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MALTA'S GHOST FLEET
DIVER

MALTA'S GHOST FLEET

Posted Monday, March 21, 2016   |   2995 views   |   Sport   |   Comments (0) To enjoy the wreck-diving possibilities of Malta to the full, it helps if you’re a technical diver. CATH BATES went to see how many good dives mixed gas would enable her to fit into a week. Pictures: Peter G. Lemon

MALTA HAS AN ENTIRE GHOST FLEET of ships from all corners of history, and not only from the two world wars. There are paddle-steamers, destroyers, aircraft, ferries, submarines and battleships. Some are deep, some shallow, some hard and some easy. So where on Earth should I start?

There are more monuments in Malta per square metre than in any other country, and the same must go for the sheer volume of wreck-sites.

Having recently finished working for a dive-centre myself, I figured that the best way to decide on the wrecks to feature in this article would be to ask the opinion of the local experts. 
Where would they choose to go if they had a week off diving for fun in Malta?

The country I am sent to visit after spending 11 years working in Egypt has one of the lowest Muslim populations in the world, but the Arabs did conquer the islands in 870AD, and their influence is evident in the otherwise heavily Christian architecture, and also in the language. 
Malta hosts 100,000 divers each year, a massive achievement for such a small location. Flight prices from the UK are more than reasonable and additional dive-bag charges low.

Three and 4* accommodation is affordable and there are plenty of cheap eateries and apris-dive bars.

I took my equipment to Dive/Techwise and met my guide Steve Scerri and the owners of the centre, Alan and Viv Whitehead. Alan is a Platinum Course Director for PADI and an Instructor Trainer for TDI, DSAT and IANTD.

Techwise is “GUE-friendly” but does not alienate non-GUE divers in any way. Alan has a great sense of humour (“they Go Up Eventually…”) while maintaining an emphasis on safety. 
He is clearly a highly skilled technical instructor and is in the water most days, while Viv, a bubbly redhead, is in charge of logistics and runs a well-organised office.

Steve gave up his “proper” job recently to become a full-time instructor, and is very much in love with his JJ rebreather. He discussed dive-planning at length, always gave an interesting dive-briefing and even blended our gas for us.

The staff were up-front – they didn’t once promise to deliver something they couldn’t, or gloss over what was out of their hands, such as weather conditions. 

LIGHTER X127
According to Alan, the Lighter X127 is “the most historically interesting wreck in all of Malta”. It was involved in helping the injured in WW1’s Gallipoli Landings.

David Mallard, who finally determined in 2003 that the wreck was that of the X127, has dived with Alan a lot.

The wreck is accessible via Manoel Island, and after descending just a few steps into the green harbour water, you come across it within a few minutes.

The bow is at 5m, but we followed the port side to begin our dive at the deepest part, the stern, at just 22m.

The simple multi-level profile along the wreck’s furry 35m length is easy even for an Open Water Diver.

We weaved our way up, looking into the engine-room with its 5.5-tonne twin-cylinder Campbell engine. X127 was initially a water-carrier, and from the deck you can see six hatches, with both water-tanks and Tangye pumps inside.

During WW1 she became a rescue vessel, helping to remove troops and horses from battle. The footholds for the horses are on the foredeck.

Nicknamed Black Beetles, these ships were designed like Thames river barges to handle steep beaches.

It was in Malta tha
The Bristol Beaufighter aircraft wreck.
HMS - HELLESPONT
The HMS Hellespont was my first boat dive in Malta. We boarded the Divewise speedboat Diversion just outside the Grand Harbour and were soon dropping a shotline down to the rare paddle-wheeled steamer tug.

Launched in 1910, the Hellespont came to Malta from Ireland in 1922. Although she was scuttled, she was initially hit by Axis aircraft during an air raid in 1942.

The wreck sits in 45m and we followed the line down blessed with good visibility and a mild current.

The wooden paddles have been removed, but you can still see the metal shaft that moved them.

I also saw the remains of the engine with its piston-rods and a boiler. The helm is in good condition.

The Hellespont is a relatively small wreck and covered in algae. Sadly it is also adorned with fishing-net and buoys, but I was pleased to see more fish than I had on my previous day’s shore-diving – mainly schooling bream and eels.

The Maltese Tourist Association mentioned to me that it doesn’t buoy the wrecks around the island, as this keeps fishermen away from them.

I dived with twin nitrox 28% and a 50% stage and accumulated 25 minutes of deco in midwater, with the shotline as visual reference.

BRISTOL BEAUFIGHTER
From the mouth of St Julian’s Bay we headed out with the speedboat to the Bristol Beaufighter late in the afternoon, and were on the wreck in minutes. This was my first plane wreckage but I wasn’t convinced that much time could be spent on an area as small as 13m by 8m.

