Dive's guide to Malta, Gozo & Comino
Malta offers some of the best diving in the Med - stacks of wrecks, great viz, exciting marine topography and a well established and friendly dive scene
Situated 93km south of Sicily and 288km from the North African coast in the Mediterranean Sea, the Republic of Malta is comprised of three main islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino. These rugged islands are mostly made up of an ancient limestone reef. This reef covers an extinct submarine volcanic plateau, which extends to and includes the island of Sicily to the north. As a result, this geological formation has created a vast number of caves and caverns for divers to explore. These formations, together with the variety of wreck and reef dives, in visibility that often exceeds 30m, has shaped a varied underwater playground.
Many of the best sites are accessible from the shore. In fact, as the island of Malta is smaller than the Isle of Wight, it can be quicker to arrive at a dive site by road than by boat. Meanwhile, Malta’s sister island of Gozo is small enough to get from one side to the other in less than half an hour – including the all-important stop to pick up snacks. Shore diving can offer flexibility and independence for groups and experienced divers. An advantage of islands the size of Malta is that whatever the wind direction, you can make your way to the leeward side of the island to get in the water. Very rarely are all diving options completely blown out, and shore diving can be done all year round.
Dive centres can take you on guided shore dives, or will arrange accommodation, transport, air fills and kit hire and give you information on dive sites so you can go and dive at your own pace. One thing to note when shore diving is not to leave valuables in your vehicle: break-ins are not unknown, especially at the quieter sites.
Car parks are generally close to the entry point, although there are some steep walks that can be pretty tough in full kit. Facilities vary: at sites popular with tourists, such as Dwejra and Wied iz-Zurrieq, there are toilets, cafés and ice-cream vans; at quieter sites such as Reqqa Point on the north coast of Gozo, you’ll find only rocks.
Some sites lie a good ten-minute swim from the entry and exit point, so you have to be moderately fit.
One of the big attractions of Malta is the excellent variety of wrecks in what is generally good to superb visibility. There are wrecks for all kinds of diver, ranging from shallow Second World War battleships, through mid-depth artificial reefs flourishing on cargo vessels, to adventurous aircraft and submarines for the experienced aquanaut.
Malta and Gozo are big on scenery, with many natural caves, tunnels and swim-throughs to explore. The deep azure colour of the water combined with excellent visibility make this a real draw for divers. You find yourself looking out from caves, tunnels or wrecks in wonder at the rich blue – it’s one of the best things about diving Malta.
The rocky terrain and stacks of artificial reefs provide a safe habitat for plenty of reef life with schools of fish a common sight. You are likely to encounter barracuda, groupers, amberjack, various bream, wrasse, parrotfish and stingrays. Ooctopus and cuttlefish are frequently seen, and there are plenty of colourful corals, anemones and tube worms on the reefs. In the summer keep your eyes out for the elusive seahorses.
In winter, with water temperatures around 18°C and colder at depth, you’ll need a 7mm suit or a drysuit. In the summer and autumn, shallow water is around 25°C (but again, colder at depth), so a 5mm or less should be warm enough. Take a torch for peering into wrecks, caves, nooks and crannies. There can be a few jellyfish around, so you might want to wear dive gloves, even if the water is warm.
Underwater visibility varies in the Maltese Islands depending on the individual dive site and the weather conditions. Nevertheless, thanks to the overwhelmingly rocky coasts and the unpolluted water, the visibility is often between 30 and 40m, with 50m not uncommon.
WHEN TO GO
Those divers who wish to avoid crowded sites, often head here in the spring or autumn. The winter months have the best visibility. However, some dive centres close for a short time in the very coldest months between mid-January and mid-February. Air temperatures range from a low of 10ºC in the winter and a high of 40ºC in the summer. There is very little rainfall between mid-May and October, however, winds can pick up considerably, seriously limiting the number of dive sites available. Although strong winds are not common, they can last for a few days.
TIDES & CURRENTS
The seas around the Maltese archipelago are virtually tide-less, but there are sometimes underwater currents even when the sea is calm. At times, these underwater currents will travel in the opposite direction to the wind and the surface sea conditions.
Check your dive centre is reputable – inevitably in such a popular diving area some slip through the net, so make sure you book with one of the larger and more established ones to avoid disappointment. Click here to see a full list of registered dive centres.
