The Geordie Invasion of Malta – A Winter Warmer?

1st – 8th December 2012

Written by Kevin Thompson

Photography by Nicola Faulks and Kevin Thompson

After the success of the 2011 club expedition to Malta it seemed a no brainer that a return trip would be on the cards.  With such positive feedback from the previous year’s outing there was a considerable increase in demand for spaces and sixteen divers signed up for the trip and so, the flights, accommodation and diving were booked for the 3rd Geordie Invasion of Malta. 

In the week running up to the expedition we had received word from the dive centre about strong winds as high as Force 6-7 that had been hitting the island and blowing out most of the dive sites.  Unfortunately they were forecast to continue into the week we would be there.  There was nothing that could be done but to hope that our prayers to the weather Gods would be heard.

Arriving on the 1st December we were greeted with warm air and not as much as a breeze.  Things were looking positive.  Arrangements were made to meet at the dive centre at 8:15 the next morning and get the show on the road!

Arriving at the dive centre we were briefed about the forecast and warned to expect a few days where the wind would prevent us getting wet.  However, today was no such day and we were going to try for 2 dives that had been impossible due to high seas the previous year – The Blue Hole and The Inland Sea on the nearby island of Gozo!

The Blue Hole

The Blue Hole in Gozo is one of the keynote dives on the island.  The entry point sits at the base of the cliffs under which the Blue Hole sits.  Kitting up at the top, we made our way down the track and carefully picked our way over the rocks to the entry point.  Getting into the water must be done with great care as the rocks are very uneven and jagged.  A fall here would not be much fun.  Reaching the edge it was then a case of pushing off into the deeper water and donning fins.  With the group in the water we released the air from our BCDs and made our descent.

A look up as we got deeper gave the impressive sight of the rock formation, the hole with great beams of light cutting through the water.  The exhaust bubbles of the other divers created a spectacular explosion of light and air rushing through the water into the sunlight.

 

The hole drops to 15m.  However, at around 7m a narrow swim through provides an exit into the sea beyond and this is the route we followed.  Turning right we passed beneath the impressive stone arch of the azure window to follow the wall of its great stone pillar.  Looking up the shape of the stone archway could be seen through the excellent 30m visibility.

 

 

A careful eye on your depth is important here as the wall drops to around 50m.  We stayed at a more respectable 25m given we were all diving single cylinder set ups with no bail out.  Large schools of Cardinal fish darted about above us as we explored the wall.

 

Turning back towards the Blue Hole to make our exit, we found time to explore an underwater cave that sat at the bottom of the cliff.  Moving into the cave the darkness surrounded us, and torch light guided the way.  We navigated our way deeper into the cave. However, a quick look over the shoulder revealed the blue exit inviting us back into open water.  Exiting the cave we headed back into the Blue Hole to make our ascent into the calm water above and our exit point.

 

The Inland Sea

Our second dive on Gozo was the Inland Sea, another extremely popular dive that we also missed out on last year.  The brown murky water from the previous year had earned this site the nickname of the Inland Tea!  However, this time around the water was a clear blue.  The swell beyond the sheltered bay started picking up so following a short surface interval we wasted no time getting into the water before conditions deteriorated.

 

Surface swimming over the small inland sea we waited till our small group was gathered and prepared.  The ‘down’ signal was given and we submerged into the water.  Our dive brief had already highlighted that visibility was virtually zero at the start of this dive due to air in the water so we were prepared for it as we dropped down, keeping the entrance wall to the cave close to the left shoulder and following the wall down to 6m and forwards into the underwater canyon.

 

Having passed through the aerated water the visibility immediately improved to 25m, revealing beautiful azure blue which faded to a deep indigo as it stretched into the distance.  The cave cuts through the headland and into the open sea and there are often boats harboured in the inland sea using this passageway.  Today however there were no boats disturbing the water above us and only the sound of our bubbles could be heard.  This combined with the colour made for an extremely atmospheric experience as we made our way along the 80m canyon.  Looking back we could make out the silhouettes of the second group of Tyneside 114 divers following behind us.

Reaching the end of the canyon, we were led out onto the reef wall where a Spotted Doris was sighted among the coral and other assorted micro life.  As we approached the edge of the reef we noticed a strong current had started to push and made the decision to turn back.  Another swim through the beautiful canyon and we were at our exit back within the Inland Sea.  Gordon Lambert even found time at the end of this dive to deliver the buoyancy and trim Skills Development Course! Exiting the water we were greeted by a reward of hot coffee and cheeseburgers – the perfect end to a great day of diving.

 

The second day we were sadly met with what we had feared.  The wind had picked up and despite the best efforts of the team at Go Dive Malta, there was nowhere we would be able to safely exit the water, so getting in was not an option.  The days we could not dive provided the opportunity for us to spend some time above sea level to experience Mdina and St Pauls Catacombs, Valetta and St John’s Co-Cathedral, Sliema, the Red Tower of St Agatha, the dramatic cliffs near Anchor  Bay and ummm…Popeye Village!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we were able to return to the sea however we were treat to some excellent diving!  Over the next couple of days we were able to dive the Wreck of the Um El Faroud, the Blue Grotto reef and the Ghar Lapsi cave system.

