|Three hours out from the UK, the aircraft dips over a series of rugged islands set in the sparkling southern Mediterranean Sea. The Maltese archipelago, 60 miles south of Sicily and 290 miles from the African coast, is geographically and politically isolated. It appears rather dry and barren, though in fact the islands are very fertile.|
The Republic of Malta consists of three main islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, and they are steeped in history. Their language, a curious mixture of Arabic and Latin known as Malti, derives from the various conquests of the islands by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spanish, French and the Knights of St John.
The islands were the most popular overseas diving destination before the Red Sea opened to mass tourism, and remain favourites of German, Dutch and Italian as well as British divers, with some 40,000 visiting each year.
Working with my wife Lesley on a new guide to the islands, we encountered not only a massive diversity of marine life, but some of the most scenic diving we have ever encountered, with vertical walls dropping more than 50m directly from the shore, and spectacular archways, tunnels, caverns and wrecks ancient and modern adding to the diving pleasure.
Shore diving, we were constantly surprised by the large schools of small fish. Further offshore were groupers and many non-commercial fish species such as salema. At San Dimitri Point on Gozo, a school of barracuda is encountered on every dive.
Of all the marine creatures that are a delight to find here, the seahorse tops the list. Camouflaged by small pieces of algae attached to the fleshy protuberances behind their heads and down their scaly backs, they are almost invisible among the encrusting algae found over the Maltese substrate of limestone rocks and boulders.
Preferring calm conditions, seahorses are often found near brackish water where salt and fresh water mix. Valletta Harbour, Mellieha Bay, Marfa Point, Mgarr Ix-Xini and the Ghasri Valley are all favourite locations.
Many areas are popular for fish-feeding, and while this is a practice with which I disagree, many snorkelling and diving tourists love being surrounded by thousands of fish enjoying titbits stolen from hotel tables.
There is no limit to the number or type of dives to be undertaken around the islands. Sadly, a number of incidents occur, as the lure of deep diving can over-ride good sense. We came across one cold, sorry lot in shorties at the bottom of the Blue Hole on Gozo, their dive computers indicating 90 minutes of decompression after two dives beyond 60m. We assisted with extra air bottles and stood by in case of emergency.
A vast number of submarine caves and caverns are to be found here too. Several deaths have been recorded in caves that can extend for hundreds of metres. Divers should not explore most of them without qualified guides or proper training. Only one dive centre is at present able to give a PADI qualification in this specialised aspect of the sport, and that is Aquaventure at Mellieha Bay in Malta.
There are no clearly defined underwater areas in the Maltese islands, and enforcement of legislation is inadequate. At the airport a customs officer asked whether we had any spearguns, and said spearfishing was illegal on the islands, yet the practice continues.
With 20,000 hunter-voters, there is little hope of it being otherwise. It is best not to antagonise the locals; visiting sport divers have occasionally been threatened by Maltese spearfishermen when they have tried to point out the error of their ways. They have also been attacked by anglers claiming that they are frightening the fish away, though these are isolated incidents. Thankfully a new conservation policy is gaining strength, spearheaded by local groups and dive centres. One of the first areas to be protected will be Cirkewwa on Malta, and a number of the new wrecks will also be subjected to fishing restrictions.
Maltas climate has to be the hottest in Europe. In summer the sun blazes in cloudless blue skies, and because these islands are further south than parts of the North African coast, temperatures are high. From May to the end of September, the maximum will range from 30-34*C, with almost 13 hours of sunshine, so protect yourself accordingly.
The power of the sun is often disguised by a north-westerly breeze, especially later in the year when the majjistral, as it is known locally, is at its strongest. The north-easterly wind is known as the grigal, and the northerly tramuntana causes the occasional winter storm. The warm sirocco that blows off the Sahara often makes the sea rough along southern shores, and all diving is then done on the north shore.
From October to the end of April, temperatures will be between 17 and 28C. Sea temperatures start to fall in November and are down to 14C in January and February, when thicker wetsuits, or even drysuits, are needed.
Malta is the largest of the three islands at 95sq miles, and is characterised by steep cliffs in the south, deeply indented northern shores and the sheltered areas around the Grand Harbour of Valletta. Cirkewwa, or Marfa Point as it is also known, is next to the ferry terminal for Gozo and is a magnet for dive training and for more experienced divers who want to dive the wreck of the Rozi.
The islands were awarded the George Cross for fortitude in the face of the enemy in World War Two. Valletta Harbour has six diveable wreck sites, including the Maori (see Wrecks Q & A) and the Carolita barge. Other accessible wrecks around the islands include the Tent Peg Wreck, mv Odile, HMS Jersey, the Blenheim bomber and, most recently, the tanker Um El Faroud.
1 The Tugboat Rozi
The Rozi was sunk deliberately in 1992 for divers and sits perfectly upright on a sandy bottom at 36m. It is home to thousands of fish, mostly chromis, bream and sand smelt. Nearby, the posidonia seagrass beds contain cuttlefish and pipefish.
