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In Depth | Malta's Wrecks

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For many the Maltese archipelago is all about the wrecks. Here’s our guide to some of the best 

The Maltese archipelago lies fairly central in the Mediterranean Sea, about 90km south of Sicily with Libya slightly further away to the south. Only three of the larger islands – Malta itself, Gozo and Comino – are inhabited, of which Malta is by far the most densely populated.

With mild winters and warm (but not too hot) summers, Malta has always been a popular holiday destination for the British aristocracy until it gained independence in 1964. Since then, the large colonial housing has been gradually replaced with apartment blocks, making Malta affordable to all although retaining some of its charm of a non-mainstream holiday resort.

THE DIVING

I first visited Malta and Gozo in the mid-1980s when the diving was in its infancy. A that time, one simply hired a car, a couple of cylinders and weights, picked up a map from the dive shop and cruised the coastline for shore-diving sites. Today, things are more developed and organised, but shore diving is still very much the order of the day. This means you have to be more of an adventurous diver rather than the pampered variety to be found, say, in the Caribbean.

Many sites involve a 50m or so walk down relatively steep coastal paths, and sometimes a difficult entry and exit. In addition, some wrecks lie a good ten-minute swim from the entry and exit point, so you have to be moderately fit. It’s also worth knowing that all the better wrecks are deeper than 30m, and therefore suited to experienced divers rather than beginners.

Reef life is typically Mediterranean and, to be blunt, unspectacular. No, the reason for visiting Malta is not for critter life, but to dive 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.

A word of caution: Malta has seen a tremendous growth in diving over the past few years and some unregulated centres inevitably slip through the net, so make sure you book with one of the larger and more reputable shops to avoid disappointment. Also, don’t leave any valuables in your vehicle while diving, aim to go with just your dive kit and a bottle of water.

 

HMS Stubborn 
Location: 4km off Qawra Point
Max depth: 56m
Experience level: Mixed gas
Rating: 9 out of 10

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Built by Cammell Laird of Birkenhead and launched on 11 November 1942, HMS Stubborn was a 66m-long S-class submarine with a crew of 44. She was armed to the teeth with 13 torpedoes that could be launched from her six 21in bow tubes or single stern tube. She also had a 3in gun forward of the conning tower and a 20mm Oerlikon machine gun mounted at the stern.

The Stubborn was scuttled in April 1945 after being hit by a depth charge and losing her tail fin, and was subsequently used by the Royal Navy for target practice. Today, the wreck lies at a depth of 56m and is in magnificent condition, lying upright with about a ten-degree list towards starboard.

Some hatchways are open but are too small to allow for penetration, although it is understood that a few slightly built divers have removed their main set and entered the wreck with a small side-slung cylinder (this is not recommended). The wreck can only be dived from a boat and mixed gas is advisable.


 

Blenheim Bomber
Location: Xorb l-Ghagin
Max depth: 42m
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 9 out of 10

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Another wreck that is only accessible by boat, this Second World War aircraft makes for an absolutely stunning dive for the more experienced diver. On 13 December 1941, the Blenheim was sent out on a bombing raid but was attacked by enemy aircraft only after few minutes after departure. Fearing that the damage would make the runway inoperable if it crash-landed on it, the tower ordered the pilot to bail out and ditch the bomber into the sea, which he and his two crew successfully achieved, escaping with only minor injuries.

Today, the bomber lies upright on a sandy bottom at 42m, with the wings and fuselage still intact and the starboard engine’s propellers still in place, if a little bent.


 

Imperial Eagle
Location: Qawra Point
Max depth: 42m
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 8 out of 10

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The 45m-long Imperial Eagle made her maiden voyage between Malta and Gozo on 1 June 1958. She was built by J Crown & Sons in Sunderland and, when first launched in 1938, was named New Royal Lady. From 1948, she was known as the Crested Eagle, and was finally renamed the Imperial Eagle in 1958.

She was scuttled on 19 July 1999 and now lies virtually upright, a good ten-minute swim from the shore. The most memorable parts of the wreck are the huge bow, the propeller and easy swim-throughs. En route to the wreck in an underwater valley is also a statue of Christ. The wreck is home to lots of different types of fish, including grouper and occasionally barracuda.


 

Karwela
Location: Xatt l-Ahmar, Gozo
Max depth: 35m
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 8 out of 10

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The 50m-long MV Karwela was deliberately sunk in August 2006. The wreck is relatively easy to reach from shore, but you must first climb down the rocky shoreline from where you park your car. She began life in 1957 as the MS Frisia II and was renamed the Nordpaloma in 1977. In 1986, she arrived in Malta to serve as a passenger ferry and was renamed the Karwela.

Interestingly, sitting on the deck towards the stern of the wreck is an old Volkswagen Beetle that has mysteriously appeared subsequent to the wreck’s sinking, possibly as a prank by some mischevous locals. There are plenty of places to enter the wreck, with the wide midships staircase proving a favourite.


 

Um El Faroud
Location: Wied iz-Zurrieq
Max depth: 34m
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 8 out of 10

Um el Faroud  CSH4659 opt

The 110m Libyan oil tanker Um el Faroud was built in 1969 at Smith’s Dock in Middlesbrough and operated between Italy and Libya. During the night of 3 February 1995 while the ship was in a Valletta dry dock, an explosion occurred in one of the fuel tanks during maintenance work, tragically killing nine shipyard workers.

