Lizzie Porter, The Daily Telegraph, September 19, 2014
Fresh from my Padi Open Water Diver course, completed in Britain a few months before, I was keen to get my Padi Advanced qualification – although it would be stretching things to call myself an advanced diver, more an improving beginner. The idea of the course is to build confidence and skills with a range of “adventure” dives, and the place I chose to do it was Malta – popular with British club divers, because it offers clear waters, caves and some terrific wrecks.
On previous dives, I’d made runaway ascents to the surface, struggled with incorrect weighting, and had a leaking mask. Over the course of five dives – and a bit of evening book work – I hoped to improve, at least a little. With my new instructor, Will, I set out to dive the wreck of HMS Maori – once grand, now a creaking home to bream, sea grass and the odd pair of Second World War boots.
Leaving the steely, choppy surface (which was not what I’d expected), we descended to the wreck. Broken and injured, shattered by the force of numerous storms over the years, the Maori felt forlorn. Launched in 1937, she was involved in the pursuit and destruction of the Bismarck battleship in May 1941, before being sunk by German aircraft off Maltese shores in 1942.
The Maori’s gun mounts were visible, although the weapons themselves had long since been removed. She jutted from the sand, a metal mass covered in neptune grass, dull against a cerulean backdrop. Down here, the waters were calmer than at the furious surface. I relaxed into the dive, although I would have bolted had I known about the potential existence of live ammunition on the site. Not that I could have “bolted” very quickly with 13lb of weights on my hips, and a clunky air cylinder on my back.
Maltese waters are not especially known for their marine fauna, but I wasn’t disappointed. A purple nudibranch sat contentedly on one of the Maori’s beams. A delicate sea horse, its tail curly enough to rival a pig’s, clasped crinkled weed in a desperate attempt to stay put. A distinct look of disgruntlement marked its minuscule features when the current flicked sand in its face. Just feet away, a moray eel, mouth gaping, guarded its hole, and a beady-eyed cuttlefish zoomed past. We encountered odd-looking animals aplenty but, to my relief, not a shard of ammunition, used or otherwise. It seemed those stories were divers’ hearsay.
This and Malta’s other wrecks are undeniably fascinating. The island attracts an estimated 60,000 tourists a year just for the diving, largely at the expense of troubled Egypt, where the excellent dive sites of the Red Sea have been increasingly forsaken. The second wreck I dived was the Um El Faroud, a five-minute swim out through cornflower-blue waters, in the Wied iz-Zurrieq Marine Protected Area off the south coast. This majestic, 360ft-long Libyan-owned motor tanker, whose deepest point is at 118ft, was scuttled after an explosion that killed nine Maltese workers in 1995.
We descended to 95ft, peering into portholes and the privy (danker now than ever). The visibility was better than on the Maori: shapes and other divers were discernible 70ft away. Along the deck we swam, above the hold with its red rusting panels and swaying weed. It was eerie. We finned up and around ladders, inspecting the stairs and railings, and swam over walkways where the crew would once have stepped. Only now we were joined by barracuda and parrotfish, not oil workers or sailors.
Will’s excellent teaching made things all the more enjoyable, but safety was still paramount. He did what a good dive instructor should: ensure that we hadn’t forgotten to strap the air cylinder on, say, but at the same time make it our responsibility to kit up properly. Beware any instructor who insists on doing everything for you.
Part of the Advanced Open Water Diver course involves underwater navigation – using a compass to determine the right course, making one’s diving as efficient as possible: the less time you spend lost, the more you can spend productively underwater before running out of air. I wasn’t very good at it. I led my buddy much farther than we should have gone, and panicked; Will eventually attracted our attention and I finned sheepishly back to our starting point, turning slightly pink beneath my hood and mask. The navigation of three 90-degree turns went slightly better: we ended up more or less where I had intended.
I’d dived only two of Malta’s wrecks, and had a few heart-thudding moments that made me guzzle air faster than a Victorian in need of smelling salts. There were many more caves and ships to explore off Malta, not to mention the dive sites around the two smaller islands in the archipelago, Gozo and tiny Comino. There’s a lot to see down there, even if you do get the odd fright.
Lizzie Porter travelled with Dive Worldwide (0845 130 6980; diveworldwide.com ), whose “Visit Malta” package costs from £745 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return flights with Air Malta ( airmalta.com ), airport transfers, seven nights’ self-catering at the Sands Apartment (00356 2157 1111; maltaqua.com ), 10 shore dives, tanks and weights. The Padi Advanced course costs £240 extra. Flights were provided by the Malta Tourism Authority ( visitmalta.com ).
Padi (the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) and BSAC (the British Sub-Aqua Club) both offer internationally recognised qualifications. Courses involve theory and practical sessions with the first stages in a pool or sheltered water and the remainder in open water.
Padi training can be done at a Padi dive centre in Britain, an overseas resort, or a combination of the two. The entry-level Open Water Diver course comprises five theory modules, five confined-water dives and four open-water dives, and takes less than a week. Students are certified to dive to 60ft, with a “buddy” qualified to OWD or higher, at a familiar site. Advanced Open Water Diver comprises five “adventure” dives with two core dives – navigation and deep diver (to 100ft) – plus three more from a list including wreck, naturalist and peak performance buoyancy. It takes two to three days.
Prices vary depending on location, so shop around. OWD courses range from £180 abroad to more than £425 in Britain. To find a suitable centre or resort, see padi.com or call 0117 300 7234.
BSAC courses are delivered through one of 1,100 clubs in Britain, over a series of weekly evening sessions and weekend open-water training. Shorter, intensive courses are available at centres in the UK or abroad.
The entry-level Ocean Diver course entails theory lessons, five confined-water dives and five in open water, plus an exam. It takes five days at a BSAC centre and allows diving to 65ft, accompanied by a diver with the same qualification or higher.
Joining a BSAC club costs £55.50 per year and includes most training. Fees at BSAC centres vary and are cheaper in, say, the Red Sea, starting at £230 for an ocean diver course. To find a suitable club or centre, see bsac.com or call 0151 350 6200.
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This article was written by Lizzie Porter from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.