The largest island in the archipelago, Malta covers 246sq km, with a coastline that spans 136km. This rocky island has a large number of dive centres (approximately 60) scattered all over its landscape. Although most of the diving is done from shore, many of the large dive operators offer boat dives to some of the top wreck and reef sites. There is diving for all levels of experience and qualification. What strikes you most – whether diving a wreck, cave or reef – is the colour of the water, a range of different blues created by the penetrating light and outstanding visibility. This is particularly spectacular when finning from a cavern to a small shallow pool of sheltered water.
You will find most diver traffic in Malta in the Cirkewwa area, which is situated on the northwest coast of the island and is the main terminal for the car and passenger ferries to Gozo. There are a number of popular dive sites here, including the shallow Sugar Loaf location, which is a huge rock detached from the main reef and rising some 8m from the sea bed. A small statue of the Madonna, which sits in a small cave at around 20m, can also be found. Perhaps the most popular site in Cirkewwa for experienced divers is the Rozi, a wrecked tugboat that sits at 35m. Rozi is a purpose-sunk wreck and sits perfectly upright and intact and offers great photographic opportunities.
Some good sites can be found at Grand Harbour near the capital Valletta, and at other harbours throughout Malta. One excellent dive is the HMS Maori wreck at St Elmo's Bay. The vessel sank after it received a direct hit from a German missile in 1942. Declared a hazard to navigation, the wreck was cleared and the guns removed. Most of the vessel is buried in the sand, and the maximum depth is only 13m. The bows and entire stern are gone, but the bridge structure remains and provides an easy swim-through.
Other main diving attractions include the sites around Wied iz Zurrieq, a small village situated on the south coast. Here you will find the Blue Grotto, which offers beach access to a number of cave systems. This area is also home to the Um El Faroud tanker which was scuttled in September 1998 and now sits at 35m in an upright position. The cargo section of the wreck is sub-divided into four centre tanks and four wing tanks on each side. The overall length is 110m and the breadth is 16m.
Another Maltese wreck on the not-to-be-missed list is the Imperial Eagle, an old Royal Navy ship which was purpose-sunk in 1999 500m off Qawra Point. It sits in an upright position at 38m. A large number of marine creatures dwell in the wreck, which rests in the area of Malta's first marine park.
Malta has a wide variety of tourist accommodation on offer, able to meet most holiday budgets. Many of the larger dive centres on the islands will arrange accommodation for dive parties, usually at less than the commercial rate.
Gozo is the second-largest island at 26 square miles. To get to the island from Malta, it takes just 30 minutes on the ferry or 15 minutes for those who can afford to travel by helicopter. The ferry costs around £9. There are plenty of dive centres to choose from in Gozo and most will arrange your accommodation for you. Gozo is an ideal choice for those travelling alone, because it is small and friendly. It is also good for those with young children, as there are a number of crèche facilities staffed by UK-qualified nannies.
One of the most famous dive sites of Gozo is the Blue Hole at 20m, which can be dived by boat or by shore (although if you shore dive there is a 150m walk to the entry point). This whole area is characterised by arches and cavities. The Azure Window (above), which is reached by the Blue Hole, is stunning both above and below the surface, with swim-throughs keeping the most experienced happy.
Other good reef and cave dives on this island include the Inland Sea, Double Arch Reef and the Cathedral Cave.
Covering just one square mile, Comino is the smallest of the inhabited islands and is wedged between Malta and Gozo. The island’s most popular attraction is the Blue Lagoon (above), which, at the height of summer, is full of visiting boats and tourists. Very few people actually live on the island, and its sole hotel – the Comino Hotel – is situated on a pretty bay that has a shallow, sandy bottom and is ideal for diver training. Comino Dive Centre is located at the hotel and is part of Subway Scuba Centre, which is based on Malta. The hotel runs its own ferry to and from Malta and Gozo, with up to seven services a day during high season. Once used as the backdrop for scenes in The Count Of Monte Cristo, the Comino caves are located in a sheltered area on the eastern side of the island. They are very open and it is possible to swim through one cave and exit through another. The sunlight creates beautiful patterns as it glimmers through the crevices, and much of the inside of the caves is bright red when illuminated with a torch. Outside, you can find schools of sea bream and the occasional octopus. Lantern Point is found at the most southerly point of Comino. This site is accessed through a chimney that levels out onto the limestone plateau at 16m. Barracudas can be found here, along with moray eels, groupers and scorpionfish.