2 Marfa Central (The Training Pool)
With access from the car park down a concrete ramp to the waters edge and 1m of water, this is perfect for trainees, with a rocky seabed of varying depths and a small shelf and mini-wall that eventually drops to 18m. An excellent night dive, the site is highly regarded for its octopus, moray eels, shrimps, crabs and golden cup corals.
3 Paradise Bay
Access is south of the car park, to the end of the southern ferry pier, and a short jump into the water. Keeping the edge of the wall to your right, you eventually come to the Training Pool and easy access. This site is popular with fishermen who bait the schools of chromis and sand smelt, so take care to avoid their lines.
4 Anchor Bay
This lies down the steeply cut road to the small pier opposite Popeye Village. The diving is best out of the bay and around the corner to the left. A massive boulder next to the wall marks the entrance of the cave and has a base of rounded stones. You will find lots of brittle starfish and cave shrimps here.
This is an unspoiled dive site due to the conditions on the shore before you get to the water. Its all right clambering down 300m of rugged headland, but it is another matter climbing back up after a deep dive! The vertical walls, ledges, caves and caverns are home to large numbers of wrasse, parrotfish, chromis and grouper.
6 Ghar Lapsi
This is a popular site with trainees, who can enter a safe, shallow cave that runs through the headland, starting in around 3m and coming out on a convoluted wall at 6m with a large pile of algae-covered boulders at the entrance. This site is also near the newly sunk Um El Faroud, a former tanker that sits in 36m. This huge ship is a ten-minute swim offshore, but most dive centres can either organise this dive from the shore-entry point for the Blue Grotto, or as a boat dive.
7 Blenheim Bomber
This WW2 aircraft lies about 800m east of Xorb Il-Ghagin, off south-east Malta, in 42m. Most Maltese dive shops visit the site, but due to the depth and its offshore location, will take only experienced divers. Fairly intact, it is about the only interesting thing in the area.
8 mv Odile
Originally thought to be the wreck of HMS Abingdon, this wreck is that of an Italian steam freighter, bombed during the war and salvaged in the 1970s. Fairly well broken up, the wreck faces north-west and lies on its port side, covering quite a large area. It is fairly difficult to find without local knowledge because of poor underwater visibility. Penetration is possible for very experienced divers with the proper equipment.
9 hms Maori
This ship was launched in 1937, saw considerable action in the Mediterranean, and was also ultimately responsible for the sinking of the Bismarck. During a massive aerial bombardment in February 1942, she sank quickly from a direct hit. Now completely wrecked, the bows and the entire stern are gone. Part of the bridge is accessible above the muddy seabed of the harbour, but divers should beware the numerous live shells sticking out of the wreckage and mud.
10 Barge Carolita
Struck by torpedo in April 1942, the Carolita sank immediately and now rests against the shore opposite the old naval hospital. Its bow is in 6m and the rear of the ship at 22m. Access into this flat barge is fairly restricted, but you can examine the engine room from the damaged stern.
11 Octopuss Garden (St Pauls Reef)
This is an open-water reef dive, with algae-covered bedrock and boulders creating a mini-wall with a very steep slope. Fish life is sparse, as the area is popular with local fishermen. There are large numbers of small sea urchins and fireworms everywhere. The latter are voracious predators and scavengers, cleaning up dead and decaying sea urchins, jellyfish, corals etc.
12 The White Reef (Hoofers Reef)
A mile north-east of Rdum l-Ahmar, on the easterly side of the Marfa Ridge, is a raised reef called The White Reef. Rising to within 12m of the surface, it is a massive rocky ridge that has hardly been explored. Large numbers of amberjack, bream, parrotfish and grouper can be found.
Much of the best diving in the Maltese islands is done on Gozo, and day-trip cars and dive-centre vehicles cross regularly on the ferry from Malta. At just over a quarter the size of Malta, Gozo has 27 miles of coastline and is so popular because much of the diving is done from shore.
Like Malta, the northern coast is gently sloping, but here the depth drops vertically, in many places to more than 60m. To the south of the island, huge vertical cliffs rise, making boat diving more appropriate.
The mecca for divers on Gozo is to the west at Dwejra Point, one of the natural wonders of the Mediterranean. Several fantastic sites can be found within a small area, all accessible from the large car park. Dominated by the spectacular natural arch called the Azure Window, its caves and caverns are among the most scenic dives I have encountered.
To the south-west and south the landmass rears up vertically, with few entry points except at Xlendi Bay. From St Andrews Divers Cove, much of this coastline is covered by dive boats, which give the only access to the caves below these awesome ramparts, particularly towards the incredible Ta Cenc Cliffs. In winter, periodic rains can reduce the visibility in the natural inlet at Xlendi Bay, but the boat dives are superb.
13 Twin Arches (Marsalforn Reef)
There is prolific fish life around this underwater rocky spur, which has two large archways cut into the cliff. The first, smaller one starts at 20m, and directly underneath is a larger one that stretches to the seabed at 45m. This is best done as a boat dive to avoid a lengthy swim out.
