In deep water: learning to dive off the coast of Malta

AS I floated through the open hatchway into the ship’s galley, the scene appeared frozen in time. Seaweed waved gracefully about the cupboards and a spotted fish darted in and out of the abandoned cooker.

A stream of bubbles poured from my dive buddy’s regulator as he laughingly grabbed the ship’s wheel and gave a mock salute.

It was difficult to fathom that we were 19 metres underwater off the Maltese coast of Comino standing on the sunken hulk of the P31 – a former German minesweeper. Less than a week earlier, my sub aqua experience had been limited to the diving pool at Crystal Palace Water Sports Centre where the only seaweed was the odd clump of hair on the tiled floor.

I was visiting the Mediterranean island of Gozo to learn to dive. Together with neighbouring Malta, Gozo has been voted the best diving destination in Europe by readers of Diver magazine in America thanks to its clear, warm waters and more than 30 underwater dive sites with reefs, caves and lagoons as well as the numerous wrecks. There’s also a long diving season (from Easter through to November) and plenty of English-speaking instructors so it’s ideal for beginners in the UK.

Although you can do the complete course in Gozo, I wanted to get the theory lessons and pool training needed for the British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) Ocean Diver qualification done in the chilly UK rather than being stuck in a classroom while the sun shone outside.

Tutor Simon Lodge, of Lodge Scuba, taught me the essentials: He explained how the BCD (buoyancy control device) works and the intricacies of the regulator – the diver’s “life support system”. After a couple of days I was confidently able to assemble my breathing equipment on my own. But the pool’s chlorine-scented water seemed a world away as I headed to my accommodation on Gozo – a stunning 300-year-old former farmhouse complete with its own private pool and barbecue in a pretty stone courtyard.

While my colleagues shivered in London, the sun beamed down on Gozo’s secluded bays.

Although just a 20 minute ferry ride separates Gozo and Malta, a world of difference exists between the two islands.

Gozo, Malta’s baby sister, is a small island nine miles by five between Malta and Sicily. There are 13 villages, the inhabitants of which all speak slightly different dialects. But the signs are all in English (Britain ran the place until independence in 1964) and everyone speaks it. Even Billy Connolly, who bought a house here in 2003, is able to make himself understood.

The capital, Victoria (also known as Rabat), is based around the Citadel, the fortress that rises above Gozo’s fertile central plain, which was once the only proper settlement on the island. It was used as a redoubt by the famed Knights of St John against pirates and the Ottoman empire and has the cathedral at its centre.

Park on the main street running up the centre and to your left is St George’s Basilica. Steep, narrow paths beneath the walls give a sense of the drama of medieval times. Inexpensive restaurants serve up superb Gozitan specialties, such as pasta with rabbit sauce.

Over some Maltese wine, our dive instructor, Graham Thurlbeck explained how he swapped the frenzy of working in the City for Gozo’s laid back way of life.

“When you have been peppered with sunlight beams from holes in the roof of the Caves of Comino or surrounded by shoals of tuna and jacks while floating over the pinnacle at Reqqa Point, there’s no contest between jostling on the Underground or living here,” Graham said.

The next morning, I squeezed myself into a short wetsuit and black neoprene boots as Graham led us to our dive site in the open-topped jeep. Graham works for Calypso Diving, based right on the beach at Marsalforn, a pretty village on the north west coast.

We started in the shallow waters of Xledi Bay where the reef supports an abundance of marine life. There’s a small tunnel system and underwater cave offering plenty for first timers to explore.

Graham added extra lumps of lead to my weight belt to help me sink before we slowly headed out past shelves of sea grass while I tried to keep an eye on my air levels and my dive buddy Tim while also trying to remember landmarks to guide myself, stay balanced without shooting up to the surface too fast and still find time to enjoy the marine life.

Graham explained that it is the wrecks and underwater caves that make Maltese diving so special. And on rare occasions when there’s bad weather or when the wind makes the sea too rough for diving in one place, there’s always a more sheltered option to try half an hour’s drive away.

The warm, turquoise sea around Gozo is home to grouper, rainbow wrasse and parrot fish, not to mention moray eels and more elusive barracudas and seahorses. Graham pointed out the intriguing bearded fireworms on the ocean floor – but signalled to us not to touch.