The Beaufighter, a twin-engine strike and torpedo aircraft, failed while climbing to meet other planes on a shipping strike in 1943. The pilot was forced to ditch at a speed of 100mph as he lost altitude following engine failure.

The wreck lies upside-down on the sandy seabed at 38m. This makes the dive more interesting, as you can see the undercarriage, fuselage and landing gear, with a sad deflated tire atop the wheel.

The port engine has one remaining prop and, amazingly after all this time, you can still see both engines, wings and also some of the tail-section feet away.

There is a fixed mooring direct to the wreck and I found plenty of marine life – moray eels, scorpionfish and tubeworms.

I refilled my 28% back-gas for this dive and enjoyed a 40-minute total dive time with little decompression. This is a very easy dive on which you don’t even need a guide, and is a great little training site – Alan was teaching skills in the early stages of a normoxic Inspiration CCR course while we were off exploring. 

HMS - STUBBORN
Nicknamed “the underwater cigar” by local divers, the submarine HMS Stubborn sits upright on the sandy seabed at 57m. Stubborn held the record for deepest dive ever by a submarine, to 165m.

We took a traditional luzzu boat out  from St Paul’s Bay. There was plenty of room for my guide and me on open-circuit trimix 20/40, three Swedes on Pelagian CCRs, an Inspiration and a JJ, in addition to a wide array of loud Swedish swimwear!

Stubborn begins to come into view at around 35m in azure water at a toasty 24?. The sub lists to starboard and despite a crusty coating of molluscs has a silhouette as perfect as the day it was built.

At 43m, the temperature rapidly dropped. By the time we reached the torpedo-tubes I registered 17? (mainly in the face!). The Swedish team in their 5mm wetsuits swam past, and I began to feel w
Divers on HMS Stubborn.
LE POLYNESIEN
Le Polynesien cannot be seen in one dive. Its 152m bulk is nicknamed the Plate Ship, as it was carrying a lot of ceramic and glass cargo. I had a 20-minute bottom-time with a run-time of one hour and saw only the midsection.

Again, this wreck was a perfect normoxic trimix dive, with a blend of 20/40 plus deco gas. 
Le Poly is historically interesting both to dive and read about. She was built in 1890 in France as a passenger liner and worked as a freighter there for many years until 1914, when she was requisitioned by the French government as a troopship.

A U-boat torpedoed her as she approached Malta on 10 August, 1918, and she went down fast, with 10 lives lost. Locals call her “Malta’s Titanic”.

The wreck lies between 53 and 70m, listing to port at 45?. The cargo holds are large but you should take a guide who knows the wreck well, because they are dark and the exits are not obvious.

I swam over hundreds of bottles of champagne and motorcycle tyres before spending the remaining minutes on the shallower upper starboard side and timber deck, where I found a surreally placed urinal!

Had I had more time, I would have loved to have returned to see the guns at the bow and stern. There was more fish life on Le Polynesien than all of the other wrecks I dived that week – of course, being further out to sea there was more current. I enjoyed seeing large schools of bream, butterflyfish and barracuda. 

IMPERIAL EAGLE
My favourite wreck to photograph in Malta was the Imperial Eagle. There were no other divers on it except our team, and I found the skeleton of the rotten bow an area of imposing beauty. 
I used up more of my memory card on the Eagle than on any of the other wrecks. In fact I found it difficult to tear myself away from the upper deck, bridge and bridgehouse wheel of this 45m passenger ferry. 

The ship was scuttled off Qawra Point in Malta’s first marine park in July 1999, landing in an upright position. The statue of Christ that sits just off the bow was sunk nine years earlier, watched by

Pope John Paul, and later moved to be near the wreckage.

The Eagle began life as a Royal Navy transport ship in 1938, and went on to carry out port-defence duties, Thames dock cruises and finally ferry service in Malta and Gozo from 1957 until the 1970s.

I took a twin-set topped off from my previous day, which gave me a trimix 26/17. With a 50% stage, I had an enjoyable 72-minute runtime.

The Imperial Eagle could carry 70 passengers and 10 cars. There were many areas with easy swim-throughs, and a more complicated engine-room. This is a perfect dive for sidemount training and entry-level technical divers, as the wreck is in a maximum depth of just 42m. 
My guide even gave me a short tour of the rocky reef next to the wreck, which rewarded us with a leopard seaslug.

The deco on this wreck was far less boring than on some of the deeper wrecks, with the 8m Christ reaching up to us from the swaying seagrass below.

However, with rough surface conditions as the week’s kind weather began to change, I found myself being thrown around unpleasantly in the swell on a 6m stop!

KARWELA
I took the 25-minute ferry ride over to Gozo, which is much greener and more rural and has far less traffic than Malta.

Gozo Technical Diving professes to be “GUE-minded but open-minded”

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