14 Reqqa Point
This headland is very exposed and the entry can be rather difficult over sharp fossilised rock. A vertical wall drops away to the east (or right) and you can find a shaft that drops through the reef from 6 to 16m. This site is also popular with fishermen.
15 The Blue Dome (Cathedral Cave)
One of my favourites, the Blue Dome at the mouth of Ghasri Valley is best done as a boat dive. The cave is along the right-hand wall, with entry in only 5m. Inside, the huge ceiling reflects the outside light, creating the blue dome effect. Perfect for photography, the cave walls and rocky floor are filled with marine life, including pen shells and seahorses.
16 San Dimitri Point
This site on Gozos most westerly point has a shallow reef that juts out from the headland, where the dive boat can anchor in 6m. It is done as a deep dive, and one is always treated to the thrillof diving with a large school of barracuda. The reef has vertical walls and some interesting potholes carved out by tidal forces.
17 Inland Sea
The Inland Sea at Dwejra Point is a sheltered lagoon, offering easy access from a small jetty. Pleasure boats use this route to the open sea, so watch out. Passing through a massive fissure in the rock, you enter a canyon that runs through to open water. You dive first to 6m and gradually to 25m below the cliffs at the seaward side, where the drop continues to more than 60m. The vertical and underhanging walls are covered in marine life, and the view out to sea is breathtaking.
18Azure Window The site gets its name from the underwater view as you look up towards the natural arch above the surface. It reflects the azure-blue colour as if you were looking through a massive window. The seabed under the arch is covered in large boulders 18m below, all covered in an algal fuzz that is home to large numbers of wrasse, bream and spiny starfish. Entry is from the Blue Hole nearby.
19 The Blue Hole and the Chimney
Not a true blue hole (as found in the Bahamas), this one is carved from fossilised rock over generations of winter storms. The outer wall has created a sheltered entry site for divers, who drop down and exit under a huge archway. The Blue Hole has a cave, at the bottom left-hand corner near the archway, which holds some interesting tubeworms and anthias. The wall leading out to the western headland is vertical, and if you take your time along here, you could spot the resident seahorses. Further towards the corner, a thin fissure leads up to a colourful, narrow chimney.
20 Coral Cave
Entry is by a giant stride off the fossilised rocky shoreline, directly over this semi-circular cavern, which has a sandy bottom 30m below. Breathtaking in scale, the walls are covered in delicate hydroids and bryozoans that resemble true corals. Framed by fish, the vertical wall to the right (or north) eventually leads you around to the top side of the Chimney, then on to the Blue Hole, where the best exit is.
21 Crocodile Rock
A shallow platform of ancient seabed separates Crocodile Rock from Dwejra Point, and it is here that a dive boat can anchor safely in 7m. Reminiscent of Shark Reef in the Red Sea, a natural amphitheatre with near-vertical sides drops away below you and the dive is conducted around the outer wall, where large shoals of salema are always encountered. This site is also known for its grouper, but you must dive fairly deep to see them.
22 Dawra tas-Sanap
Just around the corner from Xlendi Bay and only done as a boat dive with St Andrews Divers Cove, this site features a huge natural arch with encrusted boulders at its base. On the southern wall, a large cavern can be found in 18m. Follow the vertical wall on your left and it brings you round to a sheltered bay where nudibranchs and spiny lobsters are to be found.
23 Mgarr Ix-Xini
Another safe, easy shore dive, with access directly from the shore in front of the car park. The sandy seabed is popular with photographers seeking flying gurnards, flounders and cuttlefish. The wall on the right eventually leads to the entry point at Ta Cenc, and there are a number of caves on the way.
Once a pirates haven, Comino is dominated by a square tower built in 1618 to protect the Comino Channel from raiders. The smallest inhabited island in the archipelago at 1sq mile, it lies midway between Malta and Gozo. The Blue Lagoon here gets hundreds of snorkelling and diving visitors whenever sea conditions allow the crossing.
24 Elephant Rock (Santa Maria Cave)
This is a large cave and cavern system that runs more than 30m through the headland to connect with another cave. At this junction a shaft opens to the sky, increasing the pleasure of the dive. The site is popular with fish feeders.
25 Cominotto Anchor Reef
This is a wall dive created by massive boulders. The interesting holes and caverns beneath them shelter shade-loving creatures such as burrowing anemones and peacock worms. The sites name comes from the numerous anchors that have been snagged amid the boulder reef and drop-off.
26 Cominotto Cave (Alexs Cave)
Often blown out due to the surge, which has created an interesting cavern with a chimney at the far end, this cave has walls pockmarked by small sea urchins, snails and corals. There is a lot of seagrass at the entrance, and cuttlefish are common.
27 Lighthouse Reef
To the south-west of the island, a small navigational light marks one of its best dive sites, where a chimney drops through the reef from 6m to 18m and big boulders have created numerous swim-throughs. The dive boat anchors on the old limestone shelf beside the chimney entrance. The sides are rather rough, because of the ancient skeletons of tubeworms and corals, so care should be taken. On exiting the cave at the bottom of the reef, grouper and numerous wrasse can be seen among the boulders. Large starfish are everywhere and seahorses have also been found here.