Fireworms are covered with a group of poisonous white bristles on each side, which are flared out when the worm is disturbed and inject a powerful neurotoxin. Although beautiful, swimmers wisely tend to avoid them.

Gozo is easily explored by jeep so each day we sought out the best dive sites. And as the group progressed, so did the quality of diving. One day, when the swell was too high for safe diving offshore, Graham took us to the Inland Sea – a stunning lagoon of seawater on Gozo linked to the Mediterranean Sea through an opening formed by a narrow natural arch.

On one side there is a gently shelving stony beach with several fishermen’s huts. The boats are often pulled up on to the stony beach. The bottom of the lagoon is also mostly pebbles and rocks and is fairly shallow. As you exit through the tunnel towards open sea, the floor drops away in a series of shelves to a depth of up to 35 metres on the outside. Jacques Cousteau said the Inland Sea was among his top ten dives.

Graham explained we would swim through the narrow gorge before emerging into the clear blue waters of the Med. As we approached the jagged slice in the rock, Graham gestured for me to follow him and I hesitated. It was like entering a very tight, black crevasse and I wasn’t keen to get stuck.

Graham grabbed hold of my weight belt and “encouraged” me to go through the narrow passage – no arguments!

As Graham led us through the oppressive blackness, my eyes were suddenly dazzled by a searing blue light ahead. Fears evaporated as a myriad of multicoloured fish were shoaling in the waters above as sunlight streamed down.

A fat grouper swam slowly past me like a scene from Finding Nemo. It could have said: “All drains lead to the ocean.” If you continue to swim up through a crack in the wall called the Chimney into the reef at eight metres, you enter the Coral Garden. It is a shallow pool filled with an array of brittle corals, sponges, sea horses and nudibranches. The tuna and groupers are protected here as it is a Marine Nature Reserve and no hunting or fishing is allowed.

As divers continue along to the Azure Window, they can watch out for parrot fish, moray eels and octopuses. Sadly the sea was too rough and we turned back.

Later, over a beer, Graham explained that I had to overcome any fear of claustrophobia or I would never have been able to enjoy the wreck dive at the end of the course. The following day, we got kitted up on the quayside, lugging our air tanks and unwieldy fins to the boat that would ferry us to Comino.

Half an hour later, the ghostly pattern of the sunken frigate shimmered in the water below. There’s something slightly unnerving about entering a barnacle-covered ship resting on the sea bed – images of severed heads rolling out of doorways in Jaws movies, perhaps.

When I emerged, elated, from the dive, my fifth, I was a certified Ocean Diver. After swimming alongside fish during the day, it seemed almost rude to be tucking into them in the evening.

But delicacies such as octopus carpaccio at harbourside restaurants around the island were too good to miss. For such a tiny island, there was plenty to see on dry land too. As we could only safely dive for a couple of hours a day we dragged ourselves away from our rooftop terrace and pool.

There are many other must-sees on Gozo. The Ggantija Temples, high in the centre of the island are more than 5,000 years old; they are two large “rooms”, made of large limestone slabs – a relic of neolithic people who worshipped here.

Outside the temple, I bought some sun dried sweet tomato paste, gozo honey and prickly pear liqueur. If I ever want to take another plunge into Gozo’s deep blue waters, I just open that prickly pear liqueur and I’m instantly transported back.

DIVING IN GOZO | NEED TO KNOW

Keith took the BSAC Ocean Diver beginner’s course in Gozo with Calypso Diving. A week’s course costs around £375. For qualified divers a typical dive package costs around £150. www.calypsodivers.com

You can fly to the Maltese Islands from 11 airports.
Go to www.visitmalta.com

A converted luxury farmhouse that sleeps eight people starts from €1,015 per week.
www.abrahamgozofarmhouses.com

If you're keener on snorkelling than braving the deep, you can make it more fun with the latest sub-aqua gadgets, such as Speedo’s blue underwater 9 MP Aquashot camera from with video function (£125) and the Speedo Aquabeat underwater MP3 player (£65). Both gadgets max depth 3m. www.speedo.com