The vessel suffered structural damage and was considered a total writeoff. On 2 September 1998, she was scuttled to provide an artificial reef.

Today, the wreck lies upright, a ten-minute swim away from the shore entry point. It can just about be covered in one dive if you keep your breathing rate down, but ideally it requires two dives to appreciate it properly. Its bows are extremely impressive, eerily rising from and contrasting with the highly reflective sand.


 

P29 Minesweeper
Location: Cirkewwa
Max depth: 37m
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 6 out of 10

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The former East German Kondor-class minesweeper P29 was deliberately scuttled off Cirkewwa in Malta, just opposite the ferry terminal, on 14 August 2007. Prior to being sunk, she served with the Armed Forces of Malta for more than 12 years – now, the wreck sits upright at a maximum depth of 37m, with the top of the mast reaching 21m.

It’s another shore dive, and I found the P29 quite devoid of character and life in comparison to some of the other wrecks. The most interesting part of the ship is what is left of the engine room, which, in contrast to the outside of the wreck, usually has excellent visibility.


 

Rozi Tugboat
Location: Cirkewwa Point
Max depth: 34m 
Experience level: Dive Leader or above
Rating: 6 out of 10

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Just around the corner from the P29 is a rather characterless wreck, the tugboat Rozi. Having said that, it appears to be very popular with local divers, with schools often jostling in the car park for a prime spot for the shore dive.

Built in Bristol in 1958 by Charles Hill & Sons for the Johnston Warren Line of Liverpool, she was originally named Rossmore. In 1981, she was sold to Tug Malta and renamed Rozi, and operated at the Grand Harbour in Valletta.

The wreck is now lying intact, albeit missing its engines and propeller, in an upright position at a depth of about 34m. The heavily encrusted anchor lies some 30m away in about 20m of water.


 

Two Tugboats: St Michael and Number ten
Location: Zonqor Point
Max depth: 21m
Experience level: Sports Diver or above
Rating: 6 out of 10

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After a precarious entry from the shore and a five-minute swim, you’ll find the wrecks of two tugboats at Zonqor Point, namely the St Michael and the Number Ten. Both were built in 1944 and were purposely scuttled together in 1998. The St Michael was built in Canada and is 20m long, while the Number Ten is of unknown origin and is slightly shorter at 16m.

The visibility is normally good enough for divers to find one wreck from the other – although there is now a rope to make sure! While not as interesting as the deeper wrecks, the two tugs do make a good second dive of the day.


 

HMS Maori
Location: Valletta
Max depth: 12m
Experience level: Ocean Diver or above
Rating: 5 out of 5

Maori CSH4367 opt

Commissioned in January 1939, the HMS Maori was the last Tribal-class destroyer to go to war in the Mediterranean. She was initially posted on North Sea patrols until April 1940, when she took part in the Norwegian campaign. Then, in January 1941, the Maori joined a convoy escort in the Western Approaches in the search of the Bismarck and subsequently picked up some of the survivors from the famous German battleship.

On 12 February 1941, while at anchor at the entrance of Dockyard Creek in Malta, she sank after being hit by a bomb. She was refloated, stripped of all armaments (these were used to reinforce the walls of Valletta) and towed out to her final resting place, with the stern section towed into deeper water.

Today, the broken forward section of the wreck lies in 14m of water inside Marsamxetto Harbour. It makes a good second dive and has more life on it than the majority of other wrecks.


 

WHEN TO GO

Malta is open for diving all year round. In the winter and spring, the average daytime temperature varies from around 15°C to 22°C. The water temperature is a chilly 18°C, which provides the best underwater visibility. In the summer and autumn, daytime temperatures can be in excess of 30°C, with shallow water temperatures of 25°C, but with the visibility somewhat reduced. The weather pattern is typical of the northern hemisphere and is generally better in the summer.

WHAT TO PACK

Most divers opt to take a full set of diving gear and rent just weights and cylinders. However, most dive centres have a comprehensive range of equipment for hire. Making the right choice of suit can be a challenge. In winter, a drysuit is pretty much recommended, although a good 7mm wetsuit will be fine for those who don’t feel the cold. In the summer, a 5–7mm wetsuit will be fine depending on the depth you dive to – some of the deeper wrecks can be in very cold water.

The sun is deceptively hot during the day, so a high-factor sunscreen is mandatory, as is plenty of water. Biting insects can be a problem in early evening, so a suitable repellent is a must if you are susceptible to being bitten.

In terms of clothing, Malta is casual and relaxed with shorts and light shirts being the norm. Some of the more upmarket restaurants require long trousers and collared shirt in the evenings.

WHERE TO STAY

The dive sites are located all around the island, with no single resort location standing out as being better than the others. It is generally easy to drive from one site to another, so it makes sense to stay close to your chosen dive centre.

Most towns and villages have a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants, although in the wintertime some of the smaller towns tend to shut up shop. We stayed in the bustling town of Sliema, which is close to the capital Valletta on the north coast and proved handy to visit all of the wreck sites.

 

thanks to

Malta Tourism Authority (www.visitmalta.com), technical diving specialists Dive Med (www.divemed.com), Diveshack (www.diveshackscuba.com), Calypso Diving Centre, Gozo (www.calypsodivers.com), and Victoria Hotel, Sliema (www.victoriahotel.com). Also to Starfish Diving School (www.starfishdiving.com) for the detailed information about the wrecks.




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