Diving the Maltese Islands by Alison Micallef Brennan, Paradise Diving,
Cirkewwa, Malta www.paradisediving.com
Malta is an archipelago located in the centre of the Mediterranean about 60 miles south of Sicily. For divers the islands of interest are Malta, Gozo, Comino and Cominotto. Since the 1960’s there has been a steady influx of divers flocking to Malta. Numbers were ever increasing until the mid 90’s when the Red Sea proved to be huge competition. Now however, divers are rediscovering the charms of the Maltese islands. Egypt’s large scale operators, huge charter boats together with more recent political unrest have led to a swing back to Malta. What has brought them back, is dive centres which are still small enough to treat people as individuals and dive sites that are rarely crowded even in August. Malta is a safe diving destination, politically stable and perceived as being low risk in terms of terrorist activity.
Malta has a wide variety of flora and fauna but will always be commended first for its outstanding underwater topography. Drop offs, walls, caverns, arches, tunnels and swim throughs provide a spectacular background to display Malta’s treasures, within an environment of crystal clear warm water. Visibility is often more than 30 metres. Strong currents are rare and a sheltered dive site, is always to be found somewhere, whatever the wind direction. If you are diving unaccompanied it is important that you have a sound understanding of the local weather conditions, particularly the wind direction and strength so that you can conduct a valid risk assessment at your chosen dive site.
Emergency facilities are superb on the islands with both Malta and Gozo having hyperbaric facilities. EU citizens should bring their EHIC health card with them as this will entitle them to free emergency treatment at government run hospitals on the islands. Whether you have the expertise to penetrate the bowels of a wreck, or are looking for A1 conditions to take your first breath underwater, Malta can accommodate your needs. Due to idyllic diving conditions, it is possible to make your first dive in a sheltered bay rather than count tiles in a swimming pool! Malta’s diving industry is highly regulated and all diving service providers have to be licensed. You can avoid the cowboys by ignoring websites that fail to give a physical address. These are usually the work of people who are operating out of the back of a van and hiding from the authorities. Diving regulations which you need to be aware of include:-
Most dive centres have joined the Professional Diving Schools Association – PDSA. This association is very active in contributing to the revision and updating of diving legislation and campaigning for improvements to the diving product. The association has been behind the scuttling of many of the wrecks around the islands. The most popular, well established wrecks include the Um el Faroud oil tanker in Blue Grotto, the Karwela and Cominoland ferries in Gozo and the two patrol boats P29 in Cirkewwa, and the P31 in Comino. As well as deliberately scuttled wrecks, Malta of course also has many war time wrecks. Some of these are easily accessible and provide a good dive site on a windy day, within the shelter of a harbour. Mention caves and most divers will start to imagine dark, claustrophobic holes with elusive exits. Months of special training and more back up tanks than you can shake a stick at, spring to mind.
In Malta, it’s possible for even recently qualified divers to be taken by a local instructor into a cavern without compromising their safety. Conditions in these caverns are excellent, with rock floors eliminating the danger from silt, a good penetration of natural light and often more than one large exit and entry point. Those caverns and tunnels which are suitable are well known to the local dive centres. More demanding caves cater for experienced cave divers; who have the necessary training and equipment. One of the most popular cave dives involves a boat trip out to the island of Comino. The dive site is know locally as Ghemieri Caves but it is also referred to as Santa Maria Caves and Comino Caves. Maximum depth throughout the site is around 14 metres, allowing a long dive time, suitable for most levels of experience. As soon as divers descend at this spot, an enormous shoal of saddle bream mobs them. These are silver fish with a black dot before the tail and average 10 to 12 inches in length. These fish are used to being fed with bread by hand and have come to associate divers with food. So whether you take a bag of bread or not you will become enveloped in a shoal of fish. If you open your bag too slowly, the impatient fish will simply jump inside and eat inside your bag. This is a favourite spot for photos and most of them capture a chaotic muddle of fish and fins. The dive site consists of several large caverns and swim throughs; the walls of which are thickly covered in soft orange corals and red sponges. It is possible to surface in one of the caves and overlook a window to the open sea.
At the southwest point of Comino is another popular cave dive. This site is known as L-Irqieqa or Lantern Point. This boat dive has a maximum depth of 30m and demands good buoyancy control. Divers descend first to a reef teeming with Malta’s most colourful fish, especially the rainbow wrasse, parrot fish and damsel fish. The reef soon gives way to a drop off descending down a vertical wall to a depth of around 30 metres. This is a good place to spot the octopus tucked into the crevices of the rock face. Lying at the foot of the wall you will encounter some enormous boulders. A shoal of barracuda can sometimes be spotted here, as well as the odd grouper or even tuna. Near the boulders at a depth of around 15m, there is an entrance to an impressive chimney which exits on top of the reef at a depth of around 8m. Moray eels and congers eels can be spotted in the crack in the tunnel wall. Don’t forget to dump air as you ascend before you exit, it is easy to forget in this fantastic chimney. Emerging from the tunnel brings you to the top of the reef and you can watch your exhaled air working its way out of the porous rock, while you make your safety stop.
An outstanding natural arch can be found at Cirkewwa, along with a grotto containing a statue of the Madonna, which was put in place by a local amateur club, The Amphibians to safeguard all divers. Dozens of spectacular caves are present all round the coastline but notably at Cirkewwa, Comino, Blue Grotto and Gozo. Gozo also has a double natural arch near the Qbajjar salt pans. This requires a long swim out and may be against the current on the way back, but is well worth the effort. The most famous shore diving sites in Gozo are the Blue Hole and the Inland Sea. The Blue Hole is suitable for fit experienced divers. A spectacular dive is the reward for the long surface walk, fully kitted over sharp, jagged rock. The dives are located at Dwejra, home to the Azure window and a popular tourist destination in its own right for everyone. The main diving areas offer attractions for all the family. Comino in particular has the famous Blue Lagoon offering superb swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing from sandy beaches. All three islands also offer nature walks with forts from the time of the Knights, interspersed along your route.
Paradise Diving was established in 1991and is located on the private beach of the Paradise Bay Resort hotel at Cirkewwa. We are a PADI 5* resort and family run. We welcome divers from every certification agency. We specialize in accompanied boat diving off Malta, Gozo and Comino. We own three hard boats, licensed for commercial use by Transport Malta and offer three boat dives a day, every day from May 1st to October 31st. Our boats leave directly from our jetty and we return to our beach after every dive, so you can leave the non divers to lounge on the beach and have lunch with them on your return. We also offer the option for non divers to swim or snorkel from the dive boat, space permitting. If they are feeling energetic we also offer water skiing and banana rides. During the winter period, November to April, we open on demand for shore diving. PADI courses are offered all year round. During the summer months your training dives will be by boat at no extra charge. During the period May to October we offer a ferry service to the Blue Lagoon, Comino and back. This is suitable for all age groups. We drop on the main jetty at Comino which has showers, toilets and food kiosks for those wishing to spend the day there. Malta is an easy going place to spend a holiday. Everyone speaks English and the locals are happy to share their islands with you. You will find the welcome as warm as the water.
Contact details. Alison Micallef Brennan Paradise Diving Paradise Bay Resort Hotel Cirkewwa Malta Email [email protected] www.paradisediving.com