Theres quite a buzz about the Maltese islands among recreational divers these days, but this time round its the tekkie side that interests us â€“ Dmitri Gorski has been diving some of the deeper wrecks.
STANDING ON ITS MOUNTING, it pointed at a sharp angle towards the surface far above us. It had failed to save its ship from going down in clear-blue waters near the small Mediterranean island of Malta.
The cannon had graced the stern of steamship Le Polynesien, which was torpedoed by the German Navy during World War One. Today it rests in almost 70m about an hour’s boat-ride from Valletta.
The depth has protected Le Polynesien’s treasures from plunderers, unlike those of more shallow wrecks. Inside you can still find a lot of china and other objects that bear witness to the times when the steamship operated first as a cruise liner and later as an armed troop transport.
Most of the inner timber walls have long since been eaten by the oxygen-rich Mediterranean water.
Now, huge decks lie open to divers who enter the wreck through various holes and hatches.
Everywhere, covered in silt, marine growth and shells, are artefacts that remind us of the days when the decks were filled with cruise guests and, later, soldiers. Here lies a plate; there a serving tray that was perhaps held up by a waiter, laden with drinks for the passengers. Or perhaps by a batman serving his senior officers
WE DESCENDED ON THE WRECK near the funnel and decided to swim sternwards. After a while I signalled that I wanted to enter the wreck, through a big skylight.
The deck below was filled with light filtered through various openings. The 152m wreck takes a while to navigate, even with all the inner walls gone.
We arrived at what seemed to be the aft saloon, with its rows of big windows. Le Polynesien lies with a 20° list to port, and from the highest of these windows we could see the bottom some 15m below, underlining once again the size of the sunken ship.
I signalled to my buddy that we could swim out through an open hatch above. As we emerged, I saw the enormous cannon on the aft deck. I met my buddy’s eyes and saw the joy he could not disguise – it’s for moments like this that we dive!
The big gun was a silent witness to what happened on the surface far above when the world was submerged in the chaos of war years ago.
LE POLYNESIEN WAS BUILT IN FRANCE in 1890. Marie Francois Sadi Carnot, French president at the time, launched her on 18 April. During WW1, France commandeered all ships that could be used for military purposes, and the cruise liner became a troop transport.
In 1918 she was a part of a convoy arriving in Malta when German submarine UC22 fired torpedoes at her engine-room. It took only 35 minutes for the French liner to sink.
We headed back to the line. I pulled the shot from inside one of the holds and put it on the sand so it wouldn’t get stuck when the skipper hauled it up.
A flash of colour revealed a bright pink and yellow mask half-buried in the sand. Hoping its owner had not come to harm, we exchanged “up” signs and started on deco that would last twice the time we had spent on the wreck.
For a long while we could still see the huge silhouette of Le Polynesien. It was a contrast to the dark green waters we were used to at home in Scandinavia. Somehow that cannon seemed to be pointing right at us – could I actually see it, or not quite
The first deep dive we had made on our trip to Malta had certainly made an impression on me!
Our plan was now to dive the wreck of the British submarine HMS Stubborn, which lies some way off the coast.
Stubborn was an S-class submarine, designated P238. Built in 1942, at the height of World War Two, it sank several German vessels when first based off the Norwegian coast.
During an unsuccessful attack on a German convoy outside Folda, Stubborn was so badly damaged that it had to be towed home to Britain. Once repaired, it moved to the Far East, where it claimed several Japanese ships. In 1946, HMS Stubborn was sunk outside Malta to be used for target practice by sonar crews, which explains its perfect preservation.
Preparing to dive on the boat, I thought about all I had heard about the endless visibility in Maltese waters. But I was not prepared for what would come when my team and I did our surface checks, emptied our wings and headed down. The water was clear and blue.
A couple of metres down, I could hardly believe my eyes, because I could see the shot at the end of the line and, right beside it, the wreck of the submarine, visible from bow to aft – and almost 60m down!
The Stubborn was resting on a sandy bottom, almost upright, with its conning tower and all other details intact.
FORGETTING THE SHOTLINE, we descended towards the conning tower. On the top was an open bridge, with a high windshield to protect seamen from the waves and the wind.
There were few instruments or controls on the bridge; hardly surprising, as it would have been flooded most of the time. The real command bridge was a couple of metres further down, in the heart of the sub – unreachable for us with our bulky twin-sets, but very tempting to visit in the future.
Behind the conning tower was a mounting, perhaps for a light cannon or machine-gun. Above the aft deck, strange tubes were attached to the hull. These, we learned later, could have been external torpedo mountings. Further aft were the tail stabilisers.
There was time to check the aft part of the narrow sub and then swim back to where we started and round the conning tower to check out the bow as well.
