies in 36m of water and general depth on the deck is around 26m.
Your first sight is of the stern looming out of the blue, and in the immense visibility you can see the whole of the aft accommodation and superstructure. Its a breathtaking sight and a whole dive can happily be whiled away just exploring this area alone.
Dive Deep Blue, with which I dived, does precisely this with the morning dive on the deck, covering stern to bow, and the afternoon dive is dedicated to the superstructure at the stern, penetrating the wheelhouse and engine-room. Its certainly worth taking your torch.
I saw something new on each of three dives on this wreck. The third dive was a mission to reach the bows, and it was worth the effort. A large forecastle with winches atop and anchor chains running out through the hawse pipes made an interesting sight, although the anchors had been blasted off.
The swim around the bow with the straight line of the prow cutting right down into the sea floor 12m below was an awesome sight. The ship is 360ft long, so the bow was quite a fin. Because of this we enjoyed the wreck to ourselves until our return to the stern, where most divers spend their time.
Amidships we saw the huge crack where the ship has now broken in two. A large part of the deck is also missing as a result of the explosion, enabling divers to see inside.
The stern accommodation is immense, with three levels above the deck. There are companionways to explore and stairways to ascend. The fin through the wheelhouse is a Ã’must doÃ“, and on exiting, the area above and behind also repaysinspection. Divers can explore the funnel, the highest point of the wreck. A deck below, lifeboat davits hang out from the hull.
At the stern, on the lowest deck mooring, bollards and winches can be viewed. The galley, with a large mixing machine in the corner and rows of ovens beside the doorway, is open for inspection.
With so much to see, I dont think my three dives have done justice to the wreck yet. Another dive, for instance, could have allowed me to see the engine-rooms.
Time is always an issue, as is the weather, and there were three other intentionally sunk wrecks that I desperately wanted to dive before my time was up. As the north-westerly wind abated, the prime sites around the north of the island became available and the Rozi was our next target.
Sunk in 1992 as a prop for a submarine operator, divers were also gifted another wreck. This tug operated around the Grand Harbour for some 20 years before her sinking. Submarines no longer visit the site but the Rozi sits bolt upright in around 36m of water.
Fantastic images can be obtained of this wreck in the bright, clear conditions, as almost its full 164ft length can be viewed in the viz. The bow is particularly impressive, with large tyres still acting as fenders on the Rozis watery grave.
Mast and wheelhouse still rise above the deck, shrouded by small damselfish. The only items removed were a few doors to aid exploration, plus the engine and the prop. In the huge area left by the removal of the engines is a mass of piping that has provided homes to moray and conger eels, though we managed to find only one small conger.
Time soon mounts up on this wreck. Finning back to the entry point, a large admiralty anchor can be seen. The reef then starts its climb back to the shallows and there are a few tunnels and swimthroughs here and, further round, a cave with a statue of the Madonna. Atop the reef, while carrying out our deco stops, a small octopus kept us entertained.
We completed this site as a shore dive when conditions were less than perfect. Entry was OK, as deep water and a gully provided a good entry point, but exiting was a little more tricky, especially with a handful of camera gear. Take care and assess the conditions to ensure that you are happy to dive.
We decided to have a second dive on the wreck and spend a bit more time on it. Conditions in the afternoon settled and we enjoyed having the wreck all to ourselves.
The Imperial Eagle was launched in 1938 as the New Royal Lady. She changed her name a few times, and even plied the waters of the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where I live, as the Royal Lady. She also carried out port defence duties for the US Navy.
In 1957 she came to Malta and, modified to carry cars, was renamed the Imperial Eagle. At 150ft long and weighing 250 tonnes, the wreck makes a perfect dive for the 43m of water off Qawra Point in which it lies.
As we motored out with Neil of Innovative Travel, who kindly let us have the use of his boat to dive this wreck at short notice, Jonathan of Deep Blue Diving told me that the Imperial Eagle was said to be the sister-ship of Jacques Cousteaus first Calypso.
With such an interesting history I expected this wreck to be special, and it turned out to be my favourite of the four we visited.
The buoyline does not lead directly to the wreck but to the impressive reef surrounding it. We veered off the line on the way down to view the large statue of Christ positioned here, a very short fin along the reef as the bows of the Imperial Eagle loomed out of the blue. Sitting bolt upright on clean white sand it looked bright and clear even at this depth.
After a few shots of the bows we finned over the bridge and the remains of the wheelhouse. The walls had fallen away but the wheel remained, a perfect prop for photography. The mast rose up behind it, pointing to the sun above and masked only by dense shoals of damselfish, a fantastic sight.
Finning aft, the funnel appeared, preceded by the remains of two air vents. I noted the shining white enamel of a toilet-seat on the seabed off the starboard side and Jonathan took the chance to adopt the Thinkers pose.
