Malta's Deep Wrecks
If Carlsberg did deep wreck diving, this is it. In clear waters off Valetta and St Julian’s in Malta are several excellent wrecks which sit between 50m and 75m. Of particular interest are the HMS Stubborn, HMS Southwold, the Polynesien and the S31 (Schnellboot). These wrecks are large enough that you need more than one visit and so provide enough for a week’s worth of diving, especially if you are on open circuit. If you are on CCR, you can get longer bottom times and consequently greater decompression obligations. The weather is normally pretty good, gas prices are a little more than some other destinations – such as the UK, for example – but the viz is nearly always good.
All of these dives are accessed by boat, taking no more than 20 minutes from the quayside to the shotline. This means transit times are limited, but it also means that in the event of a problem, it's a quick ride back to base for emergency treatment. Malta does not have the same level of emergency cover as you may have at home – in the UK or US for example – and this is something to bear in mind if you're planning dives with extended decompression times...
This was the first wreck I dived in Malta and certainly set the scene for the rest of the deep wrecks. HMS Stubborn was an S3 class submarine commissioned in 1943 for short-range operations. It's 62m long, with a beam of 7m, and a draught of 3m. The wreck is intact and lies at approximately 55m on a white sandy bottom, which means that when the viz is good, it's really light.
HMS Stubborn was one of many of the S-class submarines to survive the Second World War, but she nearly didn’t make it. In 1944, after being attacked by the escorts of a convoy she attacked, she spent 10 hours disabled, damaged and stuck 150m below the surface in the North Sea. She finally surfaced and after major repairs, she ended up patrolling in the Pacific and the Mediterranean. Although a number of the S-class boats were sold to foreign navies, HMS Stubborn was used as an underwater target after the war.
Many people don’t like diving submarines as they're rather featureless metal tubes and it's difficult to determine what's what. This is especially true if these wrecks are in bad viz or in dark, temperate waters such as the UK. HMS Stubborn is different because the viz is normally excellent and because she has the majority of her features still in place. As you can see from the photo, she leans slightly to starboard. Although I had seen photos of her before, descending through 10-15m and seeing a complete, intact submarine lying on the seabed is a sight to behold.
HMS Southwold was a Hunt class destroyer whose primary function in the Second World War was to escort convoys – a particularly dangerous role. She faced danger from enemy aircraft, larger warships and U-boats, meaning an escort ship was only expected to last two years before she was sunk! Her final mission was to escort convoy MW10, a group of supply ships, from Alexandria in Egypt to Malta.
The convoy came under attack on 23 March 1942 from an Italian fleet of one battleship, three cruisers and 10 destroyers. The convoy and escorts were heavily outnumbered and outgunned, but using tactics of smoke-screens and hide-and-seek, they managed to evade the naval fleet without significant damage or loss. However, the Italian fleet commander called in air strikes and the convoy lost the cargo ship Clan Campbell. The oil tanker Breconshire was also hit and as Southwold was towing her to harbour, the destroyer hit a mine and was damaged in the in the area of the engine room. An attempt was then made to tow Southwold, but after the weather and sea conditions deteriorated, she was abandoned and shortly afterwards broke in two and sank.
The wreck lies in two parts several hundred metres apart, the bow section in 70-75m and the stern section slightly shallower but still around 70m. She lies approximately 1.5miles offshore.
The ship was literally ripped in two, which is apparent when you swim to the aft of the bow section – it looks like someone has taken a cross section of the wreck. It's worth noting that there are a significant number of unexploded munitions lying on the ship, including depth charges, so don’t touch!
The 150m-long SS Polynesien was launched on the 18 April 1890 and was built for the shipping line La Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes at La Ciotat in France. Between 1891 and 1914 it operated over a number of routes covering the Far East, Australia and the French colonies. In 1914 she was taken on by the French Government as a troop transport ship and fitted with the deck guns – which you can still see on the wreck today. On 10 August 1918 the Polynesien was attacked by UC22 and sank within 20 minutes with the loss of 10 lives.
The wreck now sits in 53-65m listing to port at 45 degrees. It's in excellent condition, considering it has been underwater for nearly 100 years. This wreck was also the most technically challenging to dive, for me. Given its length, my buddy and I decided to scooter the wreck. This meant twin 12s for backgas, an AL80 bottom stage, 2 x deco stages, a scooter and my SLR camera plus strobes! But I have some great memories of this dive, especially trying to rotate bottles on a shot line that was twanging in the current!
The S31 was produced as a fast attack craft, similar to the American PTs or British MBT. However, the Schnellboots were much bigger, which meant they were more suited to operations in the open sea. They were armed with two 533mm torpedoes, depth charges and two 20mm cannons, plus they had the ability to lay mines. They caused havoc in Exercise Tiger, the run up for the D-day landings, along with many other naval engagements.
She sank after she hit a mine (either one of her own, or from her patrol) and now lies in 63m atop a white sand seabed. The wreck is broken amidships and the majority of the ship's dark wood has rotten away. Because of Malta’s no-take policy, the wreck has a significant number of interesting items still on it, including 20mm ammunition on the decks, the starboard tube with the torpedo still in it and the propellors in place.
The wreck is small enough that you can see the whole thing in a 20min+ bottom time. In a word: fantastic.
The trips were organised through DiveWise/Techwise (www.divewise.com.mt/) which is a dive centre catering for all levels of diving from recreational through to CCR advanced trimix. They are based in St Julians and can offer full support to OC and CCR technical diving including equipment hire, nitrox, O2, helium and sorb. They can also provide guides if required. They offer a full range of technical courses from PADI, TDI and IANTD where a number of these dive sites are used as the end-of-course or experience dives.