In many places we could see the pressure hull through holes in its outer hull caused by rust and age.
The space between the two hulls was filled with pipes and machinery. There were also two hatches through which we could try to enter the wreck – one in front of the conning tower and one halfway to the bow.
Friends who had visited Malta earlier had warned us that the hatches were too small for that while wearing a twin-set. Of course, we had to prove them wrong!
My buddy gave me his decompression cylinder to hold while he turned head-down and entered one of the hatches without any major difficulties. He came back at once, as we had not planned a penetration, but the point was proven! Next time we would check Stubborn’s interior.
We swam to the bow, and a few fin-strokes allowed us to put some distance between us and the wreck.
The powerful bow looked almost needle-sharp, and behind it we could make out the conning tower some 30m away. It’s always a special feeling to hover in front of a wreck and see it tower above you, caught in time.
It was time to head back. Passing the inviting hatches on the bow deck, we reached the conning tower and started to ascend. We left the wreck when our bottom-timers showed about 50-52m, but we could still see the wreck during large parts of our deco.
YOU MIGHT BE FASCINATED by the history of a wreck, or its size might make you feel insignificant when you hover beside it, but you can also be intrigued by all the details hidden in and around it – all the small things that bear witness to what once happened there.
They make the experience more personal, and turn a pile of rusty iron and rotten wood into a place that tells stories of its past.
German torpedo boat Schnellboot S31 fits this bill. Lying at just less than 70m not far from Valletta harbour, she was part of a torpedo-boat fleet that chased British ships around the Med.
Equipped with powerful engines and armed with torpedoes and mines, these small warships were “eggshells armed with hammers”, relying on speed and agility rather than armour-plating to defend themselves. They criss-crossed the seas, following up intelligence information. The intelligence that brought about the downfall of S31 was that a British minelayer was on its way to Malta.
The Germans planned to set up minefields in one of the harbour entrances and ambush the ship. However, one of their mines must have got loose from its anchors. It drifted into the Germans’ own fleet, and S31 disappeared amid a terrible explosion. Only half of the 24 crew (and two Italian officers) could be saved.
Probably because of the depth, many artefacts still lie around the broken wreckage. Most of the weaponry is intact, with torpedoes in tubes and a machine-gun in its cradle on the aft deck.
The hull is in very bad shape, and you can see into the interior of the boat almost everywhere. Hiding inside are all the small items that provide a narrative about service in the wartime German navy, including white china, and the decks are full of ammunition.
It was a bit of a struggle to reach the wreck because of the wind and waves, and a lot of current on the line. Our bottom time was therefore shorter than usual, and I was about to give the thumbs up when my buddy signalled to me to come over.
He carefully lifted a piece of metal plating from the hull, and shone his light beneath it. I could see something very unusual – a fluted crystal glass, with silver edges top and bottom.
Remembering that there were two Italian guests on the ship, we could imagine the officers in their mess drinking toasts to each other all those years ago. Somehow it transported us back and made the dive very special.
We carefully put the hull plating back in its original position over the glass to preserve everything as it was.
After a dive to these depths, you often spend more than double your bottom time on various decompression stops. For me this is a time to think about the dive, remembering all the details and trying to preserve them in my memory.
Malta is a pearl of the Mediterranean, with its pleasant water temperatures and endless visibility making the dives a special experience.
The deeper wrecks lie as untouched as they were when they sank, and the wartime history of the island gives an interesting background to the wrecks.
Malta should be a compulsory visit for a dedicated technical wreck-diver. Imagine that cannon pointing at you!
|GETTING THERE: Package-deal flights in tourist season, low-cost airlines and Air Malta year-round.|
DIVING & ACCOMMODATION: Selkies, a PADI 5* IDC centre in Valletta, supplied gases (including helium and oxygen), dive-boat and captain. Deeper wrecks are normally not marked, so a good boat-crew to find them and place a line is a must. A standard technical set-up with steel manifolded twin-12-litre tanks and aluminium tanks for deco was used, www.selkies.eu. Other technical diving services providers include Maltaqua, www.maltaqua.com, and Dive Systems, www.divesystemsmalta.com
WHEN TO GO: Spring and autumn, when the Med is fairly calm and temperatures moderate. Malta offers little shelter on the deeper wrecks, so the weather needs to be good.
PRICES: Selkies can arrange lodging as well as diving. For 500 euros per head you get five nights accommodation in a budget hotel room (two sharing), three days boat-diving with two technical dives per day and transfers. For 750 euros you get seven nights in the hotel and five days diving plus transfers. Twin-sets are provided but gases, extra tanks and other equipment are extra, www.selkies.eu. Expect budget flights to cost from £70 upwards.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmalta.com