Wreck of the Um El Faroud

The Faroud is a Libyan owned oil tanker which was built in 1969 on the riverbanks of Middlesbrough.  On the 3 February 1995 the vessel was undergoing routine maintenance whilst in dry dock in Malta.  That night a massive explosion occurred, thought to be due to a combination of an accumulation of gas and welding work that was taking place.  Sadly, 9 dockyard workers lost their lives in the accident, and a plaque placed on front of the wheelhouse, keeps their memories alive.  The ship, after being declared a complete write off, sat in Valetta harbour for 3 years before finally being towed out to sea and scuttled as an attraction for divers.

Access to the Faroud is now via the entry point of the Blue Grotto at Wied Iz-Zurrieq.  The wind blasting the island had blown out most dive sites so we felt lucky that this wreck was still doable and we visited the site on two separate days.  Once kitted up and in the water, we followed a bearing of 240 degrees to get us there.  One of the dive centres has affixed a brass diving hood to a block of concrete as a way marker providing reassurance that we were on the right course.  We held our bearing and kept relatively shallow to conserve as much of our air supply for the wreck as possible.

After 6 minutes or so of finning the shadow of the stern loomed into view, the outline of the hull and superstructure gradually becoming clearer with each fin stroke.  The railings, bitts, chocks and a central capstan on the aft deck are all still in good condition.  Dropping down the stern the huge rudder can be found sitting behind the equally impressive propeller.  The space between the two is large enough to create an ample swim through.

Looking towards the surface a large school of barracuda could be seen patrolling the waters above; dark silhouettes shearing through the water.

Inside the superstructure there was much to explore.  Entering from an opening from the front of the superstructure we dropped down to 31m into the large engine room before slowly working our way to the upper decks.  The stairwells are still intact, complete with railings.  We slowly continued upwards, eventually exiting via the ships funnel to make our way back to the bay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A further dive to the Faroud saw some members exploring the bow of the vessel where the deck winches still hold the large anchor chains which extend down to the seabed below.  The anchors themselves had been buried beneath the seabed.  The sharp bow stands tall in the water, a commemoration to this once proud vessel.

The Blue Grotto

 

 

The Blue Grotto provides a beautiful reef dive which requires very little effort when conditions are good.  We had aborted a dive on one visit to this site, although to our horror we did witness another outfit taking a group in despite warnings of the conditions from our more health and safety conscious guides at Go Dive Malta.

 

 

However, on the two days we were able to dive this site, the visibility was stunning and the variety of life was magnificent.   There had been rumours of sea horse sightings here and I was lucky enough to spot the outline of one camouflaged against the reef.  A double take and it was confirmed – a sea horse had made its home in Wied Iz-Zurrieq!

Continuing along the wall the abundance of life was enough to keep even the most enthusiastic marine biologist entertained!  Since the previous year’s trip there appeared to have been a boom of sea scorpions with frequent sightings all over the bay of various colours and sizes.

 

 

A vividly coloured nudibranch was sighted on a small ridge.  An octopus was seen tightly squeezed into its hole having a snooze.

This site was also chosen as the spot for a night dive.  We waited patiently for the sun to set.  When it was time we took our giant strides into the water and in our buddy pairs made off to see what our torch beams would reveal.  The seascape was so different.  Without the sun’s ultraviolet rays bleaching the walls, the colours of the reef were much more vibrant.  Many of the fish which had been hiding or sleeping in the reef during the day were now swirling in huge schools.  As the torch beam swung across the mass of fish they would turn and change direction in unison.  There must have been thousands of them and it was difficult to comprehend where so many fish could have been hiding during the day. A truly impressive sight!

Morays and congers were also spotted, one in the open.  Hubert and Tony were found attempting to train a slipper lobster with torch light.

 

An octopus was spotted hunting in the open, crawling along the reef wall before darting forward at an impressive pace before sprawling it tentacles against the wall to pin and consume its prey.  It was with some reluctance that we eventually exited to the surface after almost an hour exploring the dark waters.

Ghar Lapsi Caves

For five determined members the prospect of squeezing a third dive on our final day could not be passed and so the decision was taken to head to Ghar Lapsi.  Entering into the water via a slipway and into a pool we donned our fins and submerged to seek out the entrance to the cave system.

The caves cut through the rocks at around a 30 degree angle and there are lots of narrow nooks and crannies to squeeze through and explore.  We took our time making our way through.  On a sunny day shafts of sunlight illuminate the water via three additional entry points and the many cracks that are apparent in this cave.  However, on this dive the light was getting low and the cave had a radiant blue glow about it.

We exited the cave system and went on the hunt for stingrays which are known to reside in the sandy area beyond.  None were spotted but David Mitchell did find an octopus beneath a rock.  A closer investigation sent the creature shooting out from its hiding place releasing jets of ink into the water as it made its escape.  We followed it for a short while keeping our distance so as not to disturb the creature again before moving on.  We paused to observe a large school of Saupe before re-entering the cave system via a different opening.

We continued through the cave once more, making our way in and out again until we had explored all the openings and then returned to the shore.

On our final evening everyone gathered together for dinner at the Relections Bar, where words of thanks were exchanged between the club and Kevin, Lindsay and Gary at Go Dive Malta.  As has come to be the norm from our friends in Malta, they had gone that extra mile and produced a slide show of our shenanigans for all who happened to be in the pub to enjoy!  A beer and Grappa fuelled celebration ensued – and that is all that shall be said about that!

Despite a few days of wind and a couple of nights of rain all agreed that this trip had been another success and already several members have announced their desire to return for the 2013 Maltese Winter Warmer!

A huge thanks from all who attended to the trip organiser, Gordon Lambert.