The stern rose high above us but we visited the twin screws, which were heavily encrusted with orange growth, and the rudder hard over to port.
Before my computer started beeping, I decided to ascend to deck level and finned along the companionway which runs the length of the ship. It felt serene gliding along looking through the windows into the blue, before exiting through a window under the bridge which led onto the foredeck. Here the mooring bollards and winches could be viewed.
I had heard that the site was meant to be a marine park, though I saw no evidence of this. According to a story in the Maltese Times, however, this is supposed to be implemented shortly as part of a programme to protect Maltas marine environment.
The Xlendi is another intentionally sunk wreck, this time lying off the coast of Gozo. She was a big ship at 77m in length and weighing 1123 tons. Built in Denmark by shipbuilder Helsingor in 1955 and taken out of service in 1997, she was prepared and sunk for divers in November 1999.
This wreck was meant to be a multi-level site on a steep slope but the sinking did not go to plan. Where the other wrecks we visited sit bolt upright, the Xlendi hit the reef on the way down and sank upside-down in 42m of water.
Now all the sections that had been removed to assist with diver entry are hard into the seabed. Dive operators have had to up the skill-rating for completing this dive, much of which is carried out within the wreck.
It can be completed from the shore easily and the descent down the reef eventually brings you right onto the wreck, which lies parallel to the shore. The water felt a lot colder here, and I noted that my computer reading had dropped 2 to 15C from the previous dive on the Imperial Eagle.
We finned to the top of the wreck and to our left and soon the four blades of a large propeller were visible. The Xlendi was a roll-on, roll-off ferry, so had props at both ends.
A few shots later, we descended to the seabed on the seaward side of the wreck and entered it on the car deck. Winches and signs could be seen above us on the floor and we passed stairways now leading upwards into the lounge area. We decided to give this area a miss, as it all seemed a bit confusing, and opted instead for a glide along the companionway at the side of the car-deck, with blue light flooding in from now glassless windows.
Soon we left the innards of the wreck for the brightness outside, and the view of the upturned hull with the other prop above us was impressive. Up and over the hull for a closer inspection of this area, we levelled off and finned over to the reef to ascend.
It was pretty barren but for loads of black urchins, though I did see a grouper, and we had some fun with a small octopus in the shallows while searching in vain for the elusive seahorse. Another diver in the party spotted a John Dory, and these appear to be quite common in the area.
So, four very exciting wrecks, all but the Eagle easily dived from the shore, and all strategically sited to allow diving on at least one, no matter what the weather. In fact the Um El Faroud is treated as a bail-out dive in poor conditions - it must rank as one of the best reserve dives around.
But Malta is not purely a wreck-diving area. I experienced some exciting scenic dives at Lantern Point on the island of Comino, as well as the Comino caves, and Neil accompanied me on a trip back to Weid-iz-Zurrieq to enjoy the gully by night. Only a couple enjoying a cuddle in this scenic and, by day, crowded spot were disturbed by us rubber-clad explorers.
What a magic dive we had, enjoying watching squid, octopus, Spanish dancers and more scorpionfish than you could shake a stick at, looking unusually conspicuous in their bright colours in our torchlight.
There is a lot of impressive small-scale marine life, the only let-down in Malta being the lack of big marine life. Barry, the diver who saw the John Dory on the Xlendi, did also spot a school of barracuda at Lantern Point, but that was the exception. So dont expect too much in the way of pelagics, just enjoy the spectacle afforded by mans own contribution to the underwater environment.
|Um El Faroud |
|Imperial Eagle |
|Finning through the wheelhouse on the Um El Faroud |
|An octopus provides a diversion on a deco stop |
|Investigating the starboard propeller on the Imperial Eagle |
|A comber |
|The Xlendis big propeller |
|A diver hovers over the bow of the Rozi |
|A colourful wrasse |
GETTING THERE: Flights to Malta are available from most major UK airports.
DIVING : Dive Deep Blue (00356 21 583946, www.divedeepblue.com) has air and nitrox and plans to introduce trimix. A 10-dive package costs£120.
ACCOMMODATION : Mike Clark stayed at the four-star Topaz Hotel in Bugibba, which was clean, comfortable and had a good pool (00 356 21 572416, www.tumas.com/topaz).
WHEN TO GO: Best time is in the summer months from May-September but good deals can be had in the off-season. Dive Deep Blue is closed from mid-January to mid-February.
COST: Innovative Travel, based in Malta, offers complete packages (00356 213 10600, www.innovative-its.com). A weeks diving including scheduled flights, airport and dive-site transfers and a 10-dive pack start from£385 per person, based on two people sharing a room in a three-star hotel.
FURTHER INFORMATION: 020 7292 4900, www